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Fleksy’s AI keyboard is getting a store to put mini apps at chatters’ fingertips

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Remember Fleksy? The customizable Android keyboard app has a new trick up its sleeve: It’s adding a store where users can find and add lightweight third party apps to enhance their typing experience.

Right now it’s launched a taster, preloading a selection of ‘mini apps’ into the keyboard — some from very familiar brand names, some a little less so — so users can start to see how it works.

The first in-keyboard apps are Yelp (local services search); Skyscanner (flight search); Giphy (animated Gif search); GifNote (music Gifs; launching for U.S. users only for rights reasons); Vlipsy (reaction video clips); and Emogi (stickers) — with “many more” branded apps slated as coming in the next few months.

They’re not saying exactly what other brands are coming but there are plenty of familiar logos to be spotted in their press materials — from Spotify to Uber to JustEat to Tripadvisor to PayPal and more…

The full keyboard store itself — which will let users find and add and/or delete apps — will be launching at the end of this month.

The latest version of the Fleksy app can be downloaded for free via the Play Store.

Mini apps made for messaging

The core idea for these mini apps (aka Fleksyapps) is to offer lightweight additions designed to serve the messaging use case.

Say, for example, you’re chatting about where to eat and a friend suggests sushi. The Yelp Fleksyapp might pop up a contextual suggestion for a nearby Japanese restaurant that can be shared directly into the conversation — thereby saving time by doing away with the need for someone to cut out of the chat, switch apps, find some relevant info and cut and paste it back into the chat.

Fleksyapps are intended to be helpful shortcuts that keep the conversation flowing. They also of course put brands back into the conversation.

“We couldn’t be more excited to bring the power of the world’s popular songs with GIFs, videos and photos to the new Fleksyapps platform,” says Gifnote co-founder, John vanSuchtelen, in a supporting statement.

Fleksy’s mini apps appear above the Qwerty keyboard — in much the same space as a next-word prediction. The user can scroll through the app stack (each a tiny branded circle until tapped on to expand) and choose one to interact with. It’s similar to the micro apps lodged in Apple’s iMessage but on Android where iMessage isn’t… The team also plans for Fleksy to support a much wider range of branded apps — hence the Fleksyapps store.

In-keyboard apps is not a new concept for the dev team behind Fleksy; an earlier keyboard app of theirs (called ThingThing) offered micro apps they built themselves as a tool to extend its utility.

But now they’re hoping to garner backing and buy in from third party brands excited about the exposure and reach they could gain by being where users spend the most device time: The keyboard.

“Think of it a bit like the iMessage equivalent but on Android across any app. Or the WeChat mini program but inside the keyboard, available everywhere — not only in one app,” CEO Olivier Plante tells TechCrunch. “That’s a problem of messaging apps these days. All of them are verticals but the keyboard is horizontal. So that’s the benefit for those brands. And the user will have the ability to move them around, add some, to remove some, to explore, to discover.”

“The brands that want to join our platform they have the option of being preloaded by default. The analogy is that by default on the home screen of a phone you are by default in our keyboard. And moving forward you’ll be able to have a membership — you’re becoming a ‘brand member’ of the Fleksyapps platform, and you can have your brand inside the keyboard,” he adds.

The first clutch of Fleksyapps were developed jointly, with the team working with the brands in question. But Plante says they’re planning to launch a tool in future so brands will be able to put together their own apps — in as little as just a few hours.

“We’re opening this array of functionalities and there’s a lot of verticals possible,” he continues. “In the future months we will embed new capabilities for the platform — new type of apps. You can think about professional apps, or cloud apps. Accessing your files from different types of clouds. You have the weather vertical. You have ecommerce vertical. You have so many verticals.

“What you have on the app store today will be reflected into the Fleksyappstore. But really with the focus of messaging and being useful in messaging. So it’s not the full app that we want to bring in — it’s really the core functionality of this app.”

The Yelp Fleksyapp, for example, only includes the ability to see nearby places and search for and share places. So it’s intentionally stripped down. “The core benefit for the brand is it gives them the ability to extend their reach,” says Plante. “We don’t want to compete with the app, per se, we just want to bring these types of app providers inside the messenger on Android across any app.”

On the user side, the main advantage he touts is “it’s really, really fast — fleshing that out to: “It’s very lightweight, it’s very, very fast and we want to become the fastest access to content across any app.”

Users of Fleksyapps don’t need to have the full app installed because the keyboard plugs directly into the API of each branded service. So they get core functionality in bite-sized form without a requirement to download the full app. (Of course they can if they wish.)

So Plante also notes the approach has benefits vis-a-vis data consumption — which could be an advantage in emerging markets where smartphone users’ choices may be hard-ruled by the costs of data and/or connectivity limits.

“For those types of users it gives them an ability to access content but in a very light way — where the app itself, loading the app, loading all the content inside the app can be megabits. In Fleksy you’re talking about kilobits,” he says.

Privacy-sensitive next app suggestions

While baking a bunch of third party apps into a keyboard might sound like a privacy nightmare, the dev team behind Fleksy have been careful to make sure users remain in control.

To wit: Also on board is an AI keyboard assistant (called Fleksynext) — aka “a neural deep learning engine” — which Plante says can detect the context, intention and sentiment of conversations in order to offer “very useful” app suggestions as the chat flows.

The idea is the AI supports the substance of the chat by offering useful functionality from whatever pick and mix of apps are available. Plante refers to these AI-powered ‘next app’ suggestions as “pops”.

And — crucially, from a privacy point of view — the Fleksynext suggestion engine operates locally, on device.

That means no conversation data is sent out of the keyboard. Indeed, Plante says nothing the user types in the keyboard itself is shared with brands (including suggestions that pop up but get ignored). So there’s no risk — as with some other keyboard apps — of users being continually strip-mined for personal data to profile them as they type.

That said, if the user chooses to interact with a Fleksyapp (or its suggestive pop) they are then interacting with a third party’s API. So the usual tracking caveats apply.

“We interact with the web so there’s tracking everywhere,” admits Plante. “But, per se, there’s not specific sensitive data that is shared suddenly with someone. It is not related with the service itself — with the Fleksy app.”

The key point is that the keyboard user gets to choose which apps they want to use and which they don’t. So they can choose which third parties they want to share their plans and intentions with and which they don’t.

“We’re not interesting in making this an advertising platform where the advertiser decides everything,” emphasizes Plante. “We want this to be really close to the user. So the user decides. My intentions. My sentiment. What I type decides. And that is really our goal. The user is able to power it. He can tap on the suggestion or ignore it. And then if he taps on it it’s a very good quality conversion because the user really wants to access restaurants nearby or explore flights for escaping his daily routine… or transfer money. That could be another use-case for instance.”

They won’t be selling brands a guaranteed number of conversions, either.

That’s clearly very important because — to win over users — Fleksynext suggestions will need to feel telepathically useful, rather than irritating, misfired nag. Though the risk of that seems low given how Fleksy users can customize the keyboard apps to only see stuff that’s useful to them.

“In a sense we’re starting reshape a bit how advertising is seen by putting the user in the center,” suggests Plante. “And giving them a useful means of accessing content. This is the original vision and we’ve been very loyal to that — and we think it can reshape the landscape.”

“When you look into five years from now, the smartphone we have will be really, really powerful — so why process things in the cloud? When you can process things on the phone. That’s what we are betting on: Processing everything on the phone,” he adds.

When the full store launches users will be able to add and delete (any) apps — included preloads. So they will be in the driving seat. (We asked Plante to a confirm the user will be able to delete all apps, including any pre-loadeds and he said yes. So if you take him at his word Fleksy will not be cutting any deals with OEMs or carriers to indelibly preload certain Fleksyapps. Or, to put it another way, crapware baked into the keyboard is most definitely not plan.)

Depending on what other Fleksyapps launch in future a Fleksy keyboard user could choose to add, for example, a search service like DuckDuckGo or France’s Qwant to power a pro-privacy alternative to using Google search in the keyboard. Or they could choose Google.

Again the point is the choice is theirs.

Scaling a keyboard into a platform

The idea of keyboard-as-platform offers at least the possibility of reintroducing the choice and variety of smartphone app stores back before the cynical tricks of attention-harvesting tech giants used their network effects and platform power to throttle the app economy.

The Android keyboard space was also a fertile experiment ground in years past. But it’s now dominated by Google’s Gboard and Microsoft-acquired Swiftkey. Which makes Fleksy the plucky upstart gunning to scale an independent alternative that’s not owned by big tech and is open to any third party that wants to join its mini apps party.

“It will be Bing search for Swiftkey, it will be Google search for Gboard, it will be Google Music, it will be YouTube. But on our side we can have YouTube, we can also have… other services that exist for video. The same way with pictures and the same way for file-sharing and drive. So you have Google Drive but you have Dropbox, you have OneDrive, there’s a lot of services in the cloud. And we want to be the platform that has them all, basically,” says Plante.

The original founding team of the Fleksy keyboard was acqui-hired by Pinterest back in 2016, leaving the keyboard app itself to languish with minimal updates. Then two years ago Barcelona-based keyboard app maker, ThingThing, stepped in to take over development.

Plante confirms it’s since fully acquired the Fleksy keyboard technology itself — providing a solid foundation for the keyboard-as-platform business it’s now hoping to scale with the launch of Fleksyapps.

Talking of scale, he tells us the startup is in the process of raising a multi-million Series A — aiming to close this summer. (ThingThing last took in $800,000 via equity crowdfunding last fall.)

The team’s investor pitch is the keyboard offers perhaps the only viable conduit left on mobile to reset the playing field for brands by offering a route to cut through tech giant walled gardens and get where users are spending most of their time and attention: i.e. typing and sharing stuff with their friends in private one-to-one and group chats.

That means the keyboard-as-platform has the potential to get brands of all stripes back in front of users — by embedding innovative, entertaining and helpful bite-sized utility where it can prove its worth and amass social currency on the dominant messaging platforms people use.

The next step for the rebooted Fleksy team is of course building scale by acquiring users for a keyboard which, as of half a year ago, only had around 1M active users from pure downloads.

Its strategy on this front is to target Android device makers to preload Fleksy as the default keyboard.

ThingThing’s business model is a revenue share on any suggestions the keyboard converts, which it argues represent valuable leads for brands — given the level of contextual intention. It is also intending to charge brands that want to be preloaded on the Fleksy keyboard by default.

Again, though, a revenue share model requires substantial scale to work. Not least because brands will need to see evidence of scale to buy into the Fleksyapps’ vision.

Plante isn’t disclosing active users of the Fleksy keyboard right now. But says he’s confident they’re on track to hit 30M-35M active users this year — on account of around ten deals he says are in the pipeline with device makers to preload Fleksy’s keyboard. (Palm was an early example, as we reported last year.)

The carrot for OEMs to join the Fleksyapps party is they’re cutting them in on the revenue share from user interactions with branded keyboard apps — playing to device makers’ needs to find ways to boost famously tight hardware margins.

“The fact that the keyboard can monetize and provide value to the phone brands — this is really massive for them,” argues Plante. “The phone brands can expect revenue flowing in their bank account because we give the brands distribution and the handset manufacturer will make money and we will make money.”

It’s a smart approach, and one that’s essentially only possible because Google’s own Gboard keyboard doesn’t come preloaded on the majority of Android devices. (Exceptions include its own Pixel brand devices.) So — unusually for a core phone app on Android — there’s a bit of an open door where the keyboard sits, instead of the usual preloaded Google wares. And that’s an opportunity.

Markets wise, ThingThing is targeting OEMs in all global regions with its Fleksy pitch — barring China (which Plante readily admits it too complex for a small startup to sensibly try jumping at).

Apps vs tech giants

In its stamping ground of Europe there are warm regulatory winds blowing too: An European Commission antitrust intervention last year saw Google hit with a $5BN fine over anti-competitive practices attached to its Android platform — forcing the company to change local licensing terms.

That antirust decision means mobile makers finally have the chance to unbundle Google apps from devices they sell in the region.

Which translates into growing opportunities for OEMs to rethink their Android strategies. Even as Google remains under pressure not to get in the way by force feeding any more of its wares.

Really, a key component of this shift is that device makers are being told to think, to look around and see what else is out there. For the first time there looks to be a viable chance to profit off of Android without having to preload everything Google wants.

“For us it’s a super good sign,” says Plante of the Commission decision. “Every monopolistic situation is a problem. And the market needs to be fragmented. Because if not we’re just going to lose innovation. And right now Europe — and I see good progress for the US as well — are trying to dismantle the imposed power of those big guys. For the simple evolution of human being and technology and the future of us.”

“I think good things can happen,” he adds. “We’re in talks with handset manufacturers who are coming into Europe and they want to be the most respectful of the market. And with us they have this reassurance that you have a good partner that ensures there’s a revenue stream, there’s a business model behind it, there’s really a strong use-case for users.

“We can finally be where we always wanted to be: A choice, an alternative. But having Google imposing its way since start — and making sure that all the direct competition of Google is just a side, I think governments have now seen the problem. And we’re a winner of course because we’re a keyboard.”

But what about iOS? Plante says the team has plans to bring what they’re building with Fleksy to Apple’s mobile platform too, in time. But for now they’re fully focusing efforts on Android — to push for scale and execute on their vision of staking their claim to be the independent keyboard platform.

Apple has supported third party keyboards on iOS for years. Unfortunately, though, the experience isn’t great — with a flaky toggle to switch away from the default Apple keyboard, combined with heavy system warnings about the risks of using third party keyboards.

Meanwhile the default iOS keyboard ‘just works’ — and users have loads of extra features baked by default into Apple’s native messaging app, iMessage.

Clearly alternative keyboards have found it all but impossible to build any kind of scale in that iOS pincer.

“iOS is coming later because we need to focus on these distribution deals and we need to focus on the brands coming into the platform. And that’s why iOS right now we’re really focusing for later. What we can say is it will come later,” says Plante, adding: “Apple limits a lot keyboards. You can see it with other keyboard companies. It’s the same. The update cycle for iOS keyboard is really, really, really slow.”

Plus, of course, Fleksy being preloaded as a default keyboard on — the team hopes — millions of Android devices is a much more scalable proposition vs just being another downloadable app languishing invisibly on the side lines of another tech giant’s platform.

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UK worries Starlink and OneWeb may interfere with each other, plans new rules

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Enlarge / Artist’s impression of low-Earth-orbit satellites like those launched by SpaceX and OneWeb.

A UK government agency is worried that OneWeb, SpaceX’s Starlink, and similar low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite-broadband systems could block each others’ signals.

Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator, proposed new rules today in a report that details its interference concerns. Ofcom also said it intends to amend satellite licenses already issued to SpaceX and OneWeb to require coordination of frequency use. Without new requirements, the risk of interference could prevent competition by shutting new players out of the market, Ofcom said.

Non-geostationary satellite orbit (NGSO) systems are more complex than the traditional geostationary type because they use hundreds or thousands of satellites, Ofcom noted. “Satellite dishes need to track these satellites as they move across the sky, unlike existing satellite networks, where the dishes are fixed pointing at a single satellite which is stationary in the sky,” the Ofcom report said. Because so many low-Earth-orbit satellites are being launched, “there is a risk of satellites from two different operators appearing to be in the same part of the sky,” causing interference known as “in-line events” in which multiple operators’ satellites are lined up in the sky, Ofcom wrote.

This interference can affect uplink and downlink transmissions between satellites and user terminals that serve individual homes, the report said. The interference can also affect links between satellites and the Gateway Earth stations that connect to the Internet backbone.

“Since NGSO satellites are moving relative to each other and relative to the ground, in-line events may individually only be brief, maybe a few seconds,” Ofcom wrote. “However, if an in-line event occurs and causes interference, it may take longer for the terminal to reconnect to the network. The interference could continue to repeat over time, reoccurring in a regular pattern which will depend on the orbits of the respective systems.”

Outages from interference

Users could lose service when there’s interference to either the user terminal or gateway earth stations, but interference to a gateway station would affect many more users. “[T]he impact of interference on gateway links would be much greater than on individual user links as each gateway provides connectivity for many users (perhaps hundreds or thousands of users depending on the design of the system), so a loss of connection due to interference at the gateway will be experienced more widely across the network,” Ofcom wrote.

Gateway Earth stations operated by different companies “are likely to require large minimum separation distances” of tens of kilometers to avoid interference, Ofcom wrote. In contrast, “multiple GSO [geostationary satellite orbit] gateways can be located on a single site” without causing harmful interference to each other.

The Ofcom report listed five NGSO constellations that are planned or already semi-operational. The biggest example is SpaceX, which is offering beta service from 1,500 already-launched satellites and has over 4,400 satellites planned for its initial phase. Amazon’s Kuiper division hasn’t launched a satellite yet, but it has 3,236 satellites planned in its initial phase, the report noted.

OneWeb—which is co-owned by the UK government and Bharti Global—has launched over 200 satellites and has plans for 648 satellites in its initial phase. Telesat and Kepler round out the list, with plans for 298 and 140 satellites, respectively.

Here’s the Ofcom chart listing low-Earth-orbit satellite networks:

Coordination difficult

The US Federal Communications Commission in 2017 adopted rules, including power limits, to minimize the danger of interference in NGSO systems. The FCC adopted different rules for different slices of spectrum. In the 17.8 to 18.3 GHz band, for example, the FCC said, “while terrestrial use of this band is significant, there are areas, particularly rural areas, where terrestrial deployment is less dense and by using mitigating techniques like siting considerations, off-axis rejection, and shielding, we expect FSS [fixed-satellite service] earth stations will be able to operate successfully without receiving harmful interference… If interference does occur, earth stations can switch to other bands not shared with terrestrial users or use alternative mitigation techniques.”

The FCC also imposed specific conditions to prevent interference and space debris on licenses awarded to SpaceX, OneWeb, Amazon, and others.

Ofcom is worried that the global system for coordinating satellites, overseen by the International Telecommunication Union [ITU], isn’t good enough to prevent NGSO problems. “The potential for harmful interference between different satellite systems is usually managed by operators cooperating with each other under the ITU satellite coordination procedures,” Ofcom wrote.

The agency added:

However, coordination between NGSO systems is proving to be more challenging due to the dynamic nature of these systems, combined with operators having differing rates of deployment (some operators holding older filings will not deploy their systems for a few years) and changing their architecture over time. We are therefore concerned that NGSO satellite services could be deployed before an appropriate level of coordination has been possible with other operators.

Ofcom is also worried about the coexistence of user terminals when two or more companies provide LEO satellite service in the same area:

A lack of agreement over how user terminals of different systems can coexist in the same area and band could restrict competition as a result of earlier deployed systems hindering later ones. Once one operator starts deploying user terminals, other operators wishing to launch services using the same band may expect to experience harmful interference from the existing user terminals. In the worst case, this could mean that the quality of their broadband services would not be sufficiently reliable in order to enter the market. Nonetheless, the established player could have an incentive to cooperate given that the interference is likely to be mutual, i.e. their services could be degraded as well.

New rules, license changes

Ofcom said its goal in issuing new rules is to minimize interference while encouraging competition. The agency proposed, among other things, “an additional explicit license condition requiring NGSO licensees to cooperate so they can co-exist and operate within the UK without causing harmful radio interference to each other.” Ofcom said it also intends to “[i]ntroduce checks when we issue new NGSO licenses so that these are only granted if all systems (existing and new) are able to coexist and provide services to end users” and implement new conditions letting Ofcom “take action to resolve degradation to services if this were to occur at a particular location or location(s) in the UK.”

To preserve competition, Ofcom said it will “introduce a competition check” into its licensing process to account for the “technical constraints that the gateway or user terminals could create on future licensees.” Ofcom said:

In particular, in a market that was concentrated, if there was limited prospect of the licensee system and future systems (applicants) being able to technically coexist, then this could form a barrier to future entry to the market. As a result, we are proposing that a key piece of information that applicants should provide when applying for a network license is credible evidence about the technical ability for their system and future systems to coexist. This would include evidence about the flexibility of their system and/or what reasonable steps new licensees could easily undertake to protect them. This information would also be used when assessing whether it is reasonable for new applications and existing services to coexist, to understand the reasonableness of mitigations being undertaken by existing licensees.

Ofcom said it plans to review all NGSO licenses to determine which companies are using the same frequencies. The agency said it will also amend the existing licenses held by SpaceX Starlink, OneWeb, and Kepler. The changes would require “NGSO licensees to cooperate with the other NGSO licensees operating in the same frequencies so they can coexist,” and allow Ofcom “to require operators to take action in cases of interference between NGSO systems which impacts the provision of services to users in particular location(s) in the UK.”

Ofcom said it will take comments on its proposals until September 20, 2021.

We contacted SpaceX about Ofcom’s report and will update this article if the company provides a response.

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Sean Gallagher and an AI expert break down our crazy machine-learning adventure

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We’ve spent the past few weeks burning copious amounts of AWS compute time trying to invent an algorithm to parse Ars’ front-page story headlines to predict which ones will win an A/B test—and we learned a lot. One of the lessons is that we—and by “we,” I mainly mean “me,” since this odyssey was more or less my idea—should probably have picked a less, shall we say, ambitious project for our initial outing into the machine-learning wilderness. Now, a little older and a little wiser, it’s time to reflect on the project and discuss what went right, what went somewhat less than right, and how we’d do this differently next time.

Our readers had tons of incredibly useful comments, too, especially as we got into the meaty part of the project—comments that we’d love to get into as we discuss the way things shook out. The vagaries of the edit cycle meant that the stories were being posted quite a bit after they were written, so we didn’t have a chance to incorporate a lot of reader feedback as we went, but it’s pretty clear that Ars has some top-shelf AI/ML experts reading our stories (and probably groaning out loud every time we went down a bit of a blind alley). This is a great opportunity for you to jump into the conversation and help us understand how we can improve for next time—or, even better, to help us pick smarter projects if we do an experiment like this again!

Our chat kicks off on Wednesday, July 28, at 1:00 pm Eastern Time (that’s 10:00 am Pacific Time and 17:00 UTC). Our three-person panel will consist of Ars Infosec Editor Emeritus Sean Gallagher and me, along with Amazon Senior Principal Technical Evangelist (and AWS expert) Julien Simon. If you’d like to register so that you can ask questions, use this link here; if you just want to watch, the discussion will be streamed on the Ars Twitter account and archived as an embedded video on this story’s page. Register and join in or check back here after the event to watch!

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Kaseya gets master decryptor to help customers still suffering from REvil attack

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Kaseya—the remote management software seller at the center of a ransomware operation that struck as many as 1,500 downstream networks—said it has obtained a decryptor that should successfully restore data encrypted during the Fourth of July weekend attack.

Affiliates of REvil, one of the Internet’s most cutthroat ransomware groups, exploited a critical zero-day vulnerability in Miami, Florida-based Kaseya’s VSA remote management product. The vulnerability—which Kaseya was days away from patching—allowed the ransomware operators to compromise the networks of about 60 customers. From there, the extortionists infected as many as 1,500 networks that relied on the 60 customers for services.

Finally, a universal decryptor

“We obtained the decryptor yesterday from a trusted third party and have been using it successfully on affected customers,” Dana Liedholm, senior VP of corporate marketing, wrote in an email on Thursday morning. “We are providing tech support to use the decryptor. We have a team reaching out to our customers and I don’t have more detail right now.”

In a private message, threat analyst Brett Callow of security firm Emsisoft said: “We are working with Kaseya to support their customer engagement efforts. We have confirmed the key is effective at unlocking victims and will continue to provide support to Kaseya and its customers.”

REvil had demanded as much as $70 million for a universal decryptor that would restore the data of all organizations compromised in the mass attack. Liedholm declined to say if Kaseya paid any sum in exchange for the decryption tool. Kaseya has since patched the zero-day used in the attack.

That means that, for the time being, it’s not publicly known if Kaseya paid the ransom or received it for free from either REvil, a law enforcement agency, or a private security company.

In the days following the attack, REvil’s site on the dark web, along with other infrastructure the group uses to provide technical support and process payments, suddenly went offline. The unexplained exit left victims and researchers worried that the data would remain locked up forever, since the only people with the ability to decrypt it had vanished.

Where did it come from?

REvil is one of several ransomware groups believed to operate out of Russia or another Eastern European country that was formerly part of Soviet Union. The group’s disappearance came a few days after President Joe Biden warned his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that, if Russia didn’t rein in those ransomware groups, the US might take unilateral action against them.

Observers have speculated since then that either Putin pressured the group to go quiet or the group, rattled by all the attention it received from the attack, decided to do so on its own.

Some of the companies victimized by the attack include Swedish grocery store chain COOP, Virginia Tech, two Maryland towns, New Zealand schools, and international textile company Miroglio Group.

REvil is also behind a crippling attack on JBS, the world’s biggest producer of meat. The breach caused JBS to temporarily close some plants.

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