Palestinians Say Microsoft Unfairly Closing Their Accounts

Ancient Slashdot reader Alain Williams writes: Palestinians living abroad have accused Microsoft of closing their email accounts without warning — cutting them off from crucial online services. They say it has left them unable to access bank accounts and job offers — and stopped them using Skype, which Microsoft owns, to contact relatives in war-torn Gaza. Microsoft says they violated its terms of service — a claim they dispute. He also said being cut off from Skype was a huge blow for his family. The internet is frequently disrupted or switched off there because of the Israeli military campaign – and standard international calls are very expensive. […] With a paid Skype subscription, it is possible to call mobiles in Gaza cheaply — and while the internet is down — so it has become a lifeline to many Palestinians.

Some of the people the BBC spoke to said they suspected they were wrongly thought to have ties to Hamas, which Israel is fighting, and is designated a terrorist organization by many countries. Microsoft did not respond directly when asked if suspected ties to Hamas were the reason for the accounts being shut. But a spokesperson said it did not block calls or ban users based on calling region or destination. “Blocking in Skype can occur in response to suspected fraudulent activity,” they said, without elaborating.

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Microsoft Tells Yet More Customers Their Emails Have Been Stolen

Microsoft revealed that the Russian hackers who breached its systems earlier this year stole more emails than initially reported. “We are continuing notifications to customers who corresponded with Microsoft corporate email accounts that were exfiltrated by the Midnight Blizzard threat actor, and we are providing the customers the email correspondence that was accessed by this actor,” a Microsoft spokesperson told Bloomberg (paywalled). “This is increased detail for customers who have already been notified and also includes new notifications.” The Register reports: We’ve been aware for some time that the digital Russian break-in at the Windows maker saw Kremlin spies make off with source code, executive emails, and sensitive U.S. government data. Reports last week revealed that the issue was even larger than initially believed and additional customers’ data has been stolen. Along with Russia, Microsoft was also compromised by state actors from China not long ago, and that issue similarly led to the theft of emails and other data belonging to senior U.S. government officials.

Both incidents have led experts to call Microsoft a threat to U.S. national security, and president Brad Smith to issue a less-than-reassuring mea culpa to Congress. All the while, the U.S. government has actually invested more in its Microsoft kit. Bloomberg reported that emails being sent to affected Microsoft customers include a link to a secure environment where customers can visit a site to review messages Microsoft identified as having been compromised. But even that might not have been the most security-conscious way to notify folks: Several thought they were being phished.

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Microsoft’s ‘Responsible AI’ Chief Worries About the Open Web

From the Washington Post’s “Technology 202” newsletter:

As tech giants move toward a world in which chatbots supplement, and perhaps supplant, search engines, the Microsoft executive assigned to make sure AI is used responsibly said the industry has to be careful not to break the business model of the wider web. Search engines citing and linking to the websites they draw from is “part of the core bargain of search,” [Microsoft’s chief Responsible AI officer] said in an interview Monday….

“It’s really important to maintain a healthy information ecosystem and recognize it is an ecosystem. And so part of what I will continue to guide our Microsoft teams toward is making sure that we are citing back to the core webpages from which the content is sourced. Making sure that we’ve got that feedback loop happening. Because that is part of the core bargain of search, right? And I think it’s critical to make sure that we are both providing users with new engaging ways to interact, to explore new ideas — but also making sure that we are building and supporting the great work of our creators.”

Asked about lawsuits alleging copyright use without permission, they said “We believe that there are strong grounds under existing laws to train models.”

But they also added those lawsuits are “asking legitimate questions” about where the boundaries are, “for which the courts will provide answers in due course.”

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Trying Out Microsoft’s Pre-Release OS/2 2.0

Last month, the only known surviving copy of 32-bit OS/2 from Microsoft was purchased for $650. “Now, two of the internet’s experts in getting early PC operating systems running today have managed to fire it up, and you can see the results,” reports The Register. From the report: Why such interest in this nearly third-of-a-century old, unreleased OS? Because this is the way the PC industry very nearly went. This SDK came out in June 1990, just one month after Windows 3.0. If 32-bit OS/2 had launched as planned, Windows 3 would have been the last version before it was absorbed into OS/2 and disappeared. There would never have been any 32-bit versions: no Windows NT, no Windows 95; no Explorer, no Start menu or taskbars. That, in turn, might well have killed off Apple as well. No iPod, no iPhone, no fondleslabs. Twenty-first century computers would be unimaginably different. The surprise here is that we can see a glimpse of this world that never happened. The discovery of this pre-release OS shows how very nearly ready it was in 1990. IBM didn’t release its solo version until April 1992, the same month as Windows 3.1 — but now, we can see it was nearly ready two years earlier.

That’s why Michal Necasek of the OS/2 Museum called his look The Future That Never Was. He uncovered a couple of significant bugs, but more impressively, he found workarounds for both, and got both features working fine. OS/2 2 could run multiple DOS VMs at once, but in the preview, they wouldn’t open — due to use of an undocumented instruction which Intel did implement in the Pentium MMX and later processors. Secondly, the bundled network client wouldn’t install — but removing a single file got that working fine. That alone is a significant difference between Microsoft’s OS/2 2.0 and IBM’s version: Big Blue didn’t include networking until Warp Connect 3 in 1995.

His verdict: “The 6.78 build of OS/2 2.0 feels surprisingly stable and complete. The cover letter that came with the SDK stressed that Microsoft developers had been using the OS/2 pre-release for day-to-day work.” Over at Virtually Fun, Neozeed also took an actual look at Microsoft OS/2 2.0, carefully recreating that screenshot from PC Magazine in May 1990. He even managed to get some Windows 2 programs running, although this preview release did not yet have a Windows subsystem. On his Internet Archive page, he has disk images and downloadable virtual machines so that you can run this yourself under VMware or 86Box.

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Microsoft Has Been Secretly Testing Its Bing Chatbot ‘Sydney’ For Years

According to The Verge, Microsoft has been secretly testing its Sydney chatbot for several years after making a big bet on bots in 2016. From the report: Sydney is a codename for a chatbot that has been responding to some Bing users since late 2020. The user experience was very similar to what launched publicly earlier this month, with a blue Cortana-like orb appearing in a chatbot interface on Bing. “Sydney is an old codename for a chat feature based on earlier models that we began testing in India in late 2020,” says Caitlin Roulston, director of communications at Microsoft, in a statement to The Verge. “The insights we gathered as part of that have helped to inform our work with the new Bing preview. We continue to tune our techniques and are working on more advanced models to incorporate the learnings and feedback so that we can deliver the best user experience possible.”

“This is an experimental AI-powered Chat on Bing.com,” read a disclaimer inside the 2021 interface that was added before an early version of Sydney would start replying to users. Some Bing users in India and China spotted the Sydney bot in the first half of 2021 before others noticed it would identify itself as Sydney in late 2021. All of this was years after Microsoft started testing basic chatbots in Bing in 2017. The initial Bing bots used AI techniques that Microsoft had been using in Office and Bing for years and machine reading comprehension that isn’t as powerful as what exists in OpenAI’s GPT models today. These bots were created in 2017 in a broad Microsoft effort to move its Bing search engine to a more conversational model.

Microsoft made several improvements to its Bing bots between 2017 and 2021, including moving away from individual bots for websites and toward the idea of a single AI-powered bot, Sydney, that would answer general queries on Bing. Sources familiar with Microsoft’s early Bing chatbot work tell The Verge that the initial iterations of Sydney had far less personality until late last year. OpenAI shared its next-generation GPT model with Microsoft last summer, described by Jordi Ribas, Microsoft’s head of search and AI, as “game-changing.” While Microsoft had been working toward its dream of conversational search for more than six years, sources say this new large language model was the breakthrough the company needed to bring all of its its Sydney learnings to the masses. […] Microsoft hasn’t yet detailed the full history of Sydney, but Ribas did acknowledge its new Bing AI is “the culmination of many years of work by the Bing team” that involves “other innovations” that the Bing team will detail in future blog posts.

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