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October 05, 2018

I'm ba-ack (in San Francisco).

1 big thing: Dueling stories over server spying

Bloomberg Businessweek cover story on a reported Chinese hacking of servers
Photo: Bloomberg Businessweek

According to Bloomberg Businessweek, hackers believed to be working on behalf of the Chinese government managed to sneak a nearly invisible spy chip onto servers made by Supermicro and deliver them to Apple and Amazon.

According to Apple, Amazon, Supermicro and the Chinese government, nothing of the sort took place.

The bottom line: The allegations are explosive, but the denials from Apple and Amazon are both strong, specific, and highly unusual for both companies.

What they're saying:

  • Apple: "As Apple has repeatedly explained to Bloomberg reporters and editors over the past 12 months, there is no truth to these claims." The company refuted the allegations in detail and denied that it was under any kind of legal restraint to talk about the matter.
  • Amazon: "There are so many inaccuracies in ‎this article as it relates to Amazon that they’re hard to count." It also went into detail on what it believes are several problems with the story.
  • Supermicro: "Supermicro has never been contacted by any government agencies either domestic or foreign regarding the alleged claims."
  • Britain's National Cyber Security Center (per Reuters): “We are aware of the media reports but at this stage have no reason to doubt the detailed assessments made by AWS and Apple."
  • Bloomberg issued a statement standing by its story and noting its investigation took a year and involved more than 100 interviews.

Our thought bubble: It's worth noting that no other publication has said it has any of the same information as Bloomberg. Nor has anyone provided a plausible explanation for the striking disparity between the report and the denials.

  • The Washington Post initially had a story with an official expressing confidence in the report, but it was updated with an editor's note saying the official "later expressed uncertainty."

The big picture: The Bloomberg report comes in the wake of security concerns about Chinese hardware, especially those manufactured by Huawei and ZTE.

  • The story posted on the same day that Vice President Mike Pence delivered a broadside against Chinese influence campaigns — but since Bloomberg's story has long been in the works, the timing seems most likely a coincidence.

Perhaps the best piece out there came from longtime security reporter Zack Whittaker, of TechCrunch, who writes about the murkiness and pitfalls of national security reporting.

  • Whittaker hearkens back to the days of the Edward Snowden revelations and notes how some of the initial reporting on the top secret Prism program also elicited strenuous denials, in part because some key details were misreported.
  • On Twitter, he concludes:
I think this Bloomberg "chip spy" story boils down to one basic point. The real problem is that some of the smartest, brilliant minded, rational people who are experts in this field have no idea who to believe on this story. I'm an idiot — and I have no clue, either.

2. Facebook employees up in arms

Facebook policy executive Joel Kaplan's attendance at Brett Kavanaugh's testimony last week sparked a firestorm inside the company, according to multiple reports.

Our thought bubble: The reaction, Axios' David McCabe notes, is another example of the kind of turmoil Silicon Valley companies face when leaders make choices that clash with values held by many in their workforce.

Kaplan and Kavanaugh are close friends, having served in the George W. Bush administration together. Kaplan's wife, Laura Cox Kaplan, has also been a vocal supporter of the Supreme Court nominee since allegations emerged that he may have committed sexual misconduct in high school and college.

  • Kaplan, who is Facebook's vice president of global public policy, has reportedly apologized for surprising his colleagues with his appearance at the hearing. The company has said he was there on personal time.

Now, Facebook employees are putting pressure on the company's leadership over Kaplan's decision, according to reports from New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Per the articles...

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told employees he wouldn't have attended, if he had been in Kaplan's shoes.
  • COO Sheryl Sandberg said that she "talked to Joel about why I think it was a mistake for him to attend given his role in the company."

What they're saying:

"Sexual assault is an issue society has turned a blind eye to for far too long — compounding every victim's pain. Our leadership team recognizes that they've made mistakes handling the events of the last week and we're grateful for all the feedback from our employees."
— Facebook spokesperson

The bottom line: "Even at Facebook, people seem more riled up about the Kavanaugh hearings than the giant Facebook hack," Wired editor Nicholas Thompson notes on Twitter.

3. Elon Musk taunts SEC on Twitter

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is back on Twitter antagonizing the Securities and Exchange Commission just four days after settling with the agency for $20 million.

Musk also took issue with one of his own tweets, a six-year-old message in which he defended the rights of short sellers. Yesterday, he replied, "What they do should be illegal."

Why it matters: The SEC reached settlements with Musk and Tesla that contain provisions aimed at vetting Musk’s shoot-from-the-hip tweeting. He’s mocking the very commission he struck a deal with — before that deal has even been approved by a judge. A deal, we should point out, that will require him to get approval from the company for his Tesla-related tweets.

4. Using social media against disease outbreaks

A man speaks on the phone at a call center in the Liberian capital Monrovia, where people can report Ebola cases, on August 9, 2014.
A call center in the Liberian capital Monrovia, where people could report Ebola cases in August 2014. Photo: Zoom Dosso/AFP/Getty Images

Public health officials say that polling using text messages, social media platforms and other digital tools can be key in both tracking the health care behavior of people and disseminating lifesaving information during emergency situations.

Why it matters: During public health emergencies — such as the current Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo — it's difficult for public health officials to monitor people's health care behavior.

Digital polls and social media monitoring can complement physical tracking in a way that could save time, money and offer more safety to health care workers, according to New York University's Rumi Chunara.

Study details: The study examined the Ebola outbreak in Liberia in 2015, and found health officials were able to use text message surveys to determine in real time how people used maternal health services, measuring a "significant drop" in hospital-based births during the outbreak, Chunara tells Axios' Eileen Drage O'Reilly.

Also: Social media is being used to help forecast seasonal flu epidemics. The Los Alamos National Laboratory told Axios during the last flu season that they found social media (in particular using Google health trends) to be helpful in their forecasting.

Go deeper: Eileen has more here.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • Hopefully some sleep. Didn't get home until almost midnight and still had to see what Musk had tweeted while I was on the plane.

Trading Places


  • Pence says Google should halt a potential re-entry into the Chinese search market.
  • House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi plans sweeping regulation of tech if Dems win the majority, Recode's Kara Swisher writes in an opinion piece. (NYT)
  • ShopRunner plans to acquire e-commerce startup Spring. (Recode)
  • A study from the Knight Foundation found that 80% of the Twitter accounts that spread disinformation during the 2016 election are still active today, publishing “more than a million tweets” a day. (Axios)

6. After you Login

I think we could all use some kittens, no?