Privacy

Amazon Explains Why Alexa Recorded And Emailed A Private Conversation (mercurynews.com) 122

Amazon has issued the following statement about why their Alexa device recorded a woman's private conversation and then emailed it to one of her friends: Echo woke up due to a word in background conversation sounding like "Alexa." Then, the subsequent conversation was heard as a "send message" request. At which point, Alexa said out loud "To whom?" At which point, the background conversation was interpreted as a name in the customers contact list. Alexa then asked out loud, "[contact name], right?" Alexa then interpreted background conversation as "right." As unlikely as this string of events is, we are evaluating options to make this case even less likely.
This apparently didn't satisfy the woman whose conversation was recorded, according to the Mercury News:
Now her family has unplugged all the devices, and although Amazon offered to "de-provision" the devices of their communications features so they could keep using them to control their home, Danielle and her family reportedly want a refund instead.

When reached Friday, an Amazon spokeswoman would not comment about whether the company will issue a refund.

Other smart home speakers carry similar privacy risks. Last year, for example, Google had to release a patch for its Home Mini speakers after some of them were found to be recording everything.

AI

Eric Schmidt Says Elon Musk Is 'Exactly Wrong' About AI (techcrunch.com) 137

At the VivaTech conference in Paris, Alphabet CEO Eric Schmidt was asked about Elon Musk's warnings about AI. He responded by saying: "I think Elon is exactly wrong. He doesn't understand the benefits that this technology will provide to making every human being smarter. The fact of the matter is that AI and machine learning are so fundamentally good for humanity." TechCrunch reports: He acknowledged that there are risks around how the technology might be misused, but he said they're outweighed by the benefits: "The example I would offer is, would you not invent the telephone because of the possible misuse of the telephone by evil people? No, you would build the telephone and you would try to find a way to police the misuse of the telephone."

After wryly observing that Schmidt had just given the journalists in the audience their headlines, interviewer (and former Publicis CEO) Maurice Levy asked how AI and public policy can be developed so that some groups aren't "left behind." Schmidt replied that government should fund research and education around these technologies. "As [these new solutions] emerge, they will benefit all of us, and I mean the people who think they're in trouble, too," he said. He added that data shows "workers who work in jobs where the job gets more complicated get higher wages -- if they can be helped to do it." Schmidt also argued that contrary to concerns that automation and technology will eliminate jobs, "The embracement of AI is net positive for jobs." In fact, he said there will be "too many jobs" -- because as society ages, there won't be enough people working and paying taxes to fund crucial services. So AI is "the best way to make them more productive, to make them smarter, more scalable, quicker and so forth."

Google

Google Zooms By Amazon In Smart Speaker Shipments, Report Says (arstechnica.com) 29

A new report released this week says that Google has surpassed Amazon in global smart speaker shipments in the first quarter of 2018. "[Research firm Canalys] says Google shipped 3.2 million Google Home and Home Mini speakers over the course of the quarter," reports Ars Technica. "Amazon, meanwhile, is said to have shipped 2.5 million Echo speakers." From the report: According to the report, Google jumped from taking 19.3 percent of smart speaker shipments in Q1 2017 to 36.2 percent this past quarter. Amazon accounted for a whopping 79.6 percent of shipments in the year-ago quarter but fell to 27.7 percent in Q1 2018, the report says. Now, it appears the Home has reached a point of parity with the Echo; this report would mark the first time Google has overtaken Amazon in total shipments. Canalys credits Google's rise in part to retailers and channel operators "prioritizing" the Home over the Echo, given that Amazon is one of its biggest competitors in retail at large. A couple of caveats: neither Amazon nor Google breaks out quarterly sales figures for each device family, so Canalys' figures likely aren't 100-percent exact. It's also worth noting that "shipments" are not the same as "sales," so it's possible that deals and discounts on the devices have affected the figures to an extent.
Government

Apple Will Report Government Requests To Remove Apps From the App Store (theverge.com) 16

In its bi-annual transparency report today, Apple said that it will soon start reporting government requests to take down apps from the App Store. These requests will relate to alleged legal and/or policy provision violations, Apple says. The Verge reports: These numbers will tell us just how often governments are trying to block access to certain apps, and how many of those orders are actually obeyed. Google doesn't yet report these numbers specifically for the Play Store. As for takedown requests over the last year, governments around the world sent requests for information on 29,718 devices. Data was provided in 79 percent of cases. Governments also requested information on 3,358 Apple accounts, and data was provided in 82 percent of cases.
Youtube

Vevo To Shut Down Site, Giving In To YouTube Empire (rollingstone.com) 92

Vevo, the video-hosting service founded in 2009 as a joint venture between the big three record companies, is shutting down. The company announced in a blog post Thursday that it is shuttering its mobile apps and website, and that "going forward, Vevo will remain focused on engaging the biggest audiences and pursuing growth opportunities." Vevo is almost entirely succumbing to YouTube. Rolling Stone reports: The major record labels set up Vevo -- an abbreviation for "video evolution" -- in 2009 as a designated streaming service for music videos that would ideally bring in greater revenue from more high-end advertisers. Via a distribution deal with YouTube, it received a cut of revenue from putting its music videos on the Google-owned site. But YouTube's might has grown: The video-streaming service recently took Vevo's branding off its music videos, while also securing permission under a new licensing deal to sell Vevo's clips directly to advertisers, cutting out the smaller company's sales force. Though Vevo has been trying to peel away from its dependence on YouTube by touting its own suite of apps and offerings for years, it seems those efforts haven't been met with much success. "Our catalog of premium music videos and original content will continue to reach a growing audience on YouTube and we are exploring ways to work with additional platforms to further expand access to Vevo's content," the company said in its blog post. Vevo users on its website and Android, iOS and Windows Mobile apps will receive a tool to migrate their playlists to YouTube.
Businesses

Android Creator Puts Essential Up For Sale, Cancels Next Phone (bloomberg.com) 51

Bloomberg reports that Andy Rubin's Essential Products business is considering selling itself and has canceled development of a new smartphone. The news comes several months after numerous reports suggested that the Essential Phone's sales were tepid. From the report: The startup has hired Credit Suisse Group AG to advise on a potential sale and has received interest from at least one suitor, the people said. Essential is now actively shopping itself to potential suitors, one of the people said. The startup, part of Rubin's incubator Playground Global, has raised about $300 million from several investors, including Amazon, Tencent, and Redpoint Ventures. It was valued at $900 million to $1 billion about a year ago, according to an analysis by Equidate, which runs a market for private company stock.

The startup has spent more than $100 million on developing its first products, about a third of the money it raised to build the company, the people said. Current discussions are focused on a sale of the entire company, including its patent portfolio, hardware products like the original smartphone, an upcoming smart home device and a camera attachment for the phone. Essential's engineering talent, which includes those hired from Apple and Alphabet's Google, would likely be part of a deal. The company hasn't yet made a final decision on a sale, the people said.

Communications

YouTube Is Messing With the Order of Videos In Some User Feeds (gizmodo.com) 92

YouTube is testing non-chronological subscription feeds to try and serve you content that it thinks you'll want to see at the top. The problem with this is that the subscription feed exists because users subscribed to content that they want to see. If they don't, they will unsubscribe, thereby removing unwanted content from the feed. Gizmodo reports: YouTube confirmed the test on Twitter after some users noticed the change and inquired as to why the heck their subscription feed was no longer in chronological order. YouTube must have missed the memo about how users react when platforms mess with the order of the sacred feed.

Here's YouTube's how-to and troubleshooting Twitter account explained the test: "Just to clarify. We are currently experimenting with how to show content in the subs feed. We find that some viewers are able to more easily find the videos they want to watch when we order the subs feed in a personalized order vs always showing most recent video first." Weird, considering YouTube already offers recommended videos based on your viewing habits and subscribed channels in its sidebar.

Displays

Google and LG Unveil World's Highest-Resolution OLED On-Glass VR Display (androidauthority.com) 54

A couple months ago, Road to VR reported that Google and LG were planning to reveal the "world's highest-resolution OLED on-glass display" for virtual-reality headsets on May 22nd. Well, that day has arrived and the two companies unveiled that very display. Android Authority reports: As expected, the 4.3-inch OLED 18MP display has a resolution of 4,800 x 3,840. The display has a pixel density of 1,443PPI and a 120Hz refresh rate. Google and LG referred to it as the "world's highest-resolution OLED on-glass display." For comparison's sake, the HTC Vive has two 3.6-inch displays with resolutions of 1,200 x 1,080. The higher-end HTC Vive Pro has two 3.5-inch displays with resolutions of 1,600 x 1,440. The Vive Pro maxes out at 615PPI, making this new LG panel about 57% better than HTC's best offering. However, there's already one display that's better than anything on offer, and that's your own vision. A person with great vision sees in an estimated resolution of 9,600 x 9,000 with a PPI density of 2,183. In other words, this new display from Google and LG is about half as good as our own eyes. Unfortunately, there are no plans to use them in any consumer products yet. Google rep Carlin Verri told 9to5Google that the companies started this project to push the industry forward.
AI

Microsoft Also Has An AI Bot That Makes Phone Calls To Humans (theverge.com) 61

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: At an AI event in London today, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella showed off the company's Xiaoice (pronounced "SHAO-ICE") social chat bot. Microsoft has been testing Xiaoice in China, and Nadella revealed the bot has 500 million "friends" and more than 16 channels for Chinese users to interact with it through WeChat and other popular messaging services. Microsoft has turned Xiaoice, which is Chinese for "little Bing," into a friendly bot that has convinced some of its users that the bot is a friend or a human being. "Xiaoice has her own TV show, it writes poetry, and it does many interesting things," reveals Nadella. "It's a bit of a celebrity."

While most of Xiaoice's interactions have been in text conversations, Microsoft has started allowing the chat bot to call people on their phones. It's not exactly the same as Google Duplex, which uses the Assistant to make calls on your behalf, but instead it holds a phone conversation with you. "One of the things we started doing earlier this year is having full duplex conversations," explains Nadella. "So now Xiaoice can be conversing with you in WeChat and stop and call you. Then you can just talk to it using voice." (The term "full duplex" here refers to a conversation where both participants can speak at the same time; it's not a reference to Google's product, which was named after the same jargon.)

Youtube

Google Launches YouTube Music Service With Creepy AI To Predict Listening Habits (audioholics.com) 87

Audiofan writes: Will the new YouTube Music streaming service provide the soundtrack to your life? Google believes that its ability to harness the power of artificial intelligence will help the new service catch up to its rivals in the music streaming business. Google's latest attempt to compete with Spotify and Apple Music may finally have what it takes if it doesn't creep users out in the process. While the service officially rolls out on Tuesday, May 22nd, only some users will be able to use it at launch. What separates YouTube's music streaming service from the competition is its catalog of remixes, live versions, and covers of official versions of songs. It also uses the Google Assistant to make music recommendations based on everything it knows (and can learn) about you and your listening habits. "When you arrive at the gym, for example, YouTube Music will offer up a playlist of hard-hitting pump-up jams (if that's your thing)," reports Audioholics. "Late at night, softer tunes will set a more relaxing mood."

YouTube Music is free with ads, but will cost $9.99 for ad-free listening. There is also YouTube Premium, which will cost $11.99 per month, and will include both the ad-free music service and the exclusive video content from the now-defunct YouTube Red.
Businesses

Ubuntu's Mark Shuttleworth Pulls No Punches on Red Hat and VMware in OpenStack Cloud (zdnet.com) 63

At OpenStack Summit in Vancouver, Canada this week, Canonical CEO and Ubuntu Linux founder Mark Shuttleworth came out firing at two of his major enterprise OpenStack competitors: Red Hat and VMware. He claimed that Canonical OpenStack is a better deal than either Red Hat or VMware's OpenStack offerings. From a report: Shuttleworth opened quietly enough, saying, "Mission is to remove all the friction from deploying OpenStack. We can deliver OpenStack deployments with two people in less two weeks anywhere in the world." So far, so typical for a keynote speech. But, then Shuttleworth started to heat things up: "Amazon increased efficiency, so now everyone is driving down cost of infrastructure. Everyone engages with Ubuntu, not Red Hat or VMware. Google, IBM, Microsoft are investing and innovating to drive down the cost of infrastructure. Every single one of those companies works with Canonical to deliver public services."

Then, Shuttleworth got down to brass tacks: "Not one of them engages with VMware to offer those public services. They can't afford to. Clearly, they have the cash, but they have to compete on efficiencies, and so does your private cloud." So, Canonical is rolling rolling out a migration service to help users shift from VMware to a "fully managed" version of Canonical's Ubuntu OpenStack distribution. Customers want this, Shuttleworth said, because, "When we take out VMware we are regularly told that our fully managed OpenStack solution costs half of the equivalent VMware service."

The Courts

Yelp Files New EU Complaint Against Google Over Search Dominance (ft.com) 71

Yelp has filed a complaint with the EU's antitrust watchdog against Google, arguing that the search company has abused its dominance in local search and pressuring Brussels to launch new charges against the tech giant, Financial Times reported Tuesday. From the report: European antitrust authorities fined Google $2.8B in June 2017 for favouring its own shopping service over rival offerings in its search results. Google denied wrongdoing and has appealed that decision. Now Yelp, which provides user ratings, reviews and other information about local businesses, wants Margrethe Vestager, the EU Competition Commissioner, to take action against Google for similar alleged abuse in the local search market, according to a copy of the complaint seen by the Financial Times. The move comes days after Yelp founder Jeremy Stopplelman appeared on 60 Minutes to talk about Google's search monopoly. Here's the exchange he had with reporter Steve Kroft: Jeremy Stoppelman: If I were starting out today, I would have no shot of building Yelp. That opportunity has been closed off by Google and their approach.
Steve Kroft: In what way?
Jeremy Stoppelman: Because if you provide great content in one of these categories that is lucrative to Google, and seen as potentially threatening, they will snuff you out.
Steve Kroft: What do you mean snuff you out?
Jeremy Stoppelman: They will make you disappear. They will bury you.

Cellphones

The Toughest (And Weakest) Phones Currently On the Market (tomsguide.com) 112

New submitter Daneel Olivaw R. shares a report from Tom's Guide: To measure each phone's toughness, [Tom's Guide] dropped it from both 4 and 6 feet onto wood and concrete. After each test, we recorded the damage to the phone. If a phone was rendered unusable -- the screen totally shattered, for instance -- then we stopped dropping it. [More details on the testing process can be found here.] Each drop was worth a maximum of 5 points; if a phone made it through all of the rounds unscathed, it would earn 35 points. The more severe the damage per drop was, the more points were deducted. If a phone was rendered unusable after a given drop, it would earn no points, and would not undergo any subsequent test. In total, there were seven tests. [...] If a phone died in the 6-foot edge drop, it was penalized an extra 10 percent. If it died in the 6-foot face drop, it was penalized 5 percent. And if it died when dropped into the toilet, it lost 2.5 percent. We then divided the total score by 3.5, to put it on a 10-point scale. Here are the scores of each device:

Motorola Moto Z2 Force - Toughness score: 8.5/10
LG X Venture - Toughness score: 6.6/10
Apple iPhone X - Toughness score: 6.2/10
LG V30 - Toughness score: 6/10
Samsung Galaxy S9 - Toughness score: 6/10
Motorola Moto G5 Plus - Toughness score: 5.1/10
Apple iPhone 8 - Toughness score: 4.9/10
Samsung Galaxy Note 8 - Toughness score: 4.3/10
OnePlus 5T - Toughness score: 4.3/10
Huawei Mate 10 Pro - Toughness score: 4.3/10
Google Pixel 2 XL - Toughness score: 4.3/10
iPhone SE - Toughness score: 3.9/10
Security

Google and Microsoft Disclose New CPU Flaw, and the Fix Can Slow Machines Down (theverge.com) 83

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Verge: Microsoft and Google are jointly disclosing a new CPU security vulnerability that's similar to the Meltdown and Spectre flaws that were revealed earlier this year. Labelled Speculative Store Bypass (variant 4), the latest vulnerability is a similar exploit to Spectre and exploits speculative execution that modern CPUs use. Browsers like Safari, Edge, and Chrome were all patched for Meltdown earlier this year, and Intel says "these mitigations are also applicable to variant 4 and available for consumers to use today." However, unlike Meltdown (and more similar to Spectre) this new vulnerability will also include firmware updates for CPUs that could affect performance. Intel has already delivered microcode updates for Speculative Store Bypass in beta form to OEMs, and the company expects them to be more broadly available in the coming weeks. The firmware updates will set the Speculative Store Bypass protection to off-by-default, ensuring that most people won't see negative performance impacts.

"If enabled, we've observed a performance impact of approximately 2-8 percent based on overall scores for benchmarks like SYSmark 2014 SE and SPEC integer rate on client 1 and server 2 test systems," explains Leslie Culbertson, Intel's security chief. As a result, end users (and particularly system administrators) will have to pick between security or optimal performance. The choice, like previous variants of Spectre, will come down to individual systems and servers, and the fact that this new variant appears to be less of a risk than the CPU flaws that were discovered earlier this year.

Businesses

US Treasury Secretary Calls For Google Monopoly Probe (theregister.co.uk) 86

After a 60 Minutes episode that focused on Google and its effective search monopoly, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin called for large tech companies to be investigated for potential antitrust violations. Asked whether Google was abusing its market dominance as a monopoly, Mnuchin told CNBC on Monday "these are issues that the Justice Department needs to look at seriously," and argued that it was important to "look at the power they have" noting that companies like Google "have a greater and greater impact on the economy." The Register reports: Mnuchin's willingness to directly criticize Google and other tech companies and argue that they should be under investigation is just the latest sign that Washington DC is serious about digging in the market power of Big Internet. It is notable that it was 20 years ago, almost to the day, that America finally dealt with another tech antitrust problem when the Justice Department and 20 state attorneys general filed suit -- on May 18, 1998 -- against what was then the most powerful tech company in the country: Microsoft.
Google

Google Sued For 'Clandestine Tracking' of 4.4 Million UK iPhone Users' Browsing Data (theguardian.com) 32

Google is being sued in the high court for as much as $4.3 billion for the alleged "clandestine tracking and collation" of personal information from 4.4 million iPhone users in the UK. From a report: The collective action is being led by former Which? director Richard Lloyd over claims Google bypassed the privacy settings of Apple's Safari browser on iPhones between August 2011 and February 2012 in order to divide people into categories for advertisers. At the opening of an expected two-day hearing in London on Monday, lawyers for Lloyd's campaign group Google You Owe Us told the court information collected by Google included race, physical and mental heath, political leanings, sexuality, social class, financial, shopping habits and location data.

Hugh Tomlinson QC, representing Lloyd, said information was then "aggregated" and users were put into groups such as "football lovers" or "current affairs enthusiasts" for the targeting of advertising. Tomlinson said the data was gathered through "clandestine tracking and collation" of browsing on the iPhone, known as the "Safari Workaround" -- an activity he said was exposed by a PhD researcher in 2012. Tomlinson said Google has already paid $39.5m to settle claims in the US relating to the practice. Google was fined $22.5m for the practice by the US Federal Trade Commission in 2012 and forced to pay $17m to 37 US states.

Google

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin Wants Justice Department To Scrutinize Big Tech (cnbc.com) 127

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin on Monday joined the growing chorus of government officials concerned about tech monopolies. From a report: When asked if Google is a monopoly, Mnuchin said, "These are issues that the Justice Department needs to look at seriously -- not for any one company -- but obviously as these technology companies have a greater and greater impact on the economy, I think that you have to look at the power they have," Mnuchin told CNBC's "Squawk Box." Mnuchin acknowledged that antitrust matters don't fall under his jurisdiction, but said someone ought to be looking. His comments come on the heels of a "60 Minutes" segment on Google's unparalleled market share in online search. The Sunday night spot included an interview with Jeremy Stoppelman, co-founder of Yelp, which he said "would have no shot" if it were being built today.
Android

The Verge Goes Hands-On With the 'Wildly Ambitious' RED Hydrogen One Smartphone (theverge.com) 53

It's been almost a year since RED, a company known for its high-end $10,000+ cameras, teased a smartphone called the RED Hydrogen One. Several months have passed since the phone was announced and we still don't know much about it, aside from it having a very industrial design and "Hydrogen holographic display." Earlier this week, AT&T and Verizon confirmed that they'll launch the device later this year. Now, The Verge's Dieter Bohn has shared his hands-on impressions with the device, which he claims to be "one of the most ambitious smartphones in years from a company not named Apple, Google, or Samsung." Here's an excerpt from the report: The company better known for high-end 4K cameras with names like "Weapon" and "Epic-w" isn't entering the smartphone game simply to sell you a better Android phone. No, this phone is meant to be one piece of a modular system of cameras and other media creation equipment -- the company claims it will be "the foundation of a future multi-dimensional media system." To that end, it has a big set of pogo-pins on the back to connect it to RED's other cameras also to allow users to attach (forthcoming) modules to it, including lens mounts. If it were just a modular smartphone, we'd be talking about whether we really expected the company to produce enough modules to support it.

RED is planning on starting with a module that is essentially a huge camera sensor -- the company is not ready to give exact details, but the plan is definitely more towards DSLR size than smartphone size. Then, according to CEO Jim Jannard, the company wants any traditional big camera lens to be attached to it. Answering a fan question, he joked that support for lenses will be "pretty limited," working "just" with Fuji, Canon, Nikon, Leica, and more. [...] The processor inside will be a slightly-out-of-date Qualcomm Snapdragon 835, but it seemed fast enough in the few demos I was able to try. Honestly, though, if you're looking to get this thing just as a phone, you're probably making your decision based on the wrong metrics. It's probably going to be a perfectly capable phone, but at this price (starting at $1,195) what you're buying into is the module ecosystem.

Software

Popular 'Gboard' Keyboard App Has Had a Broken Spell Checker For Months 54

The popular Gboard keyboard app for iOS and Android devices has a fundamental flaw. According Reddit user SurroundedByMachines, the red underline has stopped appearing for incorrectly spelled words since November of last year -- and it doesn't appear to be limited to any one device. Issues with the spell checker have been reported on multiple devices across Android and iOS. A simple Google search brings up several different threads where people have reported issues with the feature.

What's more is that nobody at Google seems to get the memo. The Reddit user who first brought this to our attention filed several bug reports, left a review, and joined the beta channel to leave feedback there, yet no response was given. "Many people have been having the issue, and it's even been escalated to the community manager," writes SurroundedByMachines. Since the app has over 500 million downloads on the Play Store alone, this issue could be frustrating a lot of users, especially those who use their phones to send work emails or write documents. Have you noticed Gboard's broken spell checker on your device? If so, you may want to look into another third-party keyboard, such as SwiftKey or Cheetah Keyboard.
AI

Did Google's Duplex Testing Break the Law? (daringfireball.net) 73

An anonymous reader writes: Tech blogger John Gruber appears to have successfully identified one of the restaurants mentioned in a post on Google's AI blog that bragged about "a meal booked through a call from Duplex." Mashable then asked a restaurant employee there if Google had let him know in advance that they'd be receiving a call from their non-human personal assistant AI. "No, of course no," he replied. And "When I asked him to confirm one more time that Duplex had called...he appeared to get nervous and immediately said he needed to go. He then hung up the phone."

John Gruber now asks: "How many real-world businesses has Google Duplex been calling and not identifying itself as an AI, leaving people to think they're actually speaking to another human...? And if 'Victor' is correct that Hong's Gourmet had no advance knowledge of the call, Google may have violated California law by recording the call." Friday he added that "This wouldn't send anyone to prison, but it would be a bit of an embarrassment, and would reinforce the notion that Google has a cavalier stance on privacy (and adhering to privacy laws)."

The Mercury News also reports that legal experts "raised questions about how Google's possible need to record Duplex's phone conversations to improve its artificial intelligence may come in conflict with California's strict two-party consent law, where all parties involved in a private phone conversation need to agree to being recorded."

For another perspective, Gizmodo's senior reviews editor reminds readers that "pretty much all tech demos are fake as hell." Speaking of Google's controversial Duplex demo, she writes that "If it didn't happen, if it is all a lie, well then I'll be totally disappointed. But I can't say I'll be surprised."

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