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State of the Cloud, February 2019

Fergus O'Sullivan
By Fergus O'Sullivan (Writer, Former Chief Editor)
— Last Updated: 2021-02-19T13:49:18+00:00

Hello, and welcome to 2019’s second State of the Cloud, the monthly column where the editorial column puts salt and vinegar on the news of the past 31 days. We’ve curated what we think are the most important tech stories of January 2019, plus we’re making predictions for February.

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter for the latest on reviews, articles and investigations.

The year started slow, but Facebook and Google were back in the news after the first week for not caring about privacy and democracy, plus the trade war between the U.S. and China began heating up again. The biggest news in our opinion, though, was the exclusive Reuters broke on January 30 concerning something called Project Raven.

Black as Ravens

Project Raven

As you know, the U.S. National Security Agency spies on people. That is not news. What isn’t news either is that once they leave government service, U.S. intelligence operatives often do more or less the same work they were doing before, only for private companies contracting for their old agencies. That said, what Reuters discovered in this article is that some of them end up working for foreign governments.

In the case of Project Raven, that foreign government is the United Arab Emirates. That regime is deeply hostile to human rights, as you can read in the introduction of our best VPN for UAE piece, which raises the question whether anybody should be working with it, especially if you consider that many of Raven’s targets were journalists and human rights campaigners.

All that is bad enough, but it’s made worse when you find out Project Raven was able to make use of Karma, a weapon of cyberwarfare that can infiltrate iPhones (and only iPhones) to download pictures, texts and the like.

Though it may be good news to some that NSA operatives can still make a living plying their trade even after leaving the NSA, we’re grateful Reuters was able to dig up this story. Let’s hope something happens after it. We also should note that the ex-NSA employees in question didn’t step forward until after Raven started on spying on Americans. Apparently, everybody else is fair game.

You Guessed It, More Facebook Stuff

Facebook fines

In more run-of-the-mill news, Facebook is still front and center, despite the saga running since the April edition of this column. For one, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is considering fining the Zuck’s little dragon for an unknown amount, though one spokesman quoted it as being “millions.” To make it hurt, it would have to be billions, but we guess something is better than nothing.

Across the Atlantic, Germany’s antitrust watchdog is citing Facebook for its data collection, while also continuing its four-year investigation. Vietnam is also after Facebook, but you won’t hear us cheer for them because it’s about the company not adhering to the communist regime’s strict censorship laws, which you can read about in our best VPN for Vietnam piece.

Beset on all fronts, Facebook is seemingly cleaning up its act, rather than curling into a ball — the usual American corporate tactic. It will be getting more strict on what ads get through during 2019’s upcoming elections, which worked out well during the November midterms in the U.S., as well as cracking down further on troll armies.

That is probably the light in which we need to view the closing of the hundreds of accounts linked to Sputnik, an English-language Russian news agency. The 364 pages in question were spreading disinformation and fake news, so their defeat seems to have been a victory for all that’s decent in the world.

Google’s ABCs

Sidewalk Labs

Speaking of enemies of all that’s decent in the world, Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is proving that slurped data can be profitable in almost any industry. Sidewalk Labs, another Alphabet subsidiary, is helping city planners with their jobs and doing so very, very well.

It’s doing it too well, in fact, as this article by The Intercept shows. It turns out that Sidewalk Labs is using pilfered data to determine how people use cities, where they walk, where they go before and after work and all that. It’s a gross violation of privacy because no one whose data was used was consulted beforehand, but it’s for the greater good, eh, guys? Guys?

France is not standing idly by anymore as Google slurps away like an unsupervised fat kid at a soda machine, though, and has fined the tech giant for General Data Protection Regulation breaches. Google is appealing the fine, so expect that bit of justice to be stuck in litigious limbo for a while.

That’s not to say Google is the only one guilty of GDPR breaches. One Austrian privacy activist accuses all of Big Tech of doing so.

On top of its regulatory woes, Google is facing dissent from its shareholders as one filed a lawsuit against the company for giving an executive a golden handshake. That normally isn’t a big faux pas in the corporate world, but the exec in question had been let go after accusations of sexual harassment. That’s not the kind of signal you want to send out in this day and age.

War Without Weapons

Trade war

Meanwhile, the trade war with China that The Donald started is heating up, with the main pawn being Huawei, a telecommunications equipment manufacturer — among other things. The U.S., New Zealand and Germany banned it from bidding on 5G auctions, saying 5G networks would be of vital and strategic importance and should not involve hostile government regimes.

The U.S. may have a point. Though Huawei is officially employee-owned rather than state-owned, there is evidence it allows Beijing to install spyware on its phones. Also this month, Huawei phones auto-deleted Chinese users’ photos from Twitter, a website that’s normally behind the Great Firewall. That indicates the Chinese government has plenty of influence over the company.

That said, it’s not all bad news. The pressure exerted on Huawei, including the arrest in Canada of its chief financial officer, and the rest of China is bearing fruit. The Chinese supreme court is looking into the charges of intellectual property theft leveled at the country.

The sword of trade cuts both ways, though. Silicon Valley is losing investment money as Chinese businessmen looking to stash their cash are heading for the hills. Taken together, the trade war may turn out okay, but a single misstep by either side could blow up in everybody’s face. Watch this space.

Smaller Stories

China VPN ban

We’ll start our shorter stories with the terrifying news that China is officially enforcing its VPN ban. That won’t be a surprise to anybody following the way the totalitarian state abuses its citizens, but people wanting to exercise their basic human rights in the Middle Kingdom should be doubly aware. We’ll be updating our best VPN for China article to reflect the development soon.

At Davos, a get-together of the high and mighty where we’re told how to make the world better by the people making it worse, Apple CEO Tim Cook spoke about the need to stop data collection. It’s not often we agree with a billion-dollar man, but Tim Cook!?

In a cool tally of how little net neutrality has done for anybody, Vice put to rest the assertion by U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai that networks would expand. Pai was also under fire from Congress for allowing telecom companies to track consumers. It was a bad month for our favorite corporate shill and it couldn’t have happened to a nicer fella.

We’ll finish our recap with the news of a new record, though you likely won’t be happy to hear it. Security researcher Troy Hunt has found the largest ever trove of stolen credentials, 87GB worth. Yay for cybercrime?

Final Thoughts

On that happy note, we’ll finish up for the month. We predict February will be the month of further trade war fun, though we’ll bet on good odds that Facebook, Google, et al. will find ways to delight us like they always do.

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What do you think will be the big stories of February? Did we miss any in January? Let us know in the comments below and, as always, thank you for reading.

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