Hillicon Valley: Zoom draws new scrutiny amid virus fallout | Dems step up push for mail-in voting | Google to lift ban on political ads referencing coronavirus

Hillicon Valley: Zoom draws new scrutiny amid virus fallout | Dems step up push for mail-in voting | Google to lift ban on political ads referencing coronavirus

Welcome to Hillicon Valley, The Hill's newsletter detailing all you need to know about the tech and cyber news from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. If you don't already, be sure to sign up for our newsletter with this LINK.

Welcome! Follow our cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech reporter, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills), for more coverage.

 

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ZOOM UNDER THE MICROSCOPE: As Americans stay home due to the coronavirus pandemic, video conferencing group Zoom has seen a surge in use. But the uptick in business has exposed vulnerabilities in Zoom systems and painted a target on the company for both lawmakers and hackers. 

Many have flocked to Zoom to hold everything from work meetings to happy hours, particularly as more and more countries enact stay-at-home orders that restrict people's movements. 

As a result, the company's stocks have skyrocketed over the course of the coronavirus pandemic, and usage figures have boomed. Zoom CEO Eric Yuan is estimated to have made $4 billion in the past three months alone, according to Business Insider. 

While a spokesperson for Zoom declined to comment on exactly how many people used the video conference tool in March, Yuan said during a press call last month that "we have seen a large increase in the number of free users, meeting minutes and new video use cases."

But this week, the company was hit by multiple controversies, as increased use shined a spotlight on vulnerabilities that might have otherwise flown under the radar. 

One new phenomenon is "Zoom bombing," when hackers or other individuals access and disrupt a live meeting.  

An example of this occurred during a virtual meeting of the Heman Sweatt Center for Black Males at the University of Texas this week when unknown users joined the meeting and shouted racist slurs to disrupt it.

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And multiple Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in New York being held through Zoom were disrupted over the past week by individuals urging the participants to drink alcohol.  

Read more here.

 

But Zoom keeps growing : Zoom announced this week that around 200 million daily meeting participants used its services in March as the coronavirus forced people to stay home, up from a maximum daily average of 10 million in December. 

Yuan announced the spike in a blog post, saying usage had "ballooned overnight" to far surpass expectations. Around 90,000 schools in 20 countries were among those using Zoom as people worldwide have increasingly turned to the platform for everything from work meetings to happy hours.

"For the past several weeks, supporting this influx of users has been a tremendous undertaking and our sole focus," Yuan wrote. "However, we recognize that we have fallen short of the community's -- and our own -- privacy and security expectations. For that, I am deeply sorry."

Yuan said the company "appreciated" the scrutiny from journalists and security experts in recent weeks, saying the concerns raised would "make Zoom better."

Read more on Zoom's boom here.

 

Google to lift ban on political ads referencing coronavirus

Google is lifting the ban on coronavirus-related advertising on its platform after facing pushback from Democrats, according to A Google memo obtained by The Hill. 

Google will first start by allowing ads from “government entities, hospitals, medical providers, and NGOS who want to get relevant information out to the public,” Google head of industry Mark Beatty told clients in the memo Thursday.

Google will then make changes to allow political organizations to run ads related to COVID-19.

“We’re planning to allow other advertisers, including political organizations, to run ads related to COVID-19. We will have more information to share on this in the next few days,” Beaty wrote in the email to clients. 

Read more here.

 

DELIVERY COMPANY SHIPT CUTS PAY: Shipt, a grocery delivery company owned by Target, has cut the pay it gives workers if orders are canceled, prompting complaints from those who make its deliveries.

Starting Wednesday, Shipt began paying workers on canceled orders based on how much work they had completed on delivering the order, a spokesperson confirmed to The Hill. 

They'd get paid more, for example, if they'd picked up the groceries and were on the way to their destination when the order was canceled than if the order was canceled before they'd arrived at the grocery store.

Previously, workers were paid a flat fee for canceled orders. Workers said the fee was usually between $10 and $20 per order, depending on the size of the order and the distance traveled, among other variables.

Now, some drivers say they've been paid as little as 29 cents for a canceled order. The Shipt List, a group of shoppers that work for the service across the country, told The Hill that over 70 people had reported similarly low payments.

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The Shipt spokesperson told The Hill that the low fees were an error and that the company will now set a baseline payment of $5 dollars per canceled order. She also said the company will pay drivers $5 if they were previously paid a smaller amount for a canceled order.

The spokesperson acknowledged, however, that the change meant drivers would be paid less on average than previously for canceled orders.

Read more here.

 

DEMS PRESS FOR MAIL-IN VOTING: Democrats and voting rights groups on Thursday pressed President TrumpDonald John TrumpJustice says it will recommend Trump veto FISA bill Fauci: Nominating conventions may be able to go on as planned Poll: Biden leads Trump by 11 points nationally MORE and Republicans to support more funding for elections this year, saying it was crucial to ensure people vote as part of the next coronavirus stimulus package.

Lawmakers and voting advocacy groups took part in what amounted to a sustained campaign calling for the country to ensure people could cast votes either in person or by mail despite the coronavirus crisis.

Sens. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharOmar condemns use of rubber bullets, tear gas on crowds at George Floyd protest Press: Susan Rice would be ready to step in as POTUS Four Minneapolis officers involved in death of unarmed black man fired MORE (D-Minn.) and Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenMcCarthy urges Democrats to pull surveillance bill FISA 'reform': Groundhog Day edition Medicaid providers increasingly frustrated by delays in COVID-19 funding MORE (D-Ore.) argued on one press call Thursday that at least $1.6 billion more was needed to guarantee Americans could vote in November.

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"This next month is critical for our democracy, I can't think of another time when we faced something quite like this in terms of our limitations," Klobuchar told reporters. "I think we can do this, I really do, we simply must make sure that people have the right to vote."

House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiMcCarthy urges Democrats to pull surveillance bill The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Major space launch today; Trump feuds with Twitter How lawmaker ties helped shape Fed chairman's COVID-19 response MORE (D-Calif.) wants to include more funding for mail-in and absentee voting in the next stimulus measure, which followed her efforts last month to get $4 billion for elections included in the $2.2 trillion measure signed into law last week.

The proposal has support from other Democrats, but they face opposition from Trump and other Republicans who oppose requirements on how states would be able to spend the money.

Trump said this week that election changes proposed by Democrats would hurt Republican chances to win elections in November. 

"The things they had in there were crazy, they had things, levels of voting that if you ever agreed to, you would never have a Republican elected in this country again," Trump said of the original House stimulus proposal during an appearance on "Fox & Friends." The proposal included requirements for states to expand both in-person and mail-in voting. 

Read more on the push here.

 

AMAZON TO PROVIDE MASKS TO WORKER: Amazon is planning to provide masks and temperature checks for workers at its American and European warehouses early next week, the company announced Thursday, as it faces criticism from some employees over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The online retail giant also confirmed in the same announcement that it has hired 80,000 of the 100,000 workers it promised in response to increased demand.

Amazon will also use machine-learning software to monitor building cameras and determine whether employees are staying at safe distances while working.

"Nothing is more important to us than making sure that we protect the health of our teams, and we've been working around the clock since the early days of the outbreak to make changes to our processes and procure the necessary supplies for this," Dave Clark, senior vice president of worldwide operations at Amazon, said in a statement.

The rollout of more protective gear and coronavirus scanning comes as employees have increasingly spoken out about unsafe working conditions.

More on Amazon here.

 

SO WILL INSTACART: Grocery delivery service Instacart on Thursday announced plans to distribute health and safety kits to its shoppers after they walked off their jobs earlier this week.

The company says it will provide each full-service shopper with a reusable face mask, hand sanitizer and a thermometer.

Instacart also launched a resource center with info about COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

"We're singularly focused on the health and safety of our shopper community," Instacart President Nilam Ganenthiran said in a statement.

"Our teams have been working around the clock over the last few weeks to proactively secure personal protective equipment like hand sanitizer and face masks, without taking away valuable resources from healthcare workers given inventory delays and global supply scarcity," the statement reads. 

While free protective equipment was one of the demands made by the Instacart shoppers that stopped taking orders on Monday, the changes do not meet the other requests strikers made.

The Gig Workers Collective, the labor activism group that led Monday's walk off, called the new protective equipment "a step in the right direction, but still a far cry from adequate."

Read more on Instacart here.

 

GOOGLE COMMITS $6.5M TO FIGHT MISINFO: Google announced Thursday that it would spend $6.5 million toward fighting the spread of misinformation around the coronavirus pandemic.

Funding will go toward fact-checkers, news organizations and nonprofits around the world. The money will also help certain news outlets expose and track coronavirus misinformation.

"Helping the world make sense of this information requires a broad response, involving scientists, journalists, public figures, technology platforms and many others," Alexios Mantzarlis, head of news and information credibility at Google's News Lab, wrote in a blog announcing the funding.

PolitiFact and Kaiser Health News will use some of the funds to expand their fact-checking efforts, while LatamChequea will provide what Mantzarlis described as a "hub" to help coordinate the work of almost two dozen Spanish-language fact-checking groups.

The funds will also go to similar groups in Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom, and to the International Fact-Checking Network, a global advocacy group.

Read more.

 

HACKERS TARGET WHO: Iranian-linked hackers representing government interests attempted to break into the email accounts of World Health Organization (WHO) staffers in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Reuters reported Thursday.

Reuters cited four sources with knowledge of the situation in reporting the attempted hacking incidents, which have been ongoing since March 2. The hackers sent malicious phishing emails to WHO staff accounts that mimicked those from Google web services in an attempt to get staffers to share their email passwords. 

WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic told Reuters that the agency was aware of the attacks, and that "to the best of our knowledge, none of these hacking attempts were successful."

WHO did not immediately respond to The Hill's request for comment. 

Iran's government denied any involvement in the email targeting.

 

Read more here.

 

A lighter click: Thank u Rajat

 

An op-ed to chew on: Coronavirus: It's time to get real about the misleading data 

 

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:

Leaked Amazon Memo Details Plan to Smear Fired Warehouse Organizer: 'He's Not Smart or Articulate' (Motherboard / Paul Blest)

Sprint is dead. Long live Sprint (Verge / Dieter Bohn)

Touting Virus Cure, 'Simple Country Doctor' Becomes a Right-Wing Star (New York Times / Kevin Roose and Matthew Rosenberg)

Tech giants are navigating an 'infodemic.' Are they doing it right? (Protocol / Issie Lapowsky)