News roundup: Facebook’s looming D-Day, another Huawei scandal, and a fiery end to SpaceX’s Mars-bound rocket

A round up of this week's technology news including a huge antitrust battle for Facebook, a trio of exciting tech IPOs, and a new COVID-tracking app for California.


Facebook hit with massive antitrust lawsuits

In what has been an incredibly tumultuous week for Facebook, the United States has launched two huge antitrust lawsuits against the social media giant, calling for the company to be broken up over allegations it has used its dominant position to quash competitors. The suits have been described as having set the stage for what might be the biggest legal battles against a US company in decades.

The first of the two suits is being led by Letitia James, New York’s attorney general, who has garnered the support of 47 of her state AG counterparts in rallying against the tech giant. As part of the suit, James has accused the social network of abusing its “dominance and monopoly power to crush smaller rivals, snuff out competition, all at the expense of everyday users.” She said she would not rest until the courts ordered Facebook to sell off WhatsApp and Instagram.

It’s funny she mentions that, because that’s exactly the overarching goal of lawsuit number 2, which has been filed against Facebook by the Federal Trade Commission. In the FTC’s complaint, it accuses the company of operating a “systematic strategy to eliminate threats to its monopoly,” while leveling blame at Mark Zuckerberg for using the sale of Instagram as a means to “neutralise a competitor”.

The real smoking gun provided as part of the FTC’s suit is a series of emails from Zuckerberg where he discusses the acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp in what appears to be an anti-competitive tone. In one such email, he offers justification for the Instagram buy as a way to “buy time” so that it could “integrate their dynamics before anyone can get close to their scale again.”

“Within that time, if we incorporate the social mechanics they were using, those new products won’t get much traction since we’ll already have their mechanics deployed at scale,” Zuckerberg explained.

While the court case could stretch on for years before a conclusion is met and some experts see it as unlikely that the company will be broken up, it marks the biggest threat to the social giant's empire yet. In other words, the company certainly has a fight on its hands.

Slack and Salesforce execs talk about the big acquisition

As the M&A arena continues to recover from Salesforce’s mammoth US$27.7 billion buy of Slack last week, the chief executives of the respective companies have shed some light on why they see the acquisition as mutually beneficial.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield said he sees a natural connection between the two firms, with Slack offering to alleviate the communicative friction that occurs in complex enterprise software platforms like Salesforce by putting Slack at the centre of the equation. For instance, TechCrunch writes, instead of moving stuff through email, clicking a link, opening a browser, signing in and then finally accessing the tool you want, the approval could be built into a single Slack message.

“If you have hundreds of those kinds of actions a day, there’s a real opportunity to increase the velocity, and that has an impact, and not just in the minutes saved by the person doing the approval, but the speed of how the whole business operates,” Butterfield said.

Butterfield also described the Microsoft competition narrative as overblown, commenting, “I don’t think that was really an important part of the rationale, at least for me… the competition with Microsoft is overblown. The challenge for us was the narrative. They’re just good (at) PR or something that I couldn’t figure out,” he said.

Meanwhile, Salesforce president and COO Bret Taylor says Slack works to bring together a more unified product offering for customers. He says it offers Salesforce a missing communication layer, positioning it as a “next generation interface for Customer 360”.

“...we’re pulling together all these systems. How do you rally your teams around these systems in this digital work-anywhere world that we’re in right now where these teams are distributed and collaboration is more important than ever,” he said.

Report reveals Huawei tested facial recognition tech that highlighted Uighur Muslims

Huawei has once again been put under the microscope this week after a report from surveillance firm IPVM revealed it had developed and tested facial recognition tech that could recognise and highlight members of the Uighur Muslim population in China.

The report, which cites publicly sourced documentation, says Huawei worked with AI firm Megvii to produce the tech, which featured a “Uyghur Alarm,” designed to identify members of the oppressed group. This tracks with previous efforts from China to use facial recognition tech to oppress Uighurs, which it has done in a range of different ways.

Huawei says that the tech was used simply as a test and has not seen real-world application. It says it only provides “general-purpose” products for this kind of testing, as opposed to “custom algorithms or applications."

Intel and Nvidia have also been caught up in a similar storm this week, with two US regulators sending the two companies letters asking about their sale of chips allegedly used by China to carry out mass surveillance on Uighurs. While Nvidia didn’t respond, Intel said it does not tolerate its products being used to violate human rights, with the company ceasing or restricting business when this becomes apparent to them.

China has faced repeated accusations of racial and religious oppression against its Uighur minority population, with deeply troubling reports of detention camps in the Xinjiang province. China has repeatedly denied this, although satellite imagery has confirmed their existence.

Security roundup

  • Hackers have unlawfully accessed regulatory documents related to the Coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer, in partnership with BioNTech. The attack targeted the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the regulatory body tasked with approving the vaccine in the region, which said it couldn’t provide too many details as an investigation was still ongoing. In a statement, BioNTech said that the EMA informed them that documents related to “Regulatory submission for” the vaccine had been accessed, while assuring that no BioNTech or Pfizer systems had been breached.
  • Electronics giant and key Apple supplier Foxconn has reportedly been hit with a ransomware attack, with hackers swiping unencrypted files before encrypting the company’s devices. According to a report from BleepingComputer, the attack occurred over the Thanksgiving weekend at its CTGB MX facility in Mexico, with hackers subsequently posting Foxconn related files to the web this week.
  • The US National Security Agency (NSA) has warned that Russian state-backed hackers are exploiting a recently patched bug on a set of VMware remote-work platforms. While the bug was disclosed over 2 weeks ago and patched on December 3rd, the NSA says that hasn’t stopped hackers from targeting unpatched systems to install web shells and steal sensitive information. The agency declined to reveal which entities had been targeted in the attacks.
  • The UK’s revenue and customs authority HMRC has been accused of “breath-taking incompetence” following a string of 11 serious data breaches in its most recent financial year. The assessment comes from legal firm Griffin Law, after HMRC reported the incidents to the country’s data regulator, the Information Commissioner's Office (ICO). The breaches impacted 23,173 people, with one incident alone affecting up to 18,864 members of the public, according to Griffin Law’s analysis.
  • Norway has pointed its finger at Russian state-backed military hacking unit APT28 (also known as Fancy Bear) over the attack on its parliament earlier this year. According to a statement from the Norwegian police secret service (PST), an analysis had revealed APT28 breached parliamentary email accounts, in a failed attempt to pivot towards its internal networks. Investigators also acknowledged the parliament's role in the attacks, commenting that the hackers took advantage of weak email passwords without two-factor authentication.
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