Google to push for law enforcement to have more access to overseas data

June 22, 2017

By Dustin Volz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Alphabet Inc’s Google will press U.S. lawmakers on Thursday to update laws on how governments access customer data stored on servers located in other countries, hoping to address a mounting concern for both law enforcement officials and Silicon Valley.

The push comes amid growing legal uncertainty, both in the United States and across the globe, about how technology firms must comply with government requests for foreign-held data. That has raised alarm that criminal and terrorism investigations are being hindered by outdated laws that make the current process for sharing information slow and burdensome.

Kent Walker, Google’s senior vice president and general counsel, will announce the company’s framework during a speech in Washington, D.C., at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank that wields influence in the Trump White House and Republican-controlled Congress.

The speech urges Congress to update a decades-old electronic communications law and follows similar efforts by Microsoft Corp.

Both companies had previously objected in court to U.S. law enforcement efforts to use domestic search warrants for data held overseas because the practice could erode user privacy. But the tech industry and privacy advocates have also admitted the current rules for appropriate cross-border data requests are untenable.

The Mountain View, California-based company calls for allowing countries that commit to baseline privacy, human rights and due process principles to directly request data from U.S. providers without the need to consult the U.S. government as an intermediary. It is intended to be reciprocal.

Countries that do not adhere to the standards, such as an oppressive regime, would not be eligible.

Google did not detail specific baseline principles in its framework.

“This couldn’t be a more urgent set of issues,” Walker said in an interview, noting that recent acts of terrorism in Europe underscored the need to move quickly.

Current agreements that allow law enforcement access to data stored overseas, known as mutual legal assistance treaties, involve a formal diplomatic request for data and require the host country obtain a warrant on behalf of the requesting country. That can often take several months.

In January, a divided federal appeals court refused to reconsider its decision from last year that said the U.S. government could not force Microsoft or other companies to hand over customer data stored abroad under a domestic warrant.

The U.S. Justice Department has until midnight on Friday to appeal that decision to the Supreme Court. It did not respond to a request for comment.

U.S. judges have ruled against Google in similar recent cases, however, elevating the potential for Supreme Court review.

Companies, privacy advocates and judges themselves have urged Congress to address the problem rather than leave it to courts.

Google will also ask Congress to codify warrant requirements for data requests that involve content, such as the actual message found within an email.

Chris Calabrese, vice president of policy at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said Google’s framework was “broadly correct” but urged caution about the process for letting countries make direct requests to providers.

“We need to make sure the people in the club are the right people,” he said.

(Reporting by Dustin Volz; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Nissan plans driverless ride-hailing service to beat off startup competition

June 22, 2017

By Naomi Tajitsu

TOKYO (Reuters) – Nissan Motor Co Ltd on Thursday said it plans to launch driverless ride-hailing and ride-sharing services in coming years, as the automaker looks beyond making and selling cars to survive an industry being quickly transformed by new services.

Automakers are leveraging expertise in automated driving functions for mass-market cars to develop mobility services, as they compete with tech firms such as Alphabet Inc and Uber Technologies Inc in the fast-growing “pay-per-ride” market which threatens to hit demand for car ownership.

Ogi Redzic, head of Nissan-Renault’s Connected Vehicles and Mobility Services division, said the alliance would begin self-driving services based on its electric cars “certainly within 10 years,” though not likely before 2020.

“We think that the big opportunity for us is in automation, electric vehicles and ride-sharing and hailing together,” Redzic said in an interview.

Nissan and Renault SA join a small group of automakers aiming to enter the ride-hailing market, which Goldman Sachs last month estimated would grow eightfold by 2030 to be five times the size of the taxi market.

Redzic said the Japanese and French partners were testing self-driving vehicles, and that any service would run on pre-mapped courses with predetermined pick-up and drop-off points.

The two automakers are developing the system with Japanese game software maker DeNA Co Ltd and French public transport operator Transdev SA.

German rival BMW AG is also testing autonomous vehicles for use in ride-hailing services, while Uber has been developing self-driving technology.

U.S. tech firm nuTonomy Inc and ride services company Lyft Inc, which counts General Motors Co as a major shareholder, this month announced they would begin piloting an autonomous vehicle ride-hailing service in Boston.

Redzic said to market a self-driving service, regulations need to change to allow driverless cars on roads. At the moment, most global jurisdictions do not expressly authorize vehicles to operate on regular roads without a driver.

“It doesn’t just depend on us,” he said. “To become fully driverless you need laws to change.”

(Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

SoftBank founder Son pledges to stay at helm as company’s firepower grows

June 21, 2017

TOKYO (Reuters) – SoftBank Group founder Masayoshi Son, Japan’s richest man, said on Wednesday he’ll spend the next decade identifying a successor to drive his rapidly growing technology empire, which has amassed an unprecedented investment warchest over the past year.

Since the departure of former chief operating officer Nikesh Arora last year, Son has been without an immediate candidate to replace him should he step down.

While Arora’s resignation at the time raised questions about bench strength within the company’s senior management, significant changes in its board of directors, the launch of Son’s massive new private equity fund and recent acquisitions have made it one of the more dynamic companies in Japan’s recent corporate history.

Son, aged 59, told investors at the group’s annual general meeting in Tokyo on Wednesday that he had no intention to step down anytime soon.

“I feel energized. I couldn’t possibly retire,” he said, noting he had no successor in mind since Arora’s departure.

“Over the next 10 years, that’s the challenge I should keep addressing,” he said, adding that a successor would most likely come from the company’s management ranks.

Since Arora’s resignation in June last year, Son has raised $93 billion dollars for his Vision Fund, the world’s largest private equity fund, and made a string of acquisitions of technology firms, including robotics startup Boston Dynamics from Google earlier this month.

Separately on Wednesday, SoftBank said it had invested $100 million in cybersecurity startup Cybereason.

The group has also boosted the number of directors with the election of the heads of key overseas subsidiaries to an expanded board of directors. The board is now majority non-Japanese, reflecting the company’s increasingly global ambitions.

Outside director and chief executive of Nidec Corp Shigenobu Nagamori struck a note of dissent at a broadly congratulatory shareholders meeting, saying that he thought Son had massively overpaid for chip designer ARM Holdings, bought for $33 billion dollars last year.

New directors include Marcelo Claure, chief executive officer of U.S. wireless telecommunications service provider Sprint Corp, Simon Segars, CEO of ARM, and Rajeev Misra, the head of the Vision fund.

“We combined knowledge of technology and financing to establish the fund,” Son said of the Vision Fund, pointing to the range of investors from oil rich Saudi Arabia and UAE to tech firms Apple and Foxconn.

“We are not just targeting financial returns … we want an information revolution across the world.”

(Reporting by Sam Nussey; Editing by Sam Holmes and Christopher Cushing)

Honda halts Japan car plant after WannaCry virus hits computer network

June 21, 2017

TOKYO (Reuters) – Honda Motor Co <7267.T> said on Wednesday it halted production at a domestic vehicle plant for a day this week after finding the WannaCry ransomware that struck globally last month in its computer network.

The automaker shut production on Monday at its Sayama plant, northwest of Tokyo, which produces models including the Accord sedan, Odyssey Minivan and Step Wagon compact multipurpose vehicle and has a daily output of around 1,000 vehicles.

Honda discovered on Sunday that the virus had affected networks across Japan, North America, Europe, China and other regions, a spokeswoman said, despite efforts to secure its systems in mid-May when the virus caused widespread disruption at plants, hospitals and shops worldwide.

Production at other plants operated by the automaker had not been affected, and regular operations had resumed at the Sayama plant on Tuesday, she said.

The spread of the WannaCry ransomware which locked up more than 200,000 computers in more than 150 countries has slowed since last month, but security experts have warned that new versions of the worm may strike.

Rival automakers Renault SA and Nissan Motor Co <7201.T> were also affected by the virus last month, when the automaking alliance companies stopped production at plants in Japan, Britain, France, Romania and India.

(Reporting by Naomi Tajitsu; Editing by Richard Pullin)

Japan government-led group tells Toshiba to fix chip spat with Western Digital: sources

June 20, 2017

By Taro Fuse and Se Young Lee

TOKYO/SEOUL (Reuters) – A Japanese government-led consortium has told Toshiba Corp it needs to resolve its legal dispute with Western Digital Corp before it will invest in the firm’s chip unit, sources briefed on the matter said.

The consortium is seen as one of the strongest suitors for the unit – the world’s No. 2 producer of NAND chips – as it would automatically have the government’s stamp of approval, but it is worried about legal risks if the spat is not settled, the sources said.

The group includes a state-backed fund, the Innovation Network Corp of Japan (INCJ), the Development Bank of Japan (DBJ), as well as U.S. private equity firm Bain Capital and South Korean chipmaker SK Hynix Inc.

Western Digital, which jointly operates Toshiba’s main chip plant, has sought a court injunction to prevent its partner from selling its chip business without the U.S. firm’s consent.

Toshiba, which is seeking a minimum of $18 billion for its chip business, wants to complete the deal as quickly as possible to help cover billions of dollars in cost overruns at its now-bankrupt Westinghouse nuclear unit and to dig itself out negative shareholders’ equity that could lead to a delisting.

The conglomerate had set its sights on choosing a preferred bidder at a board meeting on Wednesday, separate sources familiar with the matter said. It wants to reach a definitive agreement by June 28, the day of its annual shareholders meeting.

But the sources added that the condition set by the government-led group could prompt Toshiba to postpone the vote.

The sources declined to be identified as discussions concerning the sale were confidential. INCJ, DBJ and SK Hynix declined to comment. A representative for Bain was not immediately available for comment.

Toshiba said it would not comment on the auction process. Western Digital reiterated a June 15 statement by Chief Executive Steve Milligan in which he said that Toshiba was violating contractual rights and had left the U.S. firm no choice but to pursue legal action.

The government-led consortium’s bid has been orchestrated in large part by the trade ministry which wants to keep the chip unit under domestic control.

It has been seeking to counter a 2.2 trillion yen ($19.7 billion) from U.S. chipmaker Broadcom and its partner, U.S. private equity firm Silver Lake.

Foxconn, the world’s largest contract electronics maker, is also a suitor. Formally known as Hon Hai Precision Industry, the Taiwanese firm is leading a consortium that includes Apple Inc and computing giant Dell Inc [DI.UL].

($1 = 111.7400 yen)

(Reporting by Taro Fuse; Additional reporting by Makiko Yamazaki and Kentaro Hamada; Editing by Edwina Gibbs)

Neighborhood social network Nextdoor expands into Germany

June 20, 2017

By Eric Auchard

LOS GATOS, Calif. (Reuters) – U.S. local social networking phenomenon Nextdoor is entering Germany, Europe’s largest market, the company said on Monday, following expansion moves last year into Britain and the Netherlands, where it has grown rapidly.

San Francisco-based Nextdoor launched in 2011 and now covers more than 144,000 discrete U.S. neighborhoods, or roughly three-quarters of the country, the company estimates.

Local residents can use the site to ask advice on everything from finding babysitters to organizing neighborhood sports clubs or even how to contend with household rodent invasions, via computer or mobile phone apps.

Its local forums serve as conversation starters that help neighbors meet one another, forging real-world bonds instead of the virtual ones that connect friends as well as strangers on social networks such as Facebook, Snapchat or Twitter.

“Most social media apps are about self-expression,” Co-founder and Chief Executive Nirav Tolia said in an interview. “Nextdoor is about getting things done. It’s more of a utility.”

“If you lose your dog, your online friends can give you sympathy but your neighbors help you find it,” he said.

Nextdoor has raised over $210 million in funding from top-tier Silicon Valley venture capitalists, with its last financing round in 2015 valuing the company at more than $1 billion.

Since expanding into Britain last year, Nextdoor has signed up users in 40 percent of UK neighborhoods, or about 11,000 in all. Similarly, it has drawn in members in 4,000 Dutch neighborhoods, covering about 44 percent of the country, Nextdoor said.

The company has already been testing its service in 200 neighborhoods in Germany and aims to have thousands up and running by the end of this year, Tolia said.

It has hired veteran internet executive Marcus Riecke, the one-time head of eBay’s German local selling site and CEO of StudiVZ, a successful early German rival to Facebook that ran out of steam around the start of this decade. Riecke will run Nextdoor’s national offices from Berlin.

To join Nextdoor Germany, members must use their real names and confirm their home address at https://nextdoor.de. Conversations are only accessible among verified local neighbors and are not available via Google or other search engines.

Nextdoor began generating revenue from its U.S. site this year by selling online advertising. The model is similar but more locally focused than the ads that finance Facebook or Google, reviving the tradition of local classified ads that has disappeared as the online era wiped out the economics of local newspaper circulars.

(Reporting By Eric Auchard; Editing by Richard Pullin)

Snake on a plane! Don’t panic, it’s probably just a (soft) robot

June 19, 2017

By Jeremy Wagstaff

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Robots are getting softer.

Borrowing from nature, some machines now have arms that curl and grip like an octopus, others wriggle their way inside an airplane engine or forage underwater to create their own energy.

This is technology that challenges how we think of, and interact with, the robots of the not-too-distant future.

Robots are big business: by 2020, the industry will have more than doubled to $188 billion, predicts IDC, a consultancy. But there’s still a lot that today’s models can’t do, partly because they are mostly made of rigid metal or plastic.

Softer, lighter and less reliant on external power, future robots could interact more safely and predictably with humans, go where humans can’t, and do some of the robotic jobs that other robots still can’t manage.

A recent academic conference in Singapore showcased the latest advances in soft robotics, highlighting how far they are moving away from what we see as traditional robots.

“The theme here,” says Nikolaus Correll of Colorado University, “is a departure from gears, joints and links.”

One robot on display was made of origami paper; another resembled a rolling colostomy bag. They are more likely to move via muscles that expand and contract through heat or hydraulics than by electricity. Some combine sensing and movement into the same component – just as our fingertips react to touch without needing our brain to make a decision.

These ideas are already escaping from the lab.

SMALL, AGILE

Rolls-Royce, for example, is testing a snake-like robot that can worm its way inside an aircraft engine mounted on the wing, saving the days it can take to remove the engine, inspect it and put it back.

Of all the technologies Rolls-Royce is exploring to solve this bottleneck, “this is the killer one,” says Oliver Walker-Jones, head of communications.

The snake, says its creator, Arnau Garriga Casanovas, is made largely of pressurized silicone chambers, allowing the controller to propel and bend it through the engine with bursts of air. Using soft materials, he says, means it can be small and agile.

For now, much of the commercial action for softer robots is in logistics, replacing production-line jobs that can’t yet be handled by hard robots.

Food preparation companies and growers like Blue Apron, Plated and HelloFresh already use soft robotics for handling produce, says Mike Rocky, of recruiter PrincetonOne.

The challenge, says Cambridge Consultants’ Nathan Wrench, is to overcome the uncertainty when handling something – which humans deal with unconsciously: figuring out its shape and location and how hard to grip it, and distinguishing one object from another.

“This is an area robots traditionally can’t do, but where (soft robots) are on the cusp of being able to,” said Wrench.

MARINE INSPIRATION

Investors are excited, says Leif Jentoft, co-founder of RightHand Robotics, because it addresses a major pain point in the logistics industry. “Ecommerce is growing rapidly and warehouses are struggling to find enough labor, especially in remote areas where warehouses tend to be located.”

Some hope to ditch the idea that robots need hands. German automation company Festo and China’s Beihang University have built a prototype OctopusGripper, which has a pneumatic tentacle made of silicone that gently wraps itself around an object, while air is pumped in or out of suction cups to grasp it.

The ocean has inspired other robots, too.

A soft robot fish from China’s Zhejiang University swims by ditching the usual rigid motors and propellers for an artificial muscle which flexes. It’s lifelike enough, says creator Tiefeng Li, to fool other fish into embracing it as one of their own, and is being tested to explore or monitor water salinity.

And Bristol University in the UK is working on underwater robots that generate electrical energy by foraging for biomatter to feed a chain of microbial fuel-cell stomachs. Hemma Philamore says her team is talking to companies and environmental organizations about using its soft robots to decontaminate polluted waterways and monitor industrial infrastructure.

This doesn’t mean the end of hard-shelled robots.

Part of the problem, says Mark Freudenberg, executive technology director at frog, a design company, is that soft materials break easily, noting that most animatronic dolls like Teddy Ruxpin and Furby have rigid motors and plastic casings beneath their fur exteriors.

To be sure, the nascent soft robot industry lacks an ecosystem of software, hardware components and standards – and some companies have already failed. Empire Robotics, one of the first soft robot gripper companies, closed last year.

RightHand’s Jentoft says the problem is that customers don’t just want a robot, but the whole package, including computer vision and machine learning. “It’s hard to be a standalone gripper company,” he says.

And even if soft robots find a niche, chances are they still won’t replace all the jobs done by human or hard-shelled robots.

Wrench, whose Cambridge Consultants has built its own fruit picking robot, says he expects to see soft robots working with humans to harvest fruit like apples and pears which are harder to damage.

Once the robot has passed through, human pickers would follow to grab fruit hidden behind leaves and in hard-to-reach spots.

“It’s a constant race to the bottom, so there’s a pressing business need,” Wrench said.

(Reporting by Jeremy Wagstaff; Editing by Ian Geoghegan)

Alleged Canadian hacker may not fight U.S. extradition: lawyer

June 16, 2017

TORONTO (Reuters) – The Canadian accused of helping Russian intelligence agents break into email accounts as part of a massive 2014 breach of Yahoo accounts may waive his right to fight a U.S. extradition request, his lawyer said on Friday.

Karim Baratov’s lawyer Amedeo DiCarlo said he is in discussions with the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. prosecutors in Washington about the case and will announce a decision at a hearing due on July 7.

Baratov, a Canadian citizen born in Kazakhstan, was arrested in March on U.S. charges that he was paid to break into at least 80 email accounts by Russian intelligence agents who masterminded the 2014 theft of data from some 500 million Yahoo Inc user accounts.

He is the only one of four people charged in the case currently in custody. Two others are Russian intelligence agents, according to U.S. authorities, and the third is Alexsey Belan, one of the FBI’s most wanted cyber criminals.

Baratov has been denied bail and remains in an Ontario jail, with judges ruling that he is a flight risk.

(Reporting by Alastair Sharp; Editing by Tom Brown)

U.S. tech firm in blockchain tie-up with insurance advisory firm

June 16, 2017

By Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. technology company The Bitfury Group said on Friday it had formed a strategic partnership with advisory firm Risk Cooperative to use the blockchain digital ledger in the $60 billion insurance broking market.

Blockchain, a public record of all bitcoin digital currency transactions, can also be used to track assets across industries. Over the last two years, Bitfury has been helping national governments put data on a blockchain.

“Blockchain technology can bring transparency and security to the insurance industry, and can be a catalyst for new insurance business models,” Bitfury Chief Executive Valery Vavilov said in a statement.

While the insurance industry writes more than $5.5 trillion in annual premiums worldwide, most natural, man-made and emerging risks remain unfunded or underinsured by established insurers using old systems and technologies.

The partnership will initially explore putting cyber-insurance and political risk activities on a blockchain-based system, Risk Cooperatives founder and CEO Dante Disparte said in an email. “This system will speed up the underwriting process on a secure platform.”

In April, Bitfury announced a partnership with Ukraine to put a wide range of government data on a blockchain platform. A year earlier, Bitfury signed an agreement with Georgia to pilot the first blockchain land-titling registry.

(Reporting by Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss; Editing by Richard Chang)

Angry Birds maker Rovio says IPO possible in future

June 16, 2017

HELSINKI (Reuters) – Finnish mobile game and animation studio Rovio, maker of the Angry Birds game, said it could list on the stock exchange in the future, while declining comment on a media report that China’s Tencent Holdings was looking to acquire the company.

Technology news site The Information, citing unnamed sources, reported that Tencent was exploring a possible $3 billion bid for Rovio and also said Rovio may consider an IPO.

“We and our shareholders regularly assess different alternatives to further develop Rovio,” the company said in an emailed statement on Friday when asked about The Information report.

“A stock exchange listing at some point in the future could be possible in order to support the continued strong growth of Rovio and its strategic targets. However, Rovio and its owners have not made any decisions regarding a possible IPO,” the company said.

Tencent was not immediately available for a comment.

Following years of falling earnings, job cuts and divestments, Rovio returned to profit last year as the release of its Angry Birds movie helped boost game sales.

The company is 70-percent owned by Kaj Hed, the uncle of the company’s co-founder Niklas Hed.

Last year, Tencent bought a majority stake in Finland’s other prominent game maker, Supercell, in a deal valued at $8.6 billion.

(Reporting by Jussi Rosendahl, additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing; Editing by Susan Fenton)