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April 18, 2022

Well, hey there. It's great to be back in your inbox. A huge thanks to Scott Rosenberg and the rest of the tech team for all their help last week. And to Elon Musk for single-handedly making sure they had enough to write about.

Today's newsletter is 1,152 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Americans are drowning in spam

Data: Robokiller; Chart: Baidi Wang/Axios

You're not imagining it: The flood of spam calls, texts, emails and social media posts into your life is getting a lot bigger, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill and Sara Fischer report.

Why it matters: Junk messages aren't just annoying — they also open the door to more fraud, cybercrime and identity theft than ever before.

Driving the news: The average American received roughly 42 spam texts just in the month of March, according to new data from RoboKiller, an app that blocks spam calls and texts.

  • Spammers like using text messages because of their high open rates — and are now even mimicking targets' own phone numbers to get them to click malicious links, as the New York Times reported.

What they're saying: "Just like with robocalls, it's extremely easy to deploy [spam texts] in enormous volume and hide your identity," Will Maxson, assistant director of the FTC's division of marketing practices, told Axios.

  • "There's a large number of actors all over the world trying to squeeze spam into the network from almost an infinite number of entry points all the time."

It's not just texts. Every form of spam is on the rise.

  • There were more spam calls last month than in any of the previous six months, per YouMail's Robocall Index.
  • Spam emails rose by 30% from 2020 to 2021, according to a January report from the Washington Post.
  • There was an unprecedented increase in social media scams last year, according to data from the Federal Trade Commission. Many scams were related to bogus cryptocurrency investments.

Between the lines: Experts attribute the sharp increase in spam to the pandemic. People's increased reliance on digital communications turned them into ready targets.

  • The Federal Communications Commission saw a nearly 146% increase in the number of complaints about unwanted text messages in 2020.

And it's working: Americans reported losing $131 million to fraud schemes initiated by text in 2021, a jump over 50% from the year before, according to data from the FTC.

Our thought bubble: Email spam has been around forever, but email providers have largely filtered it out for us. Cell providers, though, are still behind.

What's next: The FCC tried to reduce robocalls in part by working with cell phone carriers to implement call authentication requirements. But now the agency is playing catch-up on policing spam texts.

  • FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel announced a proposal in October to craft rules that would require wireless providers to block illegal text messaging, but her plan has not yet been voted on by the agency.

Yes, but: As regulators and service providers try to crack down, spammers keep getting more creative. Their latest tactic is mass FaceTime calls, often at late hours of the night.

2. Apple faces its first union push

Apple 's retail store in Grand Central Terminal, Manhattan, New York City.
Apple's retail store in Grand Central Terminal, New York City. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Workers at Apple's flagship retail store in New York City's Grand Central Terminal have taken steps toward forming a union, per a website update by organizers, Axios' Rebecca Falconer and I report.

Why it matters: If organizers succeed, this would be the first Apple retail store to unionize.

Driving the news: The Pacific Blue Collar Organizing Committee said in the website update that workers at the Manhattan store voted on Feb. 21 to affiliate with Workers United, a national labor union that the site notes has helped Starbucks workers successfully unionize across the U.S.

  • "Grand Central is an extraordinary store with unique working conditions that make a union necessary to ensure our team has the best possible standards of living in what have proven to be extraordinary times," per the website.
  • The site links out to a report on Apple temporarily closing in-store shopping in North American locations including New York City last December due to COVID-19 spikes and an article on inflation reaching a new 40-year high in February to support its point.

What they're saying: Apple hasn't confirmed whether or not it would support moves by its workers to unionize, but said in a statement that the company is "fortunate to have incredible retail team members and we deeply value everything they bring to Apple."

Our thought bubble: Among all the tech companies, Apple is known for being the most secretive and imposing strict limits on what Apple workers can say or do, suggesting a union push would be seen as most unwelcome.

  • At the same time, the company may worry that heavy-handed anti-union tactics could hurt the company’s public image.

The big picture: After avoiding unions for decades, tech workers are increasingly interested in ways that the labor movement might help give them a stronger voice inside powerful companies like Amazon and Google.

3. Report: NSO Group's spyware is everywhere

Governments around the world have made even more extensive use of commercial spyware from Israel's NSO Group than previously known, according to new reporting in the New Yorker by Ronan Farrow.

Why it matters: Governments are simultaneously employing NSO's Pegasus software while grappling with the impact that it and similar tools can have when used against their interests.

Among the revelations:

  • The report says that "there is evidence that Pegasus is being used in at least 45 countries."
  • Pegasus and similar tools are being used by U.S. law enforcement agencies as well as those in Europe.
  • "The big, dirty secret is that governments are buying this stuff — not just authoritarian governments but all types of governments," Microsoft executive Cristin Flynn Goodwin tells Farrow.

Catch up quick: Pegasus, NSO's flagship product, is used by governments to gain access to the contents of cell phones by exploiting flaws in the devices' operating systems and software.

The big picture: NSO Group, for all its success in infiltrating phones, faces a number of legal and financial hurdles.

  • Apple and Facebook are both suing NSO over its technology, while a number of spying targets have filed suit in courts around the world.

The other side: NSO Group notes in the piece that it is trying to navigate through a murky area of international law.

  • The company says it has also turned down more than 90 customers, foregoing hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue over ethical concerns.
  • NSO CEO Shalev Hulio called for something that a growing number of large technology and government leaders also want — a kind of Geneva Convention to set bounds on cyberwarfare.

4. Take note

On Tap

Trading Places

ICYMI

  • GitHub confirmed Friday that stolen OAuth tokens were used to improperly steal data from various organizations. (GitHub)
  • Meanwhile, the Beanstalk stablecoin said it lost $182 million in assets via an exploit. (The Block)

5. After you Login

Students at Edison, an elementary school in Burbank, California, created these giant light bulbs that are visible from the sky.