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News Roundup: Cuba, Fashion and Coding Presidents

A roundup of the week’s tech news including Facebook Science, Celebrities and Nutella

Russia & Cuba

As one door closes, another opens. Companies’ may be pulling out of Russia due to aggressive legislation and a volatile Rouble, but the road to Cuba may have suddenly become an option.

President Obama announced this week that the US would restore diplomatic ties with Cuba after more than 50 years. This includes US companies being allowed to export communications equipment into a country where online (and even phone) connections are a rarity. “I’ve authorized increased telecommunications connections between the United States and Cuba,” the President announced. “Businesses will be able to sell goods that enable Cubans to communicate with the United States and other countries.” But as PC World pointed out, domestic policy will have to change before we see a rise in mobile & internet use.

NSA

The usual dose of NSA-related headlines

-          Ireland & Georgia are embracing mass surveillance.

-          The GSMA is denying any claims that the NSA has hacked into its systems.

-          Belgacom’s systems were compromised by GCHQ more than previously thought.

-          GCHQ is now scanning emails to detect disgruntled workers, and has also released an app to attract youngsters.

-          Taiwan is propping various mobile manufacturers over breaches of privacy.

-          NSA surveillance is a trade barrier for European internet companies looking to move into the US market, according to one EU official.

-          Germans are more likely to quit online services over privacy concerns than UK or US users.

-          A new report says online surveillance and censorship are getting worse.

-          Julian Assange has written about “Living in a Surveillance Society” for the NYTimes.

-          Google’s Eric Schmidt says the NSA revelations caused the company to spend a lot of money locking down and encrypting its internal systems. 

-          Lots of Ed Snowden news lately: He was reportedly part of a seduction plot involving a Russian Spy.

-          He thinks Amazon is “morally irresponsible.”

-          He won a Human Rights award in Berlin, but isn’t allowed to visit Germany to testify in parliament.

Microsoft is continuing its battle with the US over servers it has residing in Ireland. It questioned what would happen if the scenario was reversed. "How can it complain if foreign agents require tech companies to download e-mails stored in the US? This is a question the Department of Justice hasn’t yet addressed, much less answered." Companies backing Microsoft’s fight include Apple, AT&T, Cisco, and Verizon, possibly worried what might happen to their own data should the Richmond-based company lose.

Facebook Science

Facebook’s now infamous newsfeed/mood manipulation experiment may have not gone down well with the media or public at large, but it was certainly popular. The social network’s “Experimental evidence of massive-scale emotional contagion through social networks” paper was the most shared piece of scientific research in 2014.

In other Facebook news, Mark Zuckerberg may be “thinking about” adding a Dislike button. “There’s something that’s just so simple about the ‘Like’ button’ ... but giving people more ways of expressing more emotions would be powerful,” Mr. Facebook said. He also hinted it’s unlikely, but has thought about how to add “a broader range of emotions.” Obviously the mere potential of a Dislike button caused a big stir online – mostly about how it’d be a terrible idea.

While Dislike may or may not end up part of the Facebook vocabulary, “User” will not. “We don’t use the term user at Facebook,” said Margaret Gould Stewart, the company’s Product Design Director. “We kind of stopped using it because we want to call them people, so we actually have kind of banished the term. All of our dashboards, instead of saying ‘daily average users,’ say ‘daily average people.’”

Elsewhere in the world of Social Media, Bebo is back! Little has been heard from the company since it was bought back by the original founders for a fraction of the price they sold it for, but the social network has relaunched as a chat app with cartoon avatars. The new Bebo includes a drawing game, a Flappy Bird clone, and illustrations for Hashtags. It’s “Probably not for boring people” apparently.

A new bit of research has found we don’t half like using social networks to complain. VB Insights found people complain about brands 879 million times a year on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks – 10% of people complain every day. Usually it seems people are taking to social networks to complain about social networks, which seems strange.

Fashion Watches, Jeans and Cardboard

Watch maker TAG Heuer is none-too-keen on the smartwatch market thus far, and so is entering the industry in the near future. Reuters reports that the Swiss company is looking to compete directly with Apple and “make acquisitions to help drive the strategy.” Previously various of TAG Heuer’s management had been dismissive of the new technology, but now some reports claim the company will debut an Intel-powered watch as CES next month, but contrary articles say this is unlikely. Quite how it will compare to the new $30,000 edition of the Apple Watch is yet to be seen.

Also getting in on fashion is Symantec. The cyber-security company's subsidy Norton has partnered with Betabrand to release a pair of jeans and blazer with Radio Frequency Identification (RFID)-blocking material in the pockets. Available from February, the clothes promise to block attempts by thieves to swipe data from contactless cards and NFC-enabled devices.

In other device-based news, Google looks to have started taking its Cardboard VR gear a bit more seriously. The search giant has sold over 500,000 of the kits and released an SDK and Cardboard App store. Perhaps they’ve realized $20 bits of cardboard for your phone seem more appealing than $1,000 smart glasses that turn you into an instant pariah [looks like Sony think otherwise though].

Also announced recently was a privacy-focused App store for the “NSA-proof” Blackphone. “We’ll have a few degrees of vetting,” Blackphone chief executive Toby Weir-Jones told the Guardian. “We’ll validate that the apps will do what they intend – call it the Apple model. If you have an app to manage your social media accounts and it wanted access to your microphone and your camera we might ask why and get on a first screening.”

The Apple/IBM partnership has yielded its first results. The companies have launched their first run of enterprise apps including one for Pilots and flight crews, one for financial advisers, and another for law enforcement.

Verbatim

Twitter should block racism, according to one UK MP. Labour’s Luciana Berger, shadow minister for public health said she received thousands of hate messages during an online campaign against her. “Online hate needs to be taken as seriously as offline hate - but it isn’t. Twitter’s response isn’t good enough. It has a responsibility to do more to protect its users,” she said. “The site is letting me and many others down who have been the subject of lots of hate. It could start by automatically banning racist words which aren’t allowed to be printed in newspapers or broadcast on TV that could never be used in a positive way - such as kike [a derogatory term for a Jewish person].”

BlackBerry won’t be embracing Kim Kardashian’s fanatic love of the company anytime soon. “I’ve been advised to capitalize on Kim Kardashian’s pronouncements that BlackBerry phones are her “heart and soul,” BlackBerry CEO John Chen wrote on LinkedIn. “I am grateful for Kim’s loyalty and respect her passion for BlackBerry, but it is not the right time for us to focus on the consumer market.” If the classy Alicia Keys couldn’t help the company, it’s doubtful Kim could.

The creator of Dogecoin isn’t as rich as you would guess. Jackson Palmer said he never had a lot of the comedy cryptocurrency with a market capitalization of $18 million, but is proud they helped the Jamaican bobsled team. “The bulk of the Dogecoin I did have has gone towards charity drives and tipping over the past 12 months. I did buy a jar of massive Nutella with my doge, which sits on my desk at work.”

Twitter Co-founder Evan Williams sounds pretty defensive about being overtaken by Instagram. “If you think about the impact Twitter has on the world versus Instagram, it’s pretty significant. It’s at least apples to oranges.” He told Fortune. “Frankly don’t give a shit if Instagram has more people looking at pretty pictures.”

Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak is back in the press. This week he talked Apple, Smartwatches and Google Glass. “I feel like the coolest person in the world when I am wearing it. When I see people wearing it, I also think they are cool because they are brave enough to play with the future with a device that makes no sense in terms of what it does for what it costs,” he told the Australian Financial Review. “In my mind, it is a great product that will not succeed, just like many other great products that didn’t succeed.”

Bitcoin

Bitcoin, despite its disappointing year in terms of value, has been called a “a great innovation with great upsides for the long-term” by one Ernst & Young partner. And despite the declining value, Microsoft has done a Dell and started accepting the cryptocurrencies. The Richmond-based company will accept BTC payments for its Windows, Windows Phone and Xbox platforms. Obviously various Bitcoin-based talking heads were pleased with the news.

Tech celebrities

Obama is a techie! Well, not really. But the BlackBerry loving POTUS did become the first US President to code last week. Taking part in an Hour of Code event, he wrote the immortal command; “moveForward(100);”. While that made headlines across the world, the fact that UK Prime Minister David Cameron also took part in a similar event in Downing Street didn’t resonate in quite the same way.

Celebrities are always trying to muscle in on the tech scene. Will.i.Am, Ashton Kutcher, Justin Beiber, Kim Kardashian, and even David Hasselhoff want a slice of the action. It usually invokes ridicule and rarely ends well, so the news that Yahoo!’s Marissa Mayer didn’t want Gwyneth Paltrow on board was probably a good thing, even if it was for the wrong reasons. According to a new book, Mayer “balked at bringing Paltrow on board as a contributing editor at Yahoo Food” because she wasn’t a college graduate. I think the fact Paltrow’s diet sounds ridiculous and her own lifestyle brand is losing money is reason enough – Yahoo!’s been good enough at doing that on its own for a while now.

Merry Christmas everybody!

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Dan Swinhoe

Dan is a journalist at CSO Online. Previously he was Senior Staff Writer at IDG Connect.

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