Overnight Technology

Hillicon Valley: Barr asks Apple to unlock Pensacola shooter’s phone | Tech industry rallies behind Google in Supreme Court fight | Congress struggles to set rules for cyber warfare with Iran | Blog site Boing Boing hacked

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Welcome! Follow the cyber team, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and the tech team, Emily Birnbaum (@birnbaum_e) and Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills).


PENSACOLA SHOOTING FALLOUT: Attorney General William Barr announced Monday that a December shooting at a Pensacola, Fla., military base that left three dead was an “act of terrorism” and that the shooter was motivated by “jihadist ideology.”

Barr made the comments while delivering the results from a month-long investigation into the attack, which was carried out by a member of the Royal Saudi Air Force who had enrolled in the Naval Air Station Pensacola training program. 

Asks Apple for help: In an unusual plea to a tech company, Barr called on Apple to help investigators unlock the shooter’s phones, saying that it was important for investigators to “know with whom and about what the shooter was communicating before he died.”

“This situation perfectly illustrates why it is critical that investigators be able to get access to digital evidence once they have obtained a court order based on probable cause,” he said, noting that Apple had yet to give any substantive assistance. “We call on Apple and other technology companies to help us find a solution so that we can better protect the lives of Americans and prevent future attacks.”

Apple told The Washington Post in a statement that it had assisted an FBI investigation by providing relevant data in its cloud storage. Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Hill. 

Read more here.


CYBER WAR DEFINITION PENDING: The U.S. and Iran may have walked back from the brink of war, but the potential for a cyber battle looms with no clear rules of engagement.

Lawmakers and military officials say there’s no agreed-upon definition of what constitutes cyber warfare, leaving them to decide on a case-by-case basis how best to respond to individual incidents.

“We’ve never really gone down the route to define what constitutes an act of war when it comes to cyberattacks,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, told The Hill last week.

Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the top Democrat on the committee, told reporters it’s an issue that “needs some further attention” and one that isn’t going away anytime soon.

“We’re likely to see this not just with Iran, but in the future you are going to see cyber as one of the main domains of warfare going forward,” Peters said. “So it’s important to try to get our arms around how we would define it.”

While Iran has been considered a major cyber adversary, joining the ranks of Russia, China and North Korea, its threat level spiked this month after President Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and FBI subsequently issued a bulletin to law enforcement and briefed lawmakers of the threat of retaliation. The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency at DHS issued a separate notification warning of Iranian cyber threats.

But what kind of cyber aggression might spark a return to hostilities remains unclear.

Read more here


INDUSTRY RALLIES BEHIND GOOGLE: Google is garnering support from some of its toughest critics amid an upcoming Supreme Court battle with Oracle, pitting some of the tech industry’s most formidable heavyweights against the U.S. government in a fight with billions of dollars and the future of the software industry on the line.

Some of Google’s most formidable rivals – including Microsoft, IBM and Mozilla, which makes Firefox – filed amicus briefs on behalf of Google on Monday, arguing the high court could severely harm technological innovation if it sides with Oracle in the landmark copyright case.  

The briefs put Silicon Valley at odds with the U.S. solicitor general, who argued in an amicus brief last year that the Supreme Court should not take up the case, rejecting Google’s core arguments. 

But the Supreme Court ultimately did decide to take on Google vs. Oracle, and arguments in the case are expected to kick off by the end of March. Briefs flooded in throughout Monday, which marked the deadline for filings in favor of Google in the Silicon Valley saga.

Google celebrates: “Today, we saw a remarkable range of consumers, developers, computer scientists, and businesses saying that open software interfaces promote innovation and that no single company like Oracle should be able to monopolize creativity,” Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president of global affairs, said in a statement. 

Companies speak out: In an amicus brief, a coalition of smaller companies including Mozilla, Medium, Etsy, Patreon, Wikimedia Foundation and Reddit argued that a lower court ruling in favor of Oracle “stifles innovation and competition by privileging powerful incumbents” and creates “artificial barriers to entry for new players.”

And Microsoft, a fellow tech giant with multiple products that compete directly with Google’s, argued that “innovation today depends on collaborative development.”

“Developers rely on sharing, modifying, and enhancing previously developed code to create new products,” Microsoft wrote. 

IBM, a legacy technology company that has staked out multiple positions directly at odds with Google, wrote definitively, “Computer interfaces are not copyrightable.”

Oracle doesn’t hold back: Despite pushback from the industry, Oracle, a software company that has never shied away from butting heads with its rivals, has continually insisted that Google broke copyright law when it used Oracle’s Java programming language in Android, the most popular mobile operating system in the world. 

In a statement on Monday, Oracle pushed back aggressively against Google and its supporters, accusing them of “stand[ing] for the remarkable proposition that stealing is easier than creating.”

“Google makes its money free-riding on the intellectual property and content of others,” Oracle said on Monday. “Google stole Java and killed interoperability to create its proprietary Android operating system. We believe the Supreme Court will see through all of Google’s self interested arguments and stand with content owners, creators, and innovators.” 

The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Google vs. Oracle by the mid-2020. 

Read more on the Supreme Court battle here.


POMPEO MEETS BIG TECH: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will attend a dinner with top tech leaders Monday night in San Francisco, in a meeting that is reportedly part of the Trump administration’s efforts to raise support for the administration amid tensions with Iran.

Bloomberg reported that Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is expected to be among the guests at Monday’s dinner, though much of the 15-person guest list remains unknown. Sarah Friar, CEO of Nextdoor, and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen are also both reportedly expected to attend.

It was unclear what specific goals the Trump administration has involving the tech industry and Iran, but tensions between Washington and Tehran have been at an all-time high for days following the U.S. killing of Qassem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds forces and an influential top official.

The killing was followed by an Iranian missile barrage targeting two bases in Iraq housing U.S. troops, which resulted in no casualties and minimal damage, according to officials.

Read more here.


BOING BOING BUSTED: Top blog site Boing Boing said Monday it had been hacked and that its website had temporarily redirected readers to a dangerous malware page.

Boing Boing, which is among the most widely read blogs globally and covers areas including tech and cyber, wrote in a post on its site that the incident involved an attacker using an employee’s login credentials on Friday and then installing a widget within the Boing Boing theme that redirected readers to a nonsecure website.

The company said it initially believed a malicious advertisement was redirecting users but “immediately” removed the code after learning the cause of redirection.

Boing Boing said anyone who visited its website over the weekend should run “local anti-virus and malware scanners” to ensure that no malicious software was downloaded on their systems.

The company said that since the incident, all Boing Boing employees have changed their login credentials and many other security measures have been taken to ensure hackers cannot access the website in the same way again.

Read more here.


STOP RIGHT THERE: The Interior Department is planning to halt the use of almost 1,000 drones over concerns that some of the parts were developed in China, the Financial Times reported Sunday.

The administration would be stopping its biggest civilian drone programs over fears that China could use the drones for spying, two people briefed on the plans told the FT. The department announced the grounding of the 810 drones amid security investigations in October. 

Several in the department’s staff have condemned the grounding saying it will cost the department large amounts of time and money. Documents obtained by the FT showed staff from various agencies objected to the proposed grounding. 

“Unmanned aircraft systems are a unique tool that fit into this mission and allow us to make high-quality surface observations at a fraction of the price of manned aircraft operations,” a staff member wrote in an email obtained by the FT. 

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has not officially signed off on the grounding, but people briefed with his thinking told the FT he is expected to take the civilian drones out of circulation, except for emergencies like managing wildfires and for training.

The Hill reached out to the Interior Department for comment.

Read more here.


A LIGHTER CLICK: Birds need exercise too


AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: Why the new robocall law is important for future privacy legislation



Washington privacy bill would authorize fines for violators (Bloomberg Law / Daniel Stoller) 

Tech’s newest leaders shrug off D.C. (Politico / Nancy Scola, Cristiano Lima) 

The decimation of local news has lawmakers crossing the aisle (The New York Times / Cecilia Kang)

Jeffrey Epstein set Elon Musk’s brother up with a girlfriend in effort to get close to the Tesla founder, sources say (Business Insider / Beck Peterson, John Cook)

Tags Donald Trump Elon Musk Gary Peters Google Mike Pompeo Ron Johnson William Barr
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