Tech Tent: Uber at a crossroads

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On the Tech Tent podcast this week, we explore the stunning resignation of Uber chief executive Travis Kalanick. We also hear why Indian IT workers are suffering mass lay-offs – and we ask whether virtual reality could have a more serious purpose beyond games and entertainment.

After last week’s news that Uber founder and chief executive Travis Kalanick was taking a leave of absence from the company, some observers might have assumed that would be the end of the turmoil for Uber’s management – at least for now.

But this week the company announced Mr Kalanick was stepping down from his role altogether – though he will remain on the company’s board.

The move came after a series of scandals over the the way Uber bosses treated female employees and customers.

Matters came to a head recently when a female ex-employee wrote a blog post detailing how managers failed to act on her complaints about sexism at work. That resulted in an investigation by the former US Attorney General Eric Holder, which recommended ways in which the company could change its culture and be run better.

On the podcast, we speak to Silicon Valley tech journalist Sarah Lacy, who, with her team, was among the first to report on Uber’s attitudes to women. She says it is the first time in three years that she can wake up without worrying whether she or her family will face some sort of retaliation from Uber.

But she says it may be ambitious to think Uber can change its culture unless it hires a totally different type of senior manager.

“It is hard to believe there is going to be a huge cultural reset here, and it is hard to believe that a company that is entirely staffed by people hired under that regime are suddenly going to do a big cultural re-shift,” she says.

In recent years, India’s IT sector has been a poster-child for the country’s rapid economic growth. By providing outsourced IT services to brands across the world, the multibillion dollar industry helped create millions of jobs for Indians.

But the industry is now facing a slowdown because of a trend by Western companies to bring some IT jobs home, and the inroads being made by automation. Some of the jobs that used to be done by Indian workers can now be handled by software. These changes have led to drastic cuts, and there are fears there could more layoffs in the coming months and years.

The BBC’s Sameer Hashmi travelled to Bangalore – regarded as India’s Silicon Valley – to meet workers and managers.

He met 49-year old Pankaj Rao, who, after working in a prestigious IT job for a decade, was dismissed along with his entire team. He is now frantically sending his resume to prospective employers.

“My father, my wife, my children, all are worried what will happen tomorrow,” he says.

But Atul Kanwar, the chief technology officer at the IT giant Tech Mahindra, says it’s likely that all jobs that involve repetitive tasks will be automated.

“Automation is all-pervasive,” he says. “It used to be a situation of doing it at the lowest end but now automation is for any repetitive task.” He advises workers: “Make sure that over time you are not doing a repetitive task.”

A virtual trip to space

So far, the focus for virtual reality has been on games and entertainment. But could its so-called “killer application” be in the workplace, for training staff, for example?

Zoe Kleinman visited the IBM research labs in Hursley, Hampshire, where she tried out a VR simulation.

From inside an English country house she paid a virtual visit to the International Space Station, where she floated around and even popped out through a hatch into Space to explore outside the craft.

Gwillam Newton, emerging-tech specialist at IBM, tells Zoe how the company is pitching the technology as a way for companies, such as airlines, to train aircrew without leaving the ground.

“Places where it’s hard to go and train people or are expensive, the idea is that you create a few virtual reality rigs like this, and people can explore virtual reality in a safe and cost-effective manner.”

Router hack risk ‘not limited to Virgin Media’

Virgin Media router

A weakness that left thousands of Virgin Media routers vulnerable to attack also affects devices by other providers, security experts suggest.

Virgin Media’s Super Hub 2 was criticised for using short default passwords that could easily be cracked by attackers.

But experts raised concerns that older routers provided by BT, Sky, TalkTalk and others were also at risk.

They recommend users change their router password from the default.

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How safe is your router?

“It’s a bit unfair that Virgin Media has been singled out here. They made a mistake – but so have many other internet service providers,” said Ken Munro from security firm Pen Test Partners.

“This problem has been known about for years, yet still ISPs [internet service providers] issue routers with weak passwords and consumers don’t know that they should change them.”

The weakness in Virgin Media’s Super Hub 2 was highlighted in an investigation by consumer group Which?

The company has since using default network and router passwords to update them immediately.

However, a BT spokeswoman told the BBC: “We are not impacted by the hub issues affecting Virgin Media.”

Other providers have yet to comment.

Many routers are sent to customers with a default wi-fi password already set up.

Some use a long password with mixture of upper and lower-case letters, numbers and sometimes symbols.

But others use short passwords with a limited selection of characters, and many follow a pattern than can be identified by attackers.

The Virgin Media Super Hub 2 used passwords that were just eight characters long, and used only lower-case letters.

That gives cyber-criminals a framework to help them crack passwords quickly, using a dedicated computer.

“Because the default wi-fi password formats are known, it’s not difficult to crack them,” said Mr Munro.

Once an attacker has access to your wi-fi network, they can seek out further vulnerabilities.

Mr Munro said the problem was well-known, but the Which? investigation had reignited discussion.

“It has popped up again because attention has been drawn to the fact that very few people change their wi-fi password from the one written on the router,” he told the BBC.

Experts recommend that people change the default wi-fi password and router’s admin password, using long and complex passwords to make life more difficult for attackers.

Snapchat map update raises child safety worries

Snapchat Map

An update to Snapchat that shows publicly posted images on a searchable map has raised safety concerns among parents.

Snap Map lets people search for places such as schools and see videos and pictures posted by children inside.

It also lets people locate their “friends” on a map that is accurate enough to determine where people live.

Snap, the company behind Snapchat, stressed to the BBC that location sharing was an opt-in feature.

Snap Map was launched on Wednesday and was promoted as a “new way to explore the world”.

Video clips and photos that members have posted publicly can be discovered on the map, while members who have chosen to share their location can also be seen on the map by those they have added as “friends”.

However, members can add people they have never met to their friends list too.

A message to parents posted by St Peter’s Academy in Staffordshire warned that the location-sharing feature lets people “locate exactly where you are, which building you are in and exact whereabouts within the building”.

One parent described the update as “dangerous” while another said she could not find the setting to disable it.

People have expressed concern online that the app could be used for stalking or working out exactly where somebody lives.

“If you zoom right in on this new Snapchat map thing it literally tells you where everyone lives? Like exact addresses – bit creepy no?” wrote one user called Leanne.

“This new Snapchat update is awful. An invitation for stalkers, kidnappers, burglars and relationship trust issues,” suggested Jade.

Snap told the BBC that accurate location information was necessary to allow friends to use the service to meet, for example at a restaurant or crowded festival, and said points of interest on the map, such as schools, were provided by third-party mapping service Mapbox.

Concerned parents could find out more information on its website, a spokesman told the BBC.

“With Snap Map, location sharing is off by default for all users and is completely optional. Snapchatters can choose exactly who they want to share their location with, if at all, and can change that setting at any time,” a Snap spokesman said.

“It’s also not possible to share your location with someone who isn’t already your friend on Snapchat, and the majority of interactions on Snapchat take place between close friends.”

  • When in photo-taking mode, pinch the screen to open Snap Map
  • Touch the settings cog in the top right corner of the screen
  • Tap “Ghost Mode” to switch off location sharing
  • Photos and videos posted to Snapchat’s public ‘Our Story’ will still be discoverable on the map

Google scrubs medical records from search

Medical records of private individuals will no longer be findable via a Google search, .

The news organisation noticed that the search giant had added the data type to its list of information automatically

Now Google will make sure “confidential” medical information cannot be found when people search.

The change comes after some medical data was put online accidentally and hackers stole some records.

In May, people from the UK, Denmark, Germany and Norway who had had plastic surgery at a Lithuanian clinic got a ransom demand from hackers who stole pictures and other data from the health firm.

In December last year, an Indian laboratory wrongly uploaded records of 43,000 patients who had had blood tests for many different conditions including HIV.

Over the last 12 months, hackers have targeted health organisations, including hospitals, and data taken from them has often appeared for sale online.

A Google spokeswoman told Bloomberg that the changes only affected the lists of results people got when they carried out a search.

The types of information Google removes from its search corpus has been tweaked several times recently. Credit card details, pirated content and revenge porn have all been added to the list of excluded categories.

In addition Google, along with many other web firms, has filtered results following criticism about the legitimacy it lends misleading articles or fake news stories.

WannaCry helps speeding drivers dodge fines in Australia

Peak hour traffic in Melbourne as the morning fog makes way for sunrise

Hackers behind the infamous WannaCry virus have inadvertently helped speeding Australian drivers avoid costly speeding fines.

Fifty five traffic cameras, most in inner-city Melbourne, were infected by the ransomware.

A maintenance worker unknowingly uploaded the malware to the camera network using a USB stick on 6 June.

Victorian Police have cancelled 590 speeding and red-light fines despite the belief they were correctly issued.

“I cancelled the fines because I think it’s important the public has 100% confidence in the system,” Acting Deputy Commissioner Ross Guenther said.

Police detected the virus last week after noticing that cameras were rebooting more often than usual.

The virus infected organisations in 150 countries in May.

Among those affected were the UK’s National Health Service, US logistics giant FedEx and Russia’s interior ministry.

Facebook launches initiative to fight online hate speech


Facebook is launching a UK initiative to train and fund local organisations to combat extremism and hate speech.

It comes a week after the social network from its site.

The UK Online Civil Courage Initiative’s initial partners include Imams Online and the Jo Cox Foundation.

Facebook has faced criticism for being slow to react to terrorist propaganda on its platforms.

“The recent terror attacks in London and Manchester – like violence anywhere – are absolutely heartbreaking,” said Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg.

“No-one should have to live in fear of terrorism – and we all have a part to play in stopping violent extremism from spreading.

“We know we have more to do – but through our platform, our partners and our community we will continue to learn to keep violence and extremism off Facebook.”

In recent months, governments across Europe have been pushing for technology companies to take more action to prevent online platforms from being used to spread extremist propaganda.

In particular, security services have criticised Facebook, Twitter and Google for relying too much on other people to report inappropriate content, rather than spotting it themselves.

In April, Germany passed a bill to fine social networks up to €50m (£44m) if they failed to give users the option to report hate speech and fake news, or if they refused to remove illegal content flagged as either images of child sexual abuse or inciting terrorism.

Following the , UK PM Theresa May announced that new international agreements needed to be introduced to regulate the internet in order to “deprive the extremists of their safe spaces online”.

And last week in Paris, Mrs May and French President Emmanuel Macron to look at how they could make the internet safe, including making companies legally liable if they refused to remove certain content.

Similar initiatives to counter hate speech were launched in Germany in January 2016 and in France in March 2017.

They have held training workshops with more than 100 anti-hate and anti-extremism organisations across Europe, and reached 3.5 million people online through its Facebook page.

In the UK, people are being encouraged to visit the , to share stories, content and ideas, and use the hashtag #civilcourage.

Brendan Cox, the widower of murdered MP Jo Cox and the founder of the Jo Cox Foundation, has welcomed the move.

“This is a valuable and much needed initiative from Facebook in helping to tackle extremism,” he said.

“Anything that helps push the extremists even further to the margins is greatly welcome. Social media platforms have a particular responsibility to address hate speech that has too often been allowed to flourish online.

“It is critical that efforts are taken by all online service providers and social networks to bring our communities closer together and to further crack down on those that spread violence and hatred online.”

Mexican president denies spying on journalists, lawyers and activists

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto delivers a speech during an event in Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco. 22 June 2017

Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has strongly denied his government spied on prominent journalists and activists by hacking their phones.

He said there was “nothing more false” than to suggest his government was behind the installation of spyware.

Several alleged victims have filed a criminal complaint following reports that the Israeli-made spyware had been found on their mobile phones.

Mexican prosecutors have opened an investigation.

A report in the said lawyers, journalists and activists investigating corruption and human rights abuses in Mexico were targeted with spyware that can infiltrate smartphones and monitor calls, texts and other communications.

The software, known as Pegasus, was sold to Mexican federal agencies by Israeli company NSO Group on the condition that it only be used to investigate criminals and terrorists.

An internet watchdog at the University of Toronto sent to Mexican journalists and lawyers which contained links to the NSO Group’s spyware.

Speaking at an event in the state of Jalisco, Mr Peña Nieto said those accusing his administration had to produce more evidence.

“This government categorically rejects any type of intervention in the private life of any citizen,” he said.

“None of the people who feel aggrieved can affirm, demonstrate or show evidence that their life has been affected by these supposed interventions and by this alleged espionage.”

On Wednesday, the Mexican attorney general’s office said prosecutors would investigate the origin of the fake messages as well as the supplier of the spyware.

  • A link is usually sent in a message to a smartphone. If the person taps on it, the spyware is installed, and huge amounts of private data – text messages, photos, emails, location data, even what is being picked up by the device’s microphone and camera – is hacked
  • Very little is known about NSO Group, the secretive Israel-based company behind Pegasus, but security researchers have called it a cyber arms dealer. The company was thought to be worth $1bn (£780m) in 2015
  • The company has acknowledged that it sells tools to governments but has given very little details about who its customers are. It has said, however, that it has no control over how its tools are used and for what purpose

  • Miguel Agustín Pro Juárez Centre: One of the most respected human rights groups in Mexico, it has looked into the of 43 students in 2014 and other high profile cases, including that left 22 dead in 2014. Its executive director and two other senior executives allegedly received infected messages
  • Aristegui Noticias: Award-winning journalist Carmen Aristegui, who also hosts a daily programme on CNN en Español, has reported on suspected cases of corruption and conflict of interest, including a scandal involving the wife of President Enrique Peña Nieto from a government contractor. Two members of her investigative team and her under-age son allegedly received some 50 messages
  • Carlos Loret de Mola: A popular journalist at leading TV network Televisa, he allegedly received several messages containing the software
  • Mexican Institute for Competitiveness (IMCO): It has led efforts for anti-corruption legislation. Two senior members were allegedly targeted.

Virgin Media urges password change over hacking risk

computer hacker

Virgin Media has told 800,000 customers to change their passwords to protect against being hacked.

An investigation by Which? found that hackers could access the provider’s Super Hub 2 router, allowing access to users’ smart appliances.

A child’s toy and domestic CCTV cameras were among the vulnerable devices.

Virgin Media said the risk was small but advised customers using default network and router passwords to update them immediately.

A spokesman said: “The security of our network and of our customers is of paramount importance to us.

“We continually upgrade our systems and equipment to ensure that we meet all current industry standards.

“We regularly support our customers through advice and updates and offer them the chance to upgrade to a Hub 3.0 which contains additional security provisions.”

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How safe is your router?

The company said the issue existed with other routers of the same age and was not exclusive to their model.

The study, carried out in conjunction with ethical security researchers SureCloud, tested 15 devices -of which eight had security flaws.

In one case a home CCTV system was hacked using an administrator account that was not password protected. Hackers were able to watch live pictures and in some cases were able to move cameras inside the house.

Which? called for the industry to improve basic security provisions, including requiring customers to create a unique password before use, two-factor authentication, and issuing regular software security updates.

Alex Neill, Which? managing director of home products and services, said: “There is no denying the huge benefits that smart-home gadgets and devices bring to our daily lives.

“However, as our investigation clearly shows, consumers should be aware that some of these appliances are vulnerable and offer little or no security.

“There are a number of steps people can take to better protect their home, but hackers are growing increasingly more sophisticated.

“Manufacturers need to ensure that any smart product sold is secure by design.”

Which? said it had contacted the manufacturers of the eight affected products to alert them to the security flaws.

Yahoo closes internet prodigy’s news app

Yahoo has announced it is shutting down its award-winning News Digest app at the end of this month.

It was launched in 2014 and is based on a technology developed by a British teenager that compressed other news outlets’ reports into shorter articles.

Yahoo was reported to have paid £20m for the tech and offered its creator Nick D’Aloisio a full-time job, but he opted instead to go to university.

The closure marks one of the first cuts made since Verizon bought Yahoo.

The telecoms company paid $4.5bn (£3.6bn) for the internet services firm in a deal that was completed on 13 June.

Yahoo News Digest was a past winner of Apple’s software Design Award and it has been installed more than 9.5 million times onto iOS and Android devices worldwide, according to the market research firm App Annie.

Twice a day it presents each user with a digest of six to eight major stories made up of text, images and graphics, telling the reader they are “done” when they have all been flicked through.

The Next Web tech blog the service as “shooting itself in the foot by doing away with the best app it’s ever built”.

Users are now met with a message saying that they should download a different app, Yahoo Newsroom.

It acts as a wider news aggregation service that also lets users post articles they have seen elsewhere and discuss them with others.

“Yahoo News Digest was particularly popular with the tech-savvy part of the population,” said Sameer Singh from App Annie.

“But Yahoo Newsroom is probably a better fit with Verizon’s current advertising strategy.”

Yahoo Newsroom was launched in the US in October. However, a link provided to the service does not work for users elsewhere – including in the UK – because it is not available worldwide.

Mr D’Aloisio originally said he would combine his degree in science and philosophy at the University of Oxford with time working on maintenance of the News Digest app.

However, the 21-year-old split with Yahoo more than two years ago and has since had published by a peer-reviewed journal.

A friend told the BBC that Mr D’Aloisio did not feel he had any comment to add.

Siri storm caused by economist’s comments

Apple virtual assistant Siri

A leading economist has inadvertently caused a storm by saying he preferred the voice on the iPhone Siri virtual assistant to be male because he felt that made it more trustworthy.

Nobel prize laureate Sir Christopher Pissarides’s comments at a conference in Norway attracted fierce criticism.

He told the BBC he apologised for upsetting people and his comment was meant to be “light-hearted”.

“It’s a mistake and I’m sorry, but the audience was laughing.”

Sir Christopher was part of an all-male panel taking part in a Q&A audience discussion at the in Trondheim about the future of humanity.

During the conversation, he took out his iPhone and asked Siri a question about the temperature.

The answer was given in a male voice and when moderator Larry King pointed out that Siri is typically voiced by a woman in the US, Sir Christopher replied: “I chose a man because you trust the voice of a man more, I was told.”

His comments were strongly criticised as being sexist by both the audience and later on Twitter.

However, he defended himself, saying: “I’m not trying to make excuses for myself, After I demonstrated Siri, the audience was laughing, I was being teased.

“I said it at the beginning of the panel and someone only raised it one hour later at the end of the session. It was the last comment made in a session lasting 70 minutes and my comment was the first comment. No one raised it at the time, but when the woman did raise it, I apologised.”

Sir Christopher, who jointly won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Economics, said that earlier in the day, he had given a lecture about the future of work, in which he discussed two policies to empower more women in the labour force.

These were education for girls and government-subsidised elderly care centres so that instead of caring for family members, more women could enter the workforce and get jobs better suited to their talents.

“My work, over the last 40 years, has been dedicated to equality in the labour market. When people ask me what is the greatest problem in the labour market, I tell them equality between men and women and races. Of course I believe in equality,” he said.

The prestigious festival had already attracted negative comments for lacking invited female speakers.

Mr King and another moderator Neil deGrasse Tyson, were also criticised for failing to stop Sir Christopher’s comments, according to news site

Several high-profile attendees, including physicist Jim Al-Khalili (winner of the 2016 Stephen Hawking Medal for Science Communication), astrobiologist Sara Seager and the renowned astronomer Jill Tarter decided to walk out as a result.

The event’s organisers later issued an apology, saying: “Starmus deeply regrets the sexist comments made by Chris Pissarides during a panel discussion and we accept the outrage that this has sparked.

“Our programme consists of incredible women and men from all over the world and we have made it clear that comments of this nature will not be tolerated at our festival.”

The gender and accent of Apple’s voice assistant across iPhone, iPad, Mac and other Apple devices has historically been dependent on regional settings. However, recent software updates have allowed users to change both the gender and accent via a menu.

“The comments made do reflect consistent results that people make social judgements about computer speech outputs, and those seem to relate to gender stereotypes that exist in the wider world,” Dr Kate Hone, a computer science academic at Brunel University, told the BBC.

Dr Hones carried out a study in 2003 looking at which voices older adults would prefer to listen to on smartphones. Out of the 15 male and 17 female participants interviewed, because they found the voices to be more reassuring.

Other studies have produced similar results, finding that people were more comfortable getting technical advice from a male voice, but preferred a female voice for tips on emotional issues.

However, Prof Aaron Sloman, an artificial intelligence and cognitive science expert at the University of Birmingham said he was not bothered how these voices sounded.

“It sounds completely idiotic to me,” he said.

“The voice of a computer-generated chatbot is something that can be arbitrarily changed. I cannot see how gender would have anything to do with the reliability of the content or the quality of the engineering that went into the AI system.”

Prof Sloman, who is 80, said that he has problems with his ears and some radio programmes feature male voices that for him are more penetrating and easier to hear rather than female voices.

“I don’t understand why we are gendering our AI at all – it’s a computer program, not a person,” said Phoenix Perry, a lecturer in computing and researcher for feminism in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at Goldsmiths, University of London.

“When we use search, we don’t think of Google or Safari as having a gender. I’m not sure why when we interact with it using voice command, it needs a gender. Microsoft Word, which can read out documents to you, definitely does not have a gender.”