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Old 24-09-21, 06:37 AM   #1
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Default Peer-To-Peer News - The Week In Review - September 25th, ’21

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September 25th, 2021

Feds Bust NJ YouTuber In Multi-Million-Dollar TV Pirating Ring
Jerry DeMarco

A self-proclaimed South Jersey “influencer” who live-streamed his arrest by federal authorities was charged with running one of the largest-ever illegal TV pirating rings.

Bill Omar Carrasquillo – aka “Omi in a Hellcat” -- has insisted that he amassed a $30 million fortune, a stockpile of more than 50 vehicles and dozens of properties through a construction company and as a landlord.

Federal authorities, however, say that Carrasquillo, 35, of the Gloucester town of Swedesboro, and partners Jesse Gonzales, 42, of Pico Rivera, CA, and Michael Barone, 36, of Queens, NY, offered subscribers all-inclusive access to content from Comcast, Verizon FiOS, DirectTV and HBO for as low as $15 a month.

Sporting events, on-demand shows such as “Game of Thrones” and “Bones” and movies were made available to users, a 69-page, 62-count an indictment unsealed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Allentown, PA alleges.

The trio are charged with, among other crimes, copyright infringement, wire fraud and tax evasion.

Carrasquillo has claimed more than 800,000 followers on Instagram and more than 500,000 on YouTube.

The FBI raided his homes two years ago, seizing supercars, Rolex watches and bank accounts, as part of an investigation that led to his arrest.

Carrasquillo had claimed that federal agents took all of his assets – among them, more than a dozen luxury vehicles, Rolexes and more -- leaving him “down to nothing.”

They, in turn, claimed that he tried to hide some of the vehicles, including a Freightliner recreational vehicle and a McLaren.

Federal authorities have targeted more than $34 million, 57 vehicles -- including Lamborghinis, motorcycles and other luxury vehicles -- and 52 area properties for forfeiture, records show.

Carrasquillo live-streamed his arrest by federal agents Tuesday at his Woolwich home, which was formerly owned by retired Philadelphia Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins.

He also told FOX29 that “no copyright holders ever got in contact with me to say, ‘Hey, you can’t do this.’

“We’re going to have our day in court now,” he said. “There are certain ways that I set the business up that’s going to prove a million percent that it wasn’t illegal.

“I found a loophole, I ran through it and I did great. There are other colleagues in the same business I was in and they never got in trouble with the FBI,” he told FOX29.

Federal authorities say the trio bought encoders from China that allowed them to strip copyright protections from legit cable subscriptions through Comcast, Verizon and DirecTV.

They then streamed the content online through servers they controlled, the indictment alleges.

The illegal streaming service was variously called Reboot, Gears TV, Reloaded and Gears Reloaded after it was launched in 2016.

Carrasquillo publicized the illegal operation on his social media platforms before federal authorities pulled the service’s plug in 2019, authorities said.

Acting U.S. Attorney Jennifer Arbittier Williams of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania described the conspiracy as a “massive, years-long scheme to steal copyrighted content.”

“You can’t just go and monetize someone else’s copyrighted content with impunity,” said Bradley S. Benavides, the acting special agent in charge of the FBI’s Philadelphia Field Office. “That’s the whole point of securing a copyright.

“Theft is theft.”

A federal judge in Allentown released Carrasquillo on a $50,000 bond pending a Sept. 28 arraignment.

He then went to Instagram and posted: “I want to thank all my friends, seriously, for being there. I couldn’t do it without ya’ll.”

YouTube, the Ig Nobel Prizes, and the Year 1914

YouTube’s notorious takedown algorithms are blocking the video of the 2021 Ig Nobel Prize ceremony.

We have so far been unable to find a human at YouTube who can fix that. We recommend that you watch the identical recording on Vimeo.

The Fatal Song

Here’s what triggered this: The ceremony includes bits of a recording (of tenor John McCormack singing “Funiculi, Funicula”) made in the year 1914.

The Corporate Takedown

YouTube’s takedown algorithm claims that the following corporations all own the copyright to that audio recording that was MADE IN THE YEAR 1914: “SME, INgrooves (on behalf of Emerald); Wise Music Group, BMG Rights Management (US), LLC, UMPG Publishing, PEDL, Kobalt Music Publishing, Warner Chappell, Sony ATV Publishing, and 1 Music Rights Societies”

PROBLEM SOLVED (probably): (September 22, 2021) Still unsuccessful at making any contact with any human being at YouTube, we (think we) solved the problem by recording our own performance of the old song “Funiculi Funicula”, and then editing that into the video recording of the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony. The new musical performance is by soprano Maria Ferrante and accordionist Thomas Michel (both of whom also starred in the opera that was part of the ceremony).

Special thanks to Bruce Petschek, Richard Baguley, Julia Lunetta, Maria Ferrante, Thomas Michel, David Kessler, and Jeff Hermes for their time, effort, and wisdom at working around and thus (probably) overcoming the problem.

Following Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow Fallout, Disney Exec Explains ‘Reset’ In Talent Deals
Corey Chichizola

Over the past decade of filmmaking, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has become a well-oiled machine. And while every installment in Phase Three was a critical and box office success, Phase Four has had some speed bumps concerning Black Widow. And following Scarlett Johansson’s legal fallout with the studio, one Disney exec has explained the “reset” in talent deals currently happening.

After a number of delays, Black Widow finally was released back in July. But in addition to theaters, it was also made available to stream on Disney+. The movie had a giant pirating issue seemingly as a result, and Scarlett Johansson is in a legal battle with the studio over money lost. And as the fallout continues to shake out, Disney CEO Bob Chapek has spoken about the unprecedented nature of the industry when it comes to streaming. As he put it,

We've got a deal that's conceived under a certain set of conditions that actually results in a movie that's being released in a completely different set, so there's a bit of a reset that's going on right now, and ultimately we'll think about that as we do our future talent deals and plan for that and make sure that that's incorporated.

These comments make a great deal of sense, as there’s been some unrest in the entertainment industry over the role streaming services have. For many blockbusters, actors negotiate to take home a percentage of the box office. This resulted in an insane payday for Robert Downey Jr. on Avengers: Endgame, which is likely part of why Scarlett Johansson was so disappointed with the performance of Black Widow.

Bob Chapek’s comments come from a recent appearance at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference (via THR). The rise of streaming services is having a major impact on the industry, but this is especially true given the new trend of two-tier releases. Because while movies going straight to streaming have been the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the contracts actors signed didn’t take this type of strategy into consideration.

The MCU has found its streaming home on Disney+. You can use this link to sign up for the streaming service.

Later in his same appearance, Bob Chapek went on to explain the unique place that both studios and actors are currently in. While not mentioning Black Widow or Scarlett Johansson by name, it’s easy to make that connection for the public. Chapek said,

But right now, we’ve got sort of this middle position where we’re trying to do right by the talent. I think the talent’s trying to do right by us, and we’re just sort of figuring out our way to bridge the gap.

The reset on talent deals isn’t the only way that Black Widow’s performance seems to have affected the greater MCU. Case in point: Simu Liu’s Shang-Chi was given an exclusive theatrical window before hitting Disney+. The blockbuster has been breaking records, in stark juxtaposition to the disappointing performance of Scarlett Johansson’s solo flick.

Town of Bristol Launches High-Speed Internet Service

After years of planning, the New Hampshire town of Bristol launched its new high-speed internet service Thursday.

The Bristol Broadband Now network “opens a lot of doors for our business community, enables opportunities like telehealth for residents and creates more learning opportunities for our students,” Nicholas Coates, town administrator, said in a statement.

The network is the result of planning by the Bristol Economic Development Committee, Coates, and a public-private partnership with eX² Technology LLC of Omaha, Nebraska, which built the physical infrastructure for the fiber optic internet. Hub66, based in Acton, Massachusetts, will provide the internet service to businesses, residents and municipal buildings in the town of about 3,000 people.

The first phase of the project created a 24-mile fiber route from town to the statewide NetworkNH system at Plymouth State University. It will initially connect about 400 residents to the system with plans to expand. It was funded by a $1.52 million federal CARES Act grant.

The second phase, which was recently completed, provides the additional fiber backbone needed to connect all Bristol municipal, educational and commercial buildings. It was funded by $260,000 Northern Border Regional Commission grant and a town appropriation.

FCC Showers Schools across the US with $1.2B from Emergency Connectivity Fund
Devin Coldewey

The FCC has sent out the first checks from its Emergency Connectivity Fund, an effort to help close the “homework gap” at schools by covering the cost of computers and internet services. Thousands of school districts, in every state plus D.C., Guam and Puerto Rico, will split this first $1.2 billion distribution, and there’s still lots more to come.

The problem they are looking to mitigate is the large number of students who, in an age when studying, homework and now even classes are all done online, lack a device or adequate internet connection to participate. This exacerbates an existing inequality, for these students often lack access to other resources and end up falling behind through no fault of their own.

The ECF was conceived to combat this, and funded earlier this year as part of the big pandemic recovery bill. It’s a $7 billion program in total, but the money is being distributed over time as schools and libraries make their formal requests, saying they need to cover the cost of this many tablets, or wireless hotspots, or broadband connections. The FCC seems to be picking up the bill as long as the request is reasonable and the paperwork is in order.

“From small rural libraries like the Sesser Public Library in Sesser, Illinois, to large school districts like Baltimore City Public Schools, this first wave of funding will provide more than 3 million connected devices for remote learning and will make a major dent in closing one of the cruelest parts of the digital divide,” said acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel in the news release.

It’s not evenly divided, but distributed according to the applications received. The biggest state recipient is New York with $243 million ($192 million of which goes to NYC), followed by Texas with $97 million, and California with $71 million. Several states got far less (Wyoming and South Dakota took in less than $100,000 each), but this could very easily be a question of those districts just choosing to get their paperwork in for the second fund disbursement.

To that end, September 28 marks a new application period, for equipment and services used from this last July to next June — though the FCC noted it is still processing applications from the first batch, so if your district hasn’t heard back on that, don’t worry. And if they haven’t applied yet, best get started!

You can check out the full recipient list, broken down by district and amount, in the spreadsheet linked here.

Microsoft and an Army of Tiny Telecoms Are Part of a Plan to Wire Rural America

With help from Washington, the 120 million Americans without high-speed internet access have their best shot in a generation at getting it—so long as they’re flexible on how.
Austin Carr

As Elizabeth Bowles zooms down Route 65 in her black SUV, she’s pointing out possible “vertical assets” on the flat horizon of browned cornfields and the occasional Dollar General. Out here in the Arkansas Delta, the rural area west of the Mississippi River, a vertical asset could be a tall flagpole, or a granary, or the smokestacks of a paper mill—anything high enough for Bowles’s scrappy broadband company, Aristotle Unified Communications LLC, to rig up with telecommunications equipment so it can zap the internet to far-flung customers. “See that water tank up above the pine trees?” she asks. “If you put a radio antenna on top, you can hit everything that it can see.”

Bowles is showing off her whatever-it-takes strategy for narrowing the digital divide between people with reasonably speedy internet access and those without. This gap has remained stubbornly persistent for decades, even as the internet has become steadily more inextricable from daily life, business, health care, and education. Research group BroadbandNow estimates that 42 million Americans have no broadband access, while a depressing 120 million people in the U.S. are without any connection fast enough to even call the internet, according to an October 2020 study by Microsoft Corp. These disparities are particularly severe among Black, Hispanic, Indigenous, and rural communities.

The Delta is what government officials refer to as a “high-cost area,” a remote spot with a sparse population, high poverty rate, and topography that makes everything complicated. In denser towns, it’s more economical for Aristotle to deliver broadband over fiber-optic cables, the industry’s gold standard for speed and reliability. But Bowles says it gets way too expensive in these parts. At about $9 a foot, she notes, every mile we drive deeper into the Delta would cost $50,000 or more to snake fiber through.

To augment coverage, Aristotle is turning increasingly to Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), a wireless spectrum historically used by U.S. Navy aircraft carriers for radar transmissions. In recent years the Federal Communications Commission has opened a slice of this spectrum for commercial use, enabling Aristotle to beam broadband as far as 6 miles to distant Arkansans over signal stations—installed atop cell towers, barns, even a prison—that are sort of like massive Wi-Fi routers. The network is fast enough to stream movies and costs a fraction of what fiber costs to build. “We are one of the poorest states in the country, and the Delta is the poorest area of the state,” Bowles says. “If we can solve the problem here, we can solve it anywhere.”

Although Bowles is an evangelist for so-called fixed wireless systems such as CBRS, she’s adamant that no single technology can solve the whole problem. Fiber proponents believe unspooling cables to every address in America is the only “future-proof” option capable of handling pretty much any bandwidth-heavy application of tomorrow, a premise Bowles finds ridiculous given the price tag and the scale of terrain. Silicon Valley, meanwhile, has long gone after unproven moonshots to blast internet to the masses, from Facebook Inc.’s solar-powered plane project (killed in 2018) to Alphabet Inc.’s stratospheric balloons (scrapped this year).

The messy reality on the ground in places such as Arkansas suggests that a mix of physical and wireless networks would be cheaper and more practical than some one-size-fits-all solution. Now states are looking at the feasibility of everything from CBRS to Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites to 5G home internet depending on their geographic challenges. Like Bowles, Vickie Robinson, general manager of Microsoft’s Airband Initiative, a philanthropic program to bring 3 million more rural Americans online by next July, says her team advocates making use of whatever technology is on offer. “What’s going to give you the most bang for your buck? That should be the guiding principle,” says Robinson, who’s provided Airband grant money to Aristotle for several wireless deployments.

With the Biden administration pushing ahead with its infrastructure bill, including $65 billion in broadband-related subsidies in the plan that passed the Senate, there’s a great debate playing out over which technologies the U.S. should bet on. Tom Wheeler, a former FCC chairman under President Barack Obama, is a fervent fiber-first advocate, but he acknowledges that the country will have to use every tool to connect the most isolated citizens. “I don’t care if they’re using a string and tin can if they can get the right throughput,” Wheeler says of locations fiber can’t reach. “The question becomes, where do you draw the line?”

Around lunchtime during our Delta drive, Bowles pulls into Arkansas City, a dead-quiet town of 409 residents. Aristotle’s fiber presence ended nearly 8 miles back, the point at which its network switches to CBRS and hopscotches from antenna to antenna to reach customers wirelessly. In a grass field behind the local post office, Bowles and Rick Hales, the mayor of Arkansas City, who incidentally works for Aristotle as its director of community partnerships, walk me to a 180-foot radio tower the company lit up earlier this summer. “The first customer we turned on in the county was the county judge,” Hales recalls. “His wife called and said, ‘Rick, Netflix is running good!’ ”

Aristotle was able to expand this far sooner thanks to $31 million in grants stemming from the Trump-era federal stimulus package in response to Covid-19, which marked a major turning point in broadband investment. In past decades the U.S. government’s efforts to close the digital divide were mostly sporadic and poorly funded. In 1996, President Bill Clinton committed to wiring up every classroom and library by the new millennium; the Bush administration called for universal broadband by 2007; and President Obama set a goal of giving 20 million additional Americans coverage by last year. None of it was enough.

The pandemic exposed the consequences of such buck-passing. “Nobody gets it on that visceral level until their employees can’t work or their kids can’t do homework,” Bowles says. That disparity was obvious in Arkansas City, where locals complain of past internet service from horrendously slow old-school satellite dishes and DSL connections, pricey cellular hotspots, or Vyve Broadband, a telecom that abandoned the town during the pandemic. (Vyve President Andrew Parrott says that a pilot wireless system struggled in the area’s “excessive foliage” and that the company decided to discontinue service following a severe storm in April that damaged its equipment.)

Geoffrey Wright, an assistant superintendent for Arkansas State Parks, whose office is a stone’s throw from Aristotle’s new signal tower, recalls a half-dozen students who didn’t have internet at home frequenting the picnic tables outside last fall to use the facility’s taxpayer-funded AT&T Wi-Fi for remote schooling. He’d bring out a couple of fans to cool them in the 90F heat. Wright says AT&T Inc. ran a fiber line to the parks center, but the company never offered residential service. “When the AT&T guy was here, I asked if he could run the line another 30 feet to my house,” Wright tells me. “He essentially said, ‘Nope, can’t do it. We won’t get enough customers for it to be worth it.’ ” An AT&T spokesperson says, “Our decisions to build and expand our networks are based on capacity needs and demand for our services, nothing more.”

Bowles is a pro at writing grant proposals—“I crank ’em out,” she says—but the disconnect between Washington and rural Arkansas makes the task a bureaucratic pain. The FCC’s broadband maps are notoriously inaccurate, because they rely on amorphous census blocks instead of address-by-address data. If internet providers report service at just one home in a vicinity, the whole area is considered covered, which has forced Bowles to challenge the government’s false positives to be eligible for certain subsidies. Microsoft, which analyzes national broadband data as part of its Airband Initiative, reported in 2020 that eight times as many Americans as the FCC then estimated didn’t have access to the internet at modern baseline speeds.

There’s also a strong sense that Beltway officials don’t grasp what it takes to install fiber in backcountry. Steven Porch, who doles out federal grants to state recipients as head of the Arkansas Rural Connect program, says that in rocky regions the trenching alone for cables could cost a quarter of a million dollars per mile, and stringing lines across telephone poles is risky with storms an ever-present threat. He needs to include fixed wireless as an alternative when considering how to budget for connecting the entire state. “Do I spend over $1 million to get fiber to 15 people?” he asks. “Will those 15 people sustain that network?”

Bowles says it’s been “all hands on deck” to build the 133 signal stations now dotting the state, tackling the raft of unique Arkansas hurdles, from intense humidity and pine needles interfering with radio signals to electricity shortages at rustic antenna sites to dealing with land rights for installing equipment. “One of the easements we’ve been waiting on is from a guy who’s been in Colorado elk hunting,” Hales says. “That’s not a big infrastructure problem—it’s a daggone huntin’ problem!” Even maintaining the network has been a particular challenge given the raccoons, hornets, and other creatures that burrow into its electrical systems. “We’ve fried quite a few squirrels,” says business development specialist Jonathan Duncan.

When Aristotle’s service went online in July 2021, Wright says his $60-a-month plan proved a godsend for family FaceTime chats and helped his wife manage her business from home. Jennifer Tice, owner of Mama Carol’s, a ribs-and-burgers joint across the street from the tower, became an Aristotle enterprise and residential customer. “I’m just glad my security cameras are working,” Tice says, referring to a set of web-connected devices monitoring the restaurant. “And my son, he loves it. He’s an Xbox gamer, and if it’s down, he’s like, ‘Call Rick and see why the Wi-Fi isn’t working.’ ”

Of course, as Tice’s kid suggests, Aristotle’s system is not perfect. An administrator for C.B. King Memorial, a special-education school, says internet connections have been slow and inconsistent, to the point where the school has been unable to upload billing files online. A weekday speed test shows the school at 35 megabits per second for downloads and 11 Mpbs for uploads, above the minimum broadband standard but below the 100/20 ratio government officials are moving toward. (Bowles says that the company’s network can deliver 100/20 speeds, but that C.B. King had purchased a slower plan and Aristotle’s technicians concluded the school’s old computer software is likely causing the problems.) Elsewhere, residents tell me they either weren’t aware of the service, can survive on DSL and 4G, or simply don’t see the point of the internet.

Still, considering that Aristotle only shuttered its dial-up service this past January—which the Little Rock-based company had been offering since 1995 for 50¢ per hour—the faster it can offer more connectivity options, the better for Arkansas. Other states will have to figure out their own blend of solutions. In Alaska’s icy expanses, that might mean low-Earth-orbit satellites like the ones Musk and Amazon. com Inc. are pursuing will fill in fiber gaps. In urban areas, shorter-distance 5G technology, similar to what Boston-based Starry Inc. deploys, could offer a boost where other solutions aren’t scalable. Alphabet is investing in optical systems that transfer huge amounts of data through the air using lasers. Microsoft is betting that television white space, which uses idle TV channel signals to beam internet service, could play a role, too, though the technology is nowhere near ready for prime time. “If you want ubiquitous coverage, we have to use every technology available to us,” Bowles says.

If she had her way, Bowles estimates, Arkansas could close the digital divide in five years. It’d be extremely difficult, she admits, but far faster to roll out than fiber alone and drastically less expensive. An oft-cited FCC analysis from 2017 projected that the U.S. could achieve 100% fiber coverage for approximately $80 billion. Microsoft Airband’s Robinson stresses that that forecast was based on the agency’s faulty data. “It would be a dangerous proposition to use this finite amount of money [from Congress] to get fiber everywhere,” she says. “It won’t work, because you just don’t know where all the gaps exist.”

Of the $65 billion of broadband subsidies in the Senate’s infrastructure bill, about $42 billion is allocated for equipment and service deployments, a figure Bowles finds “absurd” if the U.S. plans to push for a fiber-everywhere approach nationally. “The path to fiber is not dumping tens of billions of dollars into the market and building it halfway,” she says. Researchers at Tufts University have said a fiber-only network would cost the Biden administration at least $240 billion.

The financial distributions are particularly important, because infrastructure is only part of the problem. One important shift in the Senate’s bill is that it includes $14 billion in internet subsidies for low-income Americans, a focus on affordability that’s crucial to narrowing the gap. The more efficiently a national network can be built, presumably the more money would be available for these sorts of subsidies. For one of its grants, for example, Aristotle spent $1.9 million to deploy CBRS and a ring of fiber around the town of Hazen, bringing broadband to about 1,860 households. Bowles says a fiber-to-the-home alternative would’ve cost $5.5 million, taken at least four months longer to construct, and covered just over 600 homes.

The federal government is in the process of updating its broadband map, which is likely to change the calculus of where infrastructure spending flows. If Arkansas pandemic stimulus allocations offer any preview, the $87 million in Trump-era grants were split 50% to fixed wireless and 46% to fiber, with some of the leftover funds going to coaxial cable. A December 2020 state report said those funds are expected to cover 30,385 Arkansas homes out of the 44,874 households in the coverage footprint, a sign of how expensive this gap is to bridge even with a mix of broadband tools.

Inevitably, opinions on how to close the digital divide are available at gigabit speeds. Musk has said Starlink’s satellites can scale the gap, and cable and 5G players might claim they’ll eventually be able to deliver broadband at fiber speeds. Shirley Bloomfield, the chief executive officer of NTCA-The Rural Broadband Association, an advocacy group representing 850 small telecom companies, has reviewed everything out there, but she still thinks fiber is the only real future-proof solution today. Fixed wireless networks, after all, feed off fiber backhauls, the sort of physical broadband highways that link up the world’s internet exit ramps.

“We are pound foolish if we don’t use the right technology the first go-around,” she says of fiber. “I’m not saying you have to build it out to every igloo. But at the end of the day, and maybe it’s not the first year, but certainly in the first three to five years, it’s going to become a much better investment.”

The big concern among fiber hawks is that any alternative will consign the most disadvantaged populations, predominantly minorities and rural communities, to a slower digital lane. Bowles, however, sees a toolkit approach as the fastest way to getting more folks on the ramp to fiber speeds. Eventually, she says, the mapped lines of transition from fiber to fixed wireless will move deeper, pushing fiber backhauls closer to the homes only wireless internet can reach now. Until Aristotle can afford to go under the pine trees rustling across the Arkansas Delta, Bowles has no choice but to go over them.

Facebook will Open its Fiber Networks to Expand Broadband Access in Rural Virginia

The partnership plans to connect 6,000 households this year
Makena Kelly

Facebook announced a new project on Thursday that will bring broadband service to thousands of households in Virginia this fall, in partnership with a local ISP and utility company.

The project began with fiber networks Facebook was already building to connect its data centers in Virginia, Ohio, and North Carolina. With that fiber already laid, Facebook partnered with Appalachian Power and GigaBeam Networks to extend the networks to roughly 6,000 households in Grayson County, VA. The homes are projected to have high-speed broadband access by the end of this fall.

“These are really complicated problems that we’re trying to solve. If they weren’t complicated, then we still wouldn’t have 19 million people that were unserved or underserved,” Michele Kohler, Facebook’s network investments team manager, told The Verge in an interview Wednesday. “We’re trying to figure out how can we play in the equation, with these complex partnerships, to figure out how we can help people get connected faster.”

Kohler also said that Facebook is providing “engineering and technical resources” to the partnering companies. The proposed network would leverage a new law approved by the Virginia legislature last year that allows electric and communications companies to string fiber along existing poles and conduits. Still, the future of these networks is unclear as utility companies like Rappahannock Electric Cooperative have been sued by property owners for infringing on their property rights when they’ve sought to invoke the new provisions.

Facebook’s announcement comes just a few months after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D) said that the state would be investing $700 million from the American Rescue Plan to reach universal connectivity in the state by 2024. President Joe Biden signed the coronavirus relief package last March, providing Virginia with more than $4 billion in relief — the pool of money being used to support universal connectivity.

“I’m a big believer that with this level of high speed and connectivity, people won’t be forced to move away to cities to find good quality jobs,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) said in a statement regarding Facebook’s plans Thursday.

Total Surveillance Law Proposed in Serbia

The public debate on the Draft Law on Internal Affairs has officially introduced into legal procedure provisions for the use of mass biometric surveillance in public spaces in Serbia, advanced technologies equipped with facial recognition software that enable capturing and processing of large amounts of sensitive personal data in real time.

If Serbia adopts the provisions on mass biometric surveillance, it will become the first European country conducting permanent indiscriminate surveillance of citizens in public spaces. Technologies that would thus be made available to the police are extremely intrusive to citizens’ privacy, with potentially drastic consequences for human rights and freedoms, and a profound impact on a democratic society. For that reason, the United Nations and the European Union have already taken a stand against the use of mass biometric surveillance by the police and other security services of the states.

SHARE Foundation has used the opportunity of the Draft Law public debate to submit its legal comments on the provisions regulating mass biometric surveillance in public spaces, demanding from the authorities to declare a moratorium on the use of such technologies and systems in Serbia without delay.

Although modestly publicized, only three weeks long public debate on the disputed Draft Law gathered national and international organizations in a common front against the harmful use of modern technologies. Among others, EDRi, the European network of NGOs, experts, advocates and academics advancing digital rights, reacted. The official letter to the Serbian government and the Ministries of interior and justice states that provisions of the Draft Law allowing the capture, processing and automated analysis of people’s biometric and other sensitive data in public spaces, are incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights which Serbia ratified in 2004.

“The Serbian government’s proposal for a new internal affairs law seeks to legalise biometric mass surveillance practices and thus enable intrusion into the private lives of Serbian citizens and residents on an unprecedented scale. Whilst human rights and data protection authorities across the EU and the world are calling to protect people from harmful uses of technology, Serbia is moving in a dangerously different direction”.
Diego Naranjo, EDRi

Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, a French MEP from the Greens has warned against the use of these intrusive technologies and further restricting the rights of those living in Serbia, emphasizing that these technologies magnify the discrimination that marginalised groups already face in their everyday life. “We oppose this draft law that would allow law enforcement to use biometric mass surveillance in Serbia. It poses a huge threat to fundamental rights and the right to privacy”, said Delbos-Corfield.

“In Serbia, a country that Freedom House rated as only ‘partly free’, we suspect that the government has already begun the deployment of high-resolution Huawei cameras, equipped with facial recognition technology, in the city of Belgrade. If this draft law comes into effect, the government might have a legal basis for the use of biometric mass surveillance and the use of these cameras. Serbia now runs the risk of becoming the first European country to be covered by biometric mass surveillance. We call on the Serbian government to immediately withdraw the articles of this draft law that regulate biometric mass surveillance.”
Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, MEP, Greens/EFA Group

The disputed provisions stipulate installation of a system of mass biometric surveillance throughout Serbia, without determining the necessity of the proposed measure for all residents of Serbia to be constantly treated as potential criminals by disproportionately invading the privacy of their lives. Of particular concern is the lack of a detailed assessment of the impact that the use of total biometric surveillance can have on vulnerable social groups, but also on journalists, civic activists and other actors in a democratic society.

ExpressVPN Employees Complain about Ex-Spy's Top Role at Company
Joseph Menn

When a senior executive at virtual private network company ExpressVPN admitted to working on behalf of a foreign intelligence service to hack American machines last week, it stunned employees at his new company, according to interviews and electronic records.

What ExpressVPN said after the U.S. Justice Department's deferred prosecution agreement disturbed some employees further. The company had known about Dan Gericke's history as a mercenary hacker for the United Arab Emirates.

The VPN provider said it had no problem with the former intelligence operative protecting the privacy of its customers. In fact, the company had repeatedly given Gericke more responsibility at ExpressVPN even as the FBI investigation of his conduct pressed toward its conclusion.

Gericke was named chief technology officer in August, according to an internal email at the time, and remains in the post.

Shortly after the court filings showed Gericke and two other former U.S. intelligence operators agreeing to pay a fine and give up any future classified work, he emailed his colleagues at ExpressVPN.

"I can imagine that this kind of news is surprising or even uncomfortable," Gericke wrote in the message obtained by Reuters, then assured them that he had used his skills to protect consumers from threats to their security and privacy.

When senior company executives during a regular online question-and-answer session last Friday with employees accepted queries about Gericke's deal and then discussed the sale announced days earlier of the company to British-Israeli digital security software provider Kape Technologies PLC, the workforce vented its anger.

One employee wrote anonymously on an internal chat board: "This episode has eroded consumer's trust in our brand, regardless of the facts. How do we intend to rebuild our reputation?"

More than 40 employees voted in support of that question during the session, sending it to the top of the queue. Other employee complaints were reported earlier on Thursday by Vice. The questions and vote totals were made available to Reuters by someone authorized to have them.

Asked about the controversy, ExpressVPN said in a statement that the exchange was part of a regular monthly session between management and employees.

"As a company, we value openness, dialogue and transparency -which includes robust debate and incisive questioning," the company said.

It said it had not known of the federal investigation or the details of Gericke's work in UAE, and it said that country's surveillance campaign was "completely antithetical to our mission."

A 2019 Reuters investigation showed how a team that Gericke was embedded within, codenamed Project Raven, had helped the UAE surveil a wide range of targets, including human rights activists and journalists. The story did not name Gericke individually.

At ExpressVPN's session with leaders Friday, the second-most supported question also concerned him.

"As an individual I have a problem accepting that Dan was hired despite disclosing past actions. These actions are not small thing we can easily forget or accept. Don't they go against all the things XV stands for?" that person asked.

To Reuters, the company responded: "It's only through clear commitment and contributions to our mission that Daniel has been able to earn senior leadership roles within the company and the full confidence of our co-founders."
Reporting by Joseph Menn; Editing by Will Dunham and Diane Craft

He Escaped the Dark Web's Biggest Bust. Now He's Back

DeSnake apparently eluded the DOJ's takedown of AlphaBay. The admin talked to WIRED about his return—and the resurrection of the notorious underground marketplace.
Andy Greenberg

Just over four years ago, the US Department of Justice announced the takedown of AlphaBay, the biggest dark web market bust in history. Thai police arrested the site's 26-year-old administrator, Alexandre Cazes, in Bangkok, and the FBI seized AlphaBay's central server in Lithuania, wiping out a marketplace that was selling hundreds of millions of dollars a year worth of hard drugs, hacked data, and other contraband to its 400,000-plus registered users. The FBI called the disruption of the site a “landmark operation.”

But the fate of one key player in that massive black market scheme was never explained: AlphaBay's former number-two administrator, security specialist, and self-described cofounder, who went by the name DeSnake. Now, four years after his market's demise, DeSnake appears to be back online and has relaunched AlphaBay under his own singular leadership. After four years off the radar, he's not keeping quiet about his return.

In an extended chat interview, DeSnake tells WIRED how he walked away unscathed from the takedown of AlphaBay, why he has resurfaced now, and what his plans are for the resurrected, once-dominant online black market. He communicated with WIRED via encrypted text messages, from a frequently changing series of pseudonymous accounts, after proving his identity by signing a public message with DeSnake's original PGP key, which multiple security researchers verified.

"The biggest reason I am returning is to make the AlphaBay name be remembered as more than the marketplace which got busted and the founder made out to have committed suicide," DeSnake writes. Cazes was found dead of an apparent suicide in a Thai jail cell a week after his arrest; like many in the dark web community, DeSnake believes Cazes was murdered in prison. He was driven to rebuild AlphaBay, he says, after reading about an FBI presentation on the circumstances of Cazes' arrest that he deemed disrespectful. "AlphaBay name was put in bad light after the raids. I am here to make amends to that."

A kind of practical paranoia permeated DeSnake's messages to WIRED, both on a personal level and in his plans for AlphaBay's revamped technical protections. (DeSnake says he uses male pronouns.) The revived version of AlphaBay, for instance, allows users to buy and sell only with the cryptocurrency Monero, which is designed to be far more difficult to trace than Bitcoin, whose blockchain has proven to sometimes allow powerful forms of financial tracking. AlphaBay's dark web site is now accessible not only via Tor, like the original AlphaBay, but also I2P, a less popular anonymity system that DeSnake encourages users to switch to. He repeatedly described his wariness that Tor may be vulnerable to surveillance, though he provided no evidence.

DeSnake says his security practices—both the ones he's applying within AlphaBay and on a personal level—go far beyond those of his predecessor, Cazes, who went by the online handle Alpha02. Cazes was caught, in part, through Bitcoin blockchain analysis that confirmed his role as AlphaBay's boss, a trick that would be far more difficult, if not impossible, with Monero. DeSnake argues that new safeguards like these will make AlphaBay that much harder to remove from the dark web this time around. "I had given [Cazes] many 'holy grails' of anonimity, but he chose to use only certain things while he branded other methods/ways as ‘overkill,’" DeSnake writes, in his seemingly foreign-inflected and occasionally misspelled English. "In this game there is no overkill."

DeSnake credits his ongoing freedom to an operational security regimen that borders on the extreme. He says his work computers run an "amnesiac" operating system, like the security-focused Tails distribution of Linux, designed to store no data. He claims, in fact, not to store any incriminating data on hard drives or USB drives at all, encrypted or not, and declined to explain further how he pulls off this apparent magic trick. DeSnake also claims to have prepared a USB-based "kill switch" device designed to wipe his computers' memory and shut them off in seconds if they ever leave his control.

To avoid the risk of his PC being grabbed while he's logged into AlphaBay, DeSnake says he also shuts it down entirely every time he steps away from it, even to take a bathroom break. "Biggest issue in that regard is the human needs … I would say that is the biggest inconvenience," DeSnake writes. "You make sacrifices. Though once you get used to it, it becomes second nature."

After all, law enforcement seized the laptops of Alexandre Cazes and Ross Ulbricht—the latter is serving a life sentence for running the original dark web drug market known as Silk Road–while they were open, running, and logged into administrator accounts on the dark web sites they oversaw. DeSnake, by contrast, makes the very bold claim that his work PC could not implicate him even if seized.

But all of those technical and operational protections may matter less than a simple geographic one. DeSnake claims to be located in a non-extradition country, beyond the reach of US law enforcement. In messages to WIRED, AlphaBay's new boss describes having lived in the former USSR, and he previously wrote Russian-language messages to users on the original AlphaBay's forums.

AlphaBay has long been rumored to have some sort of connections to Russia or Russians. Its rules have always banned the sale of data stolen from victims in former USSR countries, a common prohibition among Russian hackers intended to shield them from Russian law enforcement scrutiny. And when Alexandre Cazes wrote under the Alpha02 moniker on the site, he sometimes signed off with a Russian phrase for “stay safe.” But when Cazes was later tracked down in Thailand, many assumed AlphaBay's Russian fingerprints had been designed to mislead investigators.

DeSnake now claims, however, that he and others involved in the original AlphaBay do in fact remain beyond the reach of Western law enforcement. "You do not shit where you sleep," he writes of AlphaBay's rule against selling the stolen data of ex-Soviet citizens. "We did that for security of other staff members. [Cazes] decided to embrace it as a way to secure himself."

Regardless, DeSnake claims that he has traveled to "several continents within the last 4 years" and "had zero problems," leading him to believe that his years of freedom have been a result not only of his location but of having technically outmaneuvered the law enforcement agencies tracking him. Of course, everything DeSnake told WIRED may itself be misdirection designed to help him further evade those agencies.

When WIRED reached out to Justice Department officials, including one who participated in the original investigation of AlphaBay that resulted in its 2017 takedown, they either didn't respond or declined to comment.

While few of DeSnake's claims can be confirmed, he has at least enjoyed unusual longevity for a dark web market operator. Security firm Flashpoint says it has seen evidence and descriptions of DeSnake operating under the same pseudonym—first as a credit-card-focused cybercriminal on sites like Evolution and Tor Carder Forum before becoming a market administrator himself—since at least 2013.

DeSnake first appeared on the original AlphaBay's forums in the fall of 2014, a vendor of credit card fraud—also known as "carding"—tools and guides, looking for a new home after the administrators of Evolution absconded with their users' money in a so-called "exit scam." He says he quickly befriended Alpha02 by an unorthodox method: He claims he "popped a shell" on AlphaBay, hacking the website and gaining a foothold to run his own commands on its server. Rather than exploit that breach, he says, he helped the administrator fix it and soon became the site's number-two admin and security lead. "I took care of the security and certain admin stuff," DeSnake says. "He took care of the rest."

Nearly three years later, Cazes was arrested and the site torn offline, thanks in part to a trail of evidence that began when the AlphaBay founder leaked a personal email address in the metadata of a welcome message to new users on its forums, a problem DeSnake says he had fixed early on by switching the site's forum software. "I am still in disbelief to this day that he had put his personal email on there," DeSnake says. "He was a good carder and he knew better opsec."

Dark web buyers and vendors haven't exactly flocked back to AlphaBay's since its return. A few weeks into the relaunch, it has just under 500 listings, compared to more than 350,000 at AlphaBay's 2017 peak. Those low numbers likely stem from DeSnake's insistence on accepting only Monero, from skeptical dark web users waiting to see if the new AlphaBay is legitimate, and from a barrage of distributed denial-of-service attacks that have knocked the site offline since its launch. But DeSnake argues that dark web markets typically gain an influx of new users only when another popular market shuts down or is busted by law enforcement; neither has happened since AlphaBay came back.

In the meantime, DeSnake wants to attract users with promises of a still-unproven system he calls AlphaGuard, designed to let users withdraw their funds even if authorities once again seize the servers that run AlphaBay's infrastructure.

As DeSnake describes it, AlphaGuard will automatically rent and set up new servers if it detects that AlphaBay's are being taken offline. He even claims that AlphaGuard will automatically hack other websites and plant data on their servers to give users "withdrawal codes" they can use to save the cryptocurrency they've stored on AlphaBay in case of a takedown. "It is a system to ensure users can withdraw funds, settle disputes, and generally go without a cent lost if raids happen," DeSnake writes, "even if it happens on all servers at the same time. It is unstoppable."

If that AlphaGuard feature doesn't sound aspirational enough, DeSnake says he's also in the early stages of a long-term plan to implement a fully decentralized marketplace system, essentially a BitTorrent to the current dark web markets' Napster. In that hyper-ambitious plan, open source programmers and server operators who independently run hundreds or thousands of servers would be paid a portion of profits for hosting markets that would form a vast dark web network with no single point of failure. AlphaBay, DeSnake says, would be one of the "brands" hosted on that network, but any vendor or market could choose to set up their own, with encryption features that would keep each market or store under that administrator's control even as its code is duplicated across a vast array of machines.

DeSnake has discussed that decentralization project since his earliest posts to the AlphaBay forums, and he acknowledges that it's still years away. But he sees it as a way to both make AlphaBay invulnerable to future law enforcement takedowns and to pay back the dark web's users for the millions they lost when the original AlphaBay server was seized. "When it comes to the money making this is investment in the future of AlphaBay," DeSnake writes. "When it comes to ideology I think that is pretty clear. The reason is to make good to the AlphaBay name … this is our way to reimburse the darknet scene for what has happened."

But all of the defensive wizardry that DeSnake describes—both AlphaGuard and the decentralization project—remain largely unproven talk, says Flashpoint analyst Ian Gray, who closely monitors dark web markets. The decentralization plan, for instance, would require collective buy-in from a large number of developers and network operators for what would likely be seen as an essentially illegal project. Gray points out that DeSnake hasn't published any code for either that system or AlphaGuard, and questions why he would relaunch AlphaBay four years after its takedown without any real progress toward his decentralization dream. "He hasn't really demonstrated anything besides launching a marketplace," Gray says. "I'm distrustful of DeSnake, and I think across the communities there's a general distrust."

Gray points to a thread on the largely Russian cybercrime forum XSS, where many commenters expressed their skepticism about DeSnake's return, some implying that he's being controlled by law enforcement. "Lol, how many honest comrades will DeSnake have to turn in now to leave the punishment cell?" one commenter asked in Russian. "It's fake and 99.9% sure and feds opening it again," another wrote.

One former US law enforcement official involved in the original AlphaBay investigation, who asked not to be named, also expressed doubts. "If I were a vendor or user on this site, I would be very concerned with it being either set up for an exit scam or some type of honeypot operation," the former official said, noting that they're not aware of any ongoing law enforcement operations that may be targeting the site.

Nicolas Christin, a dark-web-focused computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, verified DeSnake's PGP key against a copy found in his own archive of messages. But that key, he says, could be in the control of law enforcement agencies, or DeSnake himself could have become a law enforcement cooperator. After all, at the same time as AlphaBay's 2017 takedown, the Dutch police took over and controlled Hansa, the second-largest dark web market at the time. "It's unlikely," Christin says of theories that DeSnake is compromised, "but not impossible."

DeSnake counters that if law enforcement had gotten to him and launched the new AlphaBay as a honeypot, they would have simply reused the original AlphaBay's code. Instead, he says, he rewrote it from scratch. And he points out that the Monero-only restriction for the site would make it far less effective for trapping unsuspecting dark web buyers than a site that simply accepts Bitcoin.

"With all of that said you decide for yourself whether you ride the wave with us to the top and beyond," he wrote in a message to users on the dark web market forum Dread. "I understand if you decide not to but over time you will be proven that we are the original AB and we have never been 'compromised' in any way shape or form."

If DeSnake and his revitalized AlphaBay are in fact legit, they may prove to be the opposite of a honeypot: A highly motivated digital black market seemingly beyond the grasp of US law enforcement. And that might well mean that the long track record of one of the dark web's oldest players still has no clear end in sight.

Until next week,

- js.

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