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Apple Takes a (Cautious) Stand Against Opening a Killer’s iPhones

SAN FRANCISCO — Apple is privately preparing for a legal fight with the Justice Department to defend encryption on its iPhones while publicly trying to defuse the dispute, as the technology giant navigates an increasingly tricky line between its customers and the Trump administration.

Timothy D. Cook, Apple’s chief executive, has marshaled a handful of top advisers, while Attorney General William P. Barr has taken aim at the company and asked it to help penetrate two phones used by a gunman in a deadly shooting last month at a naval air station in Pensacola, Fla.

Executives at Apple have been surprised by the case’s quick escalation, said people familiar with the company who were not authorized to speak publicly. And there is frustration and skepticism among some on the Apple team working on the issue that the Justice Department hasn’t spent enough time trying to get into the iPhones with third-party tools, said one person with knowledge of the matter.

The situation has become a sudden crisis at Apple that pits Mr. Cook’s longstanding commitment to protecting people’s privacy against accusations from the United States government that it is putting the public at risk. The case resembles Apple’s clash with the F.B.I. in 2016 over another dead gunman’s phone, which dragged on for months.

This time, Apple is facing off against the Trump administration, which has been unpredictable. The stakes are high for Mr. Cook, who has built an unusual alliance with President Trump that has helped Apple largely avoid damaging tariffs in the trade war with China. That relationship will now be tested as Mr. Cook confronts Mr. Barr, one of the president’s closest allies.

“We are helping Apple all of the time on TRADE and so many other issues, and yet they refuse to unlock phones used by killers, drug dealers and other violent criminal elements,” Mr. Trump said Tuesday in a post on Twitter. “They will have to step up to the plate and help our great Country.”

Apple declined to comment on the issue on Tuesday. Late Monday, after Mr. Barr had complained that the company had provided no “substantive assistance” in gaining access to the phones used in the Pensacola shooting, Apple said it rejected that characterization. It added that “encryption is vital to protecting our country and our users’ data.”

But Apple also offered conciliatory language, in a sign that it did not want the showdown to intensify. The company said it was working with the F.B.I. on the Pensacola case, with its engineers recently holding a call to provide technical assistance.

“We will work tirelessly to help them investigate this tragic attack on our nation,” Apple said.

At the heart of the tussle is a debate between Apple and the government over whether security or privacy trumps the other. Apple has said it chooses not to build a “backdoor” way for governments to get into iPhones and to bypass encryption because that would create a slippery slope that could damage people’s privacy.

The government has argued it is not up to Apple to choose whether to provide help, as the Fourth Amendment allows the government to violate individual privacy in the interest of public safety. Privacy has never been an absolute right under the Constitution, Mr. Barr said in a speech in October.

Mr. Cook publicly took a stand on privacy in 2016 when Apple fought a court order from the F.B.I. to open the iPhone of a gunman involved in a San Bernardino, Calif., mass shooting. The company said it could open the phone in a month, using a team of six to 10 engineers. But in a blistering, 1,100-word letter to Apple customers at the time, Mr. Cook warned that creating a way for the authorities to gain access to someone’s iPhone “would undermine the very freedoms and liberty our government is meant to protect.”

Bruce Sewell, Apple’s former general counsel who helped lead the company’s response in the San Bernardino case, said in an interview last year that Mr. Cook had staked his reputation on the stance. Had Apple’s board not agreed with the position, Mr. Cook was prepared to resign, Mr. Sewell said.

The San Bernardino case was bitterly contested by the government and Apple until a private company came forward with a way to break into the phone. Since then, Mr. Cook has made privacy one of Apple’s core values. That has set Apple apart from tech giants like Facebook and Google, which have faced scrutiny for vacuuming up people’s data to sell ads.

“It’s brilliant marketing,” Scott Galloway, a New York University marketing professor who has written a book on the tech giants, said of Apple. “They’re so concerned with your privacy that they’re willing to wave the finger at the F.B.I.”

Mr. Cook’s small team at Apple is now aiming to steer the current situation toward an outside resolution that doesn’t involve the company breaking its own security, even as it prepares for a potential legal battle over the issue, said the people with knowledge of the thinking.

Some of the frustration within Apple over the Justice Department is rooted in how police have previously exploited software flaws to break into iPhones. The Pensacola gunman’s phones were an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 7 Plus, according to a person familiar with the investigation who declined to be named because the detail was confidential.

Those phones, released in 2012 and 2016, lack Apple’s most sophisticated encryption. The iPhone 5 is even older than the device in the San Bernardino case, which was an iPhone 5C.

Security researchers and a former senior Apple executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity said tools from at least two companies, Cellebrite and Grayshift, have long been able to bypass the encryption on those iPhone models.

Cellebrite said in an email that it helps “thousands of organizations globally to lawfully access and analyze” digital information; it declined to comment on an active investigation. Grayshift declined to comment.

Cellebrite’s and Grayshift’s tools exploit flaws in iPhone software that let them remove limits on how many passwords can be tried before the device erases its data, the researchers said. Typically, iPhones allow 10 password attempts. The tools then use a so-called brute-force attack, or repeated automated attempts of thousands of passcodes, until one works.

“The iPhone 5 is so old, you are guaranteed that Grayshift and Cellebrite can break into those every bit as easily as Apple could,” said Nicholas Weaver, a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, who has taught iPhone security.

Chuck Cohen, who recently retired as head of the Indiana State Police’s efforts to break into encrypted devices, said his team used a $15,000 device from Grayshift that enabled it to regularly get into iPhones, particularly older ones, though the tool didn’t always work.

In the San Bernardino case, the Justice Department’s Office of Inspector General later found the F.B.I. had not tried all possible solutions before trying to force Apple to unlock the phone. In the current case, Mr. Barr and other Justice Department officials have said they have exhausted all options, though they declined to detail exactly why third-party tools have failed on these phones as the authorities seek to learn if the gunman acted alone or coordinated with others.

“The F.B.I.’s technical experts — as well as those consulted outside of the organization — have played an integral role in this investigation,” an F.B.I. spokeswoman said. “The consensus was reached, after all efforts to access the shooter’s phones had been unsuccessful, that the next step was to reach out to start a conversation with Apple.”

Security researchers speculated that in the Pensacola case, the F.B.I. might still be trying a brute-force attack to get into the phones. They said major physical damage may have impeded any third-party tools from opening the devices. The Pensacola gunman had shot the iPhone 7 Plus once and tried destroying the iPhone 5, according to F.B.I. photos.

The F.B.I. said it fixed the iPhones in a lab so that they would turn on, but the authorities still couldn’t bypass their encryption. Security researchers and the former Apple executive said any damage that prevented third-party tools from working would also preclude a solution from Apple.

A Justice Department spokeswoman said in an email: “Apple designed these phones and implemented their encryption. It’s a simple, ‘front-door’ request: Will Apple help us get into the shooter’s phones or not?”

While Apple has closed loopholes that police have used to break into its devices and resisted some law enforcement requests for access, it has also routinely helped police get information from phones in cases that don’t require it to break its encryption. Apple has held seminars for police departments on how to quickly get into a suspect’s phone, and it has a hotline and dedicated team to aid police in time-sensitive cases.

In the past seven years, Apple has also complied with roughly 127,000 requests from American law enforcement agencies for data stored on its computer servers. Such data is unencrypted and access is possible without a customer’s passcode.

In 2016, when the standoff between Apple and the government was at its most acrimonious, Mr. Cook said Congress should pass a law to decide the boundaries between public safety and technological security. In court filings, Apple even identified an applicable law, the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act.

On Monday, Mr. Barr said the Trump administration had revived talks with Congress to come up with such a law.

Jack Nicas reported from San Francisco, and Katie Benner from Washington.

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Google acquires AppSheet to bring no-code development to Google Cloud

Google announced today that it is buying AppSheet, an eight-year-old no-code mobile-application-building platform. The company had raised more than $17 million on a $60 million valuation, according to PitchBook data. The companies did not share the purchase price.

With AppSheet, Google gets a simple way for companies to build mobile apps without having to write a line of code. It works by pulling data from a spreadsheet, database or form, and using the field or column names as the basis for building an app.

It is integrated with Google Cloud already integrating with Google Sheets and Google Forms, but also works with other tools, including AWS DynamoDB, Salesforce, Office 365, Box and others. Google says it will continue to support these other platforms, even after the deal closes.

As Amit Zavery wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition, it’s about giving everyone a chance to build mobile applications, even companies lacking traditional developer resources to build a mobile presence. “This acquisition helps enterprises empower millions of citizen developers to more easily create and extend applications without the need for professional coding skills,” he wrote.

In a story we hear repeatedly from startup founders, Praveen Seshadri, co-founder and CEO at AppSheet, sees an opportunity to expand his platform and market reach under Google in ways he couldn’t as an independent company.

“There is great potential to leverage and integrate more deeply with many of Google’s amazing assets like G Suite and Android to improve the functionality, scale, and performance of AppSheet. Moving forward, we expect to combine AppSheet’s core strengths with Google Cloud’s deep industry expertise in verticals like financial services, retail, and media  and entertainment,” he wrote.

Google sees this acquisition as extending its development philosophy with no-code working alongside workflow automation, application integration and API management.

No code tools like AppSheet are not going to replace sophisticated development environments, but they will give companies that might not otherwise have a mobile app the ability to put something decent out there.

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Equinix is acquiring bare metal cloud provider Packet

Equinix announced today that is acquiring bare metal cloud provider Packet. The New York City startup that had raised over $36 million on a $100 million valuation, according to Pitchbook data.

Equinix has a set of data centers and co-locations facilities around the world. Companies that may want to have more control over their hardware could use their services including space, power and cooling systems, instead of running their own data centers.

Equinix is getting a unique cloud infrastructure vendor in Packet, one that can provide more customized kinds of hardware configurations than you can get from the mainstream infrastructure vendors like AWS and Azure.

Interestingly, COO George Karidis came over from Equinix when he joined the company, so there is a connection there. Karidis described his company in a September, 2018 TechCrunch article:

“We offer the most diverse hardware options,” he said. That means they could get servers equipped with Intel, ARM, AMD or with specific nVidia GPUs in whatever configurations they want. By contrast public cloud providers tend to offer a more off-the-shelf approach. It’s cheap and abundant, but you have to take what they offer, and that doesn’t always work for every customer.”

In a blog post announcing the deal, company co-founder and CEO Zachary Smith had a message for his customers, who may be worried about the change in ownership, “When the transaction closes later this quarter, Packet will continue operating as before: same team, same platform, same vision,” he wrote.

He also offered the standard value story for a deal like this, saying the company could scale much faster under Equinix than it could on its own with access to its new company’s massive resources including 200+ data centers in 55 markets and 1,800 networks.

Sara Baack, chief product officer at Equinix says bringing the two companies together will provide a diverse set of bare metal options for customers moving forward. “Our combined strengths will further empower companies to be everywhere they need to be, to interconnect everyone and integrate everything that matters to their business,” she said in a statement.

While the companies did not share the purchase price, they did hint that they would have more details on the transaction after it closes, which is expected in the first quarter this year.

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Microsoft bids farewell to Windows 7 and the millions of PCs that still run it

Today is a big day for Windows. Microsoft is dropping support of Windows 7, nearly 11 years after first launching the operating system with a flashy New York City marketing campaign. “I’m a PC, and Windows 7 was my idea” was the message back then, a clear nod to the fact that it was designed to fix the Windows Vista failure. Windows 7 certainly did fix things, with its new task bar, Aero window management, file libraries, and much more.

Windows 7 became so popular, in fact, that it took Windows 10 nearly four years just to pass it in market share. Even today, millions of PCs are still running Windows 7, and the operating system still runs on a massive 26 percent of all PCs according to data from Netmarketshare. Microsoft spent years trying to get people to upgrade to Windows 10 free of charge, but tens of millions of PCs will now be left vulnerable to exploits and security vulnerabilities.

Businesses and education Windows 7 users will be able to pay for extended security updates, but it could be a costly venture for some. Extended updates for Windows 7 Enterprise is approximately $25 per machine, and the cost doubles to $50 per device in 2021 and again to $100 in 2022. It’s even worse for Windows 7 Pro users, which starts at $50 per machine and jumps to $100 in 2021 and $200 in 2022. These costs will naturally vary depending on the volume of PCs in use at a business, but they’re still going to be substantial for larger firms.

Microsoft is easing these costs with a free year of post-retirement updates to Windows 7 customers with active Windows 10 subscriptions. That hasn’t made a big dent in Windows 7 market share recently, though.

A Windows 7 upgrade notification.

Microsoft has been notifying Windows 7 users throughout 2019 about today’s end of support, so people still stuck on the OS can’t say they haven’t been warned. A full-screen notification will appear for Windows 7 users on Wednesday, warning that systems are now out of support. Microsoft is trying to convince existing users to upgrade to machines running Windows 10, a trend that caused the global PC market to have its first year of growth since 2011.

Despite the end of support, Windows 7 looks like it has some life left in it yet. It could take another year or two to get Windows 7 firmly below 10 percent market share, especially when Google is committing to support Chrome on Windows 7 until at least the middle of 2021. That presents Microsoft with some headaches for ongoing support. We’ve already seen the software giant break with tradition multiple times for Windows XP, issuing public patches for the operating system after its end of support date. Given the increases in ransomware attacks in recent years and their devastating effects, it’s likely we’ll see public Windows 7 security patches in the future.

The vast majority of these support headaches will come from businesses that don’t always upgrade to the very latest Windows releases. Windows Vista and Windows 8 weren’t exactly solid in-between releases to which you could reliably upgrade, and that left most businesses running Windows XP or Windows 7 to avoid software issues and incompatibilities. Windows 8 won’t have the same issues when its support ends in 2023, as it’s only running on less than 5 percent of all PCs.

Windows 10 REVIEW embargoed
Windows 10.

Windows 10 has also attempted to combat this end of support problem with Microsoft’s big “Windows as a service” push. Businesses and consumers were given 18 months before they need to move from a major Windows 10 update to another, and Microsoft has been releasing two big updates per year. That’s led to some complaints from businesses, so Microsoft has now slowed the pace to 30 months of support for each big September update and 18 months for the March ones. This won’t affect consumers who will only be supported for 18 months per release, but these machines typically upgrade automatically to the latest Windows 10 release and aren’t the source of Microsoft’s support woes.

We’ve already hit multiple end-of-support dates for various Windows 10 releases without any major hiccups, and three versions are set to reach end of service this year alone. If businesses keep upgrading regularly, then Windows 10 may have truly solved some of Microsoft’s support headaches for the future.

Windows as a service does present interesting questions about PC sales over the next decade, though. Windows 7 end of life has helped the PC market bounce back in 2019, but with no “Windows 11” in sight, the PCs that businesses are purchasing now could last longer than ever before. Microsoft, Intel, and PC OEMs will be hoping that Surface and the constant push to improve hardware will convince businesses and even consumers to upgrade. That didn’t happen immediately with the “PC Does What?” marketing campaign four years ago, which aimed to get people with older Windows 7 PCs to upgrade to new hardware. There are probably still millions of consumers holding on to Windows 7 machines simply because they continue to work fine for the basics.

Surface Neo.
Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Microsoft, Intel, and others are now focused on foldable and dual-screen laptops for 2020 and beyond. Microsoft is building out its Windows 10X variant for this new hardware, and we’ve started to see some target devices announced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) last week. It’s still early days for this type of hardware, and Windows 10X will have to do a lot of work to make these devices shine.

We’ll likely never witness another giant release of Windows like we’ve seen with Windows 10 or Windows 7 in the past, even for foldable devices. Microsoft’s priorities have certainly shifted under CEO Satya Nadella. “The operating system is no longer the most important layer for us,” explained Nadella at the launch of new Surface devices last year. Windows is still a significant part of Microsoft’s business, but it’s not the future of it. Microsoft is embracing Android, cross-platform software and services, and the cloud. It’s a company that increasingly embraces competitors like Amazon, Samsung, Sony, and Google to transform its own business.

That transformation is ongoing, and Microsoft is increasingly looking at the web to work its way onto rival platforms. The end of Windows 7 is simply another milestone in the history of Windows. It comes at the start of a new decade, and it marks the end of an era when Windows ruled everyone’s computing experiences. How Windows adapts over the next decade could be the most significant change for Microsoft in its 44-year history.

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With the Galaxy S20 and Bloom, Samsung is shaking up its phone names again

Now that CES is over, we turn our attention to the next big tech unveiling — no rest for the wicked! Samsung announced its February 11th “Unpacked” event ahead of CES and is widely expected to have two phones: an update to the Galaxy S10 and a new, clamshell-style folding phone.

Because nothing can ever be simple, Samsung has decided to change the naming scheme for the Galaxy S series away from sequential, incremental numbering to the year of release. Or at least, I hope that the fact it’s getting released in 2020 is the reason Samsung appears to be calling its next phone the Galaxy S20 instead of the S11. I hope that mostly because I don’t know if I can handle having to listen and react to any other rationalization.

I’m not mad in the change, just disappointed. We already have arms races for specs on phones, the last thing I want is another one for how big the numbers in their names are.

Anyway, right on schedule we have real-world photos which confirm Samsung’s next flagship phone is called the Galaxy S20, if you were holding out hope that this S20 rumor wouldn’t pan out.

It’s a good scoop from Max Weinbach at XDA Developers. It looks as though there’ll be no fewer than five variants of this phone, but don’t slam Samsung too hard for that. As OnePlus CEO Pete Lau pointed out to me last week, every phone maker is having to make extra versions of their phones during the 5G transition. So really, think of it as three version: the S20, S20 Plus, and S20 Ultra.

That “Ultra” is apparently going to be a spec monster, and I hope Samsung uses it as permission to push the prices on the regular S20 down into more reasonable territories. The iPhone 11 starts at $699 and ideally the Galaxy S20 will too. Samsung has a little wiggle room, maybe, as it’s more willing than Apple to allow a wide variety of carrier discounts.

If you missed it on Friday, there’s also a blurry photo of the folding phone, which is reportedly going to be called the Samsung Bloom. I am into the rumored name, but I am feeling both optimistic and nervous about the positioning:

What’s new is the name and marketing for the Bloom. Ajunews says Samsung wants the device to appeal to young women, and says its clamshell design is easy to hold in one hand. Samsung Electronics CEO DJ Koh reportedly told one partner: “We designed Galaxy Bloom with the motif of compact powder from French cosmetics brand Lancôme.”

If Samsung is being sincere here, then I really love that advanced tech is being made with women in mind. Big companies should think harder about how to appeal to more consumers. The reason I’m feeling nervous is that Samsung itself has a lousy track record when it comes to navigating gender issues. As recently as 2017, Samsung gendered the possible voices for its Bixby assistant and created descriptor tags for the female voice that included “chipper” and “cheerful.”

Back in the early 2010s a lot of companies made hamfisted attempts to create phones that appealed to women (HTC Rhyme, anyone?) and we should expect better in 2020. If Samsung really does want to appeal to a wider range of genders with the Bloom, hopefully it does more than make it small and gesture to cosmetics. The shoe industry is finally figuring out how to design for women — the phone industry can definitely do better.

I hope Samsung has learned from all those past mistakes.


News from The Verge

Trump’s attorney general asks Apple to unlock a shooter’s iPhones

Microsoft CEO says encryption backdoors are a ‘terrible idea’

Alphabet’s top lawyer is leaving with no exit package following misconduct scandals

Microsoft says Xbox Series X won’t have exclusive first-party games at launch

It’s a bold strategy, Cotton. Let’s see if it pays off for ‘em.

Elon Musk: ‘Teslas will soon talk to people if you want. This is real’

I don’t know why the “This is real” addition is what makes this story, but it’s absolutely what makes this story. I’m going to start appending that phrase to everything I say that’s even a little bit difficult to imagine. “I will try to make a frittata this weekend. This is real.” “Tomorrow I am going to reduce the number of emails in by inbox by 20 percent. This is real.” “I think stepping on a bathmat with wet feet is a wildly inconsiderate thing to do to your roommates. This is real.”

GTA IV has disappeared from Steam because of Games for Windows Live

Is it a stretch to turn this weird story into an allegory for how dangerous it is to depend entirely on app store infrastructure for app and game functionality, no matter how convenient it is for users to not have to deal with multiple sign-in and no matter how big the check from the big platforms might be? Probably, but not definitely.

Apple gets regulatory approval for mystery MacBook

I hope Apple aggressively refreshes the entire MacBook line with the new magic keyboard this year, optics and standard product cycles be damned. The real magic in the magic keyboard will be the extra money that will magically appear on Apple’s quarterly earnings from people begrudgingly buying new laptops earlier than they otherwise would have because they’re sick unto death of the butterfly keyboard.


More tech trends we saw kick off last week

The Verge Awards at CES 2020: welcome to the land of the concept

Note that we put scare quotes about “best” in the “‘Best’ of CES.” I’ve been writing about the balance of concepts to products for a week now, so I don’t have a whole lot more to add here. Some good picks in the other categories, though, worth a look!

Laptops were boring at CES, but there’s hope for the future

CES landed in a particular dip in the parts cycle this time around. There are exciting new chips and exciting new form factors coming, but neither was really ready to come out in force this January. Don’t let it get you down.

This year’s monitors will be faster, brighter, and curvier than ever

I agree with Sam Byford on this:

If I were buying a gaming monitor today, I would probably at least want to future-proof myself with HDR support, and I think that would probably mean considering a high DisplayHDR spec to be essential. As for Mini LED, it’s hard to say how much of a leap forward it represents — the effectiveness of LED dimming solutions can vary from model to model or panel to panel. But if nothing else, it should signal that you’re looking at a monitor with serious HDR support

How gaming PCs are competing with the PS5 and Xbox Series X

Good analysis from Nick Statt. Expect to see PCs and consoles wander into each others’ turf a lot this year.

Wi-Fi 6 is finally here

Wi-Fi 6 was never meant to be a technology so powerful as to be worth upgrading for. It comes with speed increases, up to 9.6 Gbps from a theoretical maximum of 3.5 Gbps on Wi-Fi 5. But that extra bandwidth is more about allowing routers to scale across the multitude of devices in your home, rather than deliver incredible bursts of speed to any one device (your internet speed is likely nowhere close to that maximum anyway).

OnePlus confirms its next phone will jump to a 120Hz screen

I touched on this briefly in the post, but I am a little conflicted about this for a couple reasons.

First: while I do prefer higher-refresh rate screens, I am not yet convinced they’re worth the trade-off for battery life just yet. Which makes this a frustrating thing to turn into a spec race, because the incentive will be to ship phones with a higher Hz number instead of phones that are well-balanced. I’m not saying OnePlus is doing that, but I am saying I worry the incentives for everybody in the industry are going to be skewed in a bad direction this year.

Second: This isn’t new, but OnePlus joins LG and Google in pre-announcing features ahead of announcing the phone itself. That’s all well and good, but if too many more companies jump on that bandwagon it’s going to get really exhausting.

Asus built a mini GPU specifically for Intel’s tiny gaming box

Another potential sign that this new form factor Intel is pushing might actually have legs. I can’t decide yet if hope it does, but at least a small part of me wants it to succeed. Mainly because I am sure a bunch of people are going to buy into the vision this year and I’d hate for them to be left in the lurch next year and the year after.

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Google says new AI models allow for ‘nearly instantaneous’ weather forecasts

Weather forecasting is notoriously difficult, but in recent years experts have suggested that machine learning could better help sort the sunshine from the sleet. Google is the latest firm to get involved, and in a blog post this week shared new research that it says enables “nearly instantaneous” weather forecasts.

The work is in the early stages and has yet to be integrated into any commercial systems, but early results look promising. In the non-peer-reviewed paper, Google’s researchers describe how they were able to generate accurate rainfall predictions up to six hours ahead of time at a 1km resolution from just “minutes” of calculation.

That’s a big improvement over existing techniques, which can take hours to generate forecasts, although they do so over longer time periods and generate more complex data.

Speedy predictions, say the researchers, will be “an essential tool needed for effective adaptation to climate change, particularly for extreme weather.” In a world increasingly dominated by unpredictable weather patterns, they say, short-term forecasts will be crucial for “crisis management, and the reduction of losses to life and property.”


Google’s work used radar data to predict rainfall. The top image shows cloud location, while the bottom image shows rainfall.
Credit: NOAANWSNSSL

The biggest advantage Google’s approach offers over traditional forecasting techniques is speed. The company’s researchers compared their work to two existing methods: optical flow (OF) predictions, which look at the motion of phenomenon like clouds, and simulation forecasting, which creates detailed physics-based simulations of weather systems.

The problem with these older methods — particularly the physics-based simulation — is that they’re incredibly computationally intensive. Simulations made by US federal agencies for weather forecasting, for example, have to process up to 100 terabytes of data from weather stations every day and take hours to run on expensive supercomputers.

“If it takes 6 hours to compute a forecast, that allows only 3-4 runs per day and resulting in forecasts based on 6+ hour old data, which limits our knowledge of what is happening right now,” wrote Google software engineer Jason Hickey in a blog post.

Google’s methods, by comparison, produce results in minutes because they don’t try to model complex weather systems, but instead make predictions about simple radar data as a proxy for rainfall.

The company’s researchers trained their AI model on historical radar data collected between 2017 and 2019 in the contiguous US by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). They say their forecasts were as good as or better than three existing methods making predictions from the same data, though their model was outperformed when attempting to make forecasts more than six hours ahead of time.

This seems to be the sweet spot for machine learning in weather forecasts right now: making speedy, short-term predictions, while leaving longer forecasts to more powerful models. NOAA’s weather models, for example, create forecasts up to 10 days in advance.

While we’ve not yet seen the full effects of AI on weather forecasting, plenty of other companies are also investigating this same area, including IBM and Monsanto. And, as Google’s researchers point out, such forecasting techniques are only going to become more important in our daily lives as we feel the effects of climate change.

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Why activists get frustrated with Facebook

On Monday morning I met with a group of activists who live under authoritarian regimes. The delegation had been brought to San Francisco by the nonprofit Human Rights Foundation as part of a fellowship focused on the relationship between activism and Silicon Valley. And the big question they had for me was: why do social networks keep taking down my posts?

The question caught me off guard. For every story in this newsletter about an activist’s post wrongly (and often temporarily) being removed, there are three more about the consequences of a post that was left up: a piece of viral misinformation, a terrorist recruitment video, a financial scam, and so on. As I wrote in 2018, we are well into the “take it down” era of content moderation.

Sometimes the activists’ posts came down because their governments demanded it. Other times the posts came down because of over-cautious content moderation. Increasingly, the activists told me, social networks were acting as if they would rather be safe from government intervention than sorry. And whenever their posts and pages came down, they said, they had very little recourse. Facebook does not have a customer support hotline, much less a judicial branch. (Yet. More on that below.)

The activists’ concerns were fresh in my mind when I read about the weekend’s removal of Instagram accounts in Iran that expressed support for the Iranian general Qassem Soleiman, who was killed by the United States last week. Like a strong antibiotic, it appears that Instagram’s enforcement action wiped out both accounts tied to the ruling regime and the posts of everyday Iranians.

Facebook’s explanation? Sanctions. Here’s Donie O’Sullivan and Artemis Moshtaghian in CNN:

As part of its compliance with US law, the Facebook spokesperson said the company removes accounts run by or on behalf of sanctioned people and organizations.

It also removes posts that commend the actions of sanctioned parties and individuals and seek to help further their actions, the spokesperson said, adding that Facebook has an appeals process if users feel their posts were removed in error.

GoFundMe also removed at least two fundraising campaigns for passengers on the Ukrainian flight brought down by Iranian missiles, only to later reinstate them, my colleague Colin Lecher reported at The Verge. But Twitter, on the other hand, said it would leave posts up so long as they complied with the company’s rules.

The confusion is to be expected. Legal experts disagree on the extent to which sanctions require tech platforms to remove user posts, and the issue of Iran in particular has been giving companies fits for years. Here’s Lecher in The Verge:

While recent news has put the focus on Iran, it’s hardly the first time tech companies have mounted a zealous response to sanctions. Last year, GitHub restricted users in several countries under US sanctions.

Iran, which has faced sanctions for years, has regularly had tech companies limit use in the country in response to US policy. In 2018, Slack deactivated accounts around the world that were tied to Iran, in a move that stretched well beyond the borders of the country. Apple took several popular Iranian apps off its store in 2017 in the face of US sanctions. At the time, Apple issued a statement that’s still relevant: “This area of law is complex and constantly changing.”

At the same time, once again people around the world are waking up to the reality that their speech is governed by actors who are not accountable to them. Instagram has users but not citizens. Executives in California will decide what can be said in Tehran.

Of course, there’s vastly more free speech on Instagram than in a country like Iran, where activism is brutally repressed. But as the activists shared with me on Monday, the ramifications of social networks acting as quasi-states to reshape political speech in their countries are significant. And their struggles to appeal unjust content removals are real.

The good news is that later this year, Facebook will launch its independent Oversight Board: a Supreme Court for content moderation that will allow users to appeal in cases like the activists’ and the Iranian citizens’. One of the board’s rules will be that cases selected for review will include at least one person from the region in which the case originated. That’s not quite a democratically elected representative — but hopefully it bolsters the board’s accountability to Facebook’s user base.

There are still many questions about how the board will work in practice, and whether it can serve as a model for quasi-judicial systems at other companies. But hearing the activists’ stories today, and reading about the confusion over sanctions in Iran, it seemed to me that the board can’t launch quickly enough.

The Ratio

Today in news that could affect public perception of the big tech platforms.

Trending up: In December, Facebook updated its standards surrounding hate speech and banned many dehumanizing comparisons.

Trending down: In 2019, Americans said that social media wastes our time, spreads lies and divides the nation. And yet 70 percent still use Twitter or Facebook at least once a day.

Governing

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell introduced a new bill that would give news organizations an exemption from antitrust laws. It would allow them to band together to negotiate with Google and Facebook over how their articles and photos are used online, and what payments the newspapers get from the tech companies. Cecilia Kang from The New York Times has the story:

Supporters of the legislation said it was not a magic pill for profitability. It could, they say, benefit newspapers with a national reach — like The Times and The Washington Post — more than small papers. Facebook, for instance, has never featured articles from Mr. NeSmith’s newspaper chain in its “Today In” feature, an aggregation of local news from the nation’s smallest papers that can drive a lot of traffic to a news site.

“It will start with larger national publications, and then the question is how does this trickle down,” said Otis A. Brumby III, the publisher of The Marietta Daily Journal in Georgia.

But the supporters say it could stop or at least slow the financial losses at some papers, giving them time to create a new business model for the internet.

Attorney General William Barr asked Apple to unlock two iPhones used by the gunman in the Pensacola shooting last month. The company already gave investigators data on the shooter’s iCloud account, but has refused to help them open the phones, which would undermine its privacy-focused marketing. (Katie Benner / The New York Times)

A Microsoft tool used to transcribe audio from Skype and Cortana, its voice assistant, ran for years with “no security measures”, according to one former contractor. He says he reviewed thousands of potentially sensitive recordings on his personal laptop from his home in Beijing over the two years he worked at the company. (Alex Hern / The Guardian)

Most cookie consent pop-ups seen by people in the EU are likely flouting regional privacy laws, a new study suggests. The pop-ups are ostensibly supposed to get permission to track people’s web activity. (Natasha Lomas / TechCrunch)

India’s Supreme Court said indefinite internet shutdowns violate the country’s laws concerning freedom of speech and expression. However, the order won’t immediately impact the ongoing internet shutdown in Kashmir. The government still has a week to produce a restrictive order detailing the reasons for the shut down. (Ivan Mehta / TNW)

India ordered an investigation into Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart over allegedly anti-competitive practices. It’s the latest setback for US e-commerce giants operating in the country. (Aditya Kalra and Aditi Shah / Reuters)

Industry

Facebook and Google are no longer the top destinations for college students looking to land prestigious jobs after graduation. While some still see Big Tech as a way to make a lot of money, others feel like it’s an ethical minefield. Emma Goldberg at The New York Times explains the trend:

The share of Americans who believe that technology companies have a positive impact on society has dropped from 71 percent in 2015 to 50 percent in 2019, according to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey.

At this year’s Golden Globes, Sacha Baron Cohen compared Mark Zuckerberg to the main character in “JoJo Rabbit”: a “naïve, misguided child who spreads Nazi propaganda and only has imaginary friends.”

That these attitudes are shared by undergraduates and graduate students — who are supposed to be imbued with high-minded idealism — is no surprise. In August, the reporter April Glaser wrote about campus techlash for Slate. She found that at Stanford, known for its competitive computer science program, some students said they had no interest in working for a major tech company, while others sought “to push for change from within.”

Facebook shares hit an all-time high, despite attacks from both sides of the aisle ahead of this year’s presidential election. The company closed at $218.30 on Thursday, exceeding its previous high of $217.50 in July 2018 and valuing the company at $622 billion. (Tim Bradshaw / The Financial Times)

Facebook’s newest Oculus headset is in high demand, and the company has a VR-only sequel to Valve’s “Half Life” game series due out in March. The news signals Facebook’s VR quest is finally getting real. (Dan Gallagher / Wall Street Journal)

Facebook’s redesigned look for desktops is already here for some users, and will be broadly available before the spring. If you’re getting a first peak, you’ll see a pop-up inviting you to help test the “The New Facebook” when you login. (Ian Sherr / CNET)

Instagram added new Boomerang effects in an effort to compete with TikTok. Now, users can add SlowMo, “Echo” blurring, and “Duo” rapid rewind special effects to their Boomerangs, as well as trim their length. This all reminds me of one of my favorite tweets. (Josh Constine / TechCrunch)

AI-assisted health care systems, such as those being developed by Google, promise to combine humans and machines in order to facilitate cancer diagnosis. But they also has the potential to worsen pre-existing problems such as overtesting, overdiagnosis, and overtreatment. (Christie Aschwanden / Wired)

On TikTok, teens are using memes to cope with the possibility of World War III. The trend gained momentum after Soleimani’s death, with people posting bleak jokes about getting drafted. Fun!! (Kalhan Rosenblatt / NBC)

TikTok might launch a curated feed to provide a safer space for brands to advertise in. The decision comes as the Chinese-owned company faces new concerns about the volume of advertiser-unfriendly content on its platform.

Nine years after Twitch’s launch, the content that hardcore gamers most revile has officially become its most watched: just talking. A new report from StreamElements shows that in December, Twitch viewers watched 81 million hours of “Just Chatting.” (Cecilia D’Anastasio / Wired)

And finally…

My favorite thing on Twitter is just former costars Adam Sandler and Kathy Bates supporting one another as the Oscar nominations were announced.

Better luck next time, Sandman. (Uncut Gems is great.)

Talk to us

Send us tips, comments, questions, and sanctions: casey@theverge.com and zoe@theverge.com.

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The PC market just had its first year of growth since 2011

The worldwide PC market just grew consistently for the first time in eight years, according to market research firms IDC and Gartner. IDC reckons worldwide PC shipments grew by 2.7 percent to 266.7 million devices globally, while Gartner has it pegged at 0.6 percent to 261.2 million devices. 2018 contained the market’s first quarter of growth in six years, but in 2019 this finally lead to a full year of growth, the market’s first since 2011.

Although Gartner and IDC broadly agreed on the direction the PC market is currently heading in, the two firms count devices slightly differently. Both firms include desktops, notebooks, and detachable tablets like the Surface, but Gartner excludes Chromebooks.

Both IDC and Gartner cite Windows 10 upgrades for the turnaround. With Microsoft ending support for Windows 7 today, businesses around the world are being forced to upgrade their legacy devices, leading to “vibrant business demand” for Windows 10, according to Gartner. Windows 10 was installed on 900 million devices as of September last year, according to Microsoft. Data from NetMarketShare suggests there are still millions of PCs that are yet to make the upgrade, however, with Windows 7 still being used on over 30 percent of desktops.

IDC says that the benefits from needing to upgrade to a new operating system are unlikely to last long, however, and while there are new technologies like 5G and dual- and folding-screen devices on the horizon, these are going to take time to arrive. Eventually Microsoft is going to have to stop supporting Windows 8, but the operating system’s market share is so small in comparison to Windows 7 that it’s unlikely to lead to the same amount of upgrades.

It wasn’t all good news for the PC market in 2019. Gartner called Intel’s CPU shortage a “major issue,” and IDC reported that the situation was helped by the adoption of AMD CPUs. Performance also varied between companies. The top three PC manufacturers — Lenovo, HP, and Dell — all saw shipment growth, but fourth and fifth placed Apple and Acer saw PC shipments decline between 2018 and 2019.

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Tech Bro Uniform Meets Margaret Thatcher. Disruption Ensues.

The death knell of the Patagonia vest, at least as a symbol of utopianism co-opted by the tech and venture capital world and transformed into shorthand for a certain kind of unbridled corporate power, was much predicted last summer.

That is when the outdoor recreation company put its puffers where its principles were and said it would no longermake vests branded with its own name and the names of companies that did not share its environmental commitments.

“Woe to the bros!” cried customers and commentators alike, in both glee and horror.

The prophesies of doom turned out to be somewhat overstated. But they may soon be heard again in the land, thanks to an unexpected source: Simon Denny, a New Zealand-born artist who lives in Berlin.

Mr. Denny is the man behind a new show at the Altman Siegel gallery in San Francisco, “Security Through Obscurity,” that combines (of all things) Patagonia, Salesforce (the customer relations digital behemoth) and Margaret Thatcher. The result is a visual treatise on income inequality, global capitalism and the digital world built on shared fashion references.

Also proof positive that clothes are part of the currency of our times, no matter where you look.

After all, Patagonia and Margaret Thatcher are not two names most people would put in the same sentence. Their heydays are separated by decades; their power bases across an ocean; their philosophies of life even further apart.

Yet both Patagonia and the former British prime minister have one thing in common: They each gave the world items of dress that transcended their origins to become emblems.

In the case of Patagonia, the power vest: the fleece or puffer zip-up that is the de facto uniform of the private equity and venture capital world and the tech companies that loves it.

In the case of Mrs. Thatcher, the silk scarf, which, along with the skirt suit and pussy-bow blouse, became signifiers of the Iron Lady, the woman who put on her absolutely appropriate clothes like armor in her battle to liberate the markets and bring “tough capitalism” to Britain.

Combining both, Mr. Denny, 37, found the shape, literally, of an idea.

Mr. Denny is known for work that explores the culture of technology and its effects on society. He grew up in New Zealand and moved to Germany in 2007 to attend art school.

After graduating, as he began developing his signature, he started “following” individuals he saw as paradigm changers: reading their press, their speeches and books; checking in as their careers progressed.

Peter Thiel was one. Mr. Denny’s 2019 exhibition, “The Founder’s Paradox,” held in Auckland, New Zealand, featured Mr. Thiel (for one), the billionaire tech venture capitalist who is known for buying up swaths of land in that country, as a figure called Lord Tybalt, in art inspired by fantasy board games. Dominic Cummings, the architect of Boris Johnson’s electoral victory, is another. Ditto Mrs. Thatcher.

“She was very visible in the 1980s, shaping a new kind of politics that emphasized the individual, deregulation and global neoliberalism,” Mr. Denny said, speaking on the phone from Berlin a few days before the opening.

Though Mr. Denny has previously had exhibitions at MoMA PS1 and the Serpentine in London, and represented New Zealand at the 56th Venice Biennale in 2015, this is the first time he has used fashion in his work, and it is partly because of the former prime minister.

In early 2019, a Christie’s auction catalog crossed his desk that included a group of Mrs. Thatcher’s scarves. “There were a number of things being sold,” Mr. Denny said, “but many were quite expensive.” There were suits, jewelry, silver, decorative vases. The scarves, however, were a more accessible story.

“I thought, ‘Wow, these could be quite potent material for me,’” he said. “I knew I really wanted to work with them.”

He ended up winning 17 of them from two different lots after “quite fierce competition.” The estimate for one lot was 400 to 600 pounds, and it ultimately went for £3,250 ($4,218.82); the other was £500 to £800, and the final price was £3,000 ($3,894.30). They include a Nicole Miller scarf with a Forbes print, dollar bills and slogans like “Forbes capitalist tool” and “No guts, no story”; a leopard print that made Mr. Denny think of England’s colonial past; a Chanel design; and one from Liberty of London.

“To me, they represent an era of dress — the feminine but power business look,” Mr. Denny said. “Also the Thatcher policies, which have accelerated global inequality.”

Combine that with the offer of a show in San Francisco, home of both the tech elite and a growing divide between rich and poor that is painfully visible, and Mr. Denny’s thoughts turned to another kind of dress: the vest.

He zeroed in on one example in particular, a Salesforce branded Patagonia vest, like the kind given to Dreamforce conference attendees in 2015. (Salesforce, the company co-founded by Marc Benioff in 1999 that has revenues of over $13 billion, is one of the largest employers in San Francisco.)

Credit…Simon Denny, via Altman Siegel Gallery; Nick Ash
Credit…Simon Denny, via Altman Siegel Gallery; Nick Ash

The result is four Nano Puff power vests made from a variety of Mrs. Thatcher’s scarves with a repurposed Patagonia label taken from an actual Patagonia garment and pasted over one breast, displayed in shallow glass vitrines like collector’s memorabilia, and two Patagonia sleeping bags, which are references to the homeless in San Francisco.

Standing up, the sleeping bags resemble nothing so much as sarcophagi, likewise made from the scarves. All of the pieces are filled with repurposed down stuffing from sleeping bags sourced in resale stores around the city.

The exhibition also includes collages made from 3-D printing Salesforce patents (the kind that Wired magazine suggested could be potential foreign tax havens). Prices range from $7,500 to $60,000.

None of the individuals or brands involved were contacted before the show; this is not a collaboration, like the Louis Vuitton handbags done by Yayoi Kusama or Haruki Murakami, but a commentary. And its implications are hard to avoid.

“The Patagonia vest is something people here will relate to right away,” said Claudia Altman-Siegel, the owner of the gallery. “I don’t know if they will like it or find it too close to home. But I really hope Marc Benioff will come.” (According to Mr. Denny, Mr. Thiel did come to see his show in New Zealand.)

Mr. Denny is not by any means the first artist to use the visual representations of luxury and fashion as a material way to confront cultural dissonance. Tom Sachs did it in the late 1990s when he used luxury brand signifiers to explore consumerism and branding. (Remember the Tiffany Glock, Chanel Guillotine or Hermès Value Meal?)

Wang Guangyi, a Chinese artist, did it with his “Great Criticism” series of paintings, which superimposed brand logos on Mao-era Communist propaganda posters.

“More and more artists like to use fashion as a way to help deliver a message because it’s an accessible point of entry for so many people,” said Stefano Tonchi, the former editor of W and now the creative director of L’Officiel Group. “It’s a way of talking not to a niche, but to a larger audience.”

None of this has escaped fashion itself, which as a rule has attempted to embrace artists who use its products as material, thus defanging the critical potential of the work. “I don’t think he’s the kind of artist who, if Dior called and said, ‘Let’s do a bag!’ he would want to say yes,” Mr. Tonchi said of Mr. Denny.

Though Mr. Denny has many artist friends in Berlin who are close to Demna Gvasalia, the designer for Balenciaga, and though Mr. Denny himself has been featured in L’Uomo Vogue and the magazine of the Canadian retailer Ssense, he has no plans to parlay his current dalliance with clothing into a sideline.

He seemed taken aback by the suggestion that he collaborate with a brand — though he does hope the show has an effect on how we dress.

“I think it would be hard not to think about the Patagonia vests differently,” he said. “I hope it puts all the super-contradictions of how we live into a frame that is impossible to ignore.”

Or, perhaps, wear — except in the wilderness, as the company originally intended.

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Oyo Scales Back as SoftBank-Funded Companies Retreat

MUMBAI, India — Oyo, once one of India’s fastest-growing tech start-ups, is now rapidly scaling back.

In recent weeks, Oyo, a budget hospitality company, has pulled out of dozens of cities, cut thousands of hotel rooms, started laying off employees and slashed other costs as it faced pressure from its biggest investor, the Japanese conglomerate SoftBank, to curb vast operating losses.

The retreat has been swift and sweeping. In India alone, Oyo has lost more than 65,000 rooms — or about a quarter of what it had offered to travelers — since October, according to internal data from current and former employees that was reviewed by The New York Times. This month, Oyo also stopped selling rooms in more than 200 small Indian cities, according to company documents and one current employee and one former employee.

The moves come on top of more than 2,000 layoffs around the world, which Oyo began rolling out last week, according to six current and former employees. Before the cutbacks, Oyo had about 20,000 employees in 80 countries.

Oyo said some of the data obtained by The Times was inaccurate but declined to be specific. In an email to employees on Monday, Ritesh Agarwal, the company’s chief executive, said Oyo was focused on sustainable growth and profitability — which meant layoffs.

“Unfortunately, some roles at Oyo will become redundant as we further drive tech-enabled synergy, enhanced efficiency, and remove duplication of effort across businesses or geographies,” he wrote in the email.

The Economic Times, an Indian publication, first reported in December that job cuts at Oyo were coming.

Oyo’s actions are part of a broader pullback by start-ups funded by SoftBank. Armed with a $100 billion fund known as the Vision Fund, SoftBank has shoveled money into start-ups across the globe in recent years. That has given many young companies fuel to expand, often with little thought for profit.

Last year, some SoftBank-funded start-ups began running into trouble — most notably WeWork, the office space company, which failed to go public when investors began questioning its losses. WeWork ultimately ousted its chief executive and slashed its valuation to less than $8 billion from $47 billion.

WeWork’s fall led to questions about other start-ups that SoftBank had financed and whether those young firms could make money. Last month, the dog-walking service Wag underwent several rounds of layoffs before SoftBank sold its shares at a loss. The construction start-up Katerra, another SoftBank-funded company, also cut its staff.

This month, layoffs have gathered momentum at start-ups that SoftBank had invested in. The South American delivery service Rappi and the San Francisco car-sharing start-up Getaround said they were laying off employees. Zume, a company that used robots to make pizzas and had been valued at $2 billion, cut more than half of its work force. It also stopped making pizzas.

Some investors and start-ups said they were now approaching SoftBank’s Vision Fund cautiously — or, in some cases, avoiding it altogether.

“We have advised almost all of our companies to steer clear,” said Josh Wolfe, an investor at the venture capital firm Lux Capital who has been critical of SoftBank’s strategy. “Everyone else was fearful to say the emperor had no clothes.”

SoftBank declined to comment on Oyo and other start-ups in which it has invested.

Mr. Agarwal founded Oyo in 2013 to organize India’s small independent hotels into a chain. The company markets rooms online and takes a cut of each stay. Mr. Agarwal, who has become a business star in India, has said he aspired to make Oyo the world’s largest hotel chain by 2023, displacing Marriott.

But as Oyo tried to expand globally, in part pushed by SoftBank, it spent heavily on incentives to attract hotel owners and customers to its site. That resulted in losses in India, where Oyo has said it will lose money through at least 2021.

Masayoshi Son, SoftBank’s chief executive, began investing in Oyo in 2015. SoftBank and its Vision Fund now own half its stock. While Mr. Son has called Oyo a jewel of his fund and urged it to grow quickly, he has since changed his stance.

As Oyo’s losses have mounted, senior leaders at the company have told employees that SoftBank had demanded that it become profitable on a basis known as EBITDA — earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization — by mid-2020, according to current and former employees.

In another sign of SoftBank’s shifting position, Yahoo Japan, which is half-owned by SoftBank, pulled the plug in November on a Japanese apartment-rental venture with Oyo. Most of the Oyo employees involved in the Japan venture have been laid off or relocated, current and former employees said.

Oyo faces other troubles in India. On Friday, the Indian income-tax authorities visited the company’s headquarters just outside New Delhi, requesting reams of documents. The tax department and Oyo said the government was examining whether the company was properly withholding and remitting income taxes on payments to vendors.

The Times reported this month that Oyo had offered thousands of unlicensed hotel rooms and sometimes offered free rooms to government officials to deter enforcement. The Times also described how some Oyo employees worked together to commit fraud against the company.

In his email on Monday, Mr. Agarwal said the behavior described by The Times would violate the company’s code of conduct. “We take all the allegations very seriously and are looking into each and every one,” he wrote.

To stem losses, Oyo has also cut back on staff and supplies such as mineral water and cleaning fluids in the hotels it runs itself, according to the current and former employees. Oyo staff members managing some of the hotels have been instructed to save more money on electricity bills by switching off lights, elevators and even boilers for hot water, they said.

Morale has plummeted among thousands of Oyo workers globally, current and former employees have said.

Prabhjeet Singh, an Oyo business development manager who left the company in September, said employees who criticized the company ran a greater risk of losing their jobs.

“It’s a culture of silence,” he said.

Oyo’s reputation has deteriorated so much in India that other employers are reluctant to hire its former workers, said Mr. Singh, who has been unable to land another job.

“They look at me as if I’ve done a crime working at Oyo,” he said.

Vindu Goel reported from Mumbai, Karan Deep Singh from New Delhi and Erin Griffith from San Francisco.