The Washigtnon Post - 03.04.2020

(Joyce) #1

a1 6 ez re the washington post.friday, april 3 , 2020


Economy & Business


commodities


Food prices decline


in economic downturn


The global economic
slowdown is causing the biggest
drop in food prices since 2015.
The FAO Food Price Index fell
4.3 percent in March, the United
Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization said Thursday. The
biggest declines were in sugar
and vegetable oils. Rice, a staple
for millions of people in Asia,
has risen for the past three
months.
The main reason for the drop
in the index was the plunge in
crude oil, which has taken a hit
from flight cancellations, cities
on lockdown and a price war
between Saudi Arabia and
Russia. Many crops — like sugar,
corn and vegetable oils — are
processed into biofuels and have
followed petroleum markets
lower.
However, food prices don’t
move uniformly around the
world. The cost of wheat or rice
is politically sensitive in many
developing countries. In some
countries, those key
commodities have started to rise.
“The price drops are largely


driven by demand,” s aid FAO
Senior Economist Abdolreza
Abbassian. “The demand factors
are influenced by ever-more
deteriorating economic
prospects.”
The FAO said it’s closely
monitoring prices and logistical
issues for any supply-chain
disruptions. Its index works as
an indicator of potential food
security concerns for developing
countries, where food makes up
a bigger share of overall
household budgets.
While the coronavirus has had
a limited impact on global food
markets, it could pose a “serious
threat” f or some regions, the
FAO’s Agricultural Market
Information System said.
— Bloomberg News

regulation

FTC moves to stop
Altria-Juul alliance

U.S. business regulators are
suing to break up the
multibillion-dollar deal between
tobacco giant Altria and
e -cigarette start-up Juul Labs,
saying their partnership
amounted to an agreement not
to compete in the U.S. vaping

market.
The action announced late
Wednesday by the Federal Trade
Commission is the latest legal
head wind against Altria’s
investment in the embattled
vaping company. Juul sales have
been sliding for months amid
state and federal investigations,

lawsuits and flavor restrictions
aimed at curbing the recent
explosion in teen vaping.
For years, Altria competed in
the burgeoning e-cigarette space.
But the Richmond-based
company was quickly overtaken
by San Francisco-based Juul,
which became the top U.S.

vaping brand on the popularity
of its small, high-nicotine and
fruity-flavored e-cigarettes. The
company has since pulled all of
its flavors except tobacco and
menthol.
In late 2018, Altria
discontinued its own e-cigarettes
and took a 35 percent stake in
Juul.
The complaint announced by
the FTC alleges that Altria
agreed not to compete against
Juul in return for the $13 billion
stake in the company.
Altria said in a statement that
the FTC “misunderstood the
facts” of its investment in Juul.
Juul did not immediately
respond to requests for
comment Thursday.
— Associated Press

also in Business
Netflix led rivals YouTube,
Amazon Prime and Disney Plus
with over 59 million installs in
the first quarter of 2020, but
more time was spent on
YouTube’s Kids service as usage
boomed following the shutdown
of thousands of schools in
March, according to a report by
analytics firms Apptopia and
Braze. The report did not give

actual hours of usage, but it
ranked YouTube Kids first,
followed by Netflix. YouTube
itself was in third place.

Twitter took down thousands of
accounts linked to Egypt,
Honduras, Indonesia, Saudi
Arabia and Serbia on Thursday
for either taking directions from
the governments or promoting
pro-government content. Twitter
said it removed the accounts
because they violated its policies
and attempted to undermine the
public conversation.

Fiat Chrysler aims to restart
operations at three Italian sites
as soon as the government lifts
coronavirus restrictions on
manufacturing, a union
representative said Thursday,
adding that unions would
monitor health precautions.
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte
said a national lockdown would
be extended until at least April
13.

coming today
8:3 0 a.m.: Labor Department
releases employment data for
March.

— From news services

digest

yonhap/epa-eFe/shutterstock
Workers harvest the first green tea crop of the season at a farm in
Seogwipo, South Korea, on Thursday. The farm sits on Jeju Island, a
tourist destination a bout 280 miles south of Seoul on the Korean
Peninsula, and is home to several UNESCO World Heritage sites.

BY DREW HARWELL

When Georgetown University
began advising its faculty to use
the video-call service Zoom to re-
cord classes during the coronavi-
rus lockdowns, professor James
Millward couldn’t help worrying
about where all that video would
end u p.
His course on modern China
features free-flowing and unspar-
ing discussions a bout contentious
issues s uch as censorship and sur-
veillance. How would students’
privacy be protected? And could
video of s tudents’ f aces, v oices a nd
questions someday be used
against t hem?
“If we had a big camera on the
wall recording everything hap-
pening in our normal classrooms,
we would be very a larmed by that,”
he said in an interview. “A nd yet
we’re now eagerly setting that all
up in our homes, creating these
recordings without having any
idea w hat’s happening to them.”
After the coronavirus conta-
gion brought an end to many of
the rituals of everyday life, many
of them reappeared on Zoom, a
video-call service that has explod-
ed in popularity across a nation
almost entirely locked indoors.
Weddings, funerals, company lay-
offs, k indergarten classes and offi-
cial government meetings have
been streamed on its platform,
leading the Silicon Valley firm’s
market value to double to roughly
$35 billion this y ear.
But in the dramatic growth in
demand for its product, the com-
pany has encountered a crisis o f its
own: concerns over issues o f secu-
rity, privacy and harassment that
could leave its growing audience
at risk. Security researchers who
have analyzed Zoom’s program-
ming code say its software relies
on techniques that could leave
people’s computers exposed to
breaches. And its data-sharing ar-
rangements and the ability of
some users to record conversa-
tions without the consent of all
parties involved in those conver-
sations could undermine people’s
privacy a s they engage in sensitive
discussions from h ome.
Zoom was launched as a busi-
ness-friendly video chat, and the
company’s engineers pushed de-
sign decisions that bypassed cer-
tain safeguards to save people a
few clicks before making or join-
ing calls. But technical experts
argue the shortcuts are a vulnera-
bility open hackers who could ex-
ploit them to snoop on people’s
lives.
The company in recent d ays has
endured a storm of embarrassing
revelations from security re-
searchers pointing out flaws that
could allow strangers to steal log-
in information, gain access to
messages and take control of us-
ers’ cameras and microphones.
Zoom chief executive Eric Yuan
said in a blog post Wednesday
night that he was “deeply sorry”
for falling short of users’ “privacy
and s ecurity e xpectations.”
“We did not design the product
with the foresight that, in a matter
of weeks, every person in the
world would suddenly be work-


ing, studying, and socializing
from home,” he wrote. The sys-
tem’s new user base, he said, was
using Zoom in a number of “unex-
pected ways, presenting us with
challenges we did not anticipate
when the platform was con-
ceived.”
The company, Yuan said, will
freeze work on new features and
shift all of i ts e ngineering resourc-
es for the next 90 days to its big-
gest safety and privacy shortfalls.
The company is also gathering a
team of o utside experts to conduct
a “comprehensive review” of the
system and draw up a short-term
battle plan.
Zoom also is removing some
controversial features, including
an “attention-tracking” option
that allowed a host to be alerted
when the system suspected a call
participant was looking else-
where.
Federal and state authorities
have begun asking questions
about how the software monitors
and protects Americans’ video
streams. New York Attorney Gen-
eral Letitia James (D) has asked
the company for details on how
user data is shared and s afeguard-
ed, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal
(D-Conn.) wrote a letter to Yuan
on Tuesday demanding answers
about the company’s “troubling
history of software design practic-
es and security lapses.”
Zoom has also attracted the
scrutiny o f the F BI, which s aid this
week that it had received multiple
reports o f Zoom’s a nd other video-

conference calls disrupted by
anonymous trolls posting porno-
graphic images and issuing
threats; in one case last month, a
hijacker on Z oom shouted a t each-
er’s h ome address in t he m iddle of
class.
Some have also criticized
Zoom’s default settings, which al-
low a video host to record the call
without participants’ explicit con-
sent. Call participants a re notified
when the recording starts and are
given the option of leaving, but
some students and other Zoom
users said they feel they have to
stay.
Alex Stamos, the former Face-
book security chief who leads the
Stanford Internet Observatory,
said Zoom’s p roblems have ranged
from silly design decisions to seri-
ous product-security flaws —
many of which he is reminded of
constantly, because he, his wife
and their three school-age chil-
dren now use Zoom a t home every
day.
“Google would never ship with
these problems. Never. They can
afford the best s ecurity team i n the
world,” he said. “But in a competi-
tive marketplace, what you also
have to put up with is security
growing pains from the upstarts.”
Zoom has become a global phe-
nomenon virtually overnight be-
cause its video-call software is rel-
atively fast, reliable and easy to
use. Though Zoom’s business cli-
ents pay thousands of dollars a
month for service, anyone can use
it to conduct free video calls or

group meetings of up to 40 min-
utes duration. During the corona-
virus pandemic, the company also
is allowing grade schools to use
the p latform free of charge.
Zoom was used by more than
200 million callers last month, up
from 10 million in December, and
is used in more than 90,
schools across 20 countries, Yuan
said. More than 5 million people in
the U nited States u sed Zoom’s m o-
bile apps on Tuesday, five times
more than a month a go.
Yuan, Zoom’s billionaire found-
er, said he first daydreamed about
a snappy video-chat service when
he was a college student in China
during long train rides to visit his
girlfriend (now his wife). He
moved to Silicon Valley during the
late 1990s tech boom, joining the
rival video firm WebEx, and later
left with a team of engineers to
found Z oom in 2 011.
The San Jose-based company
made the bulk of its $188 million
in revenue during the past fiscal
year, which ended Jan. 31, from
video-service subscriptions sold
to more than 80,000 businesses,
financial filings show.
That is part of the problem,
some industry experts said: Zoom
was never designed for house-
holds, schools and social groups
unsure of the advanced settings
and technical controls. The ser-
vice’s sudden popularity was so
unexpected that Yuan told a virtu-
al summit on Wednesday that the
shift from a professional clientele
to a mainstream audience was t he

company’s “number one chal-
lenge.”
Zoom faced h eavy criticism l ast
summer when a security research-
er showed the company had been
installing secret p ieces of software
on users’ computers that could
turn on their cameras without
their knowledge or consent. The
company d efended the practice a s
helping speed up meetings, but
groups such as the Electronic Pri-
vacy Information Center, which
filed a complaint with the Federal
Trade Commission, said the cam-
era-control capability ignored se-
curity settings and could be
abused by strangers wanting to
silently invade Zoom users’ calls.
After Zoom said it corrected the
issue, engineers at Apple took the
rare step of universally deleting
the programs. Zoom said it no
longer uses the technique.
But as the app’s popularity has
grown, researchers have revealed
new concerns. Zoom’s iPhone and
iPad apps sent some limited infor-
mation, such as users’ location
cities and the time at which they
opened the app, to Facebook as
part of a log-in feature common
across the Web. After the tech
outlet Motherboard revealed the
practice, Zoom said it removed the
relevant code.
Zoom advertised a security
measure, known as e nd-to-end en-
cryption, that would protect mes-
sages between senders and their
designated recipients. But an
analysis in the online outlet the
Intercept this week showed that

the messages are not properly en-
crypted, potentially allowing out-
siders to s ee their contents.
Security researchers this week
said software vulnerabilities also
could allow hackers to gain access
to users’ cameras and micro-
phones. Zoom representatives
said they are “actively investigat-
ing” the reports. And the code
Zoom uses to s peed u p installation
relies on “bad security practices
and... lying to the user,” accord-
ing to a technical analyst at the
cybersecurity firm VMRay. Yuan,
Zoom’s CEO, said in a response
that the company had used those
practices to “balance the number
of clicks” r equired b y a user b efore
the p rogram c ould be u sed.
The country’s abrupt Zoom-ifi-
cation also has elevated anxieties
among some bosses and teachers
scrambling to lead employees and
students in a strange new time.
New York University Provost
Katherine Fleming sent the uni-
versity’s teaching staff an email
last month t rying to address some
concerns.
“Holding classes remotely is n ot
a secret first step on the road to
eliminating our regular mode of
instruction,” Fleming wrote, ac-
cording to a copy of the email
provided to The Washington Post.
“NYU is not using NYU Zoom to
surveil your c lass.”
Clay Shirky, a vice provost for
educational technologies at NYU,
said Zoom has helped the univer-
sity rescue the semester from dev-
astating cancellations: At any mo-
ment during the school day, more
than 250 classes are in session on
Zoom. But the company, he said,
has often “shot themselves in the
foot by doing some dopey market-
ing,” such as offering the “atten-
tion-tracking” feature, which
alerted a video host when an at-
tendee had clicked out of the
Zoom window f or more than half a
minute.
Zoom removed the feature, but
the d amage in s ome ways has been
done. “In this climate of anxiety,”
Shirky said, “it is very easy for
some tiny irritant to become a
pearl o f uproar.”
Zoom has scrambled to navi-
gate the criticism, rolling out
guides for how users can better
protect their video streams. Over
the weekend, the company also
updated its privacy policy to say
that customer v ideo and c hat mes-
sages a re not accessed by the c om-
pany or u sed for advertising. “Your
meetings are yours. We do not
monitor them or even store them
after y our meeting i s done” e xcept
at the host’s request, Zoom’s chief
legal officer, Aparna Bawa, wrote.
But there is already some indi-
cation that t he pushback has start-
ed weighing down Zoom’s bottom
line: The company’s stock price,
which initially soared during the
coronavirus l ockdowns, h as fallen
this week nearly 25 percent. At
least two class-action lawsuits
were filed against Zoom this week
alleging that the company had
improperly s hared u sers’ personal
information and had duped cus-
tomers with its promise of en-
crypted c hat.
drew.harwell@washpost.com

Everybody seems to be using Zoom, but at what risk?


The sudden popularity of the chat service exposes security flaws and draws condemnation, sending its parent company into damage-control mode


Dylan Martinez/reuters
Alice Dunhill sips a glass of wine in her home studio in London as she catches up with friends using Zoom while the spread of the novel
coronavirus continues. Zoom’s chief executive said t he company d id not anticipate the quick onset of h eavy global use of its platform.


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