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Friday, January 10, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News


Waymo’s Anca Dragan and Ike Robotics CTO Jur van den Berg are coming to TC Sessions: Robotics + AI

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 04:04 PM PST

The road to “solving” self-driving cars is riddled with challenges from perception and decision making to figuring out the interaction between human and robots.

Today we're announcing that joining us at TC Sessions: Robotics+AI on March 3 at UC Berkeley are two experts who play important roles in the development and deployment of autonomous vehicle technology: Anca Dragan and Jur van den Berg.

Dragan is assistant professor at UC Berkeley’s electrical engineering and computer sciences department as well as a senior research scientist and consultant for Waymo, the former Google self-driving project that is now a business under Alphabet. She runs the InterACT Lab at UC-Berkeley, which focuses on on algorithms for human-robot interaction. Dragan also helped found and serve on the steering committee for the Berkeley AI Research Lab, and is co-PI of the Center for Human-Compatible AI.

Last year, Dragan was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

Van den Berg is the co-founder and CTO of Ike Robotics, a self-driving truck startup that last year raised $52 million in a Series A funding round led by Bain Capital  Ventures. Van den Berg has been part of the most important, secretive and even controversial companies in the autonomous vehicle technology industry. He was a senior researcher and developer in Apple’s special projects group, before jumping to self-driving trucks startup Otto. He became a senior autonomy engineer at Uber after the ride-hailing company acquired Otto .

All of this led to Ike, which was founded in 2018 with Nancy Sun and Alden Woodrow, who were also veterans of Apple, Google and Uber Advanced Technologies Group's self-driving truck program

TC Sessions: Robotics+AI returns to Berkeley on March 3. Make sure to grab your early-bird tickets today for $275 before prices go up by $100. Students, grab your tickets for just $50 here.

Startups, book a demo table right here and get in front of 1,000+ of Robotics/AI's best and brightest — each table comes with four attendee tickets.

In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 followers

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 03:30 PM PST

Many investors — including me — spend most of our day doing the same things people have always done in our job: in my case, due diligence, deal execution, etc. However, being a "microinfluencer" is now part of the job description.

In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 followers. Traditional celebrities or influencers with millions of followers have a large service industry and tech stack to serve their needs. But the standard toolkit of a microinfluencer is still evolving.

The challenge is that my time and money budget for "influencing"–content creation and marketing– is minimal. Also, since I'm not trying to be a full-time marketer, I can't use some of the standard celebrity techniques. I can't pick fights on Twitter; date other celebrities; or swear a lot at conferences. These vectors work for a lot of celebrities and for some businesspeople and politicians, but I'm uncomfortable with them and it will impede my ability to do the rest of my job. Plus, my wife doesn't let me date celebrities.

Amazon fires employees for leaking customer email addresses and phone numbers

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 02:22 PM PST

Amazon has fired a number of employees after they shared customer email address and phone numbers with a third-party “in violation of our policies.”

The email to customers sent Friday afternoon, seen by TechCrunch, said an employee was “terminated” for sharing the data, and that the company is supporting law enforcement in their prosecution.

Amazon confirmed the incident in an email to TechCrunch. A spokesperson said a number of employees were fired. But little else is known about the employees, when the information was shared and with whom, and how many customers are affected.

“No other information related to your account was shared. This is not a result of anything you have done, and there is no need for you to take any action,” the email read to customers.

An email to Amazon customers, saying an employee was fired. Amazon said multiple employees were fired.

It’s not the first time it has happened. Amazon was just as vague about a similar breach of email addresses last year, in which Amazon declined to comment further.

In a separate incident, Amazon said this week that it fired four employees at Ring, one of the retail giant’s smart camera and door bell subsidiaries. Ring said it fired the employees for improperly viewing video footage from customer cameras.

Updated headline to clarify that an unknown number of employees were fired.

 

A billion medical images are exposed online, as doctors ignore warnings

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 02:00 PM PST

Every day, millions of new medical images containing the personal health information of patients are spilling out onto the internet.

Hundreds of hospitals, medical offices and imaging centers are running insecure storage systems, allowing anyone with an internet connection and free-to-download software to access over 1 billion medical images of patients across the world.

About half of all the exposed images, which include X-rays, ultrasounds and CT scans, belong to patients in the United States.

Yet despite warnings from security researchers who have spent weeks alerting hospitals and doctors’ offices to the problem, many have ignored their warnings and continue to expose their patients’ private health information.

“It seems to get worse every day,” said Dirk Schrader, who led the research at Germany-based security firm Greenbone Networks, which has been monitoring the number of exposed servers for the past year.

The problem is well-documented. Greenbone found 24 million patient exams storing more than 720 million medical images in September, which first unearthed the scale of the problem as reported by ProPublica. Two months later, the number of exposed servers had increased by more than half, to 35 million patient exams, exposing 1.19 billion scans and representing a considerable violation of patient privacy.

But the problem shows little sign of abating. “The amount of data exposed is still rising, even considering the amount of data taken offline due to our disclosures,” said Schrader.

If doctors fail to take action, he said the number of exposed medical images will hit a new high “in no time.”

Over a billion medical images remain exposed. Experts say the number is getting worse, not better. (Image: supplied)

Researchers say the problem is caused by a common weakness found on the servers used by hospitals, doctors’ offices and radiology centers to store patient medical images.

A decades-old file format and industry standard known as DICOM was designed to make it easier for medical practitioners to store medical images in a single file and share them with other medical practices. DICOM images can be viewed using any of the free-to-use apps, as would any radiologist. DICOM images are typically stored in a picture archiving and communications system, known as a PACS server, allowing for easy storage and sharing. But many doctors’ offices disregard security best practices and connect their PACS server directly to the internet without a password.

These unprotected servers not only expose medical imaging but also patient personal health information. Many patient scans include cover sheets baked into the DICOM file, including the patient’s name, date of birth and sensitive information about their diagnoses. In some cases, hospitals use a patient’s Social Security number to identify patients in these systems.

Lucas Lundgren, a Sweden-based security researcher, spent part of last year looking at the extent of exposed medical image data. In November, he demonstrated to TechCrunch how easy it was for anyone to view medical data from exposed servers. In just a few minutes, he found one of the largest hospitals in Los Angeles exposing tens of thousands of patients’ scans dating back several years. The server was later secured.

Some of the largest hospitals and imaging centers in the United States are the biggest culprits of exposing medical data. Schrader said the exposed data puts patients at risk of becoming “perfect victims for medical insurance fraud.”

Yet, patients are unaware that their data could be exposed on the internet for anyone to find.

The Mighty, which examined the effect on patients, found exposed medical information puts patients at a greater risk of insurance fraud and identity theft. Exposed data can also erode the relationship between patients and their doctors, leading to patients becoming less willing to share potentially pertinent information.

As part of our investigation, we found a number of U.S. imaging centers storing decades of patient scans.

One patient, whose information was exposed following a visit to an emergency room in Florida last year, described her exposed medical data as “scary” and “uncomfortable.” Another with a chronic illness had regular scans at a hospital in California over a period of 30 years. And one unprotected server at one of the largest military hospitals in the United States exposed the names of military personnel and medical images.

But even in cases of patients with only one or a handful of medical images, the exposed data can be used to infer a picture of a person’s health, including illnesses and injuries.

Many patient scans include cover sheets containing personal health information baked into the file. (Image: supplied)

In an effort to get the servers secured, Greenbone contacted more than a hundred organizations last month about their exposed servers. Many of the smaller organizations subsequently secured their systems, resulting in a small drop in the overall number of exposed images. But when the security company contacted the 10 largest organizations, which accounted for about one-in-five of all exposed medical images, Schrader said there was “no response at all.”

Greenbone privately shared names of the organizations to allow TechCrunch to follow up with each medical office, including a health provider with three hospitals in New York, a radiology company in Florida with a dozen locations and a major California-based hospital. (We’re not naming the affected organizations to limit the risk of exposing patient data.)

Only one organization secured its servers. Northeast Radiology, a partner of Alliance Radiology, had the largest cache of exposed medical data in the U.S., according to Greenbone’s data, with more than 61 million images on about 1.2 million patients across its five offices. The server was secured only after TechCrunch followed up a month after Greenbone first warned the organization of the exposure.

Alliance spokesperson Tracy Weise declined to comment.

Schrader said if the remaining affected organizations took their exposed systems off the internet, almost 600 million images would “disappear” from the internet.

Experts who have warned about exposed servers for years say medical practices have few excuses. Yisroel Mirsky, a security researcher who has studied security vulnerabilities in medical equipment, said last year that security features set out by the standards body that created and maintains the DICOM standard have “largely been ignored” by the device manufacturers.

Schrader did not lay blame on the device manufacturers. Instead, he said it was “pure negligence” that doctor’s offices failed to properly configure and secure their servers.

Lucia Savage, a former senior privacy official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said more has to be done to improve security across the healthcare industry — especially at the level of smaller organizations that lack resources.

“If the data is personal health information, it is required to be secured from unauthorized access, which includes finding it on the internet,” said Savage. “There is an equal obligation to lock the file room that contains your paper medical records as there is to secure digital health information,” she said.

Medical records and personal health data are highly protected under U.S. law. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) created the “security rule,” which included technical and physical safeguards designed to protect electronic personal health information by ensuring the data is kept private and secure. The law also holds healthcare providers accountable for any security lapses. Running afoul of the law can lead to severe penalties.

“As Health and Human Services aggressively pushes to permit a wider range of parties to have access to the sensitive health information of American patients without traditional privacy protections attaching to that information, HHS's inattention to this particular incident becomes even more troubling.”
Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA)

The government last year fined one Tennessee-based medical imaging company $3 million for inadvertently exposing a server containing over 300,000 protected patient data.

Deven McGraw, who was the top privacy official in the Health and Human Services’ enforcement arm — the Office of Civil Rights, said if security assistance was more available to smaller providers, the government could focus its enforcement efforts on providers that willfully ignore their security obligations.

“Government enforcement is important, as is guidance and support for lower resourced providers and easy-to-deploy solutions that are built into the technology,” said McGraw. “It may be too big of a problem for any single law enforcement agency to truly put a dent in.”

Since the scale of exposed medical servers was first revealed in September, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) called for answers from Health and Human Services. Warner acknowledged that the number of U.S.-based exposed servers had decreased — 16 servers storing 31 million images — but told TechCrunch that "more needs to be done."

“To my knowledge, Health and Human Services has done nothing about it,” Warner told TechCrunch. “As Health and Human Services aggressively pushes to permit a wider range of parties to have access to the sensitive health information of American patients without traditional privacy protections attached to that information, HHS's inattention to this particular incident becomes even more troubling,” he added.

Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights said it does not comment on individual cases but defended its enforcement actions.

“OCR has taken enforcement action in the past to address violations concerning unprotected storage servers, and continues robust enforcement of the HIPAA rules,” said the spokesperson.

“We will continue doing our best to improve the global situation of unprotected systems,” said Schrader. But he said there was not much more he can do beyond warn organizations of their exposed servers.

“Then it’s a question for the regulators,” he said.

Cross-border investments aren’t dead, they’re getting smarter

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 01:15 PM PST

Instagram adds Boomerang effects as TikTok looms

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 12:53 PM PST

TikTok has spawned countless memes formats from its creative effects, challenging Instagram for the filtered video crown. Now nearly five years after launching Boomerang, Instagram’s back-and-forth video loop maker is finally getting a big update to its own editing options. Users around the globe can now add SlowMo, “Echo” blurring, and “Duo” rapid rewind special effects to their Boomerangs, as well as trim their length. This is the biggest upgrade yet for one of mobile’s most popular video creation tools.

The effects could help keep Instagram interesting. After so many years of Boomerangs, many viewers simply skip past them in Stories after the first loop since they’re so consistent. The extra visual flare of the new effects could keep people’s attention for a few more seconds and unlock new forms of comedy. That’s critical as Instagram tries to compete with TikTok, which has tons of special effects that have spawned their own meme formats.

Starting today, people on Instagram will be able to share new SloMo, Echo and Duo Boomerang modes on Instagram” a Facebook company spokesperson tells TechCrunch. “Your Instagram camera gives you ways to express yourself and easily share what you’re doing, thinking or feeling with your friends. Boomerang is one of the most beloved camera formats and we're excited to expand the creative ways that you can use Boomerang to turn everyday moments into something fun and unexpected.”

The new Boomerang tools can be found by swiping right on Instagram to open the Stories composer, and then swiping left at the bottom of the screen’s shutter selector. After shooting a Boomerang, an infinity symbol button atop the screen reveals the alternate effects and video trimmer. Mobile researcher Jane Manchun Wong spotted Instagram prototyping new Boomerang filters and the trimmer last year.

Typically, Boomerang captures one second of silent video which is then played forward and then in reverse three times to create a six second loop that can be shared or downloaded as a video. Here are the new effects you can add plus how Instagram described them to me in a statement:

  • SlowMo – Reduces Boomerangs to half-speed so they play for two seconds in each direction instead of one second. “Slows down your Boomerang to capture each detail”
  • Echo – Adds a motion blur effect so a translucent trail appears behind anything moving, almost like you’re drunk or tripping. “Creates a double vision effect.”
  • Duo – Rapidly rewinds the clip to the beginning with a glitchy, digitized look. “Both speeds up and slows down your Boomerang, adding a texturized effect.”
  • Trimming – Shorten your Boomerang with similar controls to iPhone’s camera roll or the Instagram feed video composer. “Edit the length of your Boomerang, and when it starts or ends.”

The effects aren’t entirely original. Snapchat has offered slow-motion and fast-foward video effects since just days after the original launch of Boomerang back in 2015. TikTok meanwhile provides several motion blur filters and pixelated transitions. But since these are all available with traditional video, unlike on Instagram where they’re confined to Boomerangs, there’s more creative flexibility to use the effects to hide cuts between takes or play with people’s voices.

That’s won TikTok a plethora of ingenius memes that rely on these tools. Users high-five themselves using an Echo-esque feature, highlight action-packed moments or loud sounds with Duo-style glitch cuts, and conjure an army of doppelgangers behind them with infinity clones effect. Instagram Stories has instead focused on augmented reality face filters and classier tools like layout.

TikTok Screenshots

Hopefully we’ll see Instagram’s new editing features brought over to its main Stories and video composers. Video trimming would be especially helpful since a boring start to a Story can quickly lead viewers to skip it.

Instagram has had years of domination in the social video space. But with Snapchat finally growing again and TikTok becoming a global phenomenon, Instagram must once again fight to maintain its superiority. Now approaching 10 years old, it’s at risk of becoming stale if it can’t keep giving people ways to make hastily shot phone content compelling.

CES takes half-baked stance on cannabis

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 12:47 PM PST

A cannabis company won a CES award for 2020. Called Keep, the desktop storage device features biometric security to secure cannabis products, and looks good while doing it. The CTA gave them an Innovations Award Nominee in October and then weeks later told the company they were unable to use the word “cannabis” when exhibiting.

Keep Labs decided to stay home and not exhibit at the massive Consumer Electronics Show, potentially missing out on distribution deals, funding and increased brand awareness.

Vaporizers, cannabis and tobacco alike have long been found on the CES show floor. They’re often hidden under different names, like aromatherapy devices. This year is different. They’re gone from the show floor. I spent hours in the halls of the Las Vegas Convention Center and the Sands Expo center. The vapes are missing from the 2020 show.

That could change, according to a spokesperson for CES. The trade group behind the show is evaluating if cannabis has a place at CES.

The Consumer Technology Association (CTA) runs CES. It’s the largest such trade event in the world and attended by some 200,000 people. After speaking with a CTA spokesperson, it’s clear the trade organization knows its under close scrutiny and yet it’s still willing to blur lines to allow some companies ancillarily to cannabis to exhibit. That is, if they don’t talk about the device’s true intention.

In the past, sex tech was explicitly banned, so companies like OhMiBod exhibited under Health and Wellness. Vaporizers could be categorized as aromatherapy devices. Emails obtained by TechCrunch show the CTA has told cannabis-adjacent companies it can exhibit if cannabis is not mentioned on the show floor.

Keep Labs submitted its cannabis storage device exhibit under the “Home Storage” category. Upon its acceptance, the CTA nominated the device to the coveted Innovation Award and told the company it could present, as long as it doesn’t mention cannabis. You see, to the CTA, Keep Labs’ product is acceptable as it could have another purpose other than storing cannabis gummies; it could, in theory, be used to store candy gummies. Keep Labs told TechCrunch that avoiding saying “cannabis” goes against the company’s best interest, so it decided to skip the show.

Canopy Growth operates several prominent brands in the cannabis space. Like Keep Labs, it feels CES is not the right place to exhibit its wares if true intentions need to be hidden.

The Canadian company announced a new line of vape pens and cartridges in late 2019. With smart features and an app component, it would be perfect fodder among CES’ high-tech exhibits. The company also owns Storz-Bickel, a vaporizer company with historic roots that could exhibit in this CES gray area.

Canopy Growth acknowledges it’s banned from the show while some smaller competitors are able to exhibit by skirting the rules.

Canopy Growth CTO Peter Popplewell tells TechCrunch he still attends CES. It’s essential for him and Canopy Growth’s brands, even if the company isn’t exhibiting. For him, as the CTO, he’s meeting with component makers and suppliers.

“As the largest producer of legally produced medical and recreational cannabis and hemp products, and now a hardware manufacturer, Canopy Growth is constantly looking for ways to provide next-generation innovation to our customers and enhance their cannabis experience," Popplewell told TechCrunch. “Within its portfolio of brands, Canopy has brought to market five different vaporizer products this fiscal year and our R&D pipeline is full of exciting developments.

“CES is the tradeshow where I am able to meet with a host of component manufacturers that help us develop safety features on our devices — such as accurate temperature control and locking the devices to address the unique needs and concerns of cannabis users," Popplewell said.

Pax is one of the largest cannabis hardware companies and does not exhibit at CES. To be clear, Pax still has a presence in Las Vegas during CES, even though it’s not at the show itself. Like many companies at CES, Pax holds meetings and attends third-party events during CES. This lets the company bypass the CTA’s rules and still access CES attendees.

Earlier this week Pax released its Era Pro vaporizer that features PodID, a clever feature that brings a lot of information to the user.

Pax VP of Policy Jeff Brown, tells TechCrunch he’s puzzled by the CTA’s stance.

“CTA’s stubborn refusal to allow cannabis companies on the show floor is both comic and puzzling,” Brown said. “Cannabis is fully legal in Las Vegas, and there are multiple dispensaries within a mile of the convention center. Inside, companies offer an open bar in their booth, and hundreds walk the floor with a drink in hand.

“Nobody is asking to consume at CES,” Brown added. “There’s a lot of interesting technology being developed to take the guesswork out of weed. There are vaporizers with apps that tell consumers what they’re smoking, they detail the chemical attributes, and provide controls to measure each dose. There’s even a numeric lock to make the vaporizer unusable by children.”

As he told TechCrunch, this technology is legal, and cannabis itself is legal in 33 states and Canada.

“Unfortunately, you’re not going to learn about it at CES,” Brown said.

Right now, even in 2020, there are ways around the CTA’s ban. In the case of Keep Labs, the CTA granted the company permission to exhibit — as long as cannabis wasn’t mentioned. The company decided that to exhibit without saying “cannabis” wouldn’t do the brand justice. They don’t want to shy away from cannabis.

This is the puzzling part. The CTA will let companies exhibit, as long as their true intentions are hidden. The CTA used to do the same with sex toys, too.

In the run-up to the 2019 show, the CTA awarded sextech maker Lori DiCarlo with an Innovations Award. It later rescinded the award after the trade organization decided it was too sexy for CES. Fallout followed and expanded as the show opened, and sextech was found throughout the show floor, despite the ban affecting Lori DiCarlo. As with cannabis, the CTA allowed sextech under the guise of as “personal massagers” alongside therapy and sports massagers in the Health and Wellness category.

The CTA introduced the Sex Tech category for the 2020 show on a trial basis. I’m told the category will likely live on to future shows, too. This is how the CTA operates, the CTA told TechCrunch. It trials a category, and then if it works out, the category is rolled into the show.

“For us, cannabis is a tough decision,” a CTA spokesperson told TechCrunch. “It’s complicated, and the laws are changing quickly. We are watching closely, and I would not be surprised if, at some point in the future, it was part of the show.”

The CTA tells TechCrunch it continually looks at the regulatory environment, pointing out that cannabis is still an illicit substance at the federal level in the United States. The CTA however acknowledges cannabis is legal in the state of Nevada.

Nevada is one of the 33 states in the United States where cannabis is legal in some form. In Nevada, it’s legal to consume for recreational uses. The state law allows for cannabis consumption in a private residence, making it illegal to consume in a hotel, public space or convention center. There are dozens of cannabis dispensaries within miles of CES.

Cortney Smith’s vaporizer company DaVinci is based in Las Vegas and has exhibited at CES a handful of times. As he tells TechCrunch, the company didn’t have a problem presenting on the show floor, but “didn’t paste pot leaves all over.”

Smith explained that he feels the CTA’s radar has grown more sensitive in part by the vaporizer scare in 2019.

“In the past, [cannabis products weren’t] challenged,” Smith said. “So when we were there, as a cannabis vaporizer, we did not get scrutinized because [the CTA] was not on alert.”

DaVinci isn’t exhibiting this year despite recently launching a new product. The dry herb DaVinci IQ2 just hit the market and is among a new crop of vaporizers designed to bring more transparency to cannabis use. It uses on-device processing to track and record active compounds produced per draw. The sleek device and smartphone app would look at home among the latest gadgets found at CES.

As he puts it, if CES doesn’t want the business, there’s an opportunity for other trade shows to pick up cannabis products and run with it.

“CES has competition,” Smith said. “There are other consumer electronics shows around the world that would love to steal their thunder and star power. And the chance [the CTA] takes when they limit their innovation — like no sex toys or no cannabis — it gives the opportunity to some other electronics show to welcome adult toys or adult devices. So I guess they’re willing to make this compromise to play it safe.”

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

GM to release an electric Hummer pickup, per report

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 12:46 PM PST

General Motors could be bringing back the Hummer brand. According to this report by The Wall Street Journal, an all-electric Hummer pickup will be sold under the GMC brand and LeBron James is enlisted to help market the vehicle.

There are no details about the pickup's capability, including electric range or seating capacity.

The move revives one of GM's more controversial brands and pushes it in a different direction. The Hummer brand was often known for its large, quasi-capable SUVs. The Hummer H2 was the poster child for gas-guzzling vehicles in the early 2000s. The brand's revival and electric revamp might confuse consumers accustomed with the Hummer of old.

The vehicle is set to be announced during the Super Bowl with an advertisement featuring LeBron James, the WSJ says. If that's true, the auto maker is likely set to bring the model to market in a year or two. That's along the same timeline as another classic brand goes electric — the Ford Mustang.

Alphabet’s controversial chief legal officer David Drummond is leaving, saying he has decided to retire

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 12:45 PM PST

The changing of the guard at Alphabet continues. Roughly one month after Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin announced they’d be stepping down as the CEO and president of the search giant’s parent company, one of their top lieutenants, Alphabet’s chief legal officer, David Drummond, told employees that he, too, is leaving the company.

In a memo shared with Bloomberg and reprinted below, Drummond said that “with Larry and Sergey now leaving their executive roles at Alphabet” and the company “entering an exciting new phase,” he is, after “careful consideration,” retiring “to make way for the next generation of leaders.”

His departure can’t surprise many in Silicon Valley. In November, Alphabet's board of directors opened an investigation into how executives at the company have handled misconduct claims, forming both an independent subcommittee and hiring a law firm to look into the issues. Presumably, much of their attention was focused on Drummond, whose long-ago extramarital affair with one employee with whom he shares a child first surfaced in a story by The Information in 2017, and who more recently married another employee from Google’s legal department.

Though Alphabet has long supported Drummond — he helped incorporate the company when it was founded in 1998 and remained one of its top executives — the corporate giant came under pressure to do something after Drummond’s earlier affair began to garner unwanted attention. Specifically, the former employee with whom he shares a child, Jennifer Blakely, published a post on Medium last summer in which she described Drummond as a serial philanderer who left his wife for her, then left her and the son that he fathered with her for another now-former Google employee.

Blakely also claimed Drummond had had "an affair with his 'personal assistant' who he moved into one of his new homes."

One day later, Drummond issued a statement of his own, acknowledging his relationship with Blakely and their "difficult break-up 10 years ago." He went on to state that, "Other than Jennifer, I never started a relationship with anyone else who was working at Google or Alphabet. Any suggestion otherwise is simply untrue."

Days after issuing the statement, Drummond married a Google employee he'd been dating.

Not everyone was supportive of Drummond inside the company. In addition to employees who’ve pushed back against the company’s culture in recent years, Bill Maris — who founded Google’s venture arm and as the unit’s CEO reported directly to Drummond — had a strained relationship with him, Maris says.

Specifically, Maris tells Axios that Drummond is why he left GV back in 2016. “I had been asked in the past why I left . . . David Drummond is the reason I left Google. I simply could not work with him any longer.  It's that simple. We have very, very different ideas about how to treat people, and this was a long time coming.”

Drummond made a substantial fortune throughout the course of his career with Google, then Alphabet. He was paid $47 million last year. According to stock filings tracked by CNBC, he also sold $77 million worth of stock earlier this month, following sales of more than $70 million in November and again in December, just before Page and Brin said they were departing their roles.

Roughly six years ago, Brin also reportedly dated a Google employee while still married to his first wife, 23andMe founder Anne Wojcicki.

Both Page and Brin remain on the board of Alphabet. Drummond’s last day with the company will be January 31.

Drummond’s note to employees follows:

More than 20 years ago, Larry Page and Sergey Brin first asked me to help them with their unincorporated startup. Of course, that startup would grow to include more than 100,000 employees and make a positive impact on the lives of people around the world. From the beginning, I felt privileged to work with Larry and Sergey to realize their commitment to making information more universally accessible and useful, and was thrilled to join Google full-time in 2002.

With Larry and Sergey now leaving their executive roles at Alphabet, the company is entering an exciting new phase, and I believe that it's also the right time for me to make way for the next generation of leaders. As a result, after careful consideration, I have decided to retire at the end of this month.

As I do so, I'd like to thank everyone with whom I've had the privilege to work so closely over the past two decades. Whether we were fighting alongside others around the globe to protect and expand freedom of expression; pressing to make sure copyright law continued to foster openness and creativity; designing an unconventional but dynamic corporate structure that has served Google so well; putting together industry-changing acquisitions that served as the foundation for some of Google's most popular products; creating and evolving the rules that protect our users; or establishing start-up models to help unleash the potential of our amazing Other Bets: I have always relished the opportunity to work with such talented colleagues.

In particular, I have loved building and being a part of the legal team: your dedication, drive and leadership in helping digital innovation flourish has been amazing to behold. I have also been energized and deeply impressed by my time with the corporate development, public policy, trust and safety and communications teams, as well as the folks at GV, Capital G and Jigsaw. These groups' relentless creativity and herculean efforts to further Google's ambitious mission have been beyond inspiring. I'd also like to thank BGN and all of the company's employee resource groups, whose tireless efforts continue to make the company better.

I know this company is in the best of hands, and I am excited for what the future holds for Google, for Alphabet and for me. But, as I move on, I'd like to thank Larry and Sergey and each and every one of you for providing me with the most engaging, challenging and rewarding professional environment that anyone could hope for. I am deeply grateful.

Rappi and Oyo pare staff as Vision Fund companies trim costs, target profits

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 12:09 PM PST

This week we’ve covered layoffs at unicorns both inside the Vision Fund and out. This afternoon we add two more to our list: Oyo and Rappi.

The staff reductions are surprising — and not. They are surprising, as Oyo (India-based, low-cost hotels) and Rappi (Latin America-focused e-commerce) were bright lights in the Vision Fund’s crown. And the layoffs are not surprising as other famous unicorns have recently cut staff in a bid to reduce costs, diminish losses and aim closer to profitability.

Our net lack of shock is underscored by the Vision Fund itself, which signaled late last year that it wants portfolio companies to get profitable and get public. The cuts are therefore a little more than unsurprising; we should have anticipated them.

Casper files to go public, shows you can lose money selling mattresses

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 11:27 AM PST

E-commerce phenom and D2C bright light Casper has filed to go public.

The New York-based company that raised nearly $340 million while private, according to Crunchbase data, expects to trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol “CSPR.” Its S-1 filing includes a $100 million placeholder figure for its possible capital raise.

The company will need the money, as it loses money and burns cash. Let’s explore just how a mattress company does that.

Growth, loss

In the full years of 2017 and 2018, Casper recorded revenue of $250.9 million (net of $45.7 million in “refunds, returns, and discounts”) and $357.9 million (net of $80.7 million in “refunds, returns, and discounts”). That worked out to growth of 42.6% in the year.

Over the same two periods, Casper lost $73.4 million and $92.1 million on a net basis, respectively.

In the first three quarters of 2019 versus 2018, Casper put up $312.3 million in top line (net of $80.1 million in “refunds, returns, and discounts”), up just over 20% from its year-ago three-quarter tally of $259.7 million in revenue (net of $57.7 million in “refunds, returns, and discounts”).

The company’s net loss during the three-quarter period rose from $64.2 million in 2018 to $67.4 million in 2019. The company’s net losses are generally rising (though slowly so far in 2019), while its growth decelerates.

In contrast, and to the company’s favor, its operating cash burn is slowing. From $84.0 million in 2017 to $72.3 million in calendar 2018, Casper slowed its operating cash consumption further in 2019, to just $29.7 million in the first three quarters of the year, compared to $44.9 million over the same period of the preceding year.

But the company’s slowing growth and stiff losses using regular accounting methods (GAAP) could strain its valuation. Casper was valued at $1.1 billion in its most recent funding round.

While the company’s gross margins aren’t bad for a non-software company (49.6% in the first nine months of 2019), the firm spent over 73% of its gross profit last year on sales and marketing costs. That figure indicates that Casper spent heavily to generate growth, growth that came in at about 20% so far in 2019, as reported.

That fact implies that growth will remain constrained, as the firm can’t afford to spend too much more on the line item. Which begs the question: What’s the value of a firm that is showing slowing growth, non-recurring revenue and sticky GAAP losses?

The company’s adjusted losses aren’t much better. Looking at its adjusted EBITDA, a profit metric so distorted to flatter that it’s nigh a funhouse mirror, Casper only marginally improved on its 2018 tally looking at the first three quarters of that year (-$57.5 million) in 2019 (-$53.8 million).

Investors

Casper has raised from IVP, Lerer Hippeau, Target and New Enterprise Associates. The firm raised seed capital back in 2014 along with a Series A. Lerer and NEA were most active back then, looking at its funding history.

The company raised $55 million more in 2015, and a far-larger $170 million in mid-2017. A $100 million round came in 2019 that set it up for its 2020 IPO.

This company’s IPO is a pricing question. And one that will impact a host of startups that both compete directly with Casper or operate in a different vertical with a similar business. Get hype.

A sex tech startup’s triumphant return to CES

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 11:16 AM PST

When the Lora DiCarlo wagon finally arrives, the rolling glass box's back door opens and another journalist pops out to get on his way. The sex tech company has a week packed full with 20-minute rolling interviews with a curious tech press. No time to spare; I step up, sit down, and we're on our way.

Driving down the Las Vegas Strip in a transparent box is a curious, extremely Vegas experience: puzzled tourists and confused CES attendees gawk from the sidewalks. Four of us are sitting in a makeshift living room with fuzzy white carpet: CEO Lora Haddock, Enzo Ferrari Drift DiCarlo (her fuzzy black-and-white Pomeranian), and a colleague, who holds Enzo in their lap. A four-foot-tall faux sex toy sits in a corner, swaying occasionally.

It's been a hell of a year since the sex tech startup was at the center of a firestorm after the CTA unceremoniously revoked its Innovation Award. By July, the CES organizer found itself eating crow via a press release and agreed to allow sex tech companies to exhibit on a "one-year trial bias," spreading them out amongst the broader category of health tech at the show's Eureka Park startup exhibit space.

Cookie consent tools are being used to undermine EU privacy rules, study suggests

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 10:08 AM PST

Most cookie consent pop-ups served to internet users in the European Union — ostensibly seeking permission to track people’s web activity — are likely to be flouting regional privacy laws, a new study by researchers at MIT, UCL and Aarhus University suggests.

“The results of our empirical survey of CMPs [consent management platforms] today illustrates the extent to which illegal practices prevail, with vendors of CMPs turning a blind eye to — or worse, incentivising — clearly illegal configurations of their systems,” the researchers argue, adding that: “Enforcement in this area is sorely lacking.”

Their findings, published in a paper entitled “Dark Patterns after the GDPR: Scraping Consent Pop-ups and Demonstrating their Influence,” chime with another piece of research we covered back in August — which also concluded a majority of the current implementations of cookie notices offer no meaningful choice to Europe’s Internet users — even though EU law requires one.

When consent is being relied upon as the legal basis for processing web users’ personal data, the bar for valid (i.e. legal) consent that’s set by the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is clear: It must be informed, specific and freely given.

Recent jurisprudence by the Court of Justice of the European Union also further crystalized the law around cookies, making it clear that consent must be actively signaled — meaning a digital service cannot infer consent to tracking by indirect actions (such as the pop-up being closed by the user without a response or ignored in favor of interacting with the service).

Many websites use a so-called CMP to solicit consent to tracking cookies. But if it’s configured to contain pre-ticked boxes that opt users into sharing data by default — requiring an affirmative user action to opt out — any gathered “consent” also isn’t legal.

Consent to tracking must also be obtained prior to a digital service dropping or accessing a cookie; only service-essential cookies can be deployed without asking first.

All of which means — per EU law — it should be equally easy for website visitors to choose not to be tracked as to agree to their personal data being processed.

However, the “Dark Patterns after the GDPR” study found that’s very far from the case right now.

“We found that dark patterns and implied consent are ubiquitous,” the researchers write in summary, saying that only slightly more than one in 10 (11.8%) of the CMPs they looked at “meet the minimal requirements that we set based on European law” — which they define as being “if it has no optional boxes pre-ticked, if rejection is as easy as acceptance, and if consent is explicit.”

For the study, the researchers scraped the top 10,000 U.K. websites, as ranked by Alexa, to gather data on the most prevalent CMPs in the market — which are made by five companies: QuantCast, OneTrust, TrustArc, Cookiebot and Crownpeak — and analyzed how the design and configurations of these tools affected internet users’ choices. (They obtained a data set of 680 CMP instances via their method — a sample they calculate is representative of at least 57% of the total population of the top 10,000 sites that run a CMP, given prior research found only around a fifth do so.)

Implicit consent — aka (illegally) inferring consent via non-affirmative user actions (such as the user visiting or scrolling on the website or a failure to respond to a consent pop-up or closing it without a response) — was found to be common (32.5%) among the studied sites.

“Popular CMP implementation wizards still allow their clients to choose implied consent, even when they have already indicated the CMP should check whether the visitor's IP is within the geographical scope of the EU, which should be mutually exclusive,” they note, arguing that: “This raises significant questions over adherence with the concept of data protection by design in the GDPR.”

They also found that the vast majority of CMPs make rejecting all tracking “substantially more difficult than accepting it” — with a majority (50.1%) of studied sites not having a “reject all” button. While only a tiny minority (12.6%) of sites had a 'reject all' button accessible with the same or fewer number of clicks as an “accept all” button.

Or, to put it another way, “Ohhai dark pattern design“…

“An 'accept all' button was never buried in a second layer,” the researchers go on to point out, also finding that “74.3% of reject all buttons were one layer deep, requiring two clicks to press; 0.9% of them were two layers away, requiring at minimum three.”

Pre-ticked boxes were found to be widely deployed in the studied CMPs as well — despite such a setting not being legally valid. (On this they found: “56.2% of sites pre-ticked optional vendors or purposes/categories, with 54.1% of sites pre-ticking optional purposes, 32.3% pre-ticking optional categories, and 30.3% pre-ticking both.”)

They also point out that the high number of third-party trackers routinely being used by sites poses a major problem for the EU consent model — given it requires a “prohibitively long time” for users to become clearly informed enough to be able to legally consent.

The exact number of third-party trackers they found being packed like sardines into CMPs varied — with between tens and several hundreds in play depending on the site.

Fifty-eight was the lowest number they encountered. While the highest instance was 542 vendors — on an implementation of QuantCast’s CMP. (And, well, just imagine the “friction” involved in manually unticking all those, assuming that was one of the sites that also lacked a ‘reject all’ button… )

Sites relied on a large number of third party trackers, which would take a prohibitively long time for users to inform themselves about clearly. Out of the 85.4% of sites that did list vendors (e.g. third party trackers) within the CMP, there was a median number of 315 vendors (low. quartile 58, upp. quartile 542). Different CMP vendors have different average numbers of vendors, with the highest being QuantCast at 542… 75% of sites had over 58 vendors. 76.47% of sites provide some descriptions of their vendors. The mean total length of these descriptions per site is 7,985 words: roughly 31.9 minutes of reading for the average 250 words-per-minute reader, not counting interaction time to e.g. unfold collapsed boxes or navigating to and reading specific privacy policies of a vendor.

A second part of the research involved a field experiment involving 40 participants to investigate how the eight most common CMP designs affect internet users’ consent choices.

“We found that notification style (banner or barrier) has no effect [on consent choice]; removing the opt-out button from the first page increases consent by 22-23 percentage points; and providing more granular controls on the first page decreases consent by 8-20 percentage points,” they write in summary on that.

They argue this portion of the study supports the notion that two of the most common consent interface designs — “not showing a 'reject all' button on the first page; and showing bulk options before showing granular control” — make it more likely for users to provide consent, thereby “violating the [GDPR] principle of ‘freely given.’ ”

They also make reference to “qualitative reflections” of the participants in the paper — which were obtained via survey after individuals’ consent choices had been registered during the field study — suggesting these responses “put into question the entire notice-and-consent model not because of specific design decisions but merely because an action is required before the user can accomplish their main task and because they appear too frequently if they are shown on a website-by-website basis.”

So, in other words, just the fact of interrupting a web user to ask them to make a choice may itself apply substantial enough pressure that it might render any resulting “consent” invalid.

The study’s finding of the prevalence of manipulative designs and configurations intended to nudge or even force consent suggests internet users in Europe are not actually benefiting from a legal framework that’s supposed to protect their digital data from unwanted exploitation — and are rather being subject to a lot of noisy, distracting and disingenuous “consent theatre.”

Cookie notices not only generate friction and frustration for the average internet user, as they try to go about their daily business online, but the current situation is creating a faux veneer of compliance — atop what is actually a massive trampling of rights via what amounts to digital daylight robbery of people’s data at scale.

The problem here is that EU regulators have for years looked the other way where online tracking is concerned, failing entirely to enforce the on-paper standard.

Enforcement is indeed sorely lacking, as the researchers note. (Industry lobbying/political pressure, limited resources, risk aversion and regulatory capture, and a legacy of inaction around digital rights are all likely to blame.)

And while the GDPR only started being applied in May 2018, Europe has had regulations on data-gathering mechanisms like cookies for approaching two decades — with the paper pointing out that an amendment to the ePrivacy Directive all the way back in 2002 made it a requirement that “storing or accessing information on a user's device not 'strictly necessary' for providing an explicitly requested service requires both clear and comprehensive information and opt-in consent.”

Asked about the research findings, lead author Midas Nouwens questioned why CMP vendors are selling so-called “compliance” tools that allow for non-compliant configurations in the first place.

“It’s sad, but I don’t think anyone is surprised anymore by how few pop-ups comply with the GDPR,” he told TechCrunch. “What is shocking is how non-compliant interface designs are allowed by the companies that provide consent pop-ups. Why do they let their clients count scrolling as consent or bury the decline button somewhere on the third page?”

“Enforcement is really the next big challenge if we don’t want the GDPR to go down the same path as the ePrivacy directive,” he added. “Since enforcement agencies have limited resources, focusing on the popular consent pop-up providers could be a much more effective strategy than targeting individual websites.

“Unfortunately, while we wait for enforcement, the dark patterns in these pop-ups are still manipulating people into being tracked.”

Another of the researchers behind the paper, Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at UCL, also expressed shock that CMP vendors are allowing their tools to be configured in ways which are clearly intended to manipulate internet users — thereby flouting the law.

In the paper the researchers urge regulators to take a smarter approach to tackling such widespread violation, such as by making use of automated tools “to expedite discovery and enforcement” of non-compliant cookie notices, and suggest they work ‘further upstream’ — such as by placing requirements on the vendors of CMPs “to only allow compliant designs to be placed on the market.”

“It’s shocking to see how many of the large providers of consent pop-ups allow their systems to be misconfigured, such as through implicit consent, in ways that clearly infringe data protection law,” Veale told us, adding: “I suspect data protection authorities see this widespread illegality and are not sure exactly where to start. Yet if they do not start enforcing these guidelines, it’s unclear when this widespread illegality will start to stop.”

“This study even overestimates compliance, as we don’t focus on what actually happens to the tracking when you click on these buttons, which other recent studies have emphasised in many cases mislead individuals and do nothing at all,” he also pointed out.

We reached out to the U.K.’s data protection watchdog, the ICO, for a response to the research — and a spokeswoman pointed us to this cookie advice blog post it published last year, saying the advice it contains “still stands.”

In the blog, Ali Shah, the ICO's head of technology policy, suggests there could be some (albeit limited) action from the regulator this year to clean up cookie consent, with Shah writing that: "Cookie compliance will be an increasing regulatory priority for the ICO in the future. However, as is the case with all our powers, any future action would be proportionate and risk-based."

While European citizens wait for data protection regulators to take meaningful action over systematic breaches of the GDPR — including those attached to consent-less tracking of web users — there is one step European web users can take to shrink the pain of cookie consent pop-ups: The researchers behind the study have built an open source browser extension that can automatically answer pop-ups based on user-customizable preferences.

It’s called Consent-o-Matic — and there are versions available for Firefox and Chrome.

At release the tool can automatically respond to cookie banners built by the five big CMP suppliers (QuantCast, OneTrust, TrustArc, Cookiebot and Crownpeak).

But being as it’s open source, the hope is others will build on it to expand the types of pop-ups it’s able to auto-respond to. In the absence of a legally enforced “Do Not Track” browser standard, this is about as good as it gets for internet users desperately seeking easier agency over the online tracking industry.

In a Twitter thread last month announcing the tool, Nouwens described the project as making use of “adversarial interoperability” as a pro-privacy tactic.

“Automating consent and privacy preferences is not new (DNT and P3P), but this project uses adversarial interoperability, rather than rely on industry self-regulation or buy-in from fundamentally opposed stakeholders (browsers, advertisers, publishers),” he observed.

However he added one caveat, reminding users to be on their guard for further non-compliance from the data suckers — pointing to the earlier research paper also flagged by Veale, which found a small portion of sites (~7%) entirely ignore responses to cookie pop-ups and track users regardless of response.

So sometimes even a seamlessly automated “no” to tracking might still sum to being tracked…

Layoffs at Lime and Getaround herald rise of profit-hungry unicorns

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 08:37 AM PST

Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

A million dollars isn’t cool. You know what’s cool? Positive adjusted EBITDA, or something close to it.

That’s the message from scooter unicorn Lime, which announced this week that it was cutting about 14% of its staff and closing a dozen markets. The staff reductions, numbering about 100, come as the company has touted efforts to improve its profitability — going as far as setting targets for when it might reach capital freedom, as well as highlighting the matter in a recent corporate blog post.

(Bird, a Lime competitor, also underwent layoffs this year.)

What’s going on? Unicorns, once hungry for growth, are now hell-bent to show current (and future) investors that their businesses aren’t unprofitable quagmires. Profitability, or movement towards it, is hot, and Lime is a good example of the trend — as is Getaround, which also wrote about its own layoffs this week. Let’s dig in.

Sisense CEO Amir Orad explains why he raised over $100M

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 07:10 AM PST

This week, Sisense, a player in the business intelligence space, announced a $100 million investment. As TechCrunch reported, the round pushed the company’s valuation north of the $1 billion mark, making Sisense the world’s newest unicorn.

That moniker will last a day, we’re sure.

TechCrunch caught up with Sisense CEO Amir Orad and CMO Harry Glaser to discuss the company’s business scale just a few days ago; Sisense is a member in our newly-created $100 million ARR club, having first surpassed the threshold after buying Periscope earlier in 2019 and later with its original operations. What follows is an edited transcript that we’ve shortened to the key bits regarding the round that gifted Sisense its horn.

Mozilla says a new Firefox security bug is under active attack

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 07:10 AM PST

Mozilla has warned Firefox users to update their browser to the latest version after security researchers found a vulnerability that hackers were actively exploiting in “targeted attacks” against users.

The vulnerability, found by Chinese security company Qihoo 360, was found in Firefox’s just-in-time compiler. The compiler is tasked with speeding up performance of JavaScript to make websites load faster. But researchers found that the bug could allow malicious JavaScript to run outside of the browser on the host computer.

In practical terms, that means an attacker can quietly break into a victim’s computer by tricking the victim into accessing a website running malicious JavaScript code.

But Qihoo did not say precisely how the bug was exploited, who the attackers were, or who was targeted.

Browser vulnerabilities are a hot commodity in security circles as they can be used to infect vulnerable computers — often silently and without the user noticing — and be used to deliver malware or ransomware. Browsers are also a target for nation states and governments and their use of surveillance tools, known as network investigative techniques — or NITs. These vulnerability-exploiting tools have been used by federal agents to spy on and catch criminals. But these tools have drawn ire from the security community because the feds’ failure to disclose the bugs to the software makers could result in bad actors exploiting the same vulnerabilities for malicious purposes.

Mozilla issued the security advisory for Firefox 72, which had only been out for two days before the vulnerability was found.

Homeland Security’s cyber advisory unit, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, also issued a security warning, advising users to update to Firefox 72.0.1, which fixes the vulnerability. Little information was given about the bug, only that it could be used to “take control of an affected system.”

Firefox users can update their browser from the settings.

Cherry goes downmarket with its new Viola mechanical keyboard switches

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 06:00 AM PST

Cherry has long been the de facto standard for mechanical keyboard switches. Since mechanical keyboards are, almost by default, significantly more expensive than membrane or dome-switch keyboards, that has kept the company out of a large part of the market. Now, on the last day of CES 2020, the company is launching its new Viola switch, the company’s first fully mechanical switch for the value market, meant for keyboards that will cost somewhere between $50 and $100.

As the Cherry team told me ahead of today’s announcement, its engineers spent well over a year on designing this new switch, which only has a handful of parts and which moves some of the complexity into the circuit board on the keyboard itself. A lot of the work went into designing the new self-cleaning contact system (which the company quickly patented) and to ensure that the switches’ materials would be able to handle regular use despite the simplicity of the design.

Because of this new design, the new Viola switches are now hot-swappable, so if one ever goes bad, swapping in a new one shouldn’t take more than a few seconds. And because the company stuck with the same industry-standard cross-stem design for attaching keycaps, keyboard manufacturers can reuse their existing designs, too.

Like most new switches, the Cherry Viola supports LED lighting, which in the case of this new design can be mounted right on the circuit board of the keyboard.

If you’re a keyboard aficionado, you won’t confuse the new Viola switch with any of Cherry’s high-end MX switches. For a lot of users who want a mechanical keyboard at a value price, this looks like it’ll be a great option.

I didn’t get a chance to spend a lot of time with the new switches, but as best as I could tell, the current version resembles a quiet MX Brown switch. Cherry itself discourages any comparisons, though. Even the name is clearly meant to remove any confusion that this switch is part of the MX series. And while Cherry has plans to offer similar switch variants as the MX Black, Brown, Blue and Red, it won’t recycle those colors for those switches either. While the company tells me it isn’t all that worried about the new switches cannibalizing the MX market, it’s not leaving that to chance either.

One major difference with the Viola switches is that Cherry isn’t giving any guarantee for how many keystrokes they will withstand — at least not yet. The company tells me it may give some guidance at a later point.

Like all other Cherry switches, the Viola switches are built in the company’s factory in Germany and all of its suppliers, too, are building their products in the country as well.

For the MX switches, though, the company is now raising its guarantee from 50 million keystrokes (which was already a lot) to 100 million. Some pro-gamers actually reach those numbers (and the switches usually continue to function well beyond that), but for everybody else, it’s just an assurance that the company stands behind its products. To achieve this, the team made some minor adjustments to switches and especially the guide rails on the inside of the switch housing. That won’t change the actual typing experience, though.

The first keyboards with the 100-million MX switches are already available, and the first Viola keyboards will become available soon.

CES 2020 coverage - TechCrunch

Lucky coffee, unicorn stumbles and Sam Altman’s YC wager

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 06:00 AM PST

Hello and welcome back to Equity, TechCrunch's venture capital-focused podcast, where we unpack the numbers behind the headlines.

This week we had TechCrunch’s Alex Wilhelm and Danny Crichton on hand to dig into the news, with Chris Gates on the dials and more news than we could possibly cram into 30 minutes. So we went a bit over; sorry about that.

We kicked off by running through a few short-forms to get things going, including:

  • Alex wanted to talk about his recent story on Lily AI’s $12.5 million Series A. Canaan led the round into the e-commerce-focused recommendation engine that has a cool take on what people care about.
  • Danny talked about the acquisition of Armis Security by Insight for $1.1 billion, the VC round for self-driving forklift startup Vecna and an outside-the-Valley round for Houston-based HighRadius.

Turning to longer cuts, the team dug into the latest from SoftBank, its Vision Fund and the successes and struggles of its enormous startup bets. Leading the news cycle this week were layoffs at Zume, a robotic pizza delivery venture that is no longer pursuing robotic pizza delivery. Now it’s working on sustainable packaging. Cool, but it’s going to be hard for the company to grow into its valuation while pivoting.

Other issues have come up — more here — that paint some cracks onto the Vision Fund’s sunny exterior. Don’t be too beguiled by the bad news, Danny says; venture funds run like J-Curves, and there are still winners in that particular portfolio.

After that, we turned to China, in particular its venture slowdown. The bubble, in Danny’s view, has burst. The story discussed is here, if you want to read it. The short version for the lazy is that not only has China’s venture scene slowed down dramatically, but startups — even those with ample capital raised — are dying by the hundred. But one highly caffeinated Chinese startup continues to find growth in the world’s greatest tea market.

Finally we hit on the Sam Altman wager and the latest from Sisense, which is now a unicorn. All that and we had some fun.

Equity drops every Friday at 6:00 am PT, so subscribe to us on Apple PodcastsOvercastSpotify and all the casts.

DuckDuckGo still critical of Google’s EU Android choice screen auction, after wining a universal slot

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 04:30 AM PST

Google has announced which search engines have won an auction process it has devised for an Android “choice screen” — as its response to an antitrust intervention by the region’s competition regulator.

The prompt is shown to users of Android smartphones in the European Union as they set up a device, asking them to choose a search engine from a list of four that always includes Google’s own search engine.

In mid-2018 the European Commission fined Google $5 billion for antitrust violations attached to how it operates the Android platform, including related to how it bundles its own services with the dominant smartphone OS, and ordered it to remedy the infringements — while leaving it up to the tech giant to devise a fix.

Google responded by creating a choice screen for Android users to pick a search engine from a short list — with the initial choices seemingly based on local market share. But last summer it announced it would move to auctioning slots on the screen via a fixed sealed-bid auction process.

The big winners of the initial auction, for the period March 1, 2020 to June 30, 2020, are pro-privacy search engine DuckDuckGo — which gets one of three paid-for slots in all 31 European markets — and a product called Info.com, which will also be shown as an option in all those markets. (Per Wikipedia, the latter is a veteran metasearch engine that provides results from multiple search engines and directories, including Google.)

French pro-privacy search engine Qwant will be shown as an option to Android users in eight European markets. While Russia’s Yandex will appear as an option in five markets in the east of the region.

Other search engines that will appear as choices in a minority of European markets are GMX, Seznam, Givero and PrivacyWall.

At a glance the big loser looks to be Microsoft’s Bing search engine — which will only appear as an option on the choice screen shown in the U.K.

Tree-planting search engine Ecosia does not appear anywhere on the list at all, despite appearing on some initial Android choice screens — having taken the decision to boycott the auction because it objects to Google’s “pay-to-play” approach.

“We believe this auction is at odds with the spirit of the July 2018 EU Commission ruling,” Ecosia CEO Christian Kroll told the BBC. “Internet users deserve a free choice over which search engine they use and the response of Google with this auction is an affront to our right to a free, open and federated internet. Why is Google able to pick and choose who gets default status on Android?”

It’s not the only search engine critical of Google’s move, with Qwant and DuckDuckGo both raising concerns immediately after Google announced it would shift to a paid auction last year.

Despite participating in the process — and winning a universal slot — DuckDuckGo told us it still does not agree with the pay-to-play approach.

“We believe a search preference menu is an excellent way to meaningfully increase consumer choice if designed properly. Our own research has reinforced this point and we look forward to the day when Android users in Europe will have the opportunity to easily make DuckDuckGo their default search engine while setting up their phones. However, we still believe a pay-to-play auction with only 4 slots isn’t right because it means consumers won’t get all the choices they deserve and Google will profit at the expense of the competition,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

A spokesperson for Qwant also told us: “Qwant has repeatedly called for all competitors to be granted access to the mobile market in an open manner, with the same chances for all to be chosen by users as their default search engine. We don’t believe it is fair from Google to require competing search engines to pay them for the chance to be offered as an alternative to Google, when Google was found to abuse its dominant position through its Android mobile system. Nevertheless, given the importance of the mobile market for any ambitious search engine, we had to participate in this first bidding process and are relieved that users finally have the possibility to choose Qwant as their default search engine on Android devices in some countries. We wished it was the case in all countries and that our competitors had all the same opportunity, since search engines should compete on their merits and not on their capability to pay Google for a slot in a choice screen.”

This report was updated with additional comment from Qwant 

Just Spices, the German spice mix startup, raises €13M Series B

Posted: 10 Jan 2020 02:00 AM PST

Just Spices, the German-founded spice mix brand, is disclosing €13 million in Series B funding. The round is led by Five Seasons Ventures and Coefficient Capital, with Bitburger Ventures also joining.

A direct to consumer play, Just Spices offers two main product lines: Spice Mixes and "IN MINUTES".

The first consists of various spice blends, with new blends being developed based on the sales and customer feedback data the startup is amassing.

The second, launched in 2018, is recipe-driven, offering 27 "fix" meal preparations that sees Just Spices provide the recipe and spice mix needed to prepare a quick meal, with only a few additional fresh ingredients required to complete the dish. It appears to share some similarities with SimplyCook in the U.K.

“The need for innovative, fast and still balanced solutions in the food sector is greater than ever,” says Just Spices co-founder and CEO Florian Falk. “On the one hand, people have less time available so food has to be as uncomplicated as possible, but on the other, we still have wants and needs… With Just Spices, and especially with IN MINUTES, we offer a carefree alternative, which consumers can be confident is fast and tasty whilst still fitting into a conscious, healthy diet.”

As part of its customer acquisition strategy and to power a product development feedback loop, Just Spices says it has built a vibrant, active digital community of home cooks. More than 60% of its sales are generated online, and the company claims to be one of the most followed spices brands in Europe (on social media). And certainly the startup is investing in content, including operating its own in-house studio and producing podcasts.

“We want to become the world’s largest lifestyle spice brand,” adds Falk. “To achieve this, we have not only built a fantastic partnership network, we have brought together an amazing team. We want to bring the joy and fun of cooking to many more people.”