Germany bans children’s smartwatches

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The German telecoms regulator urged parents to destroy children’s smartwatches

A German regulator has banned the sale of smartwatches aimed at children, describing them as spying devices.

It had previously banned an internet-connected doll called, My Friend Cayla, for similar reasons.

Telecoms regulator the Federal Network Agency urged parents who had such watches to destroy them.

One expert said the decision could be a “game-changer” for internet-connected devices.

“Poorly secured smart devices often allow for privacy invasion. That is really concerning when it comes to kids’ GPS tracking watches – the very watches that are supposed to help keep them safe,” said Ken Munro, a security expert at Pen Test Partners.

“There is a shocking lack of regulation of the ‘internet of things’, which allows lax manufacturers to sell us dangerously insecure smart products.

“Using privacy regulation to ban such devices is a game-changer, stopping these manufacturers playing fast and loose with our kids’ security,” he added.

In a statement, the agency said it had already taken action against several firms offering such watches on the internet.

“Via an app, parents can use such children’s watches to listen unnoticed to the child’s environment and they are to be regarded as an unauthorised transmitting system,” said Jochen Homann, president of the Federal Network Agency.

“According to our research, parents’ watches are also used to listen to teachers in the classroom.”

The agency also asked schools to “pay more attention” to such watches among students.

Tracking children

Such watches – which are sold by a large number of providers in Germany – are generally aimed at children between the ages of five and 12.

Most are equipped with a Sim card and a limited telephony function and are set up and controlled via an app.

In October, the Norwegian Consumer Council (NCC) reported that ‘some children’s watches – including Gator and GPS for kids – had flaws such as transmitting and storing data without encryption.

It meant that strangers, using basic hacking techniques, could track children as they moved or make a child appear to be in a completely different location.

It is not clear whether the German decision to ban such devices was based on the privacy issues associated with them or wider security flaws that have been uncovered by NCC and others.

Both firms said that they had resolved the security issues.

Finn Myrstad, head of digital policy at the NCC said: “This ban sends a strong signal to makers of products aimed at children that they need to be safer.”

He called for Europe-wide measures to increase the security of such devices.

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Apple delays launch of smart speaker

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Apple first unveiled its HomePod smart speaker in June

Apple is delaying the release of its HomePod smart speaker until 2018.

The electronics giant said the device, which was due to be released in December this year, still needed development work.

It said the HomePod would be ready to go on shop shelves in the US, UK and Australia “early in 2018″.

The news is a blow to its plans to take on rivals Amazon and Google in the growing market for home devices that use AI to help consumers.

‘Not surprising’

In a statement sent to news organisations, Apple said the wireless speaker needed “a little more time before it’s ready for our customers”.

The delay will mean Apple misses the lucrative holiday season during which many consumers buy gadgets as gifts.

The gadget was first unveiled in June this year when Apple said it would go on sale in the US for $349 (£265). In the UK it was expected to cost £350.

It was designed to be a competitor to other smart speakers – such as Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Assistant. Sonos, Microsoft and others also make similar gadgets.

Like them it was designed to play music and act as a hands-free helper letting owners set timers, maintain shopping lists and get reports about the news, weather and other subjects.

Since Apple unveiled the HomePod both Google and Amazon have added new models to their ranges of smart speakers, intensifying the competition with Apple.

Writing in Engadget, associate editor Jon Fingle said the delay was “not surprising” given that the HomePod was Apple’s first try at a smart speaker.

“The HomePod isn’t necessarily in trouble,” he said. “but it may face a tougher battle than it did beforehand.”

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UK seeks future cyber-security stars

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Matt Crypto

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Bletchley Park is host to a centre developing cyber-based lessons for school pupils

A £20m initiative to get schoolchildren interested in cyber-security has been launched by the UK government.

The Cyber Discovery programme is aimed at 15 to 18-year-olds and involves online and offline challenges themed around battling hackers.

It is one of several programmes trying to build interest in security work and help fill a looming skills gap.

One industry expert said a broad strategy would be needed to address the widening gap.

Hacker clubs

The free Cyber Discovery programme aims to “encourage the best young minds into cyber-security”, said Karen Bradley, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, in a statement.

Young people interested will be asked to enrol via an online assessment and the best performers in that test will then be put through a “comprehensive curriculum” that helps familiarise them with cyber-security work.

The curriculum will cover:

  • digital forensics
  • defending against web attacks
  • cryptography
  • programming
  • ethics of hacking

It mixes online challenges with face-to-face learning, role-playing and real-world technical challenges, said James Lyne, head of research and development at the Sans Institute, who helped draw up the programme. Extracurricular clubs will also be set up as part of the project that will be run by mentors who help participants take the skills they learn further.

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Work needs to be done to remove the stigma from hackers, say experts

It is one of several UK initiatives aimed at galvanising interest in security work among young people.

The organisation behind the Cyber Security Challenge, which runs lots of programmes seeking adult security workers, has one that is specifically aimed at schools. Called the Cyber Games, it is a series of competitions held around the UK that puts pupils through a variety of cyber-themed challenges and activities.

Another developed by Qufaro, a cyber-training college at Bletchley Park, is an add-on to the existing ICT curriculum that is centred on computer security.

Budgie Dhanda, head of Qufaro, said the lessons and projects it has drawn up form an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) that pupils can study alongside their A/S levels. EPQs are available in many subjects, said Mr Dhanda, and let pupils explore a subject in greater detail than they would in the classroom.

“There are a lot of different modules in it that cover the spectrum of cyber-functions and capabilities the industry requires,” he said.

Professional services firm Deloitte has pledged to pay the fees of any students who take on the cyber EPQ in 2017-18.

Phil Everson, head of cyber-risk at Deloitte, said it had decided to back Qufaro entrants in a bid to help plug the skills gap.

“There’s already significant global demand for cyber-talent across the world,” he said. “And there are not enough skilled people to meet that demand.”

One industry estimate suggests there will be more than 3 million unfilled jobs in the cyber-security industry by 2021.

“We want to try to give the younger generation who have grown up with the internet an awareness of security and its implications,” he said. “The course is about foundational skills and abilities.”

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The UK’s National Crime Agency has sought to divert young cyber-offenders into security jobs

Deep pool

Filling the growing skills gap in the cyber-security industry needed a three-pronged approach, said industry veteran Ian Glover who heads the Crest organisation that certifies people who carry out security work.

More could be done to tap into the “latent pool” of technical expertise among people who already work with computers, he said, but currently handle lower-level administrative functions rather than coding or forensics.

“There are a lot of people who have 50% of the core skills they would need to work in cyber-security,” he said. “Short conversion courses could quickly help them add to their skill set and swap that admin job for one on a security team,” said Mr Glover.

In addition, he said, there were plenty of other graduates that could quickly put expertise in other areas, such as international studies, to use in roles such as threat intelligence.

The final, and most long-term element involved getting school pupils interested in the field, he said, but it had to be sure to give them a rounded view of the industry.

“If you can get them interested in technology that’s great,” he said, “but you need to be able to describe the range of roles there are in cyber-security and the benefits of being in the industry because it’s an awesome place to be.”

Just as important, he said, was changing the negative associations with the word “hacker”.

“The perception is there that hacking is bad,” he said. “We need to change the language around it and provide guidance to young people to articulate what is meant by a job or career in this space.”

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Far-right accounts lose Twitter verified tick

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Richard Spencer and Tommy Robinson have lost their blue badges

Twitter has stripped several far-right accounts of their “verified” badge, after changing its policy.

Among them are Jason Kessler who helped organise a far-right march in Charlottesville, and white supremacist Richard Spencer.

English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson also had his badge removed.

Twitter said the badge was being interpreted as an “endorsement or an indicator of importance” and said it would change the scheme.

‘Promotes hate’

The blue badge was first introduced to indicate the authenticity of prominent profiles on the social network.

Originally the site had chosen who to verify, and usually reserved the status for celebrities, public officials and journalists.

In July 2016, it opened the scheme up to the wider public and let anybody apply for a verified badge.

Last week, the social network was criticised for giving Mr Kessler a verified badge, and on 9 November halted its verified profile scheme.

It said it had not intended the blue badge to be an endorsement of views shared.

“We gave verified accounts visual prominence on the service which deepened this perception,” it said. “We should have addressed this earlier but did not prioritise the work as we should have.”

Twitter said it was designing a new “authentication and verification programme”, but in the meantime would “remove verification from accounts whose behaviour does not fall within the new guidelines”.

The new guidelines say verified status can be lost if a person breaks Twitter’s rules or “promotes hate” on the basis of “race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease”.

It said behaviour both on and off Twitter would be taken into account.

Some of those who had their verified badges removed said the new policy was being applied inconsistently and highlighted accounts of disgraced celebrities that had not lost the icon.

Mr Kessler suggested Twitter had changed its rules to “censor” his views, while Mr Robinson said Twitter now classed the truth as “hate speech”.

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Fullscreen ‘YouTube Red rival’ to close in January

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Comedian Grace Helbig had a talk show on Fullscreen

Online talent management firm Fullscreen is closing the subscription video platform it set up last year to rival YouTube’s premium tier.

The service promised to produce “higher quality” programmes featuring popular YouTube and social media stars.

Fullscreen said it had attracted “hundreds of thousands” of paying customers but wanted to focus its investment in areas with more “immediate impact”.

The service will close in January.

At its launch in April 2016, the service featured programmes by British comedians Jack Howard and Dean Dobbs, and US vlogger Shane Dawson.

There was also a catalogue of old television programmes such as Dawson’s Creek.

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Fullscreen offered a Netflix-style service

The service did regularly add new programmes to its offering but laid off some of its staff in September to “streamline operations”.

“When we set out to launch our own SVOD [subscription video on-demand] service, we knew it would be a huge challenge,” said Fullscreen founder George Strompolos in a blog post.

“We came to the conclusion that funding SVOD – a longer-term investment – was limiting our ability to invest in… divisions that have more established scale and immediate impact.”

Mr Dobbs said he hoped his comedy series Jack and Dean Of All Trades would “find a new home”.

YouTube offers its own subscription service in the US, YouTube Red, that features long-form programmes from popular videomakers. It has not revealed how many people pay for the service.

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Gamers’ anger halts Star Wars Battlefront II payments

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EA Games

Games publisher EA has suspended in-game purchases in its latest Star Wars title Battlefront II, following criticism from players.

Gamers had complained that unlocking popular characters such as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader took too long unless they paid for credits.

EA said in-game purchases would be halted because it did not want the controversy to “overshadow” the game.

But it said the ability to buy game currency would return.


In Battlefront II, players earn credits by completing campaigns. The credits can be spent to unlock new items and characters in the game.

Players and reviewers were disappointed that earning credits through gameplay took several hours, and that there was a cap on the number of credits that could be earned in Arcade Mode each day.

The game was “diseased by an insidious microtransaction model that creates an uneven battlefield,” wrote Andrew Reiner in a review for Game Informer..

Others argued that it was unfair to encourage microtransactions in a game that typically cost between £49.99 and £69.99 in the UK, or $60 in the US.

EA initially responded by reducing the number of credits required to unlock in-game upgrades by 75% – but it also reduced the amount earned by playing campaigns.

It has now temporarily halted microtransactions. “Sorry we didn’t get this right,” it said in a statement.

“The ability to purchase crystals in-game will become available at a later date, only after we’ve made changes to the game. We’ll share more details as we work through this.”

The announcement was met with scepticism on Reddit, where players had raised complaints about the game.

“According to their statement, EA is disabling in-game purchases only temporarily. In other words, they’re waiting for the Reddit hive mind to get mad about something else and three weeks later they’ll put it back to how it was,” suggested one gamer.

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Star Wars Battlefront II game faces further backlash

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Games publisher EA has faced further criticism over its latest Star Wars game, Battlefront II.

Many players were unhappy about the credits that unlock key Star Wars characters.

The number required has now been reduced but so has the number that can be earned through gameplay. The alternative is to purchase them.

Others have complained about the use of “loot crates” – which some say are essentially a gambling tool.

The crates are virtual boxes that are purchased within the game and contain mystery bonuses.

Critics say they promote gambling as the contents of the boxes are revealed only after payment is received, and some are more useful than others.

Electronic Arts (EA) has been contacted by the BBC for comment.

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A poster campaign on Reddit protests against loot crates

The firm is hosting an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on community news site Reddit later on Wednesday to address concerns.

EA said yesterday that it was reducing the number of credits required to unlock key characters, including Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, following complaints that they could only be purchased or acquired through very long hours of gameplay, despite being an essential part of a Star Wars experience.

However, there are reports that the number of credits that can be earned by completing a campaign has been reduced as well.

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In a statement, the developer Dice said it wanted players to “have fun earning” the achievement of unlocking the franchise’s heroes.

The alternative is to buy them – but many players believe there should not be in-game micropayments in a full-price title.

Star Wars Battlefront II is available for £49.99 – £69.99 in the UK, or $60 in the US.

Credits earned through gameplay are not only reduced but also subject to a daily cap, players say.

“The most damning show of the game basically saying, ‘We want you to pay to win’ is a limit being put on the number of credits a player can earn in Arcade mode,” wrote Andrew Reiner in a review for Game Informer.

“After finishing five Arcade challenges, the player is told to come back in 14 hours to earn more.”

He described the game as “big, bombastic and fun” but added that it was “diseased by an insidious microtransaction model that creates an uneven battlefield, favouring those who are willing to spend real money to gain an edge over players who are just here to enjoy the Star Wars experience”.

Entertainment analyst Ed Barton from Ovum told the BBC the micropayments business model had transferred from mobile gaming, which tends to be free to download.

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Loot crates also feature in Blizzard game Overwatch

“Free-to-play mechanics are increasingly encroaching into full-price games,” he said.

“These are commercial organisations, of course they are going to look for ways to leverage their intellectual property. Publishers have done this before.

“Look at what Blizzard is doing with loot boxes in Overwatch – it has been a successful business for them.

“But what they put in those loot boxes are cosmetic items. They don’t affect gameplay. And you can also earn all the items through gameplay.

“The Star Wars experience without Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader strikes me as not the experience people would look for. The controversy is, ‘I’ve paid $60, let me have the experience.’”

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Cyber-bullying: Prince’s ‘stop, speak, support’ code of conduct

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Facebook and Snapchat are set to bring in ways to directly help young people bullied online, following an intervention by Prince William.

The move is part of a code of conduct drawn up by a taskforce of technology companies, children’s charities and parents headed by the prince.

It aims to encourage young people to stop negative behaviour, tell a responsible adult and support victims.

Other firms, including Google and EE, have also taken part in the project.

The Duke of Cambridge became interested in helping to tackle the issue shortly after his son Prince George was born, when he heard about a boy who killed himself because of online abuse.

‘Human tragedy’

Lucy Alexander told the prince about her son Felix, who killed himself after being targeted on social media.

She spoke of her son’s descent into depression: “It just ate away at him inside, I think, but I had no idea of the depth of his despair at all.”

Prince William also heard from Chloe Hine, who, aged 13, tried to take her own life after enduring sustained online abuse.

The prince highlighted the danger of anonymous bullying – which he says can come directly into a young person’s room but remain invisible to those around them.

“It is one thing when it happens in the playground and it’s visible there and parents and teachers and other children can see it.

“Online, you’re the only one who sees it, and it’s so personal,” he said.

He also warned against cyber-bullies being able to ignore the real-world consequences of their actions.

“I think it is worth reminding everyone what the human tragedy of what we are talking about here isn’t just about companies and about online stuff – it’s actually real lives that get affected,” he added.

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Jack Dorsey saddened by Japan’s ‘Twitter killer’

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Takahiro Shiraishi was arrested after police found several people’s body parts in his home

Twitter’s chief executive has said a case in which an alleged serial killer is said to have lured victims by searching the social network for suicidal thoughts is “extremely sad”.

But Jack Dorsey added that it was not realistic to expect the service to auto-delete the kind of tweets said to have been involved.

A 27-year-old man was arrested in Zuma, Japan, in October after nine people’s body parts were found in his flat.

Newspapers call him the Twitter killer.

Local reports claim Takahiro Shiraishi contacted his victims – the youngest of whom was 15 – via the social network by telling them he could help them die and in some cases claiming he would kill himself alongside them.

His Twitter profile contained the words: “I want to help people who are really in pain. Please DM [direct message] me anytime.”

‘Positive and healthy’

He is also alleged to have killed the boyfriend of one of the women, who had apparently come looking for her.

According to various reports, Shiraishi has confessed his involvement to the police, but to date he formally faces only charges of abandoning a body.

Four days after his arrest, Twitter amended its rules to state members should not “promote or encourage suicide or self-harm”.

But with the case in the spotlight, the Japanese government has indicated it may introduce new regulations to tackle “problematic” websites on which suicide is discussed.

Mr Dorsey gave his first interview about the affair to Japanese broadcast NHK.

“We need to take on a responsibility to make sure our tool is being used in positive and healthy ways,” he said.

But he added that simply deleting suicidal comments would not prevent people killing themselves and that helping connect the right kinds of people could help.

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Votes in 18 nations ‘hacked’ in last year

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China disrupted use of WhatsApp prior to official government conferences, the report says

Elections in 18 separate nations were influenced by online disinformation campaigns last year, suggests research.

Independent watchdog Freedom House looked at how online discourse was influenced by governments, bots and paid opinion formers.

In total, 30 governments were actively engaged in using social media to stifle dissent, said the report.

Educating users to spot fake news and making tech firms police their networks could combat the manipulation, it said.

Devastating impact

The annual report studied the state of internet freedom across 65 nations – covering about 87% of the world’s net-using population.

For the seventh year running, it said, net freedom had declined as governments stepped up efforts to control what citizens said, did and shared online.

The different tactics used to influence online speech included:

  • automated bots that echoed official messages
  • armies of paid commentators that swamped discussions with pro-government views
  • false news sites that spread misleading information
  • trolling that soaked up critics’ time with personal attacks

Used alongside more overt technical controls such as firewalls, content filters and blocks on technical tools such as virtual private networks, the manipulation of social media had become a key tool for repressive regimes, it said.

“Not only is this manipulation difficult to detect, it is more difficult to combat than other types of censorship, such as website blocking, because it’s dispersed and because of the sheer number of people and bots deployed to do it,” said Sanja Kelly, head of the Freedom on the Net research project.

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Mobile services and apps were often disrupted by regimes keen to stifle political chatter, the report says

Ms Kelly said China and Russia had pioneered widespread net controls but the techniques had now gone “global”.

Many other nations, including Turkey, the Philippines, Syria and Ethiopia, now employed them extensively, she said.

“The effects of these rapidly spreading techniques on democracy and civic activism are potentially devastating,” added Ms Kelly.

Official efforts to control debate were most obvious during elections, said the Freedom House report – which were held in 18 of the countries researchers examined.

Usually the activity was contained within one nation, but increasingly governments were looking to social media to subvert debate beyond their own borders.

Russia, in particular, said the report, had made significant efforts to influence the US presidential election.

It said less than 25% of the world’s net users lived in nations where net access could be considered free, meaning:

  • no significant obstacles to getting online
  • few restrictions on what could be shared or viewed
  • surveillance was limited
  • no significant repercussions for those exercising free speech

The report said net freedom could be aided by:

  • large-scale programmes that showed people how to spot fake news
  • putting tight controls on political adverts
  • making social media giants do more to remove bots and tune algorithms to be more objective

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