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Thursday, January 30, 2020

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Today Crunch News, News Updates, Tech News

Amazon quietly publishes its latest transparency report

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 04:13 PM PST

Just as Amazon was basking in the news of a massive earnings win, the tech giant quietly published — as it always does — its latest transparency report, revealing a slight dip in the number of government demands for user data.

It’s a rarely seen decline in the number of demands received by a tech company during a year where almost every other tech giant — including Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter — all saw an increase in the number of demands they receive. Only Apple reported a decline in the number of demands it received.

Amazon said it received 1,841 subpoenas, 440 search warrants and 114 other court orders for user data — such as its Echo and Fire devices — during the six-month period ending 2019.

That’s about a 4% decline on the first six months of the year.

The company’s cloud unit, Amazon Web Services, also saw a decline in the number of demands for data stored by customers, down by about 10%.

Amazon also said it received between 0 and 249 national security requests for both its consumer and cloud services (rules set out by the Justice Department only allow tech and telecom companies to report in ranges).

At the time of writing, Amazon has not yet updated its law enforcement requests page to list the latest report.

Amazon’s biannual transparency report is one of the lightest reads of any company’s figures across the tech industry. We previously reported on how Amazon’s transparency reports have purposefully become more vague over the years rather than clearer — bucking the industry trend. At just three pages, the company spends most of it explaining how it responds to each kind of legal demand rather than expanding on the numbers themselves.

The company’s Ring smart camera division, which has faced heavy criticism for its poor security practices and its cozy relationship with law enforcement, still hasn’t released its own data demand figures.

Watch Rocket Lab’s first launch of 2020 take an NRO payload to orbit

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 03:15 PM PST

Update: Slight delay due to ground winds. New launch time is about 5:20 PM Pacific time.

Rocket Lab’s first mission of the year, and 11th commercial flight overall, is planned to take off this afternoon from New Zealand and bring a payload from the National Reconnaissance Office to orbit. You can watch the launch, “Birds of a Feather,” right here.

The mission, which was only announced 10 days ago, is also known as NROL-151, and was awarded under a new NRO effort to “explore what the tiny rocket marketplace can provide for us,” as director Betty Sapp put it in 2018, at the outset of the agency’s Rapid Acquisition of a Small Rocket program.

Though Rocket Lab may dispute that its rocket is “tiny” (Sapp also said at the time that many companies took issue with the phrase), it’s definitely smaller than many launch vehicles that the NRO is accustomed to.

It has relied in the past on large geostationary satellites, but cheap access to lower orbit is clearly a trend worth taking advantage of.

“As the industry shifts toward the disaggregation of large, geostationary spacecraft, Electron enables unprecedented access to space to support a resilient layer of government small satellite infrastructure,” said Rocket Lab SVP of global launch services Lars Hoffman said in the mission announcement.

Incidentally, the mission patches for each participant are quite charming and weird:

The launch will be an ordinary one by Rocket Lab standards, though the Electron first stage will attempt to accomplish a guided reentry, monitored by a chase plane. This is preliminary to attempting a full guided return and controlled landing, which only SpaceX has been able to pull off so far — but which is also going to be an essential method for lowering launch costs.

“Birds of a Feather” will be streamed live starting about 20 minutes before launch; You can watch it below.

Publisher engagement startup Insticator bets on commenting with Squawk-It acquisition

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 03:10 PM PST

Insticator, a startup helping publishers add elements like polls, quizzes and suggested story widgets to their content, has made its first acquisition — a commenting platform called Squawk-It.

Insticator CEO Zack Dugow said his platform benefits online publishers by keeping audiences engaged and bringing in new ad revenue (which is split between Insticator and the publisher). And he sees commenting as a natural next step towards his goal to become “the main monetization and community engagement solution for publishers.”

While “don’t read the comments” remains one of the most reliable pieces of advice you’ll get online, Dugow said Squawk-It (it was formerly known as Solid Opinion) stands out from other commenting platforms because of its reliance on “100 percent human moderation,” with moderators working in three shifts to to monitor partner sites 24 hours each day.

“Anybody can game an algorithm,” he said.

And when I brought up the concern that so much of the discussion has moved out of the comments section and onto social media, Dugow responded that “merging social commenting” so that it feels like everything is part of the same conversation is “in our roadmap.”

Like other Insticator products, Squawk-It comments (which you can see below the article here) are monetized through advertising. But Dugow noted that the ads run above the comments, rather interrupting or distracting from the comments themselves.

The financial terms of the acquisition were not disclosed. Dugow said the entire 13-person Squawk-It team (headquartered in New York but with an engineering team in Kiev) has joined Insticator, and that the product has already been rebranded as Insticator Comments.

Mammoth Biosciences aims to be Illumina for the gene editing generation

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 02:42 PM PST

In 1998, the startup company Illumina launched a revolution in the life sciences industry by developing technology to slash the costs of identifying and mapping genetic material.

Now, a little over 20 years later, Mammoth Biosciences is hoping to do the same thing for gene editing tools.

The company, co-founded by Jennifer Doudna, who did some of the pioneering work to discover the gene editing enzyme known as CRISPR, has just raised $45 million as it looks to bring to market products that can be used not only for disease detection, but are more precise editing tools for genetic material.

Rather than get bogged down in the patent dispute that raged over the provenance and ownership of applications for the original CRISPR enzyme — the Cas9 discovered by Doudna and developed for clinical applications at the Broad Institute — Mammoth has joined a number of startups in identifying new enzymes with a broader array of properties.

“From the very beginning of the company we've only worked with novel new enzymes to create these diagnostic products and the new novel diagnostic and editing,” says Trevor Martin, Mammoth Biosciences co-founder and chief executive.

Chiefly, the company is touting its Cas14 enzyme, which the company says opens up new possibilities for programmable biology thanks to its small size, diverse targeting ability and high fidelity — meaning that there are no unforeseen side effects to edits made using the enzyme (something that has arisen with Cas9 applications).

“There's not one protein that's going to be the best at everything,” says Martin. “For any particular product that you're building, at Mammoth, we have the broadest toolbox.”

The Cas14 enzyme can be used to make gene edits in-vivo, meaning in live organisms, instead of ex-vivo, or outside of an organism. The in-vivo use-case could accelerate the time it takes to conduct experiments or develop treatments.

"Twenty years from now, when the umpteenth drug gets approved using Crispr and some nuclease named Cas132013, people are going to look back on this patent battle and think, 'what a godawful waste of money,' ” Jacob Sherkow a patent law scholar at New York Law School told Wired back in 2018.

Already, Horizon Discovery, a Cambridge, U.K.-based gene editing technology developer, is using the new tools developed by Mammoth Bioscience to create new CRISPR tools for Chinese Hamster Ovary cell line editing.

That partnership is an example of how Mammoth is thinking about the commercialization of the new Cas14 enzyme line and its role in biological engineering.

“You will need a full toolbox of CRISPR proteins,” says Martin. “That will allow you to interact with biology in the same way that we interact with software and computers. “From first principles, companies will programmatically modify biology to cure a disease or decrease risk for a disease. That’s going to be really kind of a turning point.”

To achieve its vision, Mammoth has managed to nab top talent from the life sciences industry, including Peter Nell, a co-founder of Casebia (a joint venture between Bayer and CRISPR Therapeutics), who came on board as chief business officer, and Ted Tisch, a former executive at Synthego and Bio-Rad, who joined the company as chief operating officer.

The company also nabbed $45 million of funding, including investment firms Mayfield, NFX, Verily (the Alphabet subsidiary) and Brook Byers, which was led by Decheng Capital — bringing the company to more than $70 million in funding.

“There are a dozen or so products that are in clinical development with CRISPR,” says Ursheet Parikh, a partner with Mayfield. “Maybe that number would go up by five or 10 without Mammoth, but it will go up by one or two orders of magnitude with Mammoth.”

To Parikh, Mammoth is the best positioned of the CRISPR development tools, because the company is building a whole platform that customers can license and use to develop products using gene editing.

The thinking, according to Parikh, is as follows, “if this technology can power lots of applications, let's basically ensure that lots of these applications can come to market and as that happens I get my app store cut.”

“It's an Illumina-like business,” Parikh says. “Just as anybody who is innovating with genomics needs an Illumina sequencer because they want to be able to do the sequencing… if someone wants to do editing… This gives them the access to do the right sequencing.”

Arvind Krishna will replace Ginni Rometty as IBM CEO in April

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 01:55 PM PST

IBM announced today that the board of directors has elected IBM senior vice president for Cloud and Cognitive Software Arvind Krishna to replace current CEO Ginni Rometty. He will take over on April 6th after a couple of months of transition. Rometty will remain with the company as chairman of the board.

Krishna reportedly drove the massive $34 billion acquisition of Red Hat at the end of 2018, and there was some speculation at the time that Red Hat CEO Jim Whitehurst was the heir apparent, but the board went with a more seasoned IBM insider for the job, while naming Whitehurst as president.

In a statement Rometty called Krishna the right man for the job, as she steps back after more than eight years on the job. “Through his multiple experiences running businesses in IBM, Arvind has built an outstanding track record of bold transformations and proven business results, and is an authentic, values-driven leader. He is well-positioned to lead IBM and its clients into the cloud and cognitive era,” she said in a statement.

She added that in choosing Krishna and Whitehurst, the board chose a technically and business savvy team to lead the company moving forward. It’s clear that the board went with two men who have a deep understanding of cloud and cognitive computing technologies, two areas that are obviously going to be front and center of technology for the foreseeable future, and areas where IBM needs to thrive.

Ray Wang, founder and principal analyst at Constellation Research, sees the CEO-president model as a sound approach. “It’s and inside-outside model. To truly understand IBM, you have to come from the inside [like Krishna], but to truly innovate you need someone on the outside [like Whitehurst] and that CEO-president model is helping,” he said.

Patrick Moorhead, founder and principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategies, says that he was surprised by the timing of the announcement, which seemed to come out of nowhere. “I am a bit surprised at the speed of this announcement as I don’t believe there was a formal succession plan with a named successor. IBM has always had these and it was always apparent who the next CEO would be,” he said. That was not the case this time.

But like Wang, Moorhead likes the approach of having an “outsider” and long-time IBMer working in tandem. “Krishna spearheaded many of the next-generation IBM initiatives like the Red Hat acquisition, blockchain and quantum. I am also very pleased to see Whitehurst appointed president as now there’s an outsider and a long-time IBMer running the company in the number one and two spots,” he said.

Wang believes the new leaders have to honestly assess the company’s strengths and weaknesses and find ways to compete with today’s cloud companies for the hearts and minds of the enterprise customers.

“Today IBM is in an interesting position where the world has changed, and people go to Amazon or Salesforce or they go to Google or Workday or Microsoft. Companies still have a lot of IBM, they still trust IBM, but the new leadership team needs to figure out where the technology gaps are, which ones they need to build, which ones they need to partner, and in some cases say, this is not our market,” he said.

SpaceX reportedly looking to build Starship rockets at Port of LA

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 01:48 PM PST

SpaceX is said to be in talks with local government officials about setting up a new rocket factory in the Port of Los Angeles, a location that would give it easy access to the ocean for transporting its next-generation Starship and Super Heavy launch vehicles to its coastal launchpad sites in Florida. CNBC reported that these discussions were confirmed by Port of LA officials.

As CNBC points out, this isn’t the first time that SpaceX has done this dance with the Port of LA: The company had received approval to build a manufacturing facility in the port two years ago, and agreed on a 10-year, $1.4 million-per-year lease, before subsequently going back on that agreement in 2019.

Currently, SpaceX is building its Starship prototype for orbital testing at a facility in Boca Chica, Texas. That’s a one-off vehicle however, intended for the purpose of testing and working out the final design for the Starship, which is meant to be a fully reusable spacecraft, which in tandem with SpaceX’s forthcoming “Super Heavy” booster will be able to take large payloads to orbit — and ultimately to the Moon and Mars.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has shared eventual plans for Starship that involve flying them with very high frequency, and ultimately attaining a rate of construction of 100 Starships per year with the aim of producing 1,000 over the course of the next 10 years. Musk says that this rate of production is required to perform cargo and passenger flights with the frequency and volume needed to establish a permanent human presence on Mars — which, ultimately, has been his goal all along with SpaceX.

It stands to reason that building that many large vehicles in that span of time would require additional production facility resources. SpaceX currently manufactures Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy at its facility in Hawthorne, Calif., and then transports those in sections over land, but Starship and Super Heavy will be considerably larger and will likely require transportation by water to reach SpaceX’s launch sites.

CNBC’s report cites LA City Councilman Joe Buscaino as saying that SpaceX might seek to be up and running with at least a temporary production facility in as little as 90 days, though no deal is yet finalized between the parties.

Being a child actress prepared me for a career in venture capital 

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 01:46 PM PST

It takes guts to be a VC, but being a child actress prepared me well for the challenge.

In addition to the serial rejection even the most successful actors experience in audition after audition, life on set isn't always a picnic. When I was on “The Wonder Years,” we filmed an episode called “The St. Valentine's Day Massacre,” in which my character, Becky Slater, attempts to run over longtime foe Kevin Arnold with her bicycle.

During a dress rehearsal, as I sped up on the ancient, too-tall 1960's-era bike, my front wheel hit a thick sound cable that hadn't been there during a prior run-through; I went over the handlebars and spent the evening in the emergency room. A few days later, barely off crutches, I was back on set and back on the bike. We filmed the scene, and the episode was one of the series’ most successful and memorable. No one has ever accused me of timidity.

Many years later, armed with degrees from Yale and Harvard Law — plus years of experience advising companies as a lawyer and investing in them as a VC — I launched my own venture capital fund, Anathem Ventures. The grit and perseverance I first honed on studio soundstages serves me well, and these are also the qualities I look for in the founders I back.

Anathem Ventures CEO/founder Crystal McKellar

Top 10 meditation apps pulled in $195M in 2019, up 52% from 2018

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 01:08 PM PST

The millennial obsession with wellness and self-care has led to a booming business for meditation apps. In the first quarter of 2018, app intelligence firm Sensor Tower reported the top 10 “self-care” apps had pulled in some $27 million in revenue. Fast-forward to the end of 2019, and the numbers have gotten much higher. According to Sensor Tower’s latest data, just the top 10 highest-grossing meditation apps of 2019 — a subset of “self-care” apps — grew to $195 million. That’s a 52% year-over-year increase.

Meditation apps were already leading the self-care app market back in 2018, with apps like Calm, Headspace and 10% Happier driving revenue. Other self-care apps focused on mindfulness or yoga were popular as well, but further down the charts.

Over the course of 2018, the top 10 meditation apps alone ended up generating $128 million in revenue. That was a huge increase from just a few years prior, when the top 10 meditation apps of 2015 had only pulled in just over $8 million in revenue.

In 2019, the top 10 meditation apps grew revenues to $195 million.

Only two apps, however, have been in the top 10 list since 2015. Calm, which is estimated to have grossed $92 million in 2019, and Headspace, which grossed $56 million. Both saw revenues up year-over-year, as well, at 46% and 33%, respectively.

The revenue growth comes from not only an active user base, but from those who are still finding these apps for the first time. In 2019, 52 million first-time users downloaded one of the top 10 meditation apps, for example, up 15.6% from 2018. Calm and Headspace led the way here, as well, with 24 million and 13 million new users in 2019, respectively. 

Despite their popularity, self-care isn’t a top-level category on the App Store. Instead, the apps are usually listed in the “Health & Fitness” category alongside exercise apps, dieting apps and calorie counters, fitness trackers and others.

But the apps still do well. At present, Calm is the No. 1 “Health & Fitness” app in this category and Headspace is No. 5 on Apple’s iOS App Store.

There are a number of reasons why these apps have become so popular in recent years. To some extent, it could be tied to millennials’ lifestyles. This demographic chose to marry later in life and delay having children. That gave them more time to remain self-focused, compared with prior generations. They’ve also grown up with internet access, giving them the ability to learn more about wellness and self-care, in general.

In addition, always-on internet connectivity is reported to lead to anxiety and depression — depending on how screen time is used by the individual. While screen time alone doesn’t cause harm, the way it’s used can. Self-care apps, and particularly meditation apps, help assuage these sorts of problems. (Though, we should point out, they are not a solution for mental illnesses.)

The apps have also benefited from the shift to subscriptions, in terms of growing their revenue. Over time, the category is likely to grow further.

CalTech scores massive $1.1B verdict against Apple and Broadcom in patent case

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 12:46 PM PST

After a years-long legal battle, a judge ordered Apple and Broadcom to pay a combined $1.1 billion in a patent infringement case with the California Institute of Technology, Bloomberg reports. The report states that Apple was ordered to pay $837.8 million and Broadcom is looking at a $270.2 million verdict.

Apple has been ensnared in legal proceedings over the past several years regarding the technologies in the company’s wireless chipsets. Last year, the company settled a long-standing dispute with Qualcomm regarding the royalty payments.

CalTech’s suit was filed in federal court in Los Angeles in 2016, and alleged that hundreds of millions of Apple’s devices with Broadcom Wi-Fi chips infringed on their patents. Broadcom supplies wireless chips for a variety of Apple products, including the iPhone.

"We are pleased the jury found that Apple and Broadcom infringed Caltech patents," CalTech said in a statement. "As a non-profit institution of higher education, Caltech is committed to protecting its intellectual property in furtherance of its mission to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education."

Bloomberg reported that this was the 6th largest patent-related verdict ever. Naturally, both Apple and Broadcom have voiced that they plan to appeal the ruling.

Former BET Networks CEO Debra Lee hints at launching a tech fund to back women of color

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 12:43 PM PST

In May 2018, after spending more than 30 years at BET Networks, Debra Lee stepped down as chairman and CEO, following a series of reorganizations within Viacom cable networks.

But Lee, who also oversaw the launch of the first network for black women (BET Her) and the related invite-only annual women’s conference Leading Women Defined, has hardly retired from public view. On the contrary, she remains an active and vocal proponent for all women, and women of color particularly, and at the Upfront Summit in Pasadena, Calif., yesterday, Lee used a speaking opportunity to applaud a new IPO diversity initiative announced by Goldman Sachs last week — and to hint at a new investment fund that would support women founders of color in tech.

Lee was first asked by reporter Julia Boorstin about California's mandate that boards of directors overseeing public companies include women — a law that passed in late 2018 and that is reportedly catching fire as lawmakers in numerous other states consider similar mandates. Boorstin then asked about Goldman Sachs’s announcement from Davos last week that beginning in July, it won’t take public any company that doesn’t have at least one “diverse” board member, with a particular focus on women.

It’s a bigger deal than some might imagine. The initiative would have cost Goldman up to $101 million in underwriting fees from as many as 18 U.S. IPOs had the policy been effective in 2019, according to a new analysis by Bloomberg Law. That’s roughly one-third of the $318.68 million that Goldman earned in advisory fees from the 59 U.S. IPOs it underwrote last year.

“I mean, we’ve been talking about this for so long that I understand why they did it,” answered Lee. “I think [both initiatives] are a good thing, because the companies aren’t going to do it,” she said. “We’ve been talking about it for 30 years, and for a company to have a board now with no women or no people of color, they should be truly embarrassed. But there’s still a lot out there . . . it’s sad to see that we have to implement either, you know — California, Goldman — but we really have to hold these companies’ feet to the fire.”

Having diversity on the board can have more impact than some appreciate, said Lee, when asked about the ripple effect that boards can have in terms of impacting companies’ policies. She first referenced her work with the Time’s Up organization, saying that “all the issues that Time’s Up was investigating — the harassment, revenge, retribution, women being harassed — those things can’t happen if you have women in decision-making roles. You can’t have a ‘casting couch’ if you have women in the C suite at the studios, [or at least] it’s less likely [than] if men have all the power and can do whatever they want.”

Lee also emphasized that when companies have “diverse people on your board, they’re going to hold you accountable. I’m not going to sit in a boardroom where I’m the only black woman, and not ask why there isn’t another black woman, or why there aren’t other people of color.”

Lee spent three years on the board of Twitter, for example, and was a director at Eastman Kodak years earlier. In both places, she sat on nominating committees where she said she expected to see a diverse slate of candidates when it came to roles that needed to be filled. In fact, she said, she “didn’t hire a search firm that was trying to get Twitter’s business because they told me there were no black CEOs. I’m like, ‘Don’t you know [former Amex CEO] Ken Chenault? Don’t know you [current Merck CEO Ken Frazier]? I’m just naming people off the top of my head . . .”

“Once you have one person in the room or a couple of people, you can hold the company’s feet to the fire,” Lee continued. “When issues come up, you can make sure they’re dealt with in a more equal way. If it’s a discrimination suit or a harassment suit, you can ensure that those kind of things aren’t swept under the rug. So boards are really important. It’s not only to oversee strategy and financials and all of that, but also succession planning. One of the questions I ask on the boards all the time is, ‘What do the people coming behind the CEO look like? Are there women? Are there people of color? . . . You gotta tell me who they are and what they look like so I can ensure that it’s going to be a diverse group that’s ready to take over.”

Lee separately talked about her annual conference, where she brings together prominent women of color to talk about “everything from what’s going on in Haiti, to getting out the vote, to elder care and financial planning, to how do we raise our black boys.” (Michelle Obama has attended twice.)

Crucially, she noted, she tries to pair up women who know each other and who nominate other women, which has turned the affair “into something much more important than I ever thought.”

It may also give her fuel for her next act. After noting that a “couple of businesses have even come out of the conference,” she suggested that she and others of her powerful friends are talking currently about creating a fund that would support women of color in tech.

Undoubtedly, there’s a need for it. While U.S. venture funds poured more capital than ever into female-founded startups last year, it was still a small fraction of the overall dollars raised by companies — $3.3 billion, or 2.8% of capital invested across the entire U.S. startup ecosystem. And a far smaller fraction of that already tiny percentage was raised by women of color. 

Peering into the audience of largely investors at the event yesterday, Boorstin joked with her from the stage, “So if you do create a fund, perhaps there’s some potential LPs [you could talk with here].”

“I would love that,” said Lee. “If you all know of anyone . . .

Why Sony’s PlayStation Vue failed

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 12:38 PM PST

Sony’s PlayStation Vue, one of the first services to offer streaming live TV over the internet, is shutting down today. The service launched in March 2015, offering live and on-demand content from more than 85 channels, including many local broadcast stations, to select U.S. markets. Over the years, Vue expanded across the U.S. as it added more channels, more local stations and features like multi-channel viewing on the same screen, among other innovations.

But Vue failed to catch on with a broader audience, despite — or perhaps, because of — its integration with Sony’s PS3 and PS4 devices.

Sony’s decision to name the service “PlayStation Vue” didn’t do it any favors from a branding perspective. Many consumers, if they heard of it at all, assumed it was something only available to PlayStation console owners.

The company also took too long to expand the service to include popular platforms many cord-cutters were using at the time to watch streaming services. It added support for Amazon Fire TV by November 2015, but full support for Google Chromecast, as well as Apple TV and Roku — the latter of which grew to become the most popular connected TV platform in the U.S. — didn’t arrive until the following year. That limited Vue’s availability at a time when people were beginning to look for new streaming options.

Ring’s new security ‘control center’ isn’t nearly enough

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 12:17 PM PST

On the same day that a Mississippi family is suing Amazon -owned smart camera maker Ring for not doing enough to prevent hackers from spying on their kids, the company has rolled out its previously announced “control center,” which it hopes will make you forget about its verifiably “awful” security practices.

In a blog post out Thursday, Ring said the new “control center,” “empowers” customers to manage their security and privacy settings.

Ring users can check to see if they’ve enabled two-factor authentication, add and remove users from the account, see which third-party services can access their Ring cameras and opt-out of allowing police to access their video recordings without the user’s consent.

But dig deeper and Ring’s latest changes still do practically nothing to change some of its most basic, yet highly criticized security practices.

Questions were raised over these practices months ago after hackers were caught breaking into Ring cameras and remotely watching and speaking to small children. The hackers were using previously compromised email addresses and passwords — a technique known as credential stuffing — to break into the accounts. Some of those credentials, many of which were simple and easy to guess, were later published on the dark web.

Yet, Ring still has not done anything to mitigate this most basic security problem.

TechCrunch ran several passwords through Ring’s sign-up page and found we could enter any easy to guess password, like “12345678” and “password” — which have consistently ranked as some of the most common passwords for several years running.

To combat the problem, Ring said at the time users should enable two-factor authentication, a security feature that adds an additional check to prevent account breaches like password spraying, where hackers use a list of common passwords in an effort to brute force their way into accounts.

But Ring still uses a weak form of two-factor authentication, sending you a code by text message. Text messages are not secure and can be compromised through interception and SIM swapping attacks. Even NIST, the government’s technology standards body, has deprecated support for text message-based two-factor. Experts say although text-based two-factor is better than not using it at all, it’s far less secure than app-based two-factor, where codes are delivered over an encrypted connection to an app on your phone.

Ring said it’ll make its two-factor authentication feature mandatory later this year, but has yet to say if it will ever support app-based two-factor authentication in the future.

The smart camera maker has also faced criticism for its cozy relationship with law enforcement, which has lawmakers concerned and demanding answers.

Ring allows police access to users’ videos without a subpoena or a warrant. (Unlike its parent company Amazon, Ring still does not publish the number of times police demand access to customer videos, with or without a legal request.)

Ring now says its control center will allow users to decide if police can access their videos or not.

But don’t be fooled by Ring’s promise that police “cannot see your video recordings unless you explicitly choose to share them by responding to a specific video request.” Police can still get a search warrant or a court order to obtain your videos, which isn’t particularly difficult if police can show there’s reasonable grounds that it may contain evidence — such as video footage — of a crime.

There’s nothing stopping Ring, or any other smart home maker, from offering a zero-knowledge approach to customer data, where only the user has the encryption keys to access their data. Ring cutting itself (and everyone else) out of the loop would be the only meaningful thing it could do if it truly cares about its users’ security and privacy. The company would have to decide if the trade-off is worth it — true privacy for its users versus losing out on access to user data, which would effectively kill its ongoing cooperation with police departments.

Ring says that security and privacy has “always been our top priority.” But if it’s not willing to work on the basics, its words are little more than empty promises.

Rocket Lab points out that not all rideshare rocket launches are created equal

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 11:38 AM PST

The commercial rideshare model for spacefaring cargo is increasingly popular, and for good reason: It lowers the cost of launching something to space even further than companies like SpaceX have managed by splitting the available space on a rocket among multiple customers. Last August, SpaceX announced that it would be offering dedicated “rideshare” missions for customers using its Falcon 9 launch vehicle, but at FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference this year, Rocket Lab VP of Global Commercial Launch Services Shane Fleming wanted to remind people that his company still believes their offering is likely the better option for most smallsat operators.

“SpaceX has been around for some time now obviously, but rideshare has not,” explained Fleming during a panel on space startups and VC. “There have been heavy launch vehicles around for quite some time, and small CubeSat customers and microsat customers have always had a challenge getting to orbit because they’re not the top priority. The top priority is a big geosat [geostationary satellite] mission, or national security mission, and those CubeSat customers, or rideshare customers are just hitching a ride essentially, to space, using a bus analogy. So today, customers with those specific smallsat needs haven’t really had the luxury of really tailored, dedicated small launch services like we provide at Rocket Lab.”

SpaceX has said that its smallsat customers taking part in rideshare missions can send payloads of either up to 330 lbs for as little as $2.25 million, or 660 lbs for just $4.5 million, which is a big discount when compared to the cost of a full Falcon 9 launch. Rocket Lab’s base price for a dedicated launch begins at just $5.7 million, and splitting the cost would obviously drop that further still. But Fleming says that price isn’t actually the central issue when comparing the services.

“Whether SpaceX is dropping its prices or not, that service is still relatively the same and SpaceX has a number of priorities — they’re doing human missions, and doing national security missions, and they’re doing Starlink,” Fleming said. “Yes, they are offering rideshare services, but it’s not their business. At Rocket Lab smallsat customers are our number one business, and that’s what we do. We offer very dedicated, tailored service exactly where you want to go, when you want to go, and for a lot of customers that’s really important. And we also offer a lot more orbital inclinations; not everyone wants to go to SSO; there are orbits that are more unique than that where customers need to go in and we fulfill that. So whether they drop their price or not, it’s really a service-backed industry and that’s what we’re supporting.”

Rocket Lab has a lot more activity coming up this year that could help it further differentiate its offerings, including its first Photon mission, which is a new in-house spacecraft the company is developing to offer essentially satellite-as-a-service capabilities to its customers, so that they can focus on just working out the sensor payload or specific mission they want to accomplish, and leave the satellite building to Rocket Lab. It’s also continuing to work on its plan for recovering and reusing its Electron booster stage, and aims to recover its first stage for re-use later this year.

GM is bringing back the Hummer as an electric ‘super truck’ with 1,000 horsepower

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 10:06 AM PST

GM is bringing back the Hummer in a new electric form. The automaker confirmed Thursday plans to produce an all-electric Hummer with 1,000 horsepower and the ability to accelerate from zero to 60 miles per hour in 3 seconds.

This “super truck,” which GM teased in several videos, will be under its GMC brand. The teasers, one of which is posted below, were released ahead of a 30-second Super Bowl ad for the Hummer called “Quiet Revolution” that will star NBA phenom LeBron James.

All of these videos and the ad will lead into a big reveal scheduled for May 20.

GM isn’t releasing information on the base price of the Hummer. The automaker did share some eye-popping specs, including it will produce the equivalent of 1,000 horsepower, have a 0 to 60 mph acceleration of 3 seconds and 11,500 feet of torque.

“GMC builds premium and capable trucks and SUVs and the GMC HUMMER EV takes this to new heights,” Duncan Aldred, vice president of global Buick and GMC, said in a statement.

The company said the Hummer EV will be produced at its Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant in Michigan. On Monday, GM announced plans to invest $2.2 billion into its Detroit-Hamtramck assembly plant to produce all-electric trucks and SUVs, as well as a self-driving vehicle unveiled by its subsidiary Cruise. The automaker said it will invest an additional $800 million in supplier tooling and other projects related to the launch of the new electric trucks.

GM will kick off this new program with an all-electric pickup truck that will go into production in late 2021. The Cruise Origin, the electric self-driving shuttle designed for ridesharing, will be the second vehicle to go into production at the Detroit area plant.

Detroit-Hamtramck will be GM's first fully dedicated electric vehicle assembly plant. When fully operational, the plant will create more than 2,200 jobs, according to GM.


AWS partners with sports leagues to change how we watch games

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 10:05 AM PST

Since the inception of professional sports, fans have sought statistics about how their favorite teams and players are performing. Until recently, these stats were generated from basic counting, like batting averages, home runs or touchdowns.

Today, sports leagues are looking to learn more about players and find a competitive edge through more advanced stats. Beyond that, they want to engage fans more with tools like AWS NFL’s Next Gen Stats and MLB’s Statcast, software that uses compelling visuals to illustrate statistics like the probability of receiving a catch in the end zone or a runner’s speed between home and first base.

AWS counts Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the German Bundesliga soccer league, NASCAR, Formula 1 racing and Six Countries Rugby among its customers. How, exactly, are advanced cloud technology and machine learning helping change how we watch live sports?

Building on Moneyball

Apple’s redesigned Maps app is available across the US, adds real-time transit for Miami

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 10:00 AM PST

Apple’s updated and more detailed Maps experience has now rolled out across the U.S., the company announced this morning. The redesigned app will include more accurate information overall as well as comprehensive views of roads, buildings, parks, airports, malls and other public places. It will also bring Look Around to more cities and real-time transit to Miami.

The company has now spent years upgrading its Maps experience to better compete with Google Maps, which Apple replaced with its own Maps app in 2012. That launch didn’t go well, to say the least. Apple CEO Tim Cook even had to apologize for how Maps fell short of customers’ expectations and promised Apple would do better going forward.

Over time, Apple has been making good on those promises, by updating Maps with better data and notably, by announcing a ground-up rebuild of the Maps platform back in 2018. Last year, Apple also introduced the new “Look Around” feature in iOS 13 — essentially Apple’s version of Google Street View, but one that uses high-resolution 3D views that offer more detail and smoother transitions. 

iOS 13 also brought more Maps features, like real-time transit schedules, a list-making feature called Collections, Favorites and more.

However, some of these Maps updates have been slow to roll out. Look Around, for example, has only been live in major cities, including New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, LA, Las Vegas, Houston and Oahu. With the nationwide launch, it’s safe to assume you’re about to see it pop up in more major metros, though Apple hasn’t provided names of which ones will get it first. Real-time transit information is offered only in select major cities, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, D.C., New York and LA.

Today, Apple is adding Miami to that list of supported cities offering real-time transit, just in time for Super Bowl weekend.

Over the course of 2019, Apple’s improved, more detailed Maps experience has steadily expanded across the U.S., finally arriving in the North East as of last fall.

Today, the new Maps experience it’s starting to go live across all of the U.S. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll see it right away when you launch the Maps app — the rollout is phased.

“We set out to create the best and most private maps app on the planet that is reflective of how people explore the world today,” said Eddy Cue, Apple's senior vice president of Internet Software and Services, in a statement about the launch. “It is an effort we are deeply invested in and required that we rebuild the map from the ground up to reimagine how Maps enhances people's lives — from navigating to work or school or planning an important vacation — all with privacy at its core. The completion of the new map in the United States and delivering new features like Look Around and Collections are important steps in bringing that vision to life. We look forward to bringing this new map to the rest of the world starting with Europe later this year,” he added.

The updated Apple Maps includes Look Around and real-time transit in some markets, Collections, Favorites, a Share ETA feature, flight status information for upcoming travel, indoor maps for malls and airports, Siri natural language guidance and Flyover — a feature offering immersive, 3D views of major metros, as seen from above. The latter is available across more than 350 cities.

Going forward, Apple will use the imagery it collects to deliver Look Around to more U.S. markets and begin to upgrade the Maps platform in Europe.

Maps’ biggest selling point today, however, may not be the sum of its feature sets. Instead, Maps’ standout feature is its focus on privacy.

While Google does use the data collected from Google Maps for many handy features — like reporting on a business’s busiest times, for example — it’s not a private app. In fact, it’s so not private that Google had to add an “incognito mode” as an option for users who didn’t want their Maps app collecting data on them.

Apple, meanwhile, notes that its app requires no-sign in, isn’t connected to your Apple ID and its personalized features are implemented using on-device intelligence, not by sending data to cloud servers. In addition, any data collected when using Maps, like search terms, navigation routing and traffic information, is only associated with random identifiers that continually reset to protect user privacy.

Apple also uses a process called “fuzzing” that converts a precise location where a Maps search originated to a less precise one after 24 hours. And it doesn’t retain a history of what a user has searched for or where they’ve been.

In an era where people assume, usually correctly, that the mere act of launching an app is an agreement to have their data collected, Apple’s increased emphasis on user privacy is welcome and a good reason to try Apple Maps again, if you never came back to it after the shaky launch.

Apple Maps, now used in over 200 countries, is available on iPhone, iPad, Mac, Apple Watch and in cars via CarPlay.

IPO pricing for One Medical and Casper will set the tone for 2020’s unicorn debuts

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 09:48 AM PST

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

As One Medical looks to become the first venture-backed company to price its IPO in 2020 this afternoon and Casper aims to price its own shares next Wednesday, the market is gearing up for a pair of tests.

If you listen to the Nasdaq and the NYSE, IPO volume in 2020 will prove vibrant. A surprise, perhaps, in the wake of the WeWork meltdown that many had expected might reduce IPO cadence. One Medical and Casper, though, are charging ahead, meaning that their debuts will help set the tone for the 2020 IPO market.

If they struggle with weak pricing and slow initial trading, their disappointing offerings could slow the IPO market. If they price well and are welcomed by the street, however, the opposite.

Let’s take a look at how many IPOs are coming, what One Medical and Casper are hoping for and what their results might mean for unicorn liquidity. Don’t forget that we’re still living in the midst of a unicorn liquidity crisis — there are hundreds of private companies worth $1 billion or more around the world that need an exist, and the market is creating them faster than it can get them out the door. If IPOs stumble in 2020, lots just won’t make it out before the market turns.

An IPO crowd

Yesterday, CNBC reported notes from Nasdaq CEO Adena Friedman and NYSE President Stacey Cunningham, each speaking about their expected IPO cadence in 2020. Friedman said there are “lot of companies looking to tap the public markets in the first half,” implying a strong flow of potential debuts.

With $30 million in fresh funds, The Bouqs plans to plant its flower delivery business in Japan

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 09:30 AM PST

The Bouqs plans to take a slice of Japan’s $6 billion flower market this year with a $30 million strategic growth round from Japanese enterprise business investor Yamasa. While The Bouqs still must compete with bigger contenders like 1-800-Flowers and FTD in the U.S., it will now have to take on incumbents like Ayoma Flower Market and FloraJapan, both of which also offer same-day delivery throughout the land of the rising sun.

So why Japan? According to The Bouqs founder and CEO John Tabis, his company had been looking to expand internationally for awhile and Japan seemed to fit well within that plan.

The Bouqs CEO and founder John Tabis

The Bouqs CEO and founder John Tabis

But as far as bigger competition in any country, Tabis is undeterred, telling TechCrunch there’s plenty of opportunities in the flower delivery business if you know where to look. “There’ve been four or five other startups that tried something similar — some of them no longer exist,” Tabis said. “But the thing that’s worked for us, the first is the way that we’ve sourced is unique and it’s really the foundation of our brand.”

The Bouqs sprung up in a wave of Silicon Valley funded flower delivery startups like BloomThat, Farm Girl and  Urban Stems, all promising Pinterest -worthy bouquets at the click of a button. But what set it apart was its farm-direct supply chain, cutting out costs from middlemen and delivering flowers that last longer.

This particular round now puts The Bouqs up top as far as total funding raised among its flower delivery startup peers, bringing in $74 million in total funding to date, with competitor Urban Stems in second place with $27 million in funding, according to Crunchbase.

Tabis also tells TechCrunch the new funds will further the company’s development into brick-and-mortar stores and that it’s jumping into the wedding biz. As anyone who’s ever planned a wedding will tell you, it’s an industry ripe for disruption — with brides and grooms spending about 8% of the budget on the flowers alone.

One other renewed focus for the company will be its subscription business, keeping customers set up with a fresh bunch of flowers once the old bouquet is ready for tossing. “It’s sort of the linchpin of our business that’s grown very nicely…expanding both our revenue and profitability,” Tabis told TechCrunch.

The SVP of Yamasa, Norikazu Sano, also mentioned further expansion into Asia for the company in a company press release, so we could see The Bouqs in more international areas over time, if all goes right in Japan.

"This financing will enable us to fully realize our vision to create a global network of top-quality farms paired with a category-defining local floral brand enabled by proprietary supply chain technology and vertically integrated sourcing capabilities. We're so excited for this next phase of the business, and all of the opportunities that lie ahead," Tabis said.

Daily Crunch: Facebook’s profits disappoint

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 09:22 AM PST

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Facebook hits 2.5B users in Q4 but shares sink from slow profits

In its latest quarterly earnings report, Facebook said it now reaches 2.5 billion monthly users, up 2% from Q3 2019. And it brought in $21.08 billion in revenue, up 25% year-over-year.

But profits aren’t growing as quickly as Wall Street would like. One big source of those expenses? Headcount grew 26% year-over-year to 44,942, and Facebook now has over 1,000 engineers working on privacy.

2. Avast shuts down marketing analytics subsidiary Jumpshot amid controversy over selling user data

It was recently revealed that the Czech-based cybersecurity specialist was cultivating another controversial revenue stream: harvesting and selling user data, some of it amassed by way of its security tools.

3. Study of YouTube comments finds evidence of radicalization effect

The study, carried out by researchers at Switzerland's Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne and the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, found evidence that users who engaged with “Alt-lite”/”Intellectual Dark Web” right-wing content migrated to commenting on the most fringe far-right content.

4. Microsoft shares rise after it beats revenue, profit expectations, Azure posts 62% growth

Microsoft reported its fiscal 2020 second quarter (calendar Q4 2019) results yesterday, including revenue of $36.9 billion (up 14%), net income of $11.6 billion (up 38%) and diluted earnings per share of $1.51.

5. Snapchat launches Bitmoji TV: zany 4-min cartoons of your avatar

Snapchat is betting that narcissism will drive viewership for its new weekly videos that put you and your friends' customizable Bitmoji avatars into a flurry of silly animated situations. Bitmoji TV will premiere on Saturday morning.

6. Practice Fusion, once backed by top VCs, pushed doctors to prescribe opioids in kickback scheme

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Practice Fusion solicited and received pay from an (unnamed for now) major opioid company in exchange for using its EHR software to influence doctors in the act of prescribing opioid pain medications.

7. Where top VCs are investing in travel, tourism and hospitality tech

To get a temperature check on the state of the travel market, the outlook for fundraising and which sub-sectors might present the most attractive opportunities for startups today, we asked five leading VCs at firms spanning early to growth stages to share what's exciting them most and where they see opportunity in travel, tourism and hospitality tech. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

Social media boosting service exposed thousands of Instagram passwords

Posted: 30 Jan 2020 09:19 AM PST

A social media boosting startup, which bills itself as a service to increase a user’s Instagram followers, has exposed thousands of Instagram account passwords.

The company, Social Captain, says it helps thousands of users to grow their Instagram follower counts by connecting their accounts to its platform. Users are asked to enter their Instagram username and password into the platform to get started.

But TechCrunch learned this week Social Captain was storing the passwords of linked Instagram accounts in unencrypted plaintext. Any user who viewed the web page source code on their Social Captain profile page could see their Instagram username and password in plain sight, so long as they had connected their account to the platform.

Making matters worse, a website bug allowed anyone access to any Social Captain user’s profile without having to log in — simply plugging in a user’s unique account ID into the company’s web address would grant access to their Social Captain account — and their Instagram login credentials.

Because the user account IDs were for the most part sequential, it was possible to access any user’s account and view their Instagram password and other account information with relative ease.

A security researcher, who asked not to be named, alerted TechCrunch to the vulnerability and provided a spreadsheet of about 10,000 scraped user accounts. (A recent court ruling found that scraping websites does not fall afoul of U.S. computer hacking laws.) The spreadsheet contained about 4,700 complete sets of Instagram usernames and passwords. The rest of the records contained just the user’s name and their email address.

The data also showed if the accounts were free trial or paid premium accounts. Only about 70 accounts were paying customers, the data said, but many of those premium accounts also contained the customer’s billing addresses.

We verified the bug by creating a dummy Instagram account and connecting it to a new Social Captain account, and viewing the web page source code of our profile page on Social Captain.

Users were asked to connect their Instagram accounts to the service by entering their username and password. Despite the claim it was “secure,” passwords were collected and stored in plaintext. (Image: TechCrunch)

After TechCrunch reached out, Social Captain confirmed it had fixed the vulnerability by preventing direct access to other users’ profiles.

But passwords and other account information are still visible in the web page source code of a user’s profile page.

“Early analysis indicates that the issue was introduced during the past weeks when the endpoint, meant to facilitate integration with a third-party email service, has been temporarily made accessible without token-based authentication,” said Anthony Rogers, chief executive at Social Captain.

“As soon as we finalize the internal investigation we will be alerting users that could have been affected in the event of a breach and prompt them to update the associated username and password combinations,” he said.

Rogers did not say how long that investigation would take.

Instagram said the service breached its terms of service by improperly storing login credentials.

“We are investigating and will take appropriate action. We strongly encourage people to never give their passwords to someone they don't know or trust,” said an Instagram spokesperson.

Users who signed up to Social Captain should change their Instagram passwords immediately.

It’s the latest security incident to hit Instagram users, even if the Facebook -owned social media giant was not directly culpable for the lapse. Last year, Instagram expanded its bug bounty to include misuse of account data just months after an Indian social media firm scraped the contact information of Instagram influencers on a massive scale. Instagram also last year cut off a trusted ad partner for secretly collecting and storing the locations and other data on millions of users.