Here is a quick round-up of this week’s technology headlines and related stories you may have missed:
Trump’s Latest Move Against Huawei: In an executive order, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency over threats to American technology. The order gives the Commerce Department and other federal agencies broad authority to block transactions within the United States involving information or communication technology that “poses an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States.” The Commerce Department also added Huawei and its affiliates to the Bureau of Industry Security Entity List which means that U.S. companies cannot sell or transfer technology to Huawei without special licenses. It is unclear how the government plans to grant such licenses, and which products are covered by the executive order. This is potentially the more damaging of the two moves, described by some as a “trade equivalent of a nuclear bomb,” since it could prevent essential suppliers, including Qualcomm, Intel, and Broadcom from selling products to Huawei, thus disrupting its smartphones and mobile networks worldwide.
Simple. Secure. Reliable Messaging: Earlier this month, Facebook discovered that its messaging service WhatsApp was hacked by the Israeli spy firm, the NSO Group. An existing buffer-overflow vulnerability in WhatsApp allowed the malicious code, known as Pegasus, to be inserted into targets’ phones simply by calling the app’s phone call function. The targets did not need to answer the call to be hacked, and the malware gave the NSO Group access to the location data and private messages. It is unknown how many of the WhatsApp’s 1.5 billion users were affected by the attack, but human rights groups such as Amnesty International were targeted. Facebook has since rolled out an update to fix the vulnerability, but the company has been criticized for the lack of transparency around the incident.
San Francisco Takes Stand Against Facial Recognition: San Francisco has become the first major U.S. city to block the use of facial recognition software by police and local government agencies. The ban does not apply to businesses, individuals, or federal agencies. The move has been praised by civil liberties advocates who argue the tool gives the government unprecedented surveillance power, and are wary of what they see as the software’s inherent racial and gender biases. Critics of the ban argue that an outright ban denies the city a useful technology for public safety. Similar restrictions of facial recognition are under consideration in Oakland and Massachusetts, but the technology continues to be used by police departments in numerous cities, including New York, Boston, and Las Vegas, as well as by federal agencies.
The United States Passes on Christchurch Call: On Wednesday, heads of states and leaders of tech companies met in Paris to discuss a pact to combat online extremism. The gathering, led by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden and France’s President Emmanuel Macron, asks states and private corporations to implement changes to prevent terrorist content online, including ensuring such content is quickly removed and preventing the livestreaming of terrorist attacks. While the “Christchurch Call” has been signed by the United Kingdom, Germany, India, Australia, and others, the United States will not take part in the effort. The White House statement suggested First Amendment concerns were preventing the United States from joining the agreement, and in a following tweet the White House urged those who feel censored due to “political bias” to share their experiences. In a New York Times op-ed, Prime Minister Arden stressed the pact does not undermine freedom of speech, and it only attempts to provide principles on how the tech companies should operate. The Christchurch Call is not binding and does not penalize platforms that do not comply.
New Era of Tech Antitrust Action?: The Supreme Court allowed an antitrust class action against Apple to move forward. The class action concerns the 30 percent commission Apple charges developers who sell their products on the Apple Store. Consumers and app developers argue this fee increases the price of apps and stifles competition. Apple argued that as consumers buy the apps from third-party developers and have no direct purchasing relationship with Apple, there is no standing to seek action against the company; however the Supreme Court rejected this argument, finding “[i]t is undisputed that the iPhone owners bought the apps directly from Apple.” The case will go back to the district court and is expected to take years to litigate, but it is expected to have long term consequences for antitrust action against online platform marketplaces, including Google and Amazon.