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AT&T Explores Parting Ways With DirecTV

According to The Wall Street Journal, AT&T is exploring parting with its DirecTV unit as customers are leaving the service in droves. From the report: The telecom giant has considered various options, including a spinoff of DirecTV into a separate public company and a combination of DirecTV's assets with Dish Network, its satellite-TV rival, the people said. AT&T may ultimately decide to keep DirecTV in the fold. Despite the satellite service's struggles, as consumers drop their TV connections, it still contributes a sizable volume of cash flow and customer accounts to its parent. AT&T acquired DirecTV in 2015 for $49 billion. The company's shrinking satellite business is under a microscope after activist investor Elliott Management Corp. disclosed a $3.2 billion stake in AT&T last week and released a report pushing for strategic changes. Elliott has told investors that AT&T should unload DirecTV, The Wall Street Journal has previously reported. Jettisoning DirecTV would be an about-face for Mr. Stephenson, who billed the acquisition of the company as a bold move to diversify beyond the wireless phone business and tap into a growing media industry. The deal made AT&T the largest distributor of pay TV channels, ahead of Comcast. DirecTV is now part of an entertainment and consumer wireline unit that made up 27% of AT&T's $173.3 billion 2018 revenue. For Mr. Stephenson, who has helmed AT&T for 12 years, parting ways with DirecTV would be an acknowledgment that a major cornerstone of his diversification strategy hasn't gone as planned. It also adds pressure for AT&T to deliver on the promise of the Time Warner deal. Mr. Stephenson has signaled he is prepared to step down as CEO as soon as next year, the Journal reported last week. The Journal goes on to say that AT&T may ultimately decide to keep DirecTV because of "AT&T's towering net debt load, which stood at more than $160 billion earlier this year. The cash generated by the pay-TV giant has helped pay down that debt and fueled other investments in the rest of the company." "Any spinoff of DirecTV would be unlikely until mid-2020 at the earliest, five years after the deal closed, to make it a tax-efficient transaction for AT&T," the report adds.

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Posted on 19 September 2019 | 10:00 am

Navy Confirms Existence of UFOs Seen In Leaked Footage

A Navy official has confirmed that recently released videos of unidentified flying objects are real, but that the footage was not authorized to be released to the public in the first place. From a report: Joseph Gradisher, the spokesman for the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare, confirmed to TIME that three widely-shared videos captured "Unidentified Aerial Phenomena." Gradisher initially confirmed this in a statement to "The Black Vault" a website dedicated to declassified government documents. "The Navy designates the objects contained in these videos as unidentified aerial phenomena," Gradisher told the site. He tells TIME that he was "surprised" by the press coverage surrounding his statement to the site, particularly around his classification of the incursions as "unidentifiable," but says that he hopes that leads to UAP's being "de-stigmatized." "The reason why I'm talking about it is to drive home the seriousness of this issue," Gradisher says. "The more I talk, the more our aviators and all services are more willing to come forward." Gradisher would not speculate as to what the unidentified objects seen in the videos were, but did say they are usually proved to be mundane objects like drones -- not alien spacecraft. "The frequency of incursions have increased since the advents of drones and quadcopters," he says. The three videos of UFOs were published by the New York Times and "To the Stars Academy of Arts and Science," a self-described "public benefit corporation" co-founded by Tom DeLonge, best known as the vocalist and guitarist for the rock band, Blink-182.

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Posted on 19 September 2019 | 7:00 am

Research Finds Black Carbon Breathed By Mothers Can Cross Into Unborn Children

An anonymous reader quotes a report from The Guardian: Air pollution particles have been found on the fetal side of placentas, indicating that unborn babies are directly exposed to the black carbon produced by motor traffic and fuel burning. The research is the first study to show the placental barrier can be penetrated by particles breathed in by the mother. It found thousands of the tiny particles per cubic millimeter of tissue in every placenta analyzed. The link between exposure to dirty air and increased miscarriages, premature births and low birth weights is well established. The research suggests the particles themselves may be the cause, not solely the inflammatory response the pollution produces in mothers. The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, examined 25 placentas from non-smoking women in the town of Hasselt. It has particle pollution levels well below the EU limit, although above the WHO limit. Researchers used a laser technique to detect the black carbon particles, which have a unique light fingerprint. In each case, they found nanoparticles on the fetal side of the placenta and the number correlated with air pollution levels experienced by the mothers. There was an average of 20,000 nanoparticles per cubic millimeter in the placentas of mothers who lived near main roads. For those further away, the average was 10,000 per cubic millimeter. They also examined placentas from miscarriages and found the particles were present even in 12-week-old fetuses.

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Posted on 19 September 2019 | 3:30 am

C-Section Babies Have More Potentially Infectious Gut Bacteria

Scientists from the Wellcome Sanger Institute, UCL, the University of Birmingham and their collaborators discovered that whereas vaginally born babies got most of their gut bacteria from their mother, babies born via caesarean did not, and instead had more bacteria associated with hospital environments in their guts. Science Daily reports: The exact role of the baby's gut bacteria is unclear and it isn't known if these differences at birth will have any effect on later health. The researchers found the differences in gut bacteria between vaginally born and caesarean delivered babies largely evened out by 1 year old, but large follow-up studies are needed to determine if the early differences influence health outcomes. Experts from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists say that these findings should not deter women from having a caesarean birth. Published in Nature today, this largest ever study of neonatal microbiomes also revealed that the microbiome of vaginally delivered newborns did not come from the mother's vaginal bacteria, but from the mother's gut. This calls into question the controversial practice of swabbing babies born via caesarean with mother's vaginal bacteria. Understanding how the birth process impacts on the baby's microbiome will enable future research into bacterial therapies.

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Posted on 19 September 2019 | 2:03 am

AI Can't Protect Us From Deepfakes, Argues New Report

A new report from Data and Society raises doubts about automated solutions to deceptively altered videos, including machine learning-altered videos called deepfakes. Authors Britt Paris and Joan Donovan argue that deepfakes, while new, are part of a long history of media manipulation -- one that requires both a social and a technical fix. Relying on AI could actually make things worse by concentrating more data and power in the hands of private corporations. The Verge reports: As Paris and Donovan see it, deepfakes are unlikely to be fixed by technology alone. "The relationship between media and truth has never been stable," the report reads. In the 1850s when judges began allowing photographic evidence in court, people mistrusted the new technology and preferred witness testimony and written records. By the 1990s, media companies were complicit in misrepresenting events by selectively editing out images from evening broadcasts. In the Gulf War, reporters constructed a conflict between evenly matched opponents by failing to show the starkly uneven death toll between U.S. and Iraqi forces. "These images were real images," the report says. "What was manipulative was how they were contextualized, interpreted, and broadcast around the clock on cable television." Today, deepfakes have taken manipulation even further by allowing people to manipulate videos and images using machine learning, with results that are almost impossible to detect with the human eye. Now, the report says, "anyone with a public social media profile is fair game to be faked." Once the fakes exist, they can go viral on social media in a matter of seconds. [...] Paris worries AI-driven content filters and other technical fixes could cause real harm. "They make things better for some but could make things worse for others," she says. "Designing new technical models creates openings for companies to capture all sorts of images and create a repository of online life."

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Posted on 19 September 2019 | 1:45 am

Workers Accuse Kickstarter of Union-Busting In Federal Complaint

On Monday night, unionizing employees at Kickstarter filed a complaint with the National Labor Review Board (NLRB) for allegedly wrongfully terminating two employees. Both of the employees were on the Kickstarter United organizing campaign. Motherboard reports: Kickstarter told Motherboard that the workers, Clarissa Redwine and Taylor Moore, were fired over performance issues within the past two weeks. But employees at Kickstarter are accusing the company of "discharging employees" because "they joined or supported a labor organization and in order to discourage union activities," according to the NLRB complaint, which was first reported and obtained by Slate's April Glaser. A third employee and member of the Kickstarter United organizing committee, Travis Brace, was informed on Thursday that he would no longer be needed in his role. In a September 12 email obtained by Motherboard, Aziz Hasan, the CEO of Kickstarter, wrote to employees, "There have been allegations that we are retaliating against union organizing. Those allegations are not true. No Kickstarter employee has been or ever will be fired for union organizing." Redwine says the company complained to her in recent months that she was not satisfactorily working with her managers. She claims that she was not given specific guidance on how she could improve. "Suddenly, after becoming a public union organizer, I started to get very strong negative feedback," Redwine told Motherboard. "After my best quarter at the company, I was told I was being put on a Performance Improvement Plan for slippery reasons like not building trust with my managers. I asked how progress would be tracked over and over and only received answers akin to 'just trust us.' I assume they never crafted the Performance Improvement Plan because they couldn't come up with anything concrete for me to improve." Redwine and Moore are asking for back pay and to be reinstated to their positions. In response to the complaint, Kickstarter said: "We'll be providing the NLRB with information about these firings and supporting documentation." Kickstarter told Motherboard that it "recently terminated two employees for performance reasons. A third was working on a service we shut down, so his role was eliminated, and there were no other positions here that would be a strong fit. That staff member will be transitioning out of the company. All three of these employees were members of the organizing committee, but this has nothing to do with their departures. (We have fired three other people who were not organizers since March.)" "We expect all employees -- including union organizers -- to be able to perform in their role and set up their teams and colleagues for success. We use a range of approaches -- twice-a-year performance reviews, peer feedback, manager feedback, one-on-one coaching and, in some cases, mediation -- to ensure that employees have the support they need to meet those expectations. When someone has been through this process and we have sufficient evidence that they are not meeting expectations, we must unfortunately part ways with them," the company continued.

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Posted on 19 September 2019 | 1:25 am

New Eco-Friendly Game Packaging Could Save Tons of Plastic Each Year

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: Sega and Sports Interactive have announced that Football Manager 2020 will be sold in new eco-friendly package that uses much less plastic, and they're pushing for the rest of the entertainment industry to follow suit. The new packaging replaces the now-standard plastic DVD case used for most game discs with a folded, reinforced cardboard sleeve made of 100% recycled fiber. The shrinkwrap surrounding that package has also been replaced with a low-density LDPE polyethylene that's highly recyclable. Even the ink on the cardboard has been changed out for a vegetable-and-water-based version (so it's technically vegan if you're desperate for a snack). The new packaging does cost a bit more to produce -- about 20 (British) cents per unit (or 30 percent), according to an open letter from Sports Interactive Studio Director Miles Jacobson. But those costs are somewhat offset by reduced shipping and destruction costs for excess units, he added. And as Spanish footballer Hector Bellerin says in a video accompanying the letter, "if there's no Earth, there's no money to spend." All told, Jacobson says the new packaging will save 55 grams of plastic per unit, or 20 tonnes across a print run of over 350,000. That's an extremely tiny dent in the estimated 335 million tons of plastic that is produced annually worldwide. But Jacobson hopes it could add up to a sizable dent if the entire industry follows suit for the tens of millions of discs it produces each year. "We're not the biggest game in the world," Jacobson said. "Imagine what happens if every other game, every film company, every music company switches to this packaging... So I'm throwing down the gauntlet here to ALL entertainment companies who use plastic for their Blu Ray, DVD and CD packaging."

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Posted on 19 September 2019 | 12:45 am

Apple Is Trying To Trademark 'Slofie'

On Friday, Apple applied for a U.S. Trademark on "Slofie," a made-up name for slow-motion selfies, a feature that's new to the iPhone 11 models. "The phones' front camera can now record video at 120 frames per second, which when slowed down, results in a crisp slow-motion effect," writes Jacob Kastrenakes for The Verge. "The results are neat, though I'm not convinced they'll turn into the Animoji-like phenomenon Apple may be hoping for." From the report: Apple is applying for a trademark on slofies in connection with "downloadable computer software for use in capturing and recording video." That means this trademark seems to be more about preventing other companies from making slofie-branded camera apps than it is about limiting popular usage of this totally made-up word. Apple has reason to want to prevent the creation of knock-off slofie apps, too, since slofies are meant to be exclusive to the new iPhones. Despite the focus on apps, Apple doesn't actually offer a slofie app or a slofie mode on the new iPhones. The feature is just called "slo-mo" in Apple's camera app, and the company's current usage of slofie refers exclusively to the resulting videos, not the app or mode used to capture them. Apple seems to be hoping slofies will be a fun selling point for its new phones. The feature is mentioned across Apple's website, and Apple presented a slofie ad during the phones' launch event. It wouldn't be surprising to see a lot more airing in the coming weeks once the phones are out.

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Posted on 19 September 2019 | 12:03 am

Exposed RDP Servers See 150K Brute-Force Attempts Per Week

Slashdot reader Cameyo shares a report from TechRepublic: Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) is -- to the frustration of security professionals -- both remarkably insecure and indispensable in enterprise computing. The September 2019 Patch Tuesday round closed two remote code execution bugs in RDP, while the high-profile BlueKeep and DejaBlue vulnerabilities from earlier this year have sent IT professionals in a patching frenzy. With botnets brute-forcing over 1.5 million RDP servers worldwide, a dedicated RDP security tool is needed to protect enterprise networks against security breaches. Cameyo released on Wednesday an open-source RDP monitoring tool -- appropriately titled RDPmon -- for enterprises to identify and secure against RDP attacks in its environment. The tool provides a visualization of the total number of attempted RDP connections to servers, as well as a view of the currently running applications, the number of RDP users, and what programs those users are running, likewise providing insight to the existence of unapproved software. RDPmon operates entirely on-premise, the program data is not accessible to Cameyo. Customers of Cameyo's paid platform can also utilize the RDP Port Shield feature, also released Wednesday, which opens RDP ports for authenticated users by setting IP address whitelists in Windows Firewall when users need to connect. RDP was designed with the intent to be run inside private networks, not accessible over the internet. Despite that, enterprise use of RDP over the internet is sufficiently widespread that RDP servers are a high-profile, attractive target for hackers. The report says Cameyo found that Windows public cloud machines on default settings -- that is, with port 3389 open -- experience more than 150,000 login attempts per week.

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Posted on 18 September 2019 | 11:25 pm

Facebook Plans Launch of Its Own 'Supreme Court' For Handling Takedown Appeals

An anonymous reader quotes a report from Ars Technica: Facebook, which has managed to transcend geographic borders to draw in a population equal to roughly a third of all human life on Earth, has made its final charter for a "Supreme Court" of Facebook public. The company pledges to launch this initiative by November of next year. The new Oversight Board will have five key powers, according to a charter (PDF) Facebook released yesterday. It can "request that Facebook provide information" it needs in a timely manner; it can make interpretations of Facebook standards and guidelines "in light of Facebook's articulated values"; and it can instruct the company to allow or remove content, to uphold or reverse a decision leading to content being permitted or removed, and to issue "prompt, written explanations of the board's decisions." "If someone disagrees with a decision we've made, they can appeal to us first, and soon they will be able to further appeal this to the independent board," company CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote in a letter (PDF). "As an independent organization, we hope it gives people confidence that their views will be heard and that Facebook doesn't have the ultimate power over their expression." The board will launch with at least 11 members and should eventually get up to 40. The entity will contract its services to Facebook. Participants will serve a maximum of three three-year terms each and will be paid for their time. Their decisions will "be made publicly available and archived in a database of case decisions," with details subject to certain data or privacy restrictions. Facebook can also contact the board for an "automatic and expedited review" in exceptional circumstances, "when content could result in urgent real world consequences," such as, for example, if a mass-murderer is livestreaming his crimes. The panel's decisions will be binding, Facebook added, and the company will implement its findings promptly, "unless implementation of a resolution could violate the law."

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Posted on 18 September 2019 | 10:45 pm

Programmers Complain that Huawei's Ark Compiler is 'Not Even Half-Finished'

A scam. A publicity stunt. Premature. These are just a few of the things Chinese developers are saying about the release of Huawei's supposed secret weapon: The Ark Compiler. From a report: Developers are even claiming the program feels incomplete. The reception has been so bad that one programmer told Abacus that he wondered whether it was released just for publicity. "Maybe they're doing it to help in the PR and trade war, adding leverage against the US," said Max Zhou, co-founder of app-enhancement company MetaApp and former head of engineering at Mobike. The Ark Compiler is a key component of Huawei's new operating system, HarmonyOS. The tool is meant to allow developers to quickly port their Android apps to the new OS, ideally helping to quickly bridge the gap of app availability. It is also said to be able to improve the efficiency of Android apps, making them as smooth as apps on iOS. As of right now, though, developers say promises are too good to be true.

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Posted on 18 September 2019 | 10:05 pm

India Bans E-cigarettes as Global Vaping Backlash Grows

India has announced a ban on electronic cigarettes, as a backlash gathers pace worldwide about a technology promoted as less harmful than smoking tobacco. From a report: The announcement by India on Wednesday came a day after New York became the second US state to ban flavored e-cigarettes following a string of vaping-linked deaths. "The decision was made keeping in mind the impact that e-cigarettes have on the youth of today," India's finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, told reporters in the capital, New Delhi. E-cigarettes heat up a liquid -- tasting of anything from bourbon to bubble gum or just tobacco, and which usually contains nicotine -- into vapor, which is inhaled. The vapor does not contain the estimated 7,000 chemicals present in tobacco smoke but does contain a number of substances that could potentially be harmful. They have been pushed by producers, and also by some governments, including in Europe, as a safer alternative to cigarette smoking -- and as a way to kick the habit.

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Posted on 18 September 2019 | 9:25 pm

The FBI Tried To Plant a Backdoor in an Encrypted Phone Network

The FBI tried to force the owner of an encrypted phone company to put a backdoor in his devices, Motherboard has learned. From the report: The company involved is Phantom Secure, a firm that sold privacy-focused BlackBerry phones and which ended up catering heavily to the criminal market, including members of the Sinaloa drug cartel, formerly run by JoaquÃn "El Chapo" Guzman. The news signals some of the tactics law enforcement may use as criminals continue to leverage encrypted communications for their own ends. It also comes as Canadian media reported that a former top official in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who has been charged with leaking state secrets, offered to sell information to Vincent Ramos, Phantom's CEO. "He was given the opportunity to do significantly less time if he identified users or built in/gave backdoor access," one source who knows Ramos personally and has spoken with him about the issue after his arrest told Motherboard. A backdoor is a general term for some form of technical measure that grants another party, in this case the FBI, surreptitious access to a computer system. What exactly the FBI was technically after is unclear, but the desire for a backdoor was likely to monitor Phantom's clients.

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Posted on 18 September 2019 | 8:45 pm

California Governor Signs Labor Law, Setting Up Bitter Gig Economy Fight

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a sweeping new law that could force gig companies like Uber and Lyft to reclassify their workers as employees. From a report: The hotly contested legislation, Assembly Bill 5, dictates that workers can generally only be considered contractors if they are doing work that is outside the usual course of a company's business. The law codifies a 2018 state supreme court ruling, and applies it to a wide range of state laws. It could upend the business models of companies that depend on armies of independent contractors, who aren't guaranteed employment protections like minimum wage and overtime. The bill is slated to go into effect on Jan. 1. While the legislature has adjourned until next year, fierce lobbying and deal-making efforts are expected to continue in the meantime, and could potentially yield separate legislation in 2020. In a statement, Newsom called the bill "landmark legislation," and said that, "A next step is creating pathways for more workers to form a union, collectively bargain to earn more, and have a stronger voice at work -- all while preserving flexibility and innovation." Lorena Gonzalez, the state assemblywoman who authored the bill, said in a statement that, "California is now setting the global standard for worker protections for other states and countries to follow." Further reading: Drivers? Never Heard of Them, Says Uber.

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Posted on 18 September 2019 | 8:05 pm

A Lunar Space Elevator Is Actually Feasible and Inexpensive, Scientists Find

An anonymous reader shares a report: In a paper [PDF] published on the online research archive arXiv, Columbia astronomy students Zephyr Penoyre and Emily Sandford proposed the idea of a "lunar space elevator," which is exactly what it sounds like -- a very long elevator connecting the moon and our planet. The concept of a moon elevator isn't new. In the 1970s, similar ideas were floated in science fiction (Arthur C. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise, for example) and by academics like Jerome Pearson and Yuri Artsutanov. But the Columbia study differs from previous proposal in an important way: instead of building the elevator from the Earth's surface (which is impossible with today's technology), it would be anchored on the moon and stretch some 200,000 miles toward Earth until hitting the geostationary orbit height (about 22,236 miles above sea level), at which objects move around Earth in lockstep with the planet's own rotation. Dangling the space elevator at this height would eliminate the need to place a large counterweight near Earth's orbit to balance out the planet's massive gravitational pull if the elevator were to be built from ground up. This method would also prevent any relative motion between Earth's surface and space below the geostationary orbit area from bending or twisting the elevator. These won't be problems for the moon because the lunar gravitational pull is significantly smaller and the moon's orbit is tidally locked, meaning that the moon keeps the same face turned toward Earth during its orbit, therefore no relative motion of the anchor point.

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Posted on 18 September 2019 | 7:25 pm