Amazon’s device event today played host to a dizzying number of product announcements, of all stripes — but notably, there are three brand new ways to wear Alexa on your body. Amazon clearly wants to give you plenty of options to take Alexa with you when you leave the house, the only place it’s really held sway so far — but can Amazon actually convince people that it’s the voice interface for everywhere, and not just for home?
Among the products Amazon announced at its Seattle event, Echo Frames, Echo Loop and Echo Buds all provide ways to take Alexa with you wherever you go. What’s super interesting — and telling — about this is that Amazon went with three different vectors to try to convince people to wear Alexa, instead of focusing its efforts on just one. That indicates a stronger than ever desire to break Alexa out of its home environment.
The company has tried to get this done in different ways before. Alexa has appeared in Bluetooth speakers and headphones, in some cars (including now GM, as of today) and via Amazon’s own car accessory — and though the timing didn’t line up, it would’ve been a lock for Amazon’s failed Fire Phone.
Notice that none of these existing examples have helped Amazon gain any apparent significant market share when it comes to Alexa use on the go. While we don’t have great stats on how well-adopted Alexa is in-car, for instance, it stands to reason that we’d be hearing a lot more about its success if it was indeed massively successful — in the same way we hear often about Alexa’s prevalence in the home.
Amazon lacks a key vector that other voice assistants got for free: Being the default option on a smartphone. Google Assistant manages this through both Google’s own, and third-party Android, phones. Apple’s Siri isn’t often celebrated for its skill and performance, but there’s no question that it benefits from being the only really viable option on iOS when it comes to voice assistant software.
Amazon had to effectively invent a product category to get Alexa any traction at all — the Echo basically created the smart speaker category, at least in terms of significant mass market uptake. Its success with its existing Echo devices proves that this category served a market need, and Amazon has reaped significant reward as a result.
But for Amazon, a virtual assistant that only operates in the confines of the home covers only a tiny part of the picture when it comes to building more intelligent and nuanced customer profiles, which is the whole point of the endeavor to begin with. While Americans seem to be spending more time at home than ever before, a big percentage of peoples’ days is still spent outside, and this is largely invisible to Alexa.
The thing is, the only reliable and proven way to ensure you’re with someone throughout their entire day is to be on their smartphone. Alexa is, via Amazon’s own app, but that’s a far cry from being a native feature of the device, and just a single tap or voice command away. Amazon’s own smartphone ambitions deflated pretty quickly, so now it’s casting around for alternatives — and Loop, Frames and Buds all represent its most aggressive attempts yet.
A smart spread of bets, each with their own smaller pool of penetration among users versus a general staple like a smartphone, might be Amazon’s best way to actually drive adoption — especially if they’re not concerned with the overall economics of the individual hardware businesses attached to each.
The big question will be whether A) these products can either offer enough value on their own to justify their continued use while Alexa catches up to out-of-home use cases from a software perspective, or B) Amazon’s Alexa team can iterate the assistant’s feature set quickly enough to make it as useful on the go as it is at home, which hasn’t seemed like something it’s been able to do to date (not having direct access to smartphone functions like texting and calling is probably a big part of that).
Specifically for these new products, I’d put the Buds at the top of the list as the most likely to make Alexa a boon companion for a much greater number of people. The buds themselves offer a very compelling price point for their feature set, and Alexa coming along for the ride is likely just a bonus for a large percentage of their addressable market. Both the Frames and the Loop seem a lot more experimental, but Amazon’s limited release go-to-market strategy suggest it has planned for that as well.
In the end, these products are interesting and highly indicative of Amazon’s direction and ambition with Alexa overall, but I don’t think this is the watershed moment for the digital assistant beyond the home. Still, it’s probably among the most interesting spaces in tech to watch, because of how much is at stake for both winners and losers.
Ukrainian police have arrested members of a notorious ransomware gang that recently targeted American universities, as pressure mounts on global law enforcement to crack down on cybercriminals.
The Ukraine National Police said in a statement on Wednesday that it had worked with Interpol and the US and South Korean authorities to charge six members of the Ukraine-based Cl0p hacker group, which it claimed had inflicted a half-billion dollars in damages on victims based in the US and South Korea.
The move marks the first time that a national law enforcement agency has carried out mass arrests of a ransomware gang, adding to pressure on other countries to follow suit. Russia, a hub for ransomware gangs, has been blamed for harbouring cybercriminals by failing to prosecute or extradite them.
Cl0P is one of several ransomware cartels that seize a target’s data, demanding a ransom to release it. The group has also increasingly threatened to leak sensitive information online if a target refuses to pay, a tactic known as “double extortion.”
Recent targets have included oil company Shell and international law firm Jones Day, as well as several US universities including Stanford and the University of California. In most cases, the hackers wielded a vulnerability in a file transfer product run by Accellion to compromise their victims.
The arrests come as ransomware has been thrust into the spotlight in recent weeks, following a number of audacious attacks hitting critical infrastructure. Last month, hackers disrupted the Colonial Pipeline supplying petroleum to much of the US East Coast—an attack the White House has attributed to a Russian-based group.
As a result, governments are under increasing pressure to curb the activities of cybercriminals. This week, US President Joe Biden attended a summit in Geneva with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, in which both parties were expected to discuss the threat of ransomware.
Some experts allege Moscow allows ransomware criminals to operate with impunity in the country on the understanding that hackers will not target Russian-speaking organizations and will share access with the government if called upon to do so. Ahead of the summit, however, both Putin and Biden suggested they were open to exchanging cybercriminals.
As part of its Cl0P takedown, the Ukrainian police on Wednesday said that it had conducted 21 searches in the Kyiv region of homes and cars of those arrested, seizing computer equipment, 5 million Ukrainian hryvnias (around $185,000), and property. Video footage shared by the police showed officers raiding homes in what appeared to be wealthy neighborhoods, and towing luxury cars including Teslas.
The police also said it had “managed to shut down” some of the group’s digital infrastructure.
It is unclear whether those arrested were core members of the group or affiliates. The defendants face eight years in prison, the statement said.
A researcher has uncovered one of the more unusual finds in the annals of malware: boobytrapped files available on sites frequented by software pirates that rat out downloaders and try to prevent unauthorized downloading in the future.
Vigilante, as SophosLabs Principal Researcher Andrew Brandt is calling the malware, gets installed when victims download and execute what they think is pirated software or games. Behind the scenes, the malware reports the file name that was executed to an attacker-controlled server along with the IP address of the victims’ computers. As a finishing touch, Vigilante tries to modify the victims’ computers so they can no longer access thepiratebay.com and as many as 1,000 other pirate sites.
Not your typical malware
“It’s really unusual to see something like this, because there’s normally just one motive behind most malware: stealing stuff,” Brandt wrote on Twitter. “Whether that’s passwords, or keystrokes, or cookies, or intellectual property, or access, or even CPU cycles to mine cryptocurrency, theft is the motive. But not in this case. These samples really only did a few things, none of which fit the typical motive for malware criminals.”
But not in this case. These samples really only did a few things, none of which fit the typical motive for malware criminals.
For one thing, they modify the HOSTS file on the PC to add entries. A lot of entries.
Once victims have executed the trojanized file, the file name and IP address are sent in the form of an HTTP GET request to the attacker-controlled 1flchier[.]com, which can easily be confused with the cloud-storage provider 1fichier (spelled with an L as the third character in the name instead of an I). The malware in the files is largely identical except for the file names it generates in the web requests.
Vigilante goes on to update a file on the infected computer that prevents it from connecting to The Pirate Bay and other Internet destinations known to be used by people trading pirated software. Specifically, the malware updates Hosts.txt, a file that pairs one or more domain addresses to distinct IP addresses. As the image below shows, the malware pairs thepiratebay.com to 127.0.0.1, a special-purpose IP address, often called the localhost or loopback address, that computers use to identify their real IP address to other systems.
By mapping the domains to the local host, the malware ensures that the computer can no longer access the sites. The only way to reverse the blocking is to edit the Hosts file to remove the entries.
Brandt found some of the trojans lurking in software packages available on a Discord-hosted chat service. He found others masquerading as popular games, productivity tools and security products available through BitTorrent.
There are other oddities. Many of the trojanized executables are digitally signed using a fake code signing tool. The signatures contain a string of randomly generated 18-character uppercase and lowercase letters. The certificate validity began on the day the files became available and is set to expire in 2039. Additionally, the properties sheets of the executables don’t align with the file name.
Executables, when viewed through a hex editor, also contain a racial epithet that’s repeated more than 1,000 times followed by a large, randomly sized block of alphabetical characters.
“Padding out the archive with purposeless files of random length may simply be done to modify the archive’s hash value,” Brandt wrote. “Padding it out with racist slurs told me all I needed to know about its creator.”
Vigilante has no persistence method, meaning it has no way to remain installed. That means people who have been infected need only edit their Hosts file to be disinfected. SophosLabs provides indicators of compromise here.
A Starlink beta user in Arizona said he lost Internet service for over seven hours yesterday when the satellite dish overheated, demonstrating one of the drawbacks of SpaceX’s broadband service. When the user’s Internet service was disrupted, the Starlink app provided an error message saying, “Offline: Thermal shutdown.” The dish “overheated” and “Starlink will reconnect after cooling down,” the error message said.
The user, named Martin, posted a screenshot of the error message on Reddit. He contacted Starlink support, which told him, “Dishy will go into thermal shutdown at 122F and will restart when it reaches 104F.” Martin decided to give the dish a little water so it could cool down. He pointed a sprinkler at Dishy, and once it cooled enough to turn back on, “I immediately heard YouTube resume playback,” he wrote yesterday.
But the Internet restoration was short-lived, Martin told Ars in a chat today.
“The fix was temporary,” he told us. “When I stopped the sprinkler, [the dish] heated back up and would cycle back on for a few minutes and go back down for thermal shutdown. The overheating started that day about 11:30 am and came back for good about 7 pm… I’m currently headed to a hardware store to get materials to build a solar shade/sail around the dish to see if it doesn’t impact connection and speed.”
Martin uses the ground behind his house to set up his dish because it is the only spot with no obstructions. But there’s “no shade to speak of,” he wrote in the Reddit comment thread.
Thermal shutdowns affect other users
Officially, SpaceX has said that “Dishy McFlatface” is certified to operate from 22° below zero up to 104° Fahrenheit. Temperatures reached about 120° yesterday in Martin’s town of Topock, near Arizona’s border with California, he said. Though Dishy doesn’t go into thermal shutdown until it hits 122°, the dish can obviously get hotter than the air temperature.
“I’m thinking the radiating heat from the ground is effectively cooking the bottom of the dish, [while] the top of the dish is cooked by the sun,” Martin told Ars. In addition to the shade he’s building, Martin said he is “waiting for permitting for a HAM radio tower” that would lift the dish off the ground to help keep it cool enough to operate.
Martin said he also had very short outages on several days since last week, but service came back before he had time to confirm whether they were caused by heat. SpaceX told users to expect periodic outages during beta, so Martin’s previous outages could have been due either to heat or satellite availability.
Another user in Virginia experienced a half-hour outage due to overheating on a day with temperatures in the low 80s, according to a Reddit post two months ago.
Martin’s post spurred a response from a beta user who also reported thermal shutdowns. “You’re not the only one. My Starlink is located 50 miles south of Grand Canyon in remote area,” one person wrote yesterday. “It’s been off and on also. It stopped today one hour after cool down period but quit again as [of] ~12:30. Last reported temp at my weather station was 103 degrees.”
The 122° F shutdown temperature was mentioned three weeks ago in a Reddit post by a user who had also been given the figure by Starlink support. “‘That’s it??’ was my thought. On a 90 degree day, the rooftop of my house can be around 125 degrees,” that user wrote.
“Are you sure that wasn’t Celsius?” another asked. (122° C converts to 251.6° F.)
Like Martin, other Starlink users may have to find creative ways to keep their dishes cool as the summer months arrive.
Dishy’s heat management
As we wrote in December, a teardown of Dishy McFlatface showed some of its heat-management components, including a metal shield that’s peppered with blue dots made of thermally conductive material that conducts heat away from the PCB and into the shield.
Ken Keiter, the engineer who performed the teardown, was interviewed by Vice’s Motherboard section for a story about the Arizona resident today:
Keiter told Motherboard that while reasonable consideration was given to heat dissipation in Dishy’s design, he could see the potential for problems.
“The phased array assembly comprises a PCBA (printed circuit board assembly) adhered to an aluminum backplate which serves several purposes—acting as RF shielding, providing structural rigidity and, most relevantly, acting as a radiative thermal mass (heat sink) for the components on the PCBA,” Keiter said.
Heat is funneled from the circuit board to the aluminum backplate using a foam-like thermal interface material (TIM). The backplate itself resides in a weather-sealed cavity containing a small amount of air. As this backplate heats up, the air surrounding it also heats, transferring thermal energy via the plastic enclosure to the outside environment, Keiter said.
“Here’s the problem: at some point, the combined thermal energy being absorbed by Dishy’s face and being dumped by the components into the backplate, the air surrounding it, and the enclosure exceeds the amount that is being dissipated to the outside environment,” he noted.
Keiter said that software changes could “make the system more thermally efficient” but that it’s possible SpaceX will need to make “a significant hardware revision for the commercial launch.” He called it “a really tricky engineering problem with some insanely tight constraints.”
We contacted SpaceX today and will update this article if we get a response.
SpaceX seeks stability before exiting beta
The Starlink public beta began in October 2020, and there’s still no word on when exactly it will hit commercial availability. But the service could happen within months, as SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has said that Starlink will be available to “most of Earth” by the end of 2021 and the whole planet by next year. Still, SpaceX expects to have a limited number of slots in each geographic region because of capacity constraints.
SpaceX is seeking Federal Communications Commission permission to deploy up to 5 million user terminals in the US. Over 500,000 people have ordered Starlink, and Musk has said he expects all of those users to get service. But he also said that SpaceX will face “more of a challenge when we get into the several million user range.” The biggest limitation would be in densely populated urban areas; rural users would have better odds of getting service.
As noted earlier, Starlink warns beta users to expect “brief periods of no connectivity at all”—even if they don’t run into thermal shutdowns. “We still have a lot of work to do to make the network reliable,” SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell said in April. “We still have drops, not necessarily just because of where the satellites are in the sky.” SpaceX will keep the service in beta “until the network is reliable and great and something we’d be proud of,” Shotwell said.
The Verge reviewed Starlink last month and found frustrating reliability problems. “Like the similarly over-hyped mmWave 5G, Starlink is remarkably delicate. Even a single tree blocking the dish’s line of sight to the horizon will degrade and interrupt your Starlink signal,” The Verge wrote.
Starlink is only part of the solution
The service will surely become more stable by the time SpaceX moves it from beta to general availability, as Shotwell promised. Even in beta, Starlink is providing much-needed connectivity to people with no other options. If SpaceX brings reliable broadband to a few million users, that would be a success, but there may be tens of millions of Americans without access to high-speed broadband. Tens of millions of others have to pay whatever the cable company demands because there’s no competition where they live.
Widespread fiber-to-the-home deployment would make a bigger difference for more Internet users than Starlink. President Joe Biden pledged to lower prices and deploy “future-proof” broadband to all Americans, but he’s already scaled back his plan in the face of opposition from Republicans and incumbent ISPs. AT&T has been lobbying against nationwide fiber and funding for municipal networks, and AT&T CEO John Stankey expressed confidence last week that Congress will steer legislation in the direction that AT&T favors.