Senator blasts FTC for failing to crack down on Google's ad fraud problems

A US senator has blasted the Federal Trade Commission for failing to crack down on Google’s lack of effort in reducing ad fraud on its advertising network.

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Virginia Democrat Senator Mark Warner suggests Google is directly profiting by letting ad fraud run rampant at the expense of the companies who buy or sell ads on its platform.

However, Warner is just as mad about the FTC as he is about Google, claiming the FTC has failed to take action against the Mountain View-based company for more than two years since he and New York Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer first wrote the agency about Google’s ad fraud problem.

“The FTC’s failure to act has had the effect of allowing Google to structure its own market,” said Sen. Warner in a letter sent to the FTC yesterday.

“Through a series of transactions, the company has accomplished a level of vertical integration that allows it in effect to act as the equivalent of market-maker, commodities broker, and commodities exchange for digital advertising — in the process creating a range of conflicts of interest,” he said.

“While the company controls each link in the supply chain and therefore maintains the power to monitor activity in the digital advertising market from start to finish, it has continued to be caught flat-footed in identifying and addressing digital ad fraud.”

Sen. Warner also called out Google for proving unwilling to address misuse of its advertising platform for the “rampant proliferation of online disinformation” –referring to how various foreign entities have used Google ads to push political agendas, both in the US and other countries of the world.

As long as Google stands to profit from the sale of additional advertisements, the financial incentive for it to voluntarily root out and address fraud remains minimal,” Sen. Warner added.

Both Google and the FTC have not replied to requests for comments for this article. Google did publish a blog post after our inquiry entitled “Tackling ads abuse in apps and SDKs” that described the company’s latest efforts in addressing Android and Google Play Store ad fraud, which has been a serious problem for the company in the last few months.

This is the third letter Sen. Warner has sent the FTC about Google’s ad fraud problem. He sent a first in 2016, another one in October, and a third yesterday.

In yesterday’s letter, Sen. Warner also criticized the FTC’s reply to the second letter. In its answer, available here, the FTC told Sen. Warner that they don’t have the authority to go after Google for its practices, but instead opted to tackle online ad fraud through “workshops and education campaigns.”

Sen. Warner disagreed and reminded the FTC that they themselves lobbied Congress for additional authority related to online businesses and the digital age, which they received.

“Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act was written in broad terms precisely for this purpose,” Sen. Warner said.

More US news:

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

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FCC to probe whether carriers gave inaccurate broadband coverage data

The Federal Communications Commission on Friday said it’s launching an investigation into whether one or more major carriers gave the agency inaccurate maps of their broadband coverage, violating the rules of an initiative that provides subsidies for rural coverage.

“My top priority is bridging the digital divide and ensuring that Americans have access to digital opportunity regardless of where they live,” FCC chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.

The initiative, called the Mobility Fund Phase II program “can play a key role in extending high-speed Internet access to rural areas across America,” he continued. “In order to reach those areas, it’s critical that we know where access is and where it is not.”

The FCC conducted a preliminary review of speed test data, which suggested “significant violations” of the rules, Pai said.

The initiative is reallocating $4.5 billion in previously-approved funding to bring high-speed mobile broadband service to rural Americans over the course of 10 years. The agency is using a competitive reverse auction to distribute the funds to private providers. To determine eligibility, mobile providers were required to submit current, standardized coverage data.

According to the FCC, more than 24 million Americans still lack fixed terrestrial broadband at speeds of 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. The agency’s data shows a stark divide in rural and urban coverage: In urban areas 97.9 percent of Americans have access to both fixed terrestrial services at 25 Mbps/3 Mbps and mobile LTE at speeds of 5 Mbps/1 Mbps. Yet in rural areas, just 68.6 percent of Americans do.

Some say the FCC’s numbers don’t show the true extent of the problem.

“There is strong evidence that the percentage of Americans without broadband access is much higher than the FCC’s numbers indicate,” Microsoft President Brad Smith recently wrote. “We’ve seen this over the past 17 months in many places and in many ways, including by talking directly to the people who live in rural America.”

Microsoft was one of three companies this past week — in addition to SpaceX and T-Mobile — that announced their own independent efforts to bring broadband to rural areas and other communities.

Prior and related coverage:

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

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DHS looking into tracking Monero and Zcash transactions

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is interested in acquiring technology solutions that can track newer cryptocurrencies, such as Zcash and Monero.

According to a pre-solicitation document [PDF], the DHS wants to know if this is possible, before filing an official solicitation request later down the line.

The DHS said that “prior efforts have addressed Bitcoin analytics,” but now the agency and the law enforcement agencies under its supervision are looking into similar cryptocurrency analytics solutions that can be used to track so-called privacy coins –cryptocurrencies that support anonymous transactions.

“A key feature underlying these newer blockchain platforms that is frequently emphasized is the capability for anonymity and privacy protection,” the DHS document said. “While these features are desirable, there is similarly a compelling interest in tracing and understanding transactions and actions on the blockchain of an illegal nature.”

“This proposal calls for solutions that enable law enforcement investigations to perform forensic analysis on blockchain transactions,” the DHS added.

The DHS specifically mentions the Zcash and Monero privacy coins in its pre-solicitation request. For the past few years, Monero has been the second-most popular cryptocurrency on the Dark Web, after Bitcoin.

It’s support for anonymous transactions, but also its low mining difficulty, have also made it extremely popular with crypto-mining malware operators as well, being the preferred cryptocurrency mined by most cryptojacking botnets.

Previously, US law enforcement has had great success in tracking Bitcoin transactions. While Bitcoin is cryptographically secured against external tampering, Bitcoin transactions are not private, being recorded in a public ledger.

By tracking these transactions US authorities, with the help of the private sector, were able to determine that 95 percent of all ransomware ransom payments were cashed out and converted into fiat currency through the BTC-e cryptocurrency exchange. US authorities issued an international arrest warrant for the owner of the BTC-e portal, but they later lost an extradition battle with Russia.

Now, if the DHS receives positive feedback and its agents will get their hands on tools that can track Monero transactions through exchanges and to fiat currency accounts, one can expect a slew of arrests to come in the coming years. Nonetheless, all this depends on the private sector’s ability to track and demystify the transactions of some of these privacy coins, which, currently, is highly unlikely.

More cybersecurity news:

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Looking back at 2018: Why I changed my mind about the Apple Watch's data plan

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In early 2018, I did some math and came to the conclusion that I was paying AT&T too much for monthly service on my Apple Watch Series 3. The peace of mind, at that time, just wasn’t worth the $13 or so I was paying each month on top of my wireless plan.

Also: I canceled my Apple Watch Series 3 data plan and here’s why

I canceled my Apple Watch’s data plan and enjoyed the additional battery life that I gained from turning off the cellular functionality on the watch.

The feedback I received from that article was mostly positive, with fellow users echoing the sentiment that paying $10 a month for the minor amount of data a smartwatch uses is too expensive.

I kept the data plan disabled until the Apple Watch Series 4 was announced — when I once again ordered the cellular model. After it arrived, I reactivated my plan, and I’ve been paying for cellular connectivity on my watch.

My original thinking was that I would test out the watch and watchOS 5 (which improved the Music experience and added the Podcast app), with the added benefit of a cellular connection, and then, ultimately, I’d cancel the data plan again.

Admittedly, I haven’t used standalone connectivity on the Series 4 any more than I did when I had it the Series 3. In fact, I’ve probably used it less, if that’s even possible. But I don’t anticipate canceling my watch’s cellular plan this time around.

So, why the change of heart? It’s a combination of a few things.

Freedom from my phone


(Image: Jason Cipriani/CNET)

It still fascinates me that a set of Apple’s AirPods and a watch on my wrist is all I need to leave my phone behind and remain reachable.

I mean, think about that: A watch and a pair of Bluetooth headphones — it doesn’t even have to be Apple’s AirPods, but they’re my choice — and you have what amounts to a smartphone with you at all times.

Text messages, emails, phone calls, even FaceTime audio calls, Facebook Messenger, music, calendar… it’s all there, on my wrist. But at the same time, the interaction dynamic between the watch and myself is different from the iPhone.

Also: Apple Watch’s Walkie-Talkie is practically useless

With the phone, I can pick it up at any time and get lost in Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, or my inbox. The phone is always there, ready to waste my time.

With the watch, the experience is limited enough that the idea of managing my inbox or finding a third-party app to browse social networks on the small screen isn’t appealing at all. Instead, interactions with the watch are simply to react to notifications, which I have pared down significantly.

In the end, the watch eliminates my habitual routine of bouncing between apps just because my phone is there.

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I need to get into the habit of leaving my phone at home and being comfortable with communicating from the watch. I think my biggest hangup about doing that right now is having to talk to the watch like I’m Dick Tracy while out in public. Granted, I could use Scribble to reply to messages, but longer messages make Scribble feel laborious.

Fall detection

With the launch of the Apple Watch Series 4, Apple added a new fall detection feature. Basically, if your movement mimics the motion of a person falling, then the watch will ask if you’re injured. After about a minute of no movement or interaction with the watch, it will automatically call emergency services and send a message to your emergency contacts with your current location.

Also: Apple Watch Series 4: How to enable fall detection CNET

I’m not accident prone by any means. Heck, I can’t remember the last time I slipped and fell, but knowing that if something did happen — especially while on a business trip, when I’m typically by myself — I would have the means to get help and let my wife know what’s going on. It’s reassuring.

Always connected peace of mind

Another reassuring aspect I’ve enjoyed about wearing an always-connected watch is knowing that, if my iPhone were to get damaged or the battery dies, I’m still connected.

Also: Does your iPhone need a new battery? Get it done now

It seems small, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve been out and about, realized my phone’s battery is draining without a charger nearby, only to find comfort in knowing that even if it does die, I can just use the watch to stay in touch.

Cost is still an issue

Don’t get me wrong, I still think the $10 a month for a watch that uses very little data is too expensive. I still want to see the monthly cost absorbed by what I already pay AT&T for my phone’s data plan.

Also: AT&T to launch 5G across 19 cities

Data plans are going to have to change, after all, with the launch of 5G networks.

The irony of carriers talking up the ability to download gigabytes of data at gigabit speeds on a 5G connection while charging $10 a month (before taxes) for something that sips on megabytes is not lost on me.

Here’s hoping 2019 ushers in a new way of thinking about connected smartwatches.

Previous and related coverage:

Apple Watch Series 4 review: Best for iPhone owners, but not the best smartwatch

Apple’s latest wearable improves exactly where customers wanted to see improvements; larger viewable area, longer battery life, and enhanced health and fitness functionality. It’s a marvel of technology, but Samsung does it better for less.

Apple Watch Series 3 review: Always connected, just without the guilt

Apple’s newest smartwatch is smarter in that it’s always connected, but is it worth the cost?

Let’s block ads! (Why?)

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