posted 6 days ago on techcrunch
I’ll be helping build a larger meetup focused on pre-ICO companies in New York on April 23 and I’d love to see you there. It will be held at Knotel on April 23 at 7pm and will feature a pitch-off with eight startups  and two panels with some yet-unnamed stars in the space. Let’s get together and talk about the hottest – and most controversial – topic in investing. I’d love to see you there, so please sign up here. Early bird tickets are sold out and the regular tickets are going fast. The event will be held at 551 Fifth Avenue on the 9th Floor and you can sign up to pitch here. This is still an experimental format and industry so let’s see how it works.

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Amazon this morning is introducing “Alexa Blueprints,” a new way for any Alexa owner to create their own customized Alexa skills or responses, without needing to know how to code. The idea is to allow Alexa owners to create their own voice apps, like a trivia game or bedtime stories, or teach Alexa to respond to questions with answers they design – like “Who’s the best mom in the world?,” for example. You could also create a skill that includes helpful information for the babysitter, which could be triggered by the command, “Alexa, open My Sitter,” Amazon suggests. “Alexa Skill Blueprints is an entirely new way for you to teach Alexa personalized skills just for you and your family,” explained Steve Rabuchin, Vice President, Amazon Alexa, in a statement about the launch. “You don’t need experience building skills or coding to get started—my family created our own jokes skill in a matter of minutes, and it’s been a blast to interact with Alexa in a totally new and personal way.” To build your own skill or custom Alexa response, users will visit the website blueprints.amazon.com and select a template. At launch, there are over 20 templates across categories like Fun & Games, At Home, Storyteller, and Learning & Knowledge. The templates are designed so you can just fill in the bits and pieces that make them personalized to your needs. You won’t need to go through a series of complicated steps, and no technical knowledge is required. The templates are even pre-filled and work as is, if you just want to try them out before making your own. After you’ve filled in your own content, you name it and publish with a click. This makes the skill or response available to all Alexa-enabled devices associated with your own Amazon account. But it’s not available to the public or the Alexa Skills Store. Families with Echo devices, in particular, seem to be a heavy focus for Alexa Blueprints. Kids have readily taken to Alexa, and today there are nearly 500 public Alexa skills built for kids alone. Families also often have private jokes and bedtime rituals where Alexa could come in – offering to “tell a Dad joke” or “start Anna’s story,” for instance. Plus, Alexa is designed as a home companion – controlling smart devices, playing music, setting timers, and offering information like news and weather, among other things. But families aren’t the only ones would could take advantage of Alexa Blueprints. College students could use the flash cards custom skill when studying, while a group of friends or roommates could design their own trivia games. And Airbnb owners could set up a skill for their houseguests. After you’ve created the custom skill, it will be available in the Skills You’ve Made webpage on the Blueprints site. You’ll also be able to enable, disable and delete your skills. The feature could give Amazon an edge in selling its Echo speakers to consumers, as it’s now the only platform offering this level of customization – Apple’s HomePod is really designed for music lovers, and doesn’t support third-party apps. Google Home also doesn’t offer this type of customization. All three are competing to be the voice assistant people use in their home, but Alexa so far is leading by a wide margin – it still has roughly 70 percent of the smart speaker market. Alexa Blueprints are available today in the U.S. only. The full list of Alexa Blueprints available at launch is below: At Home Custom Q&A: Customize responses to your questions Houseguest: Make your guests feel at home with quick access to important info Babysitter: Help your sitter find things, remember steps and get important info Pet Sitter: Help your pet sitter care for your favorite animal Fun & Games Family Jokes: Create a list of your favorite jokes for when you need a laugh Trivia: Create your own multiple choice trivia game on any topic Inspirations: Curate a list of your favorite inspirational quotes Family Trivia: Play together and brush up on family history Bachelorette Party: Play to find out how well the bride’s friends know her Birthday Trivia: Play to see who knows the birthday girl or boy best Burns: Roast your friends and family with lighthearted burns Compliments: Flatter your favorites with a list of custom compliments Double Trouble: Find out which couple knows each other best with this customizable game First Letter: Play a game of categories starting with a certain letter Storyteller Adventure: Write an adventure story where your child is the hero Fairy Tale: Customize an interactive prince and princess-themed tale Sci-Fi: Create an interactive story with a far-out theme Fable: Create a short narrative with a moral of the story Learning & Knowledge Flash Cards: Study, test yourself, and master any subject by voice Facts: Keep a list of facts on your favorite topic, all in one place Quiz: Challenge yourself and others with a customizable quiz

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Uber has denied that its sitting CTO, Thuan Pham, met with Cambridge Analytica — the controversial political consultancy at the center of a Facebook user data misuse scandal. But it has not been able to confirm that no meetings between anyone else on its payroll and Cambridge Analytica took place. “I’m not sure who they think they met with, but I can confirm our CTO never met with them and we don’t have a relationship with them,” an Uber spokeswoman told us. Giving evidence to the UK parliament earlier this week, former Cambridge Analytica staffer, Brittany Kaiser, had claimed that CA executives met with the Uber CTO in the past two years. Although she did not explicitly name Pham — just citing the CTO job title. The UK parliament’s DCMS committee is running an enquiry into disinformation online. Asked by the committee whether she had ever come across Uber data being used for any of the political campaigns that CA worked on, Kaiser replied “no”. However she qualified her answer, adding: “Although Cambridge Analytica definitely had meetings with the CTO of Uber in California — about 1.5 to 2 years ago.  “I don’t believe anything came of that but a conversation was had,” she also said. The committee did not query her on the intent of the meetings with Uber — although later she was asked if she’d had any contacts with other “big data companies”, including Google. Responding on that Kaiser confirmed she had had contacts with “Microsoft, Google and a few other companies of that nature, and Facebook” — though she said this was only in a standard business capacity, noting that CA was a client “purchasing digital advertising space through them”. On Facebook she added: “They had two different political teams in the United States — so they had their Republican team and their Democrat team, who usually inhabited separate offices on separate floors. My consultants in Washington DC would work closely with the Republican team on how we would use their tools to the best benefit for our clients.” Last month the committee also asked another ex-CA employee, whistleblower Chris Wylie, whether the company had access to Uber data — apparently concerned that a 2016 Uber data breach, affecting 57 million riders and drivers (which the company only disclosed in November last year) could have been another data source for CA. “To my knowledge Cambridge Analytica has not used Uber data,” responded Wylie. Uber told Congress last year that one of the hackers behind the 2016 breach was located in Canada — and that this hacker had first contacted it in November 2016 to demand a six-figure payment for the breached data. Also located in Canada: Aggregate IQ, a data firm that has been linked to CA — which Wylie has described as the Canadian affiliate of CA’s parent entity, SCL — and which has been credited with playing a major role in the UK’s brexit referendum, receiving £3.5M from leave campaign groups in the run up to the 2016 referendum. (AIQ has denied it has ever been a part of Cambridge Analytica or SCL.) The question of where this small Canadian firm obtained data on UK citizens to carry out microtargeted political advertising has been another line of enquiry pursued by the committee. “[W]here did [AggregateIQ] get the data?” queried Wylie last month in his evidence session, discussing AIQ’s involvement in the UK’s Brexit campaign. “How do you create a massive targeting operation in a country that AIQ had not previously worked in in two months? It baffles me as to how that could happen in such a short amount of time. “That is a good question. It is unfortunate that AIQ hides behind jurisdictional barriers and does not come here and answer those questions. But it is something that hopefully can be looked at as to how did it actually work.” Wylie has also alleged that AIQ “worked on projects that involved hacked material and kompromat” as well as distributing “violent videos of people being bled to death to intimidate voters”. “This is the company that played an incredibly pivotal role in politics here. Something that I would strongly recommend to the Committee is that they not only push the authorities here, but give them the support that they need in order to investigate this company and what they were doing in Brexit,” he added.

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The ongoing saga continues. Qualcomm has once again postponed the deadline for completing its proposed acquisition of NXP following concerns voiced by the Ministry of Commerce in China. The deal was first announced in October 2016 and things seemed to be progressing when Qualcomm raised its offer this past January to take the value of the deal from $38 billion to $44 billion. The company sought to close the transaction by April 25, but that has now been extended to July 26 as Qualcomm has been forced to refile for approval in China. The deal is critical for Qualcomm in order to diversify its business beyond mobile and its traditional licensing model, and NXP has been identified as a must-buy thanks to its strong footprint in automotive and other growth segments. Yet despite approval from the Federal Trade Commission, which Qualcomm pointed out has now been renewed, things could get a little complicated given the ongoing trade war between the U.S. and China. Over the past month, President Trump announced trade tariffs on about $60 billion of Chinese goods, a sizeable chunk of which are the within the high-tech industry. Deals-wise, the Trump administration countered Alibaba’s attempt to buy MoneyGram for $1.2 billion (despite Jack Ma cozying up to Trump ahead of time) and it also shot down Broadcom’s efforts to acquire Qualcomm on account of national security, with Qualcomm itself keen on chopping the deal. The U.S. has also made strong moves against Chinese equipment makers, again in the name of security. Huawei has reluctantly backed off the U.S. market after losing out on previously arranged carrier deals, while this week the government banned U.S. companies from selling components to ZTE. All of this activity raises the possibility that China may use the Qualcomm-NXP deal to strike back. Comments from the Chinese ministry —  reported by the FT — doesn’t exactly pour cold water on that scenario. “This deal has a wide influence, and may have a negative impact on market competition,” a ministry spokesman said, adding that “an initial investigation shows Qualcomm’s plan cannot easily solve the problems relating to market competition.” Qualcomm has suffered problems in China before. Two years ago it was fined nearly $1 billion for alleged anti-competitive practices. The company has since signed deals with a range of Chinese phone makers that include Xiaomi, Lenovo, Oppo and Vivo, but this time it needs the government’s full buy-in. This issue isn’t new but Qualcomm’s move to refile shows it is very real. TechCrunch’s Danny Crichton explored China’s role in Qualcomm-NXP last month, ultimately concluding that the deal may well be passed but with concessions that further China’s own semiconductor ambitions: Ultimately, I predict the NXP transaction to be approved. For all of the trade negotiations and complex strategies going on here, China needs to be seen as a place open to doing business, now more than ever as its trade practices are placed in the spotlight. However, that doesn’t mean it won’t exact serious concessions from Qualcomm, which could further erode the company’s revenues and standing in China. It’s going to be a pivotal couple of months for Qualcomm.

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2018 is the year that smartphone usage eclipses time spent watching TV in China and it’s all down to the growth of digital video platforms, according to a new report from eMarketer. You’d be forgiven for thinking that this had already happened in China, which happens to be the world’s largest smartphone market, but eMarketer forecasts that the momentous moment is about to arrive. According to the report, the average adult in China is set to spend 2 hours and 39 minutes per day on a mobile device this year, up 11.1 percent on 2017. Watching TV, meanwhile, is set to fall by two percent to reach 2 hours 32 minutes daily. eMarketer said that the growth of digital video services is “a key driver” in this change. The company forecasts that online video time per day will leap 26 percent year-on-year to reach 58 minutes per adult on average. It is further predicting that by 2020 China’s adult population will spend one-third of their time online watching videos. The signs have been pointing to digital media’s charge in China for some time, with the country’s top firms putting considerable cash behind the leading players. Alibaba acquired Youku Tudou in a 2015 deal that valued the YouTube-like service at $4.6 billion, while rival Tencent has its own ‘Tencent Video’ service and Baidu — the third part of China’s traditional tech power trio — incubated video service iQiyi before taking it public in a U.S. IPO that raised $1.5 billion earlier this year. All three of these streaming platforms combine user-generated video with produced series, some of which comes from Netflix. Beyond those three, there are also vertical focused video services which include animation platform Bilibili (which just went public in the U.S.), live-video platforms such as Tencent-backed Kuaishou, and Chushou, which focuses on e-sports and landed investment from Google earlier this year. Video may be the key driver, but it is far from the only reason that keeps Chinese people glued to their phones. Chat app WeChat is the stickest of all mobile apps in China. It claims to have over 900 million active users who send 38 billion messages and over 205 million phone calls via the app each day. WeChat also includes offline payments which are another major use for smartphones in China. Alongside WeChat Pay, Alibaba’s Alipay claims over 520 million users who use its service instead of cards or cash when paying for goods. Ant Financial, Alipay’s parent company, is being tipped to raise $9 billion in new funding at a valuation that could reach as high as $150 billion. Hat tip @sirsteven

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Facebook has another change in the works to respond to the European Union’s beefed up data protection framework — and this one looks intended to shrink its legal liabilities under GDPR, and at scale. Late yesterday Reuters reported on a change incoming to Facebook’s T&Cs that it said will be pushed out next month — meaning all non-EU international are switched from having their data processed by Facebook Ireland to Facebook USA. With this shift, Facebook will ensure that the privacy protections afforded by the EU’s incoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — which applies from May 25 — will not cover the ~1.5BN+ international Facebook users who aren’t EU citizens (but current have their data processed in the EU, by Facebook Ireland). The U.S. does not have a comparable data protection framework to GDPR. While the incoming EU framework substantially strengthens penalties for data protection violations, making the move a pretty logical one for Facebook’s lawyers thinking about how it can shrink its GDPR liabilities. Reuters says Facebook confirmed the change to it, though the company played down the significance — repeating its claim that it will be making the same privacy “controls and settings” available everywhere. (Though, as has been previously pointed out, this does not mean the same GDPR principles will be applied by Facebook everywhere.) At the time of writing Facebook had not responded to a request for comment on the change. Critics have couched the T&Cs shift as regressive — arguing it’s a reduction in the level of privacy protection that would otherwise have applied for international users, thanks to GDPR. Although whether these EU privacy rights would really have been enforceable for non-Europeans is questionable. According to Reuters the T&Cs shift will affect more than 70 per cent of Facebook’s 2BN+ users. As of December, Facebook had 239M users in the US and Canada; 370M in Europe; and 1.52BN users elsewhere. It also reports that Microsoft -owned LinkedIn is one of several other multinational companies planning to make the same data processing shift for international users — with LinkedIn’s new terms set to take effect on May 8, moving non-Europeans to contracts with the U.S.-based LinkedIn Corp. In a statement to Reuters about the change LinkedIn also played it down, saying: “We’ve simply streamlined the contract location to ensure all members understand the LinkedIn entity responsible for their personal data.” One interesting question is whether these sorts of data processing shifts could encourage regulators in international regions outside the EU to push for a similarly extraterritorial scope for their data protection laws — or face their citizens’ data falling between the jurisdiction cracks via processing arrangements designed to shrink companies’ legal liabilities. Interesting example of Delaware effect, however if other jurisdictions are smart they will have their own art 3 GDPR, that would be Brussels effect. Be sure the lobbying has started. Now if ever we need thinkers (who are also doers) like @linnetelwin — Mireille Hildebrandt (@mireillemoret) April 19, 2018 Another interesting question is how Facebook (or any other multinationals making the same shift) can be entirely sure it’s not risking violating any of its EU users’ fundamental rights if it accidentally misclassifies an individual as an non-EU international users — and processes their data via Facebook USA. Keeping data processing processes properly segmented can be difficult. As can definitively identifying a user’s legal jurisdiction based on their location (if that’s even available). So while Facebook’s T&C change here looks intended to shrink its legal liabilities under GDPR, it’s possible the change will open up another front for individuals to pursue strategic litigation in the coming months.

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Netflix is introducing its own take on Snapchat and Instagram stories after it began to roll out 30-second preview videos for mobile viewers. The previews look much like Stories because the thumbnails are circular and the content plays with virtual videos, so there’s no need to move your phone to the side. Added to that, they play like a slideshow, allowing users to swipe or tap to skip to the next video without returning to the main screen. Shows that appeal can be stored for later viewing with a button that adds them to your list. The feature is hitting the Netflix iOS app from today, and the company said it will be “coming soon” to Android. The launch is long-awaited. Netflix began offering previews on the web and via its TV app, and the company said the new feature will help those who tune in via their phone to find more content to watch. “Years of testing has made it clear that video previews help our members browse less and discover new content more quickly. With the launch of mobile previews, we are bringing a video browse experience to your mobile phone in a fun and mobile-optimized way,” the company explained in a blog post. Netflix is on a run of late, with the company closing in on a $150 billion market cap thanks to growing subscriber numbers. The company added 7.41 million new subscribers in the first quarter of 2018 — around two million of which were U.S.-based — and it has forecast an additional 6.2 million more joining in the next quarter. That means the company has nearly 119 million customers, as its huge international expansion from two years ago begins to kick in. The company also continues to see some pretty strong streaming revenue growth. Total sales hit $3.6 billion in Q1, up around 43 percent year-on-year.

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Prenetics, a Hong Kong-based startup that offers genetic testing services for patients, is expanding outside of Asia and into the consumer space after it acquired London-based company DNAFit. The deal — which a source told TechCrunch is worth $10 million — not only sees Prenetics enter new geographies, but also expand the scope of its services. Prenetics, which includes Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba among its backers, works directly with insurance firms and physicians who use its testing service for their customers and patients, but DNAFit goes straight to consumers themselves. Five-year-old DNAFit sells a test that profiles an individual’s DNA to help them to figure out the fitness and nutrition setup that is best suited to them. DNAFit’s kits — which cost up to £249 ($350) and take 10 days for results — are sold online and via employee packages. The company said it has sold its product to around 100,000 people with companies including LinkedIn, Talk Talk and Channel 4 among its corporate clients. High-profile backers include Olympic gold medal-winning British athlete Greg Rutherford, who said the results helped him make “clear, informed decisions” on his training regime. Prenetics has been considering global expansion options for some time, and this acquisition gets its foot in the door in new markets while also tackling the consumer health market, too. “We definitely plan on investing and growing our reach in Europe for the DNAFit business. In addition, Prenetics International will be focused on a B2B with insurers and for corporates,” Prenetics CEO Danny Yeung told TechCrunch via email. “At the same time, DNAFit is a partner for [fitness company] Helix in the U.S., thus we plan on investing further on customer acquisition and growing our reach in the U.S.,” Yeung added. “We are extremely excited at the potential to bring DNA testing to a global market, making an impact on the lives of many.” In another tie-up primarily targeted at the U.S., an offer for 23andMe customers allows them to use their results and pay $79 for DNAFit. The deal sees DNAFit CEO Avi Lasarow becomes CEO of Prenetics International, a newly formed business unit, with Yeung CEO of parent company Prenetics Group. DNAFit itself will continue to run under its existing brand, both companies confirmed. This marks the first piece of acquisition for Prenetics, which last year closed a $40 million Series B funding round led by Beyond Ventures and Alibaba Hong Kong Entrepreneurs Fund. Yeung told us at the time that a portion of that capital would be reserved for meaningful acquisitions as the startup aims to go beyond its early focus on China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. At the time of that funding, which happened in October, Yeung said Prenetics had processed 200,000 DNA samples. Prenetics started out as ‘Multigene’ in 2009 when it span out from Hong Kong’s City University. Yeung joined the firm as CEO in 2014, after leaving Groupon following its acquisition of his Hong Kong startup uBuyiBuy, and it has been in startup mode since then. Prenetics has raised over $52 million from investors which, aside from Alibaba, include 500 Startups, Venturra Capital and Chinese insurance giant Ping An.

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Facebook has posted a job opening looking for an expert in ASIC and FPGA, two custom silicon designs that companies can gear toward specific use cases — particularly in machine learning and artificial intelligence. There’s been a lot of speculation in the valley as to what Facebook’s interpretation of custom silicon might be, especially as it looks to optimize its machine learning tools — something that CEO Mark Zuckerberg referred to as a potential solution for identifying misinformation on Facebook using AI. The whispers of Facebook’s customized hardware range depending on who you talk to, but generally center around operating on the massive graph Facebook possesses around personal data. Most in the industry speculate that it’s being optimized for Caffe2, an AI infrastructure deployed at Facebook, that would help it tackle those kinds of complex problems. FPGA is designed to be a more flexible and modular design, which is being championed by Intel as a way to offer the ability to adapt to a changing machine learning-driven landscape. The downside that’s commonly cited when referring to FPGA is that it is a niche piece of hardware that is complex to calibrate and modify, as well as expensive, making it less of a cover-all solution for machine learning projects. ASIC is similarly a customized piece of silicon that a company can gear toward something specific, like mining cryptocurrency. Facebook’s director of AI research tweeted about the job posting this morning, noting that he previously worked in chip design: Interested in designing ASIC & FPGA for AI?Design engineer positions are available at Facebook in Menlo Park. I used to be a chip designer many moons ago: my engineering diploma was in Electrical… https://t.co/D4l9kLpIlV — Yann LeCun (@ylecun) April 18, 2018 While the whispers grow louder and louder about Facebook’s potential hardware efforts, this does seem to serve as at least another partial data point that the company is looking to dive deep into custom hardware to deal with its AI problems. That would mostly exist on the server side, though Facebook is looking into other devices like a smart speaker. Given the immense amount of data Facebook has, it would make sense that the company would look into customized hardware rather than use off-the-shelf components like those from Nvidia. (The wildest rumor we’ve heard about Facebook’s approach is that it’s a diurnal system, flipping between machine training and inference depending on the time of day and whether people are, well, asleep in that region.) Most of the other large players have found themselves looking into their own customized hardware. Google has its TPU for its own operations, while Amazon is also reportedly working on chips for both training and inference. Apple, too, is reportedly working on its own silicon, which could potentially rip Intel out of its line of computers. Microsoft is also diving into FPGA as a potential approach for machine learning problems. Still, that it’s looking into ASIC and FPGA does seem to be just that — dipping toes into the water for FPGA and ASIC. Nvidia has a lot of control over the AI space with its GPU technology, which it can optimize for popular AI frameworks like TensorFlow. And there are also a large number of very well-funded startups exploring customized AI hardware, including Cerebras Systems, SambaNova Systems, Mythic, and Graphcore (and that isn’t even getting into the large amount of activity coming out of China). So there are, to be sure, a lot of different interpretations as to what this looks like. One significant problem Facebook may face is that this job opening may just sit up in perpetuity. Another common criticism of FPGA as a solution is that it is hard to find developers that specialize in FPGA. While these kinds of problems are becoming much more interesting, it’s not clear if this is more of an experiment than Facebook’s full all-in on custom hardware for its operations. But nonetheless, this seems like more confirmation of Facebook’s custom hardware ambitions, and another piece of validation that Facebook’s data set is becoming so increasingly large that if it hopes to tackle complex AI problems like misinformation, it’s going to have to figure out how to create some kind of specialized hardware to actually deal with it. A representative from Facebook did not yet return a request for comment.

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After taking them down to investigate what it called a “cybersecurity incident,” TaskRabbit’s website and app are back online. The Ikea-owned platform for on-demand labor also posted an update from its chief executive officer Stacy Brown-Philpot about the incident. “While our investigation is ongoing, preliminary evidence shows that an unauthorized user gained access to our systems. As a result, certain personally identifiable information may have been compromised,” she wrote. While Brown-Philpot said that an outside forensics team is currently working to identify what information was compromised and will notify all affected users, she urged the platform’s customers and providers, called “taskers,” to monitor online accounts for suspicious activity and change passwords if they used the same login information on other services. TaskRabbit will add several new security measures because of the incident. Brown-Philpot said they are working on ways to make their login process more secure, reduce the amount of data retained about customers and taskers and “enhance overall network cyber threat detection technology.” The company will continue posting updates to a dedicated page on its website, which also includes a FAQ for taskers who were unable to complete jobs while the app was offline. TaskRabbit says people who were forced to reschedule or cancel tasks will be compensated.

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ZTE will postpone the release of its quarterly earnings report after the United States government banned American companies from selling goods to the Chinese telecom and smartphone maker. In a filing with the Hong Kong stock exchange, ZTE said that its earnings report, originally set to be released on Thursday, is now delayed to an undetermined date. About a year ago, ZTE pleaded guilty to violating U.S. sanctions against Iran and North Korea. Its deal with the U.S. government included penalties and fines totaling more than a billion dollars, but allowed it to continue doing business with U.S. suppliers. On Monday, however, the U.S. Department of Commerce announced that ZTE had failed to follow the agreement’s terms. It accused the company of making false statements and failing to punish employees and senior management. As a result, the Department of Commerce slapped ZTE with a seven-year export restriction. This is a huge blow to ZTE, which sources a significant portion of its most important components, including processors, from U.S. companies like Qualcomm . It also means ZTE may lose access to software licensed from Google, including Android. This is the latest in ZTE’s string of entanglements with the U.S. government. Despite holding fourth place in the U.S. smartphone market share, after Samsung, Apple and LG, ZTE is under scrutiny by U.S. intelligence agencies, which believe that it and fellow Chinese smartphone maker Huawei may pose security concerns.

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After a report by Reveal suggested that Tesla was underreporting workplace injuries at its Fremont plant, Tesla responded with a blog post calling the report “completely false” and pinning it all up as a “calculated disinformation campaign.” Now California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (otherwise known as Cal/OSHA) is looking into things at the factory. As first noted by Bloomberg, the agency won’t give specifics on why it’s looking into Tesla — but in a comment sent our way, they start off by mentioning the aforementioned report. Here’s the statement sent to us by Cal/OSHA spokesperson Erika Monterroza: Cal/OSHA takes seriously reports of workplace hazards and allegations of employers’ underreporting recordable work-related injuries and illnesses on the Log 300. Cal/OSHA currently has an open inspection at Tesla. While we do not disclose details of open inspections, Cal/OSHA’s inspections typically include a review of the employer’s Log 300, as well as a review to ensure that serious injuries are reported directly to Cal/OSHA within eight hours as required by law. Cal/OSHA’s regulations define a serious injury or illness as one that requires employee hospitalization for more than 24 hours for other than medical observation, or in which a part of the body is lost or permanent disfigurement occurs. The “Log 300” mentioned here is part of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which requires employers with ten or more full time employees to report any serious workplace-related injury or illness, keeping said records for five years. In a statement to Jalopnik regarding the investigation, Tesla notes that “Cal-OSHA is required to investigate any claims that are made, regardless of whether they have merit or are baseless (as we believe these are),” but that they’d be providing their “full cooperation” We’ve reached out to Tesla for additional comment, but the company had not responded at the time of publishing. We’ll update this post if we hear back.

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Getting to space is already tough, but getting there on short notice and then doing it again a couple weeks later? That’s a big ask. Nevertheless, DARPA is asking it as part of its Launch Challenge, announced today at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado. Teams must take a payload to space with only days to prepare, then do it again soon after — if they want to win the $10M grand prize. The idea is to nurture small space companies under what DARPA envisions as the future of launch conditions in both commercial and military situations. The ability to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances or fail gracefully if not will be critical in the launch ecosystem of the near future. Here’s how it will go down. First, teams will have to pre-qualify to show they have the chops to execute this kind of task via a written explanation of their capabilities and the acquisition of a license to launch. Qualifying teams will be rewarded with $400,000 each. Once a set of teams is established (applications close in December), DARPA will bide its time… and then spring the launches on them sometime in the second half of 2019. How big is the payload? Does it need to be powered? Cooled? Does it need or provide data? All this will be a mystery until mere weeks before launch. For comparison, most launches are planned for years and only finalized months before the day. DARPA will, however, provide an “example orbit” earlier in 2019 so you have a general idea of what to expect. Teams won’t even know where they’re launching from until just before. “Competitors should assume any current or future FAA-licensed spaceport may be used. Launch site services are planned to be austere — primarily a concrete pad with bolt-down fixtures and generator or shore power.” Basically, be ready to rough it. Any team that successfully inserts the payload to the correct low-earth orbit will receive $2 million. But they won’t be able to rest on their laurels: the next launch, with similarly mysterious conditions, will take place within two weeks of the first. Teams that get their second payload into orbit correctly qualify for the grand prize — they’ll be ranked by “mass, time, and accuracy.” First place takes home $10M, second place $9M, and third place $8M. Not bad. More information will be available come May 23, when DARPA will host a meeting and Q&A. In the meantime, you can read the contest rules summary here (PDF), and if you happen to be a rocket scientist or the head of a commercial space outfit, you can register for the challenge here.

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iZettle, the startup out of Sweden that has been referred to as the Square of Europe, is today making a move that underscores its bigger strategy to build on its traction with small businesses in mobile payments, to expand into an ever-wider range of financial services to fill out its $950 million valuation. The company is launching a new e-commerce platform, where customers can build online inventory and check-out experiences either to complement the physical sales they are already making with iZettle itself, or as a standalone service as new customers to the company. The service is rolling out in Sweden and the U.K. first, with plans to extend to the rest of iZettle’s footprint in Europe and Latin America over the coming months. The idea is to provide a set of tools build and run shops quickly and easily for the same kinds of small businesses and sole traders that already use iZettle, or “Shopify simplified,” as iZettle’s founder and CEO Jacob DeGeer describes it. Pricing follows the same basic format as that of the company’s core mobile payments service. In the case of the UK, for example, DeGeer says iZettle takes a 1.75 percent fee for each transaction on its mobile payments, and the e-commerce product will come in at £29 per month plus 2.5 percent on each transaction. (Rates might vary depending on the market in question.) iZettle moving into e-commerce is not exactly a revolutionary idea. Square has been offering a Stripe-style online component to businesses since 2016, and of course companies like Shopify and Stripe and many others are also providing similar services. DeGeer says that iZettle’s service is differentiated and better because it follows on from iZettle’s belief that there have not been enough attention given to building products specifically for the small business person. “It’s a segment that is traditionally underserved,” he said. The same had been the case in card payments, where sole traders and small businesses were regularly not accepting cards simply because the cost of doing so was too high for them, a problem solved by turning ordinary smartphones and tablets into point of sale terminals with the help of a dongle. The same ethos appears to be applying here: for those who are already iZettle customers and running sales through the company’s platform, DeGeer said that they can bring their sales online with one click, and then all sales across both offline and online will be viewable in a single database. And why would customers add the online component? It’s potentially a way to, for example, facilitate online ordering ahead for a cafe, or for a jewellery vendor from a market or small shop to develop a web-based store — offerings that in the past would have been too costly or complicated for small businesses to create and integrate. For now, iZettle isn’t providing much in the way of fulfilment to its customers — one of the more compelling aspects of having a company like Amazon run and fulfil your online shops and subsequent distribution of goods — but DeGeer said that it “would listen” to what customers request, and potentially consider this down the line.

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Make no mistake: Fresh battle lines are being drawn in the clash between data-mining tech giants and Internet users over people’s right to control their personal information and protect their privacy. An update to European Union data protection rules next month — called the General Data Protection Regulation — is the catalyst for this next chapter in the global story of tech vs privacy. A fairytale ending would remove that ugly ‘vs’ and replace it with an enlightened ‘+’. But there’s no doubt it will be a battle to get there — requiring legal challenges and fresh case law to be set down — as an old guard of dominant tech platforms marshal their extensive resources to try to hold onto the power and wealth gained through years of riding roughshod over data protection law. Payback is coming though. Balance is being reset. And the implications of not regulating what tech giants can do with people’s data has arguably never been clearer. The exciting opportunity for startups is to skate to where the puck is going — by thinking beyond exploitative legacy business models that amount to embarrassing blackboxes whose CEOs dare not publicly admit what the systems really do — and come up with new ways of operating and monetizing services that don’t rely on selling the lie that people don’t care about privacy.   More than just small print Right now the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation can take credit for a whole lot of spilt ink as tech industry small print is reworded en masse. Did you just receive a T&C update notification about a company’s digital service? Chances are it’s related to the incoming standard. The regulation is generally intended to strengthen Internet users’ control over their personal information, as we’ve explained before. But its focus on transparency — making sure people know how and why data will flow if they choose to click ‘I agree’ — combined with supersized fines for major data violations represents something of an existential threat to ad tech processes that rely on pervasive background harvesting of users’ personal data to be siphoned biofuel for their vast, proprietary microtargeting engines. This is why Facebook is not going gentle into a data processing goodnight. Indeed, it’s seizing on GDPR as a PR opportunity — shamelessly stamping its brand on the regulatory changes it lobbied so hard against, including by taking out full page print ads in newspapers… Here we are. Wow, what a fun thinking about all these years of debates with fb representatives telling me ‘consumers don’t want privacy rights anymore’ and ‘a startup (sic) like facebook shouldn’t be overburdened’. #GDPR #dataprotection #privacy https://t.co/gowYVvKjJf — Jan Philipp Albrecht (@JanAlbrecht) April 15, 2018 This is of course another high gloss plank in the company’s PR strategy to try to convince users to trust it — and thus to keep giving it their data. Because — and only because — GDPR gives consumers more opportunity to lock down access to their information and close the shutters against countless prying eyes. But the pressing question for Facebook — and one that will also test the mettle of the new data protection standard — is whether or not the company is doing enough to comply with the new rules. One important point re: Facebook and GDPR is that the standard applies globally, i.e. for all Facebook users whose data is processed by its international entity, Facebook Ireland (and thus within the EU); but not necessarily universally — with Facebook users in North America not legally falling under the scope of the regulation. Users in North America will only benefit if Facebook chooses to apply the same standard everywhere. (And on that point the company has stayed exceedingly fuzzy.) It has claimed it won’t give US and Canadian users second tier status vs the rest of the world where their privacy is concerned — saying they’re getting the same “settings and controls” — but unless or until US lawmakers spill some ink of their own there’s nothing but an embarrassing PR message to regulate what Facebook chooses to do with Americans’ data. It’s the data protection principles, stupid. Zuckerberg was asked by US lawmakers last week what kind of regulation he would and wouldn’t like to see laid upon Internet companies — and he made a point of arguing for privacy carve outs to avoid falling behind, of all things, competitors in China. Which is an incredibly chilling response when you consider how few rights — including human rights — Chinese citizens have. And how data-mining digital technologies are being systematically used to expand Chinese state surveillance and control. The ugly underlying truth of Facebook’s business is that it also relies on surveillance to function. People’s lives are its product. That’s why Zuckerberg couldn’t tell US lawmakers to hurry up and draft their own GDPR. He’s the CEO saddled with trying to sell an anti-privacy, anti-transparency position — just as policymakers are waking up to what that really means.   Plus ça change? Facebook has announced a series of updates to its policies and platform in recent months, which it’s said are coming to all users (albeit in ‘phases’). The problem is that most of what it’s proposing to achieve GDPR compliance is simply not adequate. Coincidentally many of these changes have been announced amid a major data mishandling scandal for Facebook, in which it’s been revealed that data on up to 87M users was passed to a political consultancy without their knowledge or consent. It’s this scandal that led Zuckerberg to be perched on a booster cushion in full public view for two days last week, dodging awkward questions from US lawmakers about how his advertising business functions. He could not tell Congress there wouldn’t be other such data misuse skeletons in its closet. Indeed the company has said it expects it will uncover additional leaks as it conducts a historical audit of apps on its platform that had access to “a large amount of data”. (How large is large, one wonders… ) But whether Facebook’s business having enabled — in just one example — the clandestine psychological profiling of millions of Americans for political campaign purposes ends up being the final, final straw that catalyzes US lawmakers to agree their own version of GDPR is still tbc. Any new law will certainly take time to formulate and pass. In the meanwhile GDPR is it. The most substantive GDPR-related change announced by Facebook to date is the shuttering of a feature called Partner Categories — in which it allowed the linking of its own information holdings on people with data held by external brokers, including (for example) information about people’s offline activities. Evidently finding a way to close down the legal liabilities and/or engineer consent from users to that degree of murky privacy intrusion — involving pools of aggregated personal data gathered by goodness knows who, how, where or when — was a bridge too far for the company’s army of legal and policy staffers. Other notable changes it has so far made public include consolidating settings onto a single screen vs the confusing nightmare Facebook has historically required users to navigate just to control what’s going on with their data (remember the company got a 2011 FTC sanction for “deceptive” privacy practices); rewording its T&Cs to make it more clear what information it’s collecting for what specific purpose; and — most recently — revealing a new consent review process whereby it will be asking all users (starting with EU users) whether they consent to specific uses of their data (such as processing for facial recognition purposes). As my TC colleague Josh Constine wrote earlier in a critical post dissecting the flaws of Facebook’s approach to consent review, the company is — at very least — not complying with the spirit of GDPR’s law. Indeed, Facebook appears pathologically incapable of abandoning its long-standing modus operandi of socially engineering consent from users (doubtless fed via its own self-reinforced A/B testing ad expertise). “It feels obviously designed to get users to breeze through it by offering no resistance to continue, but friction if you want to make changes,” was his summary of the process. But, as we’ve pointed out before, concealment is not consent. To get into a few specifics, pre-ticked boxes — which is essentially what Facebook is deploying here, with a big blue “accept and continue” button designed to grab your attention as it’s juxtaposed against an anemic “manage data settings” option (which if you even manage to see it and read it sounds like a lot of tedious hard work) — aren’t going to constitute valid consent under GDPR. Nor is this what ‘privacy by default’ looks like — another staple principle of the regulation. On the contrary, Facebook is pushing people to do the opposite: Give it more of their personal information — and fuzzing why it’s asking by bundling a range of usage intentions. The company is risking a lot here. In simple terms, seeking consent from users in a way that’s not fair because it’s manipulative means consent is not being freely given. Under GDPR, it won’t be consent at all. So Facebook appears to be seeing how close to the wind it can fly to test how regulators will respond. Safe to say, EU lawmakers and NGOs are watching.   “Yes, they will be taken to court” “Consent should not be regarded as freely given if the data subject has no genuine or free choice or is unable to refuse or withdraw consent without detriment,” runs one key portion of GDPR. Now compare that with: “People can choose to not be on Facebook if they want” — which was Facebook’s deputy chief privacy officer, Rob Sherman’s, paper-thin defense to reporters for the lack of an overall opt out for users to its targeted advertising. Data protection experts who TechCrunch spoke to suggest Facebook is failing to comply with, not just the spirit, but the letter of the law here. Some were exceeding blunt on this point. “I am less impressed,” said law professor Mireille Hildebrandt discussing how Facebook is railroading users into consenting to its targeted advertising. “It seems they have announced that they will still require consent for targeted advertising and refuse the service if one does not agree. This violates [GDPR] art. 7.4 jo recital 43. So, yes, they will be taken to court.” Facebook says users must accept targeted ads even under new EU law: NO THEY MUST NOT, there are other types of advertising, subscription etc. https://t.co/zrUgsgxtwo — Mireille Hildebrandt (@mireillemoret) April 18, 2018 “Zuckerberg appears to view the combination of signing up to T&Cs and setting privacy options as ‘consent’,” adds cyber security professor Eerke Boiten. “I doubt this is explicit or granular enough for the personal data processing that FB do. The default settings for the privacy settings certainly do not currently provide for ‘privacy by default’ (GDPR Art 25). “I also doubt whether FB Custom Audiences work correctly with consent. FB finds out and retains a small bit of personal info through this process (that an email address they know is known to an advertiser), and they aim to shift the data protection legal justification on that to the advertisers. Do they really then not use this info for future profiling?” That looming tweak to the legal justification of Facebook’s Custom Audiences feature — a product which lets advertisers upload contact lists in a hashed form to find any matches among its own user-base (so those people can be targeted with ads on Facebook’s platform) — also looks problematical. Here the company seems to be intending to try to claim a change in the legal basis, pushed out via new terms in which it instructs advertisers to agree they are the data controller (and it is merely a data processor). And thereby seek to foist a greater share of the responsibility for obtaining consent to processing user data onto its customers. However such legal determinations are simply not a matter of contract terms. They are based on the fact of who is making decisions about how data is processed. And in this case — as other experts have pointed out — Facebook would be classed as a joint controller with any advertisers that upload personal data. The company can’t use a T&Cs change to opt out of that. Wishful thinking is not a reliable approach to legal compliance.   Fear and manipulation of highly sensitive data Over many years of privacy-hostile operation, Facebook has shown it has a major appetite for even very sensitive data. And GDPR does not appear to have blunted that. Let’s not forget, facial recognition was a platform feature that got turned off in the EU, thanks to regulatory intervention. Yet here Facebook is now trying to use GDPR as a route to process this sensitive biometric data for international users after all — by pushing individual users to consent to it by dangling a few ‘feature perks’ at the moment of consent. Veteran data protection and privacy consultant, Pat Walshe, is unimpressed. “The sensitive data tool appears to be another data grab,” he tells us, reviewing Facebook’s latest clutch of ‘GDPR changes’. “Note the subtlety. It merges ‘control of sharing’ such data with FB’s use of the data “to personalise features and products”. From the info available that isn’t sufficient to amount to consent for such sensitive data and nor is it clear folks can understand the broader implications of agreeing. “Does it mean ads will appear in Instagram? WhatsApp etc? The default is also set to ‘accept’ rather than ‘review and consider’. This is really sensitive data we’re talking about.” “The face recognition suggestions are woeful,” he continues. “The second image — is using an example… to manipulate and stoke fear — “we can’t protect you”. “Also, the choices and defaults are not compatible with [GDPR] Article 25 on data protection by design and default nor Recital 32… If I say no to facial recognition it’s unclear if other users can continue to tag me.” Of course it goes without saying that Facebook users will keep uploading group photos, not just selfies. What’s less clear is whether Facebook will be processing the faces of other people in those shots who have not given (and/or never even had the opportunity to give) consent to its facial recognition feature. People who might not even be users of its product. But if it does that it will be breaking the law. Yet Facebook does indeed profile non-users — despite Zuckerberg’s claims to Congress not to know about its shadow profiles. So the risk is clear. It can’t give non-users “settings and controls” not to have their data processed. So it’s already compromised their privacy — because it never gained consent in the first place. New Mexico Representative Ben Lujan made this point to Zuckerberg’s face last week and ended the exchange with a call to action: “So you’re directing people that don’t even have a Facebook page to sign up for a Facebook page to access their data… We’ve got to change that.” WASHINGTON, DC – APRIL 11: Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg prepares to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill April 11, 2018 in Washington, DC. This is the second day of testimony before Congress by Zuckerberg, 33, after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) But nothing in the measures Facebook has revealed so far, as its ‘compliance response’ to GDPR, suggest it intends to pro-actively change that. Walshe also critically flags how — again, at the point of consent — Facebook’s review process deploys examples of the social aspects of its platform (such as how it can use people’s information to “suggest groups or other features or products”) as a tactic for manipulating people to agree to share religious affiliation data, for example. “The social aspect is not separate to but bound up in advertising,” he notes, adding that the language also suggests Facebook uses the data. Again, this whiffs a whole lot more than smells like GDPR compliance. “I don’t believe FB has done enough,” adds Walshe, giving a view on Facebook’s GDPR preparedness ahead of the May 25 deadline for the framework’s application — as Zuckerberg’s Congress briefing notes suggested the company itself believes it has. (Or maybe it just didn’t want to admit to Congress that U.S. Facebook users will get lower privacy standards vs users elsewhere.) “In fact I know they have not done enough. Their business model is skewed against privacy — privacy gets in the way of advertising and so profit. That’s why Facebook has variously suggested people may have to pay if they want an ad free model & so ‘pay for privacy’.” “On transparency, there is a long way to go,” adds Boiten. “Friend suggestions, profiling for advertising, use of data gathered from like buttons and web pixels (also completely missing from “all your Facebook data”), and the newsfeed algorithm itself are completely opaque.” “What matters most is whether FB’s processing decisions will be GDPR compliant, not what exact controls are given to FB members,” he concludes. US lawmakers also pumped Zuckerberg on how much of the information his company harvests on people who have a Facebook account is revealed to them when they ask for it — via its ‘Download your data’ tool. His answers on this appeared to intentionally misconstrue what was being asked — presumably in a bid to mask the ugly reality of the true scope and depth of the surveillance apparatus he commands. (Sometimes with a few special ‘CEO privacy privileges’ thrown in — like being able to selectively retract just his own historical Facebook messages from conversations, ahead of bringing the feature to anyone else.) ‘Download your Data’ is clearly partial and self-serving — and thus it also looks very far from being GDPR compliant.   Not even half the story Facebook is not even complying with the spirit of current EU data protection law on data downloads. Subject Access Requests give individuals the right to request not just the information they have voluntarily uploaded to a service, but also personal data the company holds about them; Including giving a description of the personal data; the reasons it is being processed; and whether it will be given to any other organizations or people. Facebook not only does not include people’s browsing history in the info it provides when you ask to download your data — which, incidentally, its own cookies policy confirms it tracks (via things like social plug-ins and tracking pixels on millions of popular websites etc etc) — it also does not include a complete list of advertisers on its platform that have your information. Instead, after a wait, it serves up an eight-week snapshot. But even this two month view can still stretch to hundreds of advertisers per individual. If Facebook gave users a comprehensive list of advertisers’ access to their information the number of third party companies would clearly stretch into the thousands. (In some cases thousands might even be a conservative estimate.) There’s plenty of other information harvested from users that Facebook also intentionally fails to divulge via ‘Download your data’. And — to be clear — this isn’t a new problem either. The company has a very long history of blocking these type of requests. In the EU it currently invokes a exception in Irish law to circumvent more fulsome compliance — which, even setting GDPR aside, raises some interesting competition law questions, as Paul-Olivier Dehaye told the UK parliament last month. “All your Facebook data” isn’t a complete solution,” agrees Boiten. “It misses the info Facebook uses for auto-completing searches; it misses much of the information they use for suggesting friends; and I find it hard to believe that it contains the full profiling information.” “Ads Topics” looks rather random and undigested, and doesn’t include the clear categories available to advertisers,” he further notes. Facebook wouldn’t comment publicly about this when we asked. But it maintains its approach towards data downloads is GDPR compliant — and says it’s reviewed what it offers via with regulators to get feedback. Earlier this week it also put out a wordy blog post attempting to diffuse this line of attack by pointing the finger of blame at the rest of the tech industry — saying, essentially, that a whole bunch of other tech giants are at it too. Which is not much of a moral defense even if the company believes its lawyers can sway judges with it. (Ultimately I wouldn’t fancy its chances; the EU’s top court has a robust record of defending fundamental rights.)   Think of the children… What its blog post didn’t say — yet again — was anything about how all the non-users it nonetheless tracks around the web are able to have any kind of control over its surveillance of them. And remember, some Facebook non-users will be children. So yes, Facebook is inevitably tracking kids’ data without parental consent. Under GDPR that’s a majorly big no-no. TC’s Constine had a scathing assessment of even the on-platform system that Facebook has devised in response to GDPR’s requirements on parental consent for processing the data of users who are between the ages of 13 and 15. “Users merely select one of their Facebook friends or enter an email address, and that person is asked to give consent for their ‘child’ to share sensitive info,” he observed. “But Facebook blindly trusts that they’ve actually selected their parent or guardian… [Facebook’s] Sherman says Facebook is “not seeking to collect additional information” to verify parental consent, so it seems Facebook is happy to let teens easily bypass the checkup.” So again, the company is being shown doing the minimum possible — in what might be construed as a cynical attempt to check another compliance box and carry on its data-sucking business as usual. Given that intransigence it really will be up to the courts to bring the enforcement stick. Change, as ever, is a process — and hard won. Hildebrandt is at least hopeful that a genuine reworking of Internet business models is on the way, though — albeit not overnight. And not without a fight. “In the coming years the landscape of all this silly microtargeting will change, business models will be reinvented and this may benefit both the advertisers, consumers and citizens,” she tells us. “It will hopefully stave off the current market failure and the uprooting of democratic processes… Though nobody can predict the future, it will require hard work.”

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SpaceX has successfully deployed NASA’s new exoplanet-hunting telescope into high Earth orbit. From there, it will get a gravity assist from the moon and enter a wide orbit, beginning its mission. Meanwhile, back on the surface, the Falcon 9’s first stage landed successfully on the drone ship Of Course I Still Love You. This is the 8th launch this year, and the 24th time SpaceX has landed a Falcon 9 first stage — that is, the part of the rocket that accelerates it out of the atmosphere. Although the plan is eventually to catch the falling fairing in a “giant catcher’s mitt,” as Elon Musk once described it, the boat-borne mitt is currently in the Pacific Ocean and this launch was over the Atlantic. The rocket shortly after landing on Of Course I Still Love You. The ship’s feed cut out when the rocket landed. This rocket, after being inspected and refurbished, of course, is planned to be reused for the next ISS resupply mission SpaceX is performing, in June. Soon this generation of Falcon 9s will be exhausted, though: starting soon, SpaceX will be launching its 5th generation of Falcon 9’s (“Block 5”), which have a variety of improvements to improve their reusability past the two or three times previous ones could be used. The first such launch is planned for early next week — look for a separate post on that soon. A second burn went nominally and TESS successfully deployed; it’s now up to NASA to adjust the orbit further so it gets the necessary lunar boost. That will take some time, but we can expect data from the satellite to roll in soon (that is, within a few weeks or months) after.

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In the ongoing race to build the best and smartest applications that tap into the advances of artificial intelligence, a startup out of London has raised a large round of funding to double down on solving persistent problems in areas like healthcare and energy . BenevolventAI announced today that it has raised $115 million to continue developing its core “AI brain” as well as different arms of the company that are using it specifically to break new ground in drug development and more. This venture round values the company at $2.1 billion post-money, its founder and executive chairman Ken Mulvaney confirmed to TechCrunch. Investors in this round include previous backer Woodford Investment Management, and while Mulvaney said the company was not disclosing the names of any other investors, he added it was a mix of family offices and some strategic backers, with a majority coming from the US, but would not specify any more. Notably, Benevolent.AI does not have any backing from more traditional VCs, which more generally have been doubling down on investments in AI startups. Founded in 2013, the company has now raised over $200 million to date. The core of Benevolent.AI’s business is focused around what Mulvaney describes as a “brain” built by a team of scientists — some of whom are disclosed, and some of whom are not for competitive reasons, Mulvaney said: there are 155 people working at the startup in all, with 300 projected by the end of this year. The brain has been created to ingest and compute billions of data points in specific areas such as health and material science, to help scientists better determine combinations that might finally solve persistently difficult problems in fields like medicine. The crux of the issue in a field like drug development, for example, is that even as scientists identify the many permutations and strains of, say, a particular kind of cancer, each of these strains can mutate, and that is before you consider that each mutation might behave completely differently depending on which person develops the mutation. This is precisely the kind of issue that AI which is massive computational power and “learning” from previous computations, can help address. (And Benevolvent.AI is not the only one taking this approach. Specifically in Cancer, others include Grail and Paige.AI.) But even with the speed that AI brings to the table, it’s a very long, long game for Benevolent.AI. The division of Benevolent.AI that is focused on drugs, called Benevolent Bio, currently has two drugs in more advanced stages of development, Mulvaney said, although neither of those happen to be in the area of cancer. A Parkinson’s drug is currently in Phase 2B clinical trials, after years of work. And an ALS medication currently in development — which Mulvaney says will aim to significantly extend the prospects for those who have been diagnosed with ALS — is about five years away from trials. It’s worth the effort to try, though: the best ALS medications on the market today at best only add about three month’s to a patient’s life expectancy. Some of the long period of development is because with drugs, there large regulatory framework a company has to go through. “But we benefit from that,” Mulvaney said, “because it means you can actually then offer something in the market.” (Blood tests a la Theranos are very different in terms of regulatory requirements, he said.) In part because of that long cycle, and also because Benevolent.AI has spotted an adjacent opportunity, the company has more recently also been extending applications from its “brain” to other adjacent areas that also tap into chemistry and biology, such as material science. One area Mulvaney said is of particular interest is to see if Benevolent can create materials that can both withstand extreme heat — to allow engines to work at higher rates without risks — as well as chemicals that could essentially create the next generation of efficient batteries that could provide more power in smaller formats for longer periods. “There has been little development beyond a lithium ion battery,” he noted, which may be fine for the Teslas of the world today. “But there is not enough lithium on this planet for us all to go electric, and there is not nearly enough energy density there unless you have thousands of batteries working together. We need other technology to provide more energy donation. That tech doesn’t exist yet because chemically it’s very difficult to do that.” And that spells opportunity for Benevolvent.AI. Other areas where the startup hopes to move into over the coming months and years include agriculture, veterinary science, and other categories that sit alongside those Benevolent.AI is already tapping.  

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Bob Ackerman Jr. Contributor Robert Ackerman Jr. is the founder and a managing director of Allegis Capital, an early-stage cybersecurity venture firm, and a founder of DataTribe, a startup “studio” for fledgling cyber startups staffed by former government technology innovators and cybersecurity professionals. More posts by this contributor The Trump team has failed to address the nation’s mounting cybersecurity threats Trump’s cybersecurity executive order is a good first step The unfettered internet is too often used for malicious purposes and is frequently woefully inaccurate. Social media — especially Facebook — has failed miserably at protecting user privacy and blocking miscreants from sowing discord. That’s why CEO Mark Zuckerberg was just forced to testify about user privacy before both houses of Congress. And now governmental regulation of FaceBook and other social media appears to be a fait accompli. At this key juncture, the crucial question is whether regulation — in concert with FaceBook’s promises to aggressively mitigate its weaknesses — correct the privacy abuses and continue to fulfill FaceBook’s goal of giving people the power to build transparent communities, bringing the world closer together? The answer is maybe. What has not been said is that FaceBook must embrace data science methodologies initially created in the bowels of the federal government to help protect its two billion users. Simultaneously, FaceBook must still enable advertisers — its sole source of revenue — to get the user data required to justify their expenditures. Specifically, Facebook must promulgate and embrace what is known in high-level security circles as homomorphic encryption (HE), often considered the “Holy Grail” of cryptography, and data provenance (DP). HE would enable Facebook, for example, to generate aggregated reports about its user psychographic profiles so that advertisers could still accurately target groups of prospective customers without knowing their actual identities. Meanwhile, data provenance – the process of tracing and recording true identities and the origins of data and its movement between data bases – could unearth the true identities of Russian perpetrators and other malefactors or at least identify unknown provenance, adding much needed transparency in cyberspace. Both methodologies are extraordinarily complex. IBM and Microsoft, in addition to the National Security Agency, have been working on HE for years but the technology has suffered from significant performance challenges. Progress is being made, however. IBM, for example, has been granted a patent on a particular HE method – a strong hint it’s seeking a practical solution – and last month proudly announced that its rewritten HE encryption library now works up to 75 times faster. Maryland-based ENVEIL, a startup staffed by the former NSA HE team, has broken the performance barriers required to produce a commercially viable version of HE, benchmarking millions of times faster than IBM in tested use cases. How Homomorphic Encryption Would Help FaceBook HE is a technique used to operate on and draw useful conclusions from encrypted data without decrypting it, simultaneously protecting the source of the information. It is useful to FaceBook because its massive inventory of personally identifiable information is the foundation of the economics underlying its business model. The more comprehensive the datasets about individuals, the more precisely advertising can be targeted. HE could keep Facebook information safe from hackers and inappropriate disclosure, but still extract the essence of what the data tells advertisers. It would convert encrypted data into strings of numbers, do math with these strings, and then decrypt the results to get the same answer it would if the data wasn’t encrypted at all. A particularly promising sign for HE emerged last year, when Google revealed a new marketing measurement tool that relies on this technology to allow advertisers to see whether their online ads result in in-store purchases. Unearthing this information requires analyzing datasets belonging to separate organizations, notwithstanding the fact that these organizations pledge to protect the privacy and personal information of the data subjects. HE skirts this by generating aggregated, non-specific reports about the comparisons between these datasets. In pilot tests, HE enabled Google to successfully analyze encrypted data about who clicked on an advertisement in combination with another encrypted multi-company dataset that recorded credit card purchase records. With this data in hand, Google was able to provide reports to advertisers summarizing the relationship between the two databases to conclude, for example, that five percent of the people who clicked  on an ad wound up purchasing in a store. Data Provenance Data provenance has a markedly different core principle. It’s based on the fact that digital information is atomized into 1’s and 0’s with no intrinsic truth. The dual digits exist only to disseminate information, whether accurate or widely fabricated. A well-crafted lie can easily be indistinguishable from the truth and distributed across the internet. What counts is the source of these 1’s and 0’s. In short, is it legitimate?  What is the history of the 1’ and 0’s? The art market, as an example, deploys DP to combat fakes and forgeries of the world’s greatest paintings, drawing and sculptures. It uses DP techniques to create a verifiable, chain-of-custody for each piece of the artwork, preserving the integrity of the market. Much the same thing can be done in the online world. For example, a FaceBook post referencing a formal statement by a politician, with an accompanying photo, would  have provenance records directly linking the post to the politician’s press release and even the specifics of the photographer’s camera. The goal – again – is ensuring that data content is legitimate. Companies such as Wal-Mart, Kroger, British-based Tesco and Swedish-based H&M, an international clothing retailer, are using or experimenting with new technologies to provide provenance data to the marketplace. Let’s hope that Facebook and its social media brethren begin studying HE and DP thoroughly and implement it as soon as feasible. Other strong measures — such as the upcoming implementation of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, which will use a big stick to secure personally identifiable information – essentially should be cloned in the U.S. What is best, however, are multiple avenues to enhance user privacy and security, while hopefully preventing breaches in the first place. Nothing less than the long-term viability of social media giants is at stake.

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posted 7 days ago on techcrunch
It’s almost time for SpaceX to launch NASA’s TESS, a space telescope that will search for exoplants across nearly the entire night sky. The launch has been delayed more than once already: originally scheduled for March 20, it slipped to April 16 (Monday), then some minor issues pushed it to today — at 3:51 PM Pacific time, to be precise. You can watch the launch live below. TESS, which stands for Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, is basically a giant wide-angle camera (four of them, actually) that will snap pictures of the night sky from a wide, eccentric and never before tried orbit. NASA’s planet-hunting TESS telescope launches Monday aboard a SpaceX rocket (Update: Wednesday) The technique it will use is fundamentally the same as that employed by NASA’s long-running and highly successful Kepler mission. When distant plants pass between us and their star, it causes a momentary decrease in that star’s brightness. TESS will monitor thousands of stars simultaneously for such “transits,” watching a single section of sky for a month straight before moving on to another. By two years, it will have imaged 85 percent of the sky — hundreds of times the area Kepler observed, and on completely different stars: brighter ones that should yield more data. TESS, which is about the size of a small car, will launch on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. SpaceX will attempt to recover the first stage of the rocket by having it land on a drone ship, and the nose cone will, hopefully, get a gentle parachute-assisted splashdown in the Atlantic, where it too can be retrieved. The feed below should go live 15 minutes before launch, or at about 3:35.

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posted 7 days ago on techcrunch
Jeff Bezos is understandably all sorts of self-congratulatory in the annual shareholder letter Amazon released today. The note is full of all smanner of large numbers, including, perhaps most notably, 100 million. Amazon has exceeded that number of Prime subscribers globally, 13 years after the service launched as a free shipping offering. It’s no surprise, really. In spite of some recent price hikes, the company keeps layering incentives on top of the plan. The list now includes access to video, music, Kindle books and a six month subscription to the Bezos-owned Washington Post. From the looks of it, the company will also be adding Whole Foods deals to the pile in the very near future. Oh, the joys of conglomeration.  According to Bezos, Amazon shipped north of five billion items with Prime globally in 2017. India, one of the most recent countries to get Prime, is also the largest growing market for Amazon at the moment, adding “members in […] in its first year than any previous geography in Amazon’s history,” according to the letter. The company has been pumping investments into the country of late, launching its music service there in February, along with a “lite” version of its Android web browser, just this week.

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posted 7 days ago on techcrunch
Girlboss, the juggernaut business and lifestyle brand launched by serial entrepreneur Sophia Amoruso (the founder of Nasty Gal), has launched a fresh redesign of its website as the company looks to evolve beyond publishing. While publishing will remain a central component of the business that Girlboss is building, Amoruso says that the brand encompasses much more than a content play. “We’re beginning with editorial content and our conferences and what looks like a publishing business, but the future will look like us incorporating our users in a much different capacity,” Amoruso says. [gallery ids="1624715,1624716,1624717,1624718"] In a blog post about the site redesign, the company’s new chief operating officer and editor in chief, walks through the functional changes that the company wanted for its web and mobile face. It’s fast. First and foremost, this experience should be fast. We only used system fonts. We don’t have any weird pop-ups or doodads to slow down the load time or to distract you from the reason why you’re actually here: the content. It’s intuitive (sort of). We built this thing to be mobile first. That means you swipe from category to category and scroll endlessly—even on desktop. It might feel a little weird at first, but only 10% of you are on desktop to begin with, so let’s call a spade a spade. It’s fun. There’s a lot of color here. Each category is noted with a different color (work is green, money is a coral-ish pink, wellness is yellow, etc), and you see those colors play in different ways on category pages, in related content, on article pages, and more. Those are visual cues that tell you where you are—and they’re also supposed to feel fun and immersive. We’re trying not to take ourselves too seriously here at Girlboss. We talk about serious things, but we hope to inject a bit of wit and humor into everything we do. And all of this color-soaked goodness should reflect that. It’s useful. This is a big one. We know that some people may never wander over to our website (although, you’re obviously not one of them), and we’re totally fine with that. We strive to inspire and delight and inform people where they are—whether that’s on email, on social, through podcasts, or IRL at our Rallies. But if you are visiting our website, we want you to walk away feeling like you got something meaningful out of the experience of spending time with us. We want to make things that open your eyes to new ways of thinking, and that offer you life and work and money advice that legitimately helps you advance and grow and save and evolve. That’s what this site is built to do—to make it easy to find the tools and tips and insights we’re offering up, while being transparent about how much time you might need to spend with a story or podcast or video to get what you need out of it. Beyond the purely functional and aesthetic aspects of the redesign, Gandhi hints that there’s a larger sense of purpose and mission to the company’s choices as well… and an indication of how Girlboss will evolve. “At Girlboss, when we think about the big picture, we want to help make change. We want to create opportunity and knock down the obstacles that stand in your way. We want to call out tokenism and create spaces where many women can thrive—and help each other make progress and advance,” Ghandi writes. Girlboss in this new incarnation seems to be as much of a networking and social engagement site as it is a publisher. This new model fits squarely within the new notion of what brands can mean and the role they can play. “It’s important for us to keep evolving and casting a line to build a social-first environment,”says Amoruso. With the new site, and an executive team built out on the back of $3.1 million in financing from Lightspeed Venture Partners, Gary Vaynerchuk, Atom Factory, and Slow Ventures, it looks like they’ve succeeded.

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posted 7 days ago on techcrunch
One of the biggest headaches for freelance writers is the need to send an invoice for their work, then wait (and wait, and wait) for payment. Matt Saincome, founder of the punk-themed satirical news site The Hard Times, knows this, which is why he’s launching a new payment product called OutVoice. Saincome said he started out as a freelancer himself, and he recalled that after his first assignment he had to repeatedly ask an editor to get paid. When the check finally arrived, he tried to deposit it, only to find that it bounced, leaving him with a $35 fee — way more than the $12 that he was supposedly making. Obviously, this is a problem for freelancers, but Saincome said that when he became an editor, he realized that it was a problem for editors too. And when he became a publisher, he realized, “Wait, this is a horrible problem for everyone.” Sure, there may be some publishers who fully intend to rip off their writers, but for many others, it’s more an issue of not making the time to deal with all the invoices and send out the checks. And if they let this slip too badly, they may end up chasing away some of their most talented writers. OutVoice is designed to streamline all that. For starters, it helps onboard freelancers by automatically presenting them with the forms and contracts they need to fill out. Then it integrates with WordPress and Drupal (with other CMS integrations planned), so that when an editor is publishing a story, they can select a contributor and a payment amount on the same screen. Once they hit publish, the freelancer gets paid — no invoice needed, no delays. The product supports other kinds of working arrangements, too. If a publisher doesn’t pay freelancers on a per-article basis, but instead does it by the hour, the week or the month, they can still make payments through the OutVoice website. In our initial interview, I pointed out that some freelancers actually publish their stories themselves. Then Saincome emailed me to say that his team added a feature to take care of that, too — a freelancer can enter their own payment information as they publish, then the editor or publisher can approve the payment with a click. (Finally, someone takes my product advice!) Saincome said the music site Consequence of Sound plans to test the system, and it’s already being used by The Hard Times itself. Just to be clear, however, OutVoice is separate from The Hard Times — it’s a new company that Saincome is founding with Issa Diao, a developer who led the band Good Clean Fun.

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posted 7 days ago on techcrunch
Picture this. You’re driving down the street and Google Maps tells you to turn right at the Burger King, instead of telling you to turn right on [insert street name you’ve never heard of]. Well, Google is starting to do this. I noticed this while I was in a Lyft in Washington, D.C., but I failed to remember it until TC’s sister publication, Engadget, reported it the other day. Anyway, the idea is that Google Maps is highlighting some landmarks and other points of interest (fast food restaurants) to help with guidance. TechCrunch/MRD Other people have noticed, too. So @googlemaps instructed me to “turn right after Burger King” … I think this is the best update yet. #mindblown — Deemah MS (@iamdeemah) April 14, 2018 Google Maps told me to make a right “right after the White Castle.” Does it do that now? — Scott Stein (@jetscott) April 14, 2018 Highlighting landmarks seems to be one method of Google’s experimentation with improving navigation and guidance for people.

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posted 7 days ago on techcrunch
As you can probably imagine, launching satellites is a complicated business. To get into the game, companies must often go to the biggest players, like NASA. It puts the opportunity for small companies to participate in the benefits of satellite usage completely out of reach. Until recently. Mini or nano-satellites are proliferating, and so are the startups producing them. But even in this newer scenario, there are many moving parts, from manufacturing to launching, to the systems that might capture the data you want. But an innovative startup thinks it has the solution: create a turnkey, end-to-end system that is a one-stop-shop. That company is the U.K.’s Open Cosmos. It’s now raised $7 million in a Series A funding round as part of its mission to make satellites more affordable and more accessible to everyone. The round was led by BGF Ventures, with participation from LocalGlobe, Entrepreneur First, TransferWise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus and Microsoft’s former head of corporate strategy, Charlie Songhurst. Founded by aerospace engineer Rafael Jordà Siquier (pictured), the company plans to democratize satellites in the same way that computers became easier to use in the 1980s. It plans to manufacture 30 satellites a year and provide a full, end-to-end service. He said: “The space industry is ripe for the same disruption. We believe that our end-to-end service based on smaller, more affordable, more accessible satellites, will enable new applications to emerge.” Currently, to put a satellite into space you must have millions in funding, wait for years and assemble many providers. But Open Cosmos is offering entire missions that start from £500,000 ($700,000) and can be delivered in less than a year. Once satellites are in orbit, Open Cosmos takes full control of them. Data collected by the satellite will be sent to the customer. The company’s satellites, which range from 4kg to 30kg, follow a standardized modular design that makes it easy to integrate sensors; the idea being that space agencies and large or small companies can test new technologies, carry out research or provide services to their own customers. It’s now signed a $2 million “Pioneer” contract with the European Space Agency and will be providing an entire mission (satellite, launch procurement and operations) to demonstrate in orbit an innovative telecommunications transceiver. Wendy Tan White, BGF Ventures advisor, said: “Rafael is an exceptional entrepreneur. We are excited and confident that Raf and his team are going to revolutionize the satellite industry in the coming years and we look forward to seeing what kind of applications entrepreneurs can build when they have relatively cheap access to satellite data and an easily accessible operations stack.” Located in Oxford, England, the company has a team of 22, which it now intends to scale up.

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posted 7 days ago on techcrunch
As renewable energy continues to gobble up more and more of the new energy capacity coming online, the solar project lending company Wunder Capital has raised $112 million in primarily debt financing to boost its business. The 90 percent debt and 10 percent equity commitment came from the multi-strategy investment firm Cyrus Investments, which has backed renewable energy projects for years through its investment in RePower Group. “The debt component is going to blow out the lending opportunity,” says Wunder chief executive Bryan Birsic. Wunder chose to consolidate the debt and equity round with a single lead investor to simplify the negotiation process on both sides of the table, Birsic said. “Since Cyrus is an equity holder in the company we can come to better terms,” on debt facilities and repayment, he said.  Wunder lends money to commercial solar energy development projects throughout the U.S. and its business has been buoyed by a flood of demand for new solar energy projects coming online. Since its launch in 2016, the company has financed more than 180 projects throughout the U.S., which are generating somewhere in the range of 50 megawatts (or enough electricity to power roughly 32,500 homes). The Boulder, Colo.-based company makes money in three ways: It charges closing fees, a servicing fee and annual interest rate on the debt it provides — typically Wunder will pull in between 4 percent and 5 percent off of each loan it provides to a project. And business… for renewable energy… is booming. For instance, the industry appears to have shaken off concerns over price increases stemming from the tariffs imposed on solar panels as part of broad punitive measures President Trump has taken against China (which supplies most of the world’s solar panels). “It was really pleasant to see that folks were less reactionary and more responsive to the data,” says Birsic. The headlines, Birsic explains, were worse than the reality for the industry. The headlines in January predicted a 30 percent tariff on solar panels, but banks thought those increases would ultimately result in a 3 percent price increase for residential solar installations and a 4 percent price increase for commercial solar. Those price increases would only bring costs in line with what they were at the end of 2017, since over the course of the year prices on installations declined 10 percent, Birsic says. “We’re very cool with the economics as it existed in 2017,” he said.   

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