Welcome to Hillicon Valley, The Hill’s newsletter detailing all you need to know about the tech and cyber news from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. If you don’t already, be sure to sign up for our newsletter with this LINK.
Welcome! Follow our cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech reporter, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills), for more coverage.
STIMULUS SCAMS INCREASE: Stimulus checks to help Americans weather the COVID-19 pandemic are quickly becoming a favorite target of scammers, who see the newly rolled-out funds as an easy way to profit during the ongoing crisis.
The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) said Friday that the economic impact payments – up to $1,200 for individuals and $2,400 for married couples, along with $500 per child for those eligible – had reached over 88 million Americans during the past three weeks.
The agency has set up a website to enable Americans to claim and track their stimulus checks, and will mail or directly deposit the payments.
But the influx of funds being made available to those hurting during the economic slowdown caused by the pandemic has brought with it a wave of malicious scammers looking to cash in.
Websites impersonating banks: Many of these involve websites set up to either look like the IRS or banks, with hackers trying to trick individuals into disclosing their financial information.
IBM is among the cybersecurity and software groups tracking the spike in scams directed at gaining access to these payments, which often involve phishing emails that trick individuals into clicking on links to the fake websites.
A report released by IBM this week found a 6,000-percent increase in spam emails related to COVID-19 since early March, with many of these emails aimed at stealing the IRS checks. Examples included emails that seemed to be from Wells Fargo or American Express that prompted an individual to input login information for their accounts.
Ashkan Vila, a threat researcher with IBM X-Force, told The Hill that the efforts to impersonate financial institutions showed “additional effort” by hackers to target the relief funds.
“Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we were seeing spam campaigns that didn’t have much of a theme or focus and trying to lure as many people as possible,” Vila said. “Now, the pandemic has opened up a larger opportunity for cybercriminals to capitalize on people’s fears and uncertainty, and their desire for information on COVID-19 as things are rapidly changing.”
Read more about the increasing scams here.
AMAZON WORKERS PROTEST: Amazon workers are protesting the retail giant’s decision to end the unlimited unpaid-time-off program it has provided during the coronavirus outbreak.
The online retail giant announced Friday that starting May 1st, workers not directly affected by COVID-19 whose work requires physical presence — primarily warehouse workers — will either have to come to work or request a leave of absence.
The company also announced it would be extending $2-per-hour hazard pay through May 16.
Difficult choice: Workers say the possibility of losing benefits will force them to choose between protecting their and their family’s health and potentially losing their jobs.
“I’m one of the people that is very anxious about this reduction of unlimited unpaid time off,” Rachel Belz, a worker at an Amazon fulfillment center in New Jersey, said on a call with reporters Monday.
Belz has been staying home since late March out of fear of spreading the disease to high risk individuals she lives with or her son.
“Because what that means is you basically have to choose between your job and getting your family sick,” she added.
Read more about the protests here.
IRS MAKES IMPROVEMENTS: The Treasury Department and IRS have announced enhancements to a web tool that people can use to check the status of their coronavirus relief payment.
The enhancements to the “Get My Payment” tool come after many taxpayers experienced challenges in using the application.
The Get My Payment tool, launched earlier this month, allows people to look up the status of their payment and submit their direct deposit information to the IRS so that they can receive their payment faster.
Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinHillicon Valley: Scammers target stimulus checks | Amazon workers protest changes to paid time off policy | Commerce tightens export controls on military technologies | Lawmakers aim to combat global censorship IRS makes enhancements to coronavirus rebate web tool Sanders knocks aid for cruise line while Postal Service flounders MORE has said that millions of people have been successfully able to use the tool. But some taxpayers have expressed frustrations with the tool, reporting that they have had difficulty inputting their information or had received a message from the tool that their payment status was not available.
A Treasury spokeswoman said that the new enhancements to the app include status updates in cases where payments were sent to closed bank accounts and greater access to the app for people who have filed their 2018 tax returns but not their 2019 tax returns and did not use direct deposit to receive a refund.
The web tool also now allows taxpayers to enter an amount of zero into the app if they neither received a refund nor owed the IRS money when they filed their most recent tax return, the spokeswoman said.
Read more about the updates here.
COMMERCE CRACKS DOWN: The Commerce Department announced Monday that it is tightening export controls on technology that could have military uses, citing countries like China and Russia.
“It is important to consider the ramifications of doing business with countries that have histories of diverting goods purchased from U.S. companies for military applications,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur RossWilbur Louis RossHillicon Valley: Scammers target stimulus checks | Amazon workers protest changes to paid time off policy | Commerce tightens export controls on military technologies | Lawmakers aim to combat global censorship Commerce secretary tightens restrictions on military technology exports Trump wants Congress to delay Census deadlines amid pandemic MORE said in a statement.
“Certain entities in China, Russia, and Venezuela have sought to circumvent America’s export controls, and undermine American interests in general, and so we will remain vigilant to ensure U.S. technology does not get into the wrong hands,” he added.
The new controls are aimed at limiting China’s military equipment from obtaining semiconductor production equipment, Reuters reported.
The Commerce Department directed The Hill to the texts of the changes when asked about that report.
The new export controls target technology acquired by the countries deemed national security threats through civilian supply chains.
Read more about the new export controls here.
NEW LEGISLATION: A bipartisan group of House lawmakers on Monday introduced legislation intended to expand global internet freedom and cut down on social media and news censorship by governments in countries such as China and Russia.
The Open Technology Fund Authorization Act would authorize the existing non-profit Open Technology Fund (OTF) as an independent group under the U.S. Agency for Global Media, which also includes media groups such as Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.
The OTF currently works to provide funding for small tech groups to create ways to counter censorship efforts, such as helping to fund efforts to create encryption for WhatsApp.
The new legislation would require that the OTF research, develop, and maintain technologies meant to promote internet freedom through getting around government censorship efforts, along with creating tools to allow people around the world to access websites that governments have otherwise censored.
The bill is sponsored by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelHillicon Valley: Scammers target stimulus checks | Amazon workers protest changes to paid time off policy | Commerce tightens export controls on military technologies | Lawmakers aim to combat global censorship Lawmakers introduce legislation to combat global censorship, boost internet freedom House Foreign Affairs Committee launches inquiry into Trump’s halting of WHO funds MORE (D-N.Y.), ranking member Michael McCaulMichael Thomas McCaulHillicon Valley: Scammers target stimulus checks | Amazon workers protest changes to paid time off policy | Commerce tightens export controls on military technologies | Lawmakers aim to combat global censorship Lawmakers introduce legislation to combat global censorship, boost internet freedom Facing unprecedented challenge, State Department brings 61,000 Americans home MORE (R-Texas), and Reps. John Curtis (R-Utah) and Tom MalinowskiThomas (Tom) MalinowskiHillicon Valley: Scammers target stimulus checks | Amazon workers protest changes to paid time off policy | Commerce tightens export controls on military technologies | Lawmakers aim to combat global censorship Lawmakers introduce legislation to combat global censorship, boost internet freedom How the GOP hopes to overcome steep odds in House battle MORE (D-N.J.).
Engel said in a statement that the legislation would bolster the free press around the world.
“Our international broadcasting efforts provide unbiased news and information in countries where there is no free press,” Engel said. “The growth of the internet has given us powerful new tools to reach bigger audiences. Our broadcasters tell the truth, which is why so many governments try to silence them along with other independent sources of news.”
Engel added that the OTF “is working on ways around government censorship and restriction of the internet. If a repressive regime builds a wall, the OTF is working to build an even taller ladder.”
Read more about the new bill here.
Lighter click: I think you’re on mute
An op-ed to chew on: People have increased anxiety and depression from COVID-19–telehealth can help
NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:
Europe’s privacy law hasn’t shown its teeth, frustrating advocates (The New York Times / Adam Satariano)
Big companies dominate video chat. Meet the startups trying to beat them (Protocol / David Pierce)
Companies’ use of thermal cameras to speed return to work sparks worries about civil liberties (The Washington Post / Drew Harwell)
Movie and TV piracy sees an ‘unprecedented’ spike during quarantine (Motherboard / Karl Bode)
Internal EU report on coronavirus disinformation was harsher on China than public release (CyberScoop / Sean Lyngaas)