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Industry & Technology

An Alexa bug could have exposed your voice history to hackers

Ars Technica - 2 hours 35 min ago

Enlarge / An Amazon Echo, specifically its top control buttons for volume, mic off, and Alexa action. (credit: Valentina Palladino)

Smart-assistant devices have had their share of privacy missteps, but they're generally considered safe enough for most people. New research into vulnerabilities in Amazon's Alexa platform, though, highlights the importance of thinking about the personal data your smart assistant stores about you—and minimizing it as much as you can.

Findings published on Thursday by the security firm Check Point reveal that Alexa's Web services had bugs that a hacker could have exploited to grab a target's entire voice history, meaning their recorded audio interactions with Alexa. Amazon has patched the flaws, but the vulnerability could have also yielded profile information, including home address, as well as all of the "skills," or apps, the user had added for Alexa. An attacker could have even deleted an existing skill and installed a malicious one to grab more data after the initial attack.

"Virtual assistants are something that you just talk to and answer, and usually you don’t have in your mind some kind of malicious scenarios or concerns," says Oded Vanunu, Check Point's head of product vulnerability research. "But we found a chain of vulnerabilities in Alexa's infrastructure configuration that eventually allows a malicious attacker to gather information about users and even install new skills."

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

NASA official may face criminal investigation for contact with Boeing

Ars Technica - 15 hours 44 min ago

Enlarge / Doug Loverro, formerly NASA's chief of human spaceflight. (credit: NASA)

The US Attorney's Office for the District of Columbia has opened a criminal investigation of a former top NASA official, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

The grand jury investigation concerns communications between Doug Loverro, then the chief of human spaceflight for NASA, and Jim Chilton, senior vice president of Boeing's space and launch division. These discussions occurred early this year, during a blackout period when NASA was taking bids to construct a Human Landing System for the Artemis Moon Program. It is not permissible to interfere with a competition for government contracts.

"Mr. Loverro, who wasn’t part of NASA’s official contracting staff, informed Mr.Chilton that the Chicago aerospace giant was about to be eliminated from the competition based on cost and technical evaluations," the report states, citing unidentified sources. "Within days, Boeing submitted a revised proposal."

Read 6 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Charter can charge online video sites for network connections, court rules

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 9:22pm

Enlarge / A Charter Spectrum van in West Lake Hills, Texas, in April 2019. (credit: Tony Webster / Flickr)

Charter can charge Netflix and other online video streaming services for network interconnection despite a merger condition prohibiting the practice, a federal appeals court ruled today.

The ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturns two merger conditions that the Obama administration imposed on Charter when it bought Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks in 2016. The FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai did not defend the merits of the merger conditions in court, paving the way for today's ruling. The case was decided in a 2-1 vote by a panel of three DC Circuit judges.

The lawsuit against the FCC seeking to overturn Charter merger conditions was filed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a free-market think tank, and four Charter users who claim they were harmed by the conditions. The FCC unsuccessfully challenged the suing parties' standing to sue, and it did not mount a legal defense of the conditions themselves.

Read 15 remaining paragraphs | Comments

FDA finds new toxic hand-sanitizer ingredient, expands warning to 157 products

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 8:35pm

Enlarge / Check to make sure your sanitizer is safe. (credit: Getty | Omar Torres)

The US Food and Drug Administration is yet again expanding its warnings of toxic hand sanitizers—this time, not just after finding additional dangerous products; the FDA also found an additional toxic ingredient.

The FDA this week announced that it has identified hand sanitizers that contain 1-propanol, a toxic form of alcohol not yet seen in contaminated products. If ingested, it can cause confusion, unconsciousness, slowed pulse and breathing, and even death.

The ever-growing “do-not-use” list of dangerous hand sanitizers now includes 157 products. You can see the entire list of dangerous products here on the FDA’s website. Below is a sampling of some labels of the dangerous products.

Read 8 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Trump admin. finally kills off Obama-era rule limiting methane emissions

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 7:44pm

Enlarge / A natural gas flare from an offshore oil drilling rig in Cook Inlet, Alaska. (credit: Paul Souders | Getty Images)

The Environmental Protection Agency this week finalized a rule that kills off Obama-era limitations on how much methane, a potent greenhouse gas, oil and natural gas producers are allowed to emit into the atmosphere—even though industry leaders didn't want the changes.

The changes to the rules, known as the New Source Performance Standards (NSPS), remove some segments of the industry from being covered under the existing standards at all, and these changes also lift the methane caps on other segments, the EPA announced on Thursday.

The oil and gas industry basically splits into three big buckets of activity: upstream, meaning the actual drilling for oil or gas; midstream, which is the world of storage and pipelines; and downstream, that last mile where products are refined and sold. The current changes apply to the downstream and midstream segments, as the EPA broke down in a graphic (PDF).

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. takes final bow with high-octane journey through time

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 7:08pm

One last mission: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ended its seven-year run with a two-part finale.

Agent Phil Coulson and his plucky team of superheroes battled an alien race of Chronicoms in a high-octane journey through multiple time periods in the seventh and final season of ABC's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. It has always been a fun show, even when the narrative occasionally went bonkers—honestly, especially then—with compelling characters that kept you coming back each week. The seventh and final season brought a pronounced sense of playfulness to the show's pre-existing strengths, effectively saving its best season for last and tying everything together in a satisfying two-part finale.

(Some spoilers below, but no major plot twists.)

The spin-off series created by The Avengers writer and Director Joss Whedon brought Coulson (Clark Gregg) back from the dead to lead an elite squad of agents to take on the terrorist group Hydra, eventually incorporating a superhuman race called Inhumans into the storyline.

Read 13 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Ripped chemical bags added to risk of Beirut blast

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 6:05pm

Enlarge / A view of the Port of Beirut on August 13 after a fire at a warehouse with explosives led to massive blasts on August 4. (credit: Aysu Bicer/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Lebanese officials knew that more than half the bags of a 2,750-ton stockpile of ammonium nitrate that caused a deadly explosion in Beirut were damaged six years ago but took no action to dispose of the chemical.

A 2014 inspection report by Beirut port authorities, seen by the Financial Times, labels the chemical as “explosives” and said that 1,950 of the 2,750 one-tonne bags filled with the chemical were “torn." Photos of the stockpile taken the following year, also seen by the FT, show the huge sacks appearing to be stacked haphazardly on top of each other and ammonium nitrate spilling from large rips in the industrial bags.

The evidence will increase concerns that negligence and poor management were the root cause of the blast at the port, which killed more than 170 people and devastated the capital. Prime Minister Hassan Diab blamed “political corruption” for the tragedy as he resigned on Monday.

Read 28 remaining paragraphs | Comments

SpaceX Starlink speeds revealed as beta users get downloads of 11 to 60Mbps

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 6:00pm

Enlarge / A SpaceX Starlink user terminal/satellite dish. (credit: SpaceX)

Beta users of SpaceX's Starlink satellite-broadband service are getting download speeds ranging from 11Mbps to 60Mbps, according to tests conducted using Ookla's speedtest.net tool. Speed tests showed upload speeds ranging from 5Mbps to 18Mbps.

The same tests, conducted over the past two weeks, showed latencies or ping rates ranging from 31ms to 94ms. This isn't a comprehensive study of Starlink speeds and latency, so it's not clear whether this is what Internet users should expect once Starlink satellites are fully deployed and the service reaches commercial availability. We asked SpaceX several questions about the speed-test results yesterday and will update this article if we get answers.

Links to 11 anonymized speed tests by Starlink users were posted by a Reddit user yesterday. Another Reddit user compiled some of the tests to make this graphic:

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Epic’s battle for “open platforms” ignores consoles’ massive closed market

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 5:43pm

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

Yesterday, Epic used Fortnite to essentially wage open war against Apple's and Google's mobile app marketplaces. First it added a discounted "Epic Direct Payment" option alongside the standard iOS App Store and Google Play payment options in Fortnite, in direct violation of those stores' policies.

Then, when Fortnite was predictably removed from both platforms, Epic filed lawsuits against both companies, alleging "anti-competitive restraints and monopolistic practices" in the mobile app marketplace. That move came alongside a heavy-handed PR blitz, including a video asking players to "join the fight to stop 2020 from becoming '1984.'"

But through this entire public fight for "open mobile platforms," as Epic puts it, there is one major set of closed platforms that the company seems happy to continue doing business with. We're speaking, of course, about video game consoles.

Read 22 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Tesla research partnership progresses on new battery chemistry

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 4:45pm

Enlarge / Here's what the lithium deposited at the anode looks like under a scanning electron microscope. Full charge in top row, depleted charge in bottom row. (credit: Louli et al./Nature Energy)

Electric vehicles have come a long way in terms of going a long way on a charge. But everyone is still seeking the next big jump in battery technology—a battery with significantly higher energy density would mean more range or lower costs to hit the current range. There is always some room for incremental progress on current lithium-ion battery technology, but there is a lithium holy grail that has remained out of reach for decades: ditching its graphite anode to shrink the cell.

A lithium metal battery would simply use solid lithium as the anode instead of requiring a graphite framework for lithium atoms to tuck into as the battery charges. The problem is that the lithium doesn't form an order surface during recharging, so the battery capacity drops drastically—declining to 80 percent within 20 charge cycles in some configurations. Rogue lithium also tends to build up dangerous, branching, needle-like structures that can pierce the separator between the anode and cathode and short-circuit the cell.

Last year, a Dalhousie University lab group with ties to Tesla developed a lithium metal battery with somewhat better performance. Lithium atoms electroplate onto a copper electrode as the battery charges and then move back into a conventional lithium-nickel-manganese-cobalt cathode as charge depletes. Through a new electrolyte, they were able to get this battery to last about 90 cycles before hitting 80 percent capacity to control the nasty short-circuit problem.

Read 8 remaining paragraphs | Comments

People slept on comfy grass beds 200,000 years ago

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 3:56pm

Enlarge

Fragments of glassy petrified grass and microscopic traces of plant material, dating to around 200,000 years ago, are all that’s left of a Paleolithic hunter-gatherer’s bed in the back of Border Cave. In the same part of the rock shelter, archaeologists found layers of ash with more recent (as in only around 43,000 years old) and better-preserved leaves of dried grass laid on top, as if people had burned their old, dirty bedding and then laid fresh, clean sheaves of grass over the ashes—the rock shelter version of changing the sheets.

The finds shed light on an aspect of early human life that we rarely get to consider. Most of the artifacts that survive from more than a few thousand years ago are made of stone and bone; even wooden tools are rare. That means we tend to think of the Paleolithic in terms of hard, sharp stone tools and the bones of butchered animals. Through that lens, life looks very harsh—perhaps even harsher than it really was. Most of the human experience is missing from the archaeological record, including creature comforts like soft, clean beds.

Beds were burning

Until now, the oldest bedding archaeologists had ever found came from another South African site called Sibudu, where people 77,000 years ago had piled up layers of grasslike wetland plants called sedge, mixed with assorted medicinal plants, and occasionally burned the old layers. Some modern people in parts of Africa also use plants as bedding in similar ways. The Border Cave find shows that people have been making comfy sleeping pallets out of grass for at least 200,000 years—nearly as long as there have been Homo sapiens in the world.

Read 7 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Disney+ will show a Lego Star Wars Holiday Special on Wookiee Life Day

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 3:41pm

Enlarge (credit: Kristina Alexanderson)

Do you have celebration plans for Wookiee Life Day? According to Disney, it's the galaxy's "most cheerful and magical holiday," so on November 17, the company will celebrate the event on Disney+ with a Lego Star Wars Holiday Special. Set immediately after The Rise of Skywalker, Rey and BB-8 go on a journey through the nine-film timeline that promises to give screen time to goodies and baddies current and past. Except it's all done in Lego, so painted tongues will be firmly in plastic cheeks.

I've been a huge fan of the more irreverent take that Lego brings to the Star Wars universe since the cut scenes in Lego Star Wars II—whose heart wouldn't melt when Darth Vader whips out a Polaroid to prove to Luke that he's really his dad? And the more recent Lego Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures stands head and shoulders above Star Wars Resistance, at least to this middle-aged nerd.

All of this gives me faith that this new special won't suck. The original Star Wars Holiday Special is widely reviled by fans as the single worst thing to have come from that far, far away galaxy. It was a TV special aired in 1978, long before George Lucas' swashbuckling in space had become the cultural behemoth we know today. The plot involves Han and Chewie visiting Kashyyyk to celebrate Life Day, where apparently they meet his dad (called Itchy) and his son (called Lumpy). I say "apparently" because it never aired in the UK where I grew up, so I was mercifully spared as a child and I've never quite had a big enough masochistic streak to track down a copy in the decades that have followed.

Read 1 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Spooky action at a distance: The future magic of remote collaboration

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 2:00pm

Enlarge

The global pandemic and the corporate office shutdowns resulting from it have wrought changes to how work works. While essential people in certain industries have continued their jobs in ways that are relatively familiar under layers upon layers of personal protective equipment, many companies have had to find ways to continue other work at a “social” distance. And in those situations, employees must find ways to continue collaborating as they did when they were packed into cubicles, open floor plans, and all the other various patterns of modern office spaces.

Workplace changes due to COVID-19 won’t go away anytime soon. Tech companies like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft have pushed back the return of employees to offices until well into 2021, and Twitter has declared that employees need never return to the corporate office. Companies in other industries are making the same sorts of calculations, while employees are rethinking not just how they work but even where they live.

All of this hinges on the evolution of tools that make this remote way of work possible. For some of us—well, like everyone who’s worked for Ars, for instance—that isn’t anything new. As I’ve noted previously, I’ve been working primarily from home for over 25 years, and being an early adopter of every technology that could reduce the remoteness of being remote means I’ve lived through the teething pains of collaboration software and distributed teams.

Read 23 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Appeals court ruling for Qualcomm “a victory of theory over facts”

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 1:52pm

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty Images)

A federal appeals court has tossed out a lower court ruling that Qualcomm abused its dominance of the modem chip market to force customers to pay inflated royalties for its patent portfolio. The appeals court forcefully rejected Judge Lucy Koh's 2019 analysis of Qualcomm's business practices and held that Qualcomm's behavior was merely "hypercompetitive," not anticompetitive.

The two rulings could not have been more different. In last year's 233-page ruling, Judge Koh explained Qualcomm's business practices in so much detail that it took us more than 3,500 words just to summarize her findings. This week's ruling by the Ninth Circuit Appeals Court was shorter—56 pages—and more theoretical.

The appeals court acknowledged that "from 2006 to 2016, Qualcomm possessed monopoly power in the CDMA modem chip market, including over 90% of market share." However, the court found that the Federal Trade Commission—which brought the lawsuit against Qualcomm—had failed to prove that Qualcomm had abused that power. The court reasoned that Qualcomm's licensing practices were simply designed to maximize the company's revenue—and that in itself isn't illegal.

Read 41 remaining paragraphs | Comments

A cuddly pet robot with ‘emotions’ and other tech news

BBC Technology News - August 14, 2020 - 1:26pm
BBC Click’s Paul Carter looks at some of the best technology news stories of the week.

Just Eat to stop using gig economy workers

BBC Technology News - August 14, 2020 - 12:22pm
Boss Jitse Groen says he would rather have staff who get benefits and more workplace protection.

Rocket Report: SpaceX’s South Texas resort, the Air Force makes its picks

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 12:00pm

Enlarge / The Space Launch System rocket core stage is shown installed on the top-left side of the B-2 Test Stand at NASA’s Stennis Space Center. (credit: NASA)

Welcome to Edition 3.12 of the Rocket Report! We have plenty of serious news this week about rockets big and small. But our best story is a fun one, all the way from the Atlai Mountains in Siberia where SpaceX founder Elon Musk has a big fan in the clergy, apparently.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Mike Griffin joins the board of Rocket Lab. Who had NASA's former chief joining the board of directors at Rocket Lab on their 2020 bingo card? Not us. But on Wednesday, the company announced it added Griffin to its board, joining company founder Peter Beck and three investors: Sven Strohband of Khosla Ventures, David Cowan of Bessemer Venture Partners, and Matt Ocko of DCVC. The announcement came a little more than a month after Griffin resigned from his position as undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, SpaceNews reports.

Read 26 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Astronomers kill all the fun, blame dust for Betelgeuse’s dimming

Ars Technica - August 14, 2020 - 11:45am

Enlarge / This image is a colour composite made from exposures from the Digitized Sky Survey 2 (DSS2). It shows the area around the red supergiant star Betelgeuse. (credit: ESO/Digitized Sky Survey 2/Davide De Martin.)

Betelgeuse is one of the closest massive stars to Earth. It's also an old star, and it has reached the stage when it glows a dull red and expands, with the hot core only having a tenuous gravitational grip on its outer layers. This combination means that we're actually able to resolve different areas on the star's surface, despite the fact that it resides over 700 light years away.

That ability came in handy late last year when Betelgeuse did something unusual: it dimmed so much that the difference was visible to the naked eye. Telescopes pointed at the giant were able to determine that—rather than a tidy, uniform drop in luminance—Betelgeuse's dimming was unevenly distributed, giving the star an odd, squished shape when viewed from Earth. That raised lots of questions about what was going on with the giant, with some experts speculating that, because of Betelgeuse's size and advanced age, the strange behavior was a sign of a supernova in the making.

Now, an international team of observers is here to throw cold water on the possible explosion. Said researchers were lucky to have the Hubble pointed at Betelgeuse before, during, and after the dimming event. Combined with some timely ground observations, this data indicates a rather mundane reason for the star getting darker: a big burp that formed a cloud of dust near the star.

Read 9 remaining paragraphs | Comments

Fortnite: Epic Games sues Google and Apple over app store bans

BBC Technology News - August 14, 2020 - 11:14am
Apple and Google removed the hit game from their app stores after it bypassed their payment systems.

Amazon launches online pharmacy in India

BBC Technology News - August 14, 2020 - 5:48am
The internet retail giant's move comes as US tech firms are investing billions of dollars in India.

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