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Google doubles down on office space despite the rise in remote work

On Thursday, Google (GOOG) said it plans to invest more than $7 billion in offices and data centers in the United States and create at least 10,000 additional full-time jobs this year. “Coming together in person to collaborate and build community is core to Google’s culture, and it will be an important part of our future,” CEO Sundar Pichai said in a blog post. “So we continue to make significant investments in our offices around the country.”Google said it will invest more than $1 billion this year in its home state of California. The company also plans to expand its other offices, including adding thousands of roles in Atlanta, Washington, DC, Chicago and New York.Google plans to invest $250 million in New York City this year and will grow its headcount in the city to 14,000 over the next few years, up from 11,000 currently, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Thursday.Silicon Valley’s biggest companies were among the first businesses to tell their employees to work remotely as the coronavirus began spreading in the United States. Now, some of these companies are among the most aggressive in expanding their office footprint.Last year, Facebook said it would buy a previously unused corporate headquarters from outdoor retailer REI, even though it plans to shift more of its employees to working from home in the coming years. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said that he could see half of Facebook’s employees permanently working remotely within the next five to 10 years.Amazon announced plans to hire 3,500 more workers in various US cities last fall. It said it will expand offices in New York, Dallas, Detroit, Denver, Phoenix and San Diego, resulting in more than 905,000 square feet of additional office space.Many tech companies have thrived during the pandemic and are adding thousands of workers at a time when other companies are undergoing layoffs or even shutting down. These tech giants can also afford to be more opportunistic in picking up commercial real estate regardless of whether they have longer-term plans for transitioning to more remote work in the future. Unlike some startups and smaller tech firms that have promised permanent remote work options, Big Tech has spent billions on elaborate offices over the years and may be more reluctant to abandon in-person work after the pandemic ends.CNN’s Kristina Sgueglia contributed reporting

China is raising the alarm over corporate surveillance. But it's got a massive network of its own

The firestorm first erupted Monday during a two-hour primetime program called “315” that coincides with World Consumer Rights Day. The program is frequently used by China’s state media to lambast brands over perceived shortcomings — Nike (NKE), McDonald’s (MCD) and Apple (AAPL) have all been targeted by the show in prior years.This year, concerns about surveillance and privacy were front-and-center. Chinese state broadcaster China Central Television, or CCTV, used the program to accuse several companies of secretly collecting data about their customers using facial recognition — notably, without mentioning the massive network of facial recognition cameras that the Chinese government has built, capable of tracking people in real time.CCTV accused the Chinese unit of American manufacturer Kohler, for example, of installing cameras in hundreds of its stores in China and capturing the faces of customers to analyze their gender and age, among other details.”No matter which store the customers visit, or how many times they go, Kohler would know,” the Chinese state broadcaster reported during the program. It also singled out a BMW (BMWYY) dealership and a Max Mara retail store in the Shanghai area for using similar technology.Nationwide uproarWhile those brands weren’t the only ones criticized by the program — big foreign companies like Ford (F) and Nissan’s (NSANF) Infiniti brand were also accused of poor behavior, such as defects with car parts or other disputes — it’s the surveillance issue that appears to have gained the most traction.CCTV posts about the claims have generated tens of thousands of comments on the social media platform Weibo, where people worried about whether their personal information was being abused.”It’s not just Kohler,” wrote one Weibo user. “Did you forget even our residential buildings require facial recognition?”Kohler wrote on its official Weibo account on Tuesday that it had “already arranged” for its stores to remove the cameras “overnight,” and would power off any devices that it could not physically dismantle. The company denied, however, that it had stored or analyzed any data it collected with the cameras, adding that it only used them to count customer arrivals.Zhengtong Auto, a luxury car dealer that operates the BMW (BMWYY) store, said it had removed its cameras, too. And Chinese state media reported that Max Mara suspended the use of store cameras, though the company added that it was only using data to count customer traffic.Chinese authorities, meanwhile, have started investigating some of the companies featured on the program. Prosecutors announced Wednesday that they would open a probe into Ovopark, a Chinese company that supplied cameras to Kohler. Regulators in Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Shanghai all said they would investigate companies accused of misusing facial recognition data, too.A ‘far cry’ from Beijing’s surveillance networkThe “315” show has broadcast in China for decades, often focusing on hot-button consumer rights issues of the moment.It’s well known for eliciting a quick response from the companies accused of bad behavior. Apple CEO Tim Cook even apologized in 2013 after the company’s warranty services were criticized on the show.This year’s focus on privacy and surveillance highlights rising worries in China about the use of such technology in the digital age, according to Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong who studies Chinese politics and societal issues.It’s not just Weibo users who have gotten wrapped up in the fallout, either.”The ‘315’ program is a reminder of how easily people’s facial IDs can be obtained” and “how rampant the use of the technology is,” wrote the editorial board of the Guangming Daily, a major state-owned national newspaper, on Wednesday. “Our regulation is lacking behind in the facial recognition industry.”But state-driven concerns about privacy and surveillance might ring a bit hollow to some.”Impinging on people’s privacy isn’t a good look for Kohler and BMW, but it’s a far cry [from] China’s massive [closed-circuit television] surveillance network,” said Paul Bischoff, a consumer privacy expert and the editor of Comparitech, a UK-based technology research firm.CCTV reported in 2017 that more than 20 million cameras had been installed across China at that time for the purpose of “maintaining public security.” And the total number through now may be much higher: China had 349 million surveillance cameras installed as of 2018, nearly five times the number of cameras in the United States, according to a report from IHS Markit Technology.Lam said that Beijing may think that stopping companies — and especially foreign ones — from obtaining large amounts of biometric information is a responsible decision.But the government still has a much farther reach than businesses to when it comes to surveillance. And Lam added that since discussions about such projects are restricted in mainland China, the public may not be aware of how far Beijing’s reach extends.”Yes, some tech companies do collect and store people’s photos to use in face recognition applications. And I support regulations restricting such data collection without consent,” said Bischoff. “US and European laws still lag behind in that regard. But unlike China, these applications are not being used to restrict freedom of movement or assembly.”Lam also suggested that the program — along with the fallout that has stemmed from it — points to another longstanding government priority: making sure that businesses know they aren’t above the government.”It’s a reminder that companies need to listen and play by the rules,” he added.

Why one Florida city wants to build a two-mile tunnel to the beach

Local leaders are in talks with Elon Musk’s The Boring Company to build a two-mile tunnel underground from downtown to the beach and offer rides for between $5-8. Miami also appears to be considering using Musk’s company to dig a tunnel and divert car traffic from crowded surface streets. Mayor Francis Suarez said last month that Musk had told him a local project, previously priced at $1 billion, could be done for closer to $30 million, and finished in six months.Then earlier this month he reported having a productive meeting with The Boring Company regarding “groundbreaking improvements” to transportation. Suarez has spoken of building a “signature project” for the world with the Boring Company. Projects could be done for about 1% of typical tunneling costs, according to estimates leaders say they’ve received from Musk’s Boring Company.Florida has only two tunnel projects in the whole state, but Musk appears to have convinced state leaders to embrace them. Tunnels are generally considered an infrastructure choice of last resort, according to Brian Gettinger, who leads tunneling at the infrastructure company Freese and Nichols.”You see them where nothing else works because they’re generally more expensive,” Gettinger said. Tunneling technology has progressed significantly in the last generation, he said. Pressure is applied at the face of the new tunnel, preventing water and earth from flooding the excavation site. This has made tunneling viable in more places, according to Gettinger.But Florida’s dry land — and the lack thereof — brings unique challenges for tunnel builders.Florida’s limestone can make it harder to optimize a tunneling machine because there are natural holes in it, Gettinger said. Tunnel builders prefer when rock is solid, he said. It’s easy to customize a machine for consistent conditions, like solid rock or soil. Climate change also adds risk for tunnels, due to sea levels rising and tunnels potentially flooding. In Mayalsia, Gettinger said, tunnels have been specifically designed to manage flooding. Florida has high levels of groundwater and gets more rainfall than most states. Some of Florida’s limestone include underground aquifers, which need to be protected given potential impacts on groundwater, according to Greg Raines, global tunnel practice leader at Stantec. Sinkholes and settlement will also need to be controlled for in Florida, Raines said.These kinds of complications could impact tunneling costs. Florida’s unique challenges would make it very difficult to estimate tunneling costs, Raines said. The Port of Miami tunnels, which is nearly a mile, cost $1.1 billion and took four years to build. Tunneling costs worldwide have ranged from $175 million per mile to $3.5 billion per mile, Raines said. The Florida mayors declined to say if they would insist on any provisions in a contract related to cost overruns. The Boring Company did not respond to requests for comment for this story.But the risks haven’t deterred Florida’s leaders, who see additional places tunnels might help.The Boring Company, which has yet to open a public project, will still have to prove it can deliver on the huge price drop. Musk has led breakthroughs at Tesla and SpaceX, but he’s also made a habit of missing deadlines and falling short of his projections.Florida leaders are excited, and point to Musk’s successes. They aren’t expressing worry that the Boring Company could struggle with some of the unique challenges of tunneling in Florida. “I see this as a revolutionary opportunity to rethink transportation in South Florida and other regions around the country,” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Dean Trantalis told CNN Business.The mayor declined to reveal if the government would subsidize tickets, akin to public transportation, or if operating revenue would go to the government, or the Boring Company. A spokesperson said that discussions so far are preliminary.Trantalis said that growing train traffic in his city risks worsening vehicle and ship traffic as they compete for space. He had wanted to build a tunnel for trains under a stretch of the city, but had been told by state officials that it was too expensive. But then Trantalis said he saw a recent Twitter exchange between Musk and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez, which inspired him to reach out to the Boring Company.The train tunnel would need to be 24 feet in diameter, twice the size of The Boring Company’s existing tunnels. The wider a tunnel is, the more it costs to dig. Trantalis said he expects they’ll start on a simpler project, the two-mile tunnel to the beach. Fort Lauderdale and the Boring Company are currently studying the local geology to determine what path to take, Trantalis said. A contract hasn’t been signed yet, he said.Trantalis said meeting the Boring Company has opened the city’s eyes to other opportunities, like using a tunnel network to alleviate on-street traffic.The Boring Company offers a system it calls Loop, in which people can ride in Teslas around a city in underground tunnels. Loop has also drawn criticism from transportation planners, who say it makes inefficient use of tunnels. The Boring Company’s first Loop system in Las Vegas is expected to open this summer.Trantalis said the initial tunnel to the beach could carry hundreds of people per day. For comparison, that would mean it carries fewer riders than about half of Broward County Transit’s bus lines, which operate in Fort Lauderdale.Gettinger, one of the tunneling experts, believes tunnels in US cities will become increasingly common as populations in big cities grow. The more expensive land is, the more it makes sense to utilize every square foot, whether for a train tunnel, car tunnel or sewage tunnel, he said. No matter what comes next, Musk may not be using the tunnels much himself to visit Florida’s beaches. He’s said he only enjoys going to the beach for a few days. “The idea of like lying on a beach as my main thing just sounds like the worst, that sounds horrible to me,” he said in a 2013 interview. “I’d be super duper bored.”

YouTube's TikTok competitor hits the US

On Thursday, the company said it’s expanding the beta program for its short-form video offering, called Shorts, to the United States now and over the next several weeks. Previously, it tested the product only in India. Globally, users have been able to view Shorts, but not create them. YouTube says its feature allows social media creators to “shoot short, catchy videos using nothing but their mobile phones.” It offers a way to string multiple clips together, add music, and use a timer and countdown to record videos hands-free, all features currently available on TikTok.On Thursday, YouTube teased a few new tools it hopes will help it stand out from the pack: Users will be able to sample audio from other Shorts videos and “remix it into your own creation.” Creators will also be able to add text to specific points of the video. YouTube Shorts joins a crowded field of short-form video apps, which are all trying to tap into the craze for bite-sized social media content and capitalize on TikTok’s tumultuous year. Instagram has launched Reels in the United States and other countries and Snapchat’s Spotlight feature is giving away $1 million a day to the users who make the most entertaining videos. Two of TikTok’s rivals in the United States merged earlier this year, while another called Dubsmash was acquired late last year by Reddit. YouTube also plans to tap into its broader ecosystem by launching the ability to use audio from videos across the platform. “This means you can give your own creative spin on the content you love to watch on YouTube and help find it a new audience — whether it’s reacting to your favorite jokes, trying your hand at a creator’s latest recipe, or re-enacting comedic skits,” the company said in a blog post. YouTube added that creators will be able to opt out of other people using their long-form videos. (On TikTok, it’s a popular practice to “duet” someone else’s video. The videos appear side by side, and users can recreate or react to the original video).Todd Sherman, product lead for YouTube Shorts, said the company is trying to “lower the barriers of creation” and help the next generation of aspiring influencers find an audience. Producing a traditional YouTube video can be time consuming and costly: Professional YouTubers often have expensive camera equipment, editing software and other tools to make their long-form videos pop. “YouTube made it so that a whole generation of people using cameras and computers and video editing software could practice their craft and build an audience,” Sherman told CNN Business. “That story is very similar to the story of what we’re doing with Shorts once again, except now it’s all based on the phone and what you can get done inside of a phone.”The Google-owned platform first announced the product in September, launching an early beta version of Shorts only in India. Months before, India banned TikTok and several other popular Chinese apps, saying they pose a “threat to sovereignty and integrity.” As a result, Indian TikTokers rushed to find alternative platforms, and tech giants and upstarts alike pounced on the opportunity.