All posts by Hana Zumout

Audio ForensicsComputer ForensicsExpert WitnessSocial Media

Deepfake: An Introduction (Part 1)

Computer technology is one of the most pivotal inventions in modern history. Artificial Intelligence, smartphones, social media, and all related apparatus have significantly enhanced living conditions in an unprecedented manner and connected the world with a click of a button. It is used in various occupations: from business related fields to more creative professions. To say modern technology has been advantageous in recent decades is an understatement. However, every creation has its flaws. This multi-part blog series is intended to reveal one of those flaws, and a dangerous one at that, deepfake videos. This first post includes an introduction to deepfake videos, and the steps taken by federal and state governments to identify such duplicitous content. Special insight on the subject is provided by our Experts.com Member and Audio, Video, and Photo Clarification and Tampering Expert, Bryan Neumeister.

Editing footage and photos is normal practice in our selfie-addicted new normal, but creating distorted content is a whole new ballgame. According to CNBC, deepfakes are “falsified videos made by means of deep learning.” These videos, images, audios, or other digital forms of content are manipulated such that counterfeits pass as the real thing. What makes matters worse is the internet allows anyone and everyone to create, edit, and post deceptive content. It is one of many threats to cybersecurity strategists, police departments, politicians, and industries alike because the purpose of making them is to spread misinformation, tarnish reputation’s, exploit evidence, and to ultimately deceive an audience. The unfortunate reality is deepfake videos which display pornographic scenarios and manipulated political moment are the most common. For instance, a notable deepfake video was posted by Buzzfeed in 2018 depicting former United States president, Barack Obama, slandering another former United States president, Donald Trump. However, the voice behind Obama is none other than Jordan Peele. The video was intended as a moral lesson to explain how important it is to verify online sources, and to highlight the dangerous problem of trusting every post uploaded to the internet.

According to Mr. Neumeister, who specializes in this area of expertise, there are two types of artificial intelligence programs used to create deepfake videos: GANs and FUDs. He states, “GANs (Generative Adversarial Networks) are used by professionals, and FUDs (Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt) are the homemade ones.” Although FUD videos garner more attention among internet users, the real menace to society are the videos made from GANs.

Videos made from Generative Adversarial Networks have an algorithmic framework designed to acquire input data and mimic the desired output data. One can visualize how GANs work through the viral Tom Cruise TikTok deepfake. According to NPR, the creator of the deepfake, Chris Ume, used a machine-learning algorithm to insert an accumulation of Tom Cruise footage. This allowed him to give a digital face transplant to the Tom Cruise lookalike actor he hired for the video. Ume input a plethora of videos to create a desired output of a realistic face swap. Neumeister also adds that the most realistic deepfakes correlate to the amount of footage a person can acquire. Specifically, “the more bits of video clip you have to put together, the more accurate you can make facial movements, ticks, etc.” From this logic, it can be inferred that Ume’s Tom Cruise deepfake looks more realistic than those that lack algorithmic programs.

Because viewers typically see deepfakes in politics and pornography, federal and state governments have recently implemented laws to counteract deepfake content creation and distribution. President Trump signed the first deepfake federal law near the end of 2019. This legislation is included in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 (NDAA), which is a $738 billion defense policy bill passed by both Senate (86-8) and the House (377-48). The two provisions in the NDAA requires:
“(1) a comprehensive report on the foreign weaponization of deepfakes; (2) requires the government to notify Congress of foreign deepfake-disinformation activities targeting US elections,” (JD Supra). The NDAA also implemented a “Deepfakes Prize” competition to promote the investigation of deepfake-detection technologies. On a state level, there have been laws passed by multiple states that criminalize specific deepfake videos (JD Supra):

  • Virginia: first state to establish criminal penalties on the spread of nonconsensual deepfake pornography.
  • Texas: first state to ban creation and dissemination of deepfake videos aimed to alter elections or harm candidates for public office.
  • California: victims of nonconsensual deepfake pornography can sue for damages; candidates for public office can sue organizations and individuals that maliciously spread election-related deepfakes without warning labels near Election Day.

Although the Trump administration and various states established policies against deepfakes, it remains ubiquitous on almost all online platforms. How can users at home distinguish authentic content from deepfakes?

Mr. Neumeister provides a few tips and tricks for detecting a deepfake. One giveaway mentioned is mouth movement, otherwise known as phonemes and visemes. Mouths move a certain way when people speak. For instance, words like mama, baba, and papa start with a closed mouth. Words like father, and violin start with the front teeth pushing against the bottom lip. To add, consonants and vowels also sound a certain way when pronounced correctly. “Words with t, f, n, o, and wh, are pretty good for tells,” adds Mr. Neumeister. When analyzing video, the frames in which a person is speaking are broken down into approximately six to ten frames to determine if the way someone talks in other videos is the same as the video being analyzed. Another tip Mr. Neumeister suggests is to watch videos with context in mind. Viewers should pay attention to background noise, crowd ambiance, and the cadence in a speaker’s sentences. Authentic and original content would have, by nature, realistic frames. Users can detect a deepfake by sensing dissonance in, for instance, a speaker’s proximity to the microphone or a size of a room. For users at home or on-the-go, these tips are crucial for distinguishing verified sources from manipulated misinformation.

The emergence of deepfake content, its continuously improving technology, and the spread of disinformation is a multifaceted and complex problem. This blog post has only scratched the surface, so stay tuned for part 2 for a more in-depth read.

MarketingPsychology

Consumer Psychology and Streaming Services: The Rise of Disney+ and Netflix

Despite the daunting aspects of COVID-19, the pandemic provided millions of people around the world with an escape from reality: streaming service subscriptions. Netflix, Disney+, and others alike are dominating the entertainment industry. Within the first year after its inception, Disney+ accumulated 86.8 million users and predicts a trajectory of 260 million by 2024 (Variety). In 2020 alone, nearly 37 million people bought Netflix subscriptions, bringing the total number of subscribers to more than 200 million (BBC). On January 20th, 2021, its shares increased by 15% in its fourth quarter earnings (Business Insider). 

What is the catalyst for the success of these two streaming services? Insight from one of our very own Members at Experts.com will help answer these questions. Before delving into these insights, however, it is important to acknowledge the differences between the two streaming services.  

Disney+ is significantly cheaper than its rivals due to its slim library of around 600 movies and shows. However, the type of content it acquires is the gravitational element for its growing audience. Disney+ is the leading content provider for fans of Disney Original Movies, Marvel, Pixar, and “Star Wars” franchises. 

Netflix is known for its high-quality original shows and movies such as “Bridgerton,” “The Queen’s Gambit,” and “Marriage Story.” Its international content, like “Lupin” and “La Casa De Papel,” has increasingly appealed to audiences. Unlike Disney+, Netflix also allows consumers to stream movies with family and friends for free with Teleparty. This service may be more expensive, but its library of nearly 4,000 shows is worth the subscription. With these crucial differences in mind, let’s delve into our Experts’ contributions.  

Disney+ leads US brand awareness and subscriber race for new video  streaming services | The Drum

Dr. Brent Coker is an Online Consumer Psychologist with a PhD in Electronic Commerce. He is also a Digital Marketing and Digital Business Models professor at the University of Melbourne. Based on his extensive knowledge on consumer behavior, Dr. Coker believes the rise in streaming entertainment services is indirectly correlated to COVID-19 for a couple of reasons:  

The first is the unexpected lifestyle imposed onto the world by the pandemic. National emergency calls made by various world leaders have induced policies including stay-at-home orders, remote learning and work, as well as limited in-person interaction. This new reality forced consumers to alter purchasing habits from before the virus, like spending more on internet bandwidth for work (which varies by country as some lack unlimited speed plans) rather than tickets for movies or other live performances. “Consumers ‘rationalise’ the extra cost out of necessity (they convince themselves the extra cost is needed not just wanted),” a direct quote from Dr. Coker. This high quality and faster internet further justifies subscribing to streaming services. Disney+ and Netflix’s stellar financial performances are due to the millions of people adjusting to more confined circumstances. 

The second reason is the lack of entertainment options. Because of the new social-distancing guidelines, in-person music festivals, sporting events, and dining at restaurants without restrictions are limited. Coker states, “People divide their entertainment options according to gratification – live performances, stage shows, cinema, and TV.” He then explains the absence of in-person events leads people to search for substitutes. It appears Netflix and Disney+ were the perfect replacement for millions of people this past year.  

MUST-WATCH SHOWS AND MOVIES – THE WATCHDOG

Dr. Coker also alluded to a slight change in advertising and endorsements. Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter are a few of many social media platforms people use to stay informed and connected. It is also the arena in which influencers use their online presence to promote trends and brands. Dr. Coker mentions Tiger King, one of the first Netflix Original shows to be released just before COVID-19, as a prime example of endorsement through social media. The documentary, especially its eccentric and bizarre main subject, Joe Exotic, became a meme used to draw more attention to audiences around the globe. Memes are “amusing or interesting items (such as captioned picture or video) or genre of items that are spread widely online especially through social media,” (Merriam-Webster). Dr. Coker finalizes his thoughts on social media connectedness by stating, “This is essential endorsement and word-of-mouth thus herding effects as people jump on board to experience what they perceive is the new norm.” 

The requirements of greater internet bandwidth for work, the loss of outdoor entertainment, and the implementation of stay-at-home policies have kindled the need for home entertainment. In 2020 alone, both companies have accrued millions of subscribers. Thanks to our Experts.com Member, Dr. Brent Coker, his insight on Consumer Behavior and Digital Marketing shed light on how the unanticipated lifestyle engendered by COVID-19 indirectly played a role in the purchasing decisions of people around the world and shapes how citizens perceive this new reality through social media. It remains to be seen whether Netflix and Disney+ will perform as well post-pandemic. 

CommunicationInformation & Communication TechnologySocial Media

The Role of Section 230 in the Free Speech Debate

After a tumultuous year full of uncertainty and angst, the start of the new year, unfortunately, followed suit. Due to last week’s raid of the Capitol Building, resulting in Donald Trump’s removal from various social media apps, the debate over the understanding of free speech is in full swing. Some critics say Trump incited violence and rightfully deserved to be permanently banned on Twitter. Others defend the President’s speech and are calling to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This week’s post will define Section 230 and its role in the free speech debate. 

To note, the purpose of creating the Communications Decency Act was to enact provisions to free speech online. Because Internet users opposed these restrictions, Section 230 was enacted in 1996 (Electronic Frontier Foundation). According to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), “Section 230 provides websites, including social media companies, that host or moderate content generated by others with immunity from liability.” In other words, these companies do not bear the responsibility for its consumers’ speech. Section 230 is inapplicable to Federal Criminal Law and Intellectual Property Claims. Since Twitter is a private company, this legally legitimizes its decision to permanently suspend the President’s account, as he allegedly spread misinformation about the election according to its Terms & Conditions. However, this turn of events has left moderates, conservatives, and republicans feeling silenced.  

Trump’s Twitter ban was the catalyst for the removal of Parler (a social media platform which garnered a primarily conservative following) from Apple and Amazon app stores. Its eradication stems from its anti-censorship brand, meaning it does not monitor its users posts. Unlike Twitter, who uses Section 230 to monitor speech, Parler has the right as a private company to exercise the opposite. It begs the question, is Section 230 relevant to free speech? 

The First Amendment “guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition,” (Cornell Law School). Congress is prohibited from making laws which limit an individual’s First Amendment right, whether it is exercised in public physical space or on the internet. From the looks of Trump’s removal from Twitter, it is understandable why conservatives would be upset. The concept of a social media corporation eradicating the leader of the free world’s personal account is shocking, and shows just how much power these social media apps have over what their viewers are allowed to see. For many, these actions by Twitter and Facebook add even more salt to the wounds of the political divide created this past year. At face value, it makes sense why moderate and right-leaning voters would want to repeal Section 230. However, revoking Section 230 is much more threatening to the First Amendment than one might think (USA Today).  

If Section 230 was abrogated, online businesses would monitor speech on a more frequent basis. Websites would become liable for every individual social media post, photo, blog, comment, and video a person publishes. Accommodating user-created content would be a precarious endeavor because these companies could be sued for every contentious post, which is unrealistic considering these websites have accumulated millions of users worldwide. If social media companies and those alike embodied an editorial role towards user-created content, it would end real-time communication, limit expression, tarnish social media providers’ reputations, and even cause them to shut down due to endless litigation. In the event Section 230 is repealed and edited, Congress must be cautious of its constitutional duty to not implement laws that limit the freedoms of American citizens and, unintentionally, chill protected speech. 

Section 230 may protect a business’ right to negate liability for its users’ posts, but it does not protect a company from antitrust lawsuits. Parler sued Amazon in response to its removal from Amazon Web Services, an auxiliary provider of on-demand APIs and cloud-computing platforms (Reuters). Amazon claims Parler’s failure to monitor speech had a large role in planning the siege of the Capitol Building. Although it removed most of the troublesome posts, Parler responded to this by accusing Amazon of breaching its contract by forcing the social media app to shut down. Parler was warned about Amazon’s intolerance to offensive speech, yet Parler argued that any of its users’ posts, that do not engender premeditated action, are protected under the First Amendment. As this is an ongoing case, the outcome of the lawsuit will not be decided for a long time to come. 

Ultimately, Section 230 is arguably the most integral component of the free speech debate considering the recent events of Trump’s Twitter ban and Parler’s lawsuit against Amazon. Free speech within the realm of the internet is a very different arena compared to speech in public physical spaces. As unfortunate as the Capitol Building raid was, it brought to light important nuances of the First Amendment as it relates to the internet.  

BlockchainComputer SecurityCryptocurrency

Bitcoin: The Currency of the Future

The news of Bitcoin’s recent and successful market performance is spreading like wildfire. In the eleven years since its inception, it has surpassed the market value of companies such as Visa, Mastercard, and Walmart (CNN Business). As of the date of this publication, one Bitcoin is being traded for $34,306.17. This incredible feat has made Bitcoin quite popular for investors and people interested in financial markets. However, some critics have raised concerns about Bitcoin and cryptocurrency in general. Defining Bitcoin, explaining its functions, and addressing the advantages and disadvantages to cryptocurrency will be the subject of this week’s blog post. 

Although the algorithms for the modern-day cryptocurrency have existed since the 1980s, the emergence of Bitcoin has changed the future of financial transactions. Bitcoin’s founding in 2009 is shrouded in mystery. The housing market crash of the same year was the catalyst for its emergence. By whom is the enigma. The founder of Bitcoin is known by the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto. The true identity of the person or persons is still unknown.  

Bitcoin is a form of decentralized cryptocurrency. Because its design is public, all transactions are managed by “peer-to-peer” technology instead of banks. Cryptocurrencies are often compared to an online version of dollar bills and can be used to buy and sell services and products. To obtain Bitcoins, people can buy it using “real” money, have people pay for a product using Bitcoin, or “computer-mining,” like searching for gold. Because Bitcoin is essentially a computer file, consumers can store them on a digital wallet, accessed by any smartphone or computer, and even send them to other people. Now that Bitcoin has been defined, it is important to know how it works. 

Bitcoin Mining Is Now More Competitive Than Ever, New Data Shows

When a beginner uses Bitcoin, it generates a Bitcoin address. You can create more than one address and share the addresses with friends and family so transactions can ensue. These addresses can only be used once. Bitcoin has three main functions (Bitcoin):  

  • Function 1: Blockchain – a shared public ledger which all consumers within the Bitcoin network depend on. It includes and verifies all transactions and spendable balances to ensure both are owned by the spender.  
  • Function 2: Transaction – an exchange of value between Bitcoin wallets. Although transactions are included in the blockchain, Bitcoin wallets keep a “private key.” Private keys prove the owners of the transaction. Bitcoin also uses “signatures” to ensure the lack of alterations to the transactions. 
  •  Function 3: Mining – a process which confirms and places the transactions in the blockchain in chronological order. It also bears the responsibility of protecting the neutrality of the Bitcoin network. Transactions are only confirmed when they are compiled in a “block” which includes rigid cryptographic rules approved by the Bitcoin network so previous blocks are not modified. Mining also prohibits individuals from controlling, replacing, or adding blocks and parts of the block chain. In other words, it prohibits theft. 

After defining and explaining Bitcoin’s functions, and as the number of people investing in Bitcoin increases, addressing the benefits and drawbacks of this cryptocurrency are crucial. 

Pros & Cons of Trading Bitcoin & Cryptocurrencies | Paxful Blog

There are plenty of advantages and disadvantages to investing in Bitcoin (Money Crashers). Let’s first discuss its benefits. As previously mentioned, Bitcoin is not controlled by any political or financial institution. These parties can only confiscate or suspend cryptocurrency either for retribution for political acts or for a criminal investigation.  

Bitcoin also has greater liquidity compared to its competitors like Ethereum, IOTA, and Dogecoin. This permits users to keep much of its value when switching to fiat currencies like the U.S. dollar bill. Essentially, out of all the cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin is most like a fiat currency.  

Bitcoin has become widely recognized as a payment method, partially because of their built-in privacy protections. It allows users to distance the account itself from the public persona. Unlike using cash or PayPal transactions where protections are scarce, Bitcoin tracks transactions between users but it is difficult to discover who the users are. Individuals or groups who want to mitigate the use of fiat currency should invest in cryptocurrency, since a plethora of sellers accept Bitcoin payments (Microsoft, Overstock, Etsy, AT&T, Shopify). Even though Bitcoin has inexpensive transaction fees, it also eases the process of international transactions because, like credit card payments and ATM cash withdrawals, it does not require international transaction fees. 

Finally, Bitcoin’s built-in scarcity component inculcates the currency with inherent value like gold and other metals. This supports its lasting value against fiat currencies and non-scarce cryptocurrencies. 

Purchasing Anything on the Black Market With Any Currency Is a Good Thing´  | Op-Ed Bitcoin News

A major inconvenience to using Bitcoin is the lack of policy regarding refunds and chargebacks. Because of its decentralized design, it is extremely difficult for users to dispute transactions. Even though miners are responsible for recording the transactions, it cannot prove the legitimacy of those transactions. 

Bitcoin’s reputation as the world’s most popular cryptocurrency precedes itself, so much so that it becomes vulnerable to fraud cases. Examples include the small-scale Ponzi scheme with Bitcoin Savings & Trust to grand-scale hacks such as the infiltrations of Sheep Marketplace and Mt. Gox, which were bilked of hundreds of thousands of Bitcoins. To add, Bitcoin attracts groups and individuals involved with the black market due to its inherent anonymity protections. Ultimately, Bitcoin’s competitors do not acquire nearly the number of users to engender maliciously profitable activity for criminals. If fiat currency were used, such crimes would be prosecuted by law enforcement (see Member Dr. Stephen Castell’s recent article on the subject).  

There is the exception of people who are converting to newer cryptocurrencies. Depending on the type of cryptocurrency, these services either eliminate third-party involvement in transactions or use “smart contracts.” These contracts hold the cryptocurrency providers liable for their offerings. If the number of people leaving Bitcoin for another service increases, then its value would certainly decrease.   

As previously mentioned, an advantage to Bitcoin is its liquidity and ability to be easily exchanged. However, it becomes susceptible to unpredictable price swings within small time intervals. For instance, after the FBI announced the legitimacy of Bitcoin as a financial service, its value skyrocketed in late 2017 and yet halved at the start of 2018 due to the Mt. Gox hack. These decimated billions of dollars of the market value instantly. 

Lastly, Bitcoin mining weakens the environment because it exhausts large quantities of electricity. The source of power for Bitcoin stems from coal plants. When mining occurs, the amount of electricity used directly correlates to the vast amounts of air pollutants released into the atmosphere, creating difficulty for surrounding citizens to breathe.  

As the world transitions into a virtual age, and the value of fiat currency remains in flux, people face the crucial decision to either invest in cryptocurrency or continue with their current monetary choices. For those looking to invest in Bitcoin or cryptocurrency, hopefully this blog post provides general insight and clarity for future financial endeavors.  

Sources: 

https://bitcoin.org/en/how-it-works

https://www.moneycrashers.com/bitcoin-history-how-it-works-pros-cons/

Criminal JusticeEvidenceForensic DNA

New DNA Restoration Technology Helps South Korea Police Solve 33-Year-Long Murder Case

Due to advancements in DNA technology, a 33-year-long murder mystery has finally been solved. The most infamous serial killing case in South Korea, otherwise known as the Hwaseong murders (1986-1991), resulted in the death of 10 women and girls. The true killer, Lee Chun-jae (pictured below), admitted to 30 rapes and 14 murders, 9 of which were part of the Hwaseong murder cases.  

The Korean Zodiac Killer: Lee Choon-Jae and the Hwaseong Serial Murder –  Serial Killer Shop

What instigated the confession was a recent discovery in DNA restoration technology. This new forensic advancement has allowed police and other government agencies to identify DNA that either could not be identified at the time it was processed or even after long periods of time, as in this case. The South Korean Police conducted a comparison between samples of DNA from a victim’s underwear with the DNA database of prisoners at the penitentiary. The outcome identified Lee as the culprit, who was already facing a life sentence for the last 2 decades for his sister-in-law’s rape and murder. He told the court that he “was surprised he wasn’t caught earlier,” (CNN). Lee also told reporters that he did not try to hide his crimes. Though detectives asked him questions, they were always about other people. The DNA results also confirmed the innocence of the man arrested for Lee’s crimes.  

In 2008, a person named Yoon, whose full name cannot be released for legal reasons, was freed after spending 20 years in prison for the rape and murder of a 13-year-old girl, a murder victim from the Hwaseong cases. Last year, the DNA evidence was released, thus confirming Yoon’s innocence. Yoon was granted a retrial, and his lawyers are currently in the process of overturning his conviction. He told CNN, “I want to clear my false accusation, and I want my honor back.”  

South Korean investigators examine a crime scene in Hwaseong, South Korea in 1993, following a spate of murders.

Suffice it to say, at the time of the murders, there were some discrepancies in the investigation. The Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency Chief, Bae Yong-ju, admitted to ABC News that Yoon was mistreated by the police to the point where he made a false confession under coercion. The police involved in the case have issued a public apology to Lee Chun-jae’s victims, their families, and Yoon, a victim of the failed police investigation. Yoon, outraged from being subjected to years of injustice, aspires to continue his life as a free and innocent man. 

So, what happens next? Lee Chun-jae will not be facing prosecution for the Hwaseong murders. The statute of limitations on the case has expired. However, he will continue to live out the rest of his life in prison for the rape and murder of his sister-in-law. Thanks to advances in DNA technology, grave mistakes, like those found in this case, will hopefully be reduced.  

ComputersEmploymentHuman ResourcesOrganizational Development

The Future of the Office in a Post-Pandemic World

As we endure almost ten months of living through a pandemic, we can all agree COVID-19 has brought about various changes and challenges. The pandemic has affected every aspect of daily life. Worrying when items will be restocked in local grocery stores, wondering when the next stimulus check will arrive in the mail, and keeping ourselves and families safe from the virus have been at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Although millions of jobs have been lost this year, people who are lucky enough to either have found or kept his/her job now deal with working-from-home. Because the workforce is now conducting a 180 towards online practices, the future of offices in a post-pandemic world is pending. 

According to Nicholas Bloom, a Stanford Economist, “we’re in the middle of a structural, seismic shift,” in the workplace. Working-from-home is not a new concept, there are jobs that are designed specifically for remote locations and travel. The problem is millions of people are now forced to adapt to new working conditions in order to slow the spread of the virus, putting the world’s technological advancements to the test. To ensure productivity through a tumultuous time, businesses are instantly tasked with reimagining the role of work and creating a positive environment for their employees. Both individuals and organizations face benefits and drawbacks from this uncontrollable shift.  

Some employees love the working-from-home lifestyle. For busy individuals or employees who have families, working-from-home creates flexibility in his/her work schedule, allowing time to complete daily errands and appointments. A surprising “36% (of employees) would choose it (remote work) over a pay raise,” a statistic from Global Workplace Analytics. Working-from-home also allows people to save money on clothesgas, and food costs that they would otherwise need for the workplace. Lastly, working remotely does not necessarily mean people are tethered to their homes. Computers and smartphones allow people to work from any location, including coffee shops, parks, and even planes. Having the choice of when and where you work is the appealing aspect of working remotely.  

While working from home has been successful for some people, it has caused great strife for others. Merging the personal and professional components of life is not an easy feat. This sudden disruption of daily routines adds physical, mental, and emotional anxiety. For those with families, balancing the work load may be difficult with children under foot. To add, the lack of in-person communication creates a sense of isolation and loneliness, which could decrease productivity. To combat these hardships, employees and employers who work-from-home must dedicate some time to maintain his/her health and wellness by exercising, connecting with family and friends, and finding activities that bring happiness to the day.  

Although companies who adopt the work-from-home method implement different policies, the general pros and cons seem to be consistent for most businesses. According to Global Workplace Analytics, “A number of states, including Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon offer financial incentives for businesses to adopt telework.” The benefits are not limited to financial incentives. States such as Arizona and Connecticut offer free training to businesses willing to convert to remote work. Also, working from home is environmentally friendly. The rate of office equipment energy consumption is twice that of energy consumption from a person’s home. Businesses save money by participating in the work-from-home method and improving the conditions of the planet one step at a time. Finally, remote work is slowly increasing the hiring pool because it provides geographic diversity that would not have been possible pre-pandemic. 

For CEOs, managers, and other team leaders within an organization, being unable to convene at an office can be difficult. The absence of a physical space forces people on all levels of the organizational hierarchy to interact through digital means. Face-to-face communication has been limited to video conferences on sites such as Zoom, Skype and Google Hangouts. Projects, presentations, sales pitches, settlements, and other types of meetings are conducted through a computer or phone, which increases the chance of miscommunication and technological difficulties. This quick transition to telework also increases management mistrust.  As many as “75% of managers say they trust their employee, but a third say they’d like to be able to see them, just to be sure,” stated by Global Workplace Analytics. Working from home provides a flexible schedule for employees, but it is also their responsibility to accomplish the required tasks and not abuse the time allotted to do so. Companies must make strides to embrace remote work as part of the new norm by setting and measuring goals for employees.  

Ultimately, there are advantages and disadvantages to working from home and the office. Many companies adopt the hybrid model where employees do both, and this is most likely what the future holds in store for the modern-day workforce. For both businesses and employees, the balance between work and personal life has become a priority during the height of the pandemic. The work-from-home model not only relieves some of the stress imposed by the pandemic but allows people who work in non-online industries, such as healthcare and construction, to safely tend to their job. Whether businesses go back to the office or not, it has been reassuring to know that many industries and individuals have the technological capability and resources to work from home during a global pandemic. 

AdvertisingInformation & Communication TechnologySearch Engine OptimizationSEO

Google Antitrust (Part 1): Search Engine Optimization, Or Monopolization?

On October 20th, 2020, The United States government, along with several states (AR, FL, GA, IN, KY, LA, MS, MO, MT SC, and TX), filed an antitrust lawsuit against technology company, Google LLC, for illicitly continuing monopolies in general search services, general search text advertising, and search advertising. Google has been accused of maintaining control of these markets through exclusionary practices, which prohibits the expansion of competition throughout the internet technology industry. The basis for this accusation is Google’s alleged violation of Section 2 of the Sherman Act, 15 U.S.C. § 2, which bans monopolies in trade and commerce. Along with previous antitrust cases, it is important to review the nature of the lawsuit. Since Google is being accused of antitrust in several areas, the case’s foundation will be broken up into two sections.

1. General Search Services: Within the last twenty years, Google has transitioned from a new start-up to one of the richest companies on Earth, making as much as $160 billion a year. Because search engines are dispersed throughout a variety of devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops, user search queries in the United States have surged in the last decade. Search engines are the most effective when they are set as the default. For example, if a consumer uses a Dell, they are more likely to have Bing as the default search engine, unless the user changes it to Google, Firefox, etc., which rarely occurs. In addition, Google pays billions to a plethora of distributors spanning from device manufacturers, wireless carriers, and browser developers to set their search engine services as the default. Because Google pays companies like Apple, Motorola, Mozilla, AT&T, and UCWeb to secure their search engine as the default, along with the lack of users changing their default engine themselves, the lawsuit alleges the deals made by Google were intended to eliminate competition among other search engine providers. In fact, 90% of all generated-search engine queries have been searched through Google. It does not cost anything to search online. So, it begs the question: how were they able to make billions of dollars?

Google Search adding site favicons to every result - 9to5Google

2. Search Advertising/General Search Text Advertising: Google utilizes consumer information and search queries to sell advertising. Since Google is the default search engine for various devices, they receive almost $40 billion from advertisers to place ads on their search engine results pages (SERP). Because Google receives 90% of search engine traffic (that’s billions of eyeballs on tailored ads), these deals create difficulty for smaller rival search businesses to compete and incentivizes advertisers to stay with Google rather than switching to another company that cannot perform on such a grand scale. The services Google provides require intricate algorithms which collect vast amounts of data used to tailor content based on a user’s search query. For example, if you search holiday discounts for a Keurig coffee maker, you might see an ad for the exact search entry two days later, which is what advertisers want. These deals ultimately engender a continuous cycle of anticompetitive behavior from Google and thwart potential competition, giving the United States government and various states another reason to issue an antitrust lawsuit.

With the nature of the case in mind, Google’s ever-growing power is concerning. Is Big Tech too influential in the economic and advertising sectors? Shouldn’t consumers be aware of Google’s seemingly anticompetitive tactics? As the world continues to enter a digital age, how will this case change the ways in which internet companies conduct business ventures? Stay tuned as our Experts.com Members give their input on the subject in Part 2: coming soon.

CommunicationPoliticsPsychology

First Presidential Debate: Even Experts Say It Was “Painful to Watch”

To say 2020 has been a whirlwind of a year would be an understatement. After enduring a global pandemic, the arrival of murder hornets, Australian and West Coast wildfires, and so on, it appears the world can’t catch a break. For the United States in particular, politics has added fuel to the fire. The seemingly exhausting nature of the country’s current political environment is one that cannot be ignored, as the election in November is quickly approaching. The future Commander in Chief of the nation is in the hands of voters from two extremely divided political parties, the Democrats and Republicans. However, the outcome of the recent presidential debate lacked the information needed for voters to make an important decision: who they want to take the Oval Office.  

On September 29th, the first presidential debate for the 2020 election took place at the Sheila and Eric Samson Pavilion in Clevland, Ohio. Assuming the election will be a close race, this has certainly been the most anticipated debate in American history. Republican nominee and current President of the United States, Donald Trump, and Democratic nominee and former Vice President under the Obama Administration, Joe Biden, battled it out face-to-face on the debate stage with Fox News Sunday anchor, Chris Wallace, as the moderator. Although the set topics included the coronavirus pandemic, economy, systemic racism, and healthcare, anything but those subjects were addressed. This may not have given voters much to work with, however, linguistspsychologists, and body language experts had a field day analyzing the candidates’ performances. Let’s discuss the verbal and nonverbal cues that made this debate, in the words of body language expert, Patti Woods, “painful to watch.”  

The policies Trump and Biden represent are not the only factors that distinguish these candidates. Both nominees exemplified different behavioral approaches regarding how they answered Wallace’s questions and responded to their opponent. Some experts believe Trump’s strategy was based on anger. Woods told The Independent, “Anger is the strongest persuasive emotion… His choice to be on the attack, nonverbally he did that very specifically by looking at Biden when he was interrupting and talking over him and turning his upper body toward him.” She also claimed the painful aspect of the debate was Trump’s bully-like behavior, which is not typically seen during debates of such stature as those held for elected officials. Trump’s interjections are also an example of Face-Threatening Action. Brian Larson, an associate professor at Texas A&M University School of Law, told Inverse, “It’s (Face-Threatening Action) a specific type of interruption intended to diminish social power.” The purpose of these interruptions is to not only accelerate the pace of the debate, but to cause Biden to retract, clarify, and correct statements. Other experts believed Trump’s demeanor made him look like a strong leader. Lillian Glass, a body language expert, told Boston Globe, “His body movements matched his emotions and what he had to say… there was not a lot of levity.” 

Biden, on the other hand, had a much more welcoming and laid-back approach according to experts. Woods stated that Biden’s decision to look at the camera and address the audience with a smile could be seen as self-control. Other experts, like Chris Ulrich, a behavioral body language expert, believed his direct statements toward the camera was his attempt to make a connection to voters and establish a “transference of power” (Boston Globe). Larson noticed Biden’s language was casual. For instance, when the debate started, Biden greeted President Trump by saying, “How you doing, man?” This happened again when Trump interrupted Chris Wallace and Biden exclaimed, “Will you shut up, man?” According to Larson, Biden’s informal language helped abate the perceived power dynamics that were present due to Trump’s interjections and his role as President. Glass thought Biden’s decision to directly speak to the viewers was inappropriate. She believes debaters should be looking at their opponent or the moderator. Based on this notion, Biden’s actions could have displeased many viewers.  

First Trump-Biden debate ends with many insults, little substance | WITF

So, based on body language alone, which presidential candidate won the first debate? Well, every expert has their own opinion and interpretation of what occurred. According to Glass, Trump won the debate. Trump’s disposition was in sync with his body language. In moments when he needed to be serious, his physical stance and gestures correlated with his verbal statements. Although it reads as aggressive and obnoxious, Trump was unwavering in his decisions to argue, interrupt, and defend. Glass felt Biden failed to present himself as a leader because his gestures were more rehearsed. In moments when Trump refuted him, for instance, when the Green New Deal was discussed, Biden would smile during confrontation and used coached motions like pinching his thumb and finger to demonstrate a point. However, Woods suggests that Biden won the debate. Unlike Trump, Biden established a connection with voters by making direct eye contact with the camera. He explained his policies and plans to the American people, the 328 million citizens responsible for electing the 46th President of the United States of America. Because Trump was constantly interrupting Biden, along with his lack of rapport with viewers, he was perceived as a bully.  

Now that America’s disappointment in the first presidential debate is common knowledge, and considering all divisive information has arisen in the meantime, it will be interesting to see how effective Trump and Biden’s communication skills will be during the final debate this Thursday, October 22nd, 2020. 

FraudSecurities

Nikola: The Next Tesla, Or A Fraud?

Nikola founder, Trevor Milton, recently resigned from his position as Executive Chairman of the Board after facing accusations of fraud. Before delving into the fraud allegations, it is important to understand the genesis of the company, which adds to the gravity of the situation. You may recall, last week we delved into the upcoming fraud trial for former Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes. We wanted to continue covering this topic of high profile fraud.

Milton built Nikola in 2014 hoping to reform the transportation sector. His plan in accomplishing this goal was to create mainstream battery-electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles from state-of-the-art zero-emissions technology. Establishing a company based on the same inventor and mission as another company, Tesla to be specific, is not the only suspicious act Milton has committed.

According to Business Insider, on September 10th, 2020, a report published by the Hindenburg Research investment firm contains evidence of Milton providing false statements about his products. More specifically, the report accuses Milton of exaggerating the viability of his products and thus misinforming investors, partners, and consumers. An example of these fraudulent statements is based on a video demo advertising Nikola’s debut semi-truck, the allegedly hydrogen-powered “Nikola One.” The report revealed an exchange of text messages from a Nikola employee developing a plan to roll the vehicle down a hill to manipulate the “high-speed” aspect of the truck. Nikola diverted from the issue by stating the prototype was discarded and therefore irrelevant. To add, they thought the Hindenburg report was released as sabotage considering Nikola’s partnership with General Motors was finalized two days prior. It should be noted, Hindenburg is a short-seller, so they were interested in seeing Nikola’s stock price decline. (Photo Source: Twitter @HindenburgRes).

The company started trading on June 4th, after a reverse merger with VectoIQ. VectoIQ is a publicly-traded special purpose acquisition organization led by Stephen Girsky, the former Vice Chairman of General Motors. Before the Hindenburg report, Nikola was performing well in the stock market. A CNBC article stated that shares of Nikola Corporation increased by 20% at the end of the month. According to the closing price, Nikola was valued at almost $28.8 billion, making the corporation more valuable than Ford. However, Nikola’s stock market surge stemmed from Milton’s announcement of the company’s new battery-electric fuel-cell truck, the Badger. He followed his announcement confirming the company’s partnership with General Motors, a necessary move to get the new truck to market. Nikola did not anticipate to generate income until 2021, but investors were willing to provide a hefty sum for promising vehicles.

Despite the incident that led to his resignation, analysts think Milton’s exodus is a positive and necessary step for the progression of both Nikola and General Motors. Whether the motive for resigning was personal or strictly business, with Milton absent there will be less negative publicity.

What does this mean for Trevor Milton? Along with his resignation, he agreed to relinquish $166 million of equity and a two-year $20 million consulting contract. However, Milton gets to possess $3.1 billion in stock due to a recently finalized separation agreement. He agreed to assist the corporation as an unpaid consultant, but his role in company operations and decision-making are paused for at least three years. In the aftermath of Milton’s resignation, Nikola’s shares decreased significantly in premarket trading, opening Monday, September 21st, at $24.97, the lowest opening price since the company went public in June. It ended the day, closing down 19% at $27.58. As he continues to defend himself against the Hindenburg Research report, Milton’s legal expenses are paid for by Nikola as long as they receive copies of evidence.

With Milton out of the picture, Stephen Girsky has been appointed chairman of the board. General Motors’ main priority is to plan production of the battery-powered Badger truck starting late 2021 or early 2022, ultimately continuing the partnership with Nikola. Although General Motors bears the responsibility for its creation, Nikola will remain in charge of marketing and selling the product upon its release. Because Nikola lacks the cushion of intellectual property and revenue, they heavily rely on the investor’s contribution through the stock market. Nikola’s tarnished reputation requires damage control in order to maintain enough revenue until the Badger is released.

UPDATE: Now that time has passed from Nikola’s public fraud incident, the aftermath has unraveled. As of Monday, November 30th, 2020, General Motors decided to remove themselves from their deal with Nikola, thus relinquishing their $11 million equity stake. Because Nikola failed to live up to their “fast-paced” evolution of electric and hybrid vehicles, General Motors believed it was in their best interest to maintain distance for their future business ventures. Since the manufacture of Nikola’s hydrogen-powered Badger pickup truck relied on a partnership with an automaker, the vehicle’s production has been paused. According to The Verge, the two companies will cooperate to bring, “GM’s Hydrotec fuel-cell technology into Nikola’s Class 7 and Class 8 zero-emission semi-trucks for the medium- and long-haul trucking sectors.” With Nikola partly out of the picture, General Motors can focus on their multi-billion-dollar pursuit for a future involving all-electric vehicles. This requires the automaker to invest $2.2 billion to reconfigure their vehicle assembly plant and create the development process for its modular battery-electric platform, Ultium. They announced last week their $2.2 billion electrification investment will become $27 billion through 2025.  

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Computer SecurityComputersInformation & Communication TechnologySocial Media

TikTok: Is It The Next Cyber-Security Threat?

TikTok has been the most downloaded app globally in 2020. Although it has existed since 2018, TikTok surpassed 2 billion downloads back in April, during the apex of the new socially-distanced reality engendered by the pandemic. The ability to share and create content such as comedy skits, dance challenges, and lip-syncing clips, has appealed to various age groups around the world, especially teenagers. However, TikTok has been at the center of controversy for raising cyber security concerns not just here in the United States, but around the world. 

The problem with TikTok is twofold. The first issue is the app is owned by a Chinese company called ByteDance. Because ByteDance is not American-based, it does not follow U.S. federal and state consumer privacy laws. TikTok announced the data collected by American users is backed-up in Singapore, which is not subject to Chinese law. Though true, it is possible the Chinese government could pressure ByteDance to relinquish its user information. 

Second, TikTok has a large accumulation of data related to the types of videos Americans watch and post. Because it has turned into an important platform for political activism, people are worried the Chinese government could influence public opinion and control speech. For instance, according to both The Guardian and The Intercept, last year, TikTok company officials told their employees to censor content considered sensitive to Beijing. TikTok claimed their policies were outdated when the reports were released. As a result of this incident, they established a “transparency center” so security and technology experts from around the world can observe their policies. 

Despite TikTok’s official statement, President Donald Trump issued an Executive Order in August declaring the prohibition of all business with ByteDance. Unless ByteDance announces a plan to sell TikTok, the app will be banned on September 29th, 2020. Several American agencies and companies, such as the U.S. Army and Wells Fargo, have been proactive, requiring servicemen and employees to uninstall the app in response to these security concerns. Other countries, like India, have followed suit, banning the app altogether. 

Many people, including computer security experts, believe banning the app in the United States would be an extreme course of action. Not only would it invite questions about censorship in a free country right before an election, but it would affect various companies here in the U.S. who use the platform for marketing purposes. A solution technology experts have mentioned is to implement policies for protecting consumer privacy and measures to minimize data misuse from companies around the world. Currently, with the exception of a few state laws, the responsibility of American privacy and data sharing belongs to companies such as TikTok, Facebook, and Twitter. 

On September 14th, 2020, ByteDance accepted Oracle’s proposal to be their new technology provider. This means Oracle would be held accountable for protecting all user information collected through TikTok. Although this deal is pending approval by the U.S. government, this would keep businesses invested in TikTok afloat and allow up to 100 million users to continue posting creative content. Tresury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, told CNBC that the government will be reviewing the proposal this week, as their top priority is to keep American user data from the Chinese Communist Party.   

Four days later, the U.S. government announced the removal of TikTok and fellow Chinese app, WeChat, from American app stores supplied by Apple and Google. Distribution, updates, and maintenance will be expelled for purchase unless the Trump administration, TikTok, and Oracle can close a deal by September 20th. Commerce Secretary, Wilbur Ross, told Bloomberg WeChat would be shut down for practical purposes, but Americans could still use the app for payments in China and talk to loved ones overseas. He added TikTok’s official shut down is scheduled after November 12th if the deal with Oracle falls through.  

On Monday, September 21st, 2020, President Trump announced his approval of the deal between Oracle and TikTok. As a result of the ongoing proposal, Oracle and Walmart will share a 20% stake in TikTok Global, a new company headquartered in the United States. ByteDance will own 80% of TikTok Global and allow Oracle to review its source code. Ceding algorithms and other technologies was not included in the deal. Allowing Oracle to review the source code is still not fool-proof as ByteDance could easily instruct the code to send data back to China in secret. Trump’s approval has postponed the ban for now, but the removal of TikTok through American app stores is still in effect. As relations between the United States and China remain tumultuous, the final outcome of the TikTok debate remains to be seen.