Reddit links UK-US trade talk leak to Russian influence campaign

Reddit has linked account activity involving the leak and amplification of sensitive UK-US trade talks on its platform during the ongoing UK election campaign to a suspected Russian political influence operation.

Or, to put it more plainly, the social network suspects that Russian operatives are behind the leak of sensitive trade data — likely with the intention of impacting the UK’s General Election campaign.

The country goes to the polls next week, on December 12.

The UK has been politically deadlocked since mid 2016 over how to implement the result of the referendum to leave the European Union . The minority Conservative government has struggled to negotiate a brexit deal that parliament backs. Another hung parliament or minority government would likely result in continued uncertainty.

In a post discussing the “Suspected campaign from Russia”, Reddit writes:

We were recently made aware of a post on Reddit that included leaked documents from the UK. We investigated this account and the accounts connected to it, and today we believe this was part of a campaign that has been reported as originating from Russia.

Earlier this year Facebook discovered a Russian campaign on its platform, which was further analyzed by the Atlantic Council and dubbed “Secondary Infektion.” Suspect accounts on Reddit were recently reported to us, along with indicators from law enforcement, and we were able to confirm that they did indeed show a pattern of coordination. We were then able to use these accounts to identify additional suspect accounts that were part of the campaign on Reddit. This group provides us with important attribution for the recent posting of the leaked UK documents, as well as insights into how adversaries are adapting their tactics.

Reddit says that an account, called gregoratior, originally posted the leaked trade talks document. Later a second account, ostermaxnn, reposted it. The platform also found a “pocket of accounts” that worked together to manipulate votes on the original post in an attempt to amplify it. Though fairly fruitlessly, as it turned out; the leak gained little attention on Reddit, per the company.

As a result of the investigation Reddit says it has banned 1 subreddit and 61 accounts — under policies against vote manipulation and misuse of its platform.

The story doesn’t end there, though, because whoever was behind the trade talk leak appears to have resorted to additional tactics to draw attention to it — including emailing campaign groups and political activists directly.

This activity did bear fruit this month when the opposition Labour party got hold of the leak and made it into a major campaign issue, claiming the 451-page document shows the Conservative party, led by Boris Johnson, is plotting to sell off the country’s free-at-the-point-of-use National Health Service (NHS) to US private health insurance firms and drug companies.

Labour party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, showed a heavily redacted version of the document during a TV leaders debate earlier this month, later calling a press conference to reveal a fully un-redacted version of the data — arguing the document proves the NHS is in grave danger if the Conservatives are re-elected.

Johnson has denied Labour’s accusation that the NHS will be carved up as the price of a Trump trade deal. But the leaked document itself is genuine.

It details preliminary meetings between UK and US trade negotiators, which took place between July 2017 and July 2019, in which discussion of the NHS does take place, in addition to other issues such as food standards.

Although the document does not confirm what position the UK might seek to adopt in any future trade talks with the US.

The source of the heavily redacted version of the document appears to be a Freedom of Information (FOI) request by campaigning organisation, Global Justice Now — which told Vice it made an FOI request to the UK’s Department for International Trade around 18 months ago.

The group said it was subsequently emailed a fully unredacted version of the document by an unknown source which also appears to have sent the data directly to the Labour party. So while the influence operation looks to have originated on Reddit, the agents behind it seem to have resorted to more direct means of data dissemination in order for the leak to gain the required attention to become an election-influencing issue.

Experts in online influence operations had already suggested similarities between the trade talks leak and an earlier Russian operation, dubbed Secondary Infektion, which involved the leak of fake documents on multiple online platforms. Facebook identified and took down that operation in May.

In a report analysing the most recent leak, social network mapping and analysis firm Graphika says the key question is how the trade document came to be disseminated online a few weeks before the election.

“The mysterious [Reddit] user seemingly originated the leak of a diplomatic document by posting it around online, just six weeks before the UK elections. This raises the question of how the user got hold of the document in the first place,” it writes. “This is the single most pressing question that arises from this report.”

Graphika’s analysis concludes that the manner of leaking and amplifying the trade talks data “closely resembles” the known Russian information operation, Secondary Infektion.

“The similarities to Secondary Infektion are not enough to provide conclusive attribution but are too close to be simply a coincidence. They could indicate a return of the actors behind Secondary Infektion or a sophisticated attempt by unknown actors to mimic it,” it adds.

Internet-enabled Russian influence operations that feature hacking and strategically timed data dumps of confidential/sensitive information, as well as the seeding and amplification of political disinformation which is intended to polarize, confuse and/or disengage voters, have become a regular feature of Western elections in recent years.

The most high profile example of Russian election interference remains the 2016 hack of documents and emails from Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and Democratic National Committee — which went on to be confirmed by US investigators as an operation by Russia’s GRU intelligence agency.

In 2017 emails were also leaked from French president Emmanuel Macron’s campaign shortly before his election — although with apparently minimal impact in that case. (Attribution is also less clear-cut.)

Russian activity targeting UK elections and referendums remains a matter of intense interest and investigation — and had been raised publicly as a concern by former prime minister, Theresa May, in 2017.

Although her government failed to act on recommendations to strengthen UK election and data laws to respond to the risks posed by Internet-enabled interference. She also did nothing to investigate questions over the extent of foreign interference in the 2016 brexit referendum.

May was finally unseated by the ongoing political turmoil around brexit this summer, when Johnson took over as prime minister. But he has also turned a wilfully blind eye to the risks around foreign election interference — while fully availing himself of data-fuelled digital campaign methods whose ethics have been questioned by multiple UK oversight bodies.

A report into Russian interference in UK politics which was compiled by the UK’s intelligence and security parliamentary committee — and had been due to be published ahead of the general election — was also personally blocked from publication by the prime minister.

Voters won’t now get to see that information until after the election. Or, well, barring another strategic leak…

Apple and Google Maps accommodate Russia’s annexation of Crimea

Global politics are difficult to navigate ordinarily, but in times of conflict companies that aim to provide an unbiased service, such as a map or search function, may have to come down on one side or another. Apple just came down at least partly on the side of Russia in its controversial annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and Google has accommodated Russian interests as well.

The large peninsula on the north side of the Black Sea was brought under Russian control in 2014 during political unrest there concerning Crimea’s status within Ukraine. World leaders decried the move, saying that Russia had deliberately helped instigate the crisis there in order to take advantage of it, and violated Ukraine’s sovereignty with its military presence.

While the controversy surrounding these events are ongoing (indeed, the events themselves are too, in a way), companies like Apple and Google don’t have the luxury of waiting for history’s judgment to do things like update their maps.

Both, for instance, have in the past labeled locations in Crimea as being part of Ukraine. But Russia has made official complaints to the companies and warned them that it is considered a criminal act to refer to Crimea as other than a Russian territory. Now both companies have made concessions to Russian demands.

Apple in its Maps and Weather app now shows locations in Crimea as being part of Russia, when being viewed from that country. Russian authorities today said that “Apple fulfilled its obligations and brought the applications on its devices in compliance with the requirements of the Russian legislation.”

If you’re viewing from the U.S., both Apple and Google appear to take something of a neutral stance, if any stance can be said to be neutral. The Crimean peninsula appears as neither Russian nor Ukrainian on both Apple and Google Maps, with some rather strange gymnastics to accomplish it.

For example, in Google Maps there is a prominent border on the north side dividing Crimea from Kherson Oblast (a Ukrainian province), much heavier than lines between other provinces. Clicking Kherson Oblast on the border brings up a description and outline, while clicking Crimea seems to do nothing at all. On cities and random locations located in Crimea, there is no country at all in the space where it is normally displayed:

On both Apple and Google Maps, there is no border at all between Crimea and Russia where it would normally appear, across Taman Bay. Yet on one side of the bay locations are prominently labeled as Russian, while on the other they are devoid of a country affiliation.

I’ve asked Google and Apple for comment on when and how they decided to implement their current maps and will update this post if I hear back. It’s very likely that both will justify these decisions with the fact that they must adhere to local laws. But what happens when two sets of local laws diverge in the same location?

Update: A Google spokesperson says: “We make every effort to objectively depict the disputed regions, and where we have local versions of Google Maps, we follow local legislation when displaying names and borders.”

My point here is not to take sides for or against any of these representations, but to show that companies like Apple and Google are in a tight spot when it comes to these situations, and their information is far from complete or authoritative. In this case we see that they have different results for different places, concessions for some governments in spite of international concern, and the reduction of some services to a non-functional state (comparatively) in order to avoid controversy.

Just something to keep in mind whenever you look up information on services provided by global companies — they’re not objective sources, though of course arguably nothing is.

Jeanette Manfra, senior DHS cybersecurity official, to leave government

Jeanette Manfra, one of the most senior and experienced U.S. cybersecurity officials, is leaving government after more than a decade in the public sector.

Manfra, who served as assistant director for cybersecurity at the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), will join the private sector in the New Year. CISA is Homeland Security’s dedicated civilian cybersecurity unit set up a year ago to respond to help protect against threats to U.S. critical infrastructure and foreign threats.

In an exclusive interview with TechCrunch, Manfra said it was a “really hard time to leave,” but the move will give her successor time to transition into the role ahead of the upcoming 2020 presidential election.

She did not say what her new job will be, only that she will take time off to be with her family in the meantime. She will leave her post at the end of the year.

Cyberscoop first reported her pending departure, citing sources.

Manfra’s departure from government will be seen as largely unexpected. At Homeland Security, she has served three presidents and worked on numerous projects to improve relations with the private sector, which are considered crucial partners in defending U.S. cyberspace. She also saw the agency double down on election security, threats to the supply chain, and efforts to protect U.S. critical infrastructure like the power grid and water networks from nefarious attempts by nation states.

At TechCrunch Disrupt SF this year, Manfra also talked candidly about the ongoing threats to U.S. cybersecurity, including a skills shortage and the risks posed by another global “WannaCry-style” cyberattack, which in 2017 saw thousands of computers infected by file-locking malware, causing billions of dollars worth of damage.

Manfra joined Homeland Security in 2007 under then-president George W. Bush, half a decade after the department was founded in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Manfra described the early years as a time when there weren’t “a lot of people talking about cybersecurity.”

“It definitely was not really on the national stage at the time. It was, you know, there was still a lot of debate as to whether ‘cybersecurity’ was one word or two words,” she said.

But in the years past and as internet access and tech companies continued to grow, she said the U.S. saw several “wake up” calls that brought cybersecurity into the public mainstream. The hack of Sony Pictures in 2016 and the WannaCry global ransomware attack in 2017 were two, and both were blamed on North Korea. Another, she said, was the 2015 data breach of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management (OPM), which saw suspected Chinese hackers steal more than 21 million sensitive background check files of government employees who had sought security clearance.

The department’s cybersecurity presence started out as a “very small, frankly relatively unknown group of people,” she said. A decade later it had become a major force in managing crises like the OPM attack, a breach that she said helped to push government to better prioritize cybersecurity.

“[The OPM breach] forced us to make some changes across the government that’ve been good,” she said.

In the aftermath, the government took steps to bolster its own systems and networks to lower its attack surface by removing Kaspersky from its networks citing fears about Russian intelligence, and taking the lead rolling out HTTPS website encryption and email security protections across the federal domains — an effort still to this day largely neglected by some of the world’s wealthiest companies.

Election security, she said, was another major wake-up call for the government. Russia waged a widescale disinformation — or “fake news” — campaign during the 2016 election to sow discord and exploit divisions in communities across the U.S. But there were also fears that hackers could break in and modify the tallies in voting machines, a concern that never came to fruition but one that security experts say remains a threat. Lawmakers have been pushing for the removal of paperless and electronic-only voting machines to reduce the risk of hackers manipulate the votes in favor of a particular candidate.

“In 2016, it was our best judgment that the Russians were looking to undermine confidence,” Manfra told TechCrunch. “The public confidence is important, and we need to be thinking within the government about the adversaries’ ability and willingness to use those against us,” she said.

Manfra said the department knew it had to work closer with state and local election boards to figure out their needs following the 2016 election. “We had a lot of honest conversations with [election boards] about what they need, what do we do, and how can we help,” she said. “It’s the fastest I’ve ever seen a sector come together.”

Those partnerships with local elections have given Homeland Security unprecedented visibility into the nation’s election infrastructure, she said, going from “some coverage” in 2016 to near-absolute insight across the country.

“If we ever did again get technical indicators that an adversary was trying to do something, we would be able to move more quickly and much more expansively across the country,” she said.

That effort paid off. Last year’s midterm election was remarkably quiet compared to 2016. Both the Justice Department and Homeland Security said there was “no evidence” to support foreign interference during the midterms.

It’s that running theme of public-private collaboration that Manfra looked back on with pride. “We don’t have all the answers and we can’t do it alone.” Those partnerships across the industry verticals — from elections to finance, energy and manufacturing — are “crucial to everything that we do,” she said.

“It’s really easy to say how important it is to have the government in the private sector working together,” she said. “But to do it well, it’s actually really hard.”

Manfra said the government had to be “willing to open itself” to build trust with its partners. “We now have some of the largest companies in the country that we built trusted relationships when they know that they can give us sensitive information — and we can take that and use it to protect other people, but we’re not going to abuse that trust,” she said.

Speaking of her time at Homeland Security, Manfra said she was most proud of her team. “A lot of them have been with me since we started,” she said. “They could be working out in the private sector making a ton of money, but they’re dedicating their lives here,” she said.

But she said she was “forcing” herself to have no regrets during her time in government.

It’s not yet known who will replace Manfra or will take on her responsibilities. But her advice for her eventual successor: “Trust your team, trust your partners, and stay focused,” she said. “It’s such a broad mission. It’s easy to lose focus.”

Related stories:

Senate report says Russian election interference ‘invariably’ supported Trump, recommends national PSA

A bipartisan Senate investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election released today definitively implicates the country in online operations designed specifically to get then-candidate Donald Trump elected. The tactics used were “overtly and almost invariably supportive” of his campaign even to the detriment of other Republicans. The report recommends major chances to how disinformation and election interference are handled in this country.

The bulk of the report, volume 2 of the Intelligence Committee’s investigation of Russian interference (the first arrived in July), focuses on the specifics of the country’s use of social media and other online channels to affect the election. (You can read the full report at the bottom of this post.)

“This campaign sought to polarize Americans on the basis of societal, ideological, and racial differences, provoked real world events, and was part of a foreign government’s covert support of Russia’s favored candidate in the U.S. presidential election,” the report reads at the outset. So much is already known, but the report goes into great detail on the exact means.

More importantly, it officially characterizes what had in many ways only been observed by other parties or alluded to: that “Russia’s favored candidate” was Trump from the beginning and that operations were undertaken specifically to get him and no one else elected.

Another point the report makes, which others had noted before, is that black Americans were of particular interest to the Russian agents.

“No single group of Americans was targeted by IRA information operatives more than African-Americans. By far, race and related issues were the preferred target of the information warfare campaign designed to divide the country in 2016,” the report states. Race issues are certainly always top of mind for many in this country, and clearly Russia perceived that as an opportunity.

While a perusal of our past articles on the topic will give an idea of the interference itself, what is new here is a set of recommendations on how to prevent the 2016 calamity from occurring again next year. Here are the major ones:

“Examine legislative approaches to ensuring Americans know the sources of online political advertisements.”

Political ads in most media are required by law to disclose who paid for them. The same is not true online, and while companies like Facebook are taking steps toward transparency, it seems odd that a private company last seen being unwitting accomplice to foreign election interference should be the vanguard of that change. Perhaps, the committee suggests, we should pass a law.

“Congress should continue to examine the full panoply of issues surrounding social media.”

This is a frustratingly vague recommendation, and its wording suggests Congress is already examining this “panoply.” But it is not specific because there is so much to say. “Privacy rules, identity validation, transparency in how data is collected and used, and monitoring for inauthentic or malign content” are among the several things that deserve continued attention. Between the lines is to be read that Congress is not going to let go of these issues any time soon if the Intel Committee has anything to do with it.

“Reinforce with the public the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election.”

This recommendation to the Executive seems unlikely to find much purchase, since this administration has been careful to play down the role of Russian and other interference in the election that put them in power. It is hard to imagine any administration doing otherwise, to be honest. But this recommendation may very well filter down to the innumerable agencies and offices that perform all kinds of work under the umbrella of the Executive, and there is only so much that the White House can suppress. If there is, as we all understand there to be, a major risk of foreign interference in the 2020 election, the Executive should acknowledge that publicly or find itself accused of complicity.

“Building media literacy from an early age would help build long-term resilience to foreign manipulation of our democracy.”

It is worth quoting this in full:

…Disinformation in the long-term will ultimately need to be tackled by an informed and discerning population of citizens who are both alert to the threat and armed with the critical thinking skills necessary to protect against malicious influence. A public initiative-propelled by federal funding but led in large part by state and local education institutions-focused on building media literacy from an early age would help build long-term resilience to foreign manipulation of our democracy.

It’s hardly realistic to expect an education campaign to have any effect next year, which is why this is a “long-term” approach to taking on disinformation. But how can federal education guidelines or campaigns be taken seriously when the government is itself deeply invested in counterfactual narratives regarding things like climate change? Media literacy is important, but the feds need to learn their own lessons before they can teach them.

“Stand up an interagency task force to continually monitor and assess foreign country’s use of social media platforms for democratic interference.”

Another recommendation to the Executive, this one is half practical and half CYA. A task force is the lip service of the federal government, but even so they have a habit of documenting things that others would rather were swept under the rug. No one would take the proposed “deterrence frameworks” seriously, but they make great ammo for political battles after the fact. If the task force warned of X six months before X caused Y, the politicians who appear to have taken X seriously at the time score valuable politics points.

“Develop a clear plan for notifying candidates, parties, or others associated with elections when those individuals or groups have been the victim of a foreign country’s use of social media platforms to interfere in an election.”

This kind of thing — the knowledge that there’s a hacking collective in Brazil trying to take down Pete Buttigieg or something — should be shared in a structured fashion. This is as much to benefit the target as it is to punish those who would withhold that information.

Furthermore, as Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) adds in notes at the end of the report, it is not enough to simply say that there were attempts at subversion — the intelligence community must share their “assessment of the goals and intent” of those attempts.

In other words, if we knew what we knew now in 2016, it would be required that the government in some way disclose not only that Hilary Clinton’s campaign was being targeted, but that it was being targeted with the specific goal of getting Donald Trump elected.

Wyden also had some choice words for the social media and tech community.

Until Facebook, Google, and Twitter have developed effective defenses to ensure that their micro-targeting systems cannot be exploited by foreign governments to influence American elections, these companies must put the integrity of American democracy over their profits.

Congress should pass legislation that addresses this concern in three respects. First, the Federal Trade Commission must be given the power to set baseline data security and privacy rules for companies that store or share Americans’ data, as well as the authority and resources to fine companies that violate.those rules, Second; companies should be obligated to disclose how consumer information is collected and shared and provide consumers the names of every individual or institution with whom their data has been shared. Third, consumers must be given the ability to easily opt out of commercial data sharing.

You can read the full report below.

Senate Intel report on Russian election interference (volume 2) by TechCrunch on Scribd

Apple’s new ‘For All Mankind’ trailer focuses on the people dealing with a Soviet space race win

Apple’s new premium subscription TV service is launching on November 1, and there’s a new trailer for one of its original shows, the Ronald D. Moore project “For All Mankind.”

The series is a fictional period piece set in the late ’60s/early ’70s that follows an alternate timeline in which Soviet Russia, not the U.S., is the first to land a man on the Moon. It seems like there will be a lot of fallout as a result of the U.S. losing this key battle in the space race, but the biggest divergence from our actual history might be that the Americans seem to go all-in on an astronaut qualification and training program for women much earlier than they did in real life.

Watching this, which is more focused on the various cast members than previous trailers for this show (which set up the premise), I get strong “The Calculating Stars” and the entire “Lady Astronaut” novel series vibes, which are great books by Mary Robinette Kowal if you’re looking for alternative history with a space bent right now (and don’t want to wait for Apple’s $5 per month service to launch).

That said, I’m definitely still very interested in checking this out when it is available, and it doesn’t hurt that it’s from the same creator who brought us the early 2000s’ “Battlestar Galactica” reboot and “Outlander,” my favorite time-traveling British history romp.

Watch a Roscosmos rocket launch the next crew of the International Space Station live

NASA astronaut Jessica Meir, Rocscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Skripochka and first-time UAE spaceflight traveler Hazza Ali Almansoori are all set to launch aboard a Roscosmos rocket in a Soyuz capsule, as part of the Expedition 61 crew launch to the International Space Station.

The crew is set to take off from Kazakhstan at 9:57 AM EDT, and the spacecraft will dock with the ISS at around 3 PM EDT, roughly six hours after take-off. This is Skripochka’s third trip to space, but it’s the first for both Meir and Almansoori, with Almansoori on an eight-day mission contracted by the UAE with Russia’s space agency.

Once they arrive on the station, there will be 9 total occupants on board. Both Meir and Skripochka will be spending over six months on the ISS, condign research and experiments.

Police hijack a botnet and remotely kill 850,000 malware infections

In a rare feat, French police have hijacked and neutralized a massive cryptocurrency mining botnet controlling close to a million infected computers.

The notorious Retadup malware infects computers and starts mining cryptocurrency by sapping power from a computer’s processor. Although the malware was used to generate money, the malware operators easily could have run other malicious code, like spyware or ransomware. The malware also has wormable properties, allowing it to spread from computer to computer.

Since its first appearance, the cryptocurrency mining malware has spread across the world, including the U.S., Russia, and Central and South America.

According to a blog post announcing the bust, security firm Avast confirmed the operation was successful.

The security firm got involved after it discovered a design flaw in the malware’s command and control server. That flaw, if properly exploited, would have “allowed us to remove the malware from its victims’ computers” without pushing any code to victims’ computers, the researchers said.

The exploit would have dismantled the operation, but the researchers lacked the legal authority to push ahead. Because most of the malware’s infrastructure was located in France, Avast contacted French police. After receiving the go-ahead from prosecutors in July, the police went ahead with the operation to take control of the server and disinfect affected computers.

The French police called the botnet “one of the largest networks” of hijacked computers in the world.

The operation worked by secretly obtaining a snapshot of the malware’s command and control server with cooperation from its web host. The researchers said they had to work carefully as to not be noticed by the malware operators, fearing the malware operators could retaliate.

“The malware authors were mostly distributing cryptocurrency miners, making for a very good passive income,” the security company said. “But if they realized that we were about to take down Retadup in its entirety, they might’ve pushed ransomware to hundreds of thousands of computers while trying to milk their malware for some last profits.”

With a copy of the malicious command and control server in hand, the researchers built their own replica, which disinfected victim computers instead of causing infections.

“[The police] replaced the malicious [command and control] server with a prepared disinfection server that made connected instances of Retadup self-destruct,” said Avast in a blog post. “In the very first second of its activity, several thousand bots connected to it in order to fetch commands from the server. The disinfection server responded to them and disinfected them, abusing the protocol design flaw.”

In doing so, the company was able to stop the malware from operating and remove the malicious code to over 850,000 infected computers.

Jean-Dominique Nollet, head of the French police’s cyber unit, said the malware operators generated several million euros worth of cryptocurrency.

Remotely shutting down a malware botnet is a rare achievement — but difficult to carry out.

Several years ago the U.S. government revoked Rule 41, which now allows judges to issue search and seizure warrants outside of their jurisdiction. Many saw the move as an effort by the FBI to conduct remote hacking operations without being hindered by the locality of a judge’s jurisdiction. Critics argued it would set a dangerous precedent to hack into countless number of computers on a single warrant from a friendly judge.

Since then the amended rule has been used to dismantle at least one major malware operation, the so-called Joanap botnet, linked to hackers working for the North Korean regime.

Russian humanoid robot makes its way to the International Space Station

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft docked with the International Space Station successfully late on Tuesday evening, after an initial attempt to do so didn’t end up working as planned on Saturday night. This second attempt went off without a hitch, however, and the capsule is now parked at a port on the Russian Zvezda module of the ISS. In the captain’s seat of the capsule, which is designed to carry human passengers, sat Skybot F-850, a humanoid robot built by Russia’s Rocsomos space agency.

The robot didn’t actually pilot the craft – it was on an automated trip with no humans aboard to take over manual control. This trip saw the Soyuz launched atop a new version of Russia’s Soyuz rocket, which it has used so far only to transfer cargo with uncrewed spacecraft. This mission was designed to test the updated rocket with a Soyuz without humans on board, in preparation of using the same model with crew on board starting next year.

The Skybot F-850 has a number of built-in sensors on board, and can measure things like G-forces exerted on passengers, as well as vibrations, temerparture readings and more, to provide an accurate idea of what a human would experience were they the ones sitting in the vehicle’s passenger seats instead of the robot.

This is the first use of a robot in this capacity by Rocosmos, and Skybot will remain at the ISS for around two weeks before it heads back to Earth. In addition to sensing conditions during launch, Skybot has some functions similar to your average Alexa speaker – it can answer questions, have short conversations and tell a few jokes. The plan however is to develop Skybot and its successors into more capable functional companions that can do activities in environments that are inhospitable to humans – including perhaps in the vacuum of outer space.

Apple is under formal antitrust probe in Russia

Make way for another antitrust investigation into big tech. Step forward Russia’s Federal Antimonopoly Service (FAS), which has opened an official probe of Apple — following a complaint lodged in March by security company Kaspersky Labs.

Kaspersky’s complaint to FAS followed a change in Apple’s policy towards a parental control app it offers, called Kaspersky Safe Kids. Discussing the complaint in a blog post the security firm says Apple contacted it in 2017 to inform it that the use of configuration profiles is against App Store policy, even though the app had been on Apple’s store for nearly three years without it raising any objections. 

Apple told Kaspersky to remove configuration profiles from the app — which it says would require it to remove two key features that makes it useful to parents: Namely, app control and Safari browser blocking.

It also points out that the timing of Apple’s objection followed Apple announcing its Screen Time feature, in iOS 12 — which allows iOS users to monitor the amount of time they spend using certain apps or on certain websites and set time restrictions. Kaspersky argues Screen Time is “essentially Apple’s own app for parental control” — hence raising concerns about the potential for Apple to exert unfair market power over the store it also operates by restricting competition.

We’ve reached out to Apple for comment on the FAS investigation. The company referred Reuters to a statement it made in April about its policy towards parental control apps, following other complaints.

In the statement Apple says it removed several such apps from the App Store because they “put users’ privacy and security at risk” — calling out the use of what it described as “a highly invasive technology called Mobile Device Management” (MDM).

But Kaspersky claims its app does not, and never did, use MDM.

Following complaints and some press attention to Apple’s parental control apps crackdown), the company appears to have softened its stance on MDM for this specific use-case — updating the App Store Review Guidelines’ to allow using MDM for parental controls in limited cases.

Kaspersky also says that the Apple Developer Enterprise Program License Agreement “clarifies that the use of MDM-profiles and configuration profiles in applications for home users is only possible with the explicit written consent of Apple”.

However it argues that Apple’s updated rules and restrictions still “do not provide clear criteria allowing the usage of these profiles, as well as information on meeting the criteria, which is needed for obtaining written consent from Apple to use them”. Hence it’s not willing to drop its complaint yet.

It says it’s also continuing to prepare to file an antitrust complaint over the same issue in Europe — where a separate competition-related complaint was recently filed against Apple by the music service Spotify.

Kaspersky says now that only official written confirmation from Apple — of “the applicability of the new p.5.5. “App Store Review Guidelines” for Kaspersky Safe Kids for iOS” — will stay its complaint.

Russia’s FAS has shown itself to be relatively alacritous at handling big tech antitrust complaints — most notably slapping Google with an order against bundling its services with Android back in 2015, a few months after local search giant Yandex had filed a complaint.

It took the European Union’s competition regulator several more years before arriving at a similar conclusion vis-a-vis Google’s competition-blocking Android bundling.

With Y Combinator’s seal of approval, MyPetrolPump raises $1.6 million for its car refueling business

Before even pitching on stage at Y Combinator, href="https://mypetrolpump.com/"> MyPetrolPump, the Indian startup with a car refueling business has managed to snag $1.6 million in its seed financing.

The business, which is similar to startups in the U.S. like Filld, Yoshi, and Booster Fuels, took ten months to design and receive approvals for its proprietary refueling trucks that can withstand the unique stresses of providing logistics services in India.

Together with co-founder Nabin Roy, a serial startup entrepreneur, MyPetrolPump co-founder and chief executive Ashish Gupta pooled together $150,000 to build the company’s first two refuelers and launch the business.

MyPetrolPump began operating out of Bangalore in 2017 working with a manufacturing partner to make the 20-30 refuelers that the company expects it will need to roll out its initial services. However, demand is far outstripping supply, according to Gupta.

“We would need hundreds of them to fulfill the demand,” Gupta says. In fact the company is already developing a licensing strategy that would see it franchise out the construction of the refueling vehicles and regional management of the business across multiple geographies. 

Bootstrapped until this $1.6 million financing, MyPetrolPump already has five refueling vehicles in its fleet and counts 2,000 customers already on its ledger.

These are companies like Amazon and Zoomcar, which both have massive fleets of vehicles that need refueling. Already the company has delivered 5 million liters of fuel with drivers working 12-hour-per-day shifts, Gupta says.

While services like MyPetrolPump have cropped up in the U.S. as a matter of convenience, in the Indian context, the company’s offering are more of a necessity, says Gupta.

“In the Indian context, there’s pilferage of fuel,” says Gupta. Bus drivers collude with gas station operators to skim money off the top of the order, charging for fifty liters of fuel but only getting 40 liters pumped in. Another problem that Gupta says is common is the adulteration of fuel with additives that can degrade the engine of a vehicle.

There’s also the environmental benefit of not having to go all over to refill a vehicle, saving fuel costs by filling up multiple vehicles with a .  single trip from a refueling vehicle out to a location with a fleet of existing vehicles.

The company estimates it can offset 1 million tons of carbon in a year — and provide over 300 billion liters of fuel. The model has taken off in other geographies as well. There’s Toplivo v Bak in Russia (which was acquired by Yandex), Gaston in Paris and Indonesia’s everything mobility company, Gojek, whose offerings also include refueling services.

And Gupta is preparing for the future as well. If the world moves to electrification and electric vehicles, the entrepreneur says his company can handle that transition as well.

We are delivering a last mile fuel delivery system,” says Gupta. “If tomorrow hydrogen becomes the dominant fuel we will do that… If there is electricity we will do that. What we are building is the convenience of last mile delivery to energy at the doorstep.”