Gamers Check Back in to Habbo Hotel as Coronavirus Refuge 

Habbo Hotel, a hit online networking game more than a decade ago, is drawing back hundreds of thousand of players as locked-down millennials look to rediscover a childhood favorite, its Finnish maker said.   “Our traffic has tripled over the past month. The exact user number growth figure is 213% since February 25,” game maker Sulake’s Chief Executive Valtteri Karu told Reuters, adding that this included hundreds of thousands of new and returning users.   Launched 20 years ago, Habbo Hotel gained a strong following among children and teenagers before it was eclipsed by social media sites such as Facebook by 2010.   With a layout reminiscent of classic video games, Habbo Hotel consists of rooms that players can decorate and where they can meet other players to chat or play games. They can also join virtual parties in search of new acquaintances.   One returning user is Pilvi Pitkaranta, a 23-year-old University of Tampere student who was an active player with her classmates about 10 years ago.   With all student events canceled because of the coronavirus, Pitkaranta decided to organize a virtual party at Habbo Hotel. About 30 of her fellow students joined the party at the end of March.   “I thought it was a fun idea to organize a party there, also out of nostalgia,” Pitkaranta said.   “Some people are finding it very distressing that they have to be home alone and are finding it hard to get things done when stuck indoors.”   Habbo Hotel has versions in nine languages, attracting most users in the Americas and Europe, Sulake’s Karu said.   “As the world has shut down, the more users have come along,” he added.   The game’s Finnish maker is jointly owned by private Dutch advertising group Azerion and Finnish telecoms operator Elisa.   It remains to be seen if Habbo’s renewed popularity will last only as long as the virus.   As welcome a diversion as Habbo may be, Pitkaranta and her fellow students are looking forward to when they can enjoy some real-life partying, she said.  …


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Hackers’ New Target During Pandemic: Video Conference Calls 

Ceri Weber had just begun to defend her dissertation when the chaos began: Echoes and voices interrupted her. Someone parroted her words. Then Britney Spears music came on, and someone told Weber to shut up. Someone threatened to rape her. Hackers had targeted the meeting on the video conference platform Zoom while Weber was completing the final step of her doctoral degree at Duke University. The harassment lasted 10 minutes — the result of an increasingly common form of cyber attack known as “Zoom bombing.” As tens of millions of people turn to video conferencing to stay connected during the coronavirus pandemic, many have reported uninvited guests who make threats, interject racist, anti-gay or anti-Semitic messages, or show pornographic images. The attacks have drawn the attention of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. “It seemed like someone was just being silly,” but then the intrusions “started to get more serious and threatening,” Weber recalled. “I was really in the zone and kept presenting.” She said she was more concerned about others in the chat who could have been scared. She was interrupted despite having selected “mute all” in the settings for the meeting she conducted from her home in Durham, North Carolina. A Massachusetts high school reported that someone interrupted a virtual class on Zoom, yelled profanity and revealed the teacher’s home address. Another school in that state reported a person who accessed a meeting and showed swastika tattoos, according to the FBI. The agency’s field office in Boston recommended that users of video-teleconference platforms prioritize their security by ensuring that hosts have sole control over screen-sharing features and meeting invitations. In New York, Attorney General Letitia James sent a letter to Zoom with questions about how users’ privacy and security are being protected. In a separate later, Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut sought information about how the company handles users’ personal data and guards against security threats and abuse. Zoom has referred to trolls as “party crashers,” which some critics have taken as a sign the company is downplaying the attacks. In a statement issued last week, the company told The Associated Press it takes the …


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Taiwan Tells Agencies Not to Use Zoom on Security Grounds

Taiwan’s cabinet has told government agencies to stop using Zoom Video Communications Inc’s conferencing app, the latest blow to the company as it battles criticism of its booming platform over privacy and security.Zoom’s daily users ballooned to more than 200 million in March, as coronavirus-induced shutdowns forced employees to work from home and schools switched to the company’s free app for conducting and coordinating online classes.However, the company is facing a backlash from users worried about the lack of end-to-end encryption of meeting sessions and “zoombombing,” where uninvited guests crash into meetings.If government agencies must hold video conferencing, they “should not use products with security concerns, like Zoom,” Taiwan’s cabinet said in a statement on Tuesday. It did not elaborate on what the security concerns were.The island’s education ministry later said it was banning the use of Zoom in schools.Zoom did not immediately respond to requests for comment.Taiwan would be the first government formally advising against use of Zoom, although some U.S. schools districts are looking at putting limits on its use after an FBI warning last month.Zoom Chief Executive Officer Eric Yuan last week apologized a-message-to-our-users to users, saying the company had fallen short of the community’s privacy and security expectations, and was taking steps to fix the issues.Zoom competes with Microsoft’s Teams, Cisco’s Webex and Google’s Hangouts.Taiwan’s cabinet said domestically-made conferencing apps were preferred, but if needed products from Google and Microsoft could also be considered.Zoom’s shares dipped 1% in premarket trading on the Nasdaq. They have lost nearly a third of their market value since touching record highs late March.  …


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Technology Helps Doctors, Health Industry Track Patients, Treatments

As the COVID-19 pandemic threatens to overwhelm doctors and hospitals throughout the country, medical technology firms and health centers are trying to gain “situational awareness” — giving doctors what they need to know about the sick patients filling emergency rooms.For doctors and staff, “it’s really hard to know what sorts of patients are coming,” said Warren Ratliff, the chief executive of MDmetrix, a software firm that provides analysis of health care inside hospitals.The staff “can see they’re backing up,” he said. But they have few tools to compare patients showing up today with those admitted yesterday, or to show what treatments might be working on certain groups of patients, he added.A frustrated doctorMDmetrix was created by a doctor frustrated that he couldn’t analyze data across patients. With electronic medical records, which have been in use in the U.S. for years, mostly for tracking and billing, physicians typically view one patient’s record at a time.   Enter medical technology firms like MDmetrix, which offer information dashboards and apps so that doctors and hospitals can look for trends and insights across patient outcomes. The technology pulls data from patients’ electronic medical records.As they deal with the patients in front of them, hospitals and doctors are struggling to answer what may seem like simple questions, Ratliff said. How many ventilators are being used? Is low oxygen an indicator of COVID-19? Has anyone followed up on patients who were tested and sent home?The demand for information extends to whether there are different treatments for different groups, he said.Different patients, different treatments“Is there a difference in the treatment between smokers or nonsmokers?” Ratliff said. “In a couple of years, an after-action report will come out. But that’s way too late if you’re fighting a battle right now.”With the push of a button, clinicians and hospital administrators get MDmetrix’s COVID-19 dashboard of charts and graphs that they can view to improve patient care. The information is a real-time snapshot of “whether treatment protocol A is working better than protocol B for any subset of patients,” Ratliff said.As for privacy concerns, data pulled from patient records is stripped …


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Delivery Apps Trending as Americans Seek to Avoid Infection

With “Social Distancing” now the mantra to keep the coronavirus from spreading further, more American consumers are turning to online delivery apps to get their food and household products. Yet as VOA Correspondent Mariama Diallo reports, not everyone can avoid going to stores and if you must go, experts advise people to observe some basic precautions. …


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Twitter Deletes Egypt, Saudi Accounts Over ‘Pro-Govt Direction’

Twitter said Thursday it has removed thousands of accounts in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Honduras, Indonesia and Serbia that allegedly took direction from governments or pushed pro-government content.A network of accounts associated with Saudi Arabia and operating out of multiple countries including KSA, Egypt and UAE, were amplifying content praising Saudi leadership, and critical of Qatar and Turkish activity in Yemen. A total of 5,350 accounts were removed.— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) April 2, 2020″We removed 2,541 accounts in an Egypt-based network, known as the El Fagr network,” the San Francisco-based tech firm posted in a series of tweets.”The media group created inauthentic accounts to amplify messaging critical of Iran, Qatar and Turkey. Information we gained externally indicates it was taking direction from the Egyptian government.”El Fagr’s online managing editor Mina Salah vehemently pushed back.”Yes we are loyal to the state but we don’t receive instructions from anyone. We’re merely defending our country and its position is clear vis-a-vis Iran, Qatar and Turkey,” he told AFP.He said Twitter was effectively censoring the newspaper’s content and that journalists were banned from even creating new personal accounts.The platform also deleted 5,350 accounts from regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia for “amplifying content praising Saudi leadership, and critical of Qatar and Turkish activity in Yemen”.Rights groups have accused the conservative kingdom of spying on dissidents and critical online users on Twitter.The Saudi-linked accounts were run out of the kingdom and the United Arab Emirates, where Twitter’s Middle East headquarters is based, as well as Egypt.Toward the end of last year, we identified clusters of accounts engaged in inauthentic coordinated activity which led to the removal of 8,558 accounts working to promote Serbia’s ruling party and its leader.— Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) April 2, 2020After an internal investigation, Twitter also removed clusters of accounts in Honduras allegedly propagating pro-government content, in Serbia promoting the “ruling party and its leader” and Indonesian accounts pushing information targeting the West Papuan independence movement.Earlier this week, it removed two of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s tweets questioning quarantine measures aimed at containing the novel coronavirus on the grounds that they violated the social network’s …


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California Energy Company Pivots to Refurbishing Ventilators 

A California hydrogen fuel cell company is now repairing and updating old ventilators, answering a challenge by the state to address a shortage of the life-saving equipment needed to help coronavirus patients breathe. Bloom Energy manufacturing director Joe Tavi told the Associated Press news agency state officials reached out to the Silicon Valley firm asking for its help in refurbishing old ventilators the state had on hand. Tavi said he downloaded a 300-page operating manual for the ventilators, and his co-workers developed a plan to fix the machines.  Since then, the company has fixed more than 400 ventilators and averages about 100 a day.  California Governor Gavin Newson says the state — with a population of about 40 million people — needs about 10,000 ventilators. Nationwide, the Society of Critical Care Medicine tells AP there could be a need for as many as 900,000 ventilators, while only about 200,000 are currently available. Other U.S. companies, such as garment and automobile manufacturers, have been shifting their focus to address the shortage of medical gear and protective equipment due to the coronavirus pandemic.   …


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Google Boosts Support for Checking Coronavirus Facts 

Google on Thursday said it is pumping $6.5 million into fact-checkers and nonprofits as it ramps up its the battle against coronavirus misinformation.   Fact-checking organizations, which often operate on relatively small budgets, are seeing a surge in demand for their work as mistaken or maliciously false information about the pandemic spreads, according to Alexios Mantzarlis of the Google News Lab.   “Uncertainty and fear make us all more susceptible to inaccurate information, so we’re supporting fact-checkers as they address heightened demand for their work,” Mantzarlis said.   A Poynter Institute report last year on the state of fact-checking indicated that more than a fifth of fact-checking organizations operated with annual budgets of less than $20,000.   “We are supporting fact checking projects around the world with a concentration on parts hardest hit by the pandemic,” Mantzarlis told AFP.   “This can be a noticeable infusion of additional support at a time of stress.”   Google is also looking to use its products and “ecosystem” to bolster the battle against COVID-19 misinformation.   The Google News Initiative is increasing its support for nonprofit First Draft, which provides a resource hub, training and crisis simulations for journalists covering news during times of crisis, according to Mantzarlis.   Google is also supporting the creation of a public health resource database for reporters.   “We also want to do more to surface fact-checks that address potentially harmful health misinformation more prominently to our users,” Mantzarlis said.   “We’re experimenting with how to best include a dedicated fact-check section in the COVID-19 Google News experience.”   Google is conducting a test in India and Africa to explore how to use trends in what people are asking or searching for online to let fact-checkers know where a lack of reliable answers may invite misinformation.   “Unanswered user questions — such as ‘what temperature kills coronavirus?’ — can provide useful insights to fact-checkers and health authorities about content they may want to produce,” Mantzarlis said.   That test compliments an effort to train 1,000 journalists across India and Nigeria to spot health misinformation, according to the California-based internet titan.   “There is definitely an appetite for this stuff,” Mantzarlis said.   “We grasp for certainty, a glimmer of something we can do to protect ourselves and …


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China’s Huawei Warns More US Pressure May Spur Retaliation

Huawei’s chairman warned Tuesday that more U.S. moves to increase pressure on the Chinese tech giant might trigger retaliation by Beijing that could damage its worldwide industry.  Huawei Technologies Ltd., which makes smartphones and network equipment, reported that its 2019 sales rose by double digits despite curbs imposed in May on its access to U.S. components and technology. But the chairman, Eric Xu, said 2020 will be its “most difficult year” as Huawei struggles with the sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic.  Huawei is at the center of tensions with Washington over technology and possible spying that helped to spark Trump’s tariff war with China in 2018.Xu said he couldn’t confirm news reports President Donald Trump might try to extend controls to block access to foreign-made products that contain U.S. technology. Xu said Huawei can find other sources but warned more American action might trigger Chinese retaliation against American companies.”I think the Chinese government will not just stand by and watch Huawei be slaughtered,” Xu said at a news conference. He said U.S. pressure on foreign suppliers “will be destructive to the global technology ecosystem.”  “If the Chinese government followed through with countermeasures, the impact on the global industry would be astonishing,” Xu said. “It’s not only going to be one company, Huawei, that could be destroyed.”  Huawei, China’s first global tech brand, denies U.S. accusations the company is controlled by the ruling Communist Party or facilitates Chinese spying. The company says it is owned by the 104,572 members of its 194,000-member workforce who are Chinese citizens.Chinese officials say the Trump administration is abusing national security claims to restrain a rival to U.S. tech companies.  Last year’s sales rose 19.1% over 2018 to 858.8 billion yuan ($123 billion), in line with the previous year’s 19.5% gain, the company reported. Profit increased 5.6% to 62.7 billion yuan ($9 billion), decelerating from 2018’s 25% jump.  Huawei has had to spend heavily to replace American components in its products and find new suppliers after Trump approved the sanctions on May 16, Xu said.  The controls, if fully enforced, could cut off access to most …


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Spain Postpones 5G Spectrum Auction Due To Coronavirus

Spain will delay a planned auction of 5G spectrum due to the coronavirus outbreak, the government said on Monday.   As part of a Europe-wide drive to speed up the roll out of fast Internet and broaden coverage, Spain had been due to free up space in the 700 MHz band of its network by switching from analog to digital terrestrial television by June 30.   One of the world’s worst national outbreaks of the virus, which had infected 85,915 people and killed 7,340 as of Monday, constitutes force majeure, making it impossible to stick to that deadline, the government said in a statement.   Madrid has told Brussels it will set a new deadline for the 700 MHz band depending on the eventual end-date for emergency measures including restrictions on people’s movements, it added.   Austria postponed a planned 5G auction last week, and the CEO of French group Iliad said one coming up in France would likely meet the same fate.  …


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Spain Tries Tracking Coronavirus, Sparking Privacy Concerns

In Madrid only a few weeks ago, thousands of demonstrators took part in a women’s march, defiant or unaware of calls for social distancing to stop what then appeared to be the distant threat of coronavirus. Now, Spain is one of the biggest battlegrounds in the global war against the pandemic.Spain’s health system is stressed to the breaking point. Coronavirus information hotlines have been jammed by frightened people desperate for information.Madrid city leaders launched a web and mobile service modeled after ones that South Korea successfully used to track those infected.   “Our sole objective at this time is to save lives,” explains Isabel Diaz Ayuso, President of the Community of Madrid.The CoronaMadrid website and the App – is a public-private initiative that involves giving citizens’ personal information to the government and to various companies whose names are not disclosed.  In these times of fear, few ask questions.  “We are immersed in a state of extreme urgency or extreme need, that is when at least we begin to understand these rather awkward actions of various public administrations when developing technological solutions,” says Enric Lujan, a politics professor at the  Universitat de Barcelona. “The application of the Community of Madrid does not specify data protection clauses, of transfers to third parties and, it seems, these data can be transferred to companies.”South Korea’s tracking measures helped the government there flatten the contagion curve – and other countries have followed.  Israel has approved the use of counterterrorism technology to track the virus, and Iran’s official coronavirus app was recently pulled by Google from its Play Store, amid privacy concerns.   “Medical data is classified as highly sensitive,” Lujan says.  “The transfer to third parties of medical data is being left in the background when what is prioritized is the fact of having a lower number of deaths.”The coronavirus pandemic has made many people across the world feel afraid, helpless, and desperate for solutions.  It has also raised new questions about how much of their personal freedom and privacy they are willing to sacrifice.      …


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