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Main article: Poland

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Topics from 1 to 10 | in all: 34

Glovo is opening a tech hub in Poland after gobbling a local food delivery rival

16:08 | 6 November

Barcelona-based on-demand delivery startup Glovo is beefing up its engineering capacity by opening a second tech hub, its first in Poland — with an initial plan to hire 40 additional engineers and have a total of 50 tech and product experts working predominantly out of its Warsaw office.

Glovo says it expects the Polish engineering hub to make up half of its technology capacity in time. It will have a main focus on developing user-facing features for its marketplace product and for partners operating on the platform, it adds.

It also has plans for further expansion of the facility down the line — and an overarching roadmap for its business of a 300-strong engineering team to support building out its on-demand service offering.

Its pitch is “everything” delivered on-demand, from fast food to groceries or pharmaceuticals, so long as it’s small and light enough to be handled by one of the couriers picking up jobs on its platform.

While there’s little doubt that fast food makes up the bulk of Glovo orders right now the startup has been trying to push into online grocery deliveries, to compete with giants like Amazon — including setting up its own warehouses capable of fulfilling orders within 20 minutes, 24 hours a day. (It calls these ‘dark supermarkets’ SuperGlovo — ‘super’ meaning ‘supermarket’ in Spanish. Though its ‘dark’ model has also attracted attention from Barcelona City Council for lacking a correct permit.)

In August Spanish media reported that Glovo had itself been shopping — picking up Polish food delivery platform, Pizza Portal, for an acquisition price-tag that’s billed as up to €35M (~$39M).

Glovo raised a $169M Series D back in April which included investment from Drake, owner of global pizza franchise Papa John’s — giving it the means and the motive to gobble smaller rivals in the food delivery space.

Poland being one of its existing markets in Europe. (Albeit Pizza Portal offers various types of fast food for delivery, not just pizza.)

In all, Glovo operates in more than 20 countries at this stage, though its densest markets of operation remain its home market of Spain and also Italy.

In Poland it operates in just eight cities — so the Pizza Portal acquisition looks intended to beef up its footprint there, with the latter slated as the largest food-service platform in the market — even as Glovo doubles down on expanding its engineering capacity by tapping up local tech talent.

At the same time, competition for on-demand delivery, and especially food delivery, remains fierce in Europe where a number of players — including the likes of Deliveroo, JustEat and Uber Eats, are battling it out for territory. And, in some instances, consuming each other to carve out a bigger share of lunch in key markets.

Where Glovo doesn’t operate in Europe highlights some of that ongoing food fight, with no offering in Germany or the UK, for instance. Its regional strategy focuses on the South and East. It has also been building up an international business, opening in markets in LatAm and the Middle East and Africa.

Scaling fast is certainly core to Glovo’s playbook, though. It says it launched in a new city every four days on average last year, while the 2015-founded startup now employs over 1,300 people in all.

Glovo founder Oscar Pierre will be joining us at TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin in December to chat about growing an on-demand delivery business — you can find out more about Disrupt conference passes here

 


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Virgin Orbit plans to launch first commercial small satellites to Mars

22:20 | 9 October

Richard Bransons-backed small satellite launch operation Virgin Orbit wants to be the first to dedicate a mission to bringing commercial cube sats to the red planet, the company announced today. Working with Polish satellite company SatRevolution, Virgin Orbit has established a consortium along with a group of Polish academic institutions to jointly work on at least one, and as many as three small satellite launches to Mars, with the first one expected to happen as soon as three years from now.

The consortium is working to follow in the footsteps of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s MarCO mission from 2018, which saw two smaller satellites launched to Mars successfully. The group’s early studies have suggested that even satellites as small as 50 kg (around 110 lbs) or potentially even smaller can provide meaningful and useful research, including imagery collection, from both Mars and its orbiting body Phobos. These satellites could provide key info about the atmospheric composition of Mars, or even scouting for underground water, Virgin Orbit says.

Warsaw-based SatRevolution has experience in the commercial space industry, and in April this year sent Poland’s first commercial nano satellite into orbit. The universities involved, which include the AGH University of Science and Technology, Wroclaw University of Science and Technology, and many others, all have experience in space industry research as well. The plan is to launch the spacecraft developed by the universities and SatRevolution aboard Virgin’s LauncherOne rocket, which takes off from a converted 747-400 Virgin has retrofitted for the process.

Virgin Orbit is aiming to have its first orbital rocket launch later this year, and is currently going through the final round of testing before that happens. The company ran a successful drop test earlier this year, during which it let a non-functional rocket fall from the wing of the 747 launcher aircraft in a key test, and it’s been signing contracts to launch from the UK as early as next year.

 


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Google will soon open a cloud region in Poland

19:14 | 27 September

Google today announced its plans to open a new cloud region in Warsaw, Poland to better serve its customers in Central and Eastern Europe.

This move is part of Google’s overall investment in expanding the physical footprint of its data centers. Only a few days ago, after all, the company announced that, in the next two years, it would spend $3.3 billion on its data center presence in Europe alone.

Google Cloud currently operates 20 different regions with 61 availability zones. Warsaw, like most of Google’s regions, will feature three availability zones and launch with all the standard core Google Cloud services, including Compute Engine, App Engine, Google Kubernetes Engine, Cloud Bigtable, Cloud Spanner, and BigQuery.

To launch the new region in Poland, Google is partnering with Domestic Cloud Provider (a.k.a. Chmury Krajowej, which itself is a joint venture of the Polish Development Fund and PKO Bank Polski). Domestic Cloud Provider (DCP) will become a Google Cloud reseller in the country and build managed services on top of Google’s infrastructure.

“Poland is in a period of rapid growth, is accelerating its digital transformation, and has become an international software engineering hub,” writes Google Cloud CEO Thomas Kurian. “The strategic partnership with DCP and the new Google Cloud region in Warsaw align with our commitment to boost Poland’s digital economy and will make it easier for Polish companies to build highly available, meaningful applications for their customers.”

 

 


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Wikipedia blames malicious DDOS attack after site goes down across Europe, Middle East

18:56 | 7 September

Wikipedia was forced offline in several countries Friday after a cyber attack hit the global encyclopedia.

Users across Europe and parts of the Middle East experienced outages shortly before 7pm, BST, according to downdetector.com.

Wikimedia’s German Twitter account posted: “The Wikimedia server…is currently being paralysed by a massive and very broad DDOS [distributed denial of service] attack.”

The site issued the following statement:

Today, Wikipedia was hit with a malicious attack that has taken it offline in several countries for intermittent periods. The attack is ongoing and our Site Reliability Engineering team is working hard to stop it and restore access to the site.

As one of the world’s most popular sites, Wikipedia sometimes attracts “bad faith” actors. Along with the rest of the web, we operate in an increasingly sophisticated and complex environment where threats are continuously evolving. Because of this, the Wikimedia communities and Wikimedia Foundation have created dedicated systems and staff to regularly monitor and address risks. If a problem occurs, we learn, we improve, and we prepare to be better for next time.

We condemn these sorts of attacks. They’re not just about taking Wikipedia offline. Takedown attacks threaten everyone’s fundamental rights to freely access and share information. We in the Wikimedia movement and Foundation are committed to protecting these rights for everyone.

Right now, we’re continuing to work to restore access wherever you might be reading Wikipedia in the world. We’ll keep you posted.”

The site was reported to be down in large parts of the UK as well as Poland, France, Germany and Italy.

 


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Andrew Ng’s AI companies expand to Medellin, Colombia

16:00 | 21 August

After his tenure as Chief Scientist at Baidu, Andrew Ng, the founder of the Google Brain project and former CEO of Coursera, set up a number of different proejcts that all focus on making AI more approachable. These include the education startup Deeplearning.ai, the AI Fund startup studio for building AI companies and Landing.ai, which helps enterprises (and especially manufacturing companies) use AI. Today, Ng announced that he has opened a second office for these projects in Medellin, Colombia.

At first, Medellin may seem like an odd choice. But today’s Medellin is very different from the one you may have seen on Narcos (and a lot safer). It’s home to a number of universities and over the course of the last few years, it’s a hub for Colombia’s startup scene thanks to incubators like Ruta N and others.

Ng told me that he chose Medellin after looking at a wide range of cities in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Medellin, he believes, offers a strong talent pool, educational system and business ecosystem. it also helps that the Colombia government has made tech a focus in recent years.

Screen Shot 2019 08 20 at 4.29.37 PM 1

“I see early signs of momentum for Colombia being a talent magnet both regionally and globally,” he told me. Indeed, the company was able to hire team members from Poland, Bangladesh, Egypt and Chile for its offices in Medellin, which now has just under 50 people. Over the course of the next two years, Ng plans to expand this team to between 150 and 200 employees.

It’s important, Ng argues, that we set up AI hubs outside of Silicon Valley and China, in part, because they’ll provide a different perspective. “We are able to share our AI ecosystem and Silicon Valley know-how with Medellín,” he writes in today’s announcement. “We’re equally thrilled for our Silicon Valley team to be learning from the Medellín community. Local knowledge and innovation shared with a global community is what will catapult the technology forward.”

The teams in Medellin will work on all of Ng’s projects, including four unannounced stealth portfolio companies that are looking into using AI in sectors like healthcare, education and customer support. In total, the teams in Medellin are working on about a dozen projects right now. And that’s very much Ng’s approach to AI — and for Landing.ai in particular: build lots of specialized components for various verticals that can then be generalized. “AI isn’t some piece of SaaS software that everybody can just swipe their credit card and use,” he said.


Andrew Ng will also join us for our first TechCrunch Sessions: Enterprise event in San Francisco on September 5 to talk about Landing.ai and the future of AI in general. You can find more information about the event (and buy tickets) here.

 


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Revolut adds Apple Pay support in 16 markets

13:11 | 11 June

Fintech startup Revolut has expanded its support for Apple Pay, confirming that from today the payment option is available for users in 16 European markets.

The list of supported markets is: UK, France, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Ireland, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland and Iceland.

Press reports last month suggested the UK challenger bank had inked Apple Pay agreements in markets including the UK, France, Germany and Switzerland.

It’s not clear what took Revolut so long to join the Apple Pay party.

Customers in the supported markets can add their Revolut card to Apple Pay via the Revolut app or via Apple’s Wallet app. Those without a plastic card can add a virtual card to Apple Wallet via the Revolut app and are able to start spending immediately, without having to wait for the physical card to arrive in the post.

Commenting in statement, Arthur Johanet, product owner for card payments at Revolut, said: “Revolut’s ultimate goal is to give our customers a useful tool to manage every aspect of their financial lives, and the ability to make payments quickly, conveniently and securely is vital to achieving this. Our customers have been requesting Apple Pay for a long time, so we are delighted to kick off our rollout, starting with our customers in 16 markets. This is a very positive step forward in enabling our customers to use their money in the way that they want to.”

 


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Facebook found hosting masses of far right EU disinformation networks

11:50 | 22 May

A multi-month hunt for political disinformation spreading on Facebook in Europe suggests there are concerted efforts to use the platform to spread bogus far right propaganda to millions of voters ahead of a key EU vote which kicks off tomorrow.

Following the independent investigation, Facebook has taken down a total of 77 pages and 230 accounts from Germany, UK, France, Italy, Spain and Poland — which had been followed by an estimated 32 million people and generated 67 million ‘interactions’ (i.e. comments, likes, shares) in the last three months alone.

The bogus mainly far-right disinformation networks were not identified by Facebook — but had been reported to it by campaign group Avaaz — which says the fake pages had more Facebook followers and interactions than all the main EU far right and anti-EU parties combined.

“The results are overwhelming: the disinformation networks upon which Facebook acted had more interactions (13 million) in the past three months than the main party pages of the League, AfD, VOX, Brexit Party, Rassemblement National and PiS combined (9 million),” it writes in a new report.

Although interactions is the figure that best illustrates the impact and reach of these networks, comparing the number of followers of the networks taken down reveals an even clearer image. The Facebook networks takedown had almost three times (5.9 million) the number of followers as AfD, VOX, Brexit Party, Rassemblement National and PiS’s main Facebook pages combined (2 million).”

Avaaz has previously found and announced far right disinformation networks operating in Spain, Italy and Poland — and a spokesman confirmed to us it’s re-reporting some of its findings now (such as the ~30 pages and groups in Spain that had racked up 1.7M followers and 7.4M interactions, which we covered last month) to highlight an overall total for the investigation.

“Our report contains new information for France, United Kingdom and Germany,” the spokesman added.

Examples of politically charged disinformation being spread via Facebook by the bogus networks it found include a fake viral video seen by 10 million people that supposedly shows migrants in Italy destroying a police car (but was actually from a movie; which Avaaz adds that this fake had been “debunked years ago”); a story in Poland claiming that migrant taxi drivers rape European women, including a fake image; and fake news about a child cancer center being closed down by Catalan separatists in Spain.

There’s lots more country-specific detail in its full report.

In all, Avaaz reported more than 500 suspicious pages and groups to Facebook related to the three-month investigation of Facebook disinformation networks in Europe. Though Facebook only took down a subset of the far right muck-spreaders — around 15% of the suspicious pages reported to it.

“The networks were either spreading disinformation or using tactics to amplify their mainly anti-immigration, anti-EU, or racist content, in a way that appears to breach Facebook’s own policies,” Avaaz writes of what it found.

It estimates that content posted by all the suspicious pages it reported had been viewed some 533 million times over the pre-election period. Albeit, there’s no way to know whether or not everything it judged suspicious actually was.

In a statement responding to Avaaz’s findings, Facebook told us:

We thank Avaaz for sharing their research for us to investigate. As we have said, we are focused on protecting the integrity of elections across the European Union and around the world. We have removed a number of fake and duplicate accounts that were violating our authenticity policies, as well as multiple Pages for name change and other violations. We also took action against some additional Pages that repeatedly posted misinformation. We will take further action if we find additional violations.

The company did not respond to our question asking why it failed to unearth this political disinformation itself.

Ahead of the EU parliament vote, which begins tomorrow, Facebook invited a select group of journalists to tour a new Dublin-based election security ‘war room’ — where it talked about a “five pillars of countering disinformation” strategy to prevent cynical attempts to manipulate voters’ views.

But as Avaaz’s investigation shows there’s plenty of political disinformation flying by entirely unchecked.

One major ongoing issue where political disinformation and Facebook’s platform is concerned is that how the company enforces its own rules remains entirely opaque.

We don’t get to see all the detail — so can’t judge and assess all its decisions. Yet Facebook has been known to shut down swathes of accounts deemed fake ahead of elections, while apparently failing entirely to find other fakes (such as in this case).

It’s a situation that does not look compatible with the continued functioning of democracy given Facebook’s massive reach and power to influence.

Nor is the company under an obligation to report every fake account it confirms. Instead, Facebook gets to control the timing and flow of any official announcements it chooses to make about “coordinated inauthentic behaviour” — dropping these self-selected disclosures as and when it sees fit, and making them sound as routine as possible by cloaking them in its standard, dryly worded newspeak.

Back in January, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg admitted publicly that the company is blocking more than 1M fake accounts every day. If Facebook was reporting every fake it finds it would therefore need to do so via a real-time dashboard — not sporadic newsroom blog posts that inherently play down the scale of what is clearly embedded into its platform, and may be so massive and ongoing that it’s not really possible to know where Facebook stops and ‘Fakebook’ starts.

The suspicious behaviours that Avaaz attached to the pages and groups it found that appeared to be in breach of Facebook’s stated rules include the use of fake accounts, spamming, misleading page name changes and suspected coordinated inauthentic behavior.

When Avaaz previously reported the Spanish far right networks Facebook subsequently told us it had removed “a number” of pages violating its “authenticity policies”, including one page for name change violations but claimed “we aren’t removing accounts or Pages for coordinated inauthentic behavior”.

So again, it’s worth emphasizing that Facebook gets to define what is and isn’t acceptable on its platform — including creating terms that seek to normalize its own inherently dysfunctional ‘rules’ and their ‘enforcement’.

Such as by creating terms like “coordinated inauthentic behavior”, which sets a threshold of Facebook’s own choosing for what it will and won’t judge political disinformation. It’s inherently self-serving.

Given that Facebook only acted on a small proportion of what Avaaz found and reported overall, we might posit that the company is setting a very high bar for acting against suspicious activity. And that plenty of election fiddling is free flowing under its feeble radar. (When we previously asked Facebook whether it was disputing Avaaz’s finding of coordinated inauthentic behaviour vis-a-vis the far right disinformation networks it reported in Spain the company did not respond to the question.)

Much of the publicity around Facebook’s self-styled “election security” efforts has also focused on how it’s enforcing new disclosure rules around political ads. But again political disinformation masquerading as organic content continues being spread across its platform — where it’s being shown to be racking up millions of interactions with people’s brains and eyeballs.

Plus, as we reported yesterday, research conducted by the Oxford Internet Institute into pre-EU election content sharing on Facebook has found that sources of disinformation-spreading ‘junk news’ generate far greater engagement on its platform than professional journalism.

So while Facebook’s platform is also clearly full of real people sharing actual news and views, the fake BS which Avaaz’s findings imply is also flooding the platform, gets spread around more, on a per unit basis. And it’s democracy that suffers — because vote manipulators are able to pass off manipulative propaganda and hate speech as bona fide views as a consequence of Facebook publishing it alongside genuine views and professional journalism.

The bottom line is that even if Facebook dedicates far more resource to rooting out ‘election interference’ the wider problem is that a commercial entity which benefits from engagement on an ad-funded platform is also the referee setting the rules.

Indeed, the whole loud Facebook publicity effort around “election security” looks like a cynical attempt to distract the rest of us from how broken its rules are. Or, in other words, a platform that enables propaganda to spread is also seeking to manipulate our views.

 


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GDPR adtech complaints keep stacking up in Europe

14:16 | 20 May

It’s a year since Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force and leaky adtech is now facing privacy complaints in four more European Union markets. This ups the tally to seven markets where data protection authorities have been urged to investigate a core function of behavioral advertising.

The latest clutch of GDPR complaints aimed at the real-time bidding (RTB) system have been filed in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Spain.

All the complaints argue that RTB entails “wide-scale and systemic” breaches of Europe’s data protection regime, as personal date harvested to profile Internet users for ad-targeting purposes is broadcast widely to bidders in the adtech chain. The complaints have implications for key adtech players, Google and the Internet Advertising Bureau, which set RTB standards used by other in the online adverting pipeline.

We’ve reached out to Google and IAB Europe for comment on the latest complaints. (The latter’s original response statement to the complaint can be found here, behind its cookie wall.)

The first RTB complaints were filed in the UK and Ireland, last fall, by Dr Johnny Ryan of private browser Brave; Jim Killock, director of the Open Rights Group; and Michael Veale, a data and policy researcher at University College London.

A third complaint went in to Poland’s DPA in January, filed by anti-surveillance NGO, the Panoptykon Foundation.

The latest four complaints have been lodged in Spain by Gemma Galdon Clavell (Eticas Foundation) and Diego Fanjul (Finch); David Korteweg (Bits of Freedom) in the Netherlands; Jef Ausloos (University of Amsterdam) and Pierre Dewitte (University of Leuven) in Belgium; and Jose Belo (Exigo Luxembourg).

Earlier this year a lawyer working with the complainants said they’re expecting “a cascade of complaints” across Europe — and “fully expect an EU-wide regulatory response” give that the adtech in question is applied region-wide.

Commenting in a statement, Galdon Cavell, the CEO of Eticas, said: “We hope that this complaint sends a strong message to Google and those using Ad Tech solutions in their websites and products. Data protection is a legal requirement must be translated into practices and technical specifications.”

A ‘bug’ disclosed last week by Twitter illustrates the potential privacy risks around adtech, with the social networking platform revealing it had inadvertently shared some iOS users’ location data with an ad partner during the RTB process. (Less clear is who else might Twitter’s “trusted advertising partner” have passed people’s information to?)

The core argument underpinning the complaints is that RTB’s data processing is not secure — given the design of the system entails the broadcasting of (what can be sensitive and intimate) personal data of Internet users to all sorts of third parties in order to generate bids for ad space.

Whereas GDPR bakes in a requirement for personal data to be processed “in a manner that ensures appropriate security of the personal data”. So, uh, spot the disconnect.

The latest RTB complaints assert personal data is broadcast via bid requests “hundreds of billions of times” per day — which it describes as “the most massive leakage of personal data recorded so far”.

While the complaints focus on security risks attached by default to leaky adtech, such a long chain of third parties being passed people’s data also raises plenty of questions over the validity of any claimed ‘consents’ for passing Internet users’ data down the adtech chain. (Related: A decision by the French CNIL last fall against a small local adtech player which it decided was unlawfully processing personal data obtained via RTB.)

This week will mark a year since GDPR came into force across the EU. And it’s fair to say that privacy complaints have been piling up, while enforcement actions — such as a $57M fine for Google from the French CNIL related to Android consent — remain far rarer.

One complexity with the RTB complaints is that the technology systems in question are both applied across EU borders and involve multiple entities (Google and the IAB). This means multiple privacy watchdogs need to work together to determine which of them is legally competent to address linked complaints that touch EU citizens in multiple countries.

Who leads can depend on where an entity has its main establishment in the EU and/or who is the data controller. If this is not clearly established it’s possible that various national actions could flow from the complaints, given the cross-border nature of the adtech — as in the CNIL decision against Android, for example. (Though Google made a policy change as of January 22, shifting its legal base for EU law enforcement to Google Ireland which looks intended to funnel all GDPR risk via the Irish DPC.)

The IAB Europe, meanwhile, has an office in Belgium but it’s not clear whether that’s the data controller in this case. Ausloos tells us that the Belgian DPA has already declared itself competent regarding the complaint filed against the IAB by the Panoptykon Foundation, while noting another possibility — that the IAB claims the data controller is IAB Tech Lab, based in New York — “in which case any and all DPAs across the EU would be competent”.

Veale also says different DPAs could argue that different parts of the IAB are in their jurisdiction. “We don’t know how the IAB structure really works, it’s very opaque,” he tells us.

The Irish DPC, which Google has sought to designate the lead watchdog for its European business, has said it will prioritize scrutiny of the adtech sector in 2019, referencing the RTB complaints in its annual report earlier this year — where it warned the industry: “the protection of personal data is a prerequisite to the processing of any personal data within this ecosystem and ultimately the sector must comply with the standards set down by the GDPR”.

There’s no update on how the UK’s ICO is tackling the RTB complaint filed in the UK as yet — but Veale notes they have a call today. (And we’ve reached out to the ICO for comment.)

So far the same RTB complaints have not been filed in France and Germany — jurisdictions with privacy watchdogs that can have a reputation for some of the most muscular action enforcing data protection in Europe.

Although the Belgian DPA’s recently elected new president is making muscular noises about GDPR enforcement, according to Ausloos — who cites a speech he made, post-election, saying the ‘time of sit back and relax’ is over. They made sure to reference these comments in the RTB complaint, he adds.

Veale suggests the biggest blocker to resolving the RTB complaints is that all the various EU watchdogs “need a vision of what the world looks like after they take a given action”.

In the meanwhile, the adtech complaints keep stacking up.

 


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Europol, DOJ announce the takedown of the GozNym banking malware

15:24 | 16 May

Europol and the U.S. Justice Department, with the help from six other countries, have disrupted and dismantled the GozNym malware, which they say stole more than $100 million from bank accounts since it first emerged.

In a press conference in The Hague, prosecutors said 10 defendants in five countries are accused of using the malware to steal money from more than 41,000 victims, mostly businesses and financial institutions.

Five defendants were arrested in Moldova, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Russia. The leader of the criminal network and his technical assistant are being prosecuted in Georgia.

Five defendants remain on the run, said prosecutors.

The takedown was described as an “unprecedented international effort” by Scott Brady, U.S. attorney for Western Philadelphia — where a grand jury indicted the defendants — at the press conference announcing the charges.

GozNym is a powerful banking malware that spread across the U.S., Canada, Germany and Poland, and made up from two existing malware families, both of which had their source code leaked years earlier: Nymaim, a two-stage malware dropper that infects computers through exploit kits from malicious links or emails; and Gozi, a web injection module used to hook into the web browser, allowing the attacker to steal login credentials and passwords.

The banking malware hit dozens of banks and credit unions since it first emerged in 2016.

Described as malware “as a service,” the leader of the network obtained the code for the two malware families and built GozNym, then recruited accomplices and advertised the new malware on Russian speaking forums. The malware used encryption and other obfuscation techniques to avoid detection by antivirus tools. Then, spammers sent hundreds of thousands of phishing emails to infect staff at businesses and banks. After the malware infected its victim computers, the malware would steal the passwords control of bank accounts, which the criminals would later log in and cash out.

Prosecutors said the malware network was hosted and operated through a bulletproof service, a domain and web hosting known for lax attitudes towards cybercrime and favored by criminals. Europol said the 2016 takedown of Avalanche, an infrastructure platform used by hundreds of criminals to host and run their malware campaigns.

More soon…

 


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Covert data-scraping on watch as EU DPA lays down “radical” GDPR red-line

19:00 | 30 March

An interesting decision came out of Poland’s data protection agency this week after the watchdog issued its first fine under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

On the surface the enforcement doesn’t look so remarkable: A ‘small’ ~€220K fine was handed to a Sweden-headquartered European digital marketing company, Bisnode, which has an office in Poland, after the national Personal Data Protection Office (UODO) decided the company had failed to comply with data subject rights obligations set out in Article 14 of the GDPR.

But the decision also requires it contact the close to six million people it did not already reach out to in order to fulfil its Article 14 information notification obligation, with the DPA giving the company three months to comply.

Bisnode previously estimated it would cost around €8M (~$9M) in registered postal costs to send so many letters, never mind the burden of handling any related admin.

So, as ever, the strength of data protection enforcement under GDPR is a lot more than the deterrent of top-line fines. It’s accompanying orders that can really rearrange business practices.

Local press reports that Bisnode has said it will delete the sanctioned records, presumably rather than shell out to send millions of letters. It also intends to challenge the UODO’s decision, initially in Polish courts — relying on caveats contained in Article 14 which relate to how much effort a data controller has to expend to contact people to tell them it’s processing their data.

It’s reportedly willing to fight all the way up to Europe’s top court, if necessary. (We’ve reached out to Bisnode for confirmation of its next steps.)

Any legal challenge to the UODO’s enforcement decision could therefore end up clarifying (and/or setting) some harder limits around covert scraping of personal data, if it reaches the CJEU — potentially affecting operators in multiple industries and sectors such as business intelligence, advertising and even cyber threat intelligence. So Privacy watchers have pricked up their ears.

“The decision is seen as radical, as it interprets Article 14 literally,” Dr Lukasz Olejnik, independent cybersecurity and privacy advisor, and research associate at the Center for Technology and Global Affairs at Oxford University, tells TechCrunch.

“UODO has taken a very principled position, arguing that the company business model is fully based on processing scraped data, and that the company has taken a decision willingly. UODO also argues that the company was aware of the obligation, as it did contact part of the people via email.”

While there are big and potentially costly implications for data-scrapers across various industries down the legal line, depending on how Bisnode’s appeal/s pan out, Olejnik adds a judicious caveat — noting that “each case might be different and have its specifics”.

There’s certainly no guarantee that the DPA’s decision will lead to a de facto ban on covert commercial data-scraping.

But there is fresh legal uncertainty for those quietly helping themselves to public databases of Europeans’ personal data. While repurposing such stuff for a commercial use may also be far more expensive than you think.

Right to be informed

Article 14 of the GDPR creates an obligation on data controllers to inform people whose personal data they intend to process when the information in question has not been directly obtained from them. So, for instance, when personal data has been scraped off the public Internet.

The relevant chunk of the regulation is pretty long — but key points include that the person whose data has been scraped must be informed who has their data (which includes anyone the data has been shared with, and any proposed international transfers); the types of data obtained; what is going to be done with; and the legal basis for the processing.

Data subjects must also be informed of their right to complain so they can object if they don’t like what you  want to do with their data.

The information obligation is also purpose specific; so if the data controller later wants to do something else with the scraped data there’s an obligation to send a new Article 14 notice.

Data subjects must be informed, at the latest, within a month of obtaining their information (as well as per intended purpose). While if the data is to be used for direct marketing the subject must be informed the first time they get sent a communication, if not sooner.

In the case of Bisnode it obtained a variety of personal data from public registers and other public databases pertaining to millions of entrepreneurs and business owners — including their names, national ID numbers and any legal events related to their business activity.

Registered addresses and/or company addresses appear to have been standard in the public data it scraped but other contact data was not, and Bisnode only obtained email addresses for a small sub-set of the individuals. It subsequently sent emails to those people — fulfilling its Article 14 information obligation in their case.

But, at issue, is that instead of sending text messages or snail mail notifications to all the other people whose email addresses it did not have — aka the vast majority; some 5.7M people — Bisnode made a conscious decision not to reach out to them directly. Instead it posted a notice on its website in the stated belief that fulfilled its Article 14 obligations.

“We recognise the right for sole proprietors to be informed of the fact that their data is processed by us. In this case, Bisnode has complied to the General Data Protection Regulation Art. 14 by posting the information on our website,” it wrote in an initial statement following the UODO’s decision, also posted on its website.

“We question the DPA’s interpretation of what is considered a proportionate effort. In the instances we have had email addresses (679,000 addresses), there we have sent out Art. 14 information via email, but to demand in addition that 5.7 million records of sole proprietors and members of corporate bodies of companies et al, be informed via postal mail or telephone cannot be considered a proportionate effort,” it added.

“In our view, information via email, other digital channels or via advertisements in national daily newspapers is preferable for recipients as well as senders.”

The DPA drastically disagrees — hence the penalty and other enforcement action.

Explaining its decision the watchdog says Bisnode clearly knew about its obligations under Article 14 and thereby made a conscious decision not to directly inform the majority of people whose personal data it had obtained for business purposes on cost grounds alone — when it should rather have accounted for its legal obligations related to data acquisition as a core component of business costs.

“The President of UODO states that the mere inclusion of information required in art. 14 par. 1 and par. 2 of the Regulation 2016/679, on the Company’s website, in the situation where the Company has the address data (and sometimes also phone numbers) of natural persons running a sole proprietorship (currently or in the past), enabling traditional mailing of correspondence containing information required by this provision (or transferring them by telephone), cannot be considered as sufficient fulfilment by the Company of the obligation referred to in art. 14 par. 1-3 of Regulation 2016/679,” runs the relevant chunk of legalese in the UODO decision [translated from Polish via Google Translate].

“The Company, as a professional in this type of activity, should be required to shape the business side of its business, which would take into account all the costs necessary to ensure its compliance with legal provisions (in this case, the provisions on the protection of personal data),” it adds, going on to further press its view that Bisnode’s decision not to reach out to inform the vast majority of individuals because it decided it was too expensive is exactly the problem, especially as its core business relies on processing people’s data.

The DPA’s decision also notes that Bisnode decided against sending SMS messages to another sub-set of people whose telephone numbers it did hold — again claiming as an excuse “the high costs of such an action”.

On the €8M figure which the company estimated would be the cost of posting Article 14 notifications to the 5.7M, the watchdog says there was in fact no obligation to send registered letters specifically (which is how Bisnode seems to have arrived at that estimate); or indeed to use any specific communication medium.

So it could presumably have sent (cheaper) standard mail, or even used its own staff (or hired temps) to spend a couple of days manually posting notifications to the individuals concerned. (Sidenote: Maybe there’s a new type of data notification compliance-tech robot/drone delivery startup to be created here… Knock-knock! Article14 delivery bot at the door to read you your rights…)

The UODO points out that GDPR’s Article 14 provision does not specify any particular means of fulfilling the obligation to inform. It just requires the data controller actually reach out.

An active manner vs disproportionate effort

The “essence of fulfilling the obligation” is to act in “an active manner”, it writes — so that means providing information to a data subject without them having to participate in enabling their own notification.

So just posting a passive notification under a tab on a website, as Bisnode did, would seem to go against that essence — as it clearly requires the people whose data is involved expending effort to find out.

And if they don’t even know their data was scraped in the first place how would they know where — or even to — go looking? It’s very unlikely they’d just stumble upon the notification by chance on Bisnode’s website and join the dots. Not without some kind of wider broadcast announcing its presence.

“The need for active notification is emphasized by the Article 29 Working Party, in the Transparency Guidelines under Regulation 2016/679 adopted on 29 November 2017 (most recently amended and adopted on 11 April 2018),” the UODO’s decision further notes, citing guidance from an influential pan-EU data protection oversight body that’s now known as the European Data Protection Board and responsible for helping ensure consistency of application of GDPR across the bloc.

In a press release accompanying its decision, the UODO also makes a point of specifying the number and proportion of people who objected to Bisnode using their data after it did contact them directly (i.e. by email) — writing: “Out of about 90,000 people who were informed about the processing by the company, more than 12,000 objected to the processing of their data.”

Which highlights the fact that informing people about commercial and marketing-related uses of their data can, and usually does, result in a bunch of them saying ‘no don’t do that’ — an outcome that’s not exactly aligned with the interests of a marketing company like Bisnode which obviously wants to maximize the reach of its database.

But a shrinking marketing database may well be the price of respecting people’s privacy rights and doing business legally in Europe. And Bisnode’s interpretation of what is and isn’t “proportionate”, vis-a-vis Article 14, does look self-servingly aligned with its own business interests rather than with the rights of EU citizens.

If the legal rights of EU people to know what’s being done with their personal data can just be sidestepped by a data controller holding only selective types of contact data (for instance) that risks putting a pretty big loophole in the data protection framework. (Although in a similar case from a few years ago the UODO reached a different decision in regards another company that did not have addresses at its disposal.)

There are some caveats included in Article 14 — allowing for a data controller to dispense with the requirement to inform data subjects if doing so “proves impossible or would involve a disproportionate effort” — but they are conspicuously linked in the text of GDPR to non-commercial examples: “[I]n particular for processing for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific or historical research purposes or statistical purposes”.

Safe to say, a b2b marketing business doesn’t fit the bill there.

A further caveat — which removes the obligation to inform the data subject if it is “likely to render impossible or seriously impair the achievement of the objectives of that processing” — would also seem a tough one to argue for a marketing purpose such as Bisnode’s.

It’s true that, as the complaints following its emailed Article 14 notifications indicate, there will very likely be a proportion of objections from those informed about a marketing purpose for their data. But the complaint stats cited by the UODO reveal that only a minority (~13%) of those emailed actively objected to Bisnode’s use of their data — a figure that does not seem so catastrophically large as to “seriously impair” the company’s overall business objective.

Of course it will be for judges to decide on all these details. But the looming legal fight will be around what constitutes “proportionate effort” — and in which circumstances those Article 13 caveats are allowed to apply.

“The ‘disproportionate effort’ in Article 14(5) is the core issue,” agrees Olejnik. “While including information solely on a website might be sufficient in some cases, but it is not clear if this applies in this case in particular. It is rather clear that the majority of people affected have no idea that their data are processed.”

“What the courts decide is anyone’s guess. It will be a truly interesting case to observe,” he adds.

In terms of immediate practical implications flowing from the UODO’s decision Olejnik says those are also unclear for now — not least because of Bisnode’s plan to fight all the way up to the CJEU if it can. (Meaning its appeal process could take years.)

“The company is also saying in public that its different EU branches are following a similar practice, but did not draw the attention of DPA,” Olejnik continues, adding: “It is however clear that some form of information obligation needs to be made. I believe this is an interesting precedent.

“While it may be shocking to some, this is the GDPR enforcement in action. Prior to enforcement, many would doubt if some text of GDPR means what it means. Well, it appears that to DPAs, it might indeed mean what it mean, if you know what I mean.”

The growing cost and risk of personal data

There is arguably a rather similar story going on, in parallel, around ‘free and informed’ consent under GDPR in relation to online ad targeting — which has turned into a major legal battleground since the regulation came into force last year. Multiple complaints remain in play targeting various data-for-ads tech platforms, as well as attacking core adtech processes for using and sharing personal data without proper consent and/or adequately robust protection.

With the GDPR not yet a year old, major enforcements are still lacking. But there are signs regulators are preparing to draw equally firm lines in the sand on this front too.

Given all the effort going into obfuscating and/or trying to ‘compliance-wash’ how the adtech industry strip-mines personal data, those most systematic personal data-harvesters similarly appear to have calculated that the cost of fully informing individuals is simply too high.

Also because they surely stand to lose a big chunk of their marketing muscle if every user whose personal information is being exploited for ads was offered a genuine, fully informed and entirely free choice to say no way.

But that doesn’t mean they can just sidestep the requirement. Enforcement is coming for any lurking lack of compliance there too.

Zooming out, it’s not clear what proportion of personal data is scraped from the Internet vs being actively provided by the user (albeit, not necessarily freely and willingly provided — as is the nub of this GDPR ‘forced consent’ complaint, for instance).

“Obtaining such comparative data would difficult at a scale,” admits Olejnik.

There’s no doubt plenty of nefarious actors engage in ‘fully unlicensed’ online data-scraping to run illegal spam campaigns or sell it to hackers planning phishing expeditions. And clearly no regulation under the sun that will put a firm lid on that. Though increased legal risk may at least provide a disincentive to less hardened cyber criminals.

In the commercial sector, where regulation has a more powerful bite, the lines between scraping and ‘providing’ data are frequently self-servingly blurred by the entities involved — seeking to workaround the law.

So, again, robust enforcement decisions that get upheld by jurisprudence are sorely needed to define and set down firm red-lines about how people’s data can be respectfully handled.

Let’s also not forget the scandalous acts of the now defunct political data company, Cambridge Analytica, which covertly scraped personal data off of Facebook’s platform to build psychographic profiles of American voters to try to influence domestic political outcomes — something which would certainly constitute a breach of Article 14, i.e. were such actions applied to EU peoples under the bloc’s current data protection regime.

An egregious example like Cambridge Analytica shows the clear logic of GDPR creating a framework for protecting people from non-disclosed use of their personal information — by offering a check against unwelcome misuse. As indeed does Facebook’s long history of abject failure to properly protect user data.

It’s not clear whether GDPR could have stopped a rogue actor like Cambridge Analytica. Though the heftier fines baked into the regime do mean data-scraping is no longer the ‘help yourself, free for all’ it apparently was back in 2014.

At the same time, multiple Facebook businesses remain under investigation in Europe: The Irish DPA has ten open investigations against multiple Facebook-owned platforms over questions of GDPR compliance. So watch that space. (And watch, too, Facebook announcing a sudden ‘pivot’ to ‘privacy… )

Covertly harvesting personal at scale now finally involves serious legal risk — at least in Europe.

And in light of the UODO’s strong stance on Article 14 there’s a little more reason for data scrapers to worry more.

Full disclosure

One final note on UODO and Bisnode: In a slightly odd quirk, the watchdog decided not to publicly name the company — choosing to pseudonymize it by editing out certain details from the published decision text.

It’s not clear why the DPA did so. Nor was its attempt to hide the name effective. Olejnik says he was quickly able to reverse its pseudonymization. While Bisnode also subsequently chose to out itself by going public with its disagreement.

Other European DPAs do disclose the targets of their decisions as a general rule. So it’s definitely a leftfield choice by the Polish watchdog.

A spokesperson for the UODO told us it does not always avoid disclosing the name of entities subject to its decisions but in this case said its president took the view that “information about the administrative fine and its justification is sufficient” — adding that in its view the most important element is to inform the public about decisions issued and “their substance”, including providing details of the decisive arguments in its decision-making process.

But given the lack of a specific justification and especially the weakness of the pseudonymization Olejnik suggests not publicly naming Bisnode was a questionable decision.

“Based on the information from the decision it did not take me much time to ‘reverse’ the pseudonymization and reveal the company name. This puts the decision behind pseudonymization under question,” he suggests. “Though I believe the public has a right to expect transparency in the first place — the decision to pseudonymize was controversial in the first place. To say the least, it forbids users to learn about the case, the misuse, and potentially even learn if they may have been affected.”

There is perhaps no small irony in a privacy watchdog choosing to ineffectively withhold the name of a company that had failed to inform a large number of private individuals that it covertly held their data.

 


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