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The Week in Tech: Chinese and Iranian Hackers Have Returned

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Each week, technology reporters and columnists from The New York Times review the week’s news, offering analysis and maybe a joke or two about the most important developments in the tech industry. Want this newsletter in your inbox? Sign up here.

Hello, dear readers! I’m Nicole Perlroth, cybersecurity reporter here at The Times. I’m afraid the week’s news isn’t all unicorns and rainbows.

This should come as a shock to no one, but President Trump’s confrontational diplomacy has energized state hackers in Iran and China. They are targeting companies and government agencies in the United States with renewed gusto, after a multiyear lull. The rebound in activity comes on top of the continuing threat from Russians, who have already started hacking European civil society groups before elections there in May.

Consider this a preview of 2020.

With the United States pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran, Iranian hackers are hitting American banks, businesses and federal agencies with cyberattacks. They’ve significantly stepped up their game: harder to track down and more effective.

We’re no longer talking so-called denial-of-service attacks that make websites hiccup. They’re exploiting weaknesses in the internet’s backbone to steal web traffic as it passes between government agencies, banks and businesses that manage their back-end infrastructure.

The attacks rattled Homeland Security officials, who triggered an emergency alert during the government shutdown last month. Security researchers say that the attacks have not relented and that they’re hitting American targets with an unnerving success rate.

The news out of China is even more troubling. Mr. Trump’s trade confrontations with Beijing have energized state hackers in Beijing, who have renewed attacks on American businesses, especially in high-tech and defense companies.

Chinese industrial espionage notably dropped after President Barack Obama and President Xi Jinping of China reached a 2015 deal to cease cybertheft of trade secrets. Now, the gloves are off.

Miriam Wugmeister, a cybersecurity specialist at the law firm Morrison Foerster, told me that Fortune 500 companies were being hit at “shockingly high” rates.

It’s rare that victims step forward — state laws require companies to disclose breaches only if personal data is compromised — but T-Mobile, Boeing and General Electric Aviation are among the companies in the crossfire.

If that’s not worrying you, consider my colleague Sui-Lee Wee’s blockbuster report Thursday on China’s campaign to build a DNA database, in part to track and suppress China’s minority Uighur population. Beijing could not have pulled this off without a big helping hand from Thermo Fisher, a Massachusetts equipment maker, and genetic material provided by a prominent Yale University researcher who says he was unaware the material was used as a surveillance tool.

In other news:

■ Lyft is racing to beat Uber to an initial public offering, my colleagues Mike Isaac and Kate Conger reported. Lyft is hoping to debut on the Nasdaq at a $20 billion to $25 billion valuation before it’s overshadowed by its bigger ride-hailing competitor, Uber, which bankers initially pegged at a $120 billion valuation.

■ Google is losing advertisers after a YouTuber posted video showing the prevalence of pedophiles who comment on videos of children doing regular activities like gymnastics or stretching. My colleagues Dai Wakabayashi and Sapna Maheshwari reported that major brands like Nestlé and Epic Games have pulled advertising after users flagged their ads on children’s videos targeted by pedophiles.

YouTube and other big tech companies are already under fire for failing to aggressively police their platforms. Last month, YouTube said it had tweaked its algorithm to stop recommending conspiracy theories to users. This past week, my colleague Kevin Roose wrote a terrific piece outlining one of the central challenges for the company: Some of YouTube’s biggest stars (and ad magnets) push conspiracies.

Google is hardly the only company struggling with misinformation. This month, The Guardian discovered that YouTube’s recommendation algorithms and Facebook’s search results were still steering viewers from fact-based medical information to anti-vaccine misinformation. All this as the Pacific Northwest is still reeling from an emergency measles outbreak.

■ Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion icon, died in Paris on Tuesday. True to form, no obituary had an accurate read on his age, though The Times noted he was “generally thought to be 85.”

A tech newsletter this depressing would not be complete without my favorite Lagerfeld quote: “Sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life, so you bought some sweatpants.” (Thank God Karl Lagerfeld never set foot in Silicon Valley.)

Nicole Perlroth writes about cybersecurity in the Times’s San Francisco bureau. Follow her here on Twitter: @nicoleperlroth.

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A big test of reusable packaging for groceries comes to Canada

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An online store has launched in Ontario selling groceries and household items from Loblaws in containers it will take back and refill — a test of whether Canadian consumers are ready to change their habits. Industry-watchers say it is breaking ground for reusable packaging.

The store, called Loop, launched in Canada on Feb. 1, in partnership with supermarket giant Loblaws, and offers items like milk, oats, ice cream and toothpaste for delivery in most of Ontario. Loop is already operating in the continental U.S., the U.K and France. 

Included so far are some products from well-known brands such as PC sauces and oils, Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Heinz ketchup, Chipits chocolate chips and Ocean Spray cranberries. 

“The goal is really validating that this is something the Canadian public is interested in,” said Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of Loop and its parent company TerraCycle.

Unlike existing small no-waste retailers, they want to offer “your favourite product at your favourite retailer in a reusable and convenient manner.”

The involvement of a huge retailer makes the launch notable in terms of scale and who it will reach, said Tima Bansal, Canada Research Chair in business sustainability at Western University in London, Ont. 

“I think it’s at the scale that’s needed to create the change in the community in Canada more generally,” she said.

How it works for customers

Szaky likens Loop to the reusable bottle system for beer in Canada “but expanding it to any product that wants to play in the [North American] ecosystem.”

The ultimate goal, he said, is to give people a greener way to consume that limits the amount of mining and farming needed to produce packaging.

“This allows us to greatly reduce the need to extract new materials, which is the biggest drain on our environment.

Loopstore.ca currently lists just 98 products, although many are sold out or “coming soon.” 

As with other online grocery stores, customers fill their virtual shopping cart, but in addition to the cost of the item itself, they pay a deposit for its container. That can range from 50 cents for glass President’s Choice salsa jars like the ones that are normally at the supermarket to $5 for a stainless steel Häagen-Dazs ice cream tub. 

The items are delivered to a customer’s home by courier FedEx for a $25 fee, although the fee is waived for orders over $50.

Once you’ve spooned out all the salsa or ice cream or squeezed out all the toothpaste, the container doesn’t go in the recycling bin. Instead, you toss them into the tote bag they came in — even if they’re dented or damaged — and they get picked up.

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This wearable device beeps when workers get too close to each other

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It’s a device that emits a high-pitched beep, buzzes and lights up if your coworker steps too close.

While some introverts would have bought this device before the pandemic to stave off chatty colleagues near the coffee machine, ZeroKey designed the product with a more important purpose — helping employees physically distance to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus. 

The Calgary tech company’s “Safe Space” device looks like a small plastic badge that can be worn on a wrist or clipped to a shirt pocket or belt. 

“Our products, in a nutshell, localize or figure out where things are in 3D space and our big claim to fame is we do it very precisely, more precisely than anyone else in the world,” said Matt Lowe, co-founder and CEO of ZeroKey.

The company says its location-tracking technology passively monitors the distance between each device and is accurate down to 1.5 millimetres. The distance on devices can be set — so if, say, science determines three metres apart is actually safer that two, that can be tweaked. 

Lowe says the company came from humble beginnings — he and a co-founder, working out of a room in his house. The company has grown from two to 30 employees and has more openings it’s looking to fill.

Inspired by sci-fi

Their inspiration comes, as so many technological innovations have, from sci-fi. 

Lowe recalls watching Minority Report, and being transfixed with the gesture-based user interface Tom Cruise’s character operates. 

“Wouldn’t it be awesome if we had an interface that was more in tune with how humans operate naturally with their hands. So if you could just walk up to a new piece of technology … and just immediately be proficient,” he said. 

But applying that tech to the COVID-19 era wasn’t something the company had anticipated.

Lowe said some of the company’s clients in the manufacturing industry approached ZeroKey with a request.

“They came to us and said, ‘hey … we have the data where people are, can you build some sort of system so that we can do contact tracing and we can let people know if they’re closer than two metres?’ And we said, ‘absolutely … that’s easier than what we normally do,'” he said.

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Blistering rallies spur Canadian tech world to repeat equity sales

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Canadian technology companies have been making multiple trips to the equity market over the past year, capitalizing on a rally in tech shares that’s helping them raise cash at ever higher valuations.

Dye & Durham Ltd., which makes software used by law firms, took advantage of a more than sixfold rally in its shares since its July IPO to raise $500 million (US$394 million) in a bought deal of stock and convertible debentures, the company said Tuesday. Dye & Durham, which went public at $7.50 a share, received $50.50 per share in the private placement. Peers including Lightspeed POS Inc. and Docebo Inc. have made similar moves.

Shares of technology companies have gained since the onset of the pandemic as their corporate customers increasingly turned to cloud-based applications to support their remote workforces, said Anurag Rana, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. The technology sector was one of the few places investors could look for growth during the crisis, with huge swaths of the economy including retailers, restaurants, airlines, hotels and casinos hammered by lockdowns, he said.

“Issuers and private-equity investors are not stupid, and they know somewhere down the road that valuations may come back,” Rana said. “So this is the time when they sell.”

Canada’s S&P/TSX Information Technology Index has risen 82 per cent in the past year, fuelled by rallies in Lightspeed and Shopify Inc. That compares with a 36 per cent advance for the U.S. S&P 500 Information Technology Index.

Those gains are giving early investors in tech companies an opportunity to take some profits. In conjunction with Dye & Durham’s private deal announced Tuesday, some investors agreed with the underwriters to sell 1.98 million shares at the $50.50 price as well.

Lightspeed, which provides cloud-based point-of-sale systems for retailers and restaurants, has also seized the moment. The company went public in Canada in February 2019 and last year followed that up with a U.S. IPO, selling shares for US$30.50 apiece. The deal raised US$332.3 million for the company and US$65.4 million for some shareholders.

After Lightspeed’s share price more than doubled, it went back to the market again last week with a public offering of shares for US$70 each, raising US$620.2 million for the company and US$56 million for other shareholders.

Docebo, which sells cloud-based learning software, has tapped the market multiple times over the past year. The firm, which went public in Canada in October 2019, completed a bought deal of shares atC$50 apiece in August. The move raised $25 million for the company and $50 million for investors including founder and Chief Executive Officer Claudio Erba, Chief Revenue Officer Alessio Artuffo and top outside investor Intercap Equity Inc.

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