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After Trump fires CISA’s director, the agency is poised to become even more powerful

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On Tuesday night, President Donald Trump fired Chris Krebs, who was one of the government’s most senior cybersecurity officials. Trump fired him—by tweet—because Krebs had thoroughly debunked election disinformation, much of which came from the White House itself.

Trump had appointed Krebs director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) in 2017. CISA is charged with protecting American critical infrastructure, a vast domain ranging from elections technology to vaccine manufacturing and government systems. Many of the United States’ most sensitive networks fall under CISA’s purview. With Krebs out and Trump’s presidency ending, where does that leave one of America’s most important cybersecurity agencies?

A years-long bipartisan effort to remake the way the US government works in cyberspace could soon push CISA into an elevated role as the nation’s lead cybersecurity agency with a bigger budget, a strengthened position, and louder White House support. The future role of CISA will be key as the transitioning American government tries to sort out its strategy in increasingly combative cyberspace.

“I think CISA is in a very strong position,” says Suzanne Spaulding, Krebs’s predecessor and a person whose name has been floated as a potential secretary of homeland security in a Biden administration. “Chris Krebs’s principled stand and departure adds to CISA’s stature and reputation. There is strong bipartisan support for strengthening CISA’s role.”

The agency’s new acting director, Brandon Wales, is a career civil servant who can’t easily be fired by the president—though he could be moved to another position. Wales, a 15-year Department of Homeland Security veteran, has been widely praised by current and former colleagues. 

In an interview last month with MIT Technology Review, Wales spoke about CISA’s important role in debunking domestic disinformation. Employees at CISA say that so far, work has continued on as normal, exactly as Wales promised—except with a decrease in morale. Trump has also said he will move another official, Sean Plankey, to a senior post at CISA, a move that is reportedly “imminent.”

But as Trump’s presidency comes to a close, eyes are turning to CISA’s long-term future.

Spaulding worked on the Cyberspace Solarium Commission, a bipartisan congressional project established in 2019 to chart the future of American strategy in cyberspace. The commission made enhancing and empowering CISA one of its top priorities. 

Chaired by the independent senator Angus King and the Republican congressman Mike Gallagher, Solarium aims to make the CISA the lead cybersecurity agency for the federal government and private companies in the US. King is reportedly a leading candidate for Biden’s director of national intelligence. 

The Solarium recommendations include bolstering CISA’s resources, facilities, and authorities. The commission wants CISA to lead the government response to major cyber incidents in both the public and private sectors and to have the authority to hunt cyber threats across the entire government outside of the military—which, they note, boasts a much larger cybersecurity budget at about $9.6 billion and growing, compared with approximately $2 billion for CISA. 

“Significant breaches that we’ve seen in the past in government could have been mitigated and more rapidly dealt with” with a fully-realized CISA, says Mark Montgomery, Solarium’s executive director. “And we haven’t had, for example, a significant attack on the electric grid or water system yet—the kind of attack that would make us wish for a stronger CISA. We’re hoping we can get CISA ready before those happen.”

As Biden’s presidency approaches, members of both parties are hoping for a bigger budget for the agency and a strong signal from the new White House that CISA is the primary way the US government protects critical infrastructure that’s mostly run by private companies, whether in the domain of elections, finance, or energy. CISA’s mandate includes managing cybersecurity issues but also defending against other kinds of threats, like terrorism, weather disasters, and sabotage. To support that expansive mission, Spaulding says, the agency needs significantly more funding.

The Biden-Harris transition team did not respond to questions about CISA’s future.

The irony of Trump’s sudden interest in CISA is that his White House has done little or nothing to help the agency and its partners at the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation in their work of securing elections. To an unprecedented extent, the White House abdicated its responsibility for coordinating the work of different agencies on this major national security issue. 

“What’s interesting is that somehow these departments and agencies have found a way to coordinate among themselves without the traditional coordination function at the White House,” says Tom Bossert, Trump’s former homeland security advisor, whose office would normally have taken the lead on that task. “Krebs, [cyber command and NSA director] director Paul Nakasone, [FBI director] Chris Wray, and the director of national intelligence have found a way to integrate their operations without somebody sitting in the head chair at the table. There’s no precedent for this in the modern presidency.”

While the agency’s long-term trajectory is increasingly clear, the short-term future of CISA remains an open question. Krebs was fired in large part for creating a Rumor Control web page that combated disinformation in real time. So far, the page has stayed up and unchanged. Brandon Wales is well respected but could theoretically be moved out of the agency, so his fate continues to be tied to the president’s whims.

“He’s a brilliant analyst,” says Spaulding, who was Wales’s boss during the Obama administration. Wales “should help keep things on track at CISA as long as he’s allowed to stay in that position,” she says. “The challenge, of course, is that they are likely to continue to find themselves saying things that the White House doesn’t like.”

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Alibaba vies for a piece of China’s booming EV market

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There’s no lack of news these days on China’s tech giants teaming up with traditional carmakers. Companies from Alibaba to Huawei are striving to become relevant in the trillion-dollar auto industry, which itself is seeking an electric transition and intelligent upgrade as 5G comes of age.

State-owned automaker SAIC Motor, a major player in China, unveiled this week a new electric vehicle arm called Zhiji, in which Alibaba and a Shanghai government-backed entity are minority shareholders. The tie-up comes as Chinese EV startups like Xpeng and Nio and their predecessor Tesla see their stocks soaring in recent months.

Alibaba’s ties with SAIC can be traced back to 2015 when they jointly announced a $160 million investment in internet-connected cars. The partners moved on to form a joint venture called Banma (or ‘Zebra’) and Alibaba has since developed a slew of auto solutions for the Banma platform to enable everything from voice-activated navigation to voice ordering coffee, which is, of course, linked to the Alipay e-wallet.

Alibaba is certainly not SAIC’s exclusive supplier, as it’s also worked closely with the likes of BMW and Audi as well over the years.

For SAIC’s new EV brand, Alibaba will continue to be its “technology solution provider,” an Alibaba spokesperson told TechCrunch.

The other tech giant making big moves in auto is Huawei. Just this week, the telecoms equipment and smartphone maker announced it would fold its smart car unit into its consumer business group, which previously focused on handsets. The expanded group will continue to be steered by Richard Yu, regarded as the man who helped grow Huawei from an underdog in the mobile industry to a leading global player.

Huawei’s ambition in auto is “not to manufacture cars but to focus on developing ICT [information and communications technology] to assist automakers in producing cars,” the firm asserts in the statement, addressing rumors that it wants to encroach on traditional carmakers’ turf.

Huawei’s phone business has taken a hit since U.S. sanctions hobbled its supply chain. It sold its budget phone brand Honor recently in the hope that the spinoff, independent from Huawei, will be free from trade curbs.

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Gift Guide: Black Friday tech deals that are actually worth checking out

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Black Friday approaches! In a year where asking Alexa what day today is feels totally normal, this Black Friday seems like it came out of nowhere.

As we say pretty much every year, a lot of Black Friday deals are… not that good. While there are certainly deals to be found, there’s also a lot of hand-waving going on to help retailers and manufacturers clear out the old models and get that Q4 numbers boost.

It can also be a day where it’s way too easy to buy junk just because it’s got a 40% off tag on it. With that in mind, we’ve tried to limit this list to the stuff we’d recommend even when it’s not on sale. If we see anything else worthwhile over the next day or two, we’ll add it — so feel free to check back in.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

A few tips to keep in mind today:

  • If you see something is on sale and want to check if the “sale” price is really any better than normal, pop it into a price tracker like camelcamelcamel. If the price suddenly increased last week only to be “reduced” by whatever percent this week, you know somethings up.
  • Be at least a little wary of TV deals. There are TV deals to be had, for sure — but the most eye-popping deals tend to be surplus panels with a new model number slapped on them. Google the model number; if that specific TV seems to only exist for the sake of Black Friday, think twice.

 

Apple

Airpods Pro

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Once unheard of, Apple deals on Black Friday are now a little easier to find. They tend to go fast though!

  • Both Amazon and Walmart are selling AirPods Pro for $170 — a super steep discount from the usual $250. The stock seems to be coming and going fast, so this one might be tough to get.
  • The 40mm, GPS version of the latest Apple Watch (Series 6) is down to $379 from $399 on Amazon right now. While that’s only a drop of $20, these things only just hit the shelves back in September.
  • Best Buy has some pretty solid deals on the latest (8th gen) iPads, like a 10.2″ 32GB model for $280 (usually $330), or the 128GB model for $360 (usually $430.)

Amazon

Image Credits: Amazon

With people already flocking to Amazon on Black Friday, the company usually offers some pretty massive discounts on its Amazon-branded devices as a means of seizing the moment and getting more people into their ecosystem. Sure enough:

Google

google nest hub

Image Credits: Brian Heater

Google tends to go pretty big with the Black Friday discounts, and this year is no exception. Some examples:

  • The Nest Hello doorbell is down to $179, normally $229.
  • Nest Hub is down to $50 (normally $90), and its bigger brother the Nest Hub Max (pictured above) is down to $179 (normally $229.)
  • The latest generation of the Nest Mini smart speaker is $19, down from $50. The beefier Nest Audio speaker, meanwhile, is down to $85 each (usually $99) with the catch that you’ve got to buy two.
  • Stadia Premiere Edition — effectively a starter kit for Google’s gaming-in-the-cloud service Stadia, including both a Stadia controller and a Chromecast Ultra — is down to $70 from $100. The controller alone would normally cost you $70, so if you were already considering giving Stadia a spin it’s sort of like getting a free Chromecast Ultra?

Roku

Image Credits: Roku

Roku’s new Streambar — basically a Roku box and a soundbar crammed into one package — is going for $100 today, down from its normal price of $130.

Sonos

Sonos Move 11

If you’re going to expand your Sonos system (which, hey, is sort of the point of having a Sonos system), Black Friday is usually a good day to do it. Alas, this years Sonos sales are a bit limited, but there are still savings to be found. Amazon has the portable Sonos Move down to $299 (normally $399) and the Sonos SUB down to $599 (usually $699), while Sonos itself is also selling its Beam Playbar for $299 (usually $399.)

Hulu

Image Credits: Hulu

If you don’t mind ads, Hulu is slashing the price of its ad-supported plan from $6 a month to $2 a month for 1 year. Sadly, no deal for the ad-free plan, which is still at its normal $12 a month — but if you were planning on checking out the ad-supported plan anyway, you might as well save a couple bucks.

Calm

Image Credits: Calm

Calm, the popular subscription-based meditation/sleep sounds service, is offering up a pair of promos: they’ll cut the price on a one year membership down by 50% (from $70 to $35), or a lifetime membership by 60% ($399 to $159.)

Video Games

You probably won’t be finding any deals on this year’s new Xboxes or Playstations because… well, they already couldn’t keep up with demand. This year’s best deals are going to be on games, services, and in a few cases, accessories.

Hell, the same goes for the Nintendo Switch. Even without a new hardware release this season, Nintendo’s console is flying off the shelves. If you’re looking for big savings on a Switch itself this year, know that the inventory is incredibly low — any retailer offering a Switch deal is really just doing it to get your hopes up and get you on the site. We’re having a hard time finding any in stock even at full price.

Xbox Deals:

  • Microsoft is selling Xbox controllers (which will work with the next-gen Xbox Series consoles!) for $40, down from the usual $60.
  • Best Buy is selling 3 months of Xbox Game Pass (Microsoft’s Netflix-style game subscription service) for $23, down from the usual $45.
  • Gears 5 is $5 (usually $40) at Best Buy, Doom Eternal is $20 (usually $60) at GameStop, and Microsoft is taking $10 off the newly remastered Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2.

Playstation Deals

  • Sony is selling 12 months of Playstation Plus (its service that lets you play multiplayer games online) for $45, down from $60.
  • Amazon is selling Last of Us Part II for $30 (normally $60), and GameStop and a number of other retailers have Ghost of Tsushima going for $40 (normally $60). Sony has the oh-so-hard-but-oh-so-addicting Cuphead for $15, down from $20. Most retailers will also have sales on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, Watch Dogs Legion, and Star Wars Squadrons.

Switch Deals:

  • Nintendo is selling Luigi’s Mansion, Super Mario Maker 2, Yoshi’s Crafted World, Mario Tennis Aces, and Zelda Link’s Awakening for $40 (normally $60) through Amazon and most other retailers. All of these are fantastic!

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Facebook’s latest ad tool fail puts another dent in its reputation

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Reset yer counters: Facebook has had to ‘fess up to yet another major ad reporting fail.

This one looks like it could be costly for the tech giant to put right — not least because it’s another dent in its reputation for self reporting. (For past Facebook ad metric errors check out our reports from 2016 here, here, here and here.)

AdExchanger reported on the code error last week with Facebook’s free ‘conversion lift’ tool which it said affected several thousand advertisers.

The discovery of the flaw has since led the tech giant to offer some advertisers millions of dollars in credits, per reports this week, to compensate for miscalculating the number of sales derived from ad impressions (which is, in turn, likely to have influenced how much advertisers spent on its digital snake oil).

According to an AdAge report yesterday, which quotes industry sources, the level of compensation Facebook is offering varies depending on the advertiser’s spend — but in some instances the mistake means advertisers are being given coupons worth tens of millions of dollars.

The issue with the tool went unfixed for as long as 12 months, with the problem persisting between August 2019 and August 2020, according to reports.

The Wall Street Journal says Facebook quietly told advertisers this month about the technical problem with its calculation of the efficacy of their ad campaigns, skewing data advertisers use to determine how much to spend on its platform.

One digital agency source told the WSJ the issue particularly affects certain categories such as retail where marketers have this year increased spending on Facebook and similar channels by up to 5% or 10% to try to recover business lost during the early stages of the pandemic.

Another of its industry sources pointed out the issue affects not just media advertisers but the tech giant’s competitors — since the tool could influence where marketers chose to spend budget, so whether they spend on Facebook’s platform or elsewhere.

Last week the tech giant told AdExchanger that the bug was fixed on September 1, saying then that it was “working with impacted advertisers”.

In a subsequent statement a company spokesperson told us: “While making improvements to our measurement products, we found a technical issue that impacted some conversion lift tests. We’ve fixed this and are working with advertisers that have impacted studies.”

Facebook did not respond to a request to confirm whether some impacted advertisers are being offered millions of dollars worth of ad vouchers to rectify its code error.

It did confirm it’s offering one-time credits to advertisers who have been ‘meaningfully’ impacted by the issue with the (non-billable) metric, adding that the impact is on a case by case basis, depending on how the tool was used.

Nor did it confirm how many advertisers had impacted studies as a result of the year long technical glitch — claiming it’s a small number.

While the tech giant can continue to run its own reporting systems for b2b customers free from external oversight for now, regulating the fairness and transparency of powerful Internet platforms which other businesses depend upon for market access and reach is a key aim of a major forthcoming digital services legislative overhaul in the European Union.

Under the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act plan, the European Commission has said tech giants will be required to open up their algorithms to public oversight bodies — and will also be subject to binding transparency rules. So the clock may be ticking for Facebook’s self-serving self-reporting.

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