posted about 10 hours ago on techcrunch
Fat Lama, the startup that offers a fully insured peer-to-peer rental marketplace for almost anything, is getting a little fatter. The London-based company has raised $10 million in Series A funding in a round led by Ophelia Brown’s recently outed Blossom Capital, with participation from Niklas Zennström’s Atomico and existing backer Y Combinator. Aiming to do for rentals what eBay did for buying and selling used items, Fat Lama was conceived in early 2016 after the experience its founders had renovating an office space in London. They found themselves spending almost a third of their budget on what co-founder and CEO Chaz Englander describes as “single-use” items that were difficult to rent, such as power tools, tile-cutters, and industrial vacuums. “The probability was that the majority of those items were lying around unused in the same block we were working in,” he says, “but our only option to hire was to go to a rental shop on the other side of town, during working hours, to pay a premium for commercial hire. That was when we had the first conversations about creating a rental marketplace”. To enable Fat Lama to have chance of succeeding where older rental startups had failed, the team figured out that a number of problems beyond simply matching supply with demand would need to be solved. Traditional rental companies typically require the borrower to leave quite a large cash deposit in case an item is broken, lost or stolen. Like-wise, equipment-sharing websites that don’t require a deposit can be perceived as too risky for the lender. Fat Lama’s solution is to fully insure each item rented for an amount up to $30,000, something Englander tells me took nine months to secure and is a major differentiator from competitors. Borrowers are still liable for the full value of an item if they break or lose it, but the insurance will reimburse the lender if there’s a dispute between the borrower and Fat Lama, or if the borrower simply refuses (or can’t) pay. To further manage this risk, Fat Lama requires users to pass identity checks, in addition to employing risk-profiling technology. “Put simply, we don’t think it makes sense for people to have to buy the things they only use occasionally. And what we’re seeing, whether it’s environmentally or financially driven, is that globally, people are less and less interested in owning things,” says the Fat Lama CEO. “Fat Lama is connecting people with spare stuff to those that need it. By using a combination of risk-profiling technology and insurance, we’re making it not just possible, but safe and seamless, for anyone to have access to almost any item, potentially within minutes”. There is a community aspect to Fat Lama, too, which is something Englander is keen to protect even as the company scales. Currently lenders and borrowers hand over and collect items in person, where they often share expertise on how to get the most out of an item. “The breadth of rental categories obviously means that we have an incredibly broad user base in terms of demographics,” he adds. One obvious demographic is creative professionals, such as DJs, music producers, filmmakers, photographers and art directors, all of whom have “project-driven, often last-minute demands” for niche equipment. “Many are also sitting on big inventories of gear which they rarely use, from which they’re now generating an income in the thousands,” notes Englander. Meanwhile, after a successful launch in New York earlier this year, including seeing over 6,000 items listed on the site (supply in New York is said to be growing more than three times as fast as it originally did in London), Fat Lama is planning to use the new Series A funding to further grow across the pond. As part of this effort, the U.K. startup is hiring U.S. city managers, as well as investing in its product, engineering and operations teams back in London.

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posted about 10 hours ago on techcrunch
The long-rumored Grab acquisition of Uber’s Southeast Asia business may be official now, but it’s far from complete. In fact, what should be a celebratory coming-of-age moment for the Southeast Asian local champion is threatening to become nightmarish thanks to persistent regulators, panicky Uber staff and reluctant drivers who are supposed to switch to Grab as part of the arrangement. The agreed-upon deal sees Uber taking a 27.5 percent stake in Grab and exiting Southeast Asia’s unprofitable market. Those moves free up Uber resources for use in other geographies where they can be used more effectively. In exchange, Singapore-based Grab gets the operational front of Uber in the region including its ride-hailing business and Uber Eats food delivery service. Meanwhile, most of the 500 employees Uber enlisted across its eight markets in the region and the drivers on its platform now have the option to migrate to Grab. Grab’s desired outcome was simple: remove the threat of its immediate rival and beef up its business with new hires and drivers. In short, it moves loss-making Grab farther along the path to profitability far more quickly, as CEO Anthony Tan has said. The two parties proposed a quick Uber exit — with the app scheduled to close on April 9, two weeks after the deal. UberEats would roll into the GrabFood service by the end of May. For Grab, with hundreds of open vacancies, a key component was the Uber staff acquisition and the migration of Uber passengers and drivers. Now, one month after the deal, things aren’t going to plan. The whole transaction will take longer than initially imagined — potentially as long as a few months to be settled in full — leaving numbers of confused customers stranded on the curb. One of Grab’s offices in Singapore (Jon Russell/Flickr) Regulatory concerns Most obviously, Grab has had a tougher challenge with regulators than it initially anticipated. Roughly one month after the deal was announced the Uber app remains operational in Singapore, and had been extended for one week in the Philippines, both changes made at the request of anti-trust regulators who sought more time to assess the implications of the deal. A number of other governments in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Malaysia, are lining up to weigh in on the merger, too. Singapore, where Grab is registered, has been the most active. The Competition and Consumer Commission of Singapore (CCCS) pushed the deadline for the removal of Uber’s app back to May 7 — one month later than originally scheduled — so it could examine the deal. The commission also ordered Grab and Uber to “maintain pre-transaction independent pricing, pricing policies and product options” while it pored over the details. The CCCS thinks it has “reasonable grounds” to suspect that the deal may run afoul of section 54 of Singapore’s Competition Act regulating against overly dominant monopolies. These extensions in both Singapore and the Philippines mean additional expenses for Grab, which is paying for costs and helping manage the continuation of Uber’s app in Southeast Asia. Uber has shrugged off any responsibility. “Uber exited eight markets, including the Philippines, as of Monday. Now, I look after 10 markets, instead of 18. Our funding is gone. Our people are gone. We don’t intend to come back to these markets,” Brooks Entwistle, head of Uber’s Asia Pacific business, told the anti-competition commission in the Philippines earlier this month, according to Rappler. Keeping Uber open while the deal is scrutinized is undoubtedly a good thing to do, but in this scenario, the service is barely Uber. For a start it only covers Singapore, and drivers and passengers in the tiny city-state rightly are confused after initially being told Uber’s service would fold. That’s before acknowledging that the Uber app is being financed by Grab — a situation so absurd that Monty Python may want to license the rights. Both Uber and Grab are guilty of contributing to this current state of uncertainty. In setting out a two-week timeframe for sunsetting the app without consulting with regulators first, the two companies were aggressive and naive at best, or, at worst, recklessly determined to push their deal through without concern for the regulatory bodies whose approval they needed. A Grab representative told TechCrunch that it contacted CCCS “informally” ahead of the deal, but the CCCS called the deal an “unnotified merger transition.” Neither Grab nor Uber were required by law to contact authorities in Singapore ahead of time, but doing so — or providing a longer timeframe because the planned closure — would clearly have avoided this situation. Despite the inconvenience and cost, Grab did ultimately get what it wanted since Uber has left the region regardless of regulator demands, as Reuters noted, but other issues remain that should concern the Singapore-based company. Regulators in Singapore and the Philippines demanded Grab maintain the Uber app for an additional week (Photo by studioEAST/Getty Images) Uber employees ‘let down’ One critical part of the proposed merger is Grab’s potential ability to pick up an estimated 500 Uber employees in the region. It may be easy to overlook given the wider story of Uber’s global retrenchment, but TechCrunch understands from sources that it was a major focus for Grab. Not only is Grab keen to fill at least some of the nearly 500 vacancies within the company, but it was particularly eager to avoid a migration of Uber staff moving en masse to direct rivals like Go-Jek in the ride-hailing space or food delivery services Deliveroo and FoodPanda. Early signs indicate that Grab’s best laid plans are falling apart. From conversations with over a dozen Uber staff, across various countries and management levels, TechCrunch has heard that many in the workforce are uneasy at the prospect of joining Grab. A number told TechCrunch that they feel that Uber has abandoned them. The chief concern is that the departing Uber Southeast Asia staff are not in control of their own destiny. Aside from a small number of employees (estimated at around 50 people), Uber’s Southeast Asian workforce is not permitted to move internally to a different Uber region. Some said they were told that they are forbidden from even applying for other jobs within the company. The restrictions all but force Uber’s employees to move over to Grab — whether they want to or not. The strong-arming doesn’t end there. Terms for exiting staff also push would-be former Uber staffers into Grab’s orbit, according to details supplied to TechCrunch. If Grab decides to make an offer that includes a “substantially similar” salary to what they earned at Uber — and it isn’t entirely clear what “substantially similar” means — but the staffer doesn’t want to move over, then they will only receive the minimum statutory severance based on the local laws where they live. The only way they get a package is if Grab doesn’t want them, and in that case it is the minimum. Here’s the information bulletin Uber gave its staff on the day the merger was announced: No one is losing their job today. Everyone who is transitioning to Grab will continue to be an Uber employee until they formally accept an offer, sign a Letter of Employment with Grab and resign from Uber. If you get a role with Grab, you will not be eligible for any severance. If you accept a role with Grab and later resign, you will not be eligible for a severance payment. If Grab makes a substantially similar offer to you and you reject it, you will no longer have a role at Uber so your employment will end and you will be eligible for a severance payment. You will receive the minimum statutory severance based on the local law in your country. If Grab makes you an offer that is not substantially similar and you reject it, you will be eligible for a severance payment. You will receive a minimum of four months’ base salary plus one minimum month per year of service (e.g. if you have two years of service, you will receive a total of six months severance (four months minimum plus two months based on your service.) If you resign before receiving an offer from Grab, you will only receive your notice and other statutory entitlements. If Grab is unable to find a suitable role for you, you will be notified and offered a severance package based on your years of service with Uber. You will receive a minimum of four months’ base salary plus one month per year of service. As you can see, there is also no exit bonus for Uber’s Southeast Asia people. That’s a surprise considering that the company offered ‘performance bonuses’ in China and Russia. There, it told people that their hard work and dedication to the cause had been appreciated and critical in striking potentially lucrative exit deals with Didi Chuxing and Yandex, respectively. Since Uber’s exit from Southeast Asia is a more of a victory than a defeat — its large stake in Grab is set to increase in value over time — it’s no surprise that loyal staff would be disappointed at being shoved out of the door without so much as a tip or acknowledgement of their labor. But, in keeping with Uber’s previous management style, the company seems more adept at making messes, then compensating the folks who have to clean them up. Dara Khosrowshahi has been criticized for not making direct contact with Uber employees in Southeast Asia. (Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg via Getty Images) On top of all that, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has yet to make direct contact with the Southeast Asian staff. Several who spoke to TechCrunch were disappointed that they were not part of an internal all-hands video call with Khosrowshahi — which only included Uber’s ‘surviving’ staff in Southeast Asia. “His arrival was billed as a positive change in culture for Uber, yet he hasn’t bothered to visit the office or even get in touch. Travis Kalanick did both when Uber China was sold to Didi,” one departing Southeast Asia-based Uber employee told TechCrunch. Much of the discontent seems to center around communication issues. TechCrunch understands from sources inside Uber that the company is making significant efforts to educate its staff over their options, including potentially allowing those who wish to stay within the company to do so. Uber has dispatched senior management and its head of HR for Asia Pacific and LATAM, Anika Grant, on an ’employee roadshow’ aimed at visiting each Uber Southeast Asia office in person to help staff assess their options in person. Still, one of the biggest hurdles for both Uber and Grab is also one of the most basic. Simply getting in touch with departing Uber staff is challenging since they were removed from Uber’s system, including the email directory, as soon as the Grab deal was communicated. That’s common security protocol, but setting up and communicating new email address and phones numbers has made maintaining dialogue a challenge. Those efforts are apparently underway, but most of the Uber employees who spoke to TechCrunch had not yet been contacted by Grab, and, in addition, most were unsure whether and when communication would happen in spite of Grab and Uber’s efforts. One source inside Uber suggested that it could be “months” before all Uber departures have been contacted by Uber or Grab and assessed for a future role at Grab. Those employees will remain fully paid by Uber during that period, but it’s a long time to wait without updates. Already, though, a nightmare scenario is brewing for Grab. Recruiters swarm TechCrunch understands that Go-Jek, which is in the process of launching services in Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines, is pouring its energies into recruiting Uber’s former staff members and the platform’s drivers in a bid to hit the ground running with its long-awaited regional expansion. Thank you @Uber_IDN pic.twitter.com/b1sfVWHicY — GO-JEK (@gojekindonesia) March 28, 2018 Go-Jek is trying to hire key personnel from Uber’s now-defunct Southeast Asia business Go-Jek won’t, of course, take all the Uber alums, but these conditions certainly put it in a good position to cherry pick critical new hires to fill out its business outside of Indonesia. Other Grab rivals, including well-funded logistics startup NinjaVan, food delivery companies Deliveroo and FoodPanda, bike-sharing startups, and even the likes of Facebook, WeWork, Google and Netflix are understood to have hastily arranged interviews with Uber’s departing Southeast Asia staff in a bid to suck up new talent. That’s precisely the scenario that Grab is trying to avoid. There are also challenges on the driver side transition, too, with many who drove for Uber reluctant or unsure of whether to move over to Grab’s platform. TechCrunch spoke to nearly a dozen drivers in Singapore, where Uber remains operational, and Thailand and Indonesia, where the service has shuttered. In Thailand and Singapore, the drivers had already crossed over to Grab, but they complained about the experience. Chiefly that the app is inferior, that they are making less money and that they felt like they had no choice. Grab has said earlier this month that it has signed up over 75 percent of all Uber drivers in Indonesia, but it doesn’t have data for other markets. No independent figures exist to offer a wider picture on the success of the driver transition so far. “Drivers tend to feel like pawns when these rideshare giants merge. A lot of drivers have bought into driving for Uber and are comfortable with their experience so the idea of migrating to a new platform can be daunting,” Harry Campbell, who writes about ride-hailing experiences for drivers at The Ride Sharing Guy blog, told TechCrunch. “One of the nice things about competition, is that it keeps these companies in check when it comes to fighting for drivers and treating them well. There’s a reason why many drivers opted for Uber in the first place,” added Campbell, who recently moderated a Q&A between U.S. drivers and Uber CEO Khosrowshahi. That’s the opinion of one Uber driver in Singapore, who wrote on his blog that many drivers concerned with earning less with Grab still hope for a “miracle” that sees Uber remain. Added to that concern, TechCrunch reported this week that Go-Jek has held talks with Singapore’s largest taxi operator, ComfortDelGro, with the aim of becoming the firm’s ride-hailing partner. Comfort had previously inked an agreement with Uber. Finally, customers themselves are having to get used to Grab instead of Uber. Many have been vocal with issues which range subjective claims, such as a perceived inferior experience on Grab, and also more quantifiable concerns that include higher pricing and longer waits for a ride. On that note, Grab explained that operates a different pricing model. Rather than Uber’s approach of a lower distance-based fare with more emphasis on surge pricing, Grab said it “always maintained a competitive per KM fare with 2.0 surge max.” Uber’s surge could reach 4X, Grab said. Uber: 70Grab: 163 :( :( :( i miss you pic.twitter.com/CxBi6A4wRI — Ygy Boi (@germsanityy) April 19, 2018 Wtf grab this ride is normally 60b, even with surge pricing this isn’t cool. I think they lied when they said it would be less expensive when Uber left. pic.twitter.com/9aaXlAIyIq — Ally (@ohmyal) April 15, 2018 I hate how grab can't provide enough cars for all our commuters. BRING BACK UBER! — Grace Sison (@mgesison) April 18, 2018 Why is Grab so expensive omg I want uber back — Peiwen (@Peepeewen) April 20, 2018 Go-Jek’s opportunity All of these factors give Go-Jek a huge opportunity to step into Uber’s shadow and becoming the Pepsi to Grab’s Coke in Southeast Asia. There’s already a track record of doing so, as recent analysis from the Financial Times suggested. The paper’s research division surveyed 5,000 consumers across Singapore, Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines and found that the gap between Grab and Uber’s services is minimal across most countries. The main exception is Indonesia, where GoJek — and its GoCar service — is the dominant player. That suggests that things could be tighter than first assumed for Grab if it isn’t able to fully capitalize on the Uber acquisition. With additional reporting and assistance from Jonathan Shieber

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posted about 11 hours ago on techcrunch
Pusher, the London startup that provides tools and cloud infrastructure for developers to add real-time functionality to their apps, such as push notifications and messages, has pulled in $8 million in Series A funding. The round was led by London VC firm Balderton Capital, with participation from Heavybit, the San Francisco-based investor that specialises in helping developer product companies scale. Founded in 2011 — off the back of a modest $1 million in seed funding — Pusher aims to significantly lower the barriers for developers who want to build real-time features into their websites and apps. This was originally delivered via a general purpose realtime API and supporting cloud infrastructure, enabling app developers to more easily build things like rich push notifications, live content updates, and various real-time collaboration and communication features. However, more recently the company has began rolling out additional offerings dedicated to specific real-time functionality. The first of those is Chatkit, an API and SDK intended to do a lot of the heavy lifting required to add chat functionality to an app or service. In a call, Pusher co-founder Max Williams told me the startup’s Series A will be used to continue building new developer products and to establish a bigger presence in the U.S. so that it can be closer to customers. Pusher already has a small team working out of Heavybit’s San Francisco office, but in line with growth it plans to eventually set up a bigger office on the West Coast and aims to have up to 30 people working in the U.S. by the end of the year. These will be in sales, marketing and customer support. In addition, a significant amount will be invested in R&D, too, with Pusher’s own London-based engineering team being bolstered accordingly. Pusher currently employs 60 people. To that end, Williams says that the new capital will enable Pusher to move a lot faster, in recognition that the real-time developer tool space has not only grown exponentially in the last few years but is also becoming more competitive. He feels that for Pusher to fully take advantage of the opportunity ahead, organic growth — and in turn the company growing at the same pace as revenue — wasn’t going to cut it. Prior to this round of funding the startup had only raised $2.5 million in debt in addition to its original $1 million seed round. Meanwhile, Pusher says that more than 200,000 developers worldwide are using Pusher’s products and more than 40 billion messages per day are now sent using APIs provided by the company, “connecting more than eight billion devices per month”. Customers include The New York Times, which uses Pusher for updating its realtime news feeds; Mailchimp, which uses it for internal collaboration tools; and DraftKings, which uses Pusher for updating its realtime leaderboards.

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posted about 12 hours ago on techcrunch
Clark, one of a plethora of so-called ‘insurtech’ startups offering something akin to a digital insurance brokerage all delivered through a convenient mobile app, has closed a hefty $29 million in Series B funding. The round was led by fintech investor Portag3 Ventures, and VC fund White Star Capital, with participation from a number of existing investors including Coparion, Kulczyk Investments, and Yabeo Capital. It brings Clark’s total funding to $45 million. Founded in July 2015 — and originally out of fintech company builder Finleap — Frankfurt and Berlin-based Clark has built what it describes as an “insurance­ robo-­advisor”. Once you’ve given the startup a mandate to act as your insurance broker, the Clark iOS, Android and web apps let you manage and purchase various insurance products, spanning the full gamut of life, health, and property insurance. Specifically, its algorithms analyze your current insurance situation and automatically propose ways to improve your coverage or get a better deal than the one you are currently on. It makes the majority of its revenue from management and admin fees paid by insurance companies on its platform, but also via commission on any new policy taken out. To date, Clark says it has acquired close to 100,000 customers for its digital insurance services, making it one of the largest digital insurance players in Europe. This, we’re told, translates to $310 million in contract volume, which the insurtech startup says is a ten-fold increase from the contract volume it managed in 2016 at the time of its Series A. Some of that growth appears to have come from partnerships with a number of banks in Germany, including challenger N26, and incumbents ING-DiBa, and DKB. I’m also told Clark has started working on a B2B line, offering Clark technology to banks and other insurance companies as a white-label product. Four deals with leading companies have been signed and are “in development”. “Over the next few years, we will continue to focus on growth to cement our digital insurance management as the standard in Europe,” says Dr. Christopher Oster, CEO and co-founder of Clark, in a statement. “To drive Clark’s development, we will invest in our team in both Frankfurt and Berlin, especially in technology and marketing”.

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posted about 16 hours ago on techcrunch
Back in 2016, Apple swapped out the graphic used for its gun emoji, replacing the realistically drawn handgun with a bright green water gun. Just a few days ago, Twitter followed suit. And now, it seems, so will Google . The gun emoji on Android will likely soon appear as a bright orange and yellow super soaker lookalike. As first noted by Emojipedia, Google has just swapped the graphics in its open Noto Emoji library on GitHub. These are the Emoji that Android uses by default, so the same change will presumably start to roll out there before too long. At this point, Google making this change seemed inevitable. It seemed likely to happen as soon Apple made the jump; once others started following suit (Twitter earlier this week, and Samsung with the release of the Galaxy S9) it became a certainty. It’s a matter of clarity in communication. If a massive chunk of people (iOS users) can send a cartoony water toy in a message that another massive chunk of people (Android users) receive as a realistically drawn handgun, there’s room for all sorts of trouble and confusion. Apple wasn’t going to reverse course on this one — and now that others have made the change, Google would’ve been the odd one out.

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posted about 16 hours ago on techcrunch
Trying times in Menlo Park, it seems: Amid assaults from all quarters largely focused on privacy, Facebook is shifting some upper management around to better defend itself. Its head of policy in the U.S., Erin Egan, is returning to her chief privacy officer role, and a VP (and former FCC chairman) is taking her spot. Kevin Martin, until very recently VP of mobile and global access policy, will be Facebook’s new head of policy. He was hired in 2015 for that job; he was at the FCC from 2001 to 2009, Chairman for the last four of those years. So whether you liked his policies or not, he clearly knows his way around a roll of red tape. Erin Egan was chief privacy officer when Martin was hired, and at that time also took on the role of U.S. head of policy. “For the last couple years, Erin wore both hats at the company,” said Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone in a statement to TechCrunch. “Kevin will become interim head of US Public Policy while Erin Egan focuses on her expanded duties as Chief Privacy Officer,” Stone said. No doubt both roles have grown in importance and complexity over the last few years; one person performing both jobs doesn’t sound sustainable, and apparently it wasn’t. Notably, Martin will now report to Joel Kaplan, with whom he worked previously during the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 and for years under the subsequent administration. Deep ties to Republican administrations and networks in Washington are probably more than a little valuable these days, especially to a company under fire from would-be regulators.

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posted about 18 hours ago on techcrunch
Particle, a developer of networking hardware and software for connected devices, has released an LTE-enabled module for product developers. The new device specifically targets folks whose devices were reliant on retiring 2G and 3G networks, according to the company, and include built-in cloud and SIM support. Even as big telecom companies and vendors move ahead with 4G and now 5G networking equipment, those technologies aren’t necessarily the best for most networked devices, according to Particle . LTE hardware is cheaper, has better battery life, and ranges that are more appropriate for industrial devices that may need to communicate across distances or through obstacles (like walls, other machines, doors, or floors). Particularly, Particle sees demand for its devices in hard-to-reach or widely dispersed sensor networks — like industrial factory floors or in an agricultural monitoring setting for a farm or field. “As US carriers are quickly moving to end 2G and 3G support, and global carriers plan for LTE network rollouts, the timing for an LTE strategy is more critical than ever,” according to a statement Bill Kramer, EVP of IoT Solutions at KORE, which provides managed IoT networks, application enablement, location based services.  The new LTE product is part of a suite of offerings from Particle — including a device cloud, operating system, and developer toolkit, the company said. By providing a pre-integrated solution, Particle said that its hardware represents a faster, far less complicated path to market. “We launched our cellular development kit, the Electron, to give our developer community access to the power of cellular,” said Zach Supalla, Co-Founder and CEO of Particle, in a statement. “The following industrial E Series line made go-to-market with 2G/3G scalable for enterprises. Now with our LTE module, businesses will evolve alongside the quickly-changing cellular landscape without missing a beat.” Particle’s new lineup now includes two LTE CAT-M1 models (LTE B13 and LTE B2/4/5/12) and is fully certified, low profile, surface mountable for industrial environments, and powered by Qualcomm’s MDM9206 IoT Modem and u-blox’s Sara-R410-02B module. The new LTE hardware evaluation kit ships for $89 with an evaluation board, a sample temperature sensor, and accessories to build out a proof of concept, the company said. Individual modules are priced at $69. Particle counts 8,500 customers and more than 140,000 developers among its customers building networking technologies for consumer and industrial devices. The company says its customers range from global energy provider Engie and design studio Ideo to indoor crops provider Grow Labs and coffee pioneer Keurig .  

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posted about 18 hours ago on techcrunch
Rumors have been floating around for a few months now of a new device from Amazon that would mash-up the media streaming capabilities of its Fire TV line with the voice assistant abilities of the Echo. After leaked images turned up showing a cube-shaped device that seemed to fit the bill, people started referring to this still as-of-yet unannounced device as the “Fire TV Cube.” Sure enough: a seemingly official page has been found tucked away on Amazon.com that mentions a Fire TV Cube, and promises “details coming soon.” As found by AFTVNews, the placeholder splash page offers up little beyond the promise of eventual details. It’s got a big ol’ header that says “What is Fire TV Cube?”, a button to let you sign up for more details and… well, that’s about it. There’s also a mention of a “Fire TV Cube” on this page, tucked away in Amazon’s account management backend to let folks toggle their subscriptions to any one of the dozens of newsletters/email campaigns that Amazon sends out. According to the original leaks, the Fire TV Cube would have the speaker, far-field microphones and LED light bar of an Echo and the 4K video-capable guts of a Fire TV, allowing you to hook it up to your TV and have one device doing double the duties. In other words: While there’s still no official word on when (or if!) this thing will actually ship, it definitely looks like they’re prepping for something behind the scenes.

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posted about 18 hours ago on techcrunch
Yafit Lev-Aretz Contributor Share on Twitter Yafit Lev-Aretz is a Research Fellow at the Information Law Institute, New York University Law School. More posts by this contributor If it talks like a government and acts like a government, it must be a tech giant The recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica chaos has ignited a fire of awareness, bringing the risks of today’s data surveillance culture to the forefront of mainstream conversations. This episode and the many disturbing prospects it has emphasized have forcefully awakened a sleeping giant: people seeking information about their privacy settings and updating their apps permissions, a “Delete Facebook” movement has taken off and the FTC launched an investigation into Facebook, causing Facebook’s stocks to drop. A perfect storm.    The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica debacle is composed of pretty simple facts: Users allowed Facebook to collect personal information, and Facebook facilitated third-party access to the information. Facebook was authorized to do that pursuant to its terms of service, which users formally agreed to but rarely truly understood. The Cambridge Analytica access was clearly outside the scope of what Facebook, and most of its users, authorized. Still, this story has turned into an iconic illustration of the harms generated by massive data collection. While it is important to discuss safeguards for minimizing the prospects of unauthorized access, the lack of consent is the wrong target. Consent is essential, but its artificial quality has been long-established. We already know that our consent is, more often than not, meaningless beyond its formal purpose. Are people really raging over Facebook failing to detect the uninvited guest who crashed our personal information feast when we’ve never paid attention to the guest list? Yes, it is annoying. Yes, it is wrong. But it is not why we feel that this time things went too far. In their 2008 book, “Nudge,” Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler coined the term “choice architecture.”  The idea is simple and pretty straightforward: the design of the environments in which people make decisions influences their choices. Kids’ happy encounters with candies in the supermarket are not serendipitous: candies are commonly located where children can see and reach them. Tipping options in restaurants are usually tripled because individuals tend to go with the middle choice, and you must exit through the gift shop because you might be tempted to buy something on your way out. But you probably knew that already because choice architecture has been here since the dawn of humanity and is present in any human interaction, design and structure. The term choice architecture is 10 years old, but choice architecture itself is way older. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica mess, together with many preceding indications before it, heralds a new type of choice architecture: personalized, uniquely tailored to your own individual preferences and optimized to influence your decision. We are no longer in the familiar zone of choice architecture that equally applies to all. It is no longer about general weaknesses in human cognition. It is also not about biases that are endemic to human inferences. It is not about what makes humans human. It is about what makes you yourself. When the information from various sources coalesces, the different segments of our personality come together to present a comprehensive picture of who we are. Personalized choice architecture is then applied to our datafied curated self to subconsciously nudge us to choose one course of action over another. The soft spot at which personalized choice architecture hits is that of our most intimate self. It plays on the dwindling line between legitimate persuasion and coercion disguised as voluntary decision. This is where the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica story catches us — in the realization that the right to make autonomous choices, the basic prerogative of any human being, might soon be gone, and we won’t even notice. Some people are quick to note that Cambridge Analytica did not use the Facebook data in the Trump campaign and many others question the effectiveness of the psychological profiling strategy. However, none of this matters. Personalized choice architecture through microtargeting is on the rise, and Cambridge Analytica is not the first nor the last to make successful use of it. Jigsaw, for example, a Google -owned think tank, is using similar methods to identify potential ISIS recruits and redirect them to YouTube videos that present a counter-narrative to ISIS propaganda. Facebook itself was accused of targeting at-risk youth in Australia based on their emotional state. The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica story may have been the first high profile-incident to survive numerous news cycles, but many more are sure to come. We must start thinking about the limits of choice architecture in the age of microtargeting. Like any technology, personalized choice architecture can be used for good and evil: It may identify individuals at risk and lead them to get help. It could motivate us into reading more, exercising more and developing healthy habits. It could increase voter turnout. But when misused or abused, personalized choice architecture can turn into a destructive manipulative force. Personalized choice architecture can frustrate the entire premise behind democratic elections — that it is we, the people, and not a choice architect, who elect our own representatives. But even outside the democratic process, unconstrained personalized choice architecture can turn our personal autonomy into a myth. Systematic risks such as those induced by personalized choice architecture would not be solved by people quitting Facebook or dismissing Cambridge-Analytica’s strategies. Personalized choice architecture calls for systematic solutions that involve a variety of social, economic, technical, legal and ethical considerations. We cannot let individual choice die out in the hands of microtargeting. Personalized choice architecture must not turn into nullification of choice.  

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posted about 18 hours ago on techcrunch
When I saw the first trailer for Avengers: Infinity War, I was really excited and really worried. Excited because holy crap, there were so many characters. Iron Man! Captain America! Thor! Black Panther! Black Widow! The Vision! The Guardians of the Galaxy! And they were all going to be in a movie together! Worried because, holy crap, there so many characters. How could you squeeze all of them into a single film? The answer is, with great difficulty. To be fair, Infinity War isn’t the giant mess that it could have been — in fact, it’s a lot of fun. But there’s simply not enough movie to do justice to the enormous cast. Marvel Studios’ AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR..L to R: Spider-Man/Peter Parker (Tom Holland), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Drax (Dave Bautista), Star-Lord/Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff)..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2018 Some of those characters fare better than others. For most of Infinity War, the “cosmic” side of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is well-represented by Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana and team), who end up working together. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely are more willing to spend time with them, even when they’re not involved in a giant battle, and that pays off with the movie’s funniest moments — as well as scenes with real weight and melancholy. Meanwhile, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) also get some good jokes in, recapturing the fun of their relationship in Spider-Man: Homecoming. Everyone else? Well, they’re usually introduced with a nice quip or a badass moment, designed to remind you of how much you liked them in their own movies. But afterwards, they tend to fade into the background, becoming just another moving part in the big action set pieces (and yes, this includes Marvel’s new MVP Black Panther). That’s probably about as good as any filmmaker could do when trying to stuff the entire Marvel Universe into a single movie, but it’s still a little disappointing after the first Avengers film managed to give us five distinct and memorable heroes (sorry, Hawkeye), and it got so much mileage out of throwing those heroes together. Marvel Studios’ AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR..Thanos (Josh Brolin)..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2018 Luckily, the film’s real strength isn’t on the heroic side. Instead, as in Black Panther (and virtually no other Marvel movie), Infinity War‘s most memorable character is actually the villain, Thanos. Previous films have reduced Thanos to a purple guy who utters a few threatening lines while sitting in his silly-looking space throne. In Infinity War, Thanos is at the center of the action. His quest to acquire the superpowered Infinity Stones drives the story, as all of Marvel’s heroes scramble to stop him, giving the film a constant feeling of crisis and leading fairly quickly to spectacular fights on Earth and in space. He even gets to kill off a surprisingly large number of those heroes (though I don’t expect all of those deaths to stick). Over the course of the film, Thanos emerges as an dangerous and powerful alien who’s absolutely devoted to his mission of destroying half the life in the universe — kind of a weird goal, but as Walter Sobchak once said, at least it’s an ethos. And as portrayed by Josh Brolin (via voice acting and motion capture), he doesn’t come off as a cackling villain. Instead, he’s a weary soldier at the end of a long quest. I shouldn’t say too much about where that quest leads, but I will note that Infinity War feels very much like the first half of a two-part film, with an ending that sets up the still-untitled Avengers 4 (due May 3, 2019). I do think Infinity War falls a little short of Marvel’s best movies, like Black Panther and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (which, like Infinity War, was directed by Anthony and Joe Russo). But here’s one simple measure of the film’s success: Despite my reservations, that cliffhanger worked, and I really, really want to know what happens next. It’s going to be a long wait till 2019.

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posted about 19 hours ago on techcrunch
As the vacation rental sector heats up — with Airbnb making even more moves to expand its portfolio of services to include multiple tiers of rentals — there’s going to be more and more of a need for people who manage a large number of properties. Guesty is one service that aims to do that, and today a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission notes that it’s raised $19.75 million in a new Series B round of financing. While Airbnb may be the dominant home vacation rental service, there are others like VRBO, and managing those properties across multiple different platforms could require handling all of that information in something more analog like an Excel sheet. It’s a kind of CRM tool for property management, ranging from tracking guest check-ins to the amount of revenue a property owner. Guesty also helps property owners by providing tools to manage operations beyond just the tracking. Airbnb earlier this year started rolling out more tiers of home categories that are geared toward different kinds of travelers. That included high-end tiers called Airbnb Plus and Beyond by Airbnb. While these new categories potentially offer a more granular set of choices for consumers, it might make managing those properties a little more difficult — especially if it’s across multiple different services like Airbnb and VRBO, or even more analog channels. Tools like Guesty can help owners of multiple different properties (that might span multiple tiers) turn those homes into an actual business. There are also plenty of platforms that are looking for additional services for people managing multiple properties on vacation rental sites. There are startups like Beyond Pricing, which look to help property managers figure out how to best price their homes. Airbnb has its own pricing algorithms, but there’s clear demand for tools that cross multiple platforms. Guesty was party of Y Combinator’s winter 2014 class, and raised $3 million in May last year. While Airbnb continues to try to expand into new categories and offer home owners a way to rent out their homes — or for owners of multiple properties to run a side business — it’s not the only approach to vacation rentals. One startup, Selina, is looking to convert existing properties into kinds of campuses that cater to different tiers of travelers, ranging from travelers looking to stay in a hostel to ones that are willing to pay for their own rooms. Selina earlier this month said it raised $95 million. Selina is more of a hotel-ish model as it expands from geography to geography, but it also shows that there’s demand for an experience that can cater to a wide variety of guests.

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posted about 21 hours ago on techcrunch
A few years back, I wrote about the way we communicate with our technology. It was obvious even then that a big game-changer would be enabling a reliable conversational interaction with technology in order to overcome the friction humans experience when we use our modern tools, be they apps, phones, cars or semi-autonomous coffee makers. Too much typing and swiping and app management crowds our experiences with our connected “things.” To some degree, this game-changer has come to pass. Voice interaction is now a big part of technology interface in everything from smartphones to virtual assistant/smart speaker products to connected home and vehicle solutions — and so it will be going forward. While this is marked progress, it is not really “conversation.” For the most part, the state of voice interaction is more akin to commanding a four-year-old to do your bidding than having a useful, rich conversation with a friend or assistant. As we continue to minimize friction and advance usability of technology via voice, it is clear that more is needed. I’ll predict right here that the next big game-changer in technology interface is ambient contextuality. Ambient contextuality hinges on the idea that there is information hidden all around us that helps clarify our intent in any given conversation. Answering the simple questions of who, what, where and when is now easier than ever as IoT continues to mine and mind the data of our lives. I once sketched out a derivative needs pyramid for IoT devices using the example of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs pyramid to chart a course for “thing-actualization,” whereby our technology could use analytics, learned logic and predictive behavior to establish groups and networks of things and enable other more “complex” things. The voice interfaces and natural-language processing technology on display in interactive speakers such as Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Homepod are examples of this actualization in action — predictive analytics and machine learning imbued into objects and interfaces to technology that collect data and collectively power progressively complex functions, often in real time. But it is still not conversation. There is a new, nascent communications triangle between people, processes and things that fuels usability, and it still has a bit of its own growing up to do. Deeper questions like how and why are also key to conversation for humans. To achieve truly conversational interactions, one or many of the answers to these questions not only need to be captured, but also learned and retained. Recently, Google has made some good strides into this for targeted types of online search. But we have to do much more before something akin to natural conversation emerges. Establishing ambient contextuality to enable the kinds of conversations we do want to have is the actual end goal of all this connected stuff. Most human conversation is abridged. Known quantities may not even be discussed, but they are deeply factored into interaction. A simple example is shifting from nouns and proper names to pronouns. “I asked about Dave’s vacation and Jen said she’d take him to the airport to kick it off right.” This may seem like a small thing, but think about how unnatural a conversation is when you cannot use human “shorthand.” Referring to every subject in every sentence by its proper name quickly becomes as uncomfortable as it is unnatural. A simple definition of a conversation is an informal exchange of sentiment and ideas, and it’s the way people naturally communicate with each other. Informal conversation is contextual, cohesive and comprehensive. It involves a lot of storytelling. It ebbs and flows, jumps around in time and tense, references shared experience or knowledge to exchange new experiences and knowledge. It is inference infused and doesn’t require adherence to strict conventions. But this is pretty much the exact opposite of the way “things” are designed to communicate. Machine communication is specific to whatever technology drives it and is based on code. It is binary, resource-constrained, inflexible, standalone, purely informational and lacks context. It is rigid and formal. It is very much not storytelling. This elemental difference in communication creates a usability gap, which we have traditionally bridged by forcing people to learn to “speak” machine — download a new app to control every new device, use this set of wake words or language constructs for one device and an entirely different set for another, update, update, update, and if-this-then-that for everything. It’s why so many “things” end up thrown in a drawer after two weeks, never to be used again. This is not the kind of conversation humans want to have. Putting aside the creepiness factor and important privacy issues surrounding devices that constantly collect information about us, establishing ambient contextuality to enable the kinds of conversations we do want to have is the actual end goal of all this connected stuff. The aim is to smooth our experiences with our technology throughout the day and blur the seams enough to feel natural to us. The challenge now is to make our machines “speak” human — to imbue them with context and inference and informality so that conversation flows naturally. DARPA has been working on it. So, too, Amazon and Google. In fact, most technology efforts are concerned with reducing interface friction. Improving the quality of our conversation is key to achieving that goal. Development on IoT, augmented and mixed reality, Assistive Intelligence (my term for AI, but that’s an entirely different conversation) and even the miniaturization and extension properties on display in mobility and power advancements are all examples of the quest for that quality. Responsibly developed ambient contextuality, and ultimately natural conversation, will be better enabled by these technologies, and our lives will become much more conversational soon. Once we experience reliable and useful conversations with our technological world, I think we will all be hooked.

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posted about 21 hours ago on techcrunch
Digit, the developer of a wildly popular automatic savings mobile app, is moving beyond its core business with a new feature enabling users to pay down credit card debt from their Digit account. Announced earlier today the new Digit Pay service, which uses savings in a Digit account to pay off credit card debt for any registered account. The new feature works by enabling users to create a “credit card debt” goal in their Digit settings and activate the Digit Pay service. Digit automatically will begin to save money from a linked checking account — and use those funds to pay off credit cards. Credit card payments can even be prioritized through Digit’s boost feature. So far, the Digit app has been used to save roughly $1 billion for its customers according to chief executive officer Ethan Bloch . Bloch says that Digit has been focused on solving the biggest financial pain points for the most customers it can reach in the U.S. For the company, that meant starting with savings…. and moving on to the next biggest threat to customers’ financial health in the U.S. — debt. Roughly 75% of the company’s customers have credit card debt (hi, my name is Jon and I’m a Digit customer). In the U.S. there’s about $1 trillion of credit card debt outstanding — a stat that’s very no bueno for the U.S. economy. Add to that, an average U.S. household owes about $16,883 and pays about $1,292 in interest each year (credit card companies thank you). For folks who need a refresher in how Digit works, the company’s app provides a service that connects to checking accounts from almost any bank . Digit’s software analyzes income and spending and then sets aside small amounts of money at intervals that won’t impact an account. The company offers a 1% annualized savings bonus for people who save with Digit for three months, and the service costs $2.99 per month after a free 100 day trial period. Those savings are placed in a rainy day fund or toward any other financial goals that a user sets in the app. They can be customized, and the latest customization is this Digit Pay option. It’s the first time that Digit is linking back out to other vendors and it paves the way for other services using the Digit balance. One thing that users shouldn’t expect to see anytime soon is an investment feature in Digit, according to Bloch. “Digit was founded to make financial health effortless,” Bloch said. While investment tools are good for helping their users make more money, Bloch said they weren’t core to his view of financial health. “We’ll be focused on those two… savings and credit card debt,” he said. [gallery ids="1627750,1627751,1627752"]

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posted about 21 hours ago on techcrunch
Fundraising is never easy, but it’s even harder when the goal posts keep shifting from one place to another. Such is the challenge facing today’s youngest startups, which are looking at very different fundraising metrics than new startups did just six or seven years ago. We explored the issue yesterday with Peter Wagner, who spent more than 14 years with Accel as a managing partner before cofounding the early-stage firm Wing Venture Capital in 2013 with another veteran investor, Gaurav Garg, formerly of Sequoia Capital. Wagner has an obvious interest in how rounds are changing. Wing has to know how much is reasonable to expect to invest in a company, even while it prefers to invest in companies that don’t yet have revenue or customers. In a competitive funding landscape, its now four-person investing team is also looking to raise the firm’s profile by publishing smart industry research, including, not so long ago, on the state of IoT. Whatever Wing’s motivations, its findings are worth tracking if you’re a founder who is thinking about raising either a seed or Series A round any time soon. More from our chat with Wagner, along with Wing’s data, follows. TC: Your second fund, $300 million, was nearly twice the size of your $160 million debut fund. Do you expect your third fund will be even larger? Is this going to be an Accel-size firm some day? PW: No, we’re actually working hard to keep a lid on our fund size. Early-stage investing doesn’t scale. For us to grow, we’d have to change our investing strategy. TC: So many firms are doing exactly that, with the notable exception of Benchmark, which has maintained its fund size for the last 18 years roughly.  PW: I was at Accel when we were [expanding into] having a later-stage practice. We sought out different skills [from potential hires] because it’s a different process. It fact, the more we learned about it, the more realized how different a discipline it is. TC: Given that you’re so focused on early-stage financing dynamics, tell us what you’ve learned. How did you put together this new report? PW: We looked at companies that were funded by the 20 or so leading venture firms between 2010 and 2017. It’s 2,700 companies all together, and 5,800 financings. If a company raised a seed fund from another firm, but Sequoia led its Series A, all of its financings rounds, including that seed round, were incorporated into our research. We also focused on these companies’ downstream financings [no matter the investors]. TC: So some of these companies are pretty new. Others are eight years old. What should founders know about the numbers? PW: Today’s seed round is larger than the average Series A round was in 2010, which wasn’t all that long ago. The average Series A in 2010 was $4.9 million; by last year, it had reached $12.1 million. The average seed round in 2010 was $1.4 million; as of last year, it was $6.3 million. TC: That’s a massive uptick, obviously. Do you find it worrying? PW: Not necessarily. It’s a reflection of the changing strategies of major venture firms. Those defined as Series A investors have mostly adopted a later-stage posture and at scale. And when you’re scaling a venture firm, you’ll do more later-stage investing because you can invest more money. That’s one of the things pulling up Series A sizes. TC: Looking at another of your charts, it looks like the companies raising A rounds have to be a lot further along than was formerly the case. That’s not exactly a news flash, but it’s still interesting. Perhaps more telling is that 67 percent of them were already generating revenue, unlike 11 percent of their peers in 2010. The same is playing out for seed investments, looks like. PW: Yes, just 9 percent of seed-funding companies were generating revenue back in 2010; last year, more than half of them were. VC: So much for “venture” investing. Since everyone is taking so much less risk on these companies at the seed and Series A stage, are they getting less in terms of their ownership of these startups? PW: Ownership percentages [outside of Wing] are hard to get, other than in IPO prospectuses. Based on anecdotal data and what I’ve observed, major firms are still looking for the same ownership percentages. They’re just paying a lot more for it. TC: You have other interesting data, including around the number of financings that startups are sealing up before they get to the Series A. It used to be A was the second round. Now, companies have raised nearly three rounds before they get to that point. That seems not great for founders, who are giving away part of their company with every financing. PW: As you know, “pre-seed” is a thing now, as are “seed plus” financings. So you have this segmentation within the world of seed before you get to post-adoption, where you have some evidence that things are working and investors can see how rapidly. Seed is the new A. As for whether founders own less because of this trend, that’s a hard one to track, again because ownership stats are the last ones you’ll find. TC: Well, you’re investing very early on, at the pre-seed or pre-adoption phase in many cases. Are you still taking the 20 percent that you looked to own when you were doing Series A deals that looked more like seed deals? PW: Ideally. Other times, we’ll start with a smaller position and build up to that. We play the role of go-to partner, so we want to be in that ownership position. TC: With things shifting around so much, where is the Valley of Death these days? You obviously have to have a strong startup to land Series A funding. PW: It’s interesting. Major firms have adopted these scaled-up strategies and they’ve outsourced a lot of the adoption work to investors and incubators and angel investors, who are launching a fleet of a thousand ships. That enables the firms to hang around and see which startups look the best and pick and choose. What’s notable is they don’t have as much vested interest in companies at the Series A because it’s very different when you make a new investment versus a follow-on investment.  It used to be that individuals at these firms were involved much earlier.  I’m not sure if that’s a healthy or unhealthy development. But it does mean that seed firms have been presented with this expanded territory from which these other firms have backed away. Somebody has to do the foundation building. It’s a great opportunity for seed investors to play a bigger role, but it can certainly be a confusing time for founders, with investors changing, along with the criteria for who you let into your inner circle. TC: You’ve been in venture for more than 20 years. Is there a correction coming or has something fundamentally changed? PW: There will be a correction. There will always be a correction. Every time we’ve ever thought the cycle has been broken, we’ve been proven wrong. VC is cyclical. What I don’t know is the date of that correction or how deep it will be. TC: Do you think venture firms should be raising such gigantic funds right now, given this likelihood?  PW: The last time around [in the late ’90s], a bunch of people raised really big funds and wound up releasing half the capital or more back to their limited partners when the market changed. Returns on big funds have always disappointed. Things do change and tech is a much more important ingredient. But I do think this is still a boom-bust business.

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posted about 21 hours ago on techcrunch
A new privacy-centric cryptocurrency project with some big names on board just raised a round worth noting. On Tuesday, the team at MobileCoin announced that Binance Labs, the major blockchain incubator associated with the Binance exchange, led a $30 million round denominated in bitcoin and ether for the new cryptocurrency. MobileCoin will enjoy “priority consideration” for being listed on Binance as part of the relationship. New cryptocurrency projects are a dime (or less) a dozen, but the legitimacy of an established name can make all the difference. Moxie Marlinspike, the founder of end-to-end encryption messaging app Signal and Open Whisper Systems, is one such name. As Wired reported in December, Marlinspike began working with MobileCoin as a technical advisor in August of 2017. Marlinspike is joined by Joshua Goldbard, a general partner at hedge fund Crypto Lotus and MobileCoin technologist, and Shane Glynn, legal counsel, to help the company navigate the choppy waters of cryptocurrency regulation. Glynn has served since 2010 as senior product counsel at Google, though it’s not clear if he is leaving his longtime role for the new project. In the MobileCoin whitepaper, published in December, the project’s creators describe its mission: …Most attempts at building a compelling crypto-currency user experience unfortunately resort to trusting a third party service to manage keys and validate transactions. This largely sacrifices the primary benefits offered by crypto-currency to begin with. MobileCoin is an effort to develop a fast, private, and easy-to-use cryptocurrency that can be deployed in resource constrained environments to users who aren’t equipped to reliably maintain secret keys over a long period of time, all without giving up control of funds to a payment processing service. MobileCoin is being built on the Stellar blockchain, a popular ethereum alternative that some projects are flocking to for its scalability and speed, and will emphasize user privacy and integration into mobile messaging apps, including WhatsApp and Signal — two apps that use Marlinspike’s end-to-end encrypted Signal Protocol. “MobileCoin is designed so that a mobile messaging application like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or Signal could integrate with a MobileCoin wallet,” the team described in its whitepaper. Marlinspike is a rare sort of reverse tech celebrity, a figure who eschews both spotlight and Silicon Valley-style excess and has instead cultivated quiet respect in digital privacy and cryptography circles. That makes him an odd fit for the fraud-laden universe of empty multi-million-dollar ICOs with no product to speak of, but it also means that MobileCoin is probably worth paying attention to. At the very least, the prominent cryptographer’s new project should amuse anyone who’s complained about the digital currency world’s habit of using the term “crypto” as shorthand for “cryptocurrency.” MobileCoin has funding and talent, but it’s still very early days for the nascent cryptocurrency. As an incubator, Binance Labs concentrates on pre-ICO projects and MobileCoin will use the funding to “build out [its] team and processes” as it develops its product. “A mobile-first, user-friendly cryptocurrency, like MobileCoin, plays a critical role in driving mainstream cryptocurrency adoption,” Binance Labs said of the funding. “The MobileCoin team and Binance Labs share a common vision and we are proud to be a supporter of what they are doing.” Along with the news, MobileCoin announced that it is recruiting a “core team” of engineers: “Specifically, we are looking for those who have worked on large systems (greater than 10,000,000 daily active users) in a senior role who enjoy working on low-level code. Direct memory access is a critical part of our problem set.” Given the legitimacy of Marlinspike’s best-known project and his reticence to attach his name to things, it’s not unreasonable to give MobileCoin the benefit of the doubt, even if aspects of its raison d’être remain unarticulated. Beyond the core question of why a new cryptocurrency needs to exist at all, MobileCoin will need to position itself as a compelling alternative to existing mainstream mobile payment services like Venmo and PayPal for normal users. MobileCoin will also face the full slate of regulatory challenges, including fraud prevention, that plague other digital currency projects, though given its stealthy behavior and the fact that one-third of the three-member team listed on its website represents legal counsel, its founders are don’t appear to be charging in recklessly. “This is a journey and we are excited to build a simple system for trusted payments,” Goldbard wrote in the announcement. In the digital currency realm, too much style — think celeb-endorsed ICOs and endless press release hype cycles — can signal a lack of substance. The reverse can be true too, and in MobileCoin’s case, a modest mission could be a strong signal for a compelling product a bit further down the blockchain.

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posted about 21 hours ago on techcrunch
Frederick Daso Contributor Share on Twitter Frederick Daso is a Master's candidate in Aerospace Engineering at MIT writing about college students and recent college graduates pursuing entrepreneurial opportunities. New European financial regulations requiring fund managers at investment firms to pay banks for research and trading services separately could open the door for new entrants in the professional advisory services marketplace. The rules, which were approved in 2014, but only took effect in January, are proving to be a boon for four MIT students who launched a company last year to try to grab some of the market. DeepBench, founded by Devin Basinger, Yishi Zuo, Derek Hans and Nikhil Punwaney, is proposing some novel business model solutions to address what the MIT students see as flaws in the existing market — particularly around the use of expert networks in financial advisory services. DeepBench co-founders Devin Basinger, Nikhil Punwaney, Derek Hans and Yishi Zuo Expert networks are communities of experienced professionals in a given field. Fortune 500 companies, hedge funds, private equity firms and other entities rely on individuals from these groups for their insights and expertise. The biggest company in the expert network industry, Gerson Lerman Group (GLG), has nearly 50 percent market share and was on track to reach $400 million in revenue in 2016. But GLG has had its share of troubles. The company played an integral role in providing the expert that passed confidential information to an SAC Capital trader, which was used as evidence in an insider trading case against the firm and its owner, Steven A. Cohen. The hedge fund ended up paying a record $1.8 billion in fines to the SEC (they did not admit wrongdoing in the case). There is a significant opportunity to disrupt the expert networking space. As more experienced workers retire, some may want to continue putting their skills to use, albeit in a reduced capacity. Being a part of an expert network allows them to be available for clients who request their expertise in a flexible, convenient capacity. Facilitating this specialized knowledge sharing is a billion-dollar market for the taking. Aside from established players like GLG and its European competitors, AlphaSights and Third Bridge, other startups like Clarity, Slingshot Insights, Catalant (formerly known as HourlyNerd) and Dūcō are also looking to transform the way expert networking is done. GLG is known to charge a group of four within a firm $100,000 for basic access to their network for a year. In comparison, these startups have different approaches and business models to improving the way clients access the expertise they need. Their efforts reflect two main segments within the expert network market: expert calls and project-based work. DeepBench and Slingshot Industries are focusing their efforts on expert calls. DeepBench launched its current service in March 2017, which uses its “technology-driven, human-assisted” platform to connect individual clients with available experts for a 30 to 60-minute conversation at an agreed-upon rate. In addition, the startup does not require “learners” to sign long-term contracts or prepay, unlike other firms, allowing for greater client flexibility. Slingshot Industries matches groups of clients with similar interests to an expert to answer their questions. The group would crowdfund the cost for chatting with the expert. Catalant and Dūcō have aimed for matching clients that need long-term projects completed with the relevant experienced contractor. These clients are looking for experts who are interested in extended-duration work. Catalant leverages its algorithms to quickly match prospective clients with the experts they are looking for based on the former’s search criteria. Their goal is to make this process seamless, so more experts and clients will feel enabled to collaborate outside of a conventional consulting framework or contracting arrangement. Dūcō appears to take a more conventional approach to connecting clients and experts. The D.C.-based startup vets its pool of experts before offering them up to potential clients. Like Catalant, Dūcō uses matching algorithms to match clients with project work needs to experts ready to assist them. As investors seek information to keep their competitive edge, and firms need outside help in solving internal problems, on-demand access to expert networks will become necessary. DeepBench currently has more than 1,000 registered experts for their closed beta platform. Currently, more than 20 clients are using the service. Most are top consulting companies, investors and product designers. “We are focused on finding quality high-fit advisors right now instead of increasing the volume we can have available for clients,” Basinger said. With a shift in E.U. financial regulations, expert networks are using their momentum in the Asian and U.S. markets to establish themselves in Europe. This specialized knowledge sharing can be shaped by startups like DeepBench as competition between firms continues to intensify.

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posted about 22 hours ago on techcrunch
A Cambridge University academic at the center of a data misuse scandal involving Facebook user data and political ad targeting faced questions from the UK parliament this morning. Although the two-hour evidence session in front of the DCMS committee’s fake news enquiry raised rather more questions than it answered — with professor Aleksandr Kogan citing an NDA he said he had signed with Facebook to decline to answer some of the committee’s questions (including why and when exactly the NDA was signed). TechCrunch understands the NDA relates to standard confidentiality provisions regarding deletion certifications and other commitments made by Kogan to Facebook not to misuse user data — after the company learned he had user passed data to SCL in contravention of its developer terms. Asked why he had a non disclosure agreement with Facebook Kogan told the committee it would have to ask Facebook. He also declined to say whether any of his company co-directors (one of whom now works for Facebook) had been asked to sign an NDA. Nor would he specify whether the NDA had been signed in the US. Asked whether he had deleted all the Facebook data and derivatives he had been able to acquire Kogan said yes “to the best of his knowledge”, though he also said he’s currently conducting a review to make sure nothing has been overlooked. A few times during the session Kogan made a point of arguing that data audits are essentially useless for catching bad actors — claiming that anyone who wants to misuse data can simply put a copy on a hard drive and “store it under the mattress”. (Incidentally, the UK’s data protection watchdog is conducting just such an audit of Cambridge Analytica right now, after obtaining a warrant to enter its London offices last month — as part of an ongoing, year-long investigation into social media data being used for political ad targeting.) Your company didn’t hide any data in that way did it, a committee member asked Kogan? “We didn’t,” he rejoined. “This has been a very painful experience because when I entered into all of this Facebook was a close ally. And I was thinking this would be helpful to my academic career. And my relationship with Facebook. It has, very clearly, done the complete opposite,” Kogan continued.  “I had no interest in becoming an enemy or being antagonized by one of the biggest companies in the world that could — even if it’s frivolous — sue me into oblivion. So we acted entirely as they requested.” Despite apparently lamenting the breakdown in his relations with Facebook — telling the committee how he had worked with the company, in an academic capacity, prior to setting up a company to work with SCL/CA — Kogan refused to accept that he had broken Facebook’s terms of service — instead asserting: “I don’t think they have a developer policy that is valid… For you to break a policy it has to exist. And really be their policy, The reality is Facebook’s policy is unlikely to be their policy.” “I just don’t believe that’s their policy,” he repeated when pressed on whether he had broken Facebook’s ToS. “If somebody has a document that isn’t their policy you can’t break something that isn’t really your policy. I would agree my actions were inconsistent with the language of this document — but that’s slightly different from what I think you’re asking.” “You should be a professor of semantics,” quipped the committee member who had been asking the questions. A Facebook spokesperson told us it had no public comment to make on Kogan’s testimony. But last month CEO Mark Zuckerberg couched the academic’s actions as a “breach of trust” — describing the behavior of his app as “abusive”. In evidence to the committee today, Kogan told it he had only become aware of an “inconsistency” between Facebook’s developer terms of service and what his company did in March 2015 — when he said he begun to suspect the veracity of the advice he had received from SCL. At that point Kogan said GSR reached out to an IP lawyer “and got some guidance”. (More specifically he said he became suspicious because former SCL employee Chris Wylie did not honor a contract between GSR and Eunoia, a company Wylie set up after leaving SLC, to exchange data-sets; Kogan said GSR gave Wylie the full raw Facebook data-set but Wylie did not provide any data to GSR.) “Up to that point I don’t believe I was even aware or looked at the developer policy. Because prior to that point — and I know that seems shocking and surprising… the experience of a developer in Facebook is very much like the experience of a user in Facebook. When you sign up there’s this small print that’s easy to miss,” he claimed. “When I made my app initially I was just an academic researcher. There was no company involved yet. And then when we commercialized it — so we changed the app — it was just something I completely missed. I didn’t have any legal resources, I relied on SCL [to provide me with guidance on what was appropriate]. That was my mistake.” “Why I think this is still not Facebook’s policy is that we were advised [by an IP lawyer] that Facebook’s terms for users and developers are inconsistent. And that it’s not actually a defensible position for Facebook that this is their policy,” Kogan continued. “This is the remarkable thing about the experience of an app developer on Facebook. You can change the name, you can change the description, you can change the terms of service — and you just save changes. There’s no obvious review process. “We had a terms of service linked to the Facebook platform that said we could transfer and sell data for at least a year and a half — nothing was ever mentioned. It was only in the wake of the Guardian article [in December 2015] that they came knocking.” Kogan also described the work he and his company had done for SCL Elections as essentially worthless — arguing that using psychometrically modeled Facebook data for political ad targeting in the way SCL/CA had apparently sought to do was “incompetent” because they could have used Facebook’s own ad targeting platform to achieve greater reach and with more granular targeting. “It’s all about the use-case. I was very surprised to learn that what they wanted to do is run Facebook ads,” he said. “This was not mentioned, they just wanted a way to measure personality for many people. But if the use-case you have is Facebook ads it’s just incompetent to do it this way. “Taking this data-set you’re going to be able to target 15% of the population. And use a very small segment of the Facebook data — page likes — to try to build personality models. When do this when you could very easily go target 100% and use much more of the data. It just doesn’t make sense.” Asked what, then, was the value of the project he undertook for SCL, Kogan responded: “Given what we know now, nothing. Literally nothing.” He repeated his prior claim that he was not aware that work he was providing for SCL Elections would be used for targeting political ads, though he confirmed he knew the project was focused on the US and related to elections. He also said he knew the work was being done for the Republican party — but claimed not to know which specific candidates were involved. Pressed by one committee member on why he didn’t care to know which politicians he was indirectly working for, Kogan responded by saying he doesn’t have strong personal views on US politics or politicians generally — beyond believing that most US politicians are at least reasonable in their policy positions. “My personal position on life is unless I have a lot of evidence I don’t know. Is the answer. It’s a good lesson to learn from science — where typically we just don’t know. In terms of politics in particular I rarely have a strong position on a candidate,” said Kogan, adding that therefore he “didn’t bother” to make the effort to find out who would ultimately be the beneficiary of his psychometric modeling. Kogan told the committee his initial intention had not been to set up a business at all but to conduct not-for-profit big data research — via an institute he wanted to establish — claiming it was Wylie who had advised him to also set up the for-profit entity, GSR, through which he went on to engage with SCL Elections/CA. “The initial plan was we collect the data, I fulfill my obligations to SCL, and then I would go and use the data for research,” he said. And while Kogan maintained he had never drawn a salary from the work he did for SCL — saying his reward was “to keep the data”, and get to use it for academic research — he confirmed SCL did pay GSR £230,000 at one point during the project; a portion of which he also said eventually went to pay lawyers he engaged “in the wake” of Facebook becoming aware that data had been passed to SCL/CA by Kogan — when it contacted him to ask him to delete the data (and presumably also to get him to sign the NDA). In one curious moment, Kogan claimed not to know his own company had been registered at 29 Harley Street in London — which the committee noted is “used by a lot of shell companies some of which have been used for money laundering by Russian oligarchs”. Seeming a little flustered he said initially he had registered the company at his apartment in Cambridge, and later “I think we moved it to an innovation center in Cambridge and then later Manchester”. “I’m actually surprised. I’m totally surprised by this,” he added. Did you use an agent to set it up, asked one committee member. “We used Formations House,” replied Kogan, referring to a company whose website states it can locate a business’ trading address “in the heart of central London” — in exchange for a small fee. “I’m legitimately surprised by that,” added Kogan of the Harley Street address. “I’m unfortunately not a Russian oligarch.” Later in the session another odd moment came when he was being asked about his relationship with Saint Petersburg University in Russia — where he confirmed he had given talks and workshops, after traveling to the country with friends and proactively getting in touch with the university “to say hi” — and specifically about some Russian government-funded research being conducted by researchers there into cyberbullying. Committee chair Collins implied to Kogan the Russian state could have had a specific malicious interest in such a piece of research, and wondered whether Kogan had thought about that in relation to the interactions he’d had with the university and the researchers. Kogan described it as a “big leap” to connect the piece of research to Kremlin efforts to use online platforms to interfere in foreign elections — before essentially going on to repeat a Kremlin talking point by saying the US and the UK engage in much the same types of behavior. “You can make the same argument about the UK government funding anything or the US government funding anything,” he told the committee. “Both countries are very famous for their spies. “There’s a long history of the US interfering with foreign elections and doing the exact same thing [creating bot networks and using trolls for online intimidation].” “Are you saying it’s equivalent?” pressed Collins. “That the work of the Russian government is equivalent to the US government and you couldn’t really distinguish between the two?” “In general I would say the governments that are most high profile I am dubious about the moral scruples of their activities through the long history of UK, US and Russia,” responded Kogan. “Trying to equate them I think is a bit of a silly process. But I think certainly all these countries have engaged in activities that people feel uncomfortable with or are covert. And then to try to link academic work that’s basic science to that — if you’re going to down the Russia line I think we have to go down the UK line and the US line in the same way. “I understand Russia is a hot-button topic right now but outside of that… Most people in Russia are like most people in the UK. They’re not involved in spycraft, they’re just living lives.” “I’m not aware of UK government agencies that have been interfering in foreign elections,” added Collins. “Doesn’t mean it’s not happened,” replied Kogan. “Could be just better at it.” During Wylie’s evidence to the committee last month the former SCL data scientist had implied there could have been a risk of the Facebook data falling into the hands of the Russian state as a result of Kogan’s back and forth travel to the region. But Kogan rebutted this idea — saying the data had never been in his physical possession when he traveled to Russia, pointing out it was stored in a cloud hosting service in the US. “If you want to try to hack Amazon Web Services good luck,” he added. He also claimed not to have read the piece of research in question, even though he said he thought the researcher had emailed the paper to him — claiming he can’t read Russian well. Kogan seemed most comfortable during the session when he was laying into Facebook’s platform policies — perhaps unsurprisingly, given how the company has sought to paint him as a rogue actor who abused its systems by creating an app that harvested data on up to 87 million Facebook users and then handing information on its users off to third parties. Asked whether he thought a prior answer given to the committee by Facebook — when it claimed it had not provided any user data to third parties — was correct, Kogan said no given the company provides academics with “macro level” user data (including providing him with this type of data, in 2013). He was also asked why he thinks Facebook lets its employees collaborate with external researchers — and Kogan suggested this is “tolerated” by management as a strategy to keep employees stimulated. Committee chair Collins asked whether he thought it was odd that Facebook now employs his former co-director at GSR, Joseph Chancellor — who works in its research division — despite Chancellor having worked for a company Facebook has said it regards as having violated its platform policies. “Honestly I don’t think it’s odd,” said Kogan. “The reason I don’t think it’s odd is because in my view Facebook’s comments are PR crisis mode. I don’t believe they actually think these things — because I think they realize that their platform has been mined, left and right, by thousands of others. “And I was just the unlucky person that ended up somehow linked to the Trump campaign. And we are where we are. I think they realize all this but PR is PR and they were trying to manage the crisis and it’s convenient to point the finger at a single entity and try to paint the picture this is a rogue agent. At another moment during the evidence session Kogan was also asked to respond to denials previously given to the committee by former CEO of Cambridge Analytica Alexander Nix — who had claimed that none of the data it used came from GSR and — even more specifically — that GSR had never supplied it with “data-sets or information”. “Fabrication,” responded Kogan. “Total fabrication.” “We certainly gave them [SCL/CA] data. That’s indisputable,” he added. In written testimony to the committee he also explained that he in fact created three apps for gathering Facebook user data. The first one — called the CPW Lab app — was developed after he had begun a collaboration with Facebook in early 2013, as part of his academic studies. Kogan says Facebook provided him with user data at this time for his research — although he said these datasets were “macro-level datasets on friendship connections and emoticon usage” rather than information on individual users. The CPW Lab app was used to gather individual level data to supplement those datasets, according to Kogan’s account. Although he specifies that data collected via this app was housed at the university; used for academic purposes only; and was “not provided to the SCL Group”. Later, once Kogan had set up GSR and was intending to work on gathering and modeling data for SCL/Cambridge Analytica, the CPW Lab app was renamed to the GSR App and its terms were changed (with the new terms provided by Wylie). Thousands of people were then recruited to take this survey via a third company — Qualtrics — with Kogan saying SCL directly paid ~$800,000 to it to recruit survey participants, at a cost of around $3-$4 per head (he says between 200,000 and 300,000 people took the survey as a result in the summer of 2014; NB: Facebook doesn’t appear to be able to break out separate downloads for the different apps Kogan ran on its platform — it told us about 305,000 people downloaded “the app”). In the final part of that year, after data collection had finished for SCL, Kogan said his company revised the GSR App to become an interactive personality quiz — renaming it “thisisyourdigitallife” and leaving the commercial portions of the terms intact. “The thisisyourdigitallife App was used by only a few hundred individuals and, like the two prior iterations of the application, collected demographic information and data about “likes” for survey participants and their friends whose Facebook privacy settings gave participants access to “likes” and demographic information. Data collected by the thisisyourdigitallife App was not provided to SCL,” he claims in the written testimony. During the oral hearing, Kogan was pressed on misleading T&Cs in his two commercial apps. Asked by a committee member about the terms of the GSR App not specifying that the data would be used for political targeting, he said he didn’t write the terms himself but added: “If we had to do it again I think I would have insisted to Mr Wylie that we do add politics as a use-case in that doc.” “It’s misleading,” argued the committee member. “It’s a misrepresentation.” “I think it’s broad,” Kogan responded. “I think it’s not specific enough. So you’re asking for why didn’t we go outline specific use-cases — because the politics is a specific use-case. I would argue that the politics does fall under there but it’s a specific use-case. I think we should have.” The committee member also noted how, “in longer, denser paragraphs” within the app’s T&Cs, the legalese does also state that “whatever that primary purpose is you can sell this data for any purposes whatsoever” — making the point that such sweeping terms are unfair. “Yes,” responded Kogan. “In terms of speaking the truth, the reality is — as you’ve pointed out — very few if any people have read this, just like very few if any people read terms of service. I think that’s a major flaw we have right now. That people just do not read these things. And these things are written this way.” “Look — fundamentally I made a mistake by not being critical about this. And trusting the advice of another company [SCL]. As you pointed out GSR is my company and I should have gotten better advice, and better guidance on what is and isn’t appropriate,” he added. “Quite frankly my understanding was this was business as usual and normal practice for companies to write broad terms of service that didn’t provide specific examples,” he said after being pressed on the point again. “I doubt in Facebook’s user policy it says that users can be advertised for political purposes — it just has broad language to provide for whatever use cases they want. I agree with you this doesn’t seem right, and those changes need to be made.” At another point, he was asked about the Cambridge University Psychometrics Centre — which he said had initially been involved in discussions between him and SCL to be part of the project but fell out of the arrangement. According to his version of events the Centre had asked for £500,000 for their piece of proposed work, and specifically for modeling the data — which he said SCL didn’t want to pay. So SCL had asked him to take that work on too and remove the Centre from the negotiations. As a result of that, Kogan said the Centre had complained about him to the university — and SCL had written a letter to it on his behalf defending his actions. “The mistake the Psychometrics Centre made in the negotiation is that they believed that models are useful, rather than data,” he said. “And actually just not the same. Data’s far more valuable than models because if you have the data it’s very easy to build models — because models use just a few well understood statistical techniques to make them. I was able to go from not doing machine learning to knowing what I need to know in one week. That’s all it took.” In another exchange during the session, Kogan denied he had been in contact with Facebook in 2014. Wylie previously told the committee he thought Kogan had run into problems with the rate at which the GSR App was able to pull data off Facebook’s platform — and had contacted engineers at the company at the time (though Wylie also caveated his evidence by saying he did not know whether what he’d been told was true). “This never happened,” said Kogan, adding that there was no dialogue between him and Facebook at that time. “I don’t know any engineers at Facebook.”

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posted about 22 hours ago on techcrunch
Voyage, the self-driving car spin-out from Udacity, is open-sourcing its approach to autonomous driving safety. This comes at a time when autonomous driving programs are under intense scrutiny following two fatal crashes — one involving Tesla’s Autopilot and the other involving one of Uber’s self-driving cars in Tempe, Arizona. Meanwhile, Voyage has successfully deployed five Level 4 self-driving vehicles in retirement communities in California and Florida. Dubbed Open Autonomous Safety, the initiative aims to help autonomous driving startups implement better safety-testing practices. Companies looking to access the documents, safety procedures and test code can do so via a GitHub repository. “Each and every autonomous vehicle startup today has to define their own safety programs, and we think that is dangerous,” Voyage CEO Oliver Cameron tweeted earlier today. Version one includes scenario testing, functional safety, autonomy assessment and a testing toolkit. Later this year, OAS will release driver training material, additional scenarios and fault injection code and tests. Here’s a quick breakdown of what the above currently entails: Scenario testing: Looks at fundamental questions, like how self-driving cars behave around pedestrians and when cars back out of driveways. Functional safety: Helps to ensure safety without a driver present. Autonomy assessment: Validates whether or not car is moving in the right direction “and how we know that we are solving the right problems,” Cameron wrote in a blog post. Testing toolkit: A library of traffic, roadway and vehicle assets. “When it comes to safety, we believe open is better. At Voyage, we welcome contributions to improve OAS, like any other open source project,” Cameron wrote in a blog post. “The purpose of this effort is to promote an elevated standard of safety in the autonomous vehicle industry, increasing public trust through transparency.”

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posted about 23 hours ago on techcrunch
Facebook is making good on Mark Zuckerberg’s promise to prioritize user safety and data privacy over its developer platform. Today Facebook and Instagram announced a slew of API shut downs and changes designed to stop developers from being able to pull you or your friends data without express permission, drag in public content, or trick you into sharing. Some changes go into effect today, and others roll out on August 1st so developers have over 90 days to fix their apps. They follow the big changes announced two weeks ago Most notably, app developers will have to start using the standardized Facebook sharing dialog to request the ability to publish to the News Feed on a user’s behalf. They’ll no longer be  able to use the publish_actions API that let them design a custom sharing prompt. A Facebook spokesperson says this change was planned for the future because the consistency helps users feel in control, but the company moved the deadline up to August 1st as part of today’s updates because it didn’t want to have to make multiple separate announcements of app-breaking changes.   Facebook app developers will now have to use this standard Facebook sharing prompt since the publish_action API for creating custom prompts is shutting down One significant Instagram Graph API change is going into effect today, which removes the ability to pull the name and bio of users who leave comments on your content, though commenters’ usernames and comment text is still available. Facebook’s willingness to put user safety over platform utility indicates a maturation of the company’s “Hacker Way” that played fast-and-loose with people’s data in order to attract developers to its platform who would in turn create functionality that soaked up more attention. For more on Facebook’s API changes, check out our breakdown of the major updates: Facebook restricts APIs, axes old Instagram platform amidst scandals

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posted about 23 hours ago on techcrunch
There is concern, tears and lost money in the world of crypto once again after MyEtherWallet (MEW), one of the most popular wallets on the internet, was hit by a DNS hack that saw some users lose their cryptocurrency. MEW said in a statement that “a couple of Domain Name System registration servers were hijacked around 12PM UTC 24 April to redirect users to a phishing site.” Not all visitors to the site during the hijack were impacted, but MEW said that “a majority” of those who were had been using Google’s DNS. “We are currently in the process of verifying which servers were targeted to help resolve this issue as soon possible,” the company added, confirming that it has since secured its website. The company recommends those who had used Google DNS to switch to Cloudflare’s. Wikipedia, country-specific versions of Microsoft, Google and PayPal and even banks have been hit by similar attacks before. An incident like this doesn’t compromise the site directly, but, in the case of MEW, it led some users of the service to insecure websites that aren’t MEW. From there, those who entered private key information without realizing they had been phished risked having their data snagged by the attackers on the other side. With that information, the attackers could gain access to their account and drain its contents. (Note: this is a very good reason why people are advised to never enter private keys manually, and why secure hardware is highly recommended.) It’s hard to quantify the impact of an attack like this because MEW is such a well-used and trusted service, while MEW said it is still gathering information on exactly what happened. Coindesk reports that $150,000, or 216 Ether, was taken, but the figure is likely higher. One fraud tracker identified two wallets (here and here) used in the attack, and they lead to what looks like a holding wallet (here) that collected over 520 Ether today. That would be around $365,000 at today’s price of $700 per ETH. The actual amount taken could be higher still. The holding wallet leads to a larger wallet which has a balance of over $17 million in Ether and a constant stream of incoming transactions. That’s not to say that $17 million was stolen — that isn’t likely — but the attackers could be using other wallets which haven’t yet been tracked but eventually lead to this larger one. Beyond using hardware like Trezor or Ledger, crypto wallet users — well, internet users in general — should check that the SSL of a website (shown to the left of the domain name in the browser bar) is secure when they are dealing with private information. That’s the message that MEW gave to its community. “Users, PLEASE ENSURE there is a green bar SSL certificate that says “MyEtherWallet Inc” before making any transactions. We advise users to run a local (offline) copy of the MEW (MyEtherWallet). We urge users to use hardware wallets to store their cryptocurrencies,” it said in a Reddit statement. Those looking for an alternative to MEW could turn to MyCrypto, which was started in February by a former MEW co-founder and offers a similar service. Neither site holds users’ crypto or information, instead they allow the checking of accounts and enable transactions to be sent to the blockchain, after which they are ferried on to the intended recipient. Disclosure: The author owns a small amount of cryptocurrency. Enough to gain an understanding, not enough to change a life.

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posted about 24 hours ago on techcrunch
Groupon founder Andrew Mason’s audio tour startup Detour has been sold to Bose. The acquisition, which involves only the software and tour content – not the team – was quietly announced on Detour’s blog a few days ago, followed by an email to customers. Bose, initially, seems like an unlikely acquirer for an app designed to help people discover a city through narrated walking tours. But its interest in the product has to do with its upcoming AR platform, which involves audio experiences delivered through a pair of sensor-laden glasses. Bose is now “actively looking for a partner to host the Detour content,” and make it available to its customers, including those on Bose AR.  The Detour app itself will soon shut down. Mason says he may help Bose a bit in the process of finding that third party, but his focus is on his new company, Descript. Detour had launched a few years ago, and was entirely self-funded by Mason. Its goal was to offer tourists and locals alike a way to discover a city’s hidden gems, like its off-the-beaten-track shops and alleys – things other tours would overlook. The service arrived to the public with tours in San Francisco starting in 2015, before later expanding to other markets, including international destinations, all available as in-app purchases. The app, at the time of sale, had around 120 available tours. A tour of the Marina’s sweets shops in Detour, narrated by a German philosopher As part of the creation of its tours, Detour had also developed some interesting technology – like a tool to transcribe audio that lets you edit the audio file by editing the written transcription, and a way to add music and sound to a narrative by adding it to the transcription. This technology has now been spun off as a new startup, Descript. The Detour team, including Mason, have been working on Descript for around six months now. Descript, which aims to make editing sound files as easy as editing a Word document, launched in December with $5 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz. Given Mason’s current focus, it’s not surprising that Detour was shutting down. But it is a little surprising it found an acquirer. The app was never able to gain a sizable following on the scale of other travel guides. (It had been ranking in the 400’s to 700’s in the App Store’s “Travel” category as of late – meaning, practically invisible.) However, its tours were unique and interesting and had been designed with features others at the time lacked – like location awareness or the ability to sync with multiple people in a group, for example. The Detour app will remain available until May 31, 2018, and all tours will be free through then. Afterwards, the app will be removed from the App Store. “Thank you to the producers, engineers, designers, and storytellers that made Detour what it is over the last four years. I’m excited to see where Bose takes it,” wrote Mason, on Detour’s blog. Pitchbook claims Detour had raised funding, but Mason says that’s incorrect. “Detour is self-funded (by me) and we never disclosed how much,” he says. But he did confirm that Mihir Shah, a friend, had invested a “some token number of thousands of dollars in the very beginning,” which is why the investment is listed on Shah’s LinkedIn. Deal terms were not available, but it was likely a small exit. It’s unclear when Detour would arrive on Bose AR, as Bose is still in the process of finding a third party to continue with Detour, and hasn’t yet shipped test builds of its AR glasses to developers.

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posted about 24 hours ago on techcrunch
Instacart has revamped its checkout process to make it easier for customers to leave better tips. Now, Instacart suggests a 5 percent default tip. If someone wants to leave more, or less, there are still options to tip nothing at all, 10 percent, 15 percent, 20 percent and other amounts. Instacart has had a rocky relationship over the years with its drivers and shoppers. In 2016, Instacart removed the option to tip in favor of guaranteeing higher delivery commissions. About a month later, following pressure from shoppers, the company reintroduced tipping. “After announcing this change, we heard a lot of feedback from our shopper community,” the company said in a blog post at the time. “While our shoppers liked most of the changes, they did not like the fact that we were removing tips from our online platform. Taking that feedback into account, we have decided to continue to accept tips as part of this change.” In addition to putting tips more front and center, Instacart also changed its service fee from a 10 percent waivable fee to a 5 percent fixed fee. Just earlier this month, Instacart raised $150 million in funding, valuing the company at $4.35 billion.

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posted about 24 hours ago on techcrunch
The developer-centric communications platform Twilio today announced that it has added support for line to Twilio Channels. With this, Twilio developers now have the ability to reach users on this service, which has 168 million monthly active users, most of which live in Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and Indonesia. Line support in Twilio Channels is currently in beta but open to all developers who want to give it a try. With this, Twilio Channels, which allows for sending and receiving messages, now supports many of the most popular messaging platforms, ranging from Facebook Messenger and Slack to WeChat, Kik and the new RCS text messaging standard. Missing from this list are the likes of WhatsApp and SnapChat, though they don’t have APIs that Twilio could easily integrate. Unsurprisingly, the Line support also extends to Twilio Studio, the company’s drag-and-drop app builder, and Flex, Twilio’s recently announced contact center solution. “The most successful organizations realize that delivering a seamless, elegant experience for customers on their preferred channels is a way to differentiate,” said Patrick Malatack, Vice President and General Manager of Messaging at Twilio in today’s announcement. “When developers use Twilio to build these experiences – they trust that they will be able to use one API, now and in the future, to support the communication channels their customers want to use. We are thrilled to add support for LINE to the Twilio platform and can’t wait to see what our customers build.”

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posted about 24 hours ago on techcrunch
Two weeks ago TechCrunch called on Instagram to build an equivalent to Facebook’s “Download Your Information feature so if you wanted to leave for another photo sharing network, you could. The next day it announced this tool would be coming and now TechCrunch has spotted it rolling out to users. Instagram’s “Data Download” feature can be accessed here or through the app’s privacy settings. It lets users export their photos, videos, Stories, profile, info, comments, and messages, though it can take a few hours to days for your download to be ready. An Instagram spokesperson now confirms to TechCrunch that “the Data Download tool is currently accessible to everyone on the web, but access via iOS and Android is still rolling out.” We’ll have more details on exactly what’s inside once my download is ready. The tool’s launch is necessary for Instagram to comply with the data portability rule in European Union’s GDPR privacy law that goes into effect on May 25th. But it’s also a reasonable concession. Instagram has become the dominant image sharing social network with over 800 million users. It shouldn’t need to lock up users’ data in order to keep them around. Instagram traps data without a Download Your Information tool Instagram hasn’t been afraid to attack competitors and fight dirty. Most famously, it copied Snapchat’s Stories in August 2016, which now has over 300 million daily users — eclipsing the original. But it also cut off GIF-making app Phhhoto from its Find Friends feature, then swiftly cloned its core feature to launch Instagram Boomerang. Within a few years, Phhhoto had shut down its app. If Instagram is going to ruthlessly clone and box out its competitors, it should also let users choose which they want to use. That’s tough if all your photos and videos are trapped inside another app. The tool could create a more level playing field for competition amongst photo apps. It could also deter users from using sketchy third-party apps to scrape all their Instagram content. Since they typically require you to log in with your Instagram credentials, these put users at risk of being hacked or having their images used elsewhere without their consent. Considering Facebook launched its DYI tool in 2010, six years after the site launched, the fact that it took Instagram 8 years from launch to build this means it’s long overdue. But with such strong network effect and its willingness to clone any popular potential rival, it may still take a miracle or a massive shift to a new computing platform for any app to dethrone Instagram.

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posted 1 day ago on techcrunch
In February, Amazon announced it would begin to deliver from Whole Foods markets via its Prime Now service, which offers free, two-hour deliveries for purchases over $35 and even faster, one-hour delivery for an upcharge of $7.99. The service was initially available in only four markets – Austin, Cincinnati, Dallas and Virginia Beach, however. Today, Amazon is expanding Whole Foods deliveries to Denver, Sacramento, and San Diego. The choice of Denver as one of the earlier markets to receive the option is interesting, given that the city has been a test market for Walmart’s online grocery efforts for years. In fact, it was the first to offer a grocery pickup option back in 2014. Grocery pickup is now available at over 1,200 Walmart U.S. stores, and Walmart’s grocery delivery is expected to reach 100 markets by year-end. Walmart also announced today it’s now working with DoorDash as a delivery partner in Atlanta, which joins Walmart’s longtime partners on grocery delivery, Uber and Deliv.  Though Walmart has been working in online grocery for years, Amazon is scaling up fast. Walmart says it will reach over 40 percent of U.S. households via its expansion this year, but it was only offering delivery in six markets as of March. Amazon’s Whole Foods deliveries, with today’s news, is live in ten markets. This includes its other recent expansions to Atlanta, San Francisco, and L.A. If it continues to expand across Prime Now’s footprint, it would reach dozens of major metros nationwide. As before, Prime Now shoppers can place their Whole Foods orders for delivery between 8 AM to 10 PM. The product selection includes thousands of fresh and organic produce, bakery, dairy, meat and seafood, floral and everyday staples. In Sacramento and San Diego, Whole Foods can also deliver alcohol through Prime Now. “We’ve been delighted with the customer response to free two-hour delivery through Prime Now, and we’re excited to bring the service to our customers in Denver, Sacramento and San Diego,” said Christina Minardi, Whole Foods Market Executive Vice President of Operations, in a statement. “Today’s announcement is another way that we are continuing to expand access to our high-quality products and locally-sourced favorites.” Whole Foods is only one option for some of Prime Now’s markets, as the service also partners with other local stores like Sprouts, Fresh Thyme, New Season Market, and others. Amazon also operates AmazonFresh, a grocery delivery service available in parts of the U.S.

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