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US-backed OTF Said to Provide Funding to Help Russians Bypass Censorship With Free VPN Access

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A US-backed campaign is giving Russians access to anti-censor software to dodge Moscow’s crackdown on dissent against its invasion of Ukraine, involved groups told AFP.

Russia has intensified its restrictions on independent media since attacking its neighbor in February, with journalists under threat of prosecution for criticising the invasion or for even referring to it as a war.

The US government-backed Open Technology Fund is paying out money to a handful of American firms providing virtual private networks (VPNs) free of charge to millions of Russians, who can then use them to visit websites blocked by censors.

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Traditional VPN software creates what is effectively a private tunnel on the internet for data, typically encrypted, to flow safeguarded from snooping — and their use has boomed in Russia since the invasion.

“Our tool is primarily used by people trying to access independent media, so that funding by the OTF has been absolutely critical,” said a spokesman for Lantern, one of the involved companies.

Tech firms Psiphon and nthLink have also been providing sophisticated anti-censorship applications to people in Russia, with OTF estimating that some four million users in Russia have received VPNs from the firms.

Psiphon saw a massive surge in Russian users, with the number soaring from about 48,000 a day prior to the February 24 invasion to more than a million a day by mid-March, said a company senior advisor Dirk Rodenburg.

The firm’s tools in Russian now average nearly 1.5 million users daily, he added.

While some, like Ukraine’s leadership, have called for Russia to be cut off from the internet, others have noted access is key for opposition groups.

“It’s so very important for Russians to be connected to the whole world wide web, to keep resistance going,” said Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel at rights group Access Now, which is not involved in the OTF effort.

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“All kinds of initiatives are happening and to keep them alive you need the internet because you can’t gather in person, or because activists are scattered around the world,” she added.

Keeping VPNs running and accessible was relatively straightforward in the early days of the war, said Lucas, the spokesman for Lantern, who spoke on condition that only his first name be used.

“They weren’t ready to block anything,” Lucas said. “Over time, Russia learned how to block the easy stuff but Lantern and Psiphon are still up and running.”

Lesson from China, Myanmar

Censors try to cut VPN software off from servers they rely on to function or stop people from getting to websites where the tools can be downloaded.

As a result, crackdowns on internet freedom typically result in people sharing VPNs through guerrilla tactics such as word-of-mouth.

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However, groups like Lantern have adopted methods like hiding VPN installers in online platforms too vital for the government to block, and building a network so users can share the technology with others, Lucas said.

“Lantern and Psiphon are different in that we do all sorts of much more sophisticated stuff to hide our traffic and get around our servers being detected,” he said.

People in Russia are benefitting from the VPN makers honing their tools while battling censorship in countries such as China and Myanmar.

“There was a moment about two years ago when China really upped the level of their game, when it came to the lengths they were going to block stuff,” Lucas said.

“We raised the level of our game a whole lot,” he added.

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US government funding provided through OTF has been important to the operations since costs jumped and revenue vanished for VPN makers in Russia, as sanctions kicked in and companies pulled out of the country.

OTF said it typically spends $3-4 million (roughly Rs. 24–32 crores) annually funding VPNs, but that figure was ramped up due to censorship in Russia.

Psiphon has been receiving US government funding for more than 14 years, with the money generally going to improve tools to counter new tactics used by authoritarian regimes, the company told AFP.

Despite the efforts to get VPN technology to those who want it, many people still don’t have access.

“The use of virtual private networks and other methods have increased significantly in Russia, but it still only represents a small percentage of the population,” Krapiva, from Access Now, told AFP.

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Best Buy Trims Jobs After It Cuts Sales and Profit Forecast Citing Surging Inflation

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Best Buy, the nation’s largest consumer electronics chain, is trimming jobs in an effort to adjust to new changes in consumer behaviour as the virus wanes.

Best Buy declined to say how many jobs it was cutting, but The Wall Street Journal, which was first to report the news, estimated it involved hundreds of jobs at the store level.

“We’re always evaluating and evolving our teams to make sure we’re serving our customers,” Best Buy said in a statement emailed to The Associated Press. ‘With an ever-changing macroeconomic environment, including customers shopping more digitally than ever, we have made adjustments to our teams that include eliminating a small number of roles.”

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The job cuts come after Best Buy reduced its annual sales and profit forecast late last month, citing surging inflation that has dampened consumer spending on gadgets. The Minneapolis-based company echoed Walmart, which a few days before cut its profit outlook. The nation’s largest retailer said that higher prices on basic necessities are forcing shoppers to cut back on discretionary items .

Walmart also announced earlier this month that it was cutting jobs at its corporate headquarters as part of a restructuring effort.

Still, the latest snapshot on the overall US job market remains strong even as inflation continues to rage and affect all types of businesses. Last week, the government reported that unemployment dropped another notch, from 3.6 percent to 3.5 percent, matching the more than 50-year low reached just before the pandemic took hold. The economy has now gained back all 22 million jobs lost in March and April 2020 when COVID-19 hit the US.

Best Buy said last month it now expects this year’s sales at stores opened at least a year to be down 11 percent, much steeper than the 3 percent to 6 percent drop it originally forecast in May.

For Best Buy’s fiscal second quarter, it expects comparable sales to be down 13 percent. Still, revenue for the quarter should be roughly 7.5 percent higher than the second quarter of 2020, it said.

Best Buy is slated to report its quarterly results on August 30.


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US Regulator to Investigate Deaths of Amazon Workers in New Jersey: Details

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Federal work-safety investigators are looking into the death of an Amazon worker and an injury that potentially led to the death of another employee, adding to a probe already underway following a third fatality during the company’s annual Prime Day shopping event in mid-July.All three Amazon workers died within the past month and were employed at company facilities in New Jersey.

The new Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) investigations are putting fresh scrutiny on Amazon’s injury rates and workplace-safety procedures, which have long been criticized by labor and safety advocates as inadequate.

Department of Labor spokesperson Denisha Braxton confirmed Thursday that the most-recent fatality took place last week at an Amazon facility in Monroe Township, about 20 miles (35 kilometers) northeast of Trenton. The second probe is looking into a July 24 accident at an Amazon facility in Robbinsville. The worker involved in that accident died three days later, according to Braxton.

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In a statement, Robbinsville Police Chief Michael Polaski said police responded to the warehouse, called PNE5, on July 24 after receiving a report that a worker fell from a three-foot (one-meter) ladder and struck his head.

Polaski said the worker was conscious and alert when police arrived. But police were told CPR was conducted on the person by other workers prior to their arrival, he said. The person was transported to a hospital and OSHA was notified of the incident on the same day, he added.

Police in Monroe Township didn’t immediately reply for a request for comment on the incident there.

The two most recent deaths were first reported by the USA Today Network.

OSHA officials declined to provide additional information about any of the deaths, citing the open investigations. The agency has up to six month to complete each probe.

Sam Stephenson, a spokesperson for Seattle-based Amazon, said in a statement the company was “deeply saddened by the passing of our colleagues and offer our condolences to their family and friends.”

“Our investigations are ongoing and we’re cooperating with OSHA, which is conducting its own reviews of the events, as it often does in these situations,” Stephenson said.

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Last month, OSHA launched another investigation into a worker fatality at an Amazon warehouse in the New Jersey town of Carteret during the company’s Prime Day shopping event, which turned out to be the biggest in the company’s history. Federal officials haven’t released additional details about the death, but news reports have identified the worker as 42-year-old Rafael Reynaldo Mota Frias.

A spokesperson for Amazon said the company’s internal investigation into the Carteret death shows it “was not a work-related incident, and instead was related to a personal medical condition.”

“OSHA is currently investigating the incident, and, based upon the evidence currently available to us, we fully expect that it will reach the same conclusion,” the spokesperson said.

News of the deaths comes amid broader scrutiny into the company’s operations. In late July, OSHA officials inspected Amazon facilities in New York, Illinois and Florida after receiving referrals alleging health and safety violations from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. The civil division of the U.S. attorney’s office is also investigating safety hazards at Amazon warehouses and “fraudulent conduct designed to hide injuries from OSHA and others,” according to a spokesperson for the office.


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US FTC Considering New Rules to Rein in Tech Firms' Collection of Personal Data, Protect Privacy

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Whether it’s the fitness tracker on your wrist, the “smart” home appliances in your house or the latest kids’ fad going viral in online videos, they all produce a trove of personal data for big tech companies.

How that data is being used and protected has led to growing public concern and officials’ outrage. And now federal regulators are looking at drafting rules to crack down on what they call harmful commercial surveillance and lax data security.

The Federal Trade Commission announced the initiative Thursday, seeking public comment on the effects of companies’ data collection and the potential benefit of new rules to protect consumers’ privacy.

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The FTC defines commercial surveillance as “the business of collecting, analyzing and profiting from information about people.”

In Congress, bipartisan condemnation of the data power of Meta — the parent of Facebook and Instagram — Google and other tech giants that have earned riches by aggregating consumer information used by online advertisers, has brought national data privacy legislation to its closest point ever to passage.

Around the country, parents’ concern has deepened over the impact of social media on children. Frances Haugen, a former Facebook data scientist, stunned Congress and the public last fall when she exposed internal company research showing apparent serious harm to some teens from Instagram. Those revelations were followed by senators grilling executives from YouTube, TikTok and Snapchat about what they’re doing to ensure young users’ safety in the wake of suicides and other harms to teens attributed by their parents to their usage of the platforms.

As concerns rise, social media platforms from Snapchat to TikTok to Instagram are adding new features they say will make their services safer and more age appropriate. But the changes rarely address the algorithms pushing endless content that can drag anyone, not just teens, into harmful rabbit holes.

The Democratic members of the FTC said Thursday it’s imperative for Congress to pass a new law, but that the agency was taking action in the meantime by issuing the notice of proposed rules.

“Mass surveillance has heightened the risks and stakes of data breaches, deception, manipulation and other abuses,” the FTC said.

Agency officials noted that the FTC has brought hundreds of enforcement actions against companies over the last two decades for violations of privacy and data security. They included cases involving the sharing of health-related data with third parties, the collection and sharing of sensitive TV viewing data for targeted advertising, and failure to put in adequate security measures to protect sensitive data such as Social Security numbers.

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However, the officials said, the FTC’s ability to deter illegal conduct is limited because it generally lacks authority to seek financial penalties for initial violations of law. That could change if the comprehensive privacy legislation were to clear Congress.

“Firms now collect personal data on individuals at a massive scale and in a stunning array of contexts,” FTC Chair Lina Khan said in an online news conference. “Our goal today is to begin building a robust public record to inform whether the FTC should issue rules to address commercial surveillance and data security practices, and what those rules should potentially look like.”

“We are very, very eager to hear from the public,” Khan said.

Topics of interest could include how companies use algorithms and automated systems to analyze the information they collect, and the potential effects of various data practices.

Khan, who was an outspoken critic of Big Tech as a law professor, was appointed by President Joe Biden last year to head the FTC — an independent agency that polices competition and consumer protection as well as digital privacy.

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The rulemaking proposal was adopted in a 3-2 vote by the five FTC commissioners. Khan and the other two Democrats voted to issue it, while the two Republicans opposed it.

On Tuesday, Snapchat introduced new parental controls in what it calls the “Family Center” — a tool that lets parents see who their teens are messaging, though not the content of the messages themselves. Both parents and their children have to opt into the service.


How is Alexa faring in India? We discuss this on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.

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