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How photo encryption could safeguard our online images

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To stop our images from being compromised, researchers developed photo encryption technology compatible with major cloud storage services.

Cloud services for storing photos have a serious security role. Google Photos, for instance, must safeguard more than 1bn users alongside their weekly uploads of 28bn photos and videos.

Many of these photos will intentionally end up on our Facebook, Instagram or Twitter feeds, but others we would prefer not to share.

Now, a team of researchers has developed technology in an effort to protect our images and make sure that what we consider private stays private.

“There are many cases of employees at online services abusing their insider access to user data, like SnapChat employees looking at people’s private photos,” said John S Koh, the lead author of the paper.

“There have even been bugs that reveal random users’ data to other users, which actually happened with a bug in Google Photos that revealed users’ private videos to other entirely random users.”

While this presents an obvious problem, that doesn’t mean it’s time to switch back to polaroids just yet. Koh’s intended solution was photo encryption.

Unfortunately, many services such as Google Photos don’t allow for encryption. These systems often incorporate compression to reduce file size, but this would corrupt any encrypted images.

Another issue would be thumbnails. These miniature snapshots are great for browsing your gallery but aren’t currently compatible with encryption techniques.

Some third-party services have managed photo encryption in their hosting, but all of these require migrating from the bigger services such as Google.

Solving this problem was the focus of the research team. Its system, dubbed Easy Secure Photos (ESP), encrypts images uploaded to cloud services so only the original user can view the images.

ESP employs a photo-encryption algorithm where the resulting files can be compressed and can still be recognised as images. To anyone who isn’t the authorised user, these images will just look like static.

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Encrypting each image results in three black-and-white files, each one encoding details about the original image’s red, green, or blue data. Impressively, ESP also creates and uploads encrypted thumbnail images to cloud photo services. That way, the authorised user can browse thumbnail galleries by incorporating ESP.

“Our system adds an extra layer of protection beyond your password-based account security,” said Koh, who designed and implemented ESP.

“The goal is to make it so that only your devices can see your sensitive photos, and no one else unless you specifically share it with them.”

The researchers wanted to make sure that each user could use multiple devices to access their online photos if desired.

The problem is the same digital code or ‘key’ used to encrypt a photo has to be the same one used to decrypt the image, making multi-device functionality a research riddle.

“Lots of work has shown that users do not understand keys and requiring them to move them around from one device to another is a recipe for disaster, either because the scheme is too complicated for users to use, or because they copy the key the wrong way and inadvertently give everyone access to their encrypted data,” explained Koh.

On this system, all a user has to do in order to bypass the photo encryption is to verify their new device with one that has previously logged into an ESP-enabled app.

To prove the efficacy of their technology, the researchers implemented ESP in Simple Gallery, a popular photo gallery app on Android.

It could successfully encrypt images from Google Photos, Flickr and Imgur without changes needed to any of these cloud photo services and showed only minor increases in download and upload time.

“We are experiencing the beginning of a major technological boom where even average users move towards moving all their data into the cloud. This comes with great privacy concerns that have only recently started rearing their ugly heads, such as the increasing number of discovered cases of cloud service employees looking at private user data,” Koh said.

“Users should have an option to protect their data that they think is really important in these popular services, and we explore just one practical solution for this.”

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London is the best European city for founders, Startup Genome report

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The UK capital was the only European city to make the top ten in Startup Genome’s ranking, tying with New York in second place for the second year in a row.

London is Europe’s number one start-up city, according to a recent report by Startup Genome. The research and advisory body which specialises in start-ups released its ‘Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2021’ report today (22 September).

The report identified London and New York as joint second-best cities in the world for start-ups. London was the only European location to make it into the top ten. The city is attractive to founders thanks to its educated workforce and tax incentives, the report found.

Silicon Valley in California took the top spot, unsurprisingly. This year’s global rankings were dominated by the US, with half of the top 30 ecosystems coming from this region, followed by Asia with 27pc and Europe with 17pc of the top performing ecosystems globally.

Silicon Valley, New York City, Boston, and Los Angeles alone contributed more than 70pc to the US’s total ecosystem value.

Paris made the top 20, coming in at number 12. The Amsterdam-Delta region followed in thirteenth place. Dublin improved its rank from the previous year’s report, coming in at number 36 this time.

Beijing, Boston, Los Angeles, Tel Aviv, Shanghai, Seattle and Stockholm also made the top ten best start-up cities.

The global start-up economy is currently worth more than $3.8trn in ecosystem value. There are 79 ecosystems generating over $4bn in value, which is more than double the number identified in 2017. This time last year, 91 ecosystems had achieved unicorn status.

Also in 2020, Startup Genome published a report indicating its concerns over the future of the start-ups ecosystem during Covid-19. The report suggested that 42pc of start-ups were in what it called ‘the red zone,’ meaning they had three months or fewer runway ahead of them.

Several countries  including the UK, France and Germany introduced special support packages for start-ups. Irish non-profit Scale Ireland also introduced a similar start-up scheme for Irish companies.

“Entrepreneurs, policymakers, and community leaders in Europe have been working hard to build inclusive innovation ecosystems that are engines of economic growth and job creation for all,” commented JF Gauthier, founder and CEO of Startup Genome on the report’s release.

“The Global Startup Ecosystem Report is the foundation of knowledge where we, as a global network, come together to identify what policies actually produce economic impact and in what context,” Gauthier added.

Don’t miss out on the knowledge you need to succeed. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of need-to-know sci-tech news.

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Facebook oversight board to review system that exempts elite users | Facebook

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Facebook’s semi-independent oversight board says it will review the company’s “XCheck” system, an internal program that has exempted high-profile users from some or all of its rules.

The decision follows an investigation by the Wall Street Journal that revealed that reviews of posts by well-known users such as celebrities, politicians and journalists are steered into the separate system.

Under the program, some users are “whitelisted”, or not subject to enforcement action, while others are allowed to post material that violates Facebook rules pending content reviews that often do not take place. The Xcheck system, for example, allowed Brazilian footballer Neymar to post nude pictures of a woman who had accused him of rape, according to the report.

Users were identified for additional scrutiny based on criteria such as being “newsworthy”, “influential or popular” or “PR risky”, the Wall Street Journal found. By 2020 there were 5.8 million users on the XCheck list, according to the newspaper.

The oversight board said Tuesday that it expects to have a briefing with Facebook on the system and “will be reporting what we hear from this” as part of a report it will publish in October.

The board may also make other recommendations, although Facebook is not bound to follow these.

The Journal’s report, the board said, has drawn “renewed attention to the seemingly inconsistent way that the company makes decisions, and why greater transparency and independent oversight of Facebook matters so much for users”.

Facebook told the Journal in response to its investigation that the system “was designed for an important reason: to create an additional step so we can accurately enforce policies on content that could require more understanding”. The company added that criticism of it was “fair” and that it was working to fix it.

A representative for Facebook declined to comment to the Associated Press on the oversight board’s decision.

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Philippines imposes 12 per cent digital services tax • The Register

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The Philippines has become the latest nation to impose a digital services tax.

Such taxes require the likes of Netflix and Spotify to pay local sales taxes even though their services are delivered – legally, notionally, and physically – from beyond local jurisdiction.

The Philippines has chosen a rate of 12 per cent, mirroring local value added taxes.

“We have now clarified that digital services and the goods and services traded through digital service providers should generally be subject to VAT. This is just a matter of common tax sense,” said Joey Salceda, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives and a backer of the change to the nation’s tax code.

Salceda tied the change to post-pandemic economic recovery.

“If brick and mortar establishments, which are the hardest-hit by the pandemic, have to pay VAT, the giants of e-commerce shouldn’t be exempt,” he said.

However, local companies that are already exempt from VAT by virtue of low turnover won’t be caught by the extension of the tax into the virtual realm.

Salceda’s amendments are designed to catch content streamers, but also online software sales – including mobile apps – plus SaaS and hosted software. The Philippines’ News Agency’s report on the amendment’s passage into law even mentions firewalls as subject to VAT.

The Philippines is not alone in introducing a digital services tax to raise more revenue after the COVID-19 pandemic hurt government revenue – Indonesia used the same logic in 2020 .

But the taxes are controversial because they are seen as a unilateral response to the wider issue of multinational companies picking the jurisdictions in which they’ll pay tax – a practice that erodes national tax bases. The G7 group of nations, and the OECD, think that collaborations that shift tax liabilities to nations where goods and services are acquired and consumed are the most appropriate response, and that harmonising global tax laws to make big tech pay up wherever they do business is a better plan than digital services taxes.

The USA has backed that view of digital services taxes, by announcing it will impose tariffson nations that introduce them – but is yet to enact that plan.

Meanwhile, the process of creating a global approach to multinational tax shenanigans is taking years to agree and implement.

But The Philippines wants more cash in its coffers – and to demonstrate that local businesses aren’t being disadvantaged – ASAP. ®

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