Microsoft resolves Microsoft 365 services outage

(Reuters) – Microsoft Corp said on Thursday it has mitigated an issue with its Microsoft 365 services and features, including workplace messaging app Teams and Azure, after many users were unable to access them.

“We have confirmed that the underlying DNS outage has been mitigated. Currently we’re validating the recovery of the downstream Microsoft 365 services,” it said in a tweet here.

Domain Name System (DNS) is effectively an address book of the internet which enables computers to match website addresses with the correct server.

Earlier, outage tracking website Downdetector showed over 8,000 incidents of people reporting issues with its widely used Teams workplace messaging app.

Downdetector only tracks outages by collating status reports from a series of sources, including user-submitted errors on its platform. The outage might be affecting a larger number of users.

Microsoft’s Cortana silenced as Siri gets new voice

Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual assistant designed to compete with Apple’s Siri and Google’s Assistant, is to be retired on mobile.

Instead it will focus on offering productivity help in Windows 10, Outlook and Teams.

The hashtag #RIPCortana was being used on Twitter, as people reminisced – or in some cases pointed out how forgettable the assistant had been.

Meanwhile, Apple’s Siri will no longer default to a female voice in English.

The use of a female voice for virtual assistants has long been controversial for gender-typing a helpful, virtual companion.

Cortana was unveiled in 2014 as a virtual assistant for Windows phones. It was named after the advanced artificial intelligence guide in Microsoft’s then best-selling Halo game series.

Three years later, Microsoft abandoned its smartphone operating system, although Cortana remained available for iPhones and Android devices.

The death of the voice assistant on most platforms was announced last summer and in January, Microsoft ended support for Cortana integration in the Harman Kardon Invoke speaker. It offered speaker owners who used Cortana, a $50 Microsoft gift card.

Woman using voice assistant
image captionCortana failed to catch up with the popularity of Amazon Alexa and Google’s Assistant

Ben Wood, chief analyst at research firm CSS Insight said: “There was a certain inevitability to Microsoft abandoning the consumer-centric variant of Cortana. Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant are the mass market voice assistants of choice, leaving little space for rivals. 

“Even the mighty Apple has struggled to get traction with Siri despite making huge investments to drive the platform forward.

“Microsoft has made a sensible decision to double down on Cortana as a platform to aid productivity gains, closely tied to its business-centric tools and services. Increasingly Cortana will become deeply integrated into specific Microsoft platforms, rather than being a generic voice assistant designed to be all things to all people.”

Female voice

Rival Apple has added two new voices to its assistant Siri, as well as eliminating the default female voice in the latest version of iOS. 

In 2019 a report by UNESCO suggested that using female voices by default for voice assistants “sends a signal that women are obliging, docile and eager-to-please helpers available at the touch of a button or with a blunt voice command”.

Apple said of its decision to put the onus on users to choose the voice of its assistant: “This is a continuation of Apple’s commitment to diversity and inclusion, and products and services that are designed to better reflect the diversity of the world we live in.”

In some countries and languages, Siri already defaults to a male voice.

Microsoft sells $21.9 augmented reality goggles to us army

(Reuters) – Microsoft Corp on Wednesday said it has won a deal to sell to the U.S. Army augmented reality headsets based on its HoloLens product and backed by Azure cloud computing services.

The contract could be worth up to $21.88 billion over 10 years, a Microsoft spokesman told Reuters.

Over the past two years, Microsoft has worked with the Army on the prototyping phase of what is called the Integrated Visual Augmentation System, or IVAS. The company said Wednesday that the Army had moved into the production phase of the project.

In a blog post, Microsoft Technical Fellow Alex Kipman said the headsets are designed to deliver “enhanced situational awareness, enabling information sharing and decision-making in a variety of scenarios.”

The headsets will be manufactured in the United States, a Microsoft spokesman told Reuters.

Microsoft was also in line to win the $10 billion JEDI cloud computing contract with the Pentagon, but the contract remains in dispute in a lawsuit filed by Amazon.com Inc. Pentagon officials told U.S. lawmakers in February that the Defense Department may jettison the contract if the dispute lingers in the courts.

After Microsoft announced a $480 million contract in 2018 to supply prototypes to the Army, at least 94 workers petitioned the company to cancel the deal and stop developing “any and all weapons technologies,” Reuters reported at the time.

After Microsoft announced a $480 million contract in 2018 to supply prototypes to the Army, at least 94 workers petitioned the company to cancel the deal and stop developing “any and all weapons technologies,” Reuters reported at the time.

On Wednesday, the workers’ group said on Twitter here, “We would much rather Microsoft used today to stand up for Transgender people everywhere on Transgender Day of Visibility, instead of building weapons of war.”

Microsoft to allow more employees at its headquarters from March 29

(Reuters) – Microsoft Corp said on Monday it would start allowing more employees to work from its headquarters in Redmond, Washington and nearby campuses from March 29.

Employees working at Redmond sites or nearby campuses have the choice to return to those facilities, continue working remotely or shift to a hybrid model, the company said in a blog post. (bit.ly/3tDXIJ4)

Many companies, including Twitter Inc and Salesforce.com Inc, have started opting for hybrid or permanent remote-working models after the COVID-19 pandemic forced firms to adopt to working from home.

Microsoft said in October it would allow most of its more than 160,000 employees to clock in up to half their weekly working hours remotely, providing greater flexibility even after offices start reopening. (reut.rs/3cYN0pQ)

Microsoft addresses software access issues with Teams

(Reuters) – Microsoft Corp said on Monday it was rolling back a recent change to its authentication system after the update caused an access issue that affected thousands of users of its services, including workplace messaging app Teams.

Outage tracking website Downdetector.com showed that more than 9,100 people had reported issues with Teams, while over 1,100 users posted about problems with Office 365.

The Redmond, Washington-based company said in a tweet that the process of rolling back the update was taking longer than expected. (bit.ly/3tmR3mr)

Microsoft said initial reports indicated that the primary impact was to Teams, but other services, including its Exchange Online email hosting platform, were also impacted.

More than 2,300 people also reported problems with Microsoft’s Azure cloud computing services, according to Downdetector.

Downdetector only tracks outages by collating status reports from a series of sources, including user-submitted errors on its platform. The outage might be affecting a larger number of users.

Exclusive: White House national security adviser will identify Microsoft hack sponsors

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on Friday the Biden administration is still gathering information on the scale of the hack on Microsoft Corp’s exchange.

Sullivan said the administration will be able to attribute the cyber attack to those who executed it in the near future.

Microsoft has previously said the attackers are “state-sponsored and operating out of China”.

UK urges organisations to install Microsoft updates urgently

Britain’s cyber security body urged organisations to install the latest Microsoft updates as a matter of urgency on Friday, after the company became aware of flaws that make email servers vulnerable.

“We are working closely with industry and international partners to understand the scale and impact of UK exposure, but it is vital that all organisations take immediate steps to protect their networks,” said Paul Chichester, director for operations at the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC).

“Whilst this work is ongoing, the most important action is to install the latest Microsoft updates.”

The NCSC appeal follows similar warnings from authorities in the United States and Europe about the weaknesses found in Microsoft’s Exchange Server software.

The number of potentially vulnerable servers in Britain was around 7,000 to 8,000, NCSC officials said, and about half of them had been patched already.

The patch, issued by Microsoft earlier this month, fixes the vulnerability, but it does not fix any malware such as ransomware already installed.

“Organisations should also be alive to the threat of ransomware and familiarise themselves with our guidance,” Chichester said. “Any incidents affecting UK organisations should be reported to the NCSC.”

The officials said they had not seen ransomware attacks linked to the Microsoft Exchange issue occurring in Britain at any scale, but the longer that servers remained vulnerable, the more the risk would increase.

At least 10 hacking groups using Microsoft software flaw: Researchers

The breadth of the exploitation adds to the urgency of the warnings being issued by authorities in the United States and Europe about the weaknesses found in Microsoft’s Exchange software.

The security holes in the widely used mail and calendaring solution leave the door open to industrial-scale cyber espionage, allowing malicious actors to steal emails virtually at will. Tens of thousands of organizations have already been compromised, Reuters reported last week.

While Microsoft has issued fixes, the sluggish pace of many customers’ updates – which experts attribute in part to the complexity of Exchange’s architecture – means the field remains at least partially open to hackers of all stripes. Experts are particularly concerned about the prospect of ransom-seeking cybercriminals taking advantage of the flaws because it could lead to widespread disruption.

Slovakia-based ESET said in a blog post issued on Wednesday there were already signs of cybercriminal exploitation, with one group that specializes in stealing computer resources to mine cryptocurrency breaking in to vulnerable Exchange servers to spread its malicious software.

ESET named nine other espionage-focused groups it said were taking advantage of the flaws to break in to targeted networks – several of which other researchers have tied to China. Intriguingly, several of the groups appeared to know about the vulnerability before it was announced by Microsoft on March 2.

ESET researcher Matthieu Faou said in an email it was “very uncommon” for so many different cyber espionage groups to have access to the same information before it is made public.

He speculated that either the information “somehow leaked” ahead of the Microsoft announcement or it was found by a third party that supplies vulnerability information to cyber spies.

By: Raphael Satter, Christopher

Microsoft-led team retracts quantum ‘breakthrough’

A Microsoft-led team has withdrawn a controversial research paper into quantum computing, published in 2018. 

The research claimed to have found evidence of an elusive subatomic particle Microsoft suggested could help the development of more powerful computers.

But it now says mistakes were made

The journal Nature has published a retraction. And the paper’s authors have apologised for “insufficient scientific rigour”.

But the company has said it remains confident of its wider efforts on quantum computing.

Leap forward

The paper had been hailed as a breakthrough.

But some scientists remained sceptical.

Quantum computing has been seen as a potentially revolutionary leap forward, promising to complete some tasks much faster.

In classical computers, the unit of information, or “bit”, can have a value of either one or nought.

Its equivalent in a quantum system – the quantum bit (qubit) – can be both at the same time, opening the door for multiple calculations to be performed simultaneously.

But scientists have struggled to build working devices with enough qubits to make them competitive with conventional types of computer.

‘Incredibly exciting’

Many large technology companies, including IBM and Google, as well as smaller rivals such as D-Wave and IonQ are also working on the problem.

But Microsoft proposed a different route – trying to create qubits with the properties of Majorana particles, whose existence was first suggested in the 1930s by Italian physicist Ettore Majorana, which it said would make them less error prone.

And the 2018 paper claimed to have observed evidence supporting Majorana particles’ existence. 

“It is a profoundly more exotic challenge than what is going on with other approaches to quantum computing,” Prof Charlie Marcus, one of the researchers on the project, told BBC News in 2018

But even then, other scientists were cautionary.

“It is one of those things that on paper look incredibly exciting,” University College London’s Prof John Morton said.

“But physics has a habit of throwing up spanners in the works.”

And now, the researchers have accepted they were wrong. 

Their errors included:

  • having “unnecessarily corrected” some of the data and not having made this clear
  • mislabelling a graph, making it misleading

“We can therefore no longer claim the observation of a quantised Majorana conductance and wish to retract this,” they wrote in Nature.

An independent review of the original paper found no intentional misrepresentation of the data.

There have been 79 retractions from Nature since its founding in 1869, including eight last year, according to the monitoring service Retraction Watch.

Presentational grey line
Analysis box by Rory Cellan-Jones, technology correspondent

Three years ago, I sat in an Italian restaurant in Stockholm while one of the world’s most brilliant physicists tried to explain Microsoft’s unique approach to quantum computing to me – using cubes of bread. 

As Prof Charlie Marcus whizzed the pieces of ciabatta around the table, one moment I thought I had it, the next I was sure I did not. 

But I was clear about one thing – Microsoft was deadly serious about making a big impact in this field. 

The company was way behind Google, IBM and other leaders in quantum-computing research but was convinced it had a secret weapon. 

And the mysterious Majorana particle Prof Marcus and other top physicists at Microsoft labs around the world thought they had identified would leapfrog their research to the front of the pack. 

But now, they have had to admit they were wrong. 

In a LinkedIn post, Microsoft vice-president Zulfi Alam tries to put the best possible gloss on this unfortunate turn of events, calling the retraction of the paper about the Majorana particle “an excellent example of the scientific process at work”. 

Other researchers in the field are being less kind. 

One calls it “an excellent example of how not to do scientific research – that is jump to conclusions before they are warranted”. 

The prize for whoever builds a commercial quantum computer that can solve real-world problems such as tackling climate change will be huge.

So Microsoft will keep on spending to stay in the race. 

But for now, the company has fallen even further behind its rivals.

By Cody Godwin and James Clayton
BBC News, San Francisco

European Banking Authority hit by Microsoft Exchange hack

The European Banking Authority’s email servers have been compromised in a global Microsoft Exchange cyber-attack.

The EU body said personal data may have been accessed from its servers. And it had pulled its entire email system offline while it assessed the damage.

“The EBA is working to identify what, if any, data was accessed,” it said.

Microsoft Exchange servers are widely used for email by major businesses and governments. But few organisations have yet admitted being hit by the attack.

What happened?

The cyber-attack had exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft’s Exchange email system – or sometimes used stolen passwords – to look like someone who should have access to the system, Microsoft said.

Then, it would take control of the email server remotely – and steal data from the network.

US officials warned at the weekend the attack remained an “active threat”.

“Everyone running these servers – government, private sector, academia – needs to act now to patch them,” White House press secretary Jan Psaki said.

Microsoft believes a Chinese state-sponsored attacker called Hafnium is behind the hack.

But China denies any involvement. View original tweet on Twitter

The US National Security Council said compromised companies needed to take further steps – and encouraged all organisations to identify whether they had been affected.

Who has been attacked?

Initial estimates suggested some 30,000 US organisations may have been affected.

But there were now claims the attack had at least 60,000 known victims, Bloomberg reported, citing an anonymous former US official involved in the investigation.

Microsoft’s security officials said Hafnium, “primarily targets entities in the United States”, stealing information from organisations such as “infectious disease researchers, law firms, higher education institutions, defence contractors, policy think tanks and NGOs [non-governmental organisations]”.

But cyber-security group Huntress said it had seen 300 of its partners’ servers affected.

“These companies do not perfectly align with Microsoft’s guidance, as some personas are small hotels, an ice-cream company, a kitchen-appliance manufacture, multiple senior-citizen communities and other ‘less than sexy’ mid-market businesses,” it blogged.

It had also discovered affected local government, healthcare, banks and electricity companies