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Technology

    Microsoft has an eye on its international customers as it confronts the Trump administration in a Supreme Court fight about turning over emails to investigators. The justices will hear arguments Tuesday over whether the company, as part of an international drug trafficking investigation, must comply with an American warrant for emails stored on a server in a Microsoft facility in Dublin, Ireland. The case turns on a law written in 1986, long before the advent of cloud computing, when lawmakers couldn't imagine a world in which Microsoft and other technology companies store data around the world. The Stored Communications Act sets rules for authorities when they want to gain access to electronic communications. A federal appeals court agreed with Microsoft that the emails were beyond the warrant's reach because they are kept outside the United States. But the larger context is the technology sector's need 'to give customers around the world confidence that they can rely on us,' Microsoft's president, Brad Smith, told reporters in a telephone call Thursday. The concerns stem in part from the 2013 leak of classified information detailing America's surveillance programs and the role Microsoft and others played in turning over emails and other information. Smith recalled a conversation in Berlin in which a German official warned that Microsoft and its American rivals risked losing foreign business if they couldn't protect their information from the U.S. government. 'I said then that we'd persist with this case all the way to the Supreme Court, if that were necessary. That's where we are today,' Smith said. Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and IBM are among other technology companies backing Microsoft. The Trump administration said it's wrong to look at this case as involving foreign data. Microsoft can send data wherever it wants and retrieve information from around the world with a few clicks of a mouse at its Redmond, Washington, headquarters, the administration said, holding the same view as the Obama administration. The problem is even more complex for information held by Google, which 'stores the emails of U.S. users all over the world, sometimes breaking an account into multiple 'shards,'' Solicitor General Noel Francisco wrote in his Supreme Court brief. Google sometimes stores the text of an email in one place and attachments in another, Francisco said. Thirty-five states on the government's side say a win for Microsoft would especially hamper drug and sex crime investigations. The technology companies have built data centers around the world to keep up with customers' demands for speed and access. Microsoft maintains servers at more than 100 locations in 40 countries, according to court papers. A federal judge in New York signed the warrant for the Microsoft account in December 2013. Investigators believed it was being used in illegal drug transactions. Court documents say nothing about the account holder's citizenship or country of residence, but Smith said Microsoft's policy is to store data in the country where the user lives or in a center closest to that country. Microsoft turned over information about the user of the account, but went to court to defend its decision not to hand over the emails from Ireland. For as much interest as the case has drawn — 30 briefs from other technology companies, foreign governments, civil liberties groups, media companies and privacy experts — Congress could limit the effect of a high court ruling or make the case go away altogether if it were to pass bipartisan legislation updating the 1986 Stored Communications Act. The proposed legislation, known as the Cloud Act, has the backing of the administration and Microsoft. Smith said Microsoft agrees that 'law enforcement needs information across borders,' but that should happen under 'a new generation' of U.S. and international laws. The Cloud Act says 'the location of data shouldn't matter,' said Jennifer Daskal, an American University law professor. But it also includes a provision that would allow technology companies to resist some government requests for information, Daskal said. Privacy experts say the legislation does not do enough to protect consumer interests either in the United States or abroad. A decision in U.S. v. Microsoft, 17-2, is expected by late June.
  • Walking through a trade show all about military drones, Emirati officials made a point on Sunday to stop first at a stand run by Chinese officials with a mock armed drone hanging above them. Defense analysts believe that drone, the Wing Loong II, is now being used by the Emirati military while the UAE remains barred from purchasing weaponized drones from the United States. That purchase, as well as Abu Dhabi hosting the Unmanned Systems Exhibition & Conference this week in the Emirati capital, shows the power these weapons now hold across the Middle East. Top UAE officials, including Abu Dhabi's powerful crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, were on hand for the drone conference, which opened on Sunday. The UAE, home to skyscraper-studded Dubai, already has embraced drones. Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, has given the $1 million Drones for Good Award in recent years. Meanwhile, civil defense officials fighting fires and lifeguards trying to save those at risk of drowning use drones in their work. But the UAE remains highly interested in military drones. Al-Dhafra Air Base near Abu Dhabi, which hosts some of the 5,000 American troops in the UAE, is also home to some of the U.S. military's unmanned aircraft that flew missions over Iraq and Syria targeting the Islamic State group. Chief among those aircraft is the Predator, built by San Diego-based defense contractor General Atomics. The UAE previously purchased some $200 million worth of surveillance-only Predator drones from General Atomics. The Obama administration opposed selling the UAE armed versions of the Predator over Missile Technology Control Regime, a 30-year-old agreement that aims to limit the spread of missile technology. But that apparently didn't stop the UAE from purchasing weaponized drones. Satellite photographs taken of a mysterious Emirati air base in the country's deep south — a desert area known as the in the Empty Quarter — appear to show three Wing Loong IIs there, according to a January article by IHS Jane's Defense Weekly. China has never acknowledged selling the drones to the UAE, though the state-run Xinhua News Agency has reported a major sale of the drones to a foreign buyer. Asked if China sold the UAE the Wing Loong II, sales manager Zhao Chuang of the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corp. only smiled and said: 'No idea.' 'We are trying to find the world market,' he told The Associated Press after his colleagues greeted high-ranking Emirati officials. General Atomics, which displayed a massive Predator surveillance drone nearby, declined to speak to the AP. However, U.S. lawmakers last year sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to allow armed Predator drone sales to both the UAE and Jordan. ___ Follow Jon Gambrell on Twitter at www.twitter.com/jongambrellap . His work can be found at http://apne.ws/2galNpz .
  • One of the world's largest online services for backing up documents, photos and other video is opening its files in an initial public offering of stock. Dropbox is hoping to raise $500 million in an IPO that comes 11 years after it started in San Francisco. The company confidentially filed for its IPO in October, but the information didn't become publicly available until Friday. The filing reveals Dropbox has lost more than $1 billion since its inception. That includes a loss of $112 million on revenue of $1.1 billion last year. Dropbox boasts about 500 million registered users, but most of them don't pay for its service. Only 11 million users pay for premium version of Dropbox's service, a figure that the company is aggressively trying to increase. That won't be easy, given the fierce competition it's facing. Its rivals in online file storage include three of the world's most powerful companies — Google, Microsoft and Amazon. A smaller competitor, Box Inc., went public at $14 per share two years ago and the stock shot to $23.23 in its first day of trading. It closed Friday at $23.32. Dropbox hasn't yet disclosed how much of its stock will be sold in the IPO, nor the price for each share. That will occur during the next few weeks as its bankers gauge investor demand. The IPO is likely to attract a lot of attention because Dropbox's service is so widely used. The stock will trade on the Nasdaq exchange.
  • Shoppers at self-checkout lanes scanning all their groceries after they're done shopping? Old school. More stores are letting customer tally their choices with a phone app or store device as they roam the aisles. For customers, scanning as they go can be faster and make it simpler to keep track of spending. For stores, the big expansion of this technology coming this year costs less than installing more self-checkouts. Like many changes in retail, the expansion of scan-and-go comes from retailers trying to make store shopping more convenient and hang on to customers used to Amazon, which just opened a cashier-less store in Seattle. And like other automation technologies, it shifts more of the work to shoppers while freeing up employees for higher-value tasks. That's especially critical as stores look for ways to make their workers more efficient as they wrestle with rising wages. The convenience of scanning while she shops is what Kari Malinak likes. She just started using the technology at a Walmart in Fort Worth, Texas. 'I'm a persnickety shopper,' Malinak said. 'I can't stand it when they bag my produce. It gets all bruised. I like to have control. And I like the quick and easy aspect.' She says she also likes the idea of having a running total of spending as she shops. The technology, while slightly different from chain to chain, allows shoppers at stores like Kroger and B.J.'s Wholesale Club to scan UPC codes on items as they shop. It can be used for lots of products beyond just groceries, and people change their minds about something, they can delete items and change quantities before they check out. Some stores allow payment directly from the phone, with a greeter then checking over the digital receipt, while others require shoppers to go to a self-checkout lane or a kiosk to finalize their purchases. A big push is coming this year from big chains: Kroger Co., the nation's largest traditional grocery chain, is adding the scan-and-go technology to 400 stores. Walmart is testing the service in 120 stores, while all its Sam's Club stores, which number around 600, have it. B.J.'s Wholesale Club has launched the service in a handful of stores and plans to add it to about 100 clubs this year. One reason is that stores are investing less in their self-checkout lanes and opting for scan-and-go technology that's less expensive because it doesn't need as much special hardware — just an app or the scanners, says Jason Goldberg, senior vice president of commerce and content practice at consulting group SapientRazorfish. But while some customers feel comfortable scanning while shopping, plenty of others don't. 'It's a huge barrier for most retailers to get a consumer to download their app,' says Goldberg. He said stores also need to work on letting shoppers pay with their phones, so customers don't have to go to a kiosk to finalize their purchases. Most executives wouldn't say what percent of their transactions come from the service. But Dusty Lutz of retail technology company NCR Corp., which works with major grocery clients, says scan-and-go mobile shopping accounts for 5 to 15 percent of customer transactions, based on an analysis of 40 retailers. Walmart — which tested scan-and-go in a few stores in 2013 but ended the trial because shoppers found the technology too clunky — says the improved service is now the most preferred checkout method among those who tested it. Sam's Club says 80 percent of its members who use it use it again within 90 days and its scan & go transactions have doubled this year. Some stores are enticing shoppers to spend more by pinging them with coupons while they shop with the phone. Executives from B.J.'s and NCR say shoppers are actually throwing more in their cart with this new technology. Still, not everything can be scanned. At BJ's clubs, jewelry and gift cards can't be scanned but can be purchased at a pay station. Stores also have to be careful about theft. At Walmart, there's an honor code when shoppers scan the barcode on the produce and enter in the weight. But the company says some purchases are randomly checked on their way through the express lane. And the technology the big chains are using isn't as effortless as the sensors and automatic payment at Amazon's cashier-less stores. There, shoppers enter by scanning their phones. The store technology itself keeps track of what they pick up and charges them after they leave. It uses computer vision, machine learning algorithms and sensors to analyze what people are grabbing. Amazon's store isn't without employees — there are workers making food, stocking shelves and helping customers. And grocery executives say the scan-and-go services won't eliminate jobs — rather, some cashiers will move to other parts of the store, like new online pickup stations. 'I don't see the death of the cashier,' said NCR's Lutz. 'They will be doing things that provide more service to the shopper.' Stores declined to say whether their ultimate goal was to replicate Amazon's Go technology, saying the plan is to keep investing in the latest technology and improve customers' experience. 'We're trying to make our trips more convenient,' said Chris Baldwin, CEO of BJ's. And for shoppers who find it most convenient to go the traditional route with a cashier scanning their purchases? 'Our goal is to provide members with a variety of options so they can check out however they prefer,' said Carrie McKnight, a Sam's Club spokeswoman. _____ Follow Anne D'Innocenzio at http://www.Twitter.com/adinnocenzio
  • A fallen soldier's letter from World War I that was discovered in France has touched authorities so much they launched a successful search for the soldier's living relatives. The handwritten missive was written on May 27, 1915, from the Somme by 24-year-old Frenchman Sgt. Jean Soulagnes to a friend. Soulagnes was killed in fighting 12 days later in the battle of Hebuterne. The letter was found by Marseille police in February in a search following a burglary. With the aid of social media, authorities found Soulagnes' great-grandnephew, Stephane Drouhot. He attended a ceremony Friday at a Marseille police station where he was given the letter.
  • One student was teased about being a 'brown, bald lesbian.' Another was the target of conspiracy theorists who claimed he was really an actor. When a group of teens posed for a photo, they were accused of lapping up attention from the news cameras and 'partying like rock stars.' Just days after watching their classmates die, survivors of the Florida school shooting came under a different kind of assault, this time from online trolls who threatened the students as they seek tighter gun laws. In the face of such attacks, the students have been undeterred, confronting the trolls head-on in television interviews and on social media. 'They see us as a threat. And honestly, that's kind of entertaining to me. And I love it because it means what we are doing is working. We are changing the world,' student David Hogg told MSNBC on Wednesday at a rally outside the Florida Capitol. Some conservatives have suggested that the teens are being used as political pawns, but the most vicious of the trolls go well beyond that, into personal attacks and baseless accusations. Hogg was the subject of perhaps the most outlandish conspiracy to surface since the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High that killed 17 people. He was accused of being an actor who was never at the school. The theory gained momentum in part because Hogg was interviewed by a news reporter last year while on vacation in California. During the trip, he was a witness to a friend's confrontation with a lifeguard. President Donald Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., liked a tweet linking to a story suggesting Hogg was not a survivor of the attack. But Hogg is no actor. He recorded a harrowing video of terrified students huddled in a darkened room on the day of the shooting. His classmates responded to the trolls with biting sarcasm. Hogg 'is smart, funny, and diligent, but my favorite thing about him is undoubtedly that he's actually a 26-year-old felon from California,' tweeted classmate Cameron Kasky. Another troll had cast Hogg as a 26-year-old man who was arrested for drugs in South Carolina. Others latched on to Hogg's comment that his dad previously worked for the FBI as a means to discredit him. The FBI has acknowledged that agents received a tip about suspect Nikolas Cruz but failed to investigate it. The students who endured trolling also include Emma Gonzalez, whose short haircut and skin color drew derision, and Kasky, who complained on Twitter about receiving graphic death threats on Facebook. Critics also assailed the students for the photos that were taken with a CBS reporter. Trolls compared the images to promotional portraits and said the smiling teens were 'laughing uproariously.' Hoax claims and online vitriol have long plagued the survivors of mass shootings and families of the dead. But many of the Stoneman Douglas students faced a new layer of scrutiny after they pivoted from survivors to gun-control activists. University of Maryland professor Danielle Citron, who studies online harassment, said such internet mobs are meant 'to silence and to intimidate' and to 'shut down a social movement in its tracks.' But Citron said the younger generation, who are steeped in social media, can be resilient. These young people have grown up with social media and are familiar with its vitriol, as well as its power. 'My Twitter following has tripled over the past day,' Hogg told MSNBC. 'I think that's in part because of these trolls. So for that, I'm honestly kind of thankful.' University of Illinois at Chicago communications professor Steve Jones said conventional advice is not to engage with trolls. But he said he would not presume to tell the students what to do, especially after what they witnessed. 'They've been through one of the most horrible things imaginable and whatever they're doing in response to it is itself an act of bravery,' said Jones, who studies online behavior. Piero Guerra, a 16-year-old junior, who considered himself a gun-rights supporter before the shooting, said he can understand why some people are angry with the students' efforts. 'But my main goal is that they see our perspective as well,' Guerra said. 'It's kind of hard to tell people to be respectful on the internet because it's never going to happen.' YouTube removed a trending conspiracy video titled 'David Hogg Can't Remember His Lines,' which showed Hogg stopping to collect his thoughts and repeating answers to questions about the shooting, but many similar videos are still available. YouTube said in a statement that hoax videos targeting families involved in major tragedies violate its harassment policy and will be removed. Hogg's mom, Rebecca Boldrick, said the online harassment has scared her son, but also made him more determined. Her 14-year-old daughter also survived the shooting. 'I've always said to (my children), 'You have to be the change you want to see in the world,'' she said. Lenny Pozner, whose 6-year-old son died in the 2012 Sandy Hook massacre, has sought to debunk conspiracy theories claiming mass shootings were staged by the government as part of an anti-gun agenda. He is still harassed online, more than five years later. Pozner said he's now advocating for laws that would treat victims of mass-casualty events as a protected class 'so that this kind of targeting would be considered hate speech and a crime.' 'But I'm glad people are not still deluding themselves with saying, 'Just ignore the trolls and they'll go away.' Because they have not gone away,' Pozner said. 'The trolls just get bigger and faster.' ___ Associated Press writers Jacob Jordan in Atlanta, Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee and Jennifer Kay in Miami contributed to this report.
  • Airbnb is dispatching inspectors to rate thousands of the properties listed on its home-rental service in an effort to reassure travelers they're booking nice places to stay. The Plus program, unveiled Thursday, is aimed at winning over travelers who aren't sure they can trust the current rating system drawn from the opinions posted by past guests. The misleading pictures drawn by Airbnb's rating system have become a big enough problem to spawn a website devoted to horror stories spanning from an overcrowded, dirty 'hippy commune ' in Pasadena, California, to a Paris vacation ruined in a moldy, bug-infested apartment. 'You realize over time that you do have to take more responsibility for your platform, you have to be hands on, you have to make judgments,' Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky said in an interview with The Associated Press. The hands-on touch built into the Plus program comes 10 years after Chesky and his former roommate started Airbnb in a San Francisco apartment in hopes of bringing in more money to pay their own rent. Airbnb's internal surveys have found nearly three-fourths of the travelers on its service are willing to pay more for inspector-certified properties, allowing homeowners and apartment dwellers to quickly recoup a $149 fee to participate in Plus. Human inspectors will review properties based on a 100-point checklist covering everything from the speed of the Wi-Fi to the comfort of the bedding. Properties that fail can still be part of Airbnb's regular listings; the company will also offer advice on improvements to qualify. The program will initially cover about 2,000 properties in 13 cities — Austin, Texas; Barcelona, Spain; Cape Town, South Africa; Chicago; Los Angeles; London; Melbourne, Australia; Milan; Rome; San Francisco; Shanghai, Sydney and Toronto. That's a small fraction of the roughly 4.5 million properties listed on Airbnb in 81,000 cities worldwide. By the end of the year, Chesky foresees verifying 75,000 homes in 50 cities. Airbnb is shaking things up at a time its growth has been slowing, a trend the company would like to reverse before it sells its stock in an initial public offering expected within the next two years. Despite its popularity, Airbnb remains unprofitable, with a loss of $75 million on revenue of nearly $2.6 billion last year, according to financial statements reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. During a presentation in San Francisco, Chesky announced other steps designed to make Airbnb more like a traditional hospitality company instead of an industry renegade that has siphoned business away from major hotels. Frequent travelers will quality for discounts and other perks. The company also is adding other rental categories, including bed-and-breakfast inns and boutique hotels. A major hotel industry group slammed Airbnb's expansion as a sham. 'Airbnb's latest scheme is just further proof the company is trying to play in the hoteling space while evading industry regulations,' said Troy Flanagan of the American Hotel & Lodging Association. 'If Airbnb wants to enter the hoteling business, then it needs to be regulated, taxed and subject to the same safety compliances.' Airbnb's success since its inception a decade ago has drawn fire from city officials upset about lost revenue from hotel taxes. It has also stirred protests from long-time renters of homes that are being converted into short-term places to stay instead. Airbnb's critics contend the latter trend has been making it even more difficult to find a place to live in cities such as San Francisco, where housing is already scarce and expensive. 'There are things that we have done that have had negative impacts on cities and we need to confront that,' Chesky conceded. But he said he still believes communities have mostly benefited from Airbnb's existence because it has helped people stay in their homes, thanks to the additional money brought in from renting some of the space whenever they want.
  • Another former Google employee is suing the tech company over issues of diversity. Software developer Tim Chevalier, who is transgender, says he was fired for speaking up about online bullying he experienced at the company and complaining about discrimination, harassment and white supremacy on Google's internal messaging system. The lawsuit comes after another former employee, James Damore, sued the company after he was fired for writing a memo criticizing Google for pushing mentoring and diversity programs. Damore's lawsuit alleged his ouster was driven by a corporate culture that discriminates against white men conservatives. Chevalier's lawsuit was filed Wednesday in San Francisco County Court. In a statement, Google said it prohibits promoting harmful stereotypes based on race or gender and decides on termination, 'without any regard to the employee's political views.
  • An Earth-observation satellite built for Spain and two experimental satellites for internet service were successfully launched into orbit from California at dawn Thursday, creating a brief light show as it arced over the Pacific Ocean west of Los Angeles. A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, reusing a first stage that had flown on a previous launch, lifted off at 6:17 a.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Californians were hoping for a repeat of the spectacle that occurred during a Dec. 22 Falcon 9 launch during exceptionally clear twilight conditions, but this time the sky was much brighter, making the plume less brilliant. The Falcon's first stage was used to launch a satellite for Taiwan last August and was recovered by landing it on a drone ship in the Pacific. This time there was no effort to recover the first stage and it fell into the sea. The first stage was an early version of the Falcon 9 and SpaceX is 'making room' for a new version that will be qualified for rapid reuse many times, said Tom Praderio, an avionics firmware engineer serving as launch spokesman. SpaceX, however, was attempting to recover the fairing — the aerodynamic covering that protects the satellite during the early phase of launch and is usually discarded after reaching altitudes where the atmosphere's density is low. SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted that the fairing system deployed a parafoil and there was an attempt to catch it during descent but that failed. He posted a photo of a ship with a net structure on the stern that he referred to as 'a giant catcher's mitt.' 'Missed by a few hundred meters, but fairing landed intact in water. Should be able catch it with slightly bigger chutes to slow down descent,' Musk tweeted. Recovering and reusing major pieces of rockets is one of Musk's key strategies. The rocket's primary payload was a satellite named PAZ for Spanish satellite operator Hisdesat. It carries an advanced instrument for making radar images of Earth for government and commercial purposes, as well as sensors for tracking ships and weather. The satellite was designed for a 5½-year mission, orbiting Earth 15 times each day at an altitude of 514 kilometers (319 miles), covering the entire planet every 24 hours. It joins two other radar satellites in the same orbit covering the same ground, increasing acquisition of data. The rocket also deployed two small test satellites for a proposed system that would bring internet access to remote areas. The 'Starlink' system would require thousands of satellites operating in low Earth orbit. Musk tweeted that the satellites were named Tintin A and B and were communicating with Earth stations. 'Tintin A & B will attempt to beam 'hello world' in about 22 hours when they pass near LA,' Musk added. Praderio, the launch spokesman, said that even if the two satellites work as planned, 'we still have considerable technical work ahead of us to design and deploy' the constellation.
  • Bohemian or traditional? Walmart is launching a new online home shopping experience in the coming weeks that will let shoppers discover items based on their style. The move, announced Thursday, is the first glimpse of the company's broader campaign to redesign its site with a focus on fashion and home furnishings. The overhauled website will be launched later this year and will mirror how people shop for different items. While some purchases like groceries are transactional, others like fashion and home furnishings require more discovery. Later this spring, Walmart is rolling out its new Lord & Taylor dedicated page as part of its partnership with the department store chain's parent company Hudson's Bay. Walmart's home shopping site will include curated collections and nine shop-by-style options including modern, traditional and bohemian. It will offer design tips that will help shoppers pull items together. 'With this launch, we're making it faster, easier and more inspiring for customers to discover the best of our assortment no matter their personal style,' said Anthony Soohoo, senior vice president and general manager of home for Walmart's e-commerce division. The move comes as Walmart, with its eye on Amazon.com, has been working to ramp up its e-commerce business, which still accounts for less than 4 percent of its total sales. It's overhauled its shipping strategy and expanded the number of items online to 75 million. In home furnishings, it doubled the number of products online from a year ago and introduced a new Scandinavian collection of furniture for children. But Walmart faces stiff competition in the home arena not only from Amazon but home shopping sites like Wayfair. Amazon has been growing its home offerings. It sells its own exclusive brands of furniture, sheets and other home goods. It signed a deal with Ethan Allen last year to sell its sofas, lamps and rugs, and Amazon shoppers can ask Ethan Allen experts for design advice. Boston-based Wayfair is the largest online-only furniture retailer and has a seemingly infinite range of products, but it's facing more pressure from Amazon as it expands deeper into the home arena. Target has also been stepping up its offerings in home furnishings, both online and in the store. Two years ago, it started offering vignettes in the home area of its physical stores to inspire shoppers to buy. Walmart's latest online strategy comes as it hit a snag in its e-commerce business for the critical fiscal fourth quarter, after enjoying a surging e-commerce business over the past few quarters that helped lift its stock. Its U.S. e-commerce business rose 23 percent for the fiscal fourth quarter, a dramatic slowdown from the 50 percent growth in the previous quarter. Shares fell 10.2 percent on Tuesday to post its biggest single-day percentage drop in 30 years. Walmart says it expects its e-commerce business to ramp up this year and sees e-commerce rising 40 percent this year, the same pace as last year. ___ Follow Anne D'Innocenzio: http://twitter.com/ADInnocenzio