In today’s Bulldog wrapup of technology news:
- Are hackers helping the FBI crack that terrorist’s Apple iPhone?
- Microsoft’s ‘bot’ axed after learning a bit too much
- Oculus VR headset nears launch
- Yahoo’s shareholder rebellion becomes a mutiny against Marissa Mayer
- Shadowy hacking industry may be helping FBI crack an iPhone
Turns out there’s a shadowy global industry devoted to breaking into smartphones and extracting their information. But you’ve probably never heard of it unless you’re a worried parent, a betrayed spouse — or a federal law enforcement agency.
Now one of those hacking businesses may well be helping the FBI try to break into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino killers.
Late Monday, the FBI abruptly put its legal fight with Apple on hold, announcing that an “outside party” had come forward with a possible way to unlock the phone. In an update for reporters Thursday, FBI Director James Comey said the method “may work.” If so, it could render Apple’s forced cooperation unnecessary.
The announcement has thrown a spotlight on a group of digital forensics companies, contractors and freelance consultants that make a living cracking security protections on phones and computers. Comey said the publicity around the Apple case encouraged such people to come forward with new ideas.
Most such companies keep a very low profile. Since the bulk of their business is with governments and law enforcement, there’s no reason to for them to advertise their services. In addition, it’s in their interest to keep exactly what they do under wraps, said Christopher Soghoian, principal technology expert for the ACLU.
“The companies won’t share their secrets. It’s their special sauce,” Soghoian said. “And they certainly won’t tell Apple how they’re doing what they’re doing.”
For the moment, no one outside the Justice Department appears to know who the FBI’swhite knight is. A great deal of speculation centers on Cellebrite — an Israel-based forensics firm that says it does business with thousands of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, militaries and governments in more than 90 countries — though it remains one of several possible candidates. A company spokesman declined to comment.
Cellebrite, founded in 1999, has contracts with the FBI dating back to at least 2013. The firm makes devices that allow law enforcement to extract and decode data such as contacts, pictures and text messages from more than 15,000 kinds of smartphones and other mobile devices.
It also makes commercial products that companies can use to help their customers transfer data from old phones to new ones. Apple even uses Cellebrite devices in some of its stores.
In the cybersecurity arms race, Apple has managed to stay ahead of these forensics companies. Cellebrite’s website says its commercial tools work with iPhones running older operating systems, including iOS 8, but not the latest version, iOS 9, which is on the San Bernardino phone.
- Microsoft axes chatbot that learned a little too much online
OMG! Did you hear about the artificial intelligence program that Microsoft designed to chat like a teenage girl? It was totally yanked offline in less than a day, after it began spouting racist, sexist and otherwise offensive remarks.
Microsoft said it was all the fault of some really mean people, who launched a “coordinated effort” to make the chatbot known as Tay “respond in inappropriate ways.” To which one artificial intelligence expert responded: Duh!
Well, he didn’t really say that. But computer scientist Kris Hammond did say, “I can’t believe they didn’t see this coming.”
Microsoft said its researchers created Tay as an experiment to learn more about computers and human conversation. On its website, the company said the program was targeted to an audience of 18 to 24-year-olds and was “designed to engage and entertain people where they connect with each other online through casual and playful conversation.”
In other words, the program used a lot of slang and tried to provide humorous responses when people sent it messages and photos. The chatbot went live on Wednesday, and Microsoft invited the public to chat with Tay on Twitter and some other messaging services popular with teens and young adults.
“The more you chat with Tay the smarter she gets, so the experience can be more personalized for you,” the company said.
But some users found Tay’s responses odd, and others found it wasn’t hard to nudge Tay into making offensive comments, apparently prompted by repeated questions or statements that contained offensive words. Soon, Tay was making sympathetic references to Hitler — and creating a furor on social media.
“Unfortunately, within the first 24 hours of coming online, we became aware of a coordinated effort by some users to abuse Tay’s commenting skills to have Tay respond in inappropriate ways,” Microsoft said in a statement.
While the company didn’t elaborate, Hammond says it appears Microsoft made no effort to prepare Tay with appropriate responses to certain words or topics. Tay seems to be a version of “call and response” technology, added Hammond, who studies artificial intelligence at Northwestern University and also serves as chief scientist for Narrative Science, a company that develops computer programs that turn data into narrative reports.
- Oculus’ virtual reality headset to launch without fanfare
When the Oculus Rift debuts next week, it won’t do so with a star-studded launch party or massive marketing blitz worthy of a new video game console or smartphone. Instead, thousands of the virtual reality doodads will simply arrive on the door steps of early adopters willing to spend $600 for the immersive technology.
Oculus’ founder Palmer Luckey kick-started interest in modern-day VR four years ago with the introduction of a clunky headset he crafted from smartphone parts. The gizmo has evolved into a head-mounted display capable of transporting wearers to virtualworlds, without the same level of nausea-inducing side effects that plagued VR inventions in the 1990s.
After being acquired by Facebook for $2 billion in 2014 and releasing several experimental versions of the Rift for developers, Oculus’ first consumer headset debuts Monday, although the first wave has already sold out and new orders won’t arrive until this summer. The sky-high expectations and hype for high-fidelity VR have lowered in recent months, mostly because of the limited supply of headsets and consumers who own PCs fast enough to run them. There are also lingering concerns about the potential for VR motion sickness and other health issues.
“It’s not going to be everyone in the whole world using virtual reality — or even gamers using virtual reality,” Luckey said at last week’s Game Developers Conference. “There is going to be an adoption curve over time, starting with early adopters or PC gamers who either own or are willing to buy a high-end PC. In that sense, it is part of a multi-year process.”
Oculus hasn’t said how many headsets it’s sold since the consumer version first went on sale in January. Luckey noted that the Rift, which requires a PC costing at least $1,000 to operate, isn’t being distributed to members of the media for review in order to fulfill more orders from customers.
- As Yahoo Turns: Shareholder mutiny begins another soap opera
Shareholder rebellions at Yahoo are becoming like presidential elections — they are happening every four years.
Activist investor Starboard Value launched a widely anticipated mutiny Thursday in a letter announcing its intent to overthrow Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and the rest of the company’s board. It marks the opening salvo in a battle for control of Yahoo Inc. that could drag into the summer.
This is the third attempted coup at Yahoo since 2008, all led by different shareholdersfed up with different management teams’ fruitless attempts to turn around the company.
The two previous uprisings in 2008 and 2012 culminated in Yahoo giving board seats to the dissident shareholders. The unrest also contributed to the departures of two of Yahoo’s previous CEOs, company co-founder Jerry Yang and Scott Thompson.
Now, Mayer’s job is in jeopardy as a prolonged revenue slump at Yahoo deepens nearly four years into her reign as CEO.
“We have been extremely disappointed with Yahoo’s dismal financial performance, poor management execution, egregious compensation and hiring practices, and general lack of accountability,” Starboard CEO Jeffrey Smith wrote in Thursday’s letter.
As part of a process known as a proxy fight, Starboard nominated nine alternative candidates to oppose Mayer and Yahoo’s other current directors at the company’s annual shareholder meeting in June.
The list of alternatives includes Smith, who has been publicly skewering Yahoo for the past 18 months in an attempt to pressure Mayer into taking drastic steps that he believes will boost the company’s stock price.
Starboard, which owns a 1.7 percent stake in Yahoo, engineered a 2014 proxy battle that tossed out the entire board of Darden Restaurants Inc., the owner of Olive Garden.