Posts Tagged ‘Google’

Technology Can Redefine the Mass-Shooter Problem

February 17, 2018

We don’t have the votes to control guns, but we have the votes to control our public spaces.


One way to stop school shootings would be to restrict the ability of 249 million American adults to buy and own firearms, including by confiscating millions they already possess. That might work, but promoters have demonstrated with great reliability that they can’t raise the votes. They can’t get Democratic votes for such a policy, much less Republican votes.

Look closely at the lesser gun-control tweaks being proposed in the wake of Wednesday’s atrocity in Parkland, Fla. They all meet some checklist of gun-control desirables but are irrelevant to the specific problem of the carefully planned mass-casualty attack.

To some people, that doesn’t matter. The gun issue draws out us-vs.-them distinctions that are eminently exploitable for fundraising and political purposes. But what about the rest of us? When a problem seems insoluble, redefine it, enlarge it or shrink it in some way. That’s often good advice.

The American electorate may not tolerate draconian (by U.S. standards) restrictions on guns, but it will tolerate a fair amount of surveillance. License-plate readers track our travels. Cellphone towers can triangulate our location. Face recognition is increasingly deployed in conjunction with security and traffic cameras; in China, police officers have it built into their spectacles. Not to mention the stupendous amounts of personal data we willingly hand over to businesses.

Now take all the red flags raised by Nikolas Cruz : He posted on social media pictures of himself with weapons and small animals he had apparently tortured. His fascination and exhibitionism with guns was broadcast to one and all. Teachers were warned to take action if he was seen approaching the school with a backpack; he later was expelled.

Technology Can Redefine the Mass-Shooter Problem

He was widely regarded as a menace. His mother, neighbors and school officials had repeatedly sought police intervention. He posted a YouTube comment under his own name in which he declared a desire to become a “professional school shooter,” one of two warnings passed on to the FBI.

One thing we know: If, along with these red flags, he had professed jihadist sympathies or frequented al Qaeda websites, the American people would be fine with the FBI tracking him closely. They and their courts would be fine even with undercover agents being sent to lure him into a prosecutable offense so they could arrest him.

OK, jihadist sympathies are a winnowing factor. A lot more disaffected young males are gun nuts, make threats and act weirdly than become mass shooters.

But technology potentially changes the equation in important ways. Big data may not be better than psychologists at predicting who will commit a mass shooting a year or two from now, but it can help us know who might be planning one next week: Who got kicked out of school, failed to show up for a court-assigned counseling session, made a big purchase at a gun store, posted a deranged or threatening message on social media, prompted an uptick in alarmed social-media chatter by friends and acquaintances.

Especially since the young already conduct their social existence mostly online. Information technology is taking over our lives. It will not be uninvented. In another few years, unless you cut yourself off from the network (which will arouse its own suspicions), you will be findable in seconds. A police drone overhead will be able to focus its cameras on you or the vehicle or building in which you are to be found. Indeed, London cops caused a furor by innocently posting on Twitter the visage of a TV comedian snapped by an overhead camera looking down on the masses in Leicester Square. If it can’t already, soon this technology will be able to sound an alarm if a specific person on a list approaches a school or other sensitive site.

The question of how and whether to use these capabilities for public-safety purposes is already bubbling up in a thousand contexts, without much organized consideration or debate. Would such an approach produce an unmanageable number of false positives? Let’s find out. There inevitably would be a learning curve. Let’s start climbing it.

A fact now can usefully be faced: A lot more people enjoy guns than become mass killers, but an excessive fascination with guns is a hallmark of mass killers. Let’s make use of this information. Gun stores have security cameras. If not the police, then businesses themselves will soon enough track every time you visit a gun store and which counters you linger over. It shouldn’t be a reach, with the information we potentially have in hand, to define a new category of person who most Americans would agree should be prohibited from buying guns and ammunition.

The media, with their usual depth and nuance, are trying to set up a fight between gun controllers and proponents of mental-health reform, who are naturally accused of ducking the real issue. In fact, we will need some basis in law for acting on people who set off alarm bells but haven’t done anything illegal. A new approach to mental health has to be part of the strategy.

Appeared in the February 17, 2018, print edition.

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The Russian Indictments — Where were James Clapper and John Brennan and the American intelligence community when the Kremlin was meddling?

February 17, 2018


Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Jan. 29.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Jan. 29. PHOTO: ALEXEI NIKOLSKY/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Justice Department on Friday indicted three Russian companies and 13 individuals for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the man who should be most upset is Donald J. Trump. The 37-page indictment contains no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, but it does show a systematic effort to discredit the result of the 2016 election. On the evidence so far, President Trump has been the biggest victim of that effort, and he ought to be furious at Vladimir Putin.

The indictment documents a broad social-media and propaganda campaign operating out of Russia and involving hundreds of people starting in 2014 that “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system.” It certainly succeeded on that score, as Democrats and the media have claimed that Mr. Trump’s election is illegitimate because he conspired with Russia to defeat Hillary Clinton. The charge has roiled American politics and made governing more difficult.

The good news for Mr. Trump is that the indictment reveals no evidence of collusion. The Russians “posted derogatory information about a number of candidates,” the indictment says, and by 2016 “included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump” and “disparaging Hillary Clinton.” But it adds that the Russians “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign,” and it offers no claims of a conspiracy.

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Readers of the indictment will be amused at the comic opera details. In or around June 2016, for example, Russians posing online as Americans “communicated with a real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization.” This “real U.S. person” vouchsafed the deep political secret that the Russians “should focus their activities on ‘purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.’” Sure enough, the Russians thereafter referred to targeting “purple states.” Someone actually paid Russians to collect this insight.

The indictment also contains no evidence that Russia’s meddling changed the electoral results. A U.S. presidential campaign is a maelstrom of information, charges and counter-charges, media reports and social-media chatter. The Russian Twitter bursts became part of this din and sought to reinforce existing biases more than they sought to change minds. Their Twitter hashtags included “#Hillary4Prison,” for example, which you could find at the souvenir desk at the GOP convention.

Yet none of this should let Twitter, Facebook or Google off the hook for being facilitators of this disinformation. The social-media sites and search engines clearly did far too little to police their content for malicious trolls and in the process misled millions of Americans. They need to do more to take responsibility for the content they midwife.

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James Clapper

The indictment also makes us wonder what the Obama Administration was doing amid all of this. Where were top Obama spooks James Clapper and John Brennan ? Their outrage became public only after their candidate lost the election. If they didn’t know what was going on, why not? And if they did, why didn’t they let Americans in on the secret? President Obama sanctioned Russia for its meddling only after the election.

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John Brennan. Photo by J. Scott Applewhite, The Associated Press.

The indictment’s details underscore Russia’s malicious anti-American purposes. An authoritarian regime spent tens of millions of dollars to erode public trust in American democracy. As Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) put it Friday, “Putin’s shadow war is aimed at undermining Americans’ trust in our institutions. We know Russia is coming back in 2018 and 2020—we have to take the threat seriously.”

All of which makes the White House reaction on Friday strangely muted. Its statement understandably focused on the lack of collusion evidence and made one reference to “the agendas of bad actors, like Russia.” But given how much Russia’s meddling has damaged his first year in office, Mr. Trump should publicly declare his outrage at Russia on behalf of the American people. The Kremlin has weakened his Presidency. He should make Russia pay a price that Mr. Obama never did.


FBI Director James Comey and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch attend a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas 

FBI Director James Comey and U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch attend a news conference at the Justice Department in Washington June 18, 2015. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas


Sharyl Attkisson Explains the Origins of the 2016 ‘Fake News’ — Blames Google, Eric Schmidt, Hillary Supporters

February 15, 2018

In a Tedx Talk at the University of Nevada a couple of weeks ago, investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson revealed the origins of the “fake news” narrative that was aggressively pushed by the liberal media and Democrat politicians during the 2016 election, and how it was later flipped by President Donald Trump.

Attkisson pointed out that “fake news” in the form of tabloid journalism and false media narratives has always been around under different names.

But she noticed in 2016, there seemed to be a concerted effort by the MSM to focus America’s attention on the idea of “fake news” in conservative media. That looked like a propaganda effort to Attkisson, so she did a little digging and traced the new spin to a little non-profit called “First Draft,” which, she said, “appears to be the very first to use ‘fake news’ in its modern context.”

Image result for Sharyl Attkisson , photosSharyl Attkisson

“On September 13, 2016, First Draft announced a partnership to tackle malicious hoaxes and fake news reports,” Attkisson explained. “The goal was supposedly to separate wheat from chaff, to prevent unproven conspiracy talk from figuring prominently in internet searches. To relegate today’s version of the alien baby stories to a special internet oblivion.”

She noted that a month later, then-President Obama chimed in.

“He insisted in a speech that he too thought somebody needed to step in and curate information of this wild, wild West media environment,” she said, pointing out that “nobody in the public had been clamoring for any such thing.”

Yet suddenly the subject of fake news was dominating headlines all over America as if the media had “received its marching orders,” she recounted. “Fake news, they said, was an imminent threat to American democracy.”

Attkisson, who has studied the manipulative moneyed interests behind media industry, said, “few themes arise in our environment organically.” She noted that she always found it helpful to “follow the money.”

“What if the whole fake news campaign was an effort on somebody’s part to keep us from seeing or believing certain websites and stories by controversializing them or labeling them as fake news?” Attkisson posited.

Digging deeper, she discovered that Google was one of the big donors behind First Draft’s “fake news” messaging. Google’s parent company, she pointed out, is owned by Eric Schmidt, who happened to be a huge Hillary Clinton supporter.

Schmidt “offered himself up as a campaign adviser and became a top multi-million donor to it. His company funded First Draft at the start of the election cycle,” Attkisson said. “Not surprisingly, Hillary was soon to jump aboard the anti-fake news train and her surrogate David Brock of Media Matters privately told donors that he was the one who told Facebook to join the effort.”

Attkisson declared that “the whole thing smacked of the roll-out of a propaganda campaign,” she said. Attkisson added, “But something happened that nobody expected. The anti-fake news campaign backfired. Each time advocates cried fake news, Donald Trump called them ‘fake news’ until he’d co-opted the term so completely that even those who [were] originally promoting it started running from it — including the Washington Post,” which she noted later backed away from using the term.

Attkisson called Trump’s accomplishment a “hostile takeover” of the term and cautioned people to always be wary of “powerful interests trying to manipulate their opinions.”

She described two warning signs to look out for.

  1. When the media tries to shape or censor facts and opinions rather than report them.
  2.  When so many in the media are reporting the same stories, promulgating the same narratives, relying on the same sources — even using the same phrases.

Attkisson pointed out that there’s an infinite number of ways to report stories, so “when everyone is on the same page, it might be part of an organized campaign.”

he warned the audience about the latest effort to quell speech through something called “media literacy,” where liberal elites tell everyone else who they should trust. She said, “Media literacy advocates are busy trying to get state laws passed to require that their version of media literacy be taught public schools.”

What’s more, they’re “developing websites and partnering with universities.” She warned that these people have their own agendas and want to tell you what to believe.

“When interests are working this hard to shape your opinion, their true goal just might be to add another layer between you and the truth,” Attkisson concluded.

Includes video:

Regulator calls on Google to ban ads for binary options, cryptocurrencies

February 6, 2018

Canadian and US law enforcement have explained to Google how the advertising enables scammers to find victims, asked it to follow Facebook’s lead in barring the ads

February 6, 2018
This photo taken on December 28, 2016 in Vertou, western France, shows logos of US multinational technology company Google.  (AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE)

This photo taken on December 28, 2016 in Vertou, western France, shows logos of US multinational technology company Google. (AFP PHOTO / LOIC VENANCE)

Following Facebook’s announcement last week that it was banning all advertising for binary options, cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings, a Canadian regulator has called on Google to do the same.

Jason Roy, a senior investigator at the Manitoba Securities Commission and chairman of Canada’s Binary Options Task Force, told The Times of Israel that “we’re very pleased with Facebook’s decision. My hope is that Google will enact a similar policy, where they specifically name products like binary options, ICOs and cryptocurrencies.”

On January 30, Facebook announced it was banning all advertising for binary options, cryptocurrencies and initial coin offerings, following many months of pressure from the FBI and Canadian securities regulators who have been investigating online investment fraud.

Binary options is a recently outlawed Israel-based fraud that was estimated to bring in $5-$10 billion a year at its peak.

“We’ve created a new policy that prohibits ads that promote financial products and services that are frequently associated with misleading or deceptive promotional practices, such as binary options, initial coin offerings and cryptocurrency,” Facebook product management director Rob Leathern wrote in a January 30 blog post announcing the advertising ban.

Jason Roy (Courtesy)

But Google, which according to industry insiders generates much of the paid traffic for fraudulent binary options, cryptocurrency and ICO companies, has yet to ban the ads.

Asked by The Times of Israel whether it was going to enact a similar ban, Google spokeswoman Roni Levin replied by email that “we already ban and enforce against misleading ads and misrepresentation (across all categories). Here are the policies — Misrepresentation and Misleading Ads.”

A quick search for “binary options” or “cryptocurrencies” in the Google search bar reveals that the company is still selling ads for these products.

Roy said that Canadian and other law enforcement agencies are waiting for Google to follow Facebook and enact a specific ban. “What happened is that Canada’s Binary Options Task Force as well as the FBI explained to Facebook what the concerns were and that these types of ads are leading to people becoming victims. We’ve been talking to Google and had similar discussions and are waiting for them to take similar action.”

Roy and the FBI have for months been discussing with Google and Facebook the prevalence of advertising for the widely fraudulent binary options industry. The industry, through which victims worldwide have been fleeced out of billions for the past decade, was finally outlawed by the Knesset in October, in the wake of investigative reporting by The Times of Israel since March 2016, with the ban talking effect on January 26.

According to a source familiar with the binary options industry, some Israeli binary options companies have simply changed the product they are selling to cryptocurrency and ICOs, and continued to defraud customers using similar scripts and techniques.

“They just took a sticker down from a door and put up a new sticker and said now we’re doing ICOs,” the source said of one company. “Nothing about the company changed. Maybe some of the legal filings.”

Are all cryptocurrencies fraudulent?

While binary options was a largely Israel-based fraud, the situation with cryptocurrencies and ICOs is murkier. Experts have told The Times of Israel that some cryptocurrency startups are legitimate, or at least not intentionally fraudulent, while others are outright scams. Fraudulent cryptocurrency companies appear on the surface to originate from all over the world, and not just Israel.

“I think everybody is trying to figure out what’s going on,” said Roy. “There’s just been an explosion of different ICOs and new tokens and crazy offerings. You’re seeing ICOs that are raising large amounts of money and there’s nothing behind them in certain cases, but members of the public are so hyped they’re throwing money at them.”

When Roy looks at the cryptocurrencies being advertised on the internet he sees several patterns.

A man is reflected on a screen showing exchange rates of cryptocurrencies at an exchange in Seoul on December 20, 2017.

“You have the former binary options firms that have made the switch to offering cryptocurrencies, and it’s basically the binary options scam 2.0. Then you have fraudulent and unregistered ICOs that are targeting people. And then you have cryptocurrency Ponzi schemes or multi-level-marketing schemes. We recently put out an investor alertabout a company called UTI-Tech. There is an Israel aspect to all this fraud with the former binary options firms, but that’s not the entirety of it. It appears to be all over the world.”

Asked how one can differentiate the legitimate cryptocurrency firms from the illegitimate ones, Roy replied, “We would look at what they were doing and determine if this is an activity that can be registered and if they had in fact registered. We would look to see if they were violating our rules, because any legitimate company that’s going to be offering a type of investment should be following the rules in whatever jurisdiction they’re offering those securities in. That’s our first test in terms of the legitimacy of a company.”

How Google AdWords helps fraudsters find customers

Several weeks ago, the Times of Israel was contacted by a former PPC (pay-per-click) expert for the online gambling industry who worked briefly in binary options. Joshua, who asked that we not reveal his real name, said that most of the paid traffic for binary options websites comes from Google AdWords.

“I think Facebook represented about 15 to 20% of the paid-click traffic, but these companies’ largest budget goes to Google AdWords.”

He said that lately he keeps seeing ads for initial coin offerings (ICOs) everywhere on the internet, and that he recently had a flash of insight that compelled him to contact The Times of Israel.

“When I worked in binary options, one of the things that made me realize it was fraudulent is that they would give investors bonuses. If someone invests $100, and then you give them $100 in equity, well then it’s obvious you’re not planning to return any of their money. A few weeks ago I was going through my Facebook and I see these ICOs. And I see they’re starting to offer ICOs with bonuses. I put two and two together and I said, these ICO people are binary options people!”

When The Times of Israel pointed out that the “team members” listed on the websites of many Google-advertised ICOs appear to be from all over the world and not just Israel, Joshua suggested that some of these people may be former binary options affiliates whom the Israeli owners are using to obscure their involvement.

“They have affiliates everywhere — in Canada, Cyprus, Belize — you name it.”

Joshua said he can’t know for sure that every ICO that advertises on Google is a scam, but that a legitimate cryptocurrency would be more likely to raise money “through public relations, through people actually being interested in it and through serving some need.”

According to Joshua, binary options companies used to bid more than $100 per click to occupy the advertising spot at the top of a page of Google search results. He believes that the going rate for cryptocurrencies may be similarly high.

In other words, if you click on a Google ad for binary options, the company may have to pay Google $100 or more, depending on what other companies are bidding.

“Usually a legitimate company that advertises on Google will pay 50 cents a click, or maybe a dollar or two, because they’re just trying to get normal people to come in. But you’re bidding against your competitors. If your competitor started bidding $20, they would show up above you. If you wanted to show up above them, you would have to bid $21.”

Joshua said that this explains why scammers are willing to bid $100 or more.

“These fraudulent companies, they want to take people’s money and they want to take it fast. They’ll bid at $100 to make sure they get that top position.”

This works out economically for binary options companies because they carefully track customer behavior and know exactly what percentage of people who click on a Google ad will deposit money. Joshua said that the lifetime customer value (the average amount of money earned per customer) in the gambling companies he worked for was $1,200 and in some binary options companies he believes it may have been between $1,500 and $2,000.

“That’s their strategy. If they have to pay $400 to Google to get five clicks and then one of them converts (makes an initial deposit), that’s a money-making venture.”

A Google executive lectures to binary options operatives at the IFXExpo conference in Hong Kong, January 2016 (YouTube Screenshot)

According to Joshua, reliance on Google AdWords is the Achilles heel of fraudulent forex, CFD, binary options and cryptocurrency companies. If a whole bunch of angry, defrauded investors were to start clicking on the ads without actually depositing money, their business model would fall apart, he said.

“Even a few thousand people doing this would be detrimental to them,” he said.

The Times of Israel contacted Google to ask what it thought of this suggestion. Google spokeswoman Roni Levin replied that such a scheme would not work.

“Our Ad Traffic Quality team is dedicated to stopping all types of invalid traffic,” she wrote in an email, “including clicks that don’t represent genuine user interest, so that advertisers don’t have to pay for it and the people who cause it don’t profit from it. Please see:

The origins of binary options

Joshua said that in an ideal scenario, Google would just ban ads for companies offering forex, CFDs, binary options and cryptocurrencies.

“Overall, the revenue from clicks for forex, CFDs, binary options and and online gambling could be hundreds of millions or a billion dollars,” he said, stressing that this was only an educated guess and that he did not have a specific figure. If so, he said, “that’s not a lot of money for Google. I doubt Google is in it for the money in some corrupt way. They just follow the law really strictly and until something is banned by law, they don’t censor it.”

Joshua said that that binary options was invented by gambling industry operatives after the United States banned online gambling in 2006 and Google placed restrictions on the advertising.

The top of the FBI website on March 15, 2017, dominated by a binary options fraud warning. (Screenshot: FBI)

“Between 2000 and 2006, Israel was a hub of the online gambling industry,” he said. “The casinos were allowed to operate in Israel as long as they didn’t take any players from Israel. And they were swimming in money. There was no reason to enter any other field because they were making so much money. They had the US market and all these other markets worldwide.”

But in 2006, the United States passed the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, making it illegal for a company to accept payments from online gamblers from the United States.

Online gambling companies still wanted to find a way to get money from US customers. Some accomplished this by using payment processors that falsified credit card transaction codes so that they did not reflect gambling activity.

But once advertising to the US market was restricted by Google, “most casino operations downsized, and operations then shifted to forex and binary options, which you could advertise freely on Google AdWords.”


Alphabet, Aramco in talks to build tech hub in Saudi Arabia — WSJ

February 2, 2018


Logo of Saudi Aramco is seen at the 20th Middle East Oil & Gas Show and Conference (MOES 2017) in Manama, Bahrain, in this March 7, 2017 file photo. (REUTERS)
SAN FRANCISCO: Google parent Alphabet Inc. is in talks with Saudi state oil company Saudi Aramco about jointly building a technology hub in Saudi Arabia, the Wall Street Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
It is not clear specifically whose data the centers would house or who would control them, the WSJ said.
Reuters could not immediately reach Aramco and Alphabet for comment.
Alphabet rivals Apple Inc. and Amazon Inc. are in licensing discussions with Riyadh on investing in Saudi Arabia, according to a Reuters report in December.
A joint venture between Alphabet and Aramco could help Saudi Aramco expand into the United States, a goal for the oil company.
The size of the potential venture is unclear, although it could be big enough to become listed on Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange, according to the Journal report.
It was unclear where Aramco would list its shares ahead of an initial public offering that could turn it into the world’s largest publicly traded company.

Tech Giants Power to New Heights — Apple Inc., Alphabet Inc. and Inc.

February 2, 2018

Apple breaks record for biggest ever company profit despite iPhone sales fall 

Apple has posted the biggest quarterly profit of all time despite a fall in iPhone sales.

The world’s biggest company posted profits of $20.1bn (£14bn) in the crucial final three months of the year, breaking its own record set two years ago.

It came after the release of the £999 iPhone X in November, the biggest update of the handset to date, as well as the release of the iPhone 8 in September.

Although Apple sold 77m iPhones in the three month period, a 1pc fall from last year, the higher price of the new handsets meant revenues from selling iPhones increased.

iPhone X surpassed our expectations and has been our top selling iPhone every week since it shipped in November,” Cook said.

The company’s revenues grew 13pc to $88.3bn, also a record. The $20.1bn profits were up 12pc, from $17.9bn a year earlier.

Sales of the iPad increased marginally, while those of Apple’s Mac computers fell. Sales of “other products” – a group that includes the Apple Watch and Apple TV – were up 36pc.

Shares initially fell in after-hours trading as Apple disappointed investors with its guidance for the next quarter, but rebounded soon after. The company said it expected revenues of between $60bn and $62bn, below expectations.

“We’re thrilled to report the biggest quarter in Apple’s history, with broad-based growth that included the highest revenue ever from a new iPhone lineup,” Mr Cook said. He added that 1.3bn Apple devices are now in use, up from 1bn two years ago.

Cook said there had been a record year for the App Store, with augmented reality apps a particular area of growth. Sales of the new Apple Watch Series 3 were double those of the Series 2 last year.

Apple is the world’s biggest company and is often tipped to be the first to break the one-trillion-dollar value mark, but shares have wavered in recent weeks amid fears that it may be cutting back iPhone X production.

The new handset, which boasts a bigger screen, no home button, and facial recognition technology, was well received by reviewers but costs up to £1,249 for its most expensive version. Apple said the decline in iPhone sales was largely due to the quarter being a week shorter than last year.

Apple is tipped to be the world's first trillion dollar company

Apple is tipped to be the world’s first trillion dollar company CREDIT: GENE J. PUSKAR/AP

Three questions for Apple after results

By Margi Murphy

How much staying power does the iPhone X have?

The release of the £999 iPhone X in November saw Apple fans rush to buy the device, and Apple said it was the best-selling iPhone in every week it had gone on sale.

However, analysts have suggested demand for the flagship phone may have subsided, with some reports saying Apple has halved iPhone X production.

Thursday night’s results showed strong sales of the iPhone X, but once the hardcore fans have all bought one, how willing will average consumers be to shell out.

Read the rest:


Tech Giants Power to New Heights

Apple, Alphabet and report record results; Apple’s profits top $20 billion for first time

Three of the biggest tech companies reported record quarterly financial results on Thursday as they extended their dominance over swaths of the global economy.

Apple Inc., Alphabet Inc. and Inc.—with a combined market value of more than $2 trillion—all boosted growth by broadening their reach into new areas.

Apple’s revenue rose 13% to $88.29 billion, fueled by its move to increase smartphone prices behind its new flagship iPhone X, released in November at $1,000. The company, whose profits topped $20 billion for the first time, is also increasingly benefiting from its services business, including App Store sales and music and payments services.

Google parent Alphabet recorded its 32nd consecutive quarter of revenue growth of 20% or more, continuing a dominant run as it handles more than 90% of internet searches and owns the world’s most influential video site. Google is building in other areas, including cloud computing, a business that Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said brings in $1 billion a quarter.

Meanwhile, Amazon—long known for prioritizing growth over earnings—delivered a profit exceeding $1 billion for the first time as its revenue jumped 38% to $60.5 billion.

More than the other two companies, Amazon has spread beyond its core market. The online-retail giant has built the largest cloud-computing business, created a major Hollywood studio and, more recently, become a big bricks-and-mortar retailer with the acquisition of Whole Foods, which accounted for roughly 7% of its sales.

Two of the other largest tech companies by market value— Microsoft Corp. and Facebook Inc. —reported record sales a day earlier. Revenue at Microsoft rose 12% to $28.92 billion as its cloud-computing division continued to grow, while Facebook’s revenue jumped 47% to $12.97 billion.

Those companies are the five most valuable in the U.S. by market capitalization, the first time a single industry has occupied that position in several decades, according to S&P Capital Inc.

As the tech giants expand their clout across a widening band of commerce, they have increasingly drawn scrutiny from lawmakers and consumers over a range of issues, from their dominance of certain markets, to how they use their vast troves of consumer data, to the impact their products have on society.

The extraordinary runup in their share prices has helped fuel popular awareness of the companies’ power, says Youssef Squali, an analyst with SunTrust Robinson Humphrey.


  • Apple Results Soar on Pricey iPhones
  • Amazon Earnings Surpass $1 Billion
  • Alphabet Posts Loss, but Revenue Climbs
  • Aramco in Talks for Tech Venture
  • Heard on the Street: Apple Dodges iPhone X Worries

“It’s a combination of the fact that these have become such huge behemoths that they bear responsibility to society, and on the other hand you have all this lack of control of personal data,” Mr. Squali said.

Facebook is contending with claims that its massive social network has had harmful effects on mental health and is used to disseminate hate speech, violent live videos and fabricated news articles. Lawmakers have scrutinized Facebook and other social-media firms, saying they failed to take more steps to keep Russian-backed actors from sowing division during the U.S. presidential election.

Facebook says it is addressing the issues in a number of ways, including employing more people who handle safety and security issues and ranking publisher posts based on user evaluations of trustworthiness.

Apple is facing criticism from prominent investors over the way smartphones affect children, as well as federal probes over its disclosure that it issued software updates that slowed performance on iPhones with older batteries. Apple apologized and said it would never do anything to harm its customers.

Google drew a $2.71 billion fine from European regulators, who said the search giant favored its comparison-shopping service over rivals. Google’s YouTube, meanwhile, is grappling with a backlash from marketers over the placement of their ads in front of undesirable videos, including YouTube’s curated lineup of “preferred” content.

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said on a call with analysts that new controls to review top videos on YouTube and set new limits on which content can run ads will make the site a safe place for advertisers. There have been concerns, he said, but “we’re working really hard to address them and respond strongly.”

A major shift for the tech industry came with the election of President Donald Trump, who had been critical of the industry in part due to what he said was a lack of U.S. job creation and investments overseas. Tech CEOs a little over a year ago met with the then-president elect. Shortly thereafter, plans for a tech council to advise the president dissolved.

Most recently, Mr. Trump called out Amazon, tweeting that the U.S. Postal Service should charge the online retail giant and other companies more to deliver packages.

The mood extends to Capitol Hill. Sen. Mark Warner (D., Va.) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) are working on legislation that would make political advertising with companies like Facebook, Twitter and Google more transparent. Meanwhile, U.S. Senators Jerry Moran (R., Kan.) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) this week wrote the Federal Trade Commission to ask it to investigate companies that sell fake social-media accounts, mentioning Twitter and YouTube specifically.

At the annual World Economic Forum last month, the world’s largest technology companies defended themselves against complaints about everything from perceived anticompetitive behavior to threats from artificial intelligence. Some critics questioned the companies’ potential elimination of jobs through advanced technology, while others pointed to their control of large amounts of personal data. Inc. CEO Marc Benioff, at the Davos, Switzerland, forum, called some tech companies’ behavior “nefarious,” comparing the companies to the cigarette industry and calling for more government regulation. Martin Sorrell, CEO of advertising giant WPP PLC, compared the firms to Standard Oil, a U.S. oil giant that was broken up after regulators determined it was a monopoly.

In response to a question about Amazon’s size, the company’s retail chief, Jeff Wilke, said in an interview late last year with The Wall Street Journal that its businesses are very diverse and horizontally large. “We have incredible competition,” he added.

Trip Miller, founder and managing partner at Gullane Capital LLC, which owns shares in Amazon, Apple and Alphabet, said management at the companies was strong, and they appear to have good opportunities for continued growth.

“While we do understand some of the concerns around data and them potentially having so much information on our lives, I think it’s just a byproduct of the world we live in,” he said.

Apple’s results offered hope that it can sustain its solid performance even amid stagnating global demand for smartphones. Analysts and investors have worried the company is too dependent on the iPhone, which accounts for about two-thirds of its revenue, as customers hold onto their phones longer and therefore buy fewer new ones.

Sales of the iPhone X in the quarter lifted the average selling price for iPhones by nearly 15%, Apple said. The 1.3 billion iPhones and other Apple devices now in active use helped its services business report an 18% jump in revenue. Results also were buoyed by strong growth in the division that includes its smartwatch and AirPods wireless earbuds.

Alphabet’s profit jumped 28% to $6.84 billion, excluding a giant $9.9 billion charge related to the new U.S. tax law which turned its bottom line into the red. While the ad business makes up nearly all of its profit, Alphabet is investing in a dozen businesses such as self-driving cars and cybersecurity in hopes they will drive future revenue.

Amazon’s core retail business was the main producer of its revenue growth in the quarter, as holiday shoppers went online. It also benefited from the company’s $13.5 billion acquisition of Whole Foods, which generated more than $4 billion in revenue.

Amazon is known for reinvesting heavily in its business, and has said in recent quarters it is in an investment phase focusing on international expansion and building out its video content, among other initiatives.

Contributing its profitability in the fourth quarter was a tax benefit of $789 million, part of the tax overhaul. Still, Amazon’s cloud-computing division put in a strong performance, as did its growing advertising business. And the company also worked on efficiency at its warehouses.

Write to Laura Stevens at, Tripp Mickle at and Jack Nicas at

Google Parent Alphabet and Aramco in Talks to Build Tech Hub in Saudi Arabia

February 1, 2018

Saudi giant has sought to wean itself off oil; a deal with the California tech behemoth would help

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Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman


Saudi Arabia’s state-owned oil giant and Google parent Alphabet Inc., two of the world’s biggest companies, are in talks about jointly building a large technology hub inside the kingdom, people familiar with the potential deal said. ​

As part of the potential joint venture, Alphabet would help Saudi Arabian Oil Co., known as Aramco, build data centers around Saudi Arabia, the people said. It isn’t clear specifically whose data the centers would house or who would control them.


Senior executives at Aramco and Alphabet have been in talks for months on the potential joint venture, these people said. The talks have included Alphabet Chief Executive Larry Page and have been encouraged by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is enamored with Silicon Valley and wants to bring more tech expertise to the kingdom, some of the people said. Prince Mohammed has been leading the kingdom’s plan to take Aramco public.

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Still, there are many details to work out, and it is unclear when—or whether—such a deal will be finalized, the people said.

The size of the potential joint venture is unclear, although it could be big enough to become listed on Saudi Arabia’s stock exchange, one of the people said.

An alliance would help bolster the development of the technology sector in Saudi Arabia, a goal Prince Mohammed has pointed to as a key part of his plan, known as Vision 2030, to wean the kingdom off its reliance on oil.

Alphabet’s Google is chasing both Inc. and Microsoft Corp. in the business of renting computing power and storage online, and a joint venture with Aramco would give it a key foothold in Saudi Arabia as it rushes to develop its tech sector. None of the three companies have massive data-center complexes, known as “regions” in industry parlance, in the area, though Amazon has plans to open one in Bahrain and Microsoft has announced it will open two data-center operations in South Africa this year.

Amazon is also close to finalizing a $1 billion deal to build three data centers in Saudi Arabia, people familiar with that deal said. The deal is expected to be announced during a trip to the U.S. by Prince Mohammed early this year.

A data-center region in Saudi Arabia could potentially help Google win business from oil-industry customers that are looking to shift their computing operations to the cloud. The costs for such centers can run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Most data for the Middle East is piped from Europe, slowing surfing to the most-trafficked websites, which are accessed via long-distance undersea cables, according to a person familiar with the Alphabet-Aramco talks. Local data servers—which would store content but also cached memory of personal-navigation data or social-media content—would speed up access and help the country be more competitive in the digital economy.

Alphabet and other digital giants have been reluctant to set up physical data centers in the Middle East, Africa and most of Asia because of data-protection concerns—unlike in the U.S., police generally don’t need a court order to access private data, the person said.

Internet experts say a lack of protection for online data users in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries remains an obstacle for the establishment of mass storage by U.S. internet giants and, more broadly, the region’s competitiveness in the internet economy. “Data servers located geographically close to customers means the speed of access is much higher,” said Emily Taylor, an associate fellow researching internet governance and privacy at British institute Chatham House.

Aramco is in the middle of planning for an initial public offering that the government has pegged for this year, though it is unclear whether it will get done in that time frame.

Prince Mohammed has said the proceeds from the IPO would be used to invest outside of the oil industry.

“The future business case for oil is slowly shifting from energy to how much technology can boost the oil sector’s productivity,” said Sam Blatteis, chief executive of MENA Catalysts Inc., a Middle East public-policy advisory and research firm, and who was Google’s head of Gulf government relations until July of last year. “Technology is driving a dramatic reordering of the oil arena, becoming the single most important driver of innovation, competitiveness and growth.”

While a potential joint venture between Alphabet and Aramco isn’t necessarily connected to the latter company’s IPO, if a deal is struck before the offering, advisers to the company could pitch the pact as a way for investors to bake in technology valuations.

Because of the outperformance of the technology sector and tech companies’ massive growth potential, investors have often been willing to value firms higher if they can successfully pitch themselves as technology companies. It is unclear whether Aramco would seek to do this in its IPO.

Since Prince Mohammed announced the stock-offering plan and his $2 trillion estimate for the company’s total valuation in early 2016, insiders and outsiders have questioned how he arrived at that number. Advisers on the deal have said that even with a rebound in oil prices, investors will struggle to value the company in excess of $1.5 trillion.

—Jay Greene and Nicolas Parasie contributed to this article.

Write to Maureen Farrell at, Benoit Faucon at and Summer Said at

China directs users to approved VPNs as firewall tightens

January 30, 2018


© AFP/File | A man uses a computer in an internet cafe in Beijing: China is tightening controls by curbing the use of VPNs

BEIJING (AFP) – China vowed Tuesday to force both local and foreign companies and individuals to use only government-approved software to access the global internet, as overseas firms fear losing unrestricted online services under an impending deadline.International companies and individuals have been fretting for months over whether Beijing would enforce new regulations curbing the use of virtual private networks (VPN).

The content accessible on China’s domestic internet is highly restricted. Google, Facebook and other foreign websites such as the New York Times and the BBC, and some email services, are blocked by the country’s Great Firewall of censorship.

One way to bypass the controls is by using a VPN, which can allow users to access the unfiltered global internet. This is where authorities are cracking down.

In January last year the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) announced it would be banning the use of unlicensed VPNs, with a deadline of March 31, 2018 to complete the crackdown.

MIIT chief engineer Zhang Feng told a news conference Tuesday that unapproved VPN operators are the target of the regulations.

For those “VPNs which unlawfully conduct cross-border operational activities, we want to regulate this”, Zhang said.

Many foreign individuals and businesses currently use VPN services unapproved by Chinese regulators. They are on tenterhooks as to whether China will shut down these service providers.

The inability to access certain online tools, internet censorship and cybersecurity are major headaches for foreign companies, according to a survey of US companies conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in China and released Tuesday.

Last summer tech giant Apple restricted its Chinese customers’ access to VPNs in the country, removing dozens of apps from its app store.

In December, a man in southern China was sentenced to five and a half years in prison for selling a VPN service on Alibaba’s Taobao and other marketplaces.

The new rules drive customers who want to access the global internet to approved state providers like China Mobile and China Unicom.

Those who want to access the global internet “can rent lines or networks from business operators which have set up international entry and exit ports in accordance with the law”, Zhang said.

He dismissed concerns that using China’s state-approved providers could jeopardise the security of business and individual data.

“These telecommunications enterprises only provide you with a channel, or a network, and are not able to see information related to your business,” he said.

Intel Warned Chinese Companies of Chip Flaws Before U.S. Government

January 28, 2018

Decision to disclose issue to select few customers, including Lenovo and Alibaba, has ripple effects through security and tech industries

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In initial disclosures about critical security flaws discovered in its processors, Intel Corp. notified a small group of customers, including Chinese technology companies, but left out the U.S. government, according to people familiar with the matter and some of the companies involved.

The decision raises concerns, security researchers said, as it potentially could have allowed information about the chip flaws, dubbed Spectre and Meltdown, to fall into the hands of the Chinese government before being publicly divulged. There is no evidence any information was misused, the researchers said.

Weeks after word of the flaws first surfaced, Intel’s choices about whom would receive advance warning continue to ripple through the security and tech industries.

The flaws were first identified in June by a member of Google’s Project Zero security team. Intel had planned to make the discovery public on Jan. 9—people working to protect systems from hacks often hold off on announcements while fixes are devised—but sped up its timetable when the news became widely known on Jan. 3, a day after U.K. website the Register wrote about the flaws.

Because the flaws can be leveraged to sneak sensitive data out of the cloud, information about them would be of great interest to any intelligence-gathering agency, said Jake Williams, president of the security company Rendition Infosec LLC and a former National Security Agency employee. In the past, Chinese state-linked hackers have exploited software vulnerabilities to get leverage on their targets or expand surveillance.

It is a “near certainty” Beijing was aware of the conversations between Intel and its Chinese tech partners, because authorities there routinely monitor all such communications, Mr. Williams said.

Representatives from China’s ministry in charge of information technology didn’t respond to requests for comment. The country’s foreign ministry has in the past said it is “resolutely opposed” to cyberhacking in any form.

An Intel spokesman declined to identify the companies it briefed before the scheduled Jan. 9 announcement. The company wasn’t able to tell everyone it had planned to, including the U.S. government, because the news was made public earlier than expected, he said.


  • Intel Fumbles Its Patch for Chip Flaw (Jan. 11, 2018)
  • Businesses Rush to Contain Fallout From Major Chip Flaws (Jan. 5, 2018)
  • Intel Wrestled With Chip Flaws for Months (Jan. 5, 2018)
  • What You Can Do Now to Protect Against the Chip Flaws (Jan. 4, 2018)

Intel’s tricky path—inform enough big customers to head off significant damage while keeping the information as contained as possible to limit potential leaks—continues to weigh on smaller companies that weren’t given an early nod.

Joyent Inc., a U.S.-based cloud-services provider owned by Samsung Electronics Co. , is still playing catch-up, said Bryan Cantrill, the company’s chief technology officer.

“Other folks had a six-month head start,” he said. “We’re scrambling.”

In the months before the flaws were publicly disclosed, Intel worked on fixes with Alphabet Inc.’s Google unit as well as “key” computer makers and cloud-computing companies, Intel said in an emailed statement to The Wall Street Journal.

An official at the Department of Homeland Security said staffers learned of the chip flaws from the Jan. 3 news reports. The department is often informed of bug discoveries in advance of the public, and it acts as an authoritative source for information on how to address them.

“We certainly would have liked to have been notified of this,” the official said.

The NSA was similarly in the dark, according to Rob Joyce, the White House’s top cybersecurity official. In a message posted Jan. 13 to Twitter, he said the NSA “did not know about these flaws.” A White House spokesman declined to comment further, referring instead to the tweet.

Chinese computer maker Lenovo Group Ltd. was among the large tech companies, including Microsoft Corp. , Inc. and ARM Holdings in the U.K., that were notified of the flaws beforehand.

Lenovo was able to issue a statement Jan. 3 advising customers on the flaws because of “the work we’d done ahead of that date with industry processor and operating system partners,” a spokeswoman said in an email.

Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. , China’s top seller of cloud-computing services, also was notified ahead of time, according to a person familiar with the company.

A spokeswoman for Alibaba’s cloud unit declined to comment on when the company was informed. She said any idea that the company might have shared information with Chinese authorities was “speculative and baseless.”

A Lenovo spokeswoman said Intel’s information was protected by a nondisclosure agreement.

Despite the security concerns, an early heads up to a select number of large global companies made sense, said Dave Aitel, chief executive of Immunity Inc., a company that sells security services. “They’re going to tell as few people as possible” to contain possible leaks, he said.

Because they had early warning, Microsoft, Google and Amazon were able to release statements soon after news of the flaws leaked out saying their cloud-computing customers were largely protected.

Smaller competitors, though, continue to struggle. DigitalOcean Inc., a cloud-services seller, said Jan. 19 it was still testing a fix for its customers. Rackspace Inc. said last Wednesday it has several teams working on a fix. The cloud company earlier in January told customers it understood the situation “can be frustrating.”

The DHS also stumbled with its initial guidance. The agency’s Computer Emergency Response Team first linked to an advisory stating the only way to “fully remove” the flaws was by replacing the chip. CERT now advises users instead to patch their systems.

The DHS should have been looped in early on to help coordinate the flaws’ disclosure, Joyent’s Mr. Cantrill said. “I don’t understand why CERT would not be your first stop,” he said.

Write to Robert McMillan at and Liza Lin at

Soros to Google and Facebook: ‘Your days are numbered’

January 26, 2018


January 26, 2018
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Hungarian-born billionaire investor George Soros. (AFP FILE PHOTO)


Billionaire investor George Soros launched a scathing attack on tech giants at the Davos summit on Thursday, calling them monopolies that could be manipulated by authoritarians to subvert democracy.

During an annual dinner he hosted at the World Economic Forum held this week in the Swiss alpine resort, Soros turned his sights on a host of subjects, including United States President Donald Trump and the speculation frenzy surrounding the cryptocurrency, bitcoin.

But much of the Hungarian-born financier’s ire was reserved for the tech giants of Silicon Valley who, he asserted, needed to be more strictly regulated.

“Facebook and Google effectively control over half of all internet advertising revenue,” the 87-year-old told diners during a speech.

“They claim that they are merely distributors of information. The fact that they are near-monopoly distributors makes them public utilities and should subject them to more stringent regulations, aimed at preserving competition, innovation, and fair and open universal access,” he added.

He predicted that tech giants would “compromise themselves” to access key markets like China, creating an “alliance between authoritarian states and these large, data rich IT monopolies.”

“This may well result in a web of totalitarian control the likes of which not even Aldous Huxley or George Orwell could have imagined,” he warned.

Predicting that governments would start to more heavily regulate the sector, Soros said: “Davos is a good place to announce that their days are numbered.”

Known for his legendarily successful currency trading, Soros dismissed bitcoin as a “typical bubble”.

But he said the cryptocurrency would likely avoid a full crash because authoritarians would still use it to make secret investments abroad.

He described Russia’s Vladimir Putin as presiding over a “mafia state” and called Trump a “danger to the world”.

But he predicted that the US president’s appeal would not last.

“I regard it as a purely temporary phenomenon that will disappear in 2020 or even sooner,” Soros claimed.

But the investor’s traditional Davos predictions do not always pan out. Last year, in Switzerland, he warned that the stock market rally would end after Trump’s election and that China’s growth rate was unsustainable.

China’s growth has continued while US stocks are regularly hitting record highs.                        /kga