Tech Crunch

Data breach exposes trade secrets of carmakers GM, Ford, Tesla, Toyota

Security researcher UpGuard Cyber Risk disclosed Friday that sensitive documents from more than 100 manufacturing companies, including GM, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, Tesla, Toyota, ThyssenKrupp, and VW were exposed on a publicly accessible server belonging to Level One Robotics.

The exposure via Level One Robotics, which provides industrial automation services, came through rsync, a common file transfer protocol that’s used to backup large data sets, according to UpGuard Cyber Risk. The data breach was first reported by the New York Times.

According to the security researchers, restrictions weren’t placed on the rsync server. This means that any rsync client that connected to the rsync port had access to download this data. UpGuard Cyber Risk published its account of how it discovered the data breach to show how a company within a supply chain can affect large companies with seemingly tight security protocols.

This means if someone knew where to look they could access trade secrets closely protected by automakers. It’s unclear if any nefarious actors actually got their hands on the data. At least one source at an affected automaker told TechCrunch it doesn’t not appear that sensitive or proprietary data was exposed.

UpGuard’s big takeaway in all of this: rsync instances should be restricted by IP address. The researchers also suggest that user access to rsync be set up so that clients have to authenticate before receiving the dataset. Without these measures, rsync is publicly accessible, the researchers said.

The breach exposed 157 gigabytes of data—a treasure trove of 10 years of assembly line schematics, factory floor plans and layouts, robotic configurations and documentation, ID badge request forms, VPN access request forms. The breach even included sensitive non-disclose agreements, including one from Tesla.

Personal details of some Level One employees, including scans of driver’s licenses and passports, and Level One business data, including invoices, contracts, and bank account details.

The security team discovered the breach July 1. The company successfully reached Level One by July 9 and the exposure was closed by the following day.

AnyVision AI startup locks in $28M for its body and facial recognition tech

As image recognition advances continue to accelerate, startups with a mind towards security applications are seeing some major interest to turn surveillance systems more intelligent.

AnyVision is working on face, body and object recognition tech and the underlying system infrastructure to help companies deploy smart cameras for various purposes. The tech works when deployed on most types of camera and does not require highly sophisticated sensors to operate, the company says

“It’s not just how accurate the system is, it’s also how much it scales,” Etshtein tells TechCrunch. “You can put more than 20 concurrent full HD camera streams on a single GPU.”

The Tel Aviv-based AI startup announced today that it has closed a $28 million Series A funding round led by Bosch. The quickly growing company already has 130 employees and has plans to open up three new offices by the year’s end.

Right now, AnyVision is working on products in a few different verticals. Its security product called “Better Tomorrow” has been a key focus for the company.

Even as tech giants in the U.S. like Amazon and Google are scrutinized for contracts with government orgs that involve facial recognition tech, Etshtein believes that their company’s solution will be an improvement over existing video surveillance technologies in terms of protecting the public’s privacy.

“Today, the video management systems basically record everything and you can see individuals faces, you can see everything.”Etshtein says. “Once our system is installed it pixelates all the faces in the stream automatically, even the operator in the control center cannot see your face because the mathematical models just represent the persons of interest.”

The company also recently released a product called FaceKey that leverages the company’s facial recognition tech for verification purposes, allowing customers with phones that are not just the iPhone X to use their face as a two-factor authentication method in things like banking apps. Now, there have certainly been a lot of issues with maintaining the needed accuracy which is exactly what has made FaceID so novel, but AnyVision CEO Eylon Etshtein claims to have “cracked the problem.”

Other products AnyVision is working on include some new efforts in the sports and entertainment spaces as well as a retail analytics platform that they’re hoping to release later this summer.

And now, here’s a ‘Trumpy Cat’ augmented reality app from George Takei

Anyone who follows George Takei on Twitter can tell you that Star Trek‘s original Sulu is not a fan of President Donald Trump. But he’s found a new way to express that criticism — not just in tweets, interviews and op-eds, but also in an augmented reality app called House of Cats.

The app was built in partnership with Montreal-based development company BMAD, and it allows users to interact animated animal characters like Trumpy Cat, Meowlania, Vladdy Putin and Lil’ Rocket Pug. They can add their own voice recordings, superimpose the animals on real environments and take photos with them — Takei suggested including Trumpy Cat in photos of real-world protests.

When I asked where the idea came from, Takei had a simple explanation : “The Internet loves the combination of politics and cats.”

While the app looks pretty silly, Takei made the by-now-commonplace observation that satire is having a hard time keeping up with the daily news.

We spoke shortly after Trump had his press conference with Vladimir Putin — setting off this week’s cycle of criticism, denial and missing double negatives — and Takei told me, “No augmented reality could have created the true reality of what we saw this morning: Donald Trump standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Vladimir Putin … his denial of the attack on the core activity of our democratic system.”

Takei added that humor is a key ingredient in getting a serious message out into the world. He’s pointed to his embrace of memes (particularly Grumpy Cat) as one of the main drivers of his popularity on social media, which in turn gives him a bigger platform for his political views.

“I’m a political activist — I have been since I was a teenager, largely because of my childhood incarceration behind American barbed wire fences,” Takei said. He said his social media presence is meant to be an extension of that activism, but, “I notice that if I’m documenting the truth, people are nodding off. [So] I try to kind of inject a little humor into it.”

The app costs 99 cents, and there are plans for subscription content as well. It might seem strange to pay money for a satirical cat app, but keep in mind that some of the profits will go to Refugees International.

“Making a mockery of this particular person is going to be a very effective tool,” Takei said. “We’ll have fun while we also accomplish our mission to make this a better America.”

Apple’s iCloud user data in China is now handled by a state-owned mobile operator

If you’re an Apple customer living in China who didn’t already opt out of having your iCloud data stored locally, here’s a good reason to do so now. That information, the data belonging to China-based iCloud users which includes emails and text messages, is now being stored by a division of China Telecom, the state-owned telco.

The operator’s Tianyi cloud storage business unit has taken the reins for iCloud China, according to a WeChat post from China Telecom. Apple separately confirmed the change to TechCrunch.

Apple’s transition of the data from its own U.S.-based servers to local servers on Chinese soil has raised significant concern among observers who worry that the change will grant the Chinese government easier access to sensitive information. Before a switch announced earlier this year, all encryption keys for Chinese users were stored in the U.S. which meant authorities needed to go through the U.S. legal system to request access to information. Now the situation is based on Chinese courts and a gatekeeper that’s owned by the government.

Apple itself has said it was compelled to make the move in order to comply with Chinese authorities, and that hardly eases the mind.

It’s ironic that the U.S. government has pursued Chinese telecom equipment maker ZTE on account of national security and suspected links to Chinese authorities, and yet one of America’s largest corporates is entrusting user data to a state-owned company in China.

The only plus for Apple users in China is that they can opt out of local data storage by selecting a country other than China for their iCloud account. Since it isn’t clear whether making that change today would see information migrated or deleted from the Chinese server, starting over with a new account is probably the best option at this point.

Hat tip @yuanfenyang

Online learning platform Unacademy gets $21M Series C from Sequoia India, SAIF and Nexus

Unacademy founders Roman Saini, Gaurav Munjal and Hemesh Singh

Bangalore-based Unacademy will add more educators to its online learning platform, which claims to be India’s largest, after closing a $21 million Series C. The funding comes from Sequoia India, SAIF Partners and Nexus Venture Partners, with participation from Blume Ventures (all four firms are returning from Unacademy’s Series B last year).

Originally a YouTube channel created in 2010 by Gaurav Munjal, Unacademy was officially launched as a startup in 2015 by founders Munjal, Roman Saini and Hemesh Singh. It has now raised $38.6 million in total.

While Unacademy offers a wide range of courses, its most popular offerings include preparation for important exams in India. Its platform includes two apps: one that lets educators create lessons and another that allows users to access them. Unacademy says it has 10,000 registered educators and three million users. Last month, the startup claims 3,000 educators were active on the platform and lessons were watched more than 40 million times.

Many lessons are available for free, though last year Unacademy launched a paid service called Plus that gives users access to features like private discussion forums and live video classes for a per-course fee. Unacademy claims it has achieved six times growth in monthly revenue since launching Plus. The premium classes also help it differentiate from other online learning platforms like Mrunal, a popular site that provides free test preparation for Indian students.

In addition to bringing on more teachers, Unacademy will use its new funding to expand key categories like pre-med, the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) and the Common Admission Test (CAT), which are required by many post-graduate programs.

In a media statement, SAIF partner Alok Goel said “Unacademy has demonstrated tremendous progress towards their goal of delivering personalized learning by connecting great quality educators and students on their platform. The company has diversified across several new domains and has achieved amazing word of mouth among learners.”

Elon Musk tweets he’ll “bet ya a signed dollar” that Thai cave rescuer is a “pedo”

Elon Musk seems not only intent on burning all the goodwill he earned for trying to help last week’s Thai cave rescue, but rolling around in its ashes, too. In a series of extraordinarily offensive, now deleted tweets, the SpaceX and Tesla CEO called a British diver who participated in last week’s dangerous rescue mission a “pedo guy,” adding in another tweet “bet ya a signed dollar it’s true.”

Musk’s tantrum was triggered by an interview the diver, Vern Unsworth, gave CNN International last Friday, in which he called the small submarine Musk had SpaceX engineers build a “PR stunt” and said Musk could stick it “where it hurts.” Though the submarine was intended to help the 12 boys stranded with their soccer coach navigate flooded cave passageways, Unsworth, who helped plan the rescue operation and recruited other cave diving experts, said it “had absolutely no chance of working.”

Unworth added that Musk “had no conception of what the cave passage was like. The submarine, I believe, was about 5 foot 6 long, rigid, so it wouldn’t have gone round corners or round any obstacles. It wouldn’t hadn’t have made the first 50 meters into the cave from the dive start point.” When the reporter mentioned that Musk had gone into the cave on Tuesday, Unsworth said he was “asked to leave very quickly. And so he should have been.”

The rescue mission, made even more challenging by monsoon season, claimed the life of a Thai Navy seal before all boys were saved last week.

This is not the first time that Musk has clashed with a member of the cave rescue team. As confirmation came in that the last group of boys and their coach had been freed on July 10, the head of the rescue mission, Narongsak Osatanakorn, told reporters that “although [Musk’s] technology is good and sophisticated it’s not practical for this mission.”

In response, Musk dismissed the credentials of Ostanakorn, who led the joint command center coordinating the operation and is former acting governor of Chiang Rai, the province where the cave is located. In a tweet he said Ostanakorn was “described inaccurately as ‘rescue chief’” and “is not the subject matter expert” (the Columbus Dispatch reports that Ostanakorn holds a Master’s degree from Ohio State University, where he studied geodetic engineering and surveying).

Though Musk’s tweet about Ostanakorn was sharply criticized, many still gave him credit for his efforts. After all, engineering a submarine in a few days to save a group of children is an impressive and laudable feat. While Musk is known for going on strange Twitter rants, however, his attack on Unsworth is an entirely different stratosphere. In addition to defaming Unsworth in a particularly heinous way, the implication that a British diver would only go to Thailand, one of the world’s top diving destinations, for child sex tourism is problematic and arguably racist, as many have pointed out.

Elon Musk implying that British expats who live in Thailand are all kiddie fiddlers?
Erm… wow… isn’t that kind of a little bit racist?

— Robert Percy (@astweetedbyRP) July 15, 2018

Sure, Elon Musk calling a diver who help rescue 12 boys a ‘pedo’ just because he lives in Thailand is insulting, inflammatory and borderline libelous, but let’s not forget that it is also horrifically racist.

— Bay Area for Bernie (@BayArea4Bernie) July 15, 2018

He didn’t just call the British rescuer in Thailand a pedophile. He called him a pedophile because he couldn’t imagine another reason for a white guy to be in Thailand. Which is a false assumption. Sometimes white guys visit Thailand to show off their useless submarines.

— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) July 15, 2018

TechCrunch has contacted SpaceX for comment on Musk’s remarks.

3D printed guns are now legal… What’s next?

Jon Stokes
Contributor

Jon Stokes is one of the founders of Ars Technica, an author, and a former Wired editor. He currently hacks ruby at Collective Idea, and runs AllOutdoor.com.

On Tuesday, July 10, the DOJ announced a landmark settlement with Austin-based Defense Distributed, a controversial startup led by a young, charismatic anarchist whom Wired once named one of the 15 most dangerous people in the world.

Hyper-loquacious and media-savvy, Cody Wilson is fond of telling any reporter who’ll listen that Defense Distributed’s main product, a gun fabricator called the Ghost Gunner, represents the endgame for gun control, not just in the US but everywhere in the world. With nothing but the Ghost Gunner, an internet connection, and some raw materials, anyone, anywhere can make an unmarked, untraceable gun in their home or garage. Even if Wilson is wrong that the gun control wars are effectively over (and I believe he is), Tuesday’s ruling has fundamentally changed them.

At about the time the settlement announcement was going out over the wires, I was pulling into the parking lot of LMT Defense in Milan, IL.

LMT Defense, formerly known as Lewis Machine & Tool, is as much the opposite of Defense Distributed as its quiet, publicity-shy founder, Karl Lewis, is the opposite of Cody Wilson. But LMT Defense’s story can be usefully placed alongside that of Defense Distributed, because together they can reveal much about the past, present, and future of the tools and technologies that we humans use for the age-old practice of making war.

The legacy machine

Karl Lewis got started in gunmaking back in the 1970’s at Springfield Armory in Geneseo, IL, just a few exits up I-80 from the current LMT Defense headquarters. Lewis, who has a high school education but who now knows as much about the engineering behind firearms manufacturing as almost anyone alive, was working on the Springfield Armory shop floor when he hit upon a better way to make a critical and failure-prone part of the AR-15, the bolt. He first took his idea to Springfield Armory management, but they took a pass, so he rented out a small corner in a local auto repair ship in Milan, bought some equipment, and began making the bolts, himself.

Lewis worked in his rented space on nights and weekends, bringing the newly fabricated bolts home for heat treatment in his kitchen oven. Not long after he made his first batch, he landed a small contract with the US military to supply some of the bolts for the M4 carbine. On the back of this initial success with M4 bolts, Lewis Machine & Tool expanded its offerings to include complete guns. Over the course of the next three decades, LMT grew into one of the world’s top makers of AR-15-pattern rifles for the world’s militaries, and it’s now in a very small club of gunmakers, alongside a few old-world arms powerhouses like Germany’s Heckler & Koch and Belgium’s FN Herstal, that supplies rifles to US SOCOM’s most elite units.

The offices of LMT Defense, in Milan, Ill. (Image courtesy Jon Stokes)

LMT’s gun business is built on high-profile relationships, hard-to-win government contracts, and deep, almost monk-like know-how. The company lives or dies by the skill of its machinists and by the stuff of process engineering — tolerances and measurements and paper trails. Political connections are also key, as the largest weapons contracts require congressional approval and months of waiting for political winds to blow in this or that direction, as countries to fall in and out of favor with each other, and paperwork that was delayed due to a political spat over some unrelated point of trade or security finally gets put through so that funds can be transfered and production can begin.

Selling these guns is as old-school a process as making them is. Success in LMT’s world isn’t about media buys and PR hits, but about dinners in foreign capitals, range sessions with the world’s top special forces units, booths at trade shows most of us have never heard of, and secret delegations of high-ranking officials to a machine shop in a small town surrounded by corn fields on the western border of Illinois.

The civilian gun market, with all of its politics- and event-driven gyrations of supply and demand, is woven into this stable core of the global military small arms market the way vines weave through a trellis. Innovations in gunmaking flow in both directions, though nowadays they more often flow from the civilian market into the military and law enforcement markets than vice versa. For the most part, civilians buy guns that come off the same production lines that feed the government and law enforcement markets.

All of this is how small arms get made and sold in the present world, and anyone who lived through the heyday of IBM and Oracle, before the PC, the cloud, and the smartphone tore through and upended everything, will recognize every detail of the above picture, down to the clean-cut guys in polos with the company logo and fat purchase orders bearing signatures and stamps and big numbers.

The author with LMT Defense hardware.

Guns, drugs, and a million Karl Lewises

This is the part of the story where I build on the IBM PC analogy I hinted at above, and tell you that Defense Distributed’s Ghost Gunner, along with its inevitable clones and successors, will kill dinosaurs like LMT Defense the way the PC and the cloud laid waste to the mainframe and microcomputer businesses of yesteryear.

Except this isn’t what will happen.

Defense Distributed isn’t going to destroy gun control, and it’s certainly not going to decimate the gun industry. All of the legacy gun industry apparatus described above will still be there in the decades to come, mainly because governments will still buy their arms from established makers like LMT. But surrounding the government and civilian arms markets will be a brand new, homebrew, underground gun market where enthusiasts swap files on the dark web and test new firearms in their back yards.

The homebrew gun revolution won’t create a million untraceable guns so much as it’ll create a hundreds of thousands of Karl Lewises — solitary geniuses who had a good idea, prototyped it, began making it and selling it in small batches, and ended up supplying a global arms market with new technology and products.

In this respect, the future of guns looks a lot like the present of drugs. The dark web hasn’t hurt Big Pharma, much less destroyed it. Rather, it has expanded the reach of hobbyist drugmakers and small labs, and enabled a shadow world of pharmaceutical R&D that feeds transnational black and gray markets for everything from penis enlargement pills to synthetic opioids.

Gun control efforts in this new reality will initially focus more on ammunition. Background checks for ammo purchases will move to more states, as policy makers try to limit civilian access to weapons in a world where controlling the guns themselves is impossible.

Ammunition has long been the crack in the rampart that Wilson is building. Bullets and casings are easy to fabricate and will always be easy to obtain or manufacture in bulk, but powder and primers are another story. Gunpowder and primers are the explosive chemical components of modern ammo, and they are difficult and dangerous to make at home. So gun controllers will seize on this and attempt to pivot to “bullet control” in the near-term.

Ammunition control is unlikely to work, mainly because rounds of ammunition are fungible, and there are untold billions of rounds already in civilian hands.

In addition to controls on ammunition, some governments will also make an effort at trying to force the manufacturers of 3D printers and desktop milling machines (the Ghost Gunner is the latter) to refuse to print files for gun parts.

This will be impossible to enforce, for two reasons. First, it will be hard for these machines to reliably tell what’s a gun-related file and what isn’t, especially if distributors of these files keep changing them to defeat any sort of detection. But the bigger problem will be that open-source firmware will quickly become available for the most popular printing and milling machines, so that determined users can “jailbreak” them and use them however they like. This already happens with products like routers and even cars, so it will definitely happen with home fabrication machines should the need arise.

Ammo control and fabrication device restrictions having failed, governments will over the longer term employ a two-pronged approach that consists of possession permits and digital censorship.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images: Jeremy Saltzer / EyeEm

First, governments will look to gun control schemes that treat guns like controlled substances (i.e. drugs and alchohol). The focus will shift to vetting and permits for simple possession, much like the gun owner licensing scheme I outlined in Politico. We’ll give up on trying to trace guns and ammunition, and focus more on authorizing people to possess guns, and on catching and prosecuting unauthorized possession. You’ll get the firearm equivalent of a marijuana card from the state, and then it won’t matter if you bought your gun from an authorized dealer or made it yourself at home.

The second component of future gun control regimes will be online suppression, of the type that’s already taking place on most major tech platforms across the developed world. I don’t think DefCad.com is long for the open web, and it will ultimately have as hard a time staying online as extremist sites like stormfront.org.

Gun CAD files will join child porn and pirated movies on the list of content it’s nearly impossible to find on big tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube. If you want to trade these files, you’ll find yourself on sites with really intrusive advertising, where you worry a lot about viruses. Or, you’ll end up on the dark web, where you may end up paying for a hot new gun design with a cryptocurrency. This may be an ancap dream, but won’t be mainstream or user-friendly in any respect.

As for what comes after that, this is the same question as the question of what comes next for politically disfavored speech online. The gun control wars have now become a subset of the online free speech wars, so whatever happens with online speech in places like the US, UK, or China will happen with guns.

Disney tech smooths out bad CG hair days

Disney is unequivocally the world’s leader in 3D simulations of hair — something of a niche talent in a way, but useful if you make movies like Tangled, where hair is basically the main character. A new bit of research from the company makes it easier for animators to have hair follow their artistic intent while also moving realistically.

The problem Disney Research aimed to solve was a compromise that animators have had to make when making the hair on characters do what the scene requires. While the hair will ultimately be rendered in glorious high-definition and with detailed physics, it’s too computationally expensive to do that while composing the scene.

Should a young warrior in her tent be wearing her hair up or down? Should it fly out when she turns her head quickly to draw attention to the movement, or stay weighed down so the audience isn’t distracted? Trying various combinations of these things can eat up hours of rendering time. So, like any smart artist, they rough it out first:

“Artists typically resort to lower-resolution simulations, where iterations are faster and manual edits possible,” reads the paper describing the new system. “But unfortunately, the parameter values determined in this way can only serve as an initial guess for the full-resolution simulation, which often behaves very different from its coarse counterpart when the same parameters are used.”

The solution proposed by the researchers is basically to use that “initial guess” to inform a high-resolution simulation of just a handful of hairs. These “guide” hairs act as feedback for the original simulation, bringing a much better idea of how the rest will act when fully rendered.

The guide hairs will cause hair to clump as in the upper right, while faded affinities or an outline-based guide (below, left and right) would allow for more natural motion if desired.

And because there are only a couple of them, their finer simulated characteristics can be tweaked and re-tweaked with minimal time. So an artist can fine-tune a flick of the ponytail or a puff of air on the bangs to create the desired effect, and not have to trust to chance that it’ll look like that in the final product.

This isn’t a trivial thing to engineer, of course, and much of the paper describes the schemes the team created to make sure that no weirdness occurs because of the interactions of the high-def and low-def hair systems.

It’s still very early: it isn’t meant to simulate more complex hair motions like twisting, and they want to add better ways of spreading out the affinity of the bulk hair with the special guide hairs (as seen at right). But no doubt there are animators out there who can’t wait to get their hands on this once it gets where it’s going.

Machine learning boosts Swiss startup’s shot at human-powered land speed record

The current world speed record for riding a bike down a straight, flat road was set in 2012 by a Dutch team, but the Swiss have a plan to topple their rivals — with a little help from machine learning. An algorithm trained on aerodynamics could streamline their bike, perhaps cutting air resistance by enough to set a new record.

Currently the record is held by Sebastiaan Bowier, who in 2012 set a record of 133.78 km/h, or just over 83 mph. It’s hard to imagine how his bike, which looked more like a tiny landbound rocket than any kind of bicycle, could be significantly improved on.

But every little bit counts when records are measured down a hundredth of a unit, and anyway, who knows but that some strange new shape might totally change the game?

To pursue this, researchers at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne’s Computer Vision Laboratory developed a machine learning algorithm that, trained on 3D shapes and their aerodynamic qualities, “learns to develop an intuition about the laws of physics,” as the university’s Pierre Baqué said.

“The standard machine learning algorithms we use to work with in our lab take images as input,” he explained in an EPFL video. “An image is a very well-structured signal that is very easy to handle by a machine-learning algorithm. However, for engineers working in this domain, they use what we call a mesh. A mesh is a very large graph with a lot of nodes that is not very convenient to handle.”

Nevertheless, the team managed to design a convolutional neural network that can sort through countless shapes and automatically determine which should (in theory) provide the very best aerodynamic profile.

“Our program results in designs that are sometimes 5-20 percent more aerodynamic than conventional methods,” Baqué said. “But even more importantly, it can be used in certain situations that conventional methods can’t. The shapes used in training the program can be very different from the standard shapes for a given object. That gives it a great deal of flexibility.”

That means that the algorithm isn’t just limited to slight variations on established designs, but it also is flexible enough to take on other fluid dynamics problems like wing shapes, windmill blades or cars.

The tech has been spun out into a separate company, Neural Concept, of which Baqué is the CEO. It was presented today at the International Conference on Machine Learning in Stockholm.

A team from the Annecy University Institute of Technology will attempt to apply the computer-honed model in person at the World Human Powered Speed Challenge in Nevada this September — after all, no matter how much computer assistance there is, as the name says, it’s still powered by a human.

The U.S. and ZTE reach a deal that will lift export ban

The United States government has made a deal with Chinese telecommunications giant ZTE that, once completed, will lift the ban preventing the company from working with American suppliers. The agreement eases tensions in the U.S.-China trade war because the seven-year denial order, which the Trump administration imposed in April after ZTE violated sanctions against North Korea and Iran, was a major point of contention between the two countries.

Our statement on #ZTE and the escrow agreement: pic.twitter.com/w0Bbej1mAU

— U.S. Commerce Dept. (@CommerceGov) July 11, 2018

According to a statement from the Commerce Department, once ZTE completes a $400 million escrow payment, the department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) will lift the ban. The Commerce Department says “the ZTE settlement represents the toughest penalty and strictest compliance regime the Department has ever imposed in such a case. It will deter future bad actors and ensure the Department is able to protect the United States from those that would do us harm.”

Many U.S. lawmakers are still concerned about the security repercussions of the deal, however, and a bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation last week that could potentially restore some of the penalties imposed on ZTE.

The denial order was imposed because the Commerce Department claimed that ZTE violated U.S. laws against selling equipment containing American technology to Iran and North Korea, and not only failed to follow the terms of a 2017 agreement with the Department of Justice, but also lied to the U.S. The ban cut off access to several of ZTE’s key suppliers, including Qualcomm, and was severe enough that it was described as a “death penalty” for the company, which reportedly expected to lose $3 billion as a result.

But ZTE quickly became a pawn in the U.S-China trade wars and the Trump administration said in May that the company could continue buying from U.S. suppliers if it paid a fine of at least $1.3 billion and replaced its senior management and board. ZTE’s new management team was put into place last week, with new CEO Xu Ziyang promising stronger compliance procedures.

Aspire Capital offers fast finance for SMEs in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia’s digital economy is tipped to grow more than six-fold to reach more than $200 billion per year, according to a report co-authored by Google, with e-commerce accounting for the dominant share. The emergence of e-commerce platforms like Alibaba’s Lazada and U.S.-listed Shopee have enabled online entrepreneurship across the region, but still financial support for online sellers, who are basically SMEs, is lagging.

That’s where Singapore-based Aspire Capital, a six-month-old organization focused on speedy SME lending, is hoping to make a difference.

The company certainly has opportunity. With a cumulative population of over 600 million consumers and a rising middle class, Southeast Asia is increasingly an attractive market for businesses of all kind, and online companies in particular. Chinese giants Alibaba and Tencent have long devoted significant resources to the region where, like India, they see significant growth potential. E-commerce is the clear winner, in terms of size, with the e-Conomy SEA report — a joint research project between Google and Singapore sovereign fund Temasek — forecasting e-commerce revenue will hit $88 billion by 2025 from $10.9 billion in 2017.

Data from the e-Conomy SEA report

The crux of its problem is that online sellers who use Lazada, Shopee or other platforms that are forgoing profit in order to grow, are ironically less able to scale their business since there are few ‘e-commerce friendly’ financing options.

That problem became apparent to Aspire founder and CEO Andrea Baronchelli during a four-year stint with Lazada Singapore where, as CMO, he identified a financing disconnect for Lazada merchants.

“I saw the problem while trying to rally small businesses trying to grow in the digital economy,” Baronchelli told TechCrunch in an interview.

“The problem is really about providing working capital to small business owners. We started with online sellers, but we have expanded a bit as we see demand. There are 65 million small businesses in Southeast Asia, that’s ten times more than the U.S. so we see so much potential,” he added.

Aspire founder and CEO Andrea Baronchelli pictured while at Lazada

Today, Aspire Capital covers Singapore where it has expanded beyond e-commerce merchants to cover other things of SMEs who seek loans, primarily for working capital as Baronchelli explains. So far, he added, it has served loans to over 100 businesses. Typically, its spread goes from as low as SG$5,000 to up to SG$100,000, that’s around $3,600-$73,500 in U.S. terms.

The company was founded in early 2018 and already it has done plenty. It was part of the Y Combinator Winter 2018 cohort and it has closed a $9 million seed round to kick its business off with the working capital that it needs itself.

That round included a range of investors such as Europe-based Hummingbird, New York’s Mark II Capital, ex-Sequoia partner Yinglan Tan’s Insignia Ventures Partners and Y Combinator.

The principle behind the business is to make business financing quick and simple, Baronchelli said.

So rather than stacks of paperwork, SME owners fill out online forms and get a response the same day. Large parts of the application and review process are automated using a proprietary risk assessment engine, but Baronchelli said that ultimately a human makes the final call on whether to accept the application or not.

“We want to really be fast,” Baronchelli explained. “SMEs need quick decisions, they cannot wait three months for a bank. They need super quick, fast and no paperwork.”

The application process for companies seeking loans from Aspire Capital

He paints an example of online merchants who typically buy inventory from China which is sold customers within three to six months. If the business has a track record, it can take a loan to increase its stock and grow its revenues and profit, he explained.

Singapore may be a key market in Southeast Asia, but with a population of just over five million expansion is top of mind for Aspire. Baronchelli said he is doing due diligence on the first market expansion which he expects will happen before the end of this year. He expects that the business will raise further capital, perhaps towards the tail end of this year, which would be used to expand more aggressively across Southeast Asia in 2019.

He is also occupied building out the team. Right now, Aspire has ten people but he is keen to bring in ten to fifteen more staff, particularly on the tech side of the business.

Grab co-founder says Southeast Asia still has plenty of competition despite Uber’s exit

Grab may have bought itself a dominant position in Southeast Asia through its acquisition of Uber’s regional business, but the company still believes there’s competition in the ride-hailing space despite what consumers may feel.

But Grab customers aren’t alone in feeling that the Grab-Uber deal is detrimental, the Competition and Consumer Commission Singapore (CCCS) last week expressed concern that the tie-up is hurting consumers and that a lack of competition will reduce innovation. The watchdog is in the process of an investigation into the deal which could see it dish out fines for Uber and Grab, or potentially unwind the deal in Singapore altogether.

Despite that threat looming, Grab co-founder Hooi Ling Tan told an audience at the Rise conference in Hong Kong that the market, and ride-hailing more generally, remains competitive in Southeast Asia despite Uber’s exit.

“There’s still a lot of existing competition, we don’t foresee it ending ever.. and to be honest we don’t want it to because we continue to learn from them,” Tan said. “We continue to learn from alternative players who take alternative strategies [and] operational tactics.”

Go-Jek, the billion-dollar firm that dominates Indonesia and is plotting a regional expansion to fill Uber’s void, may be the most obvious rival, but Tan said that Grab is competing with more basic forces.

“From day one, our primary competitor has never been other ride-hailing apps, it’s actually been what [Grab CEO Anthony Tan] calls the hand — the hand that waves down a taxi on the side of the road,” Tan, who is not related to the Grab CEO, said. “That market is huge, [and it is something] we’re trying to provide an alternative service to because it isn’t exactly efficient as is.”

10 July 2018; Tan Hooi Ling, left, Co-Founder, Grab, and Kara Swisher, Executive Editor, Recode, on Centre Stage during day one of RISE 2018 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Hong Kong. Photo by Stephen McCarthy / RISE via Sportsfile

CCCS, the Singaporean watchdog, doesn’t agree, however. Last week it expressed concern that no other taxi apps rival Grab and that a prohibitive barrier of cost and network effects prevents new entrants from competing squarely. A lack of competition has already led to Grab raising prices, it argued, although Grab has denied doing so.

Tan didn’t comment directly on the regulator’s comments, but she did say at a subsequent press briefing that regulating ride-hailing is a tricky process.

“We’re all trying to figure out what’s the right way to balance the needs of the consumer and need to create an environment that’s supportive of innovation,” she said. “Together we’re trying to figure things out, we make mistakes together but are 100 percent combined in terms of our intent.”

An entity with which Grab is more unexpectedly combined with is Uber, and Tan’s comments certainly paint the relationship between the once-sworn enemies as a very pally one.

“The partnership makes a tonne of sense to us because we saw [Uber] as really true potential partners,” Tan said. “For example some of the things that they’ve been helping us a lot on… they have Uber Eats in Southeast Asia, which we didn’t have, and since we’ve helped take over their operations we’ve helped them expand it from two countries to six countries right now with a bunch more growth expansion plans.

“They’ve also had some of the best technology know-how, whether it’s mapping or just basic scaling infrastructure, those are some of the other things we’ve continued learned from them,” she added.

Tan said that Uber and Grab are educating each other on how their respective businesses are developing, and on that note Grab today went beyond ride-hailing with the launch of its “super app” that integrates third-party services. Uber has embraced scooters with its acquisition of Jump Bikes, but it will take some imagining for the ride-hailing giant to adopt non-transportation services like Grab’s push into payment and financial services.

But then that’s entirely the point of its Southeast Asia exit. It’s widely-believed that Uber left Southeast Asia’s loss-making market to clean its balance sheet ahead of a future IPO. Nonetheless, it got a solid 27.5 percent share in Grab in return and with the Singapore-based firm in the process of raising capital at a valuation of over $10 billion, Uber is already reaping the rewards on paper.

Grab raised $1 billion from Toyota last month and that is the first tranche of a larger fundraising effort to support the one-stop “super app” strategy in Southeast Asia’s post-Uber world.

Elon Musk says SpaceX is working on a kid-size submarine to extract those boys in Thailand

Over the last couple of days, serial entrepreneur Elon Musk has been tweeting about how to potentially help the 12 young soccer players and their coach who began exploring a cave in Thailand on June 23rd, quickly becoming trapped there by rising floodwaters.

Now, suggests Musk, working with cave experts in Thailand, he and engineers from his rocket company, SpaceX, have decided on the “primary path” to attempt to freeing the group: a “tiny, kid-size submarine” that uses the “liquid oxygen transfer tube” of SpaceX’s Falcon rocket as the hull.

It’s “[l]ight enough to be carried by two divers, small enough to get through narrow gaps. Extremely robust,” Musk tweeted a couple of hours ago, adding that construction on the vehicle will be “complete in about 8 hours” after which it will be sent on a 17-hour flight to Thailand. (SpaceX is based in Hawthorne, California, outside of L.A.)

Whether the creation is made and shipped out remains to be seen, but Musk suggested on Twitter that it would be “[f]itted for a kid or small adult to minimize open air” with “[s]egmented compartments to place rocks or dive weights” and “adjust buoyancy.”

Musk had tweeted last night that both SpaceX and his much newer, tunnel boring company, Boring Company, would be sending engineers to Thailand today to see how they could help.

If SpaceX is able to create an escape pod that works, Musk — who enjoys a kind of cult status in the business world for building superior products in challenging, capital-intensive industries — will only further burnish his reputation as a kind of Tony Stark figure. Indeed, his Twitter feed is currently filled with adoring comments relating to his interest in rescuing the soccer team.

It’s a daunting challenge. As reported in the New York Times, the cave complex has never been fully mapped and it features different waterways that don’t appear to be directly linked. Rescue attempts have already led to one fatality, that of former Thai Navy SEAL diver Saman Gunan, who brought tanks of air to the boys and their coach, then lost consciousness in one of its passageways on his swim out of the complex.

Some good feedback from cave experts in Thailand. Iterating with them on an escape pod design that might be safe enough to try. Also building an inflatable tube with airlocks. Less likely to work, given tricky contours, but great if it does.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 7, 2018

Got more great feedback from Thailand. Primary path is basically a tiny, kid-size submarine using the liquid oxygen transfer tube of Falcon rocket as hull. Light enough to be carried by 2 divers, small enough to get through narrow gaps. Extremely robust.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 7, 2018

Construction complete in about 8 hours, then 17 hour flight to Thailand

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 7, 2018

Update: The original version of this story included a short reference to a contest that Musk is not involved in. Thanks to a reader for flagging this for us.

Netgear’s Arlo security camera spin-off files for IPO

Netgear’s Arlo wing has been a surprise hit for the networking company. The line of cameras are relatively new to the market, but they’ve utterly dominated the connected security space, breathing new life into the company in the process.

Back in February, Netgear spun off Arlo, courtesy of unanimous board approval and announced plans to file an IPO in the process. That bit came to fruition this week, as the company filed an S-1 form with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. The security camera company has also applied for the “ARLO” ticker symbol with the New York Stock Exchange. Makes sense.

As it notes in a press release tied to the news, neither the number of shares nor price range have been determined yet. Earlier this year, however, it suggested that it would issue less than 20 percent of common stock, while retaining interest on the rest. As usual, all of this is pending approval from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission

According to the company, “BofA Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank Securities, and Guggenheim Securities are acting as lead book-running managers for the proposed offering. Raymond James, Cowen and Imperial Capital are acting as joint book-running managers for the proposed offering.”

The Arlo line has been highly successful for Netgear, in spite of it playing in a crowded market alongside the likes of Ring, Nest and Canary. The unit effectively doubled revenue between 2016 and 2017, as connected home devices pushed toward mainstream acceptance.

Crypto visa card company Monaco just spent millions to buy Crypto.com

Highly-prized domain name Crypto.com has been sold!

Registered in 1993 by Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania who sits on the board of directors of the Tor Project, the domain has attracted a vast amount of interest as you’d expect given the explosion of crypto in recent years. However, Blaze has turned down all offers.

In January, Blaze repeated that the domain was “not for sale” and that people shouldn’t both to contact him — as The Verge noted —  however fast forward to July and he has parted with it after Monaco, a crypto project best-known for developing a crypto debit card, bought the domain in an undisclosed deal.

Experts told The Verge that Crypto.com could have attracted as much as $10 million, however Monaco CEO Kris Marszalek declined to go into the specifics.

“If it was only about money he’d have sold it a long time ago,” he told TechCrunch in an interview.

Hong Kong-based Monaco’s ICO finished in June 2017 with the company raising what was then worth $25 million in crypto. Fast forward today and Marszalek said the firm has close to $200 million on its balance sheet thanks to a surge in the valuation of cryptocurrencies like Ether, but he suggested that, more than money, the sale was about finding the right home for the domain.

“This is a very powerful identity that we are taking on. It’s representative of the entire category so it comes with a huge responsibility on us to carry the torch. We don’t take it lightly and this is one of the things that I think we conveyed successfully, that, as a company, we do have a higher purpose,” he said.

“Fundamentally, blockchain and crypto will enable [the next generation] to control their money, to control their data and to control their identity, these are the three fundamental things that weave the fabric of society. For us this is the purpose, we want to acceleration the world’s adoption of cryptocurrency,” he added.

The splashy purchase of the domain is part of a rebrand for Monaco that will see the parent company become Crypto.com and its Monaco services — which the upcoming Visa card, peer-to-peer transfer and a wallet app — become MCO, the same name as the company’s cryptocurrency.

The Monaco card itself just entered testing for a small group of users, primarily the MCO team, and Marszalek said it will be available for all customers in Singapore and Europe this summer, with a rollout for those in the U.S. likely in Q4. That’s covering a backlog of over 70,000 waiting users, but the company has sweetened the appeal of a card for new people by adding a number of perks, most notably cashback on transactions and a concierge, which vary based on the level.

At around $7 per MCO token, the commitment for a card isn’t cheap. The top of the range ‘Obsidian Black,’ which has the highest rate of cashback and perks, requires a customer to hold around $350,000 in MCO tokens. However, there’s a selection to cater to different budgets.

MCO is well-known for its card project, which has been two years in the making and it captured the attention of early crypto enthusiasts, but Marszalek said the company is cooking up other services in a bid to offer a more rounded product line. (That also explains the rebrand.) Among things to expect, he said MCO is opening to introduce lending that uses crypto as collateral, a low-rate credit service, and a robo trading investment feature.

Note: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

Baidu and Softbank’s SB Drive are bringing an autonomous bus service to Japan

Chinese search engine giant Baidu have partnered with Softbank subsidiary SB Drive and manufacturer King Long to deploy a self-driving mini bus service to Japan early next year.

The agreement was announced at Create Baidu, the company’s annual AI developer conference in Beijing. Under the agreement, a version of Baidu’s Apolong autonomous mini bus will be exported to Japan from China in early 2019. This agreement, which for now includes an order of 10 buses, marks the first time autonomous vehicles will be exported from China.

Apolong, co-developed with King Long, is outfitted with Baidu’s Apollo autonomous driving system, which is capable of Level 4 operations, a designation by automotive engineering association SAE International that means the vehicles take over all driving in certain conditions. The buses, which will initially deployed in tourist spots, airports, and other controlled, or geo-fenced areas.

Baidu announced earlier at the conference that it has started volume production of the autonomous mini buses in partnership with King Long. The buses are being produced at King Long’s manufacturing facility in Xiamen, in southeastern China’s Fujian province.

Baidu plans to launch the autonomous bus service in several Chinese cities including Beijing, Shenzhen, Pingtan and Wuhan.

All charges against ex-Vungle CEO Zain Jaffer, including lewd act on a child, dismissed by judge

All charges against former Vungle CEO Zain Jaffer, including a sexual abuse of a child, have been dropped. According to a statement from Jaffer’s representatives, San Mateo County Judge Stephanie Garratt dismissed the charges today. Jaffer was arrested last October and charged with several serious offenses, including a lewd act on one of his children, child abuse and battery on a police officer.

The dismissal is confirmed by San Mateo County Superior Court’s online records. The case (number 17NF012415A) had been scheduled to go to jury trial in late August.

Jaffer, whose full name is Zainali Jaffer, said in a statement that:

Being wrongfully accused of these crimes has been a terrible experience, which has had a deep and lasting impact on my family and the employees of my business. Those closest to me knew I was innocent and were confident that all of the charges against me would eventually be dismissed. I want to thank the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office for carefully reviewing and considering all of the information and evidence in this case and dropping all the charges. I am also incredibly grateful for the continued and unwavering support of my wife and family, and look forward to spending some quality time with them.

Vungle, the fast-rising mobile ad startup Jaffer co-founded in 2011, removed him from the company immediately after they learned about the charges in October. TechCrunch has contacted Vungle and the San Mateo County District Attorney’s Office for comment.

The five best reasons you don’t want to miss Disrupt SF this September

TechCrunch’s Disrupt SF (Sept. 5-7) is our most ambitious event ever. And if we’re sure of one thing, it’s that people in the startup scene will extract more insights and inspiration from this Disrupt than any before. Here’s why…

  1. More, better programming. For the first time ever at Disrupt, we have two stages, plus two additional off-stage “Q&A” areas where Disrupt attendees can ask questions directly to speakers. Sequoia’s Doug Leone, Bumble’s Whitney Wolfe Herd, Sinovation’s Dr. Kai-Fu Lee,  23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki are just a few of the stellar interviews TechCrunch editors will conduct on stage. Disrupt will be live streamed, but only Disrupt pass holders will be able to catch sessions they missed via video-on-demand.
  2. Precision-guided networking. We spent years refining CrunchMatch, TechCrunch’s founder-investor matching and meeting system, and we’ve got it down to a science that has already produced thousands of meetings. Investors, use the CrunchMatch/Brella app to find the the founders and startup ideas you’re looking for, request a meeting, get the thumbs up, and boom you have a time and an assigned meeting table in the CrunchMatch meeting area.
  3. Startup Battlefield and Startup Alley. We’ve already selected the 20 startups that will compete in Startup Battlefield, and though the list is under wraps until the start of Disrupt, trust us it’s an amazing field of contestants – the fruits of a very deep, global recruitment effort. And Startup Alley will have more than 1,000 companies exhibiting across a dozen tracks – AI, mobility, blockchain, fintech – and each has Top Picks – the standouts that TechCrunch’s editors chose to exhibit free of charge. (Learn more about exhibiting in Startup Alley.)
  4. Comfortable digs. We built past Disrupts in pier warehouses, but this year we’re moving to the glistening, super comfortable Moscone West, where we have 3x the floorspace, which means spacious, sunny lounge areas where attendees can relax, charge gear and catch up with fellow attendees.
  5. The right pass for you. For the first time, Disrupt is offering passes with features and prices designed to suit different attendees, like founders, investors, all around innovators and more. Plus, passes come with access to discounted San Francisco hotel rooms. Right now, early birds prices apply, so do don’t wait. Get your pass now.

WhatsApp copies Telegram to add one-way ‘broadcast’ mode to group chats

“Good artists borrow great artists steal” is a phrase that Facebook seems acutely aware of.

It’s common to speak of Instagram, the Facebook-owned photo-app-now-social-network, borrowing from Snapchat, but now Facebook’s WhatsApp chat app is increasingly drawing its innovation from others such as Telegram.

This week, WhatsApp outed a new feature for its groups that is essentially a replica of Telegram’s channels — that is, a one-way broadcast communication stream.

Telegram channels are popular for setting up a broadcast news feed that allows people to sign up to get alerts from channel admins, who might be news agencies, companies, schools, public interest groups or more. Now WhatsApp is adding the feature to gives its message app new use cases.

Actually, as is often the case for WhatsApp, users have unofficially adopted channel-like behavior for some time. Last year, for example, there were reports of a rural journalist using the messaging app to report and broadcast local news. Doing that is suddenly a whole lot easier through this new ‘broadcast-only’ feature.

“One way people use groups is to receive important announcements and information, including parents and teachers at schools, community centers, and non-profit organizations. We’ve introduced this new setting so admins can have better tools for these use cases,” WhatsApp wrote in a short blog post.

Still, the fact that WhatsApp requires users to provide a phone number to join groups — anyone’s number can be looked up by any group member — is one issue when it comes to creating or joining public groups. Telegram has introduced usernames, which mitigate that issue, but still, the app doesn’t have anything like WhatsApp’s scale which is a crucial consideration when deciding which app to plump for.

WhatsApp has over 1.5 billion active users, more than 200 million of which are in India, whereas Telegram recently passed 200 million active users worldwide.

Big tech companies are looking at Hollywood as the next stage in their play for the cloud

This week, both Microsoft and Google made moves to woo Hollywood to their cloud computing platforms in the latest act of the unfolding drama over who will win the multi-billion dollar business of the entertainment industry as it moves to the cloud.

Google raised the curtain with a splashy announcement that they’d be setting up their fifth cloud region in the U.S. in Los Angeles. Keeping the focus squarely on tools for artists and designers the company talked up its tools like Zync Render, which Google acquired back in 2014, and Anvato, a video streaming and monetization platform it acquired in 2016.

While Google just launched its LA hub, Microsoft has operated a cloud region in Southern California for a while, and started wooing Hollywood last year at the National Association of Broadcasters conference, according to Tad Brockway, a general manager for Azure’s storage and media business.

Now Microsoft has responded with a play of its own, partnering with the provider of a suite of hosted graphic design and animation software tools called Nimble Collective.

Founded by a former Pixar and DreamWorks animator, Rex Grignon, Nimble launched in 2014 and has raised just under $10 million from investors including the UCLA VC Fund and New Enterprise Associates, according to Crunchbase.

“Microsoft is committed to helping content creators achieve more using the cloud with a partner-focused approach to this industries transformation,” said Tad Brockway, General Manager, Azure Storage, Media and Edge at Microsoft, in a statement. “We’re excited to work with innovators like Nimble Collective to help them transform how animated content is produced, managed and delivered.”

There’s a lot at stake for Microsoft, Google and Amazon as entertainment companies look to migrate to managed computing services. Tech firms like IBM have been pitching the advantages of cloud computing for Hollywood since 2010, but it’s only recently that companies have begun courting the entertainment industry in earnest.

While leaders like Netflix migrated to cloud services in 2012 and 21st Century Fox worked with HP to get its infrastructure on cloud computing, other companies have lagged. Now companies like Microsoft, Google, and Amazon are competing for their business as more companies wake up to the pressures and demands for more flexible technology architectures.

As broadcasters face more demanding consumers, fragmented audiences, and greater time pressures to produce and distribute more content more quickly, cloud architectures for technology infrastructure can provide a solution, tech vendors argue.

Stepping into the breach, cloud computing and technology service providers like Google, Amazon, and Microsoft are trying to buy up startups servicing the entertainment market specifically, or lock in vendors like Nimble through exclusive partnerships that they can leverage to win new customers. For instance, Microsoft bought Avere Systems in January, and Google picked up Anvato in 2016 to woo entertainment companies.

The result should be lower cost tools for a broader swath of the market, and promote more cross-pollination across different geographies, according to Grignon, Nimble’s chief executive.

“That worldwide reach is very important,” Grignon said. “In media and entertainment there are lots of isolated studios around the world. We afford this pathway between the studio in LA and the studio in Bangalore. We open these doorways.”

There are other, more obvious advantages as well. Streaming — exemplified by the relationship between Amazon and Netflix is well understood — but the possibility to bring costs down by moving to cloud architectures holds several other distribution advantages as well as simplifying processes across pre- and post-production, insiders said.

 

Redbox lands deal with Warner to rent DVDs on the same day they go on sale in physical stores

DVD and Blu-ray rental kiosk operator Redbox announced a deal with Warner Bros. today that allows it to begin offering new releases on the same day they go on sale in physical retail stores. Redbox’s former agreement with the studio meant they had to wait until seven days after the home-video release. In a statement, Redbox said this deal also maintains the availability of new releases in Redbox On Demand, its streaming rental service.

According to Variety, this means Redbox now has same-day deals with almost all of the major studios. In addition to Warner Bros., they include Sony Pictures Entertainment, Universal Pictures and Lionsgate (its deal with 20th Century Fox is similar to its previous one with Warner Bros ., in that it allows Redbox to rent its movies seven days after their home-video release). One notable exception is Disney, which Redbox has not had a distribution deal with since 2012. This is likely due to an ongoing legal dispute involving digital download codes for Disney content.

Redbox now operates more than 41,500 kiosks, which it said in its announcement is “more locations than Starbucks and McDonalds in the U.S. combined.”

While the idea of waiting for DVD rentals might seem quaint in the age of on-demand and streaming everything, many Americans still rent discs. According to the NPD Group, nearly a third of people it surveyed in the United States last year said they rent DVDs and Blu-rays in addition to using a subscription service like Netflix. Despite reporting declining revenue before its parent company, Outerwall, agreed to be taken private in July 2016, Redbox doubled down on kiosks last year, adding 1,500 with plans to add more this year.

Google rebrands its ad lineup, with AdWords becoming Google Ads

Google’s complex lineup of ad products is getting rebranded.

Sridhar Ramaswamy, the senior vice president who leads Google’s ad efforts, explained the rebrand at a press event this morning, where he said the company has been getting “consistent feedback” over the past few years that the plethora of ad products and brands — assembled largely through acquisitions — could make it be confusing for advertisers.

“This is a primarily a name change, but it is indicative of where we have been directing the product” for the past few years, Ramaswamy said. He also said the rebrand points to “where we want the product to go.”

Moving forward, Google’s ad products will be divided up into three major brands. First, what’s now known as AdWords will become Google Ads, which Ramaswamy said will serve as “the front door for advertisers to buy on all Google surfaces,” whether that’s search, display ads, YouTube videos, app ads in Google Play, location listings in Google Maps or elsewhere.

In this case, it’s not just a name change. Google is also launching something it calls Smart Campaigns, which will become the default mode for advertisers. It allows those advertisers to identify the actions (whether it’s phone calls, store visits or purchases) that they’re prioritizing, then Google Ads will use machine learning to optimize the images, text and targeting to drive more of those actions.

The second brand is the Google Marketing Platform, which combines DoubleClick Digital Marketing and Google Analytics 360, the company’s analytics tools for marketers. Under that umbrella, Google is also announcing a new product called Display & Video 360, which combines features from DoubleClick Bid Manager, Campaign Manager, Studio and Audience Center.

Managing Director for Platforms Dan Taylor said the Google Marketing Platform is responding to a growing need for collaboration — for example, he said Adidas used the platform to bring its brand and performance marketing teams together with the measurement team.

Google Marketing Platform

The Marketing Platform includes a new Integrations Center where marketers can view all the ways they can different ways they can connect their Google tools. (And while the focus here is on integration within Google’s platform, Taylor said the company remains committed to interoperability with outside ad exchanges and measurement providers.)

The third brand is Google Ad Manager, a platform that combines Google’s monetization tools for publishers, namely DoubleClick Ad Exchange and DoubleClick for Publishers. In this case, Jonathan Bellack, director of product management for publisher platforms, said there’s already been a “three-year journey” of merging the two products as the programmatic ad-buying becomes used across more types of advertising.

“These categories have just been breaking down for a while — all of our publishers already log into one user interface,” Bellack said. So the only thing that’s really changing is “the logo.”

One result of all this consolidation, and one that Ramaswamy described as “bittersweet,” is that the DoubleClick brand is going away. On the other hand, while they weren’t the focus of today’s announcement, the AdSense and Admob brands will continue.

The rebrand is expected to start rolling out in July. Ramaswamy and Taylor both emphasized that no product migration or training will be required.

“The look and feel is going to change a little bit, but the core functionality is not changing,” Taylor said.

Oh, the things I would do to get this cardboard-style Nintendo Switch

Nintendo is building on its strange but wonderful cardboard Labo platform with some sweet Mario Kart integration and a truly fabulous limited edition Switch with a faux-cardboard finish. It really is just the greatest thing and I would do terrible things to have it. Unfortunately some smart kid will probably get it, because you have to win it by designing something cool with Labo.

So, first the Mario Kart stuff. If you have Mario Kart 8 Deluxe for the Switch, and you really should because it’s excellent, you can now use the Toy-Con (buildable with the Labo Variety Kit) as a sort of real-world controller. You twist the right “handlebar” to accelerate and rotate the whole thing to turn.

This is the first game to get its own special Labo support, but the company says more are on the way. Splatoon 2, perhaps?

If you’re a creative type and you have a Labo set, you’re in luck. There are two new contests you can enter, and entry puts you in the running to win the amazing neutral-colored Switch shown up top. I really don’t know why I love it so much, but I do. And if you do too, you should enter. (If you’re in the U.S. or Canada. Sorry, world.)

The first challenge is to create a musical instrument with the Toy-Con pieces and “craft materials.” You’ll have to document its creation and show it working on video; it’ll be judged on “Quality, Creativity, Spirit, and Sound.” Caps Nintendo’s.

The second challenge is to create a game or game-like experience using Toy-Con Garage. Same judgment categories as before, minus Sound.

There will be one grand prize winner and four runners up per contest. Grand prize is that amazing Switch (approximate retail value $1,000?!), plus a cool (?) Labo jacket. Runners up get a pair of cardboard style Joy-Cons and a jacket. Respectable.

If you’ve been looking for a reason to pick up that Labo kit again or use some random pieces you never tried, this is surely that reason. Now get to work!

oBike is closing its dock-less bike-sharing service in Singapore

Singapore’s upcoming licensing for dock-less bike-sharing services has claimed its first scalp after oBike — a Singapore-based company run by Chinese founders — announced that it would cease its service in the country ahead of the implementation of regulations.

The Land Transport Authority (LTA) is introducing measures to protect Singapore’s streets from a glut of bicycles left all over the place, as photo essays from China and beyond have cautioned can happen.

oBike launched its service at the beginning of 2017, and it claims over one million registered users but still it will end its service today, June 25. oBike said it will continue to run operations in other markets, although it hasn’t said if/when it will refund Singapore-based users with the deposits that they paid upon registration.

“oBike strongly believes and is committed to provide [sic] dock-less bicycle sharing service that would benefit users’ commuting and Singapore’s transportation system, however it is with regret that the new regulation measures do not favour this belief of ours,” the company said in a statement that posted to Facebook.

This move comes weeks after oBike exited Melbourne in Australia following issues with regulation.

oBike has directed its customers to the newly-launched bike service from ride-hailing giant Grab, which went live in March, although that service has temporarily paused new user sign-ups. Other alternatives in Singapore also include services from Chinese duo Ofo and Mobike.

Grab is actually an investor in oBike, as TechCrunch reported last year, after taking part in its $45 million Series B round that was announced in August 2017.

In Army of None, a field guide to the coming world of autonomous warfare

The Silicon Valley-military industrial complex is increasingly in the crosshairs of artificial intelligence engineers. A few weeks ago, Google was reported to be backing out of a Pentagon contract around Project Maven, which would use image recognition to automatically evaluate photos. Earlier this year, AI researchers around the world joined petitions calling for a boycott of any research that could be used in autonomous warfare.

For Paul Scharre, though, such petitions barely touch the deep complexity, nuance, and ambiguity that will make evaluating autonomous weapons a major concern for defense planners this century. In Army of None, Scharre argues that the challenges around just the definitions of these machines will take enormous effort to work out between nations, let alone handling their effects. It’s a sobering, thoughtful, if at times protracted look at this critical topic.

Scharre should know. A former Army Ranger, he joined the Pentagon working in the Office of Secretary of Defense, where he developed some of the Defense Department’s first policies around autonomy. Leaving in 2013, he joined the DC-based think tank Center for a New American Security, where he directs a center on technology and national security. In short, he has spent about a decade on this emerging tech, and his expertise clearly shows throughout the book.

The first challenge that belies these petitions on autonomous weapons is that these systems already exist, and are already deployed in the field. Technologies like the Aegis Combat System, High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), and the Harpy already include sophisticated autonomous features. As Scharre writes, “The human launching the Harpy decides to destroy any enemy radars within a general area in space and time, but the Harpy itself chooses the specific radar it destroys.” The weapon can loiter for 2.5 hours while it determines a target with its sensors — is it autonomous?

Scharre repeatedly uses the military’s OODA loop (for observe, orient, decide, and act) as a framework to determine the level of autonomy for a given machine. Humans can be “in the loop,” where they determine the actions of the machine, “on the loop” where they have control but the machine is mostly working independently, and “out of the loop” when machines are entirely independent of human decision-making.

The framework helps clear some of the confusion between different systems, but it is not sufficient. When machines fight machines, for instance, the speed of the battle can become so great that humans may well do more harm then good intervening. Millions of cycles of the OODA loop could be processed by a drone before a human even registers what is happening on the battlefield. A human out of the loop, therefore, could well lead to safer outcomes. It’s exactly these kinds of paradoxes that make the subject so difficult to analyze.

In addition to paradoxes, constraints are a huge theme in the book as well. Speed is one — and the price of military equipment is another. Dumb missiles are cheap, and adding automation has consistently added to the price of hardware. As Scharre notes, “Modern missiles can cost upwards of a million dollars apiece. As a practical matter, militaries will want to know that there is, in fact, a valid enemy target in the area before using an expensive weapon.”

Another constraint is simply culture. The author writes, “There is intense cultural resistance within the U.S. military to handing over jobs to uninhabited systems.” Not unlike automation in the civilian workforce, people in power want to place flesh-and-blood humans in the most complex assignments. These constraints matter, because Scharre foresees a classic arms race around these weapons as dozens of countries pursue these machines.

Humans “in the loop” may be the default today, but for how long?

At a higher level, about a third of the book is devoted to the history of automation, (generalized) AI, and the potential for autonomy, topics which should be familiar to any regular reader of TechCrunch. Another third of the book or so is a meditation on the challenges of the technology from a dual use and strategic perspective, as well as the dubious path toward an international ban.

Yet, what I found most valuable in the book was the chapter on ethics, lodged fairly late in the book’s narrative. Scharre does a superb job covering the ground of the various schools of thought around the ethics of autonomous warfare, and how they intersect and compete. He extensively analyzes and quotes Ron Arkin, a roboticist who has spent significant time thinking about autonomy in warfare. Arkin tells Scharre that “We put way too much faith in human warfighters,” and argues that autonomous weapons could theoretically be programmed never to commit a war crime unlike humans. Other activists, like Jody Williams, believe that only a comprehensive ban can ensure that such weapons are never developed in the first place.

Scharre regrets that more of these conversations don’t take into account the strategic positions of the military. He notes that international discussions on bans are led by NGOs and not by nation states, whereas all examples of successful bans have been the other way around.

Another challenge is simply that antiwar activism and anti-autonomous weapons activism are increasingly being conflated. Scharre writes, “One of the challenges in weighing the ethics of autonomous weapons is untangling which criticisms are about autonomous weapons and which are really about war.” Citing Sherman, who marched through the U.S. South in the Civil War in an aggressive pillage, the author reminds the reader that “war is hell,” and that militaries don’t choose weapons in a vacuum, but relatively against other tools in their and their competitors’ arsenals.

The book is a compendium of the various issues around autonomous weapons, although it suffers a bit from the classic problem of being too lengthy on some subjects (drone swarms) while offering limited information on others (arms control negotiations). The book also is marred at times by errors, such as “news rules of engagement” that otherwise detract from a direct and active text. Tighter editing would have helped in both cases. Given the inchoate nature of the subject, the book works as an overview, although it fails to present an opinionated narrative on where autonomy and the military should go in the future, an unsatisfying gap given the author’s extensive and unique background on the subject.

All that said, Army of None is a one-stop guide book to the debates, the challenges, and yes, the opportunities that can come from autonomous warfare. Scharre ends on exactly the right note, reminding us that ultimately, all of these machines are owned by us, and what we choose to build is within our control. “The world we are creating is one that will have intelligent machines in it, but it is not for them. It is a world for us.” We should continue to engage, and petition, and debate, but always with a vision for the future we want to realize.

Twitter ‘smytes’ customers

Twitter today announced it was acquiring the “trust and safety as a service” startup Smyte to help it better address issues related to online abuse, harassment, spam, and security on its platform. But it also decided to immediately shut down access to Smyte’s API without warning, leaving Smyte’s existing customers no time to transition to a new service provider.

The change left Smyte’s current customer base stranded, with production issues related to the safety of their own platforms.

Needless to say, many were not happy about this situation and took to Twitter to register their complaints.

According to Smyte’s website, its clients included Indiegogo, GoFundMe, npm, Musical.ly, TaskRabbit, Meetup, OLX, ThredUp, YouNow, 99 Designs, Carousell, and Zendesk – big name brands that used Smyte’s feature set in a variety of ways to combat fraud, abuse, harassment, scams, spam, and other security issues.

While Twitter had earlier told TechCrunch that it would be “winding down” Smyte’s business with existing clients, what that apparently meant was that it was going to announce the acquisition, then effectively shut off the lights over at Smyte and leave everyone in the lurch.

According to reports from those affected, Smyte disabled access to its API with very little warning to clients, and without giving them time to prepare. Customers got a phone call, and then – boom – the service was gone. Clients had multi-year contracts in some cases.

And again, to reiterate, Smyte is a provider of anti-abuse and anti-fraud protections – not something any business would shut off overnight.

In npm’s case, it even led to a production outage.

Twitter declined to comment, but we understand it was making phone calls to affected Smyte customers today to match them with new service providers.

The decision to smite smyte an existing customer base the minute the startup joined Twitter isn’t a good look for either company, and is especially ironic in light of Twitter’s promises of “trust and safety” improvements in the months to come.

Trust, huh?

That’s how it works?

Holy shit Twitter bought Smyte and immediately shut it down. We had a 3 years contract with them and they just disappeared overnight. No communication at all, they just turned their servers off, closed our shared support channel and walked away. What the actual fuck

— Giacomo Gatelli (@arthens) June 21, 2018

»Trust and safety as a service«, they said. Now @Twitter owns @HelloSmyte, and trust is down the drain. Shutting down their services immediately, not giving their customers any grace period to adjust. Thought #Smyte was better than that #massivedisgrace 😡https://t.co/ttXmLNg3qb

— Ekaterina Damer (@ekadamer) June 21, 2018

Wait…so did @HelloSmyte just shut down it’s service entirely today with no warning after @Twitter bought them? What about their customers that rely on them for advanced moderation and the safety of their platforms? #smyte

— Michael Ehinger (@MichaelEhinger) June 21, 2018

A vendor notified us of their acquisition at 6am this morning and shut down their APIs 30 minutes later, creating a production outage for npm (package publishes and user registrations). The sheer unprofessionalism of this is blowing my mind.

— Laurie Voss (@seldo) June 21, 2018

It takes weeks to negotiate and sign an acquisition. You didn’t find out at 6am. You couldn’t give us a week? Even a couple of hours to take your service out of our critical path and avoid an outage? Fucking shocking behavior.

— Laurie Voss (@seldo) June 21, 2018

Damage is done already anyway. We had the same experience; luckily we were only using them in an async capacity so it didn’t take us offline.

— Jeff Goldschrafe (@jgoldschrafe) June 21, 2018

#smyte pic.twitter.com/SAPnHxdyMU

— theredwarrior (@theredwarrior) June 21, 2018

from https://t.co/oarjqaRFlr:

“Twitter tells us that Smyte will wind down its operations with those customers including Indiegogo, GoFundMe, npm”

🤔🤔🤔🤔https://t.co/5iCSzLP5D1

— Adam Perry (@dika10sune) June 21, 2018

Hey @HelloSmyte , it’s a massive bummer that you couldn’t give your customers any notice before turning everything off. Is there anything you can do to help us out?

— Dennis Hotson (@dennishotson) June 21, 2018

Thanks for just shutting off service at 615am this morning with 7 minutes notice.

— Curtis Schofield (@curtisjennings) June 21, 2018

Singapore-based game studio Mighty Bear raises $2.5M ahead of debut release

Mighty Bear, a game studio startup that grew out of King.com’s former office in Singapore, has landed new funding as it readies its debut title for smartphones.

The startup was founded by four former King.com staffers — Simon Davis, Fadzuli Said, Benjamin Chevalier and Saurabh Shukul — after the gaming giant closed its Singapore office — inherited via the acquisition of Non Stop Games — following its $5.9 billion acquisition by Activision. Today, Mighty Bear’s team of 18 counts experience working with Ubisoft, EA, Lucasarts, Disney, Gameloft and others.

The startup previously raised $775,000 in a pre-seed round in early 2017, and this time around it has pulled in a seven-figure USD investment. The deal is officially undisclosed, but a source with knowledge of discussions told TechCrunch it is worth around $2.5 million.

The deal was led by U.S.-based Skycatcher, New York hedge fund banker Eric Mindich’s Everblue fund, and M Ventures from Los Angeles. Others in the round include Singapore’s Atlas Ventures, Lev Leviev — who is co-founder of VK.com among other things — and existing backer Global Founders Capital, which is affiliated with Rocket Internet.

“We’ve already got a good set of investors from Europe and Asia so we realized we needed networks in North America, too,” Mighty Bear CEO Simon Davis told TechCrunch in an interview.

Davis added that, beyond extending their reach for purposes like hiring, partnerships and more, they open up the potential for IP and media deals further down the road.

First thing first though: Mighty Bear is working to launch its first title, which Davis said will be an MMORPG. Right now, it is being secretly tested for scalability and technical capabilities among users in India and the Philippines with a view to a full launch on iOS and Android later this year. Davis said the company plans to launch another title, too, with both games managed concurrently.

“We’ve basically taken a genre that we know is monetized and engaged with hardcore users and tried to bring it to a large audience. Our goal is to take big desktop experiences and streamline them into five-minute bursts,” he told TechCrunch in an interview.

You may not know it, but you may have run into Mighty Bear’s concepts already even though it hasn’t fully launched a title yet. That’s because part of the research and development process includes creating and disseminating videos and advertising for mock games through channels like Facebook.

That, Davis explained, can help Mighty Bear in all manner of ways, from basics such as figuring out what kind of visuals or advertising approach gets engagement from users, to broader purposes such as understanding the types of games that people want to play.

“The process helps witter down ideas to those that will get traction with users. If a game makes it through the various internal gates we have, and to soft launch, then we have the best potential for it to perform well,” Davis said.

Developing artwork and advertising for ‘fake’ games isn’t as obscure as it may sound. While it isn’t usual for smaller studios, it’s a practice that Davis said is common at huge game development companies — that in turn is a reflection in the experience that the team at Mighty Bear has under its belt.

Google makes $550M strategic investment in Chinese e-commerce firm JD.com

Google has been increasing its presence in China in recent times, and today it has continued that push by agreeing to a strategic partnership with e-commerce firm JD.com which will see Google purchase $550 million of shares in the Chinese firm.

Google has made investments in China, released products there and opened up offices that include an AI hub, but now it is working with JD.com largely outside of China. In a joint release, the companies said they would “collaborate on a range of strategic initiatives, including joint development of retail solutions” in Europe, the U.S. and Southeast Asia.

The goal here is to merge JD.com’s experience and technology in supply chain and logistics — in China, it has opened warehouses that use robots rather than workers — with Google’s customer reach, data and marketing to produce new kinds of online retail.

Initially, that will see the duo team up to offer JD.com products for sale on the Google Shopping platform across the word, but it seems clear that the companies have other collaborations in mind for the future.

JD.com is valued at around $60 billion, based on its NASDAQ share price, and the company has partnerships with the likes of Walmart and it has invested heavily in automated warehouse technology, drones and other ‘next-generation’ retail and logisitics.

The move for a distribution platform like Google to back a service provider like JD.com is interesting since the company, through search and advertising, has relationships with a range of e-commerce firms including JD.com’s arch rival Alibaba.

But it is a sign of the times for Google, which has already developed relationships with JD.com and its biggest backer Tencent, the $500 billion Chinese internet giant. All three companies have backed Go-Jek, the ride-hailing challenger in Southeast Asia, while Tencent and Google previously inked a patent sharing partnership and have co-invested in startups such as Chinese AI startup XtalPi.

Facebook’s new AI research is a real eye-opener

There are plenty of ways to manipulate photos to make you look better, remove red eye or lens flare, and so on. But so far the blink has proven a tenacious opponent of good snapshots. That may change with research from Facebook that replaces closed eyes with open ones in a remarkably convincing manner.

It’s far from the only example of intelligent “in-painting,” as the technique is called when a program fills in a space with what it thinks belongs there. Adobe in particular has made good use of it with its “context-aware fill,” allowing users to seamlessly replace undesired features, for example a protruding branch or a cloud, with a pretty good guess at what would be there if it weren’t.

But some features are beyond the tools’ capacity to replace, one of which is eyes. Their detailed and highly variable nature make it particularly difficult for a system to change or create them realistically.

Facebook, which probably has more pictures of people blinking than any other entity in history, decided to take a crack at this problem.

It does so with a Generative Adversarial Network, essentially a machine learning system that tries to fool itself into thinking its creations are real. In a GAN, one part of the system learns to recognize, say, faces, and another part of the system repeatedly creates images that, based on feedback from the recognition part, gradually grow in realism.

From left to right: “Exemplar” images, source images, Photoshop’s eye-opening algorithm, and Facebook’s method.

In this case the network is trained to both recognize and replicate convincing open eyes. This could be done already, but as you can see in the examples at right, existing methods left something to be desired. They seem to paste in the eyes of the people without much consideration for consistency with the rest of the image.

Machines are naive that way: they have no intuitive understanding that opening one’s eyes does not also change the color of the skin around them. (For that matter, they have no intuitive understanding of eyes, color, or anything at all.)

What Facebook’s researchers did was to include “exemplar” data showing the target person with their eyes open, from which the GAN learns not just what eyes should go on the person, but how the eyes of this particular person are shaped, colored, and so on.

The results are quite realistic: there’s no color mismatch or obvious stitching because the recognition part of the network knows that that’s not how the person looks.

In testing, people mistook the fake eyes-opened photos for real ones, or said they couldn’t be sure which was which, more than half the time. And unless I knew a photo was definitely tampered with, I probably wouldn’t notice if I was scrolling past it in my newsfeed. Gandhi looks a little weird, though.

It still fails in some situations, creating weird artifacts if a person’s eye is partially covered by a lock of hair, or sometimes failing to recreate the color correctly. But those are fixable problems.

You can imagine the usefulness of an automatic eye-opening utility on Facebook that checks a person’s other photos and uses them as reference to replace a blink in the latest one. It would be a little creepy, but that’s pretty standard for Facebook, and at least it might save a group photo or two.

UK report warns DeepMind Health could gain ‘excessive monopoly power’

DeepMind’s foray into digital health services continues to raise concerns. The latest worries are voiced by a panel of external reviewers appointed by the Google-owned AI company to report on its operations after its initial data-sharing arrangements with the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS) ran into a major public controversy in 2016.

The DeepMind Health Independent Reviewers’ 2018 report flags a series of risks and concerns, as they see it, including the potential for DeepMind Health to be able to “exert excessive monopoly power” as a result of the data access and streaming infrastructure that’s bundled with provision of the Streams app — and which, contractually, positions DeepMind as the access-controlling intermediary between the structured health data and any other third parties that might, in the future, want to offer their own digital assistance solutions to the Trust.

While the underlying FHIR (aka, fast healthcare interoperability resource) deployed by DeepMind for Streams uses an open API, the contract between the company and the Royal Free Trust funnels connections via DeepMind’s own servers, and prohibits connections to other FHIR servers. A commercial structure that seemingly works against the openness and interoperability DeepMind’s co-founder Mustafa Suleyman has claimed to support.

There are many examples in the IT arena where companies lock their customers into systems that are difficult to change or replace. Such arrangements are not in the interests of the public. And we do not want to see DeepMind Health putting itself in a position where clients, such as hospitals, find themselves forced to stay with DeepMind Health even if it is no longer financially or clinically sensible to do so; we want DeepMind Health to compete on quality and price, not by entrenching legacy position,” the reviewers write.

Though they point to DeepMind’s “stated commitment to interoperability of systems,” and “their adoption of the FHIR open API” as positive indications, writing: “This means that there is potential for many other SMEs to become involved, creating a diverse and innovative marketplace which works to the benefit of consumers, innovation and the economy.”

“We also note DeepMind Health’s intention to implement many of the features of Streams as modules which could be easily swapped, meaning that they will have to rely on being the best to stay in business,” they add. 

However, stated intentions and future potentials are clearly not the same as on-the-ground reality. And, as it stands, a technically interoperable app-delivery infrastructure is being encumbered by prohibitive clauses in a commercial contract — and by a lack of regulatory pushback against such behavior.

The reviewers also raise concerns about an ongoing lack of clarity around DeepMind Health’s business model — writing: “Given the current environment, and with no clarity about DeepMind Health’s business model, people are likely to suspect that there must be an undisclosed profit motive or a hidden agenda. We do not believe this to be the case, but would urge DeepMind Health to be transparent about their business model, and their ability to stick to that without being overridden by Alphabet. For once an idea of hidden agendas is fixed in people’s mind, it is hard to shift, no matter how much a company is motivated by the public good.”

We have had detailed conversations about DeepMind Health’s evolving thoughts in this area, and are aware that some of these questions have not yet been finalised. However, we would urge DeepMind Health to set out publicly what they are proposing,” they add. 

DeepMind has suggested it wants to build healthcare AIs that are capable of charging by results. But Streams does not involve any AI. The service is also being provided to NHS Trusts for free, at least for the first five years — raising the question of how exactly the Google-owned company intends to recoup its investment.

Google of course monetizes a large suite of free-at-the-point-of-use consumer products — such as the Android mobile operating system; its cloud email service Gmail; and the YouTube video sharing platform, to name three — by harvesting people’s personal data and using that information to inform its ad targeting platforms.

Hence the reviewers’ recommendation for DeepMind to set out its thinking on its business model to avoid its intentions vis-a-vis people’s medical data being viewed with suspicion.

The company’s historical modus operandi also underlines the potential monopoly risks if DeepMind is allowed to carve out a dominant platform position in digital healthcare provision — given how effectively its parent has been able to turn a free-for-OEMs mobile OS (Android) into global smartphone market OS dominance, for example.

So, while DeepMind only has a handful of contracts with NHS Trusts for the Streams app and delivery infrastructure at this stage, the reviewers’ concerns over the risk of the company gaining “excessive monopoly power” do not seem overblown.

They are also worried about DeepMind’s ongoing vagueness about how exactly it works with its parent Alphabet, and what data could ever be transferred to the ad giant — an inevitably queasy combination when stacked against DeepMind’s handling of people’s medical records.

“To what extent can DeepMind Health insulate itself against Alphabet instructing them in the future to do something which it has promised not to do today? Or, if DeepMind Health’s current management were to leave DeepMind Health, how much could a new CEO alter what has been agreed today?” they write.

“We appreciate that DeepMind Health would continue to be bound by the legal and regulatory framework, but much of our attention is on the steps that DeepMind Health have taken to take a more ethical stance than the law requires; could this all be ended? We encourage DeepMind Health to look at ways of entrenching its separation from Alphabet and DeepMind more robustly, so that it can have enduring force to the commitments it makes.”

Responding to the report’s publication on its website, DeepMind writes that it’s “developing our longer-term business model and roadmap.”

“Rather than charging for the early stages of our work, our first priority has been to prove that our technologies can help improve patient care and reduce costs. We believe that our business model should flow from the positive impact we create, and will continue to explore outcomes-based elements so that costs are at least in part related to the benefits we deliver,” it continues.

So it has nothing to say to defuse the reviewers’ concerns about making its intentions for monetizing health data plain — beyond deploying a few choice PR soundbites.

On its links with Alphabet, DeepMind also has little to say, writing only that: “We will explore further ways to ensure there is clarity about the binding legal frameworks that govern all our NHS partnerships.”

“Trusts remain in full control of the data at all times,” it adds. “We are legally and contractually bound to only using patient data under the instructions of our partners. We will continue to make our legal agreements with Trusts publicly available to allow scrutiny of this important point.”

“There is nothing in our legal agreements with our partners that prevents them from working with any other data processor, should they wish to seek the services of another provider,” it also claims in response to additional questions we put to it.

We hope that Streams can help unlock the next wave of innovation in the NHS. The infrastructure that powers Streams is built on state-of-the-art open and interoperable standards, known as FHIR. The FHIR standard is supported in the UK by NHS Digital, NHS England and the INTEROPen group. This should allow our partner trusts to work more easily with other developers, helping them bring many more new innovations to the clinical frontlines,” it adds in additional comments to us.

“Under our contractual agreements with relevant partner trusts, we have committed to building FHIR API infrastructure within the five year terms of the agreements.”

Asked about the progress it’s made on a technical audit infrastructure for verifying access to health data, which it announced last year, it reiterated the wording on its blog, saying: “We will remain vigilant about setting the highest possible standards of information governance. At the beginning of this year, we appointed a full time Information Governance Manager to oversee our use of data in all areas of our work. We are also continuing to build our Verifiable Data Audit and other tools to clearly show how we’re using data.”

So developments on that front look as slow as we expected.

The Google-owned U.K. AI company began its push into digital healthcare services in 2015, quietly signing an information-sharing arrangement with a London-based NHS Trust that gave it access to around 1.6 million people’s medical records for developing an alerts app for a condition called Acute Kidney Injury.

It also inked an MoU with the Trust where the pair set out their ambition to apply AI to NHS data sets. (They even went so far as to get ethical signs-off for an AI project — but have consistently claimed the Royal Free data was not fed to any AIs.)

However, the data-sharing collaboration ran into trouble in May 2016 when the scope of patient data being shared by the Royal Free with DeepMind was revealed (via investigative journalism, rather than by disclosures from the Trust or DeepMind).

None of the ~1.6 million people whose non-anonymized medical records had been passed to the Google-owned company had been informed or asked for their consent. And questions were raised about the legal basis for the data-sharing arrangement.

Last summer the U.K.’s privacy regulator concluded an investigation of the project — finding that the Royal Free NHS Trust had broken data protection rules during the app’s development.

Yet despite ethical questions and regulatory disquiet about the legality of the data sharing, the Streams project steamrollered on. And the Royal Free Trust went on to implement the app for use by clinicians in its hospitals, while DeepMind has also signed several additional contracts to deploy Streams to other NHS Trusts.

More recently, the law firm Linklaters completed an audit of the Royal Free Streams project, after being commissioned by the Trust as part of its settlement with the ICO. Though this audit only examined the current functioning of Streams. (There has been no historical audit of the lawfulness of people’s medical records being shared during the build and test phase of the project.)

Linklaters did recommend the Royal Free terminates its wider MoU with DeepMind — and the Trust has confirmed to us that it will be following the firm’s advice.

“The audit recommends we terminate the historic memorandum of understanding with DeepMind which was signed in January 2016. The MOU is no longer relevant to the partnership and we are in the process of terminating it,” a Royal Free spokesperson told us.

So DeepMind, probably the world’s most famous AI company, is in the curious position of being involved in providing digital healthcare services to U.K. hospitals that don’t actually involve any AI at all. (Though it does have some ongoing AI research projects with NHS Trusts too.)

In mid 2016, at the height of the Royal Free DeepMind data scandal — and in a bid to foster greater public trust — the company appointed the panel of external reviewers who have now produced their second report looking at how the division is operating.

And it’s fair to say that much has happened in the tech industry since the panel was appointed to further undermine public trust in tech platforms and algorithmic promises — including the ICO’s finding that the initial data-sharing arrangement between the Royal Free and DeepMind broke U.K. privacy laws.

The eight members of the panel for the 2018 report are: Martin Bromiley OBE; Elisabeth Buggins CBE; Eileen Burbidge MBE; Richard Horton; Dr. Julian Huppert; Professor Donal O’Donoghue; Matthew Taylor; and Professor Sir John Tooke.

In their latest report the external reviewers warn that the public’s view of tech giants has “shifted substantially” versus where it was even a year ago — asserting that “issues of privacy in a digital age are if anything, of greater concern.”

At the same time politicians are also gazing rather more critically on the works and social impacts of tech giants.

Although the U.K. government has also been keen to position itself as a supporter of AI, providing public funds for the sector and, in its Industrial Strategy white paper, identifying AI and data as one of four so-called “Grand Challenges” where it believes the U.K. can “lead the world for years to come” — including specifically name-checking DeepMind as one of a handful of leading-edge homegrown AI businesses for the country to be proud of.

Still, questions over how to manage and regulate public sector data and AI deployments — especially in highly sensitive areas such as healthcare — remain to be clearly addressed by the government.

Meanwhile, the encroaching ingress of digital technologies into the healthcare space — even when the techs don’t even involve any AI — are already presenting major challenges by putting pressure on existing information governance rules and structures, and raising the specter of monopolistic risk.

Asked whether it offers any guidance to NHS Trusts around digital assistance for clinicians, including specifically whether it requires multiple options be offered by different providers, the NHS’ digital services provider, NHS Digital, referred our question on to the Department of Health (DoH), saying it’s a matter of health policy.

The DoH in turn referred the question to NHS England, the executive non-departmental body which commissions contracts and sets priorities and directions for the health service in England.

And at the time of writing, we’re still waiting for a response from the steering body.

Ultimately it looks like it will be up to the health service to put in place a clear and robust structure for AI and digital decision services that fosters competition by design by baking in a requirement for Trusts to support multiple independent options when procuring apps and services.

Without that important check and balance, the risk is that platform dynamics will quickly dominate and control the emergent digital health assistance space — just as big tech has dominated consumer tech.

But publicly funded healthcare decisions and data sets should not simply be handed to the single market-dominating entity that’s willing and able to burn the most resource to own the space.

Nor should government stand by and do nothing when there’s a clear risk that a vital area of digital innovation is at risk of being closed down by a tech giant muscling in and positioning itself as a gatekeeper before others have had a chance to show what their ideas are made of, and before even a market has had the chance to form. 

China’s Didi Chuxing continues its international expansion with Australia launch

Didi Chuxing, China’s dominant ride-hailing company, is continuing its international expansion after it announced plans to launch in Australia this month.

The company — which bought Uber’s China business in 2016 — said it will begin serving customers in Melbourne from June 25 following a month-long trial period in Geelong, a neighboring city that’s 75km away. The business will be run by a Didi subsidiary in Australia and it plans to offer “a series of welcome packages to both drivers and riders” — aka discounts and promotions, no doubt. It began signing up drivers on June 1, the company added.

The Australia launch will again put Didi in direct competition with Uber, but that is becoming increasingly common, and also Ola and Didi which both count Didi as an investor — more on that below. This move follows forays into Taiwan, Mexico and Brazil this year as Didi has finally expanded beyond its China-based empire.

Didi raised $4 billion in December to develop AI, general technology and to fund international expansion and it has taken a variety of routes to doing the latter. This Australia launch is organic, with Didi developing its own team, while in Taiwan it has used a franchise model and it went into Brazil via acquisition, snapping up local Uber-rival 99 at a valuation of $1 billion.

It is also set to enter Japan where it has teamed up with investor SoftBank on a joint-venture.

“In 2018, Didi will continue to cultivate markets in Latin America, Australia and Japan. We are confident a combination of world-class transportation AI technology and deep local expertise will bring a better experience to overseas markets,” the company added in a statement.

This international expansion has also brought a new level of confusion since Didi has cultivated relationships with other ride-hailing companies across the world while also expanding its own presence internationally.

The Uber deal brought with it a stock swap — turning Didi and Uber from competitors into stakeholders — and the Chinese company has also backed Grab in Southeast Asia, Lyft in the U.S., Ola in India, Careem in the Middle East and — more recentlyTaxify, which is primarily focused on Europe and Africa.

In the case of Australia, Didi will come up against Uber, Ola — present in Melbourne, Perth and Sydney via an expansion made earlier this year — and Taxify, too. Uber vs Didi is to be expected — that’s a complicated relationship — but in taking on Ola (so soon after it came to Australia), Didi is competing directly with a company that it funded via an investment deal for the first time.

That might be a small insight into Didi’s relationship with Ola. Unlike Grab, which has seen Didi follow-on its investments, the Chinese firm sat out Ola’s most recent fundraising last year despite making an investment in the company back in 2015.

“The ride-hailing industry is still a young business, and the potential for growth is substantial. Competition exists in ride-hailing, like in any flourishing industry. But it leads to better products and services, which ultimately benefits users,” Didi told TechCrunch in a statement when asked about its new rivalry with Ola and Taxify.

Ola declined to comment. Taxify did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

The move into Australia comes at a time when Didi is under intense pressure following the death of a passenger uses its ‘Hitch’ service last month.

The company suspended the Hitch service — which allows groups people who are headed in the same direction together — and removed a number of features while limiting its operations to day-time only. This week, it said it would resume night-time rides but only for drivers picking up passengers of the same sex.

Amazon starts shipping its $249 DeepLens AI camera for developers

Back at its re:Invent conference in November, AWS announced its $249 DeepLens, a camera that’s specifically geared toward developers who want to build and prototype vision-centric machine learning models. The company started taking pre-orders for DeepLens a few months ago, but now the camera is actually shipping to developers.

Ahead of today’s launch, I had a chance to attend a workshop in Seattle with DeepLens senior product manager Jyothi Nookula and Amazon’s VP for AI Swami Sivasubramanian to get some hands-on time with the hardware and the software services that make it tick.

DeepLens is essentially a small Ubuntu- and Intel Atom-based computer with a built-in camera that’s powerful enough to easily run and evaluate visual machine learning models. In total, DeepLens offers about 106 GFLOPS of performance.

The hardware has all of the usual I/O ports (think Micro HDMI, USB 2.0, Audio out, etc.) to let you create prototype applications, no matter whether those are simple toy apps that send you an alert when the camera detects a bear in your backyard or an industrial application that keeps an eye on a conveyor belt in your factory. The 4 megapixel camera isn’t going to win any prizes, but it’s perfectly adequate for most use cases. Unsurprisingly, DeepLens is deeply integrated with the rest of AWS’s services. Those include the AWS IoT service Greengrass, which you use to deploy models to DeepLens, for example, but also SageMaker, Amazon’s newest tool for building machine learning models.

These integrations are also what makes getting started with the camera pretty easy. Indeed, if all you want to do is run one of the pre-built samples that AWS provides, it shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes to set up your DeepLens and deploy one of these models to the camera. Those project templates include an object detection model that can distinguish between 20 objects (though it had some issues with toy dogs, as you can see in the image above), a style transfer example to render the camera image in the style of van Gogh, a face detection model and a model that can distinguish between cats and dogs and one that can recognize about 30 different actions (like playing guitar, for example). The DeepLens team is also adding a model for tracking head poses. Oh, and there’s also a hot dog detection model.

But that’s obviously just the beginning. As the DeepLens team stressed during our workshop, even developers who have never worked with machine learning can take the existing templates and easily extend them. In part, that’s due to the fact that a DeepLens project consists of two parts: the model and a Lambda function that runs instances of the model and lets you perform actions based on the model’s output. And with SageMaker, AWS now offers a tool that also makes it easy to build models without having to manage the underlying infrastructure.

You could do a lot of the development on the DeepLens hardware itself, given that it is essentially a small computer, though you’re probably better off using a more powerful machine and then deploying to DeepLens using the AWS Console. If you really wanted to, you could use DeepLens as a low-powered desktop machine as it comes with Ubuntu 16.04 pre-installed.

For developers who know their way around machine learning frameworks, DeepLens makes it easy to import models from virtually all the popular tools, including Caffe, TensorFlow, MXNet and others. It’s worth noting that the AWS team also built a model optimizer for MXNet models that allows them to run more efficiently on the DeepLens device.

So why did AWS build DeepLens? “The whole rationale behind DeepLens came from a simple question that we asked ourselves: How do we put machine learning in the hands of every developer,” Sivasubramanian said. “To that end, we brainstormed a number of ideas and the most promising idea was actually that developers love to build solutions as hands-on fashion on devices.” And why did AWS decide to build its own hardware instead of simply working with a partner? “We had a specific customer experience in mind and wanted to make sure that the end-to-end experience is really easy,” he said. “So instead of telling somebody to go download this toolkit and then go buy this toolkit from Amazon and then wire all of these together. […] So you have to do like 20 different things, which typically takes two or three days and then you have to put the entire infrastructure together. It takes too long for somebody who’s excited about learning deep learning and building something fun.”

So if you want to get started with deep learning and build some hands-on projects, DeepLens is now available on Amazon. At $249, it’s not cheap, but if you are already using AWS — and maybe even use Lambda already — it’s probably the easiest way to get started with building these kind of machine learning-powered applications.

Coinbase opens its crypto index fund to accredited U.S. investors

Fresh from revealing plans to add Ethereum Classic to its exchange, crypto giant Coinbase today announced that its cryptocurrency index fund — first revealed in Marchis open to investors in the U.S..

The company said in a blog post that it has see “overwhelming” interest from investors, and now it is reaching out to those who want to invest between $250,000 and $20 million. For now, the company said, participation is limited to the U.S. and those who are accredited investors.

That’s a pretty big caveat since crypto, by default, is open to anyone — although many ICOs tread carefully in markets like the U.S. — but Coinbase is very specifically target institutional capital, having recently added services for Wall Street-like professional investors.

The pitch is that it knows the market, its service covers the most stable assets and it won’t charge the kind of rates that existing funds do, as Coinbase CEO Brian Armstrong explained on Twitter.

Investing in Coinbase Index Fund is the easiest way to get exposure to a broad range get of crypto assets.
Much cheaper than 2 and 20% charged by most crypto hedge funds, and you get new assets automatically added to the fund as they become available on Coinbase. No rebalancing. https://t.co/TyOnDuFMT9

— Brian Armstrong (@brian_armstrong) June 13, 2018

Here’s more:

Coinbase Index Fund gives investors exposure to all assets listed on our exchange, weighted by market capitalization. As we announced yesterday, the fund will be rebalanced to include Ethereum Classic, and more assets when they are listed by Coinbase in the future.

Coinbase did say that it is working to launch other funds that are “accessible to all investors and cover a broader range of digital assets” so, if you’re not an accredited U.S. investor, there might yet be opportunities for you depending on what comes next. However, given that Coinbase is striving to be SEC-compliant — and the SEC is in the middle of a major crypto investigation — it might take some time to reach the longer tail of retail investors.

Stay tuned, though, we’ll be asking questions to two key people at Coinbase over the coming months and this topic is sure to be on the menu. CTO Balaji Srinivasan will appear at our blockchain event in Zug next month, while CEO Amstrong is among the guests who will take to the stage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco in September.

After report on “appalling” conditions, Foxconn will investigate plant that makes Amazon devices

Foxconn Technology Group says it is investigating a factory it operates that makes Amazon devices, including Kindles, after an in-depth report by advocacy group China Labor Watch criticized its “appalling working conditions,” including excessive hours and over-reliance on temporary workers.

“We are carrying out a full investigation of the areas raised by the report, and if found to be true, immediate actions will be taken to bring the operations into compliance with our Code of Conduct,” Taiwan-based Foxconn, also known as Hon Hai Precision Industry Co., Ltd., told Reuters.

New York-based China Labor Watch says its investigators were sent to the factory, which is located in south central China in Hunan Province’s Hengyang city and also makes Amazon’s Echo Dot Bluetooth speakers and tablets, from August 2017 to April 2018.

During that time, the group says it found that dispatch, or temporary, workers made up more than 40% of the workforce, far exceeding the 10% limit set by Chinese law. Dispatch workers were also treated very differently than regular workers, receiving far less safety training and no overtime wages. Instead, dispatch workers were paid the same rate, or 14.5 RMB ($2.26) an hour for both normal and overtime hours.

Though regular workers were better compensated in terms of wages and benefits, China Labor Watch says both groups were subjected to long hours and low wages, with workers putting in more than 100 overtime hours during peak season, even though the legal limit is 36 hours, and some working consecutively for 14 days. Workers on average earned wages between 2000 to 3000 RMB ($312.12 to $468.19), significantly less than Hengyang’s monthly average wage of 4,647 RMB ($725.22), but often had their overtime hours as punishment for taking leave or having unexcused absences.

The report also claimed that the factory had poor fire safety in its dormitories, lack of sufficiently protective equipment, verbally abusive managers and the “absence of a functioning labor union.”

“Amazon has the ability to not only ensure its supplier factories respects the rights of workers but also that there is equal pay for equal work,” said China Labor Watch on its site. “Amazon’s profits have come at the expense of workers who labor in appalling working conditions and have no choice but to work excessive overtime hours to sustain a livelihood.”

In a press statement, Amazon said it audited the Hengyang factory most recently in March 2018 and asked them to address “issues of concern” related to dispatch workers and overtime.

“Amazon takes reported violations of our Supplier Code of Conduct extremely seriously. Amazon regularly assesses suppliers, using independent auditors as appropriate, to monitor continued compliance and improvement. In the case of the Foxconn Hengyang factory, Amazon completed its most recent audit in March 2018 and identified two issues of concern. We immediately requested a corrective action plan from Foxconn Hengyang detailing their plan to remediate the issues identified, and we are conducting regular assessments to monitor for implementation and compliance with our Supplier Code of Conduct. We are committed to ensuring that these issues are resolved.”

This is, of course, not the first time labor issues at Foxconn, one of the largest electronic OEMs in the world and the main supplier of Apple’s iPhones, have been scrutinized. Most notably, conditions at its Longhua district factory in Shenzhen were blamed for a series of worker suicides in 2010. Serious fires have also broken out at several of its facilities, including one that resulted in three deaths at a factory that made iPad 2s.

TechCrunch has contacted Foxconn for comment.

Alibaba’s Ant Financial fintech affiliate raises $14 billion to continue its global expansion

Ant Financial, the financial services affiliate connected to Alibaba which operates the Alipay mobile payment service, has confirmed that it has closed a Series C funding round that totals an enormous $14 billion.

The rumors have been flying about this huge financing deal for the past month or so, with multiple publications reporting that Ant — which has been strongly linked with an IPO — was in the market to raise at least $9 billion at a valuation of upwards of $100 billion. That turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg here.

The money comes via a tranche of U.S. dollar financing and Chinese RMB from local investors. Those names include Singapore-based sovereign funds GIC and Temasek, Malaysian sovereign fund Khazanah Nasional Berhad, Warburg Pincus, Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, Silver Lake and General Atlantic.

Ant said that the money will go towards extending its global expansion (and deepening its presence in non-China markets it has already entered), developing technology and hiring.

“We are pleased to welcome these investors as partners, who share our vision and mission, to embark on our journey to further promote inclusive finance globally and bring equal opportunities to the world. We are proud of, and inspired by, the transformation we have affected in the lives of ordinary people and small businesses over the past 14 years,” Ant Financial CEO and executive chairman Eric Jing said in a statement.

Alibaba itself doesn’t invest in Ant, which it span off shortly before its mega-IPO in the U.S. in 2014, but the company did recently take up an option to own 33 percent of Ant’s shares.

Ant has long been tipped to go public. Back in 2016 when it raised a then blockbuster $4.5 billionlittle did we know it would pull in many multiples more — the company has been reportedly considering a public listing, but it instead opted to raise new capital at a valuation of $60 billion.

It looks like the same again, but with higher stakes. This new Series C round pushes that valuation up to $100 billion, according to Bloomberg. (Ant didn’t comment on its valuation.) So what has Ant done over the past two years to justify that jump?

It has long been a key fintech company in China, where it claims to serve offer 500 million consumers and offers Alipay, digital banking and investment services, but it has begun to replicate that business overseas in recent years. In particular, it has made investments and set up joint-ventures and new businesses in a slew of Asian countries that include India, Thailand, Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The company was, however, unsuccessful in its effort to buy MoneyGram after the U.S. government blocked the $1.2 billion deal.

On the business-side, Ant is said to have posted a $1.4 billion profit over the last year, suggesting it is more than ready to make the leap to being a public firm.

Despite that U.S. deal setback, Ant said today that its global footprint extends to 870 million consumers. I’d take that with a pinch of salt at this point since its business outside of China is in its early stages, but there seems little doubt that it is on the road to replicating its scale in its homeland in many parts of Asia. Raising this huge round only solidifies those plans by providing the kind of capital infusion that tops most of the world’s IPOs in one fell swoop.

“Social selling” startup Meesho lands $11.5M Series B led by Sequoia India

Y Combinator alum Meesho, one of several “social selling” startups gaining speed in India, will add more features to its e-commerce platform after closing a $11.5 million Series B led by Sequoia India. Existing investors SAIF Partners, Y Combinator and Venture Highway also returned for the round, which brings the Bangalore-based startup’s total funding so far to $15 million. Its last round of funding, a $3.4 million Series A, was announced last October.

Like social selling competitors including GlowRoad and Zepo, Meesho’s model combines dropshipping from its wholesale partners with a comprehensive suite of e-commerce tools and services. This reduces overhead while making it easy for sellers, who Meesho says includes many housewives, students and retirees, to set up an online business through WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media.

Meesho’s tools include an online platform that allows sellers to manage purchases and process payments, as well as a network of wholesale suppliers (its main categories are currently fashion and lifestyle items) and logistics providers. In other words, it offers almost everything its vendors need to start selling online. This leaves vendors responsible for customer acquisition, picking what items they want to include in their online shops and marketing them.

This reselling model appeals to small stores, as well as individuals, who want to make more money but don’t want the expense of setting up an e-commerce business from scratch and carrying inventory. Meesho’s rivals include e-commerce startups like GlowRoad, Shopmatic and Zepo, which have also recently raised large funding rounds. All of these companies attract sellers by offering a significant amount of help with order management, payment processing, fulfillment and logistics.

In order to differentiate, chief executive officer Vidit Aatrey, who co-founded Meesho in 2015 with Sanjeev Barnwal, its chief technology officer, tells TechCrunch it focuses on product quality, pricing and personalization to help resellers improve their sales and customer service. Meesho claims that more than 800,000 resellers have used its platform and that a “typical” reseller earns between 20,000 to 25,000 rupees per month (about $298 to $373).

In a press statement about the funding, Sequoia India managing director Mohit Bhatnagar said “Social commerce is the future of e-commerce in India. People buy from people they trust, and that’s what Meesho enables.  Entrepreneurs, many of them women, use the Meesho platform to recommend, customize and sell to their family and friends. Social selling is a huge trend and Sequoia India is excited to partner with Meesho, which is the early leader in this space.”

Aatrey says Meesho’s Series B capital will be used to hire more people for its tech and product teams in order to build a suite of new customer acquisition and selling tools. The startup also plans to add more personalization options for its resellers and product categories.

Real estate property manager and developer JLL launches a $100 million tech investment fund

The multi-billion dollar real estate developer and property manager JLL is getting into the tech investment game with the launch of a new $100 million fund run by corporate subsidiary JLL Spark.

Initially envisioned as a technology-focused business unit of the multinational real estate company, the firm eventually turned to the more traditional venture capital investment model as a way to get more exposure to all of the new technologies that are coming to market, according to JLL SPark’s co-chief executive Mihir Shah.

For Shah and his co-founder Yishai Lerner running the real estate company’s investment firm is the first foray by either executive into the world of real estate or property technology. But both men have been working in the startup world of the Bay Area for at over a decade.

In fact, the two serial entrepreneurs launched one of their first companies from the TechCrunch 50 conference way back in 2007 (it was a mobile app that mimicked Yelp).

The two eventually sold their mobile review business to GroupOn and began doing some angel investing. It was during that venture into the wild world of seed stage prospecting that Shah got bitten by the real estate bug while trying to buy some commercial real estate.

“I was looking at the process and was thinking ‘Wow! That is not a modern process,’” Shah said.

Unbeknownst to Shah, at the same time he was looking for commercial real estate, the commercial real estate industry was looking for someone like him.

JLL had put out feelers and hired head hunters to find someone who could take the lead at the firm’s burgeoning technology practice, Shah said.

“They had all sorts of internal initiatives bringing in new technology companies and services to their existing clients,” Shah said. “They understood that technology was going to transform all aspects of the industry.”

One of the first steps that JLL had taken was to acquire Stessa, which developed and sold asset management software for the real estate industry. But Shah and Lerner quickly realized that the buy and build strategy wouldn’t be robust enough for JLL’s needs.

“Over the last six months we saw how much innovation was happening in the proptech space and we thought it made more sense to launch a venture fund,” Shah said.

The firm will invest anywhere from a few hundred thousand dollars to a few million into seed stage or Series A companies with the option to dabble in later stage deals, according to Shah. The firm has made two investments so far — neither one of them in startups.

The commitments have been in one accelerator program, the New York-based Metaprop, which focuses on real estate tech investment, and Navitas Capital, which is billed as a later stage investor in the same space.

Both investments appear to be geared toward educating the firm’s two principals on the market and what’s already happening in the space.

The benefit that a corporate firm like JLL can provide to startups is the access to pilot projects where companies can deploy their technologies and, indeed, that’s the pitch that Shah makes to potential portfolio companies.

“Money is not enough,” he said. “There’s a lot of products out there, but they’re struggling with distribution.” JLL has designated a few buildings in top cities around the world to fast track new technologies and provide trial spaces for them to develop, Shah told me. “Our value as a strategic is to build that bridge and make that connection.”

“Creating this $100 million venture fund through JLL Spark allows us to continue to lead the real estate industry in bringing the best proptech ideas to reality,” said Christian Ulbrich, JLL’s Global chief executive. “It complements and expands our substantial ongoing investments in innovative, cutting-edge digital solutions, which is a core part of our Beyond strategic vision and commitment to achieve ambitions for our clients.”

 

ASUS’ new ZenBook Pro features a 5.5-inch touchscreen instead of a touchpad

The ASUS event today at Computex in Taipei, Taiwan had three main hooks: health, ergonomics and, most importantly, second screens. The headliner was the premium ZenBook Pro 14 and 15 (pictured above), the latest versions of ASUS’ premium notebook that feature a touchscreen where the touchpad would usually be

Meant to increase the laptops’ multitasking possibilities, the 5.5-inch ScreenPad functions as a second screen for things like messaging or apps including a calculator, a video and music player or calendar. It can also be used as a launchpad for apps on the ZenBook Pro’s main display or serve as a function command screen for Microsoft Office programs.

During his presentation, ASUS global PC and phone marketing senior director Marcel Campos said the ZenBook Pro 15 was designed with three kinds of professionals in mind: video makers, photographers and 3D designers. It has a 15.6-inch 4K UHD NanoEdge display with Delta E<2 Color Accuracy (ASUS says the Pro 15’s display has been validated by Pantone) and runs on an Intel Core i9 processor, 16GB of memory, a 1TB PCIe SSD and a GTX 1050 Ti graphics card. The Pro 15 is 18.9mm thick and weighs 1.88 kg. It will go on sale in mid-July starting at $2,299.

The 14-inch ASUS Zenbook Pro 14 also has a 5.5-inch ScreenPad and boosts an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of memory, a 1TB PCIe SSD and GTX 1050 MAX-Q GPU. It is 17.9 mm thick and weights in at 1.6kg.

Both of the latest Zenbook Pro models are built with a new hinge design ASUS calls ErgoLift, which props the laptop’s keyboards up at 5.5 degree angle when it is opened. ErgoLift is also built into the latest models of ASUS’ Zenbook and VivoBook series.

ASUS ZenBook S

The ZenBook S is 12.9-mm thick and weighs 1 kg and runs on an Intel Core i7 processor, with 16GB of memory, a 1TB PCIe SSD and up to 13.5 hours of battery life. It has a 4K UHD, 331ppi NanoEdge display and 2 USB-C drives. ASUS claims up to 13.5 hours of battery, which will be released on June 11 for $1,199.

ASUS VivoBook S15

The latest iterations of the VivoBook series, the 14-inch screen S14 and 15.6-inch S15, will come in 5 colors and also feature ErgoLift hinges. The S14 weights 1.4 kg and is 18-mm thick, while the S15 is 1.8 kg, 18-mm. Both have Intel Core i7-8550U or Intel Core i3-8130U processors, a NVIDIA GeForce MX150 or MX130 GPU and up to 16 GB of memory. The S15 will launch in the United States for $699 later this year.

ASUS VivoWatch

Other notable launches by ASUS include a blood pressure monitor that the company says is not a smartwatch or fitness tracker, even though it looks a lot like one. Called the ASUS VivoWatch, the wearable delivers real-time blood pressure data in 15 seconds, has a Gorilla Glass screen and ECG sensor on front of device and claims non-stop 28 day battery life.

Like last year, ASUS didn’t debut new ZenFones, though it did show off a collaboration with Intel and Microsoft called Project Precog, the main fruit of which will be a dual-screen laptop with AI-powered features that is supposed to launch next year. ASUS also held an event on Monday before the official start of Computex today, focusing on its Republic of Gamers line of PCs and peripherals. There it debuted the ROG phone, a rival to the Razer Phone for gamers, that also has a 90Hz display, meant for smoother display of animations, and a 2.96GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip. This was in addition to new gaming laptops, the Strix Scar II, which starts at $1,999, and the Strik Hero II, which will start at $1,699. Both have six-core Intel Coffee Lake Core i7-8750H or Core i5-8300H processors, 15.6-inch 144Hz 1080p “IPS-level” displays, up to 32GB of RAM, with a standard GPU of GTX 1060.

It’s OK to leave Facebook

The slow-motion privacy train wreck that is Facebook has many users, perhaps you, thinking about leaving or at least changing the way you use the social network. Fortunately for everyone but Mark Zuckerberg, it’s not nearly has hard to leave as it once was. The main thing to remember is that social media is for you to use, and not vice versa.

Social media has now become such an ordinary part of modern life that, rather than have it define our interactions, we can choose how we engage with it. That’s great! It means that everyone is free to design their own experience, taking from it what they need instead of participating to an extent dictated by social norms or the progress of technology.

Here’s why now is a better time than ever to take control of your social media experience. I’m going to focus on Facebook, but much of this is applicable to Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other networks as well.

Stalled innovation means a stable product

The Facebooks of 2005, 2010, and 2015 were very different things and existed in very different environments. Among other things over that eventful ten-year period, mobile and fixed broadband exploded in capabilities and popularity; the modern world of web-native platforms matured and became secure and reliable; phones went from dumb to smart to, for many, their primary computer; and internet-based companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon graduated from niche players to embrace and dominate the world at large.

It’s been a transformative period for lots of reasons and in lots of ways. And products and services that have been there the whole time have been transformed almost continuously. You’d probably be surprised at what they looked like and how limited they were not long ago. Many things we take for granted today online were invented and popularized just in the last decade.

But the last few years have seen drastically diminished returns. Where Facebook used to add features regularly that made you rely on it more and more, now it is desperately working to find ways to keep people online. Why is that?

Well, we just sort of reached the limit of what a platform like Facebook can or should do, that’s all! Nothing wrong with that.

It’s like improving a car — no matter how many features you add or engines you swap in, it’ll always be a car. Cars are useful things, and so is Facebook. But a car isn’t a truck, or a bike, or an apple, and Facebook isn’t (for example) a broadcast medium, a place for building strong connections, or a VR platform (as hard as they’re trying).

The things that Facebook does well and that we have all found so useful — sharing news and photos with friends, organizing events, getting and staying in contact with people — haven’t changed considerably in a long time. And as the novelty has worn off those things, we naturally engage in them less frequently and in ways that make more sense to us.

Facebook has become the platform it was intended to be all along, with its own strengths and weaknesses, and its failure to advance beyond that isn’t a bad thing. In fact, I think stability is a good thing. Once you know what something is and will be, you can make an informed choice about it.

The downsides have become obvious

Every technology has its naysayers, and social media was no exception — I was and to some extent remain one myself. But over the years of changes these platforms have gone through, some fears were shown to be unfounded or old-fashioned.

The idea that people would cease interacting in the “real world” and live in their devices has played out differently from how we expected, surely; trying to instruct the next generation on the proper way to communicate with each other has never worked out well for the olds. And if you told someone in 2007 that foreign election interference would be as much a worry for Facebook as oversharing and privacy problems, you might be met with incredulous looks.

Other downsides were for the most part unforeseen. The development of the bubble or echo chamber, for instance, would have been difficult to predict when our social media systems weren’t also our news-gathering systems. And the phenomenon of seeing only the highlights of others’ lives posted online, leading to self esteem issues in those who view them with envy, is an interesting but sad development.

Whether some risk inherent to social media was predicted or not, or proven or not, people now take such risks seriously. The ideas that one can spend too much time on social networks, or suffer deleterious effects from them, or feel real pain or turmoil because of interactions on them are accepted (though sadly not always without question).

Taking the downsides of something as seriously as the upsides is another indicator of the maturity of that thing, at least in terms of how society interacts with it. When the hype cycle winds down, realistic judgment takes its place and the full complexities of a relationship like the one between people and social media can be examined without interference.

Between the stability of social media’s capabilities and the realism with which those capabilities are now being considered, choice is no longer arbitrary or absolute. Your engagement is not being determined by them any more.

Social media has become a rich set of personal choices

Your experience may differ from mine here, but I feel that in those days of innovation among social networks your participation was more of a binary. You were either on or you were off.

The way they were advancing and changing defined how you engaged with them by adding and opting you into features, or changing layouts and algorithms. It was hard to really choose how to engage in any meaningful way when the sands were shifting under your feet (or rather, fingertips). Every few months brought new features and toys and apps, and you sort of had to be there, using them as proscribed, or risk being left behind. So people either kept up or voluntarily stayed off.

Now all that has changed. The ground rules are set, and have been for long enough that there is no risk that if you left for a few months and come back, things would be drastically different.

As social networks have become stable tools used by billions, any combination or style of engagement with them has become inherently valid.

Your choice to engage with Facebook or Instagram does not boil down to simply whether you are on it or not any more, and the acceptance of social media as a platform for expression and creation as well as socializing means that however you use it or present on it is natural and no longer (for the most part) subject to judgment.

That extends from choosing to make it an indispensable tool in your everyday life to quitting and not engaging at all. There’s no longer an expectation that the former is how a person must use social media, and there is no longer a stigma to the latter of disconnectedness or Luddism.

You and I are different people. We live in different places, read different books, enjoy different music. We drive different cars, prefer different restaurants, like different drinks. Why should we be the same in anything as complex as how we use and present ourselves on social media?

It’s analogous, again, to a car: you can own one and use it every day for a commute, or use it rarely, or not have one at all — who would judge you? It has nothing to do with what cars are or aren’t, and everything to do with what a person wants or needs in the circumstances of their own life.

For instance, I made the choice to remove Facebook from my phone over a year ago. I’m happier and less distracted, and engage with it deliberately, on my terms, rather than it reaching out and engaging me. But I have friends who maintain and derive great value from their loose network of scattered acquaintances, and enjoy the immediacy of knowing and interacting with them on the scale of minutes or seconds. And I have friends who have never been drawn to the platform in the first place, content to select from the myriad other ways to stay in touch.

These are all perfectly good ways to use Facebook! Yet only a few years ago the zeitgeist around social media and its exaggerated role in everyday life — resulting from novelty for the most part — meant that to engage only sporadically would be more difficult, and to disengage entirely would be to miss out on a great deal (or fear that enough that quitting became fraught with anxiety). People would be surprised that you weren’t on Facebook and wonder how you got by.

Try it and be delighted

Social networks are here to improve your life the same way that cars, keyboards, search engines, cameras, coffee makers, and everything else are: by giving you the power to do something. But those networks and the companies behind them were also exerting power over you and over society in general, the way (for example) cars and car makers exerted power over society in the ’50s and ’60s, favoring highways over public transportation.

Some people and some places, more than others, are still subject to the influence of car makers — ever try getting around L.A. without one? And the same goes for social media — ever try planning a birthday party without it? But the last few years have helped weaken that influence and allow us to make meaningful choices for ourselves.

The networks aren’t going anywhere, so you can leave and come back. Social media doesn’t control your presence.

It isn’t all or nothing, so you can engage at 100 percent, or zero, or anywhere in between. Social media doesn’t decide how you use it.

You won’t miss anything important, because you decide what is important to you. Social media doesn’t share your priorities.

Your friends won’t mind, because they know different people need different things. Social media doesn’t care about you.

Give it a shot. Pick up your phone right now and delete Facebook. Why not? The absolute worst that will happen is you download it again tomorrow and you’re back where you started. But it could also be, as it was for me and has been for many people I’ve known, like shrugging off a weight you didn’t even realize you were bearing. Try it.

Geoffrey Starks nominated as FCC Commissioner to fill Democratic gap left by Clyburn

The President has officially named Geoffrey Starks as his pick to fill the FCC Commissioner role left open by Mignon Clyburn’s departure. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai confirmed the news, rumored over the past few weeks, in a statement.

“I congratulate Geoffrey Starks on his forthcoming nomination to serve as a Commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission,” said Pai. “He has a distinguished record of public service, including in the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, and I wish him all the best during the confirmation process.”

Starks isn’t exactly a well known figure, but in public service that’s actually something of a compliment. He has worked in the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau for three years and is currently one of several assistant bureau chiefs. Previously he was at the Justice Department, which makes sense, as the Enforcement Bureau’s responsibility is “to investigate and respond quickly to potential unlawful conduct.”

It’s unclear as yet what his position is on the various measures currently being addressed by the FCC, from net neutrality to the revamping of media regulations.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly settled on Starks as long as a couple months ago, the interim no doubt being spent on due diligence, cultivating endorsements, and so on. The Senate will have to confirm Starks, but there’s no timeline on that yet. Commissioners generally serve five-year terms.

The FCC is kept at an uneven split between the two parties, ideally 3:2 in favor of the current administration. At the moment it has three Republican Commissioners and one Democrat, Commissioner Clyburn having left just a few weeks ago.

I’ve asked the FCC for more information on Starks and no doubt his nomination will trigger considerable scrutiny by press and politicians alike.

Ticketfly’s website is offline after a hacker got into its homepage and database

Following what it calls a “cyber incident,” the event ticket distributor Ticketfly took its homepage offline on Thursday morning. The company left this message on its website, which remains nonfunctional hours later:

Following a series of recent issues with Ticketfly properties, we’ve determined that Ticketfly has been the target of a cyber incident. Out of an abundance of caution, we have taken all Ticketfly systems temporarily offline as we continue to look into the issue. We are working to bring our systems back online as soon as possible. Please check back later.

For information on specific events please check the social media accounts of the presenting venues/promoters to learn more about availability/status of upcoming shows. In many cases, shows are still happening and tickets may be available at the door.

Before Ticketfly regained control of its site, a hacker calling themselves IsHaKdZ hijacked it to display apparent database files along with a Guy Fawkes mask and an email contact.

I sent an email yesterday reporting that the ticketfly website was hacked. All of the user data and site is completely downloadable. They need to come clean on the fact that your data was comprised and still is downloadable at this very moment! #ticketfly #cybercrime #wordpress pic.twitter.com/Ur0AsZpDij

— Michael Villado (@mvillado) May 31, 2018

According to correspondence with Motherboard, the hacker apparently demanded a single bitcoin (worth $7,502, at the time of writing) to divulge the vulnerability that left Ticketfly open to attack. Motherboard reports that it was able to verify the validity of at least six sets of user data listed in the hacked files, which included names, addresses, email addresses and phone numbers of Ticketfly customers, as well as some employees. We’ll update this story as we learn more.

Update: Ticketfly has added an FAQ page on the incident. The company notes that the event “resulted in the compromise of some client and customer information” and is conducting an investigation as it works to get its site back online.

Uber is looking at adding benefits and insurance for drivers

At the Code Conference tonight, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi spoke about the company’s relationship with drivers, autonomous driving, uberEATS having a $6 billion bookings run rate, taking over as CEO and flying taxis, obviously.

Just this week, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sent subpoenas to Uber and Lyft seeking information on driver pay, benefits and classification info. Uber wasn’t available for comment at the time, but now it seems that the company is looking at ways to offer benefits and insurance to drivers. Specifically, Uber is looking at an economically-sound way to offer drivers a benefits and insurance package so that “this can be a safer way of living,” Khosrowshahi said.

And despite what former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said in the past about needing to get rid of the driver, Khosrowshahi said he disagrees.

“The face of Uber is the person sitting in the front seat,” Khosrowshahi said. He added that it usually is a man driving, but that he would “love to have more women sitting in the front seat” because it’s a “great form of employment.”

Still, Uber is moving ahead with autonomous driving. That’s in light of the fatal car accident in Tempe, Arizona involving one of Uber’s autonomous vehicles.

“We will get back on the road over the summer,” Khosrowshahi said.

Uber also envisions licensing its technology — once it’s safe enough — to third-parties and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Despite the high-profile lawsuit between Uber and Waymo over self-driving car technology, Khosrowshahi said he’d welcome Waymo to put its cars into its network. Regarding Uber’s relationship with Waymo, Khosrowshahi said it’s “getting better.”

In addition to Uber’s core driver business and autonomous driving, it has several other things going on for it. One of those is uberEATS, which Khosrowshahi said has a $6 billion run rate, is growing 200 percent and is the biggest food delivery company in the world, with the exception of those in China.

Uber also recently acquired JUMP Bikes for about $200 million, launched UberRENT, announced a public transportation partnership with Masabi and is working on flying cars via its Elevate program.

Just like residential and buildings have gone three-dimensional, Khosrowshahi said, “you’re going to have to build a third-dimension in terms of transportation.”

For Uber, Elevate is its “big bet” on that third-dimension of transportation, he said. The big plan with all of these modes of transportations — whether that’s bike-sharing, ride-sharing, flight-sharing or whatnot — is to become a multi-modal transportation service.

“We want to be the Amazon for transportation,” Khosrowshahi said.

Earlier in the conversation, Khosrowshahi shed some light into how he had no idea he’d get the chief executive officer job at Uber. In fact, he said that while his wife thought he would get the job, he wasn’t as optimistic.

He also spoke about his relationship with Kalanick and how, early on, Khosrowshahi asked for space and Kalanick respected that.

“I consult with him the way I consult with the board,” Khosrowshahi said.

Moving forward, Khosrowshahi still has his eyes set on the second half of 2019 to go public.

“We’re on track,” he said.

Facebook didn’t see Cambridge Analytica breach coming because it was focused ‘on the old threat’

In light of the massive data scandal involving Cambridge Analytica around the 2016 U.S. presidential election, a lot of people wondered how something like that could’ve happened. Well, Facebook didn’t see it coming, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said at the Code conference this evening.

“If you go back to 2016 and you think about what people were worried about in terms of nations, states or election security, it was largely spam and phishing hacking,” Sandberg said. “That’s what people were worried about.”

She referenced the Sony email hack and how Facebook didn’t have a lot of the problems other companies were having at the time. Unfortunately, while Facebook was focused on not screwing up in that area, “we didn’t see coming a different kind of more insidious threat,” Sandberg said.

Sandberg added, “We realized we didn’t see the new threat coming. We were focused on the old threat and now we understand that this is the kind of threat we have.”

Moving forward, Sandberg said, Facebook now understands the threat and that it’s better able to meet those threats leading in to future elections. On stage, Sandberg also said Facebook was not only late to discovering Cambridge Analytica’s unauthorized access to its data, but that Facebook still doesn’t know exactly what data Cambridge Analytica accessed. Facebook was in the midst of conducting its own audit when the U.K. government decided to conduct one of their own, therefore putting Facebook’s on hold.

“They didn’t have any data that we could’ve identified as ours,” Sandberg said. “To this day, we still don’t know what data Cambridge Analytica had.”

Google brings its ARCore technology to China in partnership with Xiaomi

Google is ramping up its efforts to return to China. Earlier this year, the search giant detailed plans to bring its ARCore technology — which enables augmented reality and virtual reality — to phones in China and this week that effort went live with its first partner, Xiaomi.

Initially the technology will be available for Xiaomi’s Mix 2S devices via an app in the Xiaomi App Store, but Google has plans to add more partners in Mainland China over time. Huawei and Samsung are two confirmed names that have signed up to distribute ARCore apps on Chinese soil, Google said previously.

Starting today, #ARCore apps are available on Mix 2S devices from the Xiaomi App Store in China. More partners coming soon → https://t.co/16QoOTgqve pic.twitter.com/lT4TYXrzwF

— Google AR & VR (@GoogleARVR) May 28, 2018

Google’s core services remain blocked in China but ARCore apps are able to work there because the technology itself works on device without the cloud, which means that once apps are downloaded to a phone there’s nothing that China’s internet censors can do to disrupt them.

Rather than software, the main challenge is distribution. The Google Play Store is restricted in China, and in its place China has a fragmented landscape that consists of more than a dozen major third-party Android app stores. That explains why Google has struck deals with the likes of Xiaomi and Huawei, which operate their own app stores which — pre-loaded on their devices — can help Google reach consumers.

ARCore in action

The ARCore strategy for China, while subtle, is part of a sustained push to grow Google’s presence in China. While that hasn’t meant reviving the Google Play Store — despite plenty of speculation in the media — Google has ramped up in other areas.

In recent months, the company has struck a partnership with Tencent, agreed to invest in a number of China-based startups — including biotech-focused XtalPi and live-streaming service Chushou — and announced an AI lab in Beijing. Added to that, Google gained a large tech presence in Taiwan via the completion of its acquisition of a chunk of HTC, and it opened a presence in Shenzhen, the Chinese city known as ‘the Silicon Valley of hardware.’

Finally, it is also hosting its first ‘Demo Day’ program for startups in Asia with an event planned for Shanghai, China, this coming September. Applications to take part in the initiative opened last week.

Customer opinions of ISPs somehow drop even lower

Disliking one’s internet provider is such a common condition that it’s hard to imagine that ISPs have anywhere to go but up in the eyes of their customers. Nope! There are new lows ahead, if the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index is any indication. Charts ahead!

The ACSI compiles thousands of interviews with consumers and produce a score for various companies and industries based on a number of metrics. And this year, internet providers fell from last place to last place minus.

(Note: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch. Believe me, it doesn’t affect our coverage.)

“An all-time low for the industry that along with subscription TV already had the poorest customer satisfaction among all industries tracked by the ACSI,” the report reads. “Customers are unhappy with the high price of poor service, but many households have limited alternatives as more than half of all Americans have only one choice for high speed broadband.”

Despite what the FCC and broadband companies like to say, few people have more than one good choice for internet provider, unlike even other industries that are dominated by a handful of companies, like mobile. And the service people do have access to isn’t inspiring loyalty.

Pretty much every category saw a drop, despite ardent promises from the likes of Comcast and Cox to improve their customer service and simplify bills and offers.

A sample of ratings the ISPs received – dark blue is the latest.

I myself actually just had a good interaction with Comcast, but because it was just a nice customer service agent helping me navigate the company’s labyrinth of misleading offers and upsells, I consider it as breaking even. Or it would have if my bill hadn’t just nearly doubled without any notification, so in the end it’s probably a negative.

Streaming services and video on demand were included in the survey for the first time this year, and did fairly well. Netflix, PlayStation Vue and Twitch were well thought of, and even the worst-ranked service, Sony’s Crackle, beats most of the perennially disliked pay TV providers. Strangely enough, most of the latter are the very same providers are often the same as the perennially disliked broadband providers. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Worse than social media? These days that’s quite a feat.

Overall, those companies are at the very bottom of the list, below even airlines and insurance companies — and ironically, the TVs that are used to watch the content are at the very top of the heap. Time to step up your game, ISPs.

Twitter will give political candidates a special badge during US midterm elections

Ahead of 2018 U.S. midterm elections, Twitter is taking a visible step to combat the spread of misinformation on its famously chaotic platform. In a blog post this week, the company explained how it would be adding “election labels” to the profiles of candidates running for political office.

“Twitter has become the first place voters go to seek accurate information, resources, and breaking news from journalists, political candidates, and elected officials,” the company wrote in its announcement. “We understand the significance of this responsibility and our teams are building new ways for people who use Twitter to identify original sources and authentic information.”

These labels feature a small government building icon and text identifying the position a candidate is running for and the state or district where the race is taking place. The label information included in the profile will also appear elsewhere on Twitter, even when tweets are embedded off-site.

The labels will start popping up after May 30 and will apply to candidates in state governor races as well as those campaigning for a seat in the Senate or the House of Representatives.

Twitter will partner with nonpartisan political nonprofit Ballotpedia to create the candidate labels. In a statement announcing its partnership, Ballotpedia explains how that process will work:

Ballotpedia covers all candidates in every upcoming election occurring within the 100 most-populated cities in the U.S., plus all federal and statewide elections, including ballot measures. After each state primary, Ballotpedia will provide Twitter with information on gubernatorial and Congressional candidates who will appear on the November ballot. After receiving consent from each candidate, Twitter will apply the labels to each candidate profile.

The decision to create a dedicated process to verify political profiles is a step in the right direction for Twitter. With major social platforms still in upheaval over revelations around foreign misinformation campaigns during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Twitter and Facebook need to take decisive action now if they intend to inoculate their users against a repeat threat in 2018.

Take a look at your Twitter timeline 10 years ago

Here’s a fun thing for a Friday: go back and see what your Twitter timeline looked like 10 years ago.

Twitter has pretty powerful search settings, but Andy Baio — of Kickstarter fame and more — did the heavy-lifting for us all by sharing a link that let’s you look at your timeline exactly a decade ago, assuming you followed the same people.

Try it here. (The search will work even if you didn’t have an account 10 years ago.)

Want to see what your Twitter timeline would’ve looked like 10 years ago today, if you followed all the same people you do now? https://t.co/41a6iQcYhc

— Andy Baio (@waxpancake) May 24, 2018

The mix is eerily quiet, with far fewer retweets and likes than the current time — Twitter hadn’t yet introduced the ‘automatic’ retweet, people were still doing it manually — and no nested replies or link previews, while there are ghosts of once-major social media services, such as TwitPic, TinyURL.

Certainly, it’s a fun way to see how Twitter has morphed, both in terms of features and the actual dialogue of users. The latter, in my experience at least, seems more driven by status update-style tweets than discussions or dialogue and there’s precious little content from media at that time, too. Given how things are today, with polarized opinions and armies of trolls, perhaps the old days of Twitter did have their benefits.

You can, of course, tweak the settings to change the date, language and more to explore past Twitter.

Enjoy — and maybe retweet a decade-old tweet or two while you’re there.

Twitter of 10 years ago is so bizarre. No one had figured out how to use the platform yet, and it feels super rigid and awkward. Also the absence of media is felt.

— Chris Franklin (@Campster) May 25, 2018

❤ How innocent we were.

⏳ Twitter advanced search lets you go back in time! Here’s your current feed, but 10 years ago (works even if you weren’t on Twitter 10 years ago!): https://t.co/4Y63uPyqWo pic.twitter.com/f0xA7Vb6um

— Jonathan Howard (@staringispolite) May 24, 2018

10 years ago twitter ruled. https://t.co/OeY1CkMapG pic.twitter.com/jK24h28SV8

— drew olanoff (@yoda) May 24, 2018

Facebook is updating how you can authenticate your account logins

You’ll soon have more options for staying secure on Facebook with two-factor authentication.

Facebook is simplifying the process for two-factor verification on its platform so you won’t have to give the company your phone number just to bring additional security to your device. The company announced today that it is adding support for third-party authentication apps like Duo Security and Google Authenticator while streamlining the setup process to make it easier to get moving with it in the first place.

Two-factor authentication is a pretty widely supported security strategy that adds another line of defense for users so they aren’t screwed if their login credentials are compromised. SMS isn’t generally considered the most secure method for 2FA because it’s possible for hackers to take control of your SIM and transfer it to a new phone through a process that relies heavily on social engineering, something that isn’t as much of a risk when using hardware-based authentication devices or third-party apps.

Back in March, Facebook CSO Alex Stamos notably apologized after users started complaining that Facebook was spamming them on the phone numbers with which they had signed up for two-factor authentication. They insisted that it won’t happen again, but it also definitely won’t if they don’t have your number to begin with.

The new functionality is available in the “Security and Login” tab in your Facebook settings.

FBI reportedly overestimated inaccessible encrypted phones by thousands

The FBI seems to have been caught fibbing again on the topic of encrypted phones. FBI director Christopher Wray estimated in December that it had almost 7,800 phones from 2017 alone that investigators were unable to access. The real number is likely less than a quarter of that, The Washington Post reports.

Internal records cited by sources put the actual number of encrypted phones at perhaps 1,200 but perhaps as many as 2,000, and the FBI told the paper in a statement that “initial assessment is that programming errors resulted in significant over-counting of mobile devices reported.” Supposedly having three databases tracking the phones led to devices being counted multiple times.

Such a mistake would be so elementary that it’s hard to conceive of how it would be possible. These aren’t court notes, memos or unimportant random pieces of evidence, they’re physical devices with serial numbers and names attached. The idea that no one thought to check for duplicates before giving a number to the director for testimony in Congress suggests either conspiracy or gross incompetence.

The latter seems more likely after a report by the Office of the Inspector General that found the FBI had failed to utilize its own resources to access locked phones, instead suing Apple and then hastily withdrawing the case when its basis (a locked phone from a terror attack) was removed. It seems to have chosen to downplay or ignore its own capabilities in order to pursue the narrative that widespread encryption is dangerous without a backdoor for law enforcement.

An audit is underway at the Bureau to figure out just how many phones it actually has that it can’t access, and hopefully how this all happened.

It is unmistakably among the FBI’s goals to emphasize the problem of devices being fully encrypted and inaccessible to authorities, a trend known as “going dark.” That much it has said publicly, and it is a serious problem for law enforcement. But it seems equally unmistakable that the Bureau is happy to be sloppy, deceptive or both in its advancement of a tailored narrative.

Subscription video services’ recommendations aren’t working, study claims

Streaming video services invest heavily in technology to improve their ability to show users a set of personalized recommendations about what to what next. But according to a new research study released today by UserTesting, it seems that consumers aren’t watching much recommended content – in fact, only 29 percent of the study’s participants said they actually watched something the service recommended.

On some services, those figures were extremely low – for example, only 6 percent of HBO NOW users said they watched recommended content.

That’s probably because consumers found it difficult to locate HBO NOW’s recommendations in the first place. The service was given a low 16.8 “customer experience” score on this front, the study says. That’s a much lower score than all other services analyzed, including Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and YouTube TV – all of which had scores in the 80’s. (See first chart, below).

To be fair, HBO NOW doesn’t really do recommendations in the same way as the others.

Its app offers a “Featured” selection of content for all users, and, if you scroll down further, there are a couple of editorial collections, like “Essential HBO” or “14 Hidden Gems You Missed the First Time.” A separate “Collections” section includes more of these suggestions, like “New Movies,” “Just Added,” “Last Chance” and others.

The lack of personalized, easily located recommendations also impacted HBO NOW’s overall score in the UserTesting study, which rated the services across a variety of metrics including availability of content, friction-free viewing, ease of scrubbing and episode scanning, and other factors. HBO NOW was also was dinged by survey respondents for lagging, freezing and buffering issues, though they said they appreciated its clean design.

Netflix’s overall score was 89.5, making it the highest-rated streaming service among those analyzed due to having the most relevant recommendations, overall high ease-of-use, and a speedy service. It was followed by Hulu (86.8), Amazon Prime (85), YouTube TV (80.7), and then HBO NOW (71.8).

Coincidentally, Netflix also just beat HBO in a survey related to consumer appreciation for original programming, put out by Morgan Stanley. 39 percent of respondents in that survey said Netflix had the “best original programming” compared with HBO’s second place rank of 14 percent.

UserTesting’s study also backed up earlier research from Deloitte, as it found that subscription video customers are having to subscribe to more than one service in order to find all the content they want to watch.

More than half said they subscribe to at least two apps. For example, 90 percent of HBO NOW customers also subscribed to Netflix, while 80 percent subscribed to Amazon Prime.

The study additionally found that much of viewing (45%) takes place on TV or via streaming media devices like Roku, Apple TV, or Amazon Fire TV. 37 percent preferred laptops, and 11 percent said their smartphone or tablet was their primary streaming device. For some services, TV viewing is even higher – Hulu recently said that the majority – 78 percent – takes place on TVs.

UserTesting’s study involved 500 subscription video customers, 74 percent of whom said they watched streaming media every day. The full report is available here.