The news in digital and technology from October

Digital360 on 30 October 2017

Each month, we take a look at the biggest movements in digital technology and investigate the implications for industry and business. This month:

  1. A major vulnerability in standard WiFi encryption was exposed.
  2. Google and Twitter’s platforms were caught up in fake news controversy.
  3. Facebook made publishers nervous by testing its ‘Explore’ News Feed.
  4. Google and Amazon continued to strengthen product lines in hardware.
  5. The turmoil at Uber calmed down following a corporate restructure.
  6. Australian technology company Atlassian is now more valuable than Qantas.

Let’s dive into it.

WiFi KRACK bug exposed

Researchers discovered that WPA2, the standard protocol for encryption over WiFi networks, had a critical vulnerability. Dubbed ‘KRACK’, the vulnerability is widespread, and affects all major software platforms including Microsoft Windows, macOS, iOS, Android and Linux.

The attack targets a step in the ‘handshake’ between two devices, allowing an attacker to eventually read web traffic on the connection. The WPA2 protocol is used in most WiFi devices, such as home and office routers. These devices are rarely updated with software updates by their users.

The prevalence of the Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as smart TVs and fridges make the issue of cleaning up the vulnerability a highly complicated task. This means the effects of KRACK are likely to last a long time – it may take decades before all vulnerable devices are phased out.

'Fake news' catches up to Google, Twitter

Facebook has borne the brunt of recent criticism about the spread and proliferation of ‘fake news’ online. Particularly, criticism has been aimed at content and advertising with ties to the Russian government during the 2016 Presidential election.

This month, fake accounts linked to Russian operatives were discovered on Google, while hundreds of fake accounts on Twitter were also taken down. All companies have answered to Congress and are cooperating with investigators in supplying details of the ads and suspicious accounts.

The news has continued to create a PR disaster for the companies. But despite the political roadblocks, favorability toward these companies has not reduced in the eyes of the public.

Facebook is testing a new news feed

Facebook has been testing variations on its primary and most valuable product. “We are testing having one dedicated space for people to keep up with their friends and family, and another separate space, called Explore, with posts from pages.,” said Adam Mosseri, Head of Facebook’s News Feed.

'Explore' is a little-known feature buried inside the Facebook interface and serves up content users may be interested in, but not necessarily from Pages they follow. If the tests are successful, this would effectively split Facebook’s content into two feeds: a ‘personal’ news feed and an open ‘explore’ feed.

However, publishers are nervous about the change. Early results from within test countries suggest that Page audience reach could collapse on the traditional News Feed. Facebook maintains this is a test, and there is no final word on the development of News Feed.

Graph showing the impact of Facebook's tests on newsfeed in mid-October.

Interactions on the biggest Slovak media Facebook pages dropped by two thirds in October. Source: CrowdTangle

Google and Amazon continue moves into hardware

Following the wake of Apple’s product releases last month, Google and Amazon have brought to market a range of new devices. Amazon released new products in its Echo range while Google released a new flagship phone, the Pixel 2, along with a range of other products and accessories.

Apple has long been considered the market leader in design and product quality, while Google is best known for its services in search and Amazon in eCommerce. Widespread praise is signalling that, especially for Google’s Pixel devices, this traditional gap in product design is closing. For Google, hardware is no longer a hobby.

Google's Pixelbook in the 'tent' configuration.

Google's premium laptop, the Pixelbook

However, there are some early reports on the Pixel XL of defects in the OLED screen technology. Product launches can be devastated by a single component defect: last year, Samsung had to recall the Galaxy Note 7 product line due to a dangerous battery fault.

Calm at Uber as it prepares for a new deal

A corporate restructure at Uber has set the company on a smoother path as the company plans to receive a fresh injection of capital from Japanese telecommunications company, Softbank. The changes reduce the voting rights of earlier investors and add up to 6 new seats to the board, which has now swelled to 17 seats in total.

The move is partly aimed at cutting the influence and power of ousted CEO Travis Kalanick. Kalanick owns about 10 per cent in the private company, and despite vowing to let the company continue without his involvement, behind the scenes he was reportedly planning a comeback.

The Softbank deal is a peculiar turn of events given that Softbank has been a major investor in a number of Uber rivals, particularly in Asia where Uber has been struggling to outmanoeuvre local ride-share apps.

Atlassian: one of Australia’s most valuable companies

The darling of Australian technology, Atlassian, is about to hit coveted status: the company’s market capitalisation is nearing $US10 billion, making it more valuable than some of Australia's best-known companies, including Qantas and News Corp.

Atlassian develops popular software project management tools, such as JIRA and the recently acquired Trello. The company was founded in 2002 and grew steadily until it’s IPO in 2015 on the NASDAQ stock exchange.

The new valuation comes after the company reported stronger than expected earnings results, with June quarter revenues up 42 per cent on a year earlier. The company is now expected to surpass $US800 million ($1.01 billion) this financial year.

Keep a look out for...

Google’s DeepMind project released a new iteration of its AlphaGo AI, AlphaGo Zero. AlphaGo uses a process of machine learning to play the highly complex board game, Go. Last year, the AI received acclaim for beating the human Grand Master, four games to one.

Zero was able to beat this previous version, 100 games to 0. The key difference was that, unlike previous iterations, Zero was ‘self-taught’ with no human input or data. This development shows promise in the machine learning method of ‘reinforcement learning’, which does not necessarily require data to ‘train’ its algorithms.

The breakthrough is significant given that Google develops a range of services that increasingly focus on an ‘AI first’ approach, including Google Search. It signals another step towards the rapid development of these services and potential applications for AI.

And that's the latest in technology news. For more digital insights, talk to a digital specialist today.