Hillicon Valley: Google delays launch of national coronavirus website | Hackers target health-care groups amid outbreak | Officials, tech in talks on using location data to track coronavirus

Hillicon Valley: Google delays launch of national coronavirus website | Hackers target health-care groups amid outbreak | Officials, tech in talks on using location data to track coronavirus
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Welcome! Follow our cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech reporter, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills), for more coverage.

 

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CORONAVIRUS WEBSITE? COMING SOON: Google is postponing the national rollout of a website with information about the coronavirus until later this week, an official told The Hill on Tuesday.

The launch of the website -- and what exactly the website would do -- has been mired in confusion since late last week.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavis: Supreme Court decision is bad news for Trump, good news for Vance Meadows trying to root out suspected White House leakers by feeding them info: Axios Pressley hits DeVos over reopening schools: 'I wouldn't trust you to care for a house plant let alone my child' MORE in a speech Friday claimed that Google was developing a screening website that would "be very quickly done."

Shortly after those remarks, Verily, another company under the umbrella of Google's parent company Alphabet, said that it was "developing a tool to help triage individuals for Covid-19 testing" that was "in the early stages of development" for the Bay Area.

Google on Sunday announced it was in fact working on a nationwide site "dedicated to COVID-19 education, prevention, and local resources." 

That national website launch had originally been scheduled for Monday.

Now the tech giant is delaying the launch to fill out features of the website.

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Read more here.

 

HEALTH CARE VULNERABLE TO CYBERATTACKS: Hackers are zeroing in on government health agencies and hospitals, who are already struggling to keep pace with the coronavirus pandemic, as a way to make money and cause disruptions in the midst of a global crisis.

These concerns were highlighted Monday when Bloomberg News reported that the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), one of the agencies on the front lines of the outbreak, had been breached by hackers. 

A spokesperson for HHS subsequently told The Hill that the agency "became aware of a significant increase in activity on HHS cyber infrastructure and are fully operational as we actively investigate the matter." 

HHS Secretary Alex Azar played down the incident, saying at a White House press conference on Monday that there was "no penetration into our networks" and "no degradation of our ability to function or serve our important mission here."

HHS has not been alone in facing a potential breach as concerns around the spread of the coronavirus ramped up.

Last week, the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District in Illinois had its website taken down by hackers. While officials were able to reboot the website by Friday, the disruption made it difficult to provide accurate information to around 200,000 in the district.

Outside the U.S., the second-largest hospital in the Czech Republic, which is responsible for running tests for coronavirus, was hit by a cyberattack last week that according to CyberScoop took out some computer systems and delayed operations. 

Both the district health agency and the hospital were hit by ransomware attacks, a type of intrusion in which hackers lock up a system and demand payment to give the user access again, though with no guarantee they will get their data back. 

These types of attacks have been increasingly rampant across the U.S. over the past year, crippling local governments including Baltimore and New Orleans, along with school districts and public libraries. But they can be particularly pernicious for hospitals, where unlocking a network can mean the difference between life and death for patients in some situations, making healthcare groups a tempting target for hackers. 

Read more here.

  

TRACKING CORONAVIRUS: The federal government is in talks with Facebook, Google and other tech companies about ways to use smartphone location data to tackle the coronavirus, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

Washington is reportedly interested in using the data to better understand how the virus spreads and to see whether people are practicing social distancing.

A new task force made up of tech and other industry executives presented ideas for the use of the location data at a White House meeting Sunday, the Post reported. Presenters included officials from Harvard University and representatives from top tech groups and Silicon Valley firms.

The White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) did not immediately respond to The Hill's request for comment.

An unnamed OSTP official told The Washington Post that they were "encouraged by American technology companies looking to leverage, aggregate, anonymized data to glean key insights for COVID-19 modeling efforts."

The meeting came on the heels of a summit led by U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios last week with federal agencies and executives from tech giants such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft and Amazon to hash out how Silicon Valley can help fight the spread of coronavirus.

Read more here.

 

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ISRAEL AHEAD OF THE CURVE: Israel gave the green light to its internal security agency, which usually conducts operations against Palestinian militant groups, to start tracking citizens infected with COVID-19, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

The head of the agency, Nadav Argaman, said that while the new mission would divert from its primary purpose, the initiative falls within its scope of "saving lives."

The agency told the AP it will not be using the most advanced tools available and will instead use geolocation to ensure that those infected with the virus stay away from others. Argaman also said that the agency would not hold on to any of the information it collects from patients' cellphones.

"The other state bodies don't have the necessary technological means to aid this effort," Argaman said in a statement to the AP. "I am well aware of the sensitivity of this matter and therefore have instructed that only a very limited number of agents will be handling this and the information will not be saved."

Read more here.

 

AMAZON SUPPLY SHORTAGES: Amazon is suspending shipments of nonessential items to its warehouses in the United States and United Kingdom following shortages triggered by the coronavirus outbreak.

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"We are seeing increased online shopping and as a result some products such as household staples and medical supplies are out of stock," a spokesperson for the online retail giant said in a statement to The Hill Tuesday. "With this in mind, we are temporarily prioritizing household staples, medical supplies and other high-demand products coming into our fulfillment centers so we can more quickly receive, restock and ship these products to customers."

The freeze will be effective from Tuesday through April 5, according to Amazon, although an extension has not been ruled out.

Products already en route to facilities will still be accepted.

Limiting nonessential items is just one step Amazon has taken in response to increased demand for products to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. 

On Monday, Amazon announced it is planning to hire about 100,000 new employees.

The company also plans to raise wages from $15 to $17 per hour for workers at American locations. 

Read more here.

 

DEM PRESSES AMAZON: Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) is calling for Amazon to redirect its stock of face masks and hand sanitizer to health care providers nationwide who are dealing with shortages amid an outbreak of the coronavirus.

In a letter sent to Amazon CEO Jeff BezosJeffrey (Jeff) Preston BezosJeff Bezos's wealth hits record high 1B How competition will make the new space race flourish Just because Democrats are paranoid about the election doesn't mean there aren't problems MORE on Monday, the California congresswoman said that the company's vast resources could save hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide and that it is uniquely positioned to assist hospitals during the pandemic. 

She also urged the corporation to push back more proactively against price-gouging of hand sanitizer and face masks on its website, arguing that it has contributed to a "dire need" for these items at medical facilities. 

"I request that Amazon purchase a significant quantity of hand sanitizer and face masks, along with all remaining stores of those products still available for sale on the site, and donate them to health care providers across the nation," Porter said, adding that Amazon has an "unparalleled opportunity to continue to use its resources and operational capacity for our collective good.

Porter is also asking that the company clearly label hand sanitizer products that are proven to be ineffective in killing the coronavirus. She argued that the sale of these products "actively undermines" preventative health efforts. 

Read more here.

 

KEEPING AMERICANS ONLINE: The Communications Workers of America (CWA) and a group of consumer advocacy groups sent letters to the country's largest providers on Tuesday asking them to do more to ensure internet access as the coronavirus spreads.

The letters sent to Altice, AT&T, CenturyLink, Charter Communications, Comcast, Cox Communications, Frontier Communications, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon ask for data caps to be lifted and fees for crossing caps to be waived, among other things.

The union and consumer groups acknowledged that some companies have taken good first steps, but urged more action to deal with internet service strain as more and more people are asked to work from home and classes are moved online.

"While these are excellent first steps, the telecommunications industry must do more," they wrote. "Implementing the policies outlined above will help protect consumers, facilitate connectivity during this time of crisis, and provide information to better plan for future public health emergencies and natural disasters."

Many internet service providers have signed on to the Federal Communication Commission's (FCC) "Keep Americans Connected Pledge," agreeing not to terminate service to any customers who are unable to pay their bills due to "disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic" over the next 60 days.

Signees have also agreed to waive any late fees and open up their Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.

Read more here.

 

SECURITY VS SANITIZING: The Election Assistance Commission (EAC) on Tuesday announced it would allow states to use funds allocated by Congress for election security to fight the spread of coronavirus at the polls. 

The EAC said it would allow states to use the money, which totals over $800 million, to purchase disinfectant wipes, masks and other cleaning supplies in order to lower the risk of voters contracting coronavirus at the polls.

"The EAC considers these allowable costs purchased to protect the health and safety of poll workers, staff and voters during federal elections," the EAC wrote in a notice announcing the change.

The funds include $380 million allocated by Congress to states to shore up election security in 2018. It also includes the $425 million given to states as part of the 2020 appropriations cycle, money that has still not been made available but that states are allowed to incur expenses against. 

Both amounts were given to the EAC to distribute to states, with no specific instructions on how states could use the money beyond "activities to improve the administration of elections for Federal office," according to the appropriations bill language. 

Read more here.

 

FACEBOOK LENDS A HAND: Facebook announced Tuesday it is launching grant programs to boost funding for local newsrooms covering the coronavirus outbreak as well as fact-checkers who are monitoring information surrounding the illness.

The tech behemoth, which has weathered criticism for its handling of false information on its platform, announced it is partnering with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Local Media Association to award a total of $1 million in grants to local news organizations covering the outbreak in the U.S. and Canada.

It is also joining the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) to launch a $1 million grant program to support fact checkers. 

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, said the platform is dedicated to keeping people informed during the virus's rapid spread and that more tools may be unveiled to improve the flow of information to users.

"As the COVID-19 outbreak escalates, our focus has been on keeping people safe and informed by making sure everyone has accurate information, supporting global health experts and stopping misinformation," Sandberg said in a statement.

Read more here.

 

FACEBOOK HELPS OUT, PART TWO: Facebook will pay its employees a $1,000 bonus amid the coronavirus pandemic that has infected over 190,000 people around the world, the social media giant confirmed to The Hill. 

Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergWe haven't seen how low it can go Hillicon Valley: Facebook considers political ad ban | Senators raise concerns over civil rights audit | Amazon reverses on telling workers to delete TikTok Facebook considering ban on political ads: reports MORE announced Tuesday via internal notice that the company wants to support employees amid the pandemic. The company employs nearly 45,000 full-time employees as of the end of 2019, The Information first reported.

Zuckerberg also told employees that the company is looking into giving workers additional time off to help take care of their families, according to The Information. In addition, employees will receive an "exceeds" rating for their first six-month review of 2020, which could mean that all full-time employees earn further bonuses for that period.

The median annual salary and payment to Facebook employees was $228,651 in 2019, according to The Information.

However, Facebook also employs several thousand contract workers. It was not immediately clear whether those employees would also receive the $1,000 bonus.

Read more here,

   

A LIGHTER CLICK: Cuomo vs. Cuomo

 

AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: It's time to consider creating a remote voting system for Congress

 

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:

New HBO documentary digs into election security vulnerabilities (Wired / Lily Hay Newman) 

Attorney General Barr urges DOJ to prioritize prosecuting coronavirus scams (CyberScoop / Shannon Vavra) 

Facebook's misinformation problem is worse than we think (The Verge / Russell Brandom) 

Small businesses set to be hit hardest by breakdown of Amazon supply chain (Vice / Edward Ongweso Jr. and Jason Koebler)