Evidence mounts that Russian hackers are trying to disrupt the EU elections


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Russian hackers are targeting government systems ahead of the EU parliament election, according to cybersecurity company FireEye. The firm says that two state-sponsored hacking groups — APT28 (aka Fancy Bear) and Sandworm — have been sending out authentic-looking phishing emails to officials in a bid to get hold of government information.

Both groups have previously been linked to Russia. APT28 was allegedly behind the 2016 Democratic National Convention hack, while Sandworm is believed to be the malicious actor involved in last year’s NotPetya ransomware attacks on mainly Ukrainian facilities. FireEye says that latest efforts of both groups appears to be co-ordinated — although each have used different methods — and that their campaign is ongoing. The company did not confirm whether any sensitive data had been leaked.

In a statement, FireEye’s senior manager of cyberespionage analysis, Benjamin Read, said that, “The groups could be trying to gain access to the targeted networks in order to gather information that will allow Russia to make more informed political decisions, or it could be gearing up to leak data that would be damaging for a particular political party or candidate ahead of the European elections.”

Up to 300 million citizens across the EU are set to vote in European parliamentary elections this May, the outcome ultimately determining the future of peace in Europe. Hacking efforts by hostile parties could seriously undermine this. While FireEye says it’s notified the affected institutions and is advising them on future action, this isn’t the first attempt by Russia to sway the voting process — Microsoft made a similar announcement last month. Given the extremely tenuous political situation across the world right now, it’s unlikely to be the last, either.

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The FDA thinks an Xbox game can stop kids smoking


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The FDA is behind a horror video game designed to teach teens about the dangers of smoking. Inspired by the statistic that three out of every four high school students who start smoking continue on to adulthood, One Leaves sets players in a cell with three other teens. The free PC and Xbox One game’s objective is to escape the cell, but only one of the players will succeed. The game is being released as part of the FDA’s “The Real Cost” youth tobacco prevention campaign, which is aimed at youth who are 12 to 17 years of age.

The game’s heavy-handedness won’t be lost among its Gen-Z players. As you play the game, you encounter challenges that are also faced by smokers. You can run from the cell, but only in short bursts since your lungs are damaged by smoking. The smoke obscures your vision. The game is structured like a maze, which is meant to be a metaphor for quitting smoking. Much like in the game, quitters often fail and can end up right back where they started.

Anti-smoking and anti-drug campaigns targeting teenagers inspired a lot of eyerolls, and studies suggest they don’t always work and sometimes can have the opposite effect. The FDA is taking a more creative route with the grisly horror imagery of One Leaves, but it’s hard to believe that today’s teenagers are any less jaded than the ones of the past. And unlike yesterday’s youth, today’s teens face a new temptation in the form of e-cigarettes. According to the CDC, the number of high school students using tobacco increased by 38 percent in 2018, due to vaping.

But even if the game doesn’t convince players to drop smoking, One Leaves may still be a compelling distraction. The fact that film director Darren Aronofsky created the trailer doesn’t hurt. The FDA even scored the endorsement of popular Fortnite star Ninja, who tweeted out a playthrough of the game. With that kind of star power, maybe One Leaves will be better-regarded than most anti-smoking PSAs.

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EU fines Google $1.7 billion for 'abusive' advertising practices


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The European Commission has fined google €1.49 billion ($1.69 billion) over what it calls “abusive practices in online advertising.” That’s on top of the $5 billion and $2.4 billion fines it slapped on the search giant in 2018 and 2017. Competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager said Google “shielded itself from competitive pressure” via exclusive advertising contracts with publishers. Google did this mainly through its AdSense service, which dominated 70 percent of the market in Europe over a 10 year period.

A large fine was widely anticipated over abusive AdSense practices, but not one as high as $1.69 billion. The EU said it came up with the figure because Google dominated online advertising for so long. “The Commission’s fine takes account of the duration and gravity of the infringement. Fine has been calculated on the basis of the value of Google’s revenue from online search advertising intermediation in the EEA,” it said in a news release.

“We’ve always agreed that healthy, thriving markets are in everyone’s interest,” Kent Walker, Google SVP of Global Affairs told Engadget in a statement. “We’ve already made a wide range of changes to our products to address the Commission’s concerns. Over the next few months, we’ll be making further updates to give more visibility to rivals in Europe.”

In 2006, Google added exclusivity clauses to ad contracts with websites and advertisers. “This meant that publishers were prohibited from placing any search adverts from competitors on their search results pages,” the Commission said. Google changed those rules slightly in 2009, but retained approval over publisher’s ads on competing search engines.

Based on a broad range of evidence, the Commission found that Google’s conduct harmed competition and consumers, and stifled innovation. Google’s rivals were unable to grow and offer alternative online search advertising intermediation services to those of Google. As a result, owners of websites had limited options for monetizing space on these websites and were forced to rely almost solely on Google.

“Market dominance is, as such, not illegal under EU antitrust rules. However, dominant companies have a special responsibility not to abuse their powerful market position by restricting competition, either in the market where they are dominant or in separate markets,” the commission further clarified.

Just ahead of the Commission’s announcement, Google’s Android OS started asking users to select which browser and search engine they want to use, and not just offer Chrome and Google Search by default. It also created separate licenses for Play, Chrome and Search, so phone makers can offer their own alternatives.

The EU said that Google’s market share was actually above 90 percent for general search and over 75 percent for online search advertising via its Google Search app from 2006 to 2016. During a news conference, Vestager noted that it could have been worse, as Google’s share of search dropped considerably last year, all the way down to around 60 percent from over 90 percent the year before.

The decision likely has a political element as well. European elections are coming up in May and many voters seeing tech giants like Google as part of the income inequality problem driving movements like the “gilets jaunes.”

The EU noted that the fines aren’t necessarily the end of the road, either. “Google is also liable to face civil actions for damages that can be brought before the courts of the Member States by any person or business affected by its anti-competitive behavior,” it wrote.

Update 3/20/2019 8:07 AM ET: The article has been updated with Google’s statement in response to the ruling.

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House committee chair calls for FTC antitrust investigation into Facebook


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Facebook is already under regulatory scrutiny in the US, but it could be subject to much more pressure if one House representative has his way. Antitrust subcommittee chairman Rep. David Cicilline has written an editorial in the New York Times calling on the FTC to investigate Facebook for potential antitrust violations. He’s concerned that the social network not only leveraged its power to collect and share data through questionable means, but tried to “obstruct” overseers and “smear” critics while simultaneously engaging in “denial, hollow promises and apology campaigns” that accomplished little.

Cicilline also argued that the FTC wasn’t doing its job. Advocates warned “for years” that Facebook was likely violating the FTC’s 2011 privacy consent order, but the commission allegedly didn’t enforce that order. It didn’t block acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp that helped Facebook “extend its dominance,” Cicilline added.

He further argued that Facebook might be stifling innovation. It bought promising startups like tbh only to shut them down later, and blocked Vine to prevent Twitter’s video service from gaining ground.

We’ve asked Facebook for comment. While an opinion piece doesn’t equate to tangible action, this might give the company reason for concern. As the head of the House subcommittee governing competition issues, Rep. Cicilline has some power to make things happen — Facebook ignores his actions at its peril.

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House chair asks tech CEOs to speak about New Zealand shooting response


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Internet companies say they’ve been scrambling to remove video of the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, but US politicians are concerned they haven’t been doing enough. The Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Bennie Thompson, has sent letters to the CEOs of Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube asking them to brief the committee on their responses to the video on March 27th. Thompson was concerned the footage was still “widely available” on the internet giants’ platforms, and that they “must do better.”

The Chairman noted that the companies formally created an organization to fight online terrorism in June 2017 and touted its success in purging ISIS and al-Qaeda content, but struggled to keep up with the dissemination of the Christchurch video. People have “largely been kept in the dark” about the sites’ success in fighting other kinds of online extremism, according to Thompson. He considered it a problem that Facebook wasn’t aware of the video until informed by New Zealand police, and that YouTube hadn’t addressed the “systemic flaws” that let the material spread.

If companies didn’t focus on responding to these videos, Congress ought to “consider policies” that would prevent the distribution of terrorist content, including measures that might replicate what you’ve seen from other countries.

Facebook has confirmed to Engadget that it will brief the committee “soon.” We’ve asked the other companies for comment as well. Whatever happens, it’s safe to say that companies will argue that tit’s a challenge to keep the shooting video off their sites. They’d be right to a degree (it’s not hard to edit a video to bypass filtering), but that won’t necessarily satisfy committee members worried that the video is still comparatively easy to find.

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