Month in Tech 2 — July 2021 Edition

We’re back with a rewind of this month’s tech stories. Let’s jump in!

The Bitcoin network’s mining difficulty has fallen by 27.9% as the network reacts to the significant drop in hash rate. Since the network’s launch in 2009, this is the largest reduction in mining difficulty. Every 2,016 blocks, or roughly every two weeks, the Bitcoin network increases its mining difficulty level. Despite a variable hash rate, this is designed to ensure that blocks are produced every ten minutes or so. And the hash rate has undoubtedly fluctuated in this case. Bitcoin’s seven-day moving average hash rate has dropped by 35% since the previous adjustment on June 13th, from 136.47 EH/s to 85 EH/s.

This is partly due to China’s ban on bitcoin mining, which is driving the hash rate to relocate as enterprises seek out more friendly jurisdictions. The remaining hashing power was unable to keep up with the high difficulty level, resulting in a decreased rate of block generation. Blocks have been created roughly every 13.9 minutes on average during the last two weeks, which is significantly greater than typical.

On July 1, it took 129 minutes to make a block, the longest since 2011, though it’s worth noting that there are a number of factors at play, including the inherent volatility in block durations.

In a study, Audacity, the widely-known open-source audio-editing programme, has been labelled spyware, with privacy policy modifications suggesting the tool is gathering data on its users and sharing it with other companies, as well as shipping the data to Russia.

In May, Muse Group, which also owns Ultimate Guitar, MuseScore, and Tonebridge, purchased Audacity. The software collects “data necessary for law enforcement, litigation, and authorities’ demands (if any)” under “data gathered for legal enforcement,” however no specific data is collected in such circumstances. IP addresses are saved as a hash with a daily-changing salt “in a recognisable fashion only for a calendar day.” The hash is kept for a year before being deleted, but the salt “is not saved on any database and cannot be accessed after it has been altered,” according to the business.

It is argued that one day of storage is adequate for a government agency with sufficient resources and legal power to identify a user. The data is supposed to be maintained within the European Economic Area, but the corporation is “sometimes forced to exchange your personal data with our main office in Russia and our external counsel in the United States,” according to the policy’s phrasing.

Personal information may also be shared with a wide range of parties, including “advisors” and “possible buyers,” as well as law enforcement agencies, regulators, courts, and other third parties. While the app was previously open to users of all ages due to the GPL license, the privacy policy now states that people under the age of 13 should “please do not use the app.”

Following previous ransomware assaults in the United States that knocked off a major gas pipeline and a large meat processor, a new attack has surfaced, this time targeting a Miami-based firm that provides tech-management tools to customers all over the world.

The supply-chain attack on software business Kaseya, which has continuously issued notifications to its site, directly impacted hundreds of companies, including a railway, pharmacy chain, and grocery chain in Sweden. To investigate the incident, the business is collaborating with the FBI and the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency.

The attack targets a Kaseya product called VSA, which allows small and medium-sized enterprises to remotely monitor their computer systems and automate server maintenance and security updates, among other things.

Kaseya CEO Fred Voccola said, “We’re actually 100 percent convinced that we know how it happened and that we’ve remediated it.”

According to The Wall Street Journal, REvil, the Russia-connected hacking gang behind the attack on meat producer JBS, is linked to the Kaseya attack. “If anyone wants to bargain on a global decryptor, our price is $70 000 000 in BTC, and we will publicly release a decryptor that decrypts all victims’ files, allowing everyone to recover from an attack in less than an hour.”

Ransomware attacks, in which hackers break into computers and hold networks and data for ransom, have become a growing concern.

A new antitrust case has been filed against Google by a group of state attorneys general, accusing the company of abusing its monopoly over the Android app market.

The action, filed in federal court in California by 36 states and the District of Columbia, challenges Google’s policy requiring Google Play app creators to pay a 30% commission charge on sales made through the app. The defendants are Google, Alphabet, and subsidiaries in Ireland and Asia, according to the full lawsuit, which you can read here or at the bottom of this post.

Epic Games, the creator of Fortnite, filed a similar lawsuit against Google in August, alleging that the company’s policies had hiked prices for consumers online, though the case was mostly overshadowed by Epic’s parallel case against Apple and its App Store. Nonetheless, because it comes from authorised state-level authorities, the case filed by the state attorneys general is expected to have more clout. The action comes amid growing federal pressure on Google, which is already facing three antitrust lawsuits, including a Justice Department case accusing the corporation of monopolistic behaviour in search advertising.

Because Android does not require Google Play as the exclusive source of software on the phone, it has always been viewed as posing a lower antitrust risk than Apple’s iOS.

In December 2021, Valve will begin distributing the Steam Deck, a new handheld gaming device. The device is an AMD “powerhouse,” according to Valve, capable of running “the latest AAA games.” A 7-inch, 1280x800 touchscreen, trackpads similar to the Steam Controller, and full-sized analog sticks are all included in the bulky black rectangle.

Steam Deck runs on a new version of SteamOS on the software side. That isn’t to say that the Steam Deck will only be available for Linux games. Simply said, you’ll be able to play Windows games that lack official Linux support.

When playing most games, the Deck’s battery will last “many hours,” and it will last up to 8 hours in “lighter use scenarios like game streaming, smaller 2D games, or web browsing”. At a minimum, it should last two hours playing a resource-intensive game.

You can pause the Steam Deck and put it to sleep, then instantly wake it up and return to your game when you’re ready with a rapid suspend/resume option. The 64GB version of the Steam Deck costs $399. The two more expensive models have faster NVMe storage, and storage can be expanded with a microSD card in all three models. Steam Decks are currently available for a $5 reservation on Steam.

The former Internet speed record of 178 terabits per second was blown out of the water by a team of experts from Japan’s National Institute of Information and Communication Technology (NICT). The new record of 319 terabits per second is staggering. It took some ingenuity and tinkering to get it running, but the good news is that the new fibre optics are backwards compatible with current equipment, so retrofitting existing lines may not be too difficult.

The researchers (headed by Benjamin J. Puttnam) achieved this accomplishment by merging diverse amplifier technologies to create a transmission system that fully leverages wavelength division multiplexing technology.

Their four-core optical fibre (with a standard outer diameter of 0.125 mm) stretched 69.8 kilometres and was looped 43 times, resulting in a transmission distance of 3,001 kilometres, or 1,865 miles.

By combining two types of doped-fiber amplifiers with distributed Raman amplification, the total >120nm transmission bandwidth allows for 552 wavelength-division multiplexed channels, allowing for recirculating transmission of the wideband signal.

The optical fibre they utilised, according to the team, can be cabled with existing equipment. They noted that they hope the innovation would allow for realistic, high-data-rate transmission in the near future, maybe as a step beyond 5G.

The Freedom Phone, a $500 smartphone with conservative apps that claims to free everyone who buys it from Silicon Valley tyranny, went viral on the pro-Trump internet. A wide range of right-wing personalities promptly endorsed the phone with the American flag on it.

Despite being praised by some of the most prominent people in the right-wing media, users of the Freedom Phone may be getting less than they expected for the $500 price tag. That’s because the Freedom Phone appears to be little more than a more expensive rebranding of a low-cost Chinese phone that can be had for a fraction of the Freedom Phone’s cost elsewhere.

Erik Finman, the self-proclaimed “youngest bitcoin millionaire” and one of Time Magazine’s “Most Influential Teens of 2014,” designed the Freedom Phone. After the digital giants’ crackdown on both Donald Trump and conservative social media app Parler in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 violence, Finman said he was motivated to design the phone in a video launching the phone.

The webpage for the Freedom Phone is nearly bare of technical information regarding the gadget. The Freedom Phone, according to Finman, is “equivalent to the greatest smartphones on the market” and “really is the best phone in the world.”

In truth, Freedom Phone looks to be a mere rebranding of the Chinese tech company Umidigi’s affordable phone, the “Umidigi A9 Pro.” Finman verified that the Freedom Phone was made by Umidigi in an interview with The Daily Beast, but couldn’t say which Umidigi phone it was based on.

The $500 price tag on the Freedom Phone would be a significant premium above the Umidigi A9 Pro. That phone costs $120 on Chinese e-commerce site AliExpress, which is less than a fourth of the price of a Freedom Phone.

Finman claimed vaguely that the Freedom Phone has customised hardware and better memory when asked to defend the Freedom Phone’s significant price rise over the Umidigi variant. Finman claimed in an interview that the Freedom Phone is made in Hong Kong. Umidigi’s headquarters are in Shenzhen, a mainland Chinese city near Hong Kong, according to the company’s website.

The inconsistencies in the Freedom Phone’s specifications have caused considerable consternation among the Freedom Phone’s legions of conservative influencers.

Dell has stopped distributing energy-hungry gaming PCs to some states in the United States because they consume more electricity than local regulations allow. The California ban was due to power consumption regulations, according to Dell, who told The Register:

Yes, the California Energy Commission (CEC) Tier 2 implementation, which established a mandatory energy efficiency standard for PCs — including desktops, AIOs, and mobile gaming systems — was the driving force behind this. This became effective on July 1, 2021. Only a few variants of the Alienware Aurora R10 and R12 were affected, according to Dell and Alienware.

Given the findings of a 2015 Semiconductor Industry Association report [PDF] that, given a benchmark system of 10–14 Joules/per bit transition, “computing will not be sustainable by 2040, when the energy required for computing will exceed the estimated world’s energy production,” such concern about energy efficiency seems reasonable.

The SIA believes 10–17 J/bit to be a reasonable aim for more efficient computing, while the organisation recently stated in a report that “revolutionary improvements to computing will be required shortly.”

On December 9, 2021, the rules will apply to “computers with high-speed networking capability, multi-screen notebooks, notebooks with cyclical behaviour, and monitors with high refresh rates.”

According to a CEC spokeswoman, vendors are not delivering to California as a result of the Tier II standards going into force. The standards [PDF] define energy consumption targets for four non-active usage modes: short-idle, long-idle, sleep, and off-modes, which are tied to the device’s “expandability score” (ES), which is based on the number and types of interfaces, as well as additional power requirements resulting from add-on capabilities (graphics cards, high-bandwidth system memory, etc.).

The criteria vary based on the device’s characteristics, but for ES scores of less than 250, 251–425, and 426–690, desktop computers, mobile gaming systems, and thin clients made between January 1, 2019 and July 1, 2021 can consume no more than 50/80/100 kWh per year. The kWh per year restriction for such devices built after July 1, 2021 is 50, 60, and 75.

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