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

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

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

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

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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Robotics Company Creates an All Purpose Robot ‘Platform’

A robotics company hopes to bring a robot into every home and business, using a proprietary robotic platform—that can be programmed and tweaked for a wide variety of users and uses. Deana Mitchell takes a look at one of the world’s most customizable robots. It’s called Misty.

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Trump Accuses Twitter, Facebook, Google of Siding with ‘Radical Left Democrats’

U.S. President Donald Trump has accused social media outlets, including Facebook, Google and Twitter, of being biased, and suggested that the situation needs scrutiny. In answer to a reporter at the White House Tuesday, Trump said digital platforms tend to suppress Republican and conservative views. VOA’s Zlatica Hoke reports.

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Goodbye Console? Google Launches Game-streaming Platform

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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Trump Renews Attack Alleging Social Media’s Political Bias

U.S. President Donald Trump on Tuesday accused social media platforms Facebook, YouTube and Twitter of favoring his Democratic opponents over him and his fellow Republicans.

“But fear not, we will win anyway, just like we did before! #MAGA,” he said in a tweet. MAGA refers to Trump’s 2016 campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Facebook and Twitter declined to comment. Alphabet’s Google, which owns YouTube, did not immediately comment.

The president and other conservatives have repeatedly complained that these big tech platforms treat them unfairly.

Trump has previously accused Twitter of restricting the visibility of prominent U.S. Republicans, without any providing evidence, and the avid social media user has promised to investigate the company’s practices.

Trump and other conservatives say Twitter targets fellow Republicans with a practice dubbed “shadow banning,” limiting the visibility of a Twitter user, including in the platform’s auto-populated dropdown search box.

Representative Devin Nunes of California has sued Twitter over the alleged practice, according to court documents.

Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey has said that algorithms have been changed to fix that issue.

The Justice Department held a meeting last fall between federal officials and state attorneys general to discuss allegations that conservative ideas are suppressed online, but so far no concrete action has been taken as a result.

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In Thai Election, New ‘War Room’ Polices Social Media

In Thailand’s election “war room,” authorities scroll through thousands of social media posts, looking for violations of laws restricting political parties’ campaigning on social media that activists say are among the most prohibitive in the world.

The monitors are on the look-out for posts that “spread lies, slander candidates, or use rude language,” all violations of the new electoral law, said Sawang Boonmee, deputy secretary-general of the Election Commission, who gave a Reuters team an exclusive tour of the facility.

When they find an offending post, on, for example, Facebook, they print it out, date-stamp it, and file it in a clear plastic folder, to be handed over to the Election Commission and submitted to Facebook for removal.

“When we order content to be removed, we’ll reach out to the platforms, and they are happy to cooperate with us and make these orders efficient,” Sawang said.

Sawang said the tough electoral laws governing social media for the March 24 election, the first since a 2014 military coup, are a necessary innovation aimed at preventing manipulation that has plagued other countries’ elections in recent years.

“Other countries don’t do this. Thailand is ahead of the curve with regulating social media to ensure orderly campaigning and to protect candidates,” he said.

A Facebook representative said it reviewed requests from governments on a case-by-case basis.

“We have a government request process, which is no different in Thailand than the rest of the world,” the representative said.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Democracy advocates, worry the social media restrictions laid out by the military government may be impeding parties from freely campaigning.

The rules require that candidates and parties register social media handles and submit a post to the commission, stating what platform it will appear on and for how long.

Parties and candidates are only allowed to discuss policies, and posts that are judged to be misleading voters or that portray others negatively could see the party disqualified, or a candidate jailed for up to 10 years and banned from politics for 20.

Pongsak Chan-on, coordinator of the Bangkok-based Asia Network for Free and Fair Election (ANFREL), said the rules go far beyond combating “fake news” and raise questions about how free and fair the election will be.

“The rules are stricter than in any recent elections anywhere. They’re so detailed and strict that parties are obstructed,” he told Reuters.

‘Doesn’t Bode Well for Democracy’

The monitoring center, with a signboard reading “E-War Room,” has three rows of computers and stacks of printouts, with half a dozen workers spending eight hours a day searching for violations of the law.

Sawang said another intelligence center scanned for violations 24 hours a day but it was “off-limits” to media.

The election is broadly seen as a race between the military-backed prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, and parties that want the military out of politics.

But the stringent rules have left anti-junta parties fretting about how to campaign online, nervous that they could inadvertently break a rule that triggers disqualification.

Up to now, the new rules have not been used to disqualify any candidates though the very threat has had a dampening effect and encouraged self-censorship.

“They create complications for parties,” said Pannika Wanich, spokeswoman for the new Future Forward Party, which has attracted support among young urban folk who have come of age on social media.

She said her party had to consult a legal team before making posts.

Some candidates have deactivated their Facebook pages while others have removed posts that might cause trouble.

Last month, Future Forward leader Thanathorn Juangroonruangkit faced disqualification over an allegation that he misled voters in his biography on the party’s website. The commission dismissed the case last week.

In another petition, the commission was asked to ban the party’s secretary-general for slandering the junta in a Facebook post.

“It’s very restrictive and doesn’t bode well for democracy,” said Tom Villarin, a Philippine congressman and member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR). “Putting more restrictions on social media during a campaign season defeats the purpose of holding elections in the first place.”

Fighting Fake News

About 74 percent of Thailand’s population of 69 million are active social media users, putting Thais among the world’s top 10 users, according to a 2018 survey by Hootsuite and We Are Social.

Thailand is Facebook’s eighth biggest market with 51 million users, the survey showed.

Facebook said it has teams with Thai-language speakers to monitor posts and restricts electoral advertisements from outside the country.

“Combating false news is crucial to the integrity and safety of the Thailand elections,” said Katie Harbath, Facebook’s Global Politics and Government director, during a Bangkok visit in January.

Sawang said the election commission has also gained cooperation from Twitter and Japanese messaging app Line, used by 45 million Thais.

Line Thailand told Reuters it did not monitor chats for the election commission but helped limit fake news by showing only articles from “trusted publishers” on its news feature.

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S. Korea Alert System Warns ‘Smartphone Zombies’ of Traffic

A city in South Korea, which has the world’s highest smartphone penetration rate, has installed flickering lights and laser beams at a road crossing to warn “smartphone zombies” to look up and drivers to slow down, in the hope of preventing accidents.

The designers of the system were prompted by growing worry that more pedestrians glued to their phones will become casualties in a country that already has some of the highest road fatality and injury rates among developed countries.

State-run Korea Institute of Civil Engineering and Building Technology (KICT) believes its system of flickering lights at zebra crossings can warn both pedestrians and drivers.

In addition to red, yellow and blue LED lights on the pavement, “smombies” – smartphone zombies – will be warned by laser beam projected from power poles and an alert sent to the phones by an app that they are about to step into traffic.

“Increasing number of smombie accidents have occurred in pedestrian crossings, so these zombie lights are essential to prevent these pedestrian accidents,” said KICT senior researcher Kim Jong-hoon.

The multi-dimensional warning system is operated by radar sensors and thermal cameras and comes with a price tag of 15 million won ($13,250) per crossing.

Drivers are alerted by the flashing lights, which have shown to be effective 83.4 percent of the time in the institute’s tests involving about 1,000 vehicles.

In 2017, more than 1,600 pedestrians were killed in auto related accidents, which is about 40 percent of total traffic fatalities, according to data from the Traffic Accident Analysis System.

South Korea has the world’s highest smartphone penetration rate, according to Pew Research Center, with about 94 percent of adults owning the devices in 2017, compared with 77 percent in the United States and 59 percent in Japan.

For now, the smombie warning system is installed only in Ilsan, a suburban city about 30 km northwest of the capital, Seoul, but is expected to go nationwide, according to the institute.

Kim Dan-hee, a 23-year-old resident of Ilsan, welcomed the system, saying she was often too engrossed in her phone to remember to look at traffic.

“This flickering light makes me feel safe as it makes me look around again, and I hope that we can have more of these in town,” she said.

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