Weekend news round-up: Apple’s next big thing is medical, did Obama save the internet?

20 Jan 2014

In our round-up of tech news from the weekend, US President Barack Obama’s National Security Agency (NSA) reforms – will they go far enough to restore trust in US internet companies – and Apple’s next big thing: medical devices.

Will Obama’s NSA reforms restore trust in the internet?

The big news of the weekend was no doubt US President Barack Obama’s official order – Presidential Policy Directive/PPD-28 – which laid out crucial changes to the operations of the NSA, ostensibly to restore international trust in US internet giants.

The tech companies will have more freedom to disclose requests for user data from law agencies, privacy protections granted to overseas individuals and a senior officer to act as a diplomat for technology-related issues.

However, according to Wired, don’t expect the champagne corks to be popping just yet.

“Their blues in the wake of leaks made by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden are far from over. Generally, the Obama reforms tweak or constrain existing surveillance programs. But the overseas customers of U.S. companies aren’t micro-analyzing the protections the NSA takes when it accesses customer data: They are incensed that the U.S. collects the data the first place.

“The president is not going to give up programs that collect bulk data — the haystacks that NSA chief General Keith Alexander insists are necessary to locate the deadly threats from enemies who may attack the U.S. Though Obama’s directive dictates limitations on how the government can use the databases it amasses, the program itself will continue. (Doing otherwise, Obama says, would irresponsibly leave us vulnerable.)

“The Internet companies had hoped for an assurance that we would never see an email equivalent to the massive program that collects the metadata — phone numbers, time and duration — of all phone calls made in America. That assurance didn’t come.”

Apple to go medical

Apple is continuing to innovate with the intention of entering new markets, with a particular emphasis on medical technology, Mark Gurman from 9to5Mac reported.

He said Apple is moving to expand its personnel working on wearable computers and medical-sensor-laden devices by hiring more scientists and specialists in the medical-sensor field.

“Over the past couple of months, Apple has been seeking even more engineering prowess to work on products with medical sensors. Earlier this year, two notable people from the medical sensor world joined Apple to work on the team behind the iWatch’s hardware vision. Apple has hired away Nancy Dougherty from startup Sano Intelligence and Ravi Narasimhan from general medical devices firm Vital Connect. In her former job, Dougherty was in charge of hardware development. Narasimhan was the Vice President of Research and Development at his previous employer.”

Digital killed the celluloid star

The LA Times reported that in a historic move, Paramount Pictures has become the first big studio to stop releasing its major movies on film in the United States – signalling the death toll for 35mm film.

“The studio’s Oscar-nominated film The Wolf of Wall Street is the studio’s first movie in wide release to be distributed entirely in digital format, according to theater industry executives briefed on the plans who were not authorized to speak publicly.

“Paramount recently notified theater owners that its Will Ferrell comedy Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, which opened in December, was the last movie released on 35-mm film, these people said. Previously, only small movies such as documentaries were released solely in digital format.

“The decision is likely to encourage other studios to follow suit, accelerating a complete phase-out of film that could come by the end of the year.”

Gates to remain the gatekeeper at Microsoft

As rumours about who will be the next CEO at Microsoft continue to circulate, Kara Swisher from re/code opined that one thing is clear: founder Bill Gates will be more visible at Microsoft for the foreseeable future.

“With Ballmer fading away, that leaves the question of what the role of Gates — one of the most iconic figures in tech and most certainly at Microsoft — will have going forward. He also owns an approximate four percent stake in the company.

“While some investors have dropped hints in the media that he too should head for the exit, according to my sources, he is more likely to remain visible, depending on the new leader, as well as more active within the company.

“This, of course, has its pluses and minuses, many sources reminded me, and has to be carried off carefully by Gates and the new leader. Although there remains a strong bring-Bill-back emotional pull among more than a few employees, surrendering to the romantic notion of the founder’s return is risky. Gates has largely been absent from Microsoft for six years.”

The curious life and times of Ross Ulbricht

The New York Times had an interesting profile of Ross Ulbricht, the alleged mastermind behind black market site Silk Road.

“The site was like an eBay for the illicit, celebrated by drug enthusiasts, denounced by United States senators and stalked by four federal agencies. But because it was run on Tor, an encrypted Internet network, and because it merely connected buyers and sellers — rather than warehousing any products — it seemed to operate in a vaporous cloud. It was a business without infrastructure, other than a few servers and that laptop, which on 3:14 that October afternoon sat on a library desk, open.

“Had Mr. Ulbricht seen the F.B.I. coming, and simply closed the laptop, password protections probably would have kicked in, turning the hard drive into what Nicholas Weaver, a researcher at the International Computer Science Institute, called ‘an encrypted lump’ that would have been ‘tougher to break into than Fort Knox.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years