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In Brief

The UN’s special investigator on the protection of human rights while countering terrorism has opened an investigation into Edward Snowden’s revelations of mass surveillance by the U.S., the U.K. and their close allies. Ben Emmerson will report back to the UN general assembly in autumn 2014, having looked into: whether Snowden is a whistleblower; whether his leaks weakened American and British counter-terrorism efforts; whether surveillance powers in those countries should be curbed; whether oversight of their spying is adequate; and whether the U.K. Parliament was misled by the country’s intelligence services. The UN itself was a target of NSA surveillance.

In Brief

German police are considering the use of a Shazam-like app for identifying neo-Nazi rock music, Der Spiegel reports. The app would identify far-right bands and their songs, apparently sparing police resources and speeding up investigations as they tackle extremist gatherings (and online radio stations, the article suggests). Nazism is illegal in Germany, as is racist hate speech. However, this app is unlikely to enter into use if legal authorities decide it’s a form of acoustic surveillance, which it plainly is.

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Facebook may soon buy a Bangalore startup, called Little Eye Labs, that provides performance analysis and optimization tools for Android developers. According to a Monday report in India’s Business Standard, advanced talks are being facilitated by the Indian Software Products Industry Roundtable (iSpirt). This may be connected with Facebook’s quest to better optimize its apps to run on low-end devices and spartan internet connections — like Google, the firm is trying to push further into developing markets. In recent months, Google bought French mobile optimization outfit Flexycore and Facebook picked up data compression specialist Onavo.

In Brief

Just days after a Berlin court decided Google’s privacy policy and terms of use were too vague, the Dutch data protection authority has done much the same. In a Thursday statement, the the watchdog’s chairman, Jacob Kohnstamm, said the U.S. firm didn’t give users any option or much transparency when it comes to combining their data from different Google services: “Google spins an invisible web of our personal data, without our consent. And that is forbidden by law.” The company will now need to attend a hearing, after which the privacy regulator will decide whether to take enforcement measures.

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In Brief

A team at Georgia Tech has come up with an ingenious way to steer a wheelchair if you can’t move your limbs and torso: your tongue, featuring a magnetic titanium piercing full of sensors. Currently, the most common driving method for people with tetraplegia involves sucking on or blowing into a straw, but the researchers’ method — which basically turns the tongue into a joystick by having the sensors talk to a headset that controls the chair — is apparently just as accurate and much faster. Associate professor Maysam Ghovanloo hopes to commercialize the technology through his startup, Bionic Sciences.

In Brief

A federal judge has thrown out a consumer lawsuit against Apple, which alleged that the gadget-maker betrayed the trust of iPhone and iPad owners by allowing apps to scoop up their data and track them without consent. U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh axed the 3-year-old case because none of the plaintiffs could prove they relied on Apple’s privacy policy in the first place. Indeed, as she pointed out, none of them could prove they had even read it – and that’s interesting from a legal perspective, because she rejected the ticking of the “Agree” box on iTunes accounts as evidence of genuinely informed consent.

European Union

The European Commission has set out its plan for restoring “trust” in the way the U.S. treats Europeans’ data. However, while it calls for more respect for EU ciitizens’ rights, the plan mostly amounts to asking the Americans to stick to the rules they’ve agreed to, and to be clearer about when surveillance may take place. Read more »

In Brief

The New York Times has published further details of an NSA operation that involves spying on the fiberoptic cables running between the data centers of companies such as Google and Yahoo. The piece highlights the role played by Level 3, the company that runs such cables for Google and Yahoo. Level 3 has already been identified as one of the telecommunications firms working with the UK’s NSA partner, GCHQ. These fiber connections are crucial to the affair, as they may provide a way for the NSA and GCHQ to effectively tap into major web firms’ systems without their cooperation.

In Brief

500 workers at Amazon’s German logistics centers have walked out in protest at the company’s working conditions, and in support of better pay. This is the fourth strike by German Amazon workers this year, and union Verdi says more are coming. Meanwhile in the UK, a BBC investigation has also uncovered Amazon distribution center conditions than one stress expert described as “all the bad stuff at once”, with workers suffering increased risk of mental and physical illness. This is one way to offer market-beating prices, as is not paying very much in the way of taxes. 

In Brief

The Dutch publication NRC has published claims, based on Edward Snowden’s leaks, that more than 50,000 computing networks around the world have been infected with NSA or GCHQ malware, Belgacom-style, in order to siphon off information. The New York Times has revealed the NSA’s plans for grabbing more powers in future, in a report that also mentions a fascinating NSA data visualization tool called Treasure Map. And journalist Glenn Greenwald has challenged assertions by the Norwegian intelligence service that it only spied on Norwegians outside the country.

In Brief

Earlier this week the Korea Herald quoted an unnamed ARM executive as saying 128-bit processors could make their way into mobile devices within a couple of years. On Friday the British chip design house, whose designs power the vast majority of mobile devices today, said the report was simply “not true”.

In a blog post the firm said, “64-bit processors are capable of supporting the needs of the computing industry now and for many years to come” and “there are absolutely no plans underway for 128 bit ARM-based chips because they simply aren’t needed.” Quite so — the mobile industry is only just starting to move to 64-bit architecture, which is arguably overkill for a smartphone’s current requirements.

In Brief

Politicians from Germany’s two biggest parties are currently negotiating what their grand coalition will look like, and they’ve reportedly decided on at least one thing: they need encrypted phones. According to local newspaper Bild, this means no iPhones, because Apple’s platform doesn’t support encryption software developed by Germany’s federal office for information security, and all official business will henceforth require encrypted communications.

It recently emerged that the U.S. and British embassies in Berlin have been used as bases for spying on German parliamentarians, including Chancellor Angela Merkel (who, for the record, was using a highly-hackable old Nokia slider-phone before the Snowden revelations this summer, when she switched to BlackBerry).

In Brief

LG’s Smart TVs may be reporting a tad too much information back to the company’s servers, according to a detailed and convincing post by British blogger “DoctorBeet”. Apparently in the name of targeted advertising, it appears some of the sets are monitoring not only what channels are being watched (even when told not to), but also details of files stored on external hard drives hooked up to the TV. And here comes the really dumb bit: they’re sending that data back to LG’s servers sans encryption. I’m awaiting comment from LG.

In Brief

Nokia’s extraordinary general meeting, convened to discuss the takeover of the Finnish firm’s handset division by Microsoft, is still ongoing at the time of writing. However, The Financial Times reports that it’s a formality — 99.7 percent of shareholders who voted before the meeting (that’s 4 in 5) have already said yes to the $7.2 billion deal. The remaining bits of Nokia are nothing to be sneezed at: the Here location business, a division creating new advanced materials, sensors and so on, and of course the NSN networking business.

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