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India’s Times Internet isn’t ceding ground to US rivals Facebook and Google

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The aggressive push by Silicon Valley companies and Chinese firms to win India, one of the last great growth markets, has decimated many local businesses in recent years. With each passing day, Amazon is closing in on Walmart-owned Flipkart’s lead on the e-commerce space. Uber is fighting with Ola for the tentpole position of the ride-hailing market; and Google and Facebook dominate the ads business, to name a few. But a handful of companies in India have not only survived the growing competition, but they have built businesses that are positively thriving.

Media conglomerate Times Internet, one such company, says that its properties now reach 110 million users each day and 450 million unique users each month. To put this in context: Facebook and Google have about 300 million monthly active users in India. Facebook, which is mired in controversy over the spread of misinformation on WhatsApp in India (and other regions), has not revealed its growth in the nation in last two years. But in a marketing pitch, the juggernaut says its family of apps (marquee Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram) reach 350 million users in the nation each month.

In a rare industry move, Satyan Gajwani, vice chairman of Times Internet, shared an overview of the conglomerate’s business on Tuesday, revealing the ever growing tentacles of its ambitions.

If the numbers are so huge, why self-publish? Gajwani declined to comment but his company is in a unique situation. For all its scale, Times Internet remains one of the least talked about conglomerates of its size in the country. Most news organizations in India compete with its media outlets, which may explain why it is under-reported in the press.

The ever-growing portfolio of Times Internet companies

The subsidiary of 181-year-old Bennett Coleman and Company Limited (popularly known as Times Group) operates more than three dozen properties, including newspaper Times of India, online outlet Indiatimes, advertisement business Colombia, venture arm Tventures, and streaming services Gaana and MX Player . And nearly all of these properties are growing, Gajwani said.

For instance, Times Internet’s news outlets have amassed 265 million monthly active users. The Times of India, the country’s most read newspaper and news website, alone has 212 million monthly active users, up by 44% since last year. Times Internet’s regional digital periodicals such as NewsPoint, Navbharat Times, Maharashtra Times, Vijay Karnataka now have 122 monthly active users, he said.

Music streaming service Gaana, which raised $115 million from Tencent and others last year, reached 100 monthly active users in March this year, the service announced last week. MX Player, a video playback app that doubles as a streaming service that Times Internet acquired for some $140 million last year, is one of the most popular Android apps in emerging markets.

During the first month of ongoing IPL cricket tournament, one of the hottest events in India, 118 million users tuned into Times Internet’s Cricbuzz, a news and entertainment service dedicated to sports. As the ecosystem of mobile gaming begins to gain major traction in India, Times Internet says it is building a portfolio of apps in this space, too.

Its lifestyle properties such as MensXP, iDiva, and Whats Hot have 40 million monthly active users and its videos clock more than 200 million views each month. These properties are exploring an additional revenue channel by selling products directly to customers, Gajwani told TechCrunch in an interview.

Times Internet vice chairman Satyan Gajwani

Moving beyond ads

Chasing that avenue illustrates Times Internet’s growing push to grow its business beyond ads. Most of Times Internet’s properties are built on top of ads and don’t cost users anything for access. Its own advertising business, called Colombia, now supplements some advertisement on its network and is used by more than a dozen outside brands including Ola, ABP News, and Hotstar.

But online advertising still can’t compete with those of TV and print in India, Satish Meena, an analyst with research firm Forrester told TechCrunch. So in recent years, Times Internet has announced a number of subscription services across many of its properties.

“Especially for premium publishers, an ads-only business model is not likely to last or sustain in the long run,” Gajwani said. Last year, Times Internet announced Times Prime, a subscription bundle that includes access to premium version of Gaana, an ad-free experience on Times of India, and discounts on a number of third-party services such as food delivery Swiggy, retailer BigBasket, and theatre chain PVR Cinemas. Gajwani said Times Internet has hit a million customers across its subscription services.

Part of Times Internet’s push to expand its revenue channels is its growing focus on Tventures, its VC fund that made early investments in a number of startups including edtech startup Byju’s and logistics startup Delhivery, two unicorns. It has also invested in ride-hailing service Shuttl, and cricket fantasy app MPL among others.

Gajwani said Tventures looks at “use cases that can benefit from its growing network.” And that’s one of the big advantages of Times Internet’s scale. The properties they own enjoy great advertisement benefits across its sprawling network. “There are very few companies — with exception of Google and Facebook — that have our level of scale,” Gajwani said.

Times Internet, which employs over 5,000 people, also operates Times Bridge, an investment firm that ties with international brands to help them launch in India. Some of its strategic partners include Uber, Airbnb, and Coursera. It also partnered with a number of news outlets including Business Insider, TechRadar, Huffington Post (which, like TechCrunch, is owned by Verizon Media Group), AdAge, PCMag, and Gizmodo Media properties Lifehacker and Gizmodo to launch them in India.

But it isn’t all success, there have been less successful ventures particularly in the media segment.

The Indian versions of Lifehacker, Gizmodo, TechRadar, and PCMag failed to attract significant audiences in the nation and have already closed shops. Huffington Post ended its partnership with Times Internet in 2017 and it now wholly controls Huffington Post India.

Gajwani admitted that Times Internet realized working with some niche publishers isn’t so sustainable. “We have some partnerships that we maintain that are doing well such as Business Insider,” he added. Today, Times Internet is no longer primarily looking at publishers for future partnerships, and instead focusing on “platforms and technologies.”

A couple of hiccups aside, the biggest challenge for Times Internet going forward is generating sufficient revenue from ads and convincing enough users to become paying customers. Times Internet generated $202 million in fiscal year 2018 at a loss of $23 million, according to regulatory filings. In an interview last week, Gaana CEO Prashan Agarwal said his music streaming service, which dominates the market but is not profitable, will introduce a number of premium plans across a wide range of price tiers to attract users.

Gajwani said he also hopes to build Colombia into one of the biggest ad networks in India and tap 20 million paying subscribers by 2023. He said some properties within Times Network could raise additional cash from outside investors in the coming future.  These are ambitious goals, but Times Internet is one of the few firms in India that realistically has a shot at co-existing with dominant overseas tech platforms.

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Verizon has been leaking customers’ personal information for days (at least)

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Enlarge / A Verizon FiOS truck in Manhattan on September 15, 2017.

Verizon is struggling to fix a glitch that has been leaking customers’ addresses, phone numbers, account numbers, and other personal information through a chat system that helps prospective subscribers figure out if Fios services are available in their location.

The personal details appear when people click on a link to chat with a Verizon representative. When the chat window opens, it contains transcripts of conversations that other customers, either prospective or current, have had. The transcripts include full names, addresses, phone numbers, account numbers (in the event they already have an account), and various other information. Some of the transcripts viewed by Ars date back to June. A separate Window included customers’ addresses, although it wasn’t clear who those addresses belonged to.

“Hi—I’m looking to get the teacher discount for Fios,” one person wrote on November 29. Below are redacted screenshots of some of what has been available.

Ars learned of the leak on Monday afternoon and alerted Verizon representatives immediately. The plan was to report the leak only after it had been fixed. As this post went live, the leak was still occurring, although the number of exposed chats had lessened. Ars decided to report the leak to alert people who may use the service that this data is being exposed. It’s not clear when Verizon began leaking the data. With some of the chats dating back to June, it’s possible that the leak has been occurring for months.

In a statement issued Thursday morning, Verizon said:

We’re looking into an issue involving our online chat system that assists individuals who are checking on the availability of Fios services. We believe a small number of users may have seen a name, phone number, and/or a home or building address from an unrelated individual who had previously used this chat system to enter that information. Since the issue was brought to our attention, we’ve identified and isolated the problem and are working to have it resolved as quickly as possible.

It’s not the first time Verizon has spilled customer information. In 2016, a database of more than 1.5 million Verizon Enterprise Solutions customers was put up for sale on an online crime forum. Verizon said at the time that a “security flaw in its site [had] permitted hackers to steal customer contact information,” according to KrebsOnSecurity, which broke the news.

Verizon was also one of four US cellphone carriers caught selling customers’ real-time locations to services that catered to law enforcement. One of the services made subscriber locations available to anyone who took the time to exploit an easily spotted bug in a free trial feature.

For the time being, it makes sense to avoid using Verizon’s Fios availability chat feature. This post will be updated once Verizon says the glitch has been fully fixed.

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Amazon to roll out tools to monitor factory workers and machines

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Amazon is rolling out cheap new tools that will allow factories everywhere to monitor their workers and machines, as the tech giant looks to boost its presence in the industrial sector.

Launched by Amazon’s cloud arm AWS, the new machine-learning-based services include hardware to monitor the health of heavy machinery and computer vision capable of detecting whether workers are complying with social distancing.

Amazon said it had created a two-inch, low-cost sensor—Monitron—that can be attached to equipment to monitor abnormal vibrations or temperatures and predict future faults.

AWS Panorama, meanwhile, is a service that uses computer vision to analyze footage gathered by cameras within facilities, automatically detecting safety and compliance issues such as workers not wearing PPE or vehicles being driven in unauthorized areas.

The new services, announced on Tuesday during the company’s annual cloud computing conference, represent a step up in the tech giant’s efforts to gather and crunch real-world data in areas it currently feels are underserved.

“If you look at manufacturing and industrial generally, it’s a space that has seen some innovations, but there’s a lot of pieces that haven’t been digitized and modernized,” said Matt Garman, AWS’s head of sales and marketing, speaking to the FT.

“Locked up in machines”

“There’s a ton of data in a factory, or manufacturing facility, or a supply chain. It’s just locked up in sensors, locked up in machines that a lot of companies could get a lot of value from.”

Amazon said it had installed 1,000 Monitron sensors at its fulfillment centers near the German city of Mönchengladbach, where they are used to monitor conveyor belts handling packages.

If successful, said analyst Brent Thill from Jefferies, the move would help Amazon cement its position as the dominant player in cloud computing, in the face of growing competition from Microsoft’s Azure and Google Cloud as well as a prolonged run of slowed segment growth.

“This idea of predictive analytics can go beyond a factory floor,” Mr. Thill said. “It can go into a car, on to a bridge, or on to an oil rig. It can cross fertilize a lot of different industries.”

A number of companies are already trialling AWS Panorama. Siemens Mobility said it would use the tech to monitor traffic flow in cities, though would not specify which. Deloitte said it was working with a major North America seaport to use the tool to monitor the movement of shipments.

“Easy for us to get worried”

However, Amazon’s own use of tools to monitor the productivity of employees has raised concerns among critics. Throughout the pandemic, the company has used computer vision to ensure employee compliance with social distancing guidelines.

Swami Sivasubramanian, AWS’s head of machine learning and AI, said none of the services announced would include “pre-packaged” facial recognition capabilities, and he said AWS would block clients who abused its terms of service on data privacy and surveillance.

“When you look at this technology, sometimes it’s very easy for us to get worried about how they can be abused,” he told the FT.

“But the same technology can be used to ensure worker safety. Are people walking in spaces where they shouldn’t be? Is there an oil spill? Are they not wearing hard hats? These are real-world problems.”

© 2020 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved Not to be redistributed, copied, or modified in any way.

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Oracle vulnerability that executes malicious code is under active attack

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Attackers are targeting a recently patched Oracle WebLogic vulnerability that allows them to execute code of their choice, including malware that makes servers part of a botnet that steals passwords and other sensitive information.

WebLogic is a Java enterprise application that supports a variety of databases. WebLogic servers are a coveted prize for hackers, who often use them to mine cryptocurrency, install ransomware, or as an inroad to access other parts of a corporate network. Shodan, a service that scans the Internet for various hardware or software platforms, found about 3,000 servers running the middleware application.

CVE-2020-14882, as the vulnerability is tracked, is a critical vulnerability that Oracle patched in October. It allows attackers to execute malicious code over the Internet with little effort or skill and no authentication. Working exploit code became publicly available eight days after Oracle issued the patch.

According to Paul Kimayong, a researcher at Juniper Networks, hackers are actively using five different attack variations to exploit servers that remain vulnerable to CVE-2020-14882. Among the variations is one that installs the DarkIRC bot. Once infected, servers become part of a botnet that can install malware of its choice, mine cryptocurrency, steal passwords, and perform denial-of-service attacks. DarkIRC malware was available for purchase in underground markets for $75 in October, and it is likely still being sold now.

Other exploit variants install the following other payloads:

  • Cobalt Strike
  • Perlbot
  • Meterpreter
  • Mirai

The attacks are only the latest to target this easy-to-exploit vulnerability. A day after the exploit code was posted online, researchers from Sans and Rapid 7 said they were seeing hackers attempting to opportunistically exploit CVE-2020-14882. At the time, however, the attackers weren’t actually trying to exploit the vulnerability to install malware but instead only to test if a server was vulnerable.

CVE-2020-14882 affects WebLogic versions 10.3.6.0.0, 12.1.3.0.0, 12.2.1.3.0, 12.2.1.4.0, and 14.1.1.0.0. Anyone using one of these versions should immediately install the patch Oracle issued in October. People should also patch CVE-2020-14750, a separate but related vulnerability that Oracle fixed in an emergency update two weeks after issuing a patch for CVE-2020-14882.

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