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The FCC rejects ZTE’s petition to stop designating it a “national security threat”

The Federal Communications Commission has rejected ZTE’s petition to remove its designation as a “national security threat.” This means that American companies will continue to be barred from using the FCC’s $8.3 billion Universal Service Fund to buy equipment and services from ZTE .
The Universal Service Fund includes subsidies to build telecommunication infrastructure across the United States, especially for low-income or high-cost areas, rural telehealth services, and schools and libraries. The FCC issued an order on June 30 banning U.S. companies from using the fund to buy technology from Huawei and ZTE, claiming that both companies have close ties …

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Relativity Space raises $500 million as its sets sights on the industrialization of Mars

3D-printed rocket startup Relativity Space has closed $500 million in Series D funding (making official the earlier reported raise), the company announced today. This funding was led by Tiger Global Management, and included participation by a host of new investors including Fidelity Management & Research Company, Baillie Gifford, Iconiq Capital, General Catalist and more. This brings the company’s total raised so far to nearly $700 million, as the startup is poised to launch its first ever fully 3D-printed orbital rocket next year.

LA-based Relativity had a big 2020, completing work on a new 120,000 square-foot manufacturing facility in Long Beach. Its rocket construction technology, which is grounded in its development and use of the largest metal 3D printers in existence, suffered relatively few setbacks due to COVID-19-related shutdowns and work stoppages since it involves relatively few actual people on the factory floor managing the 3D printing process, which is handled in large part by autonomous robotic systems and software developed by the company.

Relativity also locked in a first official contract from the U.S. government this year, to launch a new experimental cryogenic fluid management system on behalf of client Lockheed Martin, as part of NASA’s suite of Tipping Point contracts to fund the development of new technologies for space exploration. It also put into service its third-generation Stargate 3D metal printers – the largest on Earth, as mentioned.

The company’s ambitions are big, so this new large funding round should provide it with fuel to grow even more aggressively in 2021. It’s got new planned initiatives underway, both terrestrial and space-related, but CEO and founder Tim Ellis specifically referred to Mars and sustainable operations on the red planet as one possible application of Relativity’s tech down the road.

In prior conversations, Ellis has alluded to the potential for Relativity’s printers when applied to other large-scale metal manufacturing – noting that the cost curve as it stands makes most sense for rocketry, but could apply to other industries easily as the technology matures. Whether on Mars or on Earth, large-scale 3D printing definitely has a promising future, and it looks like Relativity is well-positioned to take advantage.

We’ll be talking to Ellis at our forthcoming TC Sessions: Space event, so we’ll ask him more about this round and his company’s aspirations live there, too.

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Trump fires top US cybersecurity official Chris Krebs for debunking false election claims

Chris Krebs, one of the most senior cybersecurity officials in the U.S. government, has been fired.

Krebs served as the director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) since its founding in November 2018 until he was removed from his position on Tuesday. It’s not immediately clear who is currently heading the agency. A spokesperson for CISA did not immediately comment.

President Trump fired Krebs in a tweet late on Tuesday, citing a statement published by CISA last week, which found there was “no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised.” Trump, who has repeatedly made claims of voter fraud without providing evidence, alleged that CISA’s statement was “highly inaccurate.”

Shortly after, Twitter labeled Trump’s tweet for making a “disputed” claim about election fraud.

Reuters first reported the news of Krebs’ potential firing last week.

Krebs was appointed by President Trump to head the newly created cybersecurity agency in November 2018, just days after the conclusion of the midterm elections. He previously served as an undersecretary for CISA’s predecessor, the National Protection and Programs Directorate, and also held cybersecurity policy roles at Microsoft.

During his time in government, Krebs became one of the most vocal voices in election security, taking the lead during 2018 and in 2020, which largely escaped from disruptive cyberattacks, thanks to efforts to prepare for cyberattacks and misinformation that plagued the 2016 presidential election.

He was “one of the few people in this administration respected by everyone on both sides of the aisle,” said Sen. Mark Warner, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a tweet.

Krebs is the latest official to leave CISA in the past year. Brian Harrell, who oversaw infrastructure protection at the agency, resigned in August after less than a year on the job, and Jeanette Manfra left for a role at Google at the end of last year. Cyberscoop reported Thursday that Bryan Ware, CISA’s assistant director for cybersecurity, resigned for a position in the private sector.

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ByteDance asks federal appeals court to vacate U.S. order forcing it to sell TikTok

In a new filing, TikTok’s parent company ByteDance asked the federal appeals court to vacate the United States government order forcing it to sell the app’s American operations.

President Donald Trump issued an order in August requiring ByteDance to sell TikTok’s U.S. business by November 12, unless it was granted a 30-day extension by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS). In today’s filing (embedded below) with the federal appeals court in Washington D.C., ByteDance said it asked the CFIUS for an extension on November 6, but the order hasn’t been granted yet.

It added it remains committed to “reaching a negotiated mitigation solution with CFIUS satisfying its national security concerns” and will only file a motion to stay enforcement of the divestment order “if discussions reach an impasse.”

Security concerns about TikTok’s ownership by a Chinese company were at the center of the executive order Trump signed in August, banning transactions with Beijing-headquartered ByteDance.

The executive order claimed that TikTok posed a threat to national security, though ByteDance maintains that it does not. But in order to prevent the app, which has about 100 million users in the U.S., from being banned, ByteDance reached a deal in September to sell 20% of its stake in TikTok to Oracle and Walmart. With the Biden administration set to take office in January and ByteDance’s ongoing legal challenge against the divestment order, however, the future of the deal is now uncertain.

The new filing is part of a lawsuit TikTok filed against the Trump administration on September 18. It won an early victory when the court stopped the U.S. government’s ban from going into effect on its original deadline that month.

In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, a TikTok spokesperson said it has been working with the CFIUS for a year to address its national security concerns “even as we disagree with its assessment.”

Facing continual new requests and no clarity on whether our proposed solutions would be accepted, we requested the 30-day extension that is expressly permitted in the August 14 order,” the statement continued.

“Today, with the November 12 CFIUS deadline imminent and without an extension in hand, we have no choice but to file a petition in court to defend our rights and those of our more than 1,500 employees in the US.” 

TikTok asks U.S. federal appeals court to vacate U.S. divestment order by TechCrunch on Scribd

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Joe Biden wins the 2020 US presidential election

Following a tense week of vote tallying, Joe Biden won the state of Pennsylvania and vaulted ahead in the race to become the next president of the United States. Biden’s win in the critical state put him over the threshold of 270 electoral votes, cutting off all avenues for his opponent.

Biden prevailed by flipping key states that went to Trump in 2016, including Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. Trump again won in Florida and Ohio, but in the end was unable to chart a path to an electoral victory. Biden also leads by millions in the popular vote, with a record number of votes cast this year, many through the mail.

As his vice president, Kamala Harris will make history in myriad ways, becoming the first woman — and the first woman of color — to occupy the office. Harris, a California senator and the state’s former attorney general, built a career in the tech industry’s front yard.

Shattered barriers aside, this year’s election will likely go down in infamy for many in the U.S. The race was the strangest in recent years, characterized by rising storms of misinformation, fears over the fate of scaled-up vote-by-mail systems and a deadly virus that’s claimed well over 230,000 American lives. Biden’s campaign was forced to adapt to drive-up rallies and digital campaigning instead of relying on door-knocking and face-to-face interaction to mobilize the vote.

The circumstances of the election also created the perfect ecosystem for misinformation — a situation made worse by President Trump’s false claim of victory early Wednesday morning and ongoing claims of Democratic voter fraud. Trump appears to be in no mood to concede the election, but in the end the vote is what it is and Joe Biden will take office on January 20, 2021.

While a sitting president rejecting that unwritten democratic norm would be alarming, Trump’s decision will have little bearing on the ultimate political outcome. Whatever the coming days hold, the U.S. is entering into a new and unprecedented phase of uncertainty in which misinformation abounds and political tensions and fears of politically-motivated violence are running high.

The former vice president’s win brings a four year run of Trumpism to an abrupt end, though its effects will still reverberate throughout American politics, likely for decades. It also ushers in a new era in which Joe Biden plans to draw on the influence of an unlikely coalition of Democrats from across the political spectrum. The Senate still hangs in the balance with two tight races in Georgia headed to January runoffs.

Biden has laid out plans for sweeping climate action, and a healthcare extension that would cover more Americans and provide an opt-in Medicare-like public option. But his ability to enact most of those grand plans would hinge on a Democratic Senate. While either party was likely to continue pursuing more aggressive regulation for the technology industry, we’ll be watching closely for signals of what’s to come for tech policy.

But even without the Senate, the president-elect may be capable of making a swift and critical impact where it’s most needed: the coronavirus pandemic. In the continued absence of a national plan to fight the virus and a White House that downplays its deadliness and discourages mask-wearing, COVID-19 is raging out of control in states across the country, signaling a very deadly winter just around the corner.

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DOJ says it seized over $1 billion in bitcoin from the Silk Road drugs marketplace

Two days ago, about $1 billion worth of bitcoin that had sat dormant since the seizure of the Silk Road marketplace in 2013, one of the biggest underground drug websites on the dark web, suddenly changed hands.

Who took it? Mystery over. It was the U.S. government.

In a statement Thursday, the Justice Department confirmed it had seized the 70,000 bitcoins generated in revenue from drug sales on the Silk Web marketplace from a hacker, known as “Individual X,” who moved the cryptocurrency from Silk Road into a wallet the hacker controlled.

The filing said that the identity of Individual X “is known to the government.”

At the time of the seizure on Tuesday, the bitcoin was worth more than $1 billion.

“Silk Road was the most notorious online criminal marketplace of its day. The successful prosecution of Silk Road’s founder in 2015 left open a billion-dollar question. Where did the money go? Today’s forfeiture complaint answers this open question at least in part,” said U.S. Attorney David Anderson in remarks.

“$1 billion of these criminal proceeds are now in the United States’ possession,” he said.

Silk Road was for a time the “most sophisticated and extensive criminal marketplace on the Internet,” per the Justice Department statement. In 2013, its founder and administrator Ross Ulbricht was arrested and the site seized. Ulbricht was convicted in 2015 and sentenced to two life terms and an additional 40 years, for his role in the operation. Prosecutors said the site had close to 13,000 listings for drugs and other illegal services, and generated millions of bitcoin.

The Justice Department said Thursday that the seized bitcoin would be subject to forfeiture proceedings.

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President Trump reportedly has approved the Oracle deal for TikTok’s US operations

President Donald Trump said has has given his stamp of approval “in concept” on the Oracle bid for the U.S. operations of the wildly popular social media app, TikTok, according to a report from Bloomberg.

According to the Bloomberg report Trump said, “I have given the deal my blessing,” as he left the White House for a campaign rally in North Carolina on Saturday.

“I approved the deal in concept,” Trump reportedly said.

The spinout of TikTok’s U.S. operations from its parent company Bytedance was something that Trump administration had demanded on the grounds that the company’s data handling policies and popularity in the U.S. posed a national security threat.

The President’s push to sever the applications ties to China also followed TikTok users’ alleged prank that turned what was supposed to be a triumphal rally for the President in Oklahoma City into a Presidential campaign embarrassment that cost the job of Trump’s campaign manager, Brad Parscale.

That said, the U.S. has been looking to curtail the operations of several Chinese technology companies on the grounds that they pose security threats to the U.S. Indeed, the Presidential order that demanded TikTok’s spinout also called for the discontinuation of the U.S. operations of the messaging service WeChat, which is owned by Tencent — one of China’s largest technology companies. And the U.S. government has also put a target on the telecommunications and networking technology developer, Huawei.

With the TikTok deal set to be approved, a new company called TikTok Global will be created as part of the deal, according to statements from Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, earlier this week.

Bloomberg reported that Trump said the new company would be headquartered in Texas, would hire as many as 25,000 people and would contribute $5 billion toward U.S. education.

The bulk of TikTok’s U.S. operations are now in Los Angeles.

As the Trump Administration continues its push to disrupt the operations of Chinese tech companies in the U.S., strange bedfellows are uniting to voice opposition to the deal.

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union and the head of Facebook’s Instagram subsidiary both came out with statements opposing the proposed transaction.

“This order violates the First Amendment rights of people in the United States by restricting their ability to communicate and conduct important transactions on the two social media platforms,” said Hina Shamsi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project, in a statement on Friday.

And the dragnet against Chinese influence through ownership of U.S. technology companies has reportedly widened to include many of the top U.S. gaming companies, which have been backed (or are wholly owned) by Tencent.

All of this could be exceptionally bad for U.S. technology businesses, as Instgram’s chief, Adam Mosseri pointed out in a series of Friday tweets.

“A US ban of TikTok would be meaningful step in the direction of a more fragmented nationalized internet, which would be bad for US tech companies which have benefited greatly from the ability to operate across borders,” Mosseri wrote.

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How the NSA is disrupting foreign hackers targeting COVID-19 vaccine research

The headlines aren’t always kind to the National Security Agency, a spy agency that operates almost entirely in the shadows. But a year ago, the NSA launched its new Cybersecurity Directorate, which in the past year has emerged as one of the more visible divisions of the spy agency.

At its core, the directorate focuses on defending and securing critical national security systems that the government uses for its sensitive and classified communications. But the directorate has become best known for sharing some of the more emerging, large-scale cyber threats from foreign hackers. In the past year the directorate has warned against attacks targeting secure boot features in most modern computers, and doxxed a malware operation linked to Russian intelligence. By going public, NSA aims to make it harder for foreign hackers to reuse their tools and techniques, while helping to defend critical systems at home.

But six months after the directorate started its work, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and large swathes of the world — and the U.S. — went into lockdown, prompting hackers to shift gears and change tactics.

“The threat landscape has changed,” Anne Neuberger, NSA’s director of cybersecurity, told TechCrunch at Disrupt 2020. “We’ve moved to telework, we move to new infrastructure, and we’ve watched cyber adversaries move to take advantage of that as well,” she said.

Publicly, the NSA advised on which videoconferencing and collaboration software was secure, and warned about the risks associated with virtual private networks, of which usage boomed after lockdowns began.

But behind the scenes, the NSA is working with federal partners to help protect the efforts to produce and distribute a vaccine for COVID-19, a feat that the U.S. government called Operation Warp Speed. News of NSA’s involvement in the operation was first reported by Cyberscoop. As the world races to develop a working COVID-19 vaccine, which experts say is the only long-term way to end the pandemic, NSA and its U.K. and Canadian partners went public with another Russian intelligence operation aimed at targeting COVID-19 research.

“We’re part of a partnership across the U.S. government, we each have different roles,” said Neuberger. “The role we play as part of ‘Team America for Cyber’ is working to understand foreign actors, who are they, who are seeking to steal COVID-19 vaccine information — or more importantly, disrupt vaccine information or shake confidence in a given vaccine.”

Neuberger said that protecting the pharma companies developing a vaccine is just one part of the massive supply chain operation that goes into getting a vaccine out to millions of Americans. Ensuring the cybersecurity of the government agencies tasked with approving a vaccine is also a top priority.

Here are more takeaways from the talk, and you can watch the interview in full below:

Why TikTok is a national security threat

TikTok is just days away from an app store ban, after the Trump administration earlier this year accused the Chinese-owned company of posing a threat to national security. But the government has been less than forthcoming about what specific risks the video sharing app poses, only alleging that the app could be compelled to spy for China. Beijing has long been accused of cyberattacks against the U.S., including the massive breach of classified government employee files from the Office of Personnel Management in 2014.

Neuberger said that the “scope and scale” of TikTok’s app’s data collection makes it easier for Chinese spies to answer “all kinds of different intelligence questions” on U.S. nationals. Neuberger conceded that U.S. tech companies like Facebook and Google also collect large amounts of user data. But that there are “greater concerns on how [China] in particular could use all that information collected against populations other than its own,” she said.

NSA is privately disclosing security bugs to companies

The NSA is trying to be more open about the vulnerabilities it finds and discloses, Neuberger said. She told TechCrunch that the agency has shared a “number” of vulnerabilities with private companies this year, but “those companies did not want to give attribution.”

One exception was earlier this year when Microsoft confirmed NSA had found and privately reported a major cryptographic flaw in Windows 10, which could have allowed hackers to run malware masquerading as a legitimate file. The bug was so dangerous that NSA reported the vulnerability to Microsoft, which patched the bug.

Only two years earlier, the spy agency was criticized for finding and using a Windows vulnerability to conduct surveillance instead of alerting Microsoft to the flaw. The exploit was later leaked and was used to infect thousands of computers with the WannaCry ransomware, causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage.

As a spy agency, NSA exploits flaws and vulnerabilities in software to gather intelligence on the enemy. It has to run through a process called the Vulnerabilities Equities Process, which allows the government to retain bugs that it can use for spying.

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Justice Department says WeChat users won’t be penalized under Trump’s executive order

In a Wednesday filing in federal court, the United States government said that users who use or download WeChat “to convey personal or business information” will not be subject to penalties under President Donald Trump’s executive order banning transactions with the Tencent-owned messaging app.

Trump issued the executive order against WeChat on August 6, the same day he issued a similar one banning transactions with ByteDance, the parent company of TikTok, claiming national security concerns. Both orders caused confusion because they are set to go into effect 45 days after being issued, but said that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross will not identify what transactions are covered until then.

With that deadline now looming at the end of this week, WeChat users in America are still uncertain about the app’s future. Though WeChat is the top messaging app by far in China, where it also serves as an essential conduit for payments and other services, the U.S. version of the app has relatively limited features. It is used by Chinese-Americans, and other members of the Chinese disapora in the U.S., to keep in touch with their family and other people in China. With other popular messaging apps, like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, banned in China, WeChat is often the most direct communication channel available to them.

The U.S. government’s filing (embedded below) was made as part of a request for a preliminary injunction against the executive order brought by the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, a non-profit organization initiated by attorneys who want to preserve access to WeChat for users in the U.S. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday.

In it, attorneys from the Justice Department said the U.S. Commerce Department is continuing to review transactions and will clarify which ones are affected by Sept. 20, but “we can provide assurances that [Secretary Ross] does not intend to take actions that would target persons or groups whose only connection to WeChat is their use or downloading of the app to convey personal or business information between users, or otherwise define the relevant transaction in such a way that would impose criminal or civil liability on such users.”

But in a response (also embedded below), the U.S. WeChat Users Alliance said that the Department of Justice’s filing instead demonstrates why a preliminary injunction is necessary. “Having first failed to articulate any actual national security concerns, the administration’s latest ‘assurances’ that users can keep using WeChat, and exchange their personal and business information, only further illustrates the hollowness and pre-textual nature of the Defendants’ ‘national security rationales.’”

The U.S. WeChat Users Alliance filed for the injunction on August 21. In an open letter published on its site, it said a complete ban of WeChat “will severely affect the lives and the work of millions of people in the U.S. They will have a difficult time talking to family relatives and friends back in China. Countless people or businesses who use WeChat to develop and contact customers will also suffer significant economic losses.”

The group also believes that the executive order “violates many provisions of the U.S. Constitution,” and the Administrative Procedure Act.

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Trump says deadline for TikTok sale won’t be extended

The United States government will not extend the September 20 deadline for Beijing-based ByteDance to sell TikTok, President Donald Trump said on Thursday. This adds urgency to negotiations because TikTok may be banned in the United States if it can’t reach an agreement with a buyer.

“We’ll see what happens. It’ll either be closed up or they’ll sell it,” Trump said before boarding Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews.

Trump issued an executive order last month claiming there is “credible evidence” that ByteDance “might take action that threatens to impair the national security of the United States.” ByteDance was already in negotiations with Microsoft for a sale. Several other large American tech companies have since reportedly entered into talks with popular video-sharing app–but potential new roadblocks to a deal have also emerged.

Despite TikTok’s larger user base and value as one of the most popular social media apps among Gen Z, there are currently several issues that may lower its attractiveness for buyers.

For example, the software code used in ByteDance’s apps, including TikTok, are developed by engineers and developers at its Beijing headquarters. This makes separating TikTok from ByteDance more complicated on a technical level. Another factor is an update China made two weeks ago to export control laws that cover artificial intelligence technologies. TikTok’s AI-based algorithms, which shows new content to users depending on their interests and browsing history, are valuable and a huge part of its success. After the export control policy update was issued by China’s Ministry of Commerce, ByteDance said it will “strictly follow” the new rules, but that might prevent ByteDance from including TikTok’s personalized recommendation and AI-based technology in a sale, making it a less attractive acquisition.

In addition to Microsoft, contenders for TikTok reportedly include other American tech heavyweights like Twitter, Google and Oracle. Walmart has even put itself forward as a buyer, in a potential partnership with Microsoft.

TikTok’s security is also under a magnifying glass in several other countries. For example, it was among a roster of Chinese apps banned in India  over “national security and defence” concerns,” and is currently being investigated by French data security watchdog CNIL.

TikTok has fought back against those claims. Last month, it sued the Trump administration, stating in an announcement on August 24 that it “we strongly disagree with the Administration’s position that TikTok is a national security threat.”

In its complaint, TikTok said it has taken “extraordinary measures to protect the privacy and security of TikTok’s user data” by storing data in the U.S. and Singapore, and creating barriers between TikTok’s U.S. user data and the data of other ByteDance products like Douyin.

Since launching in 2017, TikTok, ByteDance’s international version of Douyin, has become firmly entrenched in internet culture, especially among Gen Z. In the U.S. alone, TikTok says it has over 100 million users in the U.S. and employs about 1,500 people.

Even though several apps, including Instagram, are trying to position themselves as TikTok alternatives with similar short-form video sharing features, no frontrunner has emerged so far. In fact, a new report by analytics firm Sensor Tower said that in August, TikTok was the most downloaded non-gaming app worldwide, with more than 63.3 million installs. TikTok users are so committed to the app that at least one VPN provider, ExpressVPN, saw a spike in traffic after the U.S. government proposed a potential ban in July.

Some cybersecurity experts say that TikTok’s data collection practices are similar to other social media apps that depend on advertising revenue. But a major concern revolves around its ownership by a Chinese company that may be forced to capitulate to demands for data by the Chinese government. A Chinese cybersecurity law requires Chinese tech companies, like ByteDance, to comply with government’s requests for user data. ByteDance has said it would resist attempts by the Chinese government access TikTok’s user data

Security concerns about TikTok also increased after a Wall Street Journal analysis published in August found that TikTok went around an Android operating system feature designed to limit how much data, including unique identifiers called MAC addresses, that apps can collect from users. According to the WSJ, TikTok stopped collecting unique identifiers in November, but its investigation raised questions about TikTok’s commitment to protecting user privacy. In a statement to the WSJ, TikTok said “like our peers, we constantly update our app to keep up with evolving security challenges.”

It’s not just Republicans who are taking a stance against TikTok. In July, Joe Biden’s presidential campaign reportedly asked its staff to remove TikTok from their work and personal devices.

The U.S government’s scrutiny of TikTok began escalating last year when Sens. Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) asked Joseph Maguire, then the acting director of national intelligence, to assess if TikTok can be forced to turn over American users’ data to Chinese authorities.

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