Jan 14, 2020

Axios Login

By Ina Fried
Ina Fried

Hi again from D.C. I'm about to head into a day of Axios meetings, but excited to share today's Login, which is packed with really interesting tech news and just a sprinkle of extra virgin olive oil.

And if you are counting words, don't worry, today's Login is 1,478 words, a 5.5-minute read.

Situational awareness: The Russian hackers are at it again. Per the New York Times, hackers linked to the Russian government have broken into Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company of which Hunter Biden was a board member.

1 big thing: At Supreme Court, Google's league of software defenders

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A wide array of tech companies are siding with Google in its copyright battle against Oracle in filings with the Supreme Court Monday, Margaret Harding McGill reports.

The big picture: The case revolves around key questions of software copyright and fair use that could have major consequences for the industry.

  • A Supreme Court win for Oracle would make it easier for companies to build proprietary walls around their software — and harder for open-source oriented projects to co-exist with such code. (It would also put Google on the hook for billions in damages.)
  • A Google win would let developers go on replicating code, including through the continued open use of APIs, which are ways that programs define how other programs can communicate with them.
  • The briefs are a show of support for Google's vision of the future — though Oracle will also have its chance to marshal allies to try and sway the court in the coming weeks.

Context: The companies have been feuding for the last decade over whether Google illegally used parts of Oracle's Java code for its Android software. They swapped victories in lower courts before the Supreme Court in November agreed to hear the case.

Driving the news: IBM and Microsoft filed briefs at the Supreme Court in support of Google, as did consumer groups, trade associations and a collection of smaller tech companies and organizations, including Mozilla, Etsy and Reddit.

  • IBM supports Google because it's concerned that applying copyright law to "open public interfaces" will hurt business and innovation, IBM general counsel Michelle Browdy said in a statement.
  • "We must continue to foster an environment where companies of all sizes can use openly available interfaces to fuel the research and innovation that has reshaped our world," she said.
  • Microsoft argued developers rely on "sharing, modifying, and enhancing previously developed code to create new products and develop new functionality." Without the ability to reuse functional code to create new things, "innovative follow-on development will be compromised."

Flashback: The Trump administration's solicitor general last year urged the Supreme Court not to take up the case, arguing that Google "copied 11,500 lines of computer code verbatim, as well as the complex structure and organization inherent in that code, in order to help its competing commercial product," harming Oracle in the process.

  • The Obama administration also advised the Supreme Court against taking up the case during an earlier stage in the litigation.

The bottom line: The software business has grown steadily more interconnected for decades, with once-possessive giants like Microsoft and IBM embracing openness. This case could shift that tide.

Go deeper

2. Fight brews between Apple and DOJ

The Justice Department wants access to encrypted iPhones tied to the Dec. 6 shooting at the Naval Air Station Pensacola in Florida — in a situation that greatly resembles the aftermath of the 2015 San Bernardino shooting.

  • Apple, for its part, is strongly hinting it will challenge a demand for access.

Why it matters: The San Bernardino standoff ended without a legal determination when the FBI withdrew its request and found another way in. The issue remains unsettled and is one of the most hotly debated issues in tech, with no clear middle ground.

What's happening: Apple will, with a court order, provide law enforcement with data on its servers, including data backed up from iPhones.

  • However, the company has refused requests to access encrypted data on the phone, which could be accomplished only through rewriting its software, such as to allow an unlimited amount of guesses at a user's passcode.

What they're saying: Attorney General William Barr called for tech companies to provide the government with broader access to encrypted devices. Barr said that Apple has provided no "substantive assistance," per the New York Times.

  • “We don’t want to get into a world where we have to spend months and even years exhausting efforts when lives are in the balance,” Barr told NYT. “We should be able to get in when we have a warrant that establishes that criminal activity is underway.”

On the other side: Apple said, "[W]e reject the characterization that Apple has not provided substantive assistance in the Pensacola investigation." In a statement to Axios, the company said...

  • "Our responses to their many requests since the attack have been timely, thorough and are ongoing,"
  • "Within hours of the FBI’s first request on December 6th, we produced a wide variety of information associated with the investigation."
  • "From December 7th through the 14th, we received six additional legal requests and in response provided information including iCloud backups, account information and transactional data for multiple accounts."
  • A request for information on a second iPhone came a month later, Apple said.

Between the lines: Apple's reference to the time frame matters as the company is able to provide greater help to law enforcement in the immediate aftermath of an issue.

  • One of the iPhones in question, reportedly an iPhone 7, has Apple's Touch ID system. While gruesome, it's possible to use a dead person's finger to unlock their iPhone if done quickly enough.

Go deeper:

3. Activists: Keep face recognition off campus

Fresh off a campaign to ban facial recognition software from being used at concerts, Fight for the Future is trying to rally students to persuade their schools to take a similarly strong stand against broad use of the powerful technology.

Why it matters: In the absence of legislation limiting its use, activists want to prevent facial recognition from becoming commonplace in public spaces.

"While facial recognition is not yet widespread on college campuses, the companies that make it are aggressively marketing it to schools. ... Now is the moment to draw a line in the sand and prevent this dangerous technology from creeping further and further into our daily lives."
— Evan Greer, deputy director of Fight for the Future, tells Axios

What's new: Fight for the Future is partnering with Students for Sensible Drug Policy for its campaign. The goal, Greer says, is to get as many colleges and universities as possible to commit to not use facial recognition technology on campus.

What they're saying: Abhi Duwan, a junior at George Washington University where he's president of its SSDP chapter, pointed to well-documented issues of racial and other bias as well as other dangers.

"Many groups or even the government could force the administration to share our biometric data, putting students at risk. ... If students and professors are under 24/7 surveillance, this could significantly detriment diversity of academic thought and discourse."
— Abhi Duwan

The big picture: Fight for the Future has been trying to stop the creep of facial recognition in a wide range of areas. Its effort targeting concert promoters got 40 of the world's largest music festivals, including Coachella, SXSW and Bonnaroo, to state they don't have plans to use such technology.

  • Ideally, that "will help build momentum for what we really need, which is an outright federal ban on all use of facial recognition for surveillance purposes," Greer adds.

The other side: Proponents of the technology say it can help keep people safe, provided issues of privacy and bias can be addressed.

4. IBM's blockchain ensures olive oil really is extra virgin

Photo courtesy of CHO

Large olive oil producer CHO is using IBM's food blockchain to allow customers to track their oil — from the orchard where the olives are grown, through the mill where they are crushed, to the facilities where the oil is filtered and bottled.

Why it matters: Assuring food safety and quality seems to be one of the most compelling uses for the much-hyped technology.

Details: CHO is starting with its Terra Delyssa brand, beginning with its most recent harvest. Customers can scan a QR code to get the information on their olives.

The bigger picture: Olive oil, in particular, has had major issues around provenance and quality, as detailed compellingly in Tom Mueller's book "Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil" (which I happen to be reading).

Yes, but: Putting the information on the blockchain makes it decentralized and immutable, but doesn't guarantee the data is good in the first place. To do that, CHO relies on its own testing plus a third-party analysis performed on every lot of oil produced.

My thought bubble: I get a ton of pitches touting blockchain, usually resulting in a good eye roll. But tracking and assuring the provenance of foods and medicines has always struck me as one of the more compelling uses.

5. Take Note

On Tap

  • The retail industry's big trade show, NRF 2020, wraps up in New York.

Trading Places

  • Away co-founder Steph Korey, who announced she would leave her CEO post, now plans to stay on as co-CEO, per NYT. She had announced her departure and apologized in the wake of a blistering story from The Verge, citing internal slack messages and detailing abusive management practices.
  • FCC chairman Ajit Pai plans to appoint Paul A. Jackson as director of the agency's Office of Legislative Affairs. Jackson will replace Tim Strachan, who will continue his work at the FCC in the Office of General Counsel.
  • Cloudera named former Hortonworks chief Rob Bearden as its CEO. Cloudera acquired Hortonworks last year.


6. After you Login

Check out cycle ball, a cross between cycling and soccer.

Ina Fried