Microsoft makes largest corporate solar deal in U.S. history, buying 315 MW from 750,000 solar panels

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Microsoft just announced what it calls “the single largest corporate purchase of solar energy ever in the United States,” buying 315 megawatts from two new solar projects in Virginia as part of its ongoing effort to power its global data centers with renewable energy.

The power will come from 750,000 solar panels spread across 2,000 acres at projects called Pleinmont I and II. With the purchase, the company says its total renewable energy portfolio will reach 1.2 gigawatts globally, which a Microsoft representative described as “enough power to light up 100 million LED bulbs, or send Marty McFly back to the future.”

Microsoft says it has reached its goal of powering at least 50 percent of its data centers with clean energy by this year. The company says the latest deal will help achieve its next goal, powering 60 percent of its data centers with clean energy by 2020.

Microsoft’s renewable energy footprint. (Microsoft Image. See full infographic.)

Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed. It’s part of a larger trend of major U.S. companies increasingly turning to renewable energy sources.

The Virginia solar development is operated by renewable energy producer sPower, whose CEO Ryan Creamer said in a news release that Microsoft’s commitment to the project allowed it to proceed and opened the door to sell power from the rest of the 500 megawatt project to other buyers at competitive prices.

“While we’ve made a great deal of progress, we still have a long way to go,” writes Brad Smith, Microsoft president and chief legal officer, in a post tonight. “As we look toward 2020, we are exploring new models and methods for aggregation. We will continue to push the envelope on R&D, looking for new ways to improve our energy efficiency and enable our datacenters to benefit the grid. And we are more active than ever on the policy front, working in Washington, D.C., state capitals and internationally to help craft policies that enable everyone to have access to a fair, competitive market rate and improved access to clean energy.”

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Apple confirms it will fix bug that caused Siri to read out hidden lock screen notifications

a close up of a logo © Provided by The Verge

Apple says it will fix a bug that caused Siri to read out hidden lock screen notifications to anyone who asks. Apple said in a statement to MacRumors, “We are aware of the issue and it will be addressed in an upcoming software update.” The update might come in iOS 11.3, currently still in beta, or possibly in iOS 11.2.7 if Apple releases a minor update.

The original bug allowed Siri to read out lock screen notifications for third-party apps, even if you turned off message previews while the phone is locked. Siri didn’t check to make sure the owner of the phone was the person who was asking. iMessages and SMS texts were still kept private from being read aloud, but Facebook Messenger, Slack, email apps like Apple’s own Mail app, and more could all have messages read by Siri. (And since whisper mode hasn’t yet come to Siri, despite Apple patenting that technology, the voice can still be quite loud.)

Anyone can just hold down the home button on most iPhones or a side button for the iPhone X to activate Siri without voice recognition and ask to read notifications. The problem remains in iOS 11.3 beta and iOS 11.2.6 devices until Apple issues the fix.

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Is there a link between anxiety and smartphone addiction?

New UK research has identified some of the personality traits that could lead to smartphone addiction, finding that those who are more emotionally unstable are more likely to be hooked on their phone.

Carried out by psychologists from the University of Derby and Nottingham Trent University, the online study surveyed 640 smartphone users aged 13-69 to look at a possible link between smartphone use and certain personality traits.

The team found that those who were less emotionally stable and resilient were more likely have a higher level of smartphone use, possibly as a form of therapy.

“This is because people may be experiencing problems in their lives such as stress, anxiety, depression, family problems, so in that state they are emotionally unstable, meaning they may seek respite in very excessive smartphone use. This is worrying,” said Dr. Zaheer Hussain, Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby.

In addition, those with anxiety also appeared to be more addicted to their phone. Previous research has already suggested that both heavy and moderate smartphone use can lead to users feeling significantly more anxious over time, with the new study also suggesting that as levels of anxiety increase, so does problematic smartphone use.

“With 4.23 billion smartphones being used around the world, smartphone use has become a necessity in the lives of many individuals,” said Dr. Hussain. “Problematic smartphone use is more complex than previously thought and our research has highlighted the interplay of various psychological factors in the study of smartphone use.”

The responses also showed that the most popular smartphone applications among the participants were social networking applications (used by 49.9%), followed by instant messaging applications (35.2%), and then music applications (19.1%).

People who are “closed off” or less open with their emotions are also more likely to have problems with smartphone use according to the findings, with Dr. Hussain, commenting that, “They may be engaging in passive social network use, this is where you spend a lot of time on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, browsing other peoples’ comments, pictures and posts, and not posting anything of your own and not engaging in discussion with others, so there is no real positive social interaction while social networking.”

“While it can be argued that people are no more addicted to their smartphones than alcoholics are addicted to bottles, our research does show that some applications such as the use of social networking sites, do appear to be problematic for a small minority of individuals,” added Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction at Nottingham Trent University.

Feeling emotionally unstable could lead you to rely on your smartphone more according to new research.

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HP Envy x2 (Qualcomm) Preview: Here Comes the Future

HP Envy x2 (Qualcomm) Preview: Here Comes the Future

Posted on March 20, 2018 by Paul Thurrott

The HP Envy x2 is at the nexus of three major initiatives that will shape the future of Windows and the PC: Windows 10 S, soon to be recast as S mode, Microsoft’s Always Connected PC initiative, and Windows 10 on ARM, which brings the platform to mobile-focused Qualcomm chipsets. As such, the product is inherently interesting.

And boy, do I have questions.

Some of those questions can be answered in the short term, though of course things will evolve over time.

For example, what is the real-world battery life and “uptime,” what I think of as battery life plus standby time? What is the real-world performance of x86 desktop applications? (With the understanding that this will require switching to Windows 10 Pro.) And how seamlessly does Windows 10 handle the transition between Wi-Fi connectivity and cellular data?

Other, broader questions require context in the form of long-time experience. Do Microsoft’s interweaving strategies make sense for the platform and for the customers who will use these devices? Is there really a sizable market of users who will not deal with but will actually prefer Windows 10 in S mode? And how many of these people will further prefer the benefits of this system running on even more mobile ARM-based PCs?

For now, of course, I will focus on what’s in front of me. And over time, I will develop a better understanding. Not just of how this device works on this Snapdragon processor generation. But of how or whether this all makes sense at all. Of whether there is a future here.

There are measurements to be made. And some are fair, some are not.

For example, I routinely perform a streaming HD video test over Wi-Fi on the PCs that I review, and I believe that such a test is fair: The Movies & TV app that I use for this test runs natively on ARM, and will provide an apples-to-apples battery life comparison with other Windows 10 PCs. (That said, the other half of this equation is standby time. And that will require real-world experience over time.)

However, running performance benchmarks on this device is not fair at all: Those benchmarks are x86 desktop applications and will be emulated on the HP Envy x2, so their results are rendered moot. But it’s not just about emulation. Remember: Qualcomm’s ARM processors use a mobile-optimized design that includes both large (performance) and small (efficiency) cores. When you just run the PC continuously, as happens in a benchmark, it cannot take advantage of its own processor design. Benchmarks are always artificial, but this is even more so on ARM-based PCs.

On that note, you should not trust any website that seeks to demonstrate the real-world performance of a Snapdragon-based PC using such benchmarks. Here, I will instead do what I always do. I will actually use the PC, see how well it really works, and then report back to you what I’ve found.

To do that, of course, I will need to switch it over to Windows 10 Pro. That will compromise the experience that Microsoft—and, presumably HP—wishes for their customers. So I will need to test this device with both Windows 10 S and Windows 10 Pro for my final review. My rough plan is to perform the artificial battery life test first—I usually do this last—in Windows 10 S, and then switch it to Pro. Then, I can test Windows desktop application performance and repeat the battery life test to see whether there is any difference. (My biased expectation is that there will be no meaningful difference.) And then I’ll switch it back to Windows 10 S for some weeks-long testing.

Somehow, during all this, I will also need to test how well Windows 10 handles the transition between Wi-Fi and cellular data networks. And yes, I expect this to be identical between Windows 10 S and Pro.

To date, my experience with this type of thing has been mixed: Windows has long featured integrated support for cellular data, and it’s unclear whether the Always Connected PC initiative is just a public brand or whether it manifests in real-world improvements in the product. (My biased expectation: It will work like it always worked, with repeated “metered networking” warnings and lots of manual switching of networks.)

Sometime during the review process, Microsoft will ship the Spring Creators Update, which will upgrade Windows 10 to version 1803. Given the timing of this product’s release schedule, it obviously ships with Windows 10 version 1709. And given its life cycle, I think it’s fair to not conclude the review until it receives the upgrade: Everyone who buys this product will soon or immediately be upgrading anyway. So I will try and let that happen naturally. And I hope to make this upgrade while the device is running Windows 10 S. We’ll see how that bit goes.

Later today, I’ll provide a first impressions article that describes the device itself. Based on my initial hands-on experience with the Envy x2 from December, I can say that it is, by far, the nicest of the first three Qualcomm-based PCs to come to market. Even in the broader field of Always Connected PCs—remember, there will be many more Intel variants as well—the HP Envy x2 stands out from a design perspective. This is a premium PC with an attractive 2-in-1 design.

I’m really looking forward to this one, and it’s not hard to imagine why. Sure, I don’t personally gravitate to 2-in-1 PCs, and I do prefer larger displays. But this isn’t about me. It’s about the future, of Windows, and of the entire PC platform. This is about Microsoft finding a foothold in a world that has gone mad with mobile devices and cloud services. And doing so in a mainstream way, and not just with niche sub-categories of expensive PCs. For the Envy x2 to succeed, in particular in Qualcomm form, it has to address real needs, and it has to do so for a large audience.

It’s all very exciting. And not knowing the outcome, not knowing how this will play out over time, is part of the thrill.

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Major Windows 10 Updates Will Soon Give You Less Downtime

Microsoft is once again making changes to how major Windows 10 updates are installed in the OS. The company is making significant changes to the system in order to give users less downtime, letting them work while a big update is being prepared for installation.

Back in April of last year, the offline time for installing a major update was 82 minutes. With the Fall Creators Update in October, Microsoft cut that down to only 51 minutes. And with the upcoming Windows 10 update, Microsoft is introducing further cuts to the offline installation process by bringing down the offline time for major updates to only 30 minutes.

Microsoft was able to cut down the offline time by 21 minutes by making two significant changes to the system: preparation of user content for migration and the process of storing the OS into a temporary directory are now being handled in the “online” process instead of the offline process. So the update system is technically still the same, but two of the processes are now being handled during the online phase to give users less downtime.

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Microsoft lifts update embargo on Windows 10

But Windows 7 and 8.1 PCs must still contain approved antivirus to receive post-Spectre/Meltdown patches.

Windows security and protection [Windows logo/locks] Thinkstock / Microsoft

Microsoft this week lifted the security update blockade on Windows 10 PCs that do not have approved antivirus software, but kept the no-patches-for-you rule in place for the more popular Windows 7.

The update roadblock was assembled in early January, when Microsoft issued mitigations against the Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities. Those vulnerabilities stemmed from design flaws in virtually all modern processors made by Intel, AMD and ARM. According to Microsoft, the security updates could brick PCs equipped with antivirus (AV) software that had improperly tapped into kernel memory.

[ Further reading: Windows 10 spring 2018 update: Key enterprise features ]

To prevent customers’ machines from encountering “stop errors” – Microsoft’s euphemism for “Blue Screen of Death” or BSOD – during installation of the security updates, the Redmond, Wash. company said that AV vendors had to self-certify that their code was compatible with the Spectre/Meltdown patches. Microsoft also required AV developers to signal that compatibility by writing a new key to the Windows Registry.

If the key was not present, the updates would not download and install.

Bottom line, a Windows PC sans an approved antivirus package would not be patched. Microsoft put it in stark terms: “Customers will not receive the January 2018 security updates (or any subsequent security updates) and will not be protected from security vulnerabilities unless their antivirus software vendor sets the following registry key [emphasis added].”

At the time, Microsoft would not say how long the AV rule would be maintained. Instead, it offered a nebulous until-we-say-so timeline. “Microsoft will continue to enforce this requirement until there is high confidence that the majority of customers will not encounter device crashes after installing the security updates,” a support document stated.

Chris Goettl, product manager with client security and management vendor Ivanti, said of the block, “I think it will be at least a few patch cycles.”

Goettl nailed it, at least for Windows 10, because on Tuesday Microsoft said it had lifted the embargo. “Our recent work with our antivirus (AV) partners on compatibility with Windows updates has now reached a sustained level of broad ecosystem compatibility,” the firm said in a different support document. “Based on our analysis of available data, we are now lifting the AV compatibility check for the March 2018 Windows security updates for supported Windows 10 devices via Windows Update.”

In cases where Microsoft knows that the antivirus software was incompatible with the updates, it will continue to block the latter from reaching affected PCs.

Though the update barrier was removed for Windows 10, it will remain in place for Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. Users of those editions must continue to have a compatible AV package on board, one that sets the registry key. Alternately, customers can add the registry key themselves by following the “Setting the Registry Key” instructions here.

Because the Windows 10 security updates are cumulative – they include not just the current month’s patches, but all patches issued previously – by applying the March collection, users will again have an up-to-date system.

It was unclear how long Microsoft would maintain the update restriction on Windows 7 and Windows 8.1. In a FAQ refreshed this week, the company repeated its vague timeline. “Microsoft will continue to enforce this requirement for older versions of Windows until there is high confidence that the majority of customers will not encounter device crashes after installing the Windows security updates,” one answer read.

“I’ll share more details in the weeks ahead on AV compatibility for older versions of Windows,” added John Cable, director of program management on the Windows servicing and delivery team, in a blog post Tuesday.

Windows 7 has been the most affected by the update stoppage; it was the only edition that did not come with a Microsoft-made AV package. And by blocking security updates from reaching Windows 7 systems, Microsoft affected the biggest-possible audience: During February, Windows 7 powered 48% of all Windows PCs, a user share larger than either Windows 10’s (39%) or Windows 8/8.1’s (8%).

And as part of this week’s Patch Tuesday rollout, said Microsoft’s Cable, Windows 7 x86 and Windows 8.1 x86 were patched against the Meltdown vulnerability. Only the systems with compatible AV software, and a properly-set registry key, will receive those updates, however.

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Malware attack on 400k PCs caused by backdoored BitTorrent app

Once the stuff of spy novels, supply chain attacks are becoming common.

Dan Goodin – 3/15/2018, 5:45 AM

Jeremy Brooks

A recent malware campaign that attempted to install a resource-draining currency miner on more than 400,000 computers in 12 hours was caused by a malicious backdoor that was sneaked into a BitTorrent application called Mediaget, a Microsoft researcher said Tuesday.

The failed campaign is the latest example of what researchers call a supply-chain attack, which aims to infect large numbers of people by compromising a popular piece of hardware or software. Other examples of recent supply-chain attacks include a backdoored update of the CCleaner disk-maintenence program delivered to 2.27 million people, a tainted version of the Transmission BitTorrent client that installed ransomware on Macs, and a collection of malicious Android apps that came preinstalled on phones from two different manufacturers.

Further Reading

Backdoor built in to widely used tax app seeded last week’s NotPetya outbreak

One of the more significant supply-chain attacks to come to light was the tampering of the update process for M.E.Doc, a tax-accounting application that’s widely used in Ukraine. The compromised update seeded the NotPetya wiper worm, which shut down computers all over the world last July.

Last week, Microsoft researchers reported that the company’s Windows Defender antivirus blocked more than 400,000 instances by several advanced trojans to infect computers primarily located in Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine. The trojans were new variants of the Dofoil malware, which also goes by the name Smoke Loader. (Smoke Loader, by the way, is the name of malware that AV provider Kaspersky Lab said infected a poorly secured computer in Maryland when it sent highly sensitive National Security Agency secrets to the Kaspersky Moscow headquarters.) The Dofoil trojans Microsoft analyzed caused infected computers to install a program called CoinMiner, which tried to use infected computer resources to mine cryptocurrencies for the attackers.

Dofoil is most often spread through spam e-mail and exploit kits. On Tuesday, Microsoft researchers said the massive barrage of trojans came from a different source: a poisoned update from Mediaget. The update poisoning happened some time between February 12 and February 19. The attackers waited until March 1 to begin distributing the malware, and it wasn’t until March 6 that Microsoft began to detect it.

To avoid detection, the malware used a valid digital certificate that Microsoft suspects was stolen from an unnamed company. It’s not clear how the attackers managed to obtain the digital certificate. One possibility is from a thriving underground economy that sells counterfeit malware signing credentials that are unique to each buyer. Microsoft also didn’t explain how the Mediaget update system was compromised. Microsoft notified both Mediaget and the unnamed company.

Wednesday’s report is the latest sign of continuing sophistication of malware attacks. A decade ago, multistage malware that relied on counterfeit certificates and compromised supply chains were the stuff of nation-sponsored attack groups. Now, common criminals are relying on the techniques to mine digital coins.

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