Remote working: Is Big Tech going off work from home?

On Wednesday last week, Google’s Fiona Cicconi wrote to company employees.

She announced that Google was bringing forward its timetable of moving people back into the office.

As of 1 September, she said, employees wishing to work from home for more than 14 days would have to apply to do so

Employees were also expected to “live within commuting distance” of offices. No cocktails by the beach with a laptop, then.

The intention was very clear. Sure, you can do more flexible working than you did before – but most people will still have to come into the office. 

That thinking seemed to fly in the face of much of what we heard from Silicon Valley executives last year, when they championed the virtues of remote working. 

For example, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey made headlines across the world last May, when he said “Twitter employees can now work from home forever”. 

It was speculated that after Covid, the “new normal” for Silicon Valley might be a workforce heavily geared around remote working, with tech companies needing only minimal staff on-site. 

It’s increasingly looking like that’s not going to happen. 

And if you really look at the statements made by tech bosses, some of the nuances were skirted over by the press.

For example, when Mr Dorsey said employees could work at home “forever”, he added: “If our employees are in a role and situation that enables them to work from home.” 

That was a pretty important “if”. 

And in fact, Twitter has clarified that it expects a majority of its staff to spend some time working from home and some time working in the office. 

Pretty much every Silicon Valley tech firm has said that it is now committed to “flexible” or “hybrid” working. 

The problem is those terms can mean almost anything. 

Is that Fridays off? Or a completely different working relationship with a brick-and-mortar office? 

A man carries a laptop bag and a medical mask to work

Microsoft envisages “‘working from home part of the time (less than 50%) as standard for most roles” in the future. 

There is a lot of room for manoeuvre in the words “less than 50%”. 

Amazon also issued a statement to employees last week saying: “Our plan is to return to an office-centric culture as our baseline. We believe it enables us to invent, collaborate, and learn together most effectively.” 

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the new work-from-home age, then. 

Part of the hesitancy is that although many employees want more flexibility, it’s still not at all clear what kind of model works for the companies. 

“None of us have this all figured out,” said Carolyn Everson, vice-president of Facebook’s global business group, when talking about current work-from-home arrangements.

“We are making this up on the fly.”

Remotely attractive

Harvard Business School professor and remote working advocate Prithwiraj Choudhury says that tech companies have long been at the vanguard of remote working.

“The early adopters and the companies that are embracing this model and building the organisation around that remote work model will have a huge advantage in attracting talent”, he says. 

That is certainly the hope. 

No tech business wants to lose able employees to rivals who will allow them to work more flexibly. 

Companies like Spotify now appear to have some of the most “flexible” working practices for its staff. 

In a recent statement it said: “Our employees will be able to work full time from home, from the office, or a combination of the two. 

“The exact mix of home and office work mode is a decision each employee and their manager make together.”

But it did add: “There are likely to be some adjustments to make along the way.” 

So Spotify’s definition of flexible working is very different to Google’s, which in turn is very different to Amazon’s. 

Young office workers masked up look at their laptops in an office setting

Working from home while there is no office open is one thing. But remote working’s biggest test is going to be when the office starts opening up – let’s say at 50% capacity. 

When meetings are being held partially in person and partially on Zoom, is the dynamic going to work quite so well? 

And when some team members develop face-to-face, in-person relationships with managers, will remote workers feel disadvantaged? 

Last week, IBM announced its proposed system of remote working, with 80% of the workforce working at least three days a week in the office. 

“When people are remote I worry about what their career trajectory is going to be,” said IBM chief executive Arvind Krishna.

“If they want to become a people manager, if they want to get increasing responsibilities, or if they want to build a culture within their teams, how are we going to do that remotely?” he asked.

Tantalisingly, we are about to find out what works and what doesn’t, because there are so many differing approaches being taken by tech companies. 

And like so much of modern day life, other businesses are looking over at the west coast of America to see what’s working here – and what isn’t.

Source: BBC

Amazon drivers urinating in bottles: Apology to Rep – Pocan

(Reuters) – Amazon.com Inc has apologized to U.S. Representative Mark Pocan, admitting to scoring an “own goal” in its initial denial of his suggestion that its drivers were sometimes forced to urinate in bottles during their delivery rounds.

“We know that drivers can and do have trouble finding restrooms because of traffic or sometimes rural routes, and this has been especially the case during Covid when many public restrooms have been closed,” the company said in a blog post bit.ly/2PnoLKr.

Its admission came a week after the Democrat criticised Amazon’s working conditions, saying in a tweet: “Paying workers $15/hr doesn’t make you a ‘progressive workplace’ when you union-bust & make workers urinate in water bottles.”

Amazon initially issued a denial, saying in a tweet: “You don’t really believe the peeing in bottles thing, do you? If that were true, nobody would work for us.” But it subsequently walked back those comments.

“This was an own goal, we’re unhappy about it, and we owe an apology to Representative Pocan,” Amazon said in its blog post, adding that its previous response only referred to staff at its warehouses or fulfillment centers.

The company said the issue was industry-wide and it would look for solutions, without specifying what these might be.

Amazon’s apology comes at a time when workers at an Alabama warehouse are waiting for a vote count that could result in the online retailer’s first unionized facility in the United States and mark a watershed moment for organized labor.

Amazon has long discouraged attempts among its more than 800,000 U.S. employees to organize. Allegations by many workers of a grueling or unsafe workplace have turned unionizing the company into a key goal for the U.S. labor movement.

Uber ordered to pay $1.1m to blind woman refused rides

Uber has been ordered to pay $1.1m (£795,000) to a blind woman who was refused rides on 14 occasions.

Lisa Irving said on some occasions, drivers were verbally abusive, or harassed her about transporting her guide dog, Bernie, in the car.

One driver allegedly cut her trip short after falsely claiming to have arrived at her destination.

An independent arbitrator ruled Uber’s drivers had illegally discriminated against her due to her condition.

It rejected Uber’s claim that the company itself was not liable, because, it argued, its drivers had the status of contractors rather than employees. 

Mrs Irving, from San Francisco, said she had worried about her safety after being stranded multiple times late at night due to being rejected by drivers.

She also alleged that cancelled rides also led to her being late for work, which contributed to her being fired from her job.

The behaviour from drivers continued despite her complaining to Uber, she said.

A spokesman for Mrs Irving said: “Of all Americans who should be liberated by the rideshare revolution, the blind and visually impaired are among those who stand to benefit the most.

“The bottom line is that under the Americans with Disabilities Act, a guide dog should be able to go anywhere that a blind person can go.”

In a statement issued to media following the ruling, a spokesman for Uber said the company is “proud” of the help it offers blind passengers. 

“Drivers using the Uber app are expected to serve riders with service animals and comply with accessibility and other laws, and we regularly provide education to drivers on that responsibility. 

“Our dedicated team looks into each complaint and takes appropriate action,” he added.

It is not the first time Uber has faced a legal battle from the blind community. 

In 2014, The National Federation of the Blind in the US sued the ride-sharing app over guide-dog regulations. 

The case was settled in 2017 when Uber agreed to ensure its drivers knew they were legally obliged to provide service to people with guide dogs. 

“I’m sorry it came to this,” Mrs Irving told the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper

“I would have preferred that my civil rights be respected. But it sends a strong message that this is not acceptable.”

Source: BBC

Boohoo to probe price differences for same clothing

Online retailer Boohoo is investigating why the same items of clothing were sold for higher prices across a number of its fashion labels.

The BBC discovered that Dorothy Perkins and Coast, which are both owned by Boohoo, sold exactly the same coat but it cost £34 more at Coast. 

There are price disparities across a range of Boohoo brands, which also include Oasis and Warehouse.

Boohoo said the “miscommunication was not intentional”.

“All Boohoo group brands work independently, and so this miscommunication was not intentional as teams are not privy to what’s being bought and sold across the other group brands,” a spokeswoman for Boohoo said.

“Our internal investigation continues and we will be re-pricing all the crossover stock to be aligned.”

The price disparity was revealed after reporter Jennifer Meierhans bought a coat from Coast – as a friend happened to buy the exact same coat from Dorothy Perkins. 

The labels
image captionThe care label in the coat sold by Coast appears to have had the branding cut off

The Dorothy Perkins branding appeared to have been cut from the care label in the coat sold by Coast.

Boohoo said the coat was first sold by Coast and has now been re-priced at £17 on both brands’ websites.

‘Brand identity’

Catherine Erdly, founder of The Resilient Retail Club consultancy, and a former senior merchandiser at Coast, said: “If all Boohoo are going to do is buy the same stuff and slap different prices on it then it’s destroying that brand’s identity.”

She said that while each brand will have its own “architecture” for setting prices, it is likely Coast and Dorothy Perkins had benefited from some kind of trading “opportunity”, where a supplier had stock and both companies needed coats.

“But if they’re going to do things like that, they didn’t do it in a clever way,” Ms Erdly said. “The customer will sense that it’s just trying to get as much as possible out of them.”

She added: “There’s no way you could sell a genuine Coast coat at £17 without losing money because it costs more than that to make.”

There are a number of instances where the same item of clothing is priced differently across Boohoo’s brands.

A long “luxe” padded coat in the colour mushroom was originally sold for £89 at Oasisand £65 at Dorothy Perkins.

Coat for sale on Oasis website
Coat for sale on Dorothy Perkins website

The same coat in khaki was in the sale for £30 in Warehouse and £66.75 in Coast until the BBC brought the matter to Boohoo’s attention.

They are now both priced at £18. 

The online retailer operates a number of different brands after buying up businesses when their owners fell into administration.

Boohoo bought Coast’s online business in 2019along with sister brand Karen Millen. While in February, it acquired Dorothy Perkins, together with Wallis and Burton, from failed retail group Arcadia for £25.2m

Boohoo said: “Stock of the item in question was purchased and live on site by Coast prior to The Boohoo Group’s acquisition of the Dorothy Perkins brand.”

By Jennifer Meierhans
BBC News

PayPal launches crypto checkout service

virtual coins cryptocurrency

LONDON (Reuters) – PayPal Holdings Inc will announce later on Tuesday that it has started allowing U.S. consumers to use their cryptocurrency holdings to pay at millions of its online merchants globally, a move that could significantly boost use of digital assets in everyday commerce.

Customers who hold bitcoin, ether, bitcoin cash and litecoin in PayPal digital wallets will now be able to convert their holdings into fiat currencies at checkouts to make purchases, the company said.

The service, which PayPal revealed it was working on late last year, will be available at all of its 29 million merchants in the coming months, the company said.

“This is the first time you can seamlessly use cryptocurrencies in the same way as a credit card or a debit card inside your PayPal wallet,” President and CEO Dan Schulman told Reuters ahead of a formal announcement.

Checkout with Crypto builds on the ability for PayPal users to buy, sell and hold cryptocurrencies, which the San Jose, California-based payments company launched in October.

The offering made PayPal one of the largest mainstream financial companies to open its network to cryptocurrencies and helped fuel a rally in virtual coin prices.

Bitcoin has nearly doubled in value since the start of this year, boosted by increased interest from larger financial firms that are betting on greater adoption and see it as a hedge against inflation.

PayPal’s launch comes less than a week after Tesla Inc said it would start accepting bitcoin payments for its cars. Unlike PayPal transactions where merchants will be receiving fiat currency, Tesla said it will hold the bitcoin used as payment.

Still, while the nascent asset is gaining traction among mainstream investors, it has yet to become a widespread form of payment, due in part to its continued volatility.

PayPal hopes its service can change that, as by settling the transaction in fiat currency, merchants will not take on the volatility risk.

“We think it is a transitional point where cryptocurrencies move from being predominantly an asset class that you buy, hold and or sell to now becoming a legitimate funding source to make transactions in the real world at millions of merchants,” Schulman said.

The company will charge no transaction fee to checkout with crypto and only one type of coin can be used for each purchase, it said

Visa moves to allow payment settlements using cryptocurrency

Exclusive: Visa moves to allow payment settlements using cryptocurrency

(Reuters) – Visa Inc said on Monday it will allow the use of the cryptocurrency USD Coin to settle transactions on its payment network, the latest sign of growing acceptance of digital currencies by the mainstream financial industry.

The company told Reuters it had launched the pilot program with payment and crypto platform Crypto.com and plans to offer the option to more partners later this year.

Bitcoin, the most popular crypto coin, jumped to a one-week high on the news, rising as much as 4.5% to $58,300 and heading back toward a record-high above $61,000 hit earlier this month.

Visa subsequently confirmed the news in a statement.

The USD Coin (USDC) is a stablecoin cryptocurrency whose value is pegged directly to the U.S. dollar.

Visa’s move comes as finance firms including BNY Mellon, BlackRock Inc and Mastercard Inc take steps to make more use of cryptocurrencies for investment and payment purposes.

Tesla Inc boss Elon Musk, a major proponent of cryptocurrencies, said last week that customers can buy its electric vehicles with bitcoin, hoping to encourage more day-to- day use of the digital currency.

“We see increasing demand from consumers across the world to be able to access, hold and use digital currencies and we’re seeing demand from our clients to be able to build products that provide that access for consumers,” Cuy Sheffield, head of crypto at Visa, said.

Traditionally, if a customer chooses to use a Crypto.com Visa card to pay for a coffee, the digital currency held in a cryptocurrency wallet needs to be converted into traditional money.

The cryptocurrency wallet will deposit traditional fiat currency in a bank account, to be wired to Visa at the end of the day to settle any transactions, adding cost and complexity for businesses.

Visa’s latest step, which will use the ethereum blockchain, strips out the need to convert digital coin into traditional money in order for the transaction to be settled.

Visa said it has partnered with digital asset bank Anchorage and completed the first transaction this month — with Crypto.com sending USDC to Visa’s Ethereum address at Anchorage.

Cyber-attack on school: Pupils’ grading system tempered

Pupils’ coursework has been destroyed in a “significant” cyber-attack on a school.

Redborne School
image captionThe school said the attack was likely to cause long-term disruption

Redborne Upper School and Community College in Bedfordshire said the attack took place on Wednesday.

Although no data was taken, the school’s servers were left unreadable resulting in “the loss of a significant amount of data”, it added.

The school said it was working “to ensure that no students will be disadvantaged”.

In a letter sent to parents on Friday, the school, based in Flitwick Road, Ampthill, said it had rebuilt its servers.

It said: “This process has resulted in the loss of a significant amount of data including student user areas.”

The school said no data had left its servers “and no unauthorised persons have access to any information”.

Exam board discussions

Students’ personal data including academic records was kept on a different server, said the school.

The letter said: “It is this data that will form the basis of the grades we will be supplying to exam boards this summer in most cases.”

However, it added coursework, which would play “a significant role” in some subjects, had been lost.

“To mitigate this we have already contacted the exam boards and are in the process of putting in place arrangements to ensure that no students will be disadvantaged by the impact of this,” the letter said.

The school added it still has “sufficient data” to “award accurate grades this summer”.

The incident comes days after the University of Northampton reported it had been hit by a cyber-attack which had interrupted IT and telephone services.

The National Cyber Security Centre said since late February an increased number of ransomware attacks had affected education establishments.

Speaking on the Today programme on Friday, its chief executive Lindy Cameron said the coronavirus pandemic has “highlighted both the scale of our dependence on the digital world and the challenges we face”.

But she added the UK is “one of the safest places to live and work online”.

Mastercard fights bid to add 14 million dead customers to UK class action

LONDON (Reuters) – Mastercard, a global payment processor, is battling attempts to add about 14 million deceased people to a 14 billion pound ($19.3 billion) British class action in an effort to limit the scope of the historic case.

A Mastercard lawyer told London’s Competition Appeal Tribunal (CAT) on Friday that an application seeking to add those who died between 1992 and 2008 into the country’s first mass consumer claim, that alleges the company overcharged people over a near 16-year period, was a “nullity”.

“A claim cannot be brought in the name of a deceased person,” Mark Hoskins, representing Mastercard, said at the hearing.

Former financial ombudsman Walter Merricks, who is leading the claim, alleges that Mastercard overcharged almost 60 million people in Britain – including about 14 million people who are deceased – over the period. The case could entitle adults and their estates to roughly 300 pounds each if successful.

Hoskins said attempts to add new parties to the “very serious claim” — or their administrators, personal representatives, executors or next of kin — was also now time-barred. The company is also resisting attempts to add compound interest to the claim.

The drawn-out case was brought in 2016, one year after the CAT was nominated to oversee Britain’s U.S.-style “opt-out” class action regime for breaches of UK or EU competition law.

The CAT blocked the case in 2017 but is re-considering authorising it as a collective action and determining its scope — and establishing a standard for a string of other, stalled class actions — after the UK Supreme Court in December allowed the action to proceed.

Merricks, who is being advised by law firm Quinn Emanuel, alleges Mastercard charged excessive “interchange” fees – the fees retailers pay credit card companies when consumers use a card to shop – between May 1992 and June 2008 and that those fees were passed on to consumers as retailers raised prices.

Mastercard says it “fundamentally disagrees” with the claim, that people received valuable benefits from its payments technology and that the lawsuit is driven by U.S. lawyers and backed by organisations focused on making money for themselves.

($1 = 0.7264 pounds)

New wave of ‘hacktivism’ adds twist to cybersecurity woes

At a time when U.S. agencies and thousands of companies are fighting off major hacking campaigns originating in Russia and China, a different kind of cyber threat is re-emerging: activist hackers looking to make a political point.

Three major hacks show the power of this new wave of “hacktivism” – the exposure of AI-driven video surveillance being conducted by the startup Verkada, a collection of Jan. 6 riot videos from the right-wing social network Parler, and disclosure of the Myanmar military junta’s high-tech surveillance apparatus.

And the U.S. government’s response shows that officials regard the return of hacktivism with alarm. An indictment last week accused 21-year-old Tillie Hottmann, a Swiss hacker who took credit for the Verkada breach, of a broad conspiracy.

“Wrapping oneself in an allegedly altruistic motive does not remove the criminal stench from such intrusion, theft and fraud,” Seattle-based Acting U.S. Attorney Tessa Gorman said.

According to a U.S. counter-intelligence strategy released a year ago, “ideologically motivated entities such as hacktivists, leaktivists, and public disclosure organizations,” are now viewed as “significant threats,” alongside five countries, three terrorist groups, and “transnational criminal organizations.”

Earlier waves of hacktivism, notably by the amorphous collective known as Anonymous in the early 2010s, largely faded away under law enforcement pressure. But now a new generation of youthful hackers, many angry about how the cybersecurity world operates and upset about the role of tech companies in spreading propaganda, are joining the fray.

And some former Anonymous members are returning to the field, including Aubrey Cottle, who helped revive the group’s Twitter presence last year in support of the Black Lives Matter protests.

Anonymous followers drew attention for disrupting an app that the Dallas police department was using to field complaints about protesters by flooding it with nonsense traffic. They also wrested control of Twitter hashtags promoted by police supporters.

“What’s interesting about the current wave of the Parler archive and Gab hack and leak is that the hacktivism is supporting antiracist politics or antifascism politics,” said Gabriella Coleman, an anthropologist at McGill University, Montreal, who wrote a book on Anonymous.

Gab, a social network favored by white nationalists and other right-wing extremists, has also been hurt by the hacktivist campaign and had to shut down for brief periods after breaches.

DISRUPTING QANON

Most recently, Cottle has been focused on QAnon and hate groups.

“QAnon trying to adopt Anonymous and merge itself into Anonymous proper, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Cottle, who has held a number of web development and engineering jobs, including a stint at Ericsson.

He found email data showing that people in charge of the 8kun image board, where the persona known as Q posted, were in steady contact with major promoters of QAnon conspiracies here.

The new-wave hacktivists also have a preferred place for putting materials they want to make public – Distributed Denial of Secrets, a transparency site that took up the mantle of WikiLeaks with less geopolitical bias. The site’s collective is led by Emma Best, an American known for filing prolific freedom of information requests.

Best’s two-year-old site coordinating access by researchers and media to a hoard of posts taken from Gab by unidentified hackers. In an essay this week, Best praised Hottmann and said leaks would keep coming, not just from hacktivists but insiders and the ransomware operators who publish files when companies don’t pay them off.

“Indictments like Tillie’s show just how scared the government is, and just how many corporations consider embarrassment a greater threat than insecurity,” Best wrote here.

The events covered by the Hottmann indictment here took place from November 2019 through January 2021. The core allegation is that the Lucerne software developer and associates broke into a number of companies, removed computer code and published it. The indictment also said Hottmann spoke to the media about poor security practices by the victims and stood to profit, if only by selling shirts saying things like “venture anticapitalist” and “catgirl hacker.”

But it was only after Hottmann publicly took credit for breaching Verkada and posted alarming videos from inside big companies, medical facilities and a jail that Swiss authorities raided their home at the behest of the U.S. government. Hottmann uses non-binary pronouns.

“This move by the U.S. government is clearly not only an attempt to disrupt the freedom of information, but also primarily to intimidate and silence this newly emerging wave of hacktivists and leaktivists,” Hottmann said in an interview with Reuters.

Hottmann and their lawyer declined to discuss the U.S. charges of wire fraud for some of Hottmann’s online statements, aggravated identity theft for using employee credentials, and conspiracy, which together are enough for a lengthy prison sentence.

The FBI declined an interview request. If it seeks extradition, the Swiss would determine whether Hottmann’s purported actions would have violated that country’s laws.

DISDAIN

Hottmann was open about their disdain for the law and corporate powers-that-be. “Like many people, I’ve always been opposed to intellectual property as a concept and specifically how it’s used to limit our understanding of the systems that run our daily lives,” Hottmann said.

A European friend of Hottmann’s known as “donk_enby,” a reference to being non-binary in gender, is another major figure in the hacktivism revival. Donk grew angry about conspiracy theories spread by QAnon followers on the social media app Parler that drove protests against COVID-19 health measures.

Following a Cottle post about a leak from Parler in November, Donk dissected the iOS version of Parler’s app and found a poor design choice. Each post bore an assigned number, and she could use a program to keep adding 1 to that number and download every single post in sequence.

After the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots, Donk shared links to the web addresses of a million Parler video posts and asked her Twitter followers to download them before rioters who recorded themselves inside the building deleted the evidence. The trove included not just footage but exact locations and timestamps, allowing members of Congress to catalogue the violence and the FBI to identify more suspects.

Popular with far-right figures, Parler has struggled to stay online after being dropped by Google and Amazon. Donk’s actions alarmed users who thought some videos would remain private, hindering the its attempt at a comeback.

In the meantime, protesters in Myanmar asked Donk for help, leading to file dumps that prompted Google to pull its blogging platform and email accounts here from leaders of the Feb. 1 coup. Donk’s identification of numerous other military contractors helped fuel sanctions that continue to pile up.

One big change from the earlier era of hacktivisim is that hackers can now make money legally by reporting the security weaknesses they find to the companies involved, or taking jobs with cybersecurity firms.

But some view so-called bug bounty programs, and the hiring of hackers to break into systems to find weaknesses, as mechanisms for protecting companies who should be exposed.

“We’re not going to hack and help secure anyone we think is doing something extremely unethical,” said John Jackson, an American researcher who works with Cottle on above-ground projects. “We’re not going to hack surveillance companies and help them secure their infrastructure.”

Source: Reuters

Uber teams up with ScriptDrop to expand prescription delivery access in U.S.

(Reuters) – Uber Technologies Inc will work with prescription delivery services provider ScriptDrop to enable customers in 37 U.S. states to receive medication at their doorstep, the ride-hailing service said in a blog post. (ubr.to/3978Gz5)

Pharmacies signed up with ScriptDrop will be able to use Uber’s delivery services, which could result in fewer events of customers going without their prescriptions due to COVID-19 related limitations, the post said on Wednesday.

The partnership news comes as big tech companies are increasingly pushing into the healthcare sector. Earlier this month, Amazon.com Inc expanded its virtual healthcare services, after launching an online pharmacy last year.

Last August, Uber partnered with on-demand prescription delivery platform NimbleRx.

Uber will become the default application for select ScriptDrop pharmacies, depending on location and driver availability, the company said, adding that it plans to expand the services to more pharmacies in the coming weeks and months.