News roundup: Europe's semiconductor dreams, Facebook scraps HK cable plans, & Oppo usurps Huawei as Chinese smartphone leader

A round up of this week's technology news including the EC's plans to take on US & China in the semiconductor race, National Security concerns force Facebook to scrap Hong Kong undersea cable plans, and Huawei begins to lose its grip on the Chinese smartphone market.


Europe to become a semiconductor leader

Over the past few months, there have been numerous reports about a global semiconductor shortage that's slowing down the production of everything from the latest smartphones to brand new cars.

With this issue affecting many parts of the globe, the European Commission this week unveiled a bold goal to manufacture 20 percent of the world's computer chips in Europe over the next decade (as per a BBC report). Last year, this figure stood at 10 percent. This will see the EU take the US and China head-on in an international semiconductor arms race.

Margrethe Vestager, executive vice president of the European Commission, expressed concerns about the bloc's current semiconductor production rate. "We are in a sort of paradoxical situation where Europe is using a lot of these different types of technology, but we're producing little. Yet [chip] production is reliant on machinery produced in Europe. So... there is an interdependency here."

Following this announcement by the EU, American tech giant Apple revealed plans to open a state-of-the-art chip semiconductor facility in the German city of Munich. The European Silicon Design Center, which will focus on 5G and wireless technologies of the future, forms part of a wider $1.2 billion three-year investment by Apple into Germany.

Apple CEO Tim Cook said: "I couldn't be more excited for everything our Munich engineering teams will discover — from exploring the new frontiers of 5G technology, to a new generation of technologies that bring power, speed, and connectivity to the world. Munich has been a home to Apple for four decades, and we're grateful to this community and to Germany for being a part of our journey."

Starling Bank is now a tech unicorn

Starling Bank has become the UK's latest technology unicorn after closing a £272 million funding round that values it at £1.1 billion.

The Series D investment round, led by Fidelity Management & Research Company, will enable the online challenger bank to expand lending in the UK, launch across Europe, and conduct more mergers and acquisitions. Unicorns are private startups with valuations exceeding £1 billion.

Founded five years ago by long-time technology and financial services executive Anne Boden, Starling Bank is a UK-based digital bank that provides personal, business, joint, euro, and current accounts in addition to loans. Last October, the fintech startup finally became profitable when it recorded £800,000 of monthly profit.

Swansea-born founder and CEO Boden said in a statement: "Digital banking has reached a tipping point. Customers now expect a fairer, smarter and more human alternative to the banks of the past and that is what we are giving them at Starling as we continue to grow and add new products and services. "

Boden went on to say that the bank's newest investors "bring a wealth of experience as we enter the next stage of growth" and that the "continued support of our existing backers represents a huge vote of confidence".

Facebook scraps plan for Hong Kong undersea cable

An undersea internet cable from California to Hong Kong will no longer go ahead due to national security concerns raised by US government officials, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.

Facebook has decided to cancel its bid to construct a fibre-optic cable stretching 8,000 miles at the bottom of the sea, following concerns that China could use it to intercept US data.

In a recent filing, Facebook alerted the US Federal Communications Commission of its decision to shelve the undersea cable. It had aimed to connect Hong Kong, Taiwan and two California locations.

The social networking giant originally applied to create the Hong Kong-US data cable in 2018 and planned to work with the telecoms industry on the ambitious project. A large proportion of global data travels between such cables.

Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, a Facebook spokeswoman said: "Due to ongoing concerns from the U.S. government about direct communications links between the United States and Hong Kong, we have decided to withdraw our FCC application. We look forward to working with all the parties to reconfigure the system to meet the concerns of the U.S. government."

5,000 email servers compromised globally

Over 5,000 email servers in 155 countries across the globe have been compromised as a result of several security flaws affecting Microsoft Exchange.

According to research from cybersecurity firm ESET, more than ten advanced persistent threat groups have leveraged these recently discovered zero-day exploits to hack into email servers all over the world.

ESET claims that thousands of servers belonging to businesses and governments have been impacted by several pre-authentication remote code execution flaws in Microsoft Exchange. Microsoft has since patched the exploits.

Matthieu Faou, a malware researcher at ESET, said: "The day after the release of the patches, we started to observe many more threat actors scanning and compromising Exchange servers en masse. Interestingly, all of them are APT groups focused on espionage, except one outlier that seems related to a known coin-mining campaign.

"However, it is inevitable that more and more threat actors, including ransomware operators, will have access to the exploits sooner or later," says Matthieu Faou, who is leading ESET's research effort into the recent Exchange vulnerability chain.

What's particularly concerning is that, according to ESET, APT groups had begun abusing these security slaws ahead of the release of patches from Microsoft. Faou added: "This means we can discard the possibility that those groups built an exploit by reverse engineering Microsoft updates."

Security roundup

  • The US Government is said to be gearing up to launch cyberattacks on Russian networks over the next three weeks, according to the New York Times. The move is in response to the SolarWinds Orion cyber attack, which impacted a range of American federal agencies last year and is believed to have been masterminded by Russia.
  • Microsoft has released a security patch for a critical memory corruption vulnerability affecting Internet Explorer. Microsoft said the CVE-2021-26411 security flaw made it possible for cybercriminals to "host a specially crafted website designed to exploit the vulnerability through Internet Explorer", before encouraging people to access the malicious website. The US tech giant added: "The attacker could also take advantage of compromised websites, or websites that accept or host user-provided content or advertisements, by adding specially crafted content that could exploit the vulnerability." North Korean hackers have already leveraged the flaw to launch attacks on cybersecurity researchers.
  • The European Banking Authority's services are now back up and running after its Microsoft Exchange Servers were recently hacked. The breach was caused by three serious zero-day exploits affecting on-premises Microsoft Exchange servers. A spokesperson for the organisation said: "Thanks to the precautionary measures taken, the EBA has managed to remove the existing threat and its email communication services have, therefore, been restored."
  • Last year, bug bounty hackers made a record-breaking $40 million in earnings after identifying cybersecurity vulnerabilities in software and making the respective companies aware of these flaws using bug bounty platform HackerOne. The organisation said nine people became millionaires after they reported security vulnerabilities to companies on its platform.
  • Hackers took control of 150,000 Verkada surveillance cameras used by schools, hospitals, law enforcement agencies, prisons, and large businesses like Tesla following a data breach. Alarmingly, the hackers were able to access live video feeds at psychiatric hospitals, health clinics, and Verkada's offices. Tillie Kottmann, who has taken credit for the breach, told Bloomberg that they conducted the hack due to "lots of curiosity, fighting for freedom of information and against intellectual property, a huge dose of anti-capitalism, a hint of anarchism -- and it's also just too much fun not to do it."
  • While Apple is planning a massive expansion in Europe, it has come under fire from a new privacy-related complaint in France. The country's startup lobbying organisation, France Digitale, claims that Apple's latest mobile operating system (iOS 14) fails to meet privacy rules in the EU. In iOS 14, Apple requires app developers to ask users whether or not they'd like to opt into tracking for advertising purposes. But France Digitale has accused Apple of failing to obtain clear user consent before conducting targeted advertising and alleges that its default settings enable this to happen. Apple has, however, denied these allegations. The US tech giant said the following in a statement used by Reuters: "The allegations in the complaint are patently false and will be seen for what they are, a poor attempt by those who track users to distract from their own actions and mislead regulators and policymakers."

M&A roundup

This week saw California-based private equity firm Symphony Technology Group purchase cybersecurity giant McAfee's enterprise unit in a $4 billion deal. The acquisition comes as its founder, John McAfee, faces charges of cryptocurrency-related fraud and money laundering in the US. Meanwhile, private equity firm Thoma Bravo has agreed to acquire cloud data integration platform Talend at a price of $2.4 billion.

Panasonic is buying American supply chain specialists Blue Yonder for $6.5 billion, its biggest acquisition in ten years. PayPal will acquire Israeli cryptocurrency firm Curv for an undisclosed sum, although it's thought to be in the region of $200 million and $300 million.

Dropbox has unveiled plans to buy DocSend, a secure document sharing and analytics firm, for $165 million.

Upland Software, headquartered in Texas, US, has acquired multi-channel marketing automation platform BlueVenn for a cash sum of $54.3 million. Accountancy software firm Xero recently announced it would be purchasing employee management service Planday for $219.7 million, which observers say is the largest acquisition made by the firm to date.

New Microsoft Edge future

Looking to make life easier for people who use its Edge web browser, US tech giant Microsoft has revealed a new feature that lets users perform different commands simply by entering them into the address bar.

The new feature, called Edge Pedals, is very similar to Chrome Actions from Google. Its aim is to save Edge users lots of time by no longer having to scroll through different pages just to perform simple actions.

For instance, if you wanted to find the latest version of Edge and install it, you could just write "update browser" in the browser's address bar. Or to delete your browsing data, you'd simply enter a term like "clear browser" in the address bar.

Although this is a very handy feature, it's currently only available for those using Edge Canary Build. Should you wish to try out Edge Pedals, you can find a download for Edge Canary here. But hopefully, Microsoft will roll out Edge Pedals to all users soon.

Oppo is now the biggest Chinese smartphone maker

Oppo is now the most dominant smartphone manufacturer in China for the first time as Huawei loses its grip on the largest phone market in the world, according to recent statistics from Counterpoint Research.

In January, Oppo had a 21% share of the Chinese smartphone market. Huawei and Vivo came in joint second place with market shares of 20% each. Meanwhile, Apple and Xiaomi both held 16% of this market.

Counterpoint claims that Oppo saw sales growth of 33 percent month-on-month and 26 percent year-on-year at the start of 2021, owing mainly to the launch of the new Reno 5 lineup.

Varun Mishra, a senior analyst at Counterpoint Research, said: "OPPO has been successfully able to reposition its product lines in 2020. The rebranding of the Reno series and launching a more capable device at a lower price point than its predecessor helped OPPO capture the affordable premium segment.

"The strong momentum of the A series in the mid segment strengthened the product portfolio for OPPO and it was able to cater to the 5G demand in China across a wide price band. This was further helped by the decline of Huawei."

With Huawei facing declining sales amid national security fears raised by multiple countries across the world, alternative Chinese brands like Oppo will likely continue to steal more market share in the foreseeable future.

Counterpoint Research noted: "Huawei's declining trend will continue in 2021, with other OEMs gaining share from the gap created by its decline."