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Apple’s dangerous path

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.

Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


the big thing

In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.

In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.

This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.

Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”

(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)

The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.

A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”

Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.

illustration of key over cloud icon

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.

You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.

Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.

** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.

Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.


other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.

Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.

TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.

Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.


extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1 
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”

…Part 2
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’

All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”


Thanks for reading, and again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny

Lucas Matney

Astra given regulatory green light for its first commercial orbital launch at the end of the month

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Rocket launch startup Astra has received a key license from the Federal Aviation Administration, giving the green light for the company’s first commercial orbital launch at the end of the month.

Astra CEO Chris Kemp tweeted the news on Thursday, adding that the launch operator license through the FAA is valid through 2026. The new license is a modification of the company’s previous launch license and applicable to the current version of the company’s rocket, a company spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Thrilled that @Astra now authorized to conduct launches out of Kodiak through 2026 with @FAA launch operator’s license! #AdAstra pic.twitter.com/QKn3mgRuwY

— Chris Kemp (@Kemp) August 19, 2021

The license, posted on the FAA’s website, authorizes Astra to conduct flights of its Rocket v3 launch vehicle from the company’s launch pad at the Pacific Spaceport Complex in Kodiak, Alaska. It expires on March 9, 2026. It clears the way for Astra to conduct a demonstration mission for the U.S. Space Force on August 27, as well as a second launch planned for some time later this year.

This is proving to be a big year for Astra. In addition to conducting its first commercial orbital launch on August 27, the company also starting trading on the Nasdaq under the ticker symbol “ASTR.” The company made its debut after merging with special purpose acquisition company Holicity at a pro-forma enterprise value of $2.1 billion.

Earlier this summer, Astra also acquired space-propulsion company Apollo Fusion. The acquisition gives a possible hint into how Astra is thinking about future launches, as electric propulsion systems are useful for moving objects from lower to higher orbits.

Two senators urge the FTC to investigate Tesla over ‘Full Self-Driving’ statements

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Two Democratic senators have asked the new chair of the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Tesla’s statements about the autonomous capabilities of its Autopilot and Full Self-Driving systems. The senators, Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), expressed particular concern over Tesla misleading customers into thinking their vehicles are capable of fully autonomous driving.

“Tesla’s marketing has repeatedly overstated the capabilities of its vehicles, and these statements increasingly pose a threat to motorists and other users of the road,” they said. “Accordingly, we urge you to open an investigation into potentially deceptive and unfair practices in Tesla’s advertising and marketing of its driving automation systems and take appropriate enforcement action to ensure the safety of all drivers on the road.”

In their letter to new FTC Chair Lina Khan, they point to a 2019 YouTube video Tesla posted to its channel, which shows a Tesla driving autonomously. The roughly two-minute video is titled “Full Self-Driving” and has been viewed more than 18 million times.

“Their claims put Tesla drivers – and all of the travelling public – at risk of serious injury or death,” the senators wrote.

When it comes to Tesla and formal investigations, when it rains, it pours. The letter was published just two days after the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration said it had opened a preliminary investigation into incidents involving Teslas crashing into parked emergency vehicles.

Lina Khan is the youngest person to ever chair the FTC. She’s widely considered the most progressive appointment in recent history, particularly for her scholarship on antitrust law. But should the FTC choose to investigate Tesla, the case would likely have nothing to do with antitrust law and instead fall under the purview of consumer protection. The FTC has the authority to investigate false or misleading claims from companies regarding their products.

This is not the first time prominent figures have called on the FTC to open an investigation into Tesla’s claims. The Center for Auto Safety and Consumer Watchdog, two special interest groups, also sent a letter in 2018 to the commission over the marketing of Autopilot features. The following year, the NHTSA urged the FTC to investigate whether claims made by Tesla CEO Elon Musk on the Model 3’s safety “constitute[d] unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”

Tesla charges $10,000 for access to a “Full Self-Driving” option at the point of sale, or as a subscription. The company is currently testing beta version 9 of FSD with a few thousand drivers, but the senators take aim at the beta version, too. “After the [beta 9] update, drivers have posted videos online showing their updated Tesla vehicles making unexpected maneuvers that require human intervention to prevent a crash,” they write. “Mr. Musk’s tepid precautions tucked away on social media are no excuse for misleading drivers and endangering the lives of everyone on the road.”

Employee talent predictor retrain.ai raised another $7M, adds Splunk as strategic investor

By Mike Butcher

Automation will displace 85 million jobs while simultaneously creating 97 million new jobs by 2025, according to the World Economic Forum. Although that sounds like good news, the hard reality is that millions of people will have to retrain in the jobs of the future.

A number of startups are addressing these problems of employee skills, and are looking at talent development, neuroscience-based assessments and prediction technologies for staffing. These include Pymetrics (raised $56.6 million), Eightfold (raised $396.8 million) and EmPath (raised $1 million). But this sector is by no means done yet.

Retrain.ai bills itself as a “Talent Intelligence Platform”, and it’s now closed an additional $7 million from its current investors Square Peg, Hetz Ventures, TechAviv, .406 Ventures and Schusterman Family Investments. It’s also now added Splunk Ventures as a strategic investor. The new round of funding takes its total raised to $20 million.

Retrain.ai says it uses AI and machine learning to help governments and organizations retrain and upskill talent for jobs of the future, enable diversity initiatives, and help employees and jobseekers manage their careers.

Dr. Shay David, co-founder and CEO of retrain.ai said: “We are thrilled to have Splunk Ventures join us on this exciting journey as we use the power of data to solve the widening skills gap in the global labor markets.”

The company says it helps companies tackle future workforce strategies by “analyzing millions of data sources to understand the demand and supply of skill sets.”

retrain.ai new funding will be used for U.S. expansion, hiring talent and product development.

Biden taps Google critic to lead the DOJ’s antitrust division

By Taylor Hatmaker

The Biden administration tripled down on its commitment to reining in powerful tech companies Tuesday, proposing committed Big Tech critic Jonathan Kanter to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division.

Kanter is a lawyer with a long track record of representing smaller companies like Yelp in antitrust cases against Google. He currently practices law at his own firm, which specializes in advocacy for state and federal antitrust enforcement.

“Throughout his career, Kanter has also been a leading advocate and expert in the effort to promote strong and meaningful antitrust enforcement and competition policy,” the White House press release stated. Progressives celebrated the nomination as a win, though some of Biden’s new antitrust hawks have enjoyed support from both political parties.

Jonathan Kanter's nomination to lead @TheJusticeDept’s Antitrust Division is tremendous news for workers and consumers. He’s been a leader in the fight to check consolidated corporate power and strengthen competition in our markets. https://t.co/mLQACA0c4j

— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) July 20, 2021

The Justice Department already has a major antitrust suit against Google in the works. The lawsuit, filed by Trump’s own Justice Department, accuses the company of “unlawfully maintaining monopolies” through anti-competitive practices in its search and search advertising businesses. If successfully confirmed, Kanter would be positioned to steer the DOJ’s big case against Google.

In a 2016 NYT op-ed, Kanter argued that Google is notorious for relying on an anti-competitive “playbook” to maintain its market dominance. Kanter pointed to Google’s long history of releasing free ad-supported products and eventually restricting competition through “discriminatory and exclusionary practices” in a given corner of the market.

Kanter is just the latest high-profile Big Tech critic that’s been elevated to a major regulatory role under Biden. Last month, Biden named fierce Amazon critic Lina Khan as FTC chair upon her confirmation to the agency. In March, Biden named another noted Big Tech critic, Columbia law professor Tim Wu, to the National Economic Council as a special assistant for tech and competition policy.

All signs point to the Biden White House gearing up for a major federal fight with Big Tech. Congress is working on a set of Big Tech bills, but in lieu of — or in tandem with — legislative reform, the White House can flex its own regulatory muscle through the FTC and DOJ.

In new comments to MSNBC, the White House confirmed that it is also “reviewing” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a potent snippet of law that protects platforms from liability for user-generated content.

US blames China for Exchange server hacks and ransomware attacks

By Zack Whittaker

The Biden administration has formally accused China of the mass-hacking of Microsoft Exchange servers earlier this year, which prompted the FBI to intervene as concerns rose that the hacks could lead to widespread destruction.

The mass-hacking campaign targeted Microsoft Exchange email servers with four previously undiscovered vulnerabilities that allowed the hackers — which Microsoft already attributed to a China-backed group of hackers called Hafnium — to steal email mailboxes and address books from tens of thousands of organizations around the United States.

Microsoft released patches to fix the vulnerabilities, but the patches did not remove any backdoor code left behind by the hackers that might be used again for easy access to a hacked server. That prompted the FBI to secure a first-of-its-kind court order to effectively hack into the remaining hundreds of U.S.-based Exchange servers to remove the backdoor code. Computer incident response teams in countries around the world responded similarly by trying to notify organizations in their countries that were also affected by the attack.

In a statement out Monday, the Biden administration said the attack, launched by hackers backed by China’s Ministry of State Security, resulted in “significant remediation costs for its mostly private sector victims.”

“We have raised our concerns about both this incident and the [People’s Republic of China’s] broader malicious cyber activity with senior PRC Government officials, making clear that the PRC’s actions threaten security, confidence, and stability in cyberspace,” the statement read.

The National Security Agency also released details of the attacks to help network defenders identify potential routes of compromise. The Chinese government has repeatedly denied claims of state-backed or sponsored hacking.

The Biden administration also blamed China’s Ministry of State Security for contracting with criminal hackers to conduct unsanctioned operations, like ransomware attacks, “for their own personal profit.” The government said it was aware that China-backed hackers have demanded millions of dollars in ransom demands against hacked companies. Last year, the Justice Department charged two Chinese spies for their role in a global hacking campaign that saw prosecutors accuse the hackers of operating for personal gain.

Although the U.S. has publicly engaged the Kremlin to try to stop giving ransomware gangs safe harbor from operating from within Russia’s borders, the U.S. has not previously accused Beijing of launching or being involved with ransomware attacks.

“The PRC’s unwillingness to address criminal activity by contract hackers harms governments, businesses, and critical infrastructure operators through billions of dollars in lost intellectual property, proprietary information, ransom payments, and mitigation efforts,” said Monday’s statement.

The statement also said that the China-backed hackers engaged in extortion and cryptojacking, a way of forcing a computer to run code that uses its computing resources to mine cryptocurrency, for financial gain.

The Justice Department also announced fresh charges against four China-backed hackers working for the Ministry of State Security, which U.S. prosecutors said were engaged in efforts to steal intellectual property and infectious disease research into Ebola, HIV and AIDS, and MERS against victims based in the U.S., Norway, Switzerland and the United Kingdom by using a front company to hide their operations.

“The breadth and duration of China’s hacking campaigns, including these efforts targeting a dozen countries across sectors ranging from healthcare and biomedical research to aviation and defense, remind us that no country or industry is safe. Today’s international condemnation shows that the world wants fair rules, where countries invest in innovation, not theft,” said deputy attorney general Lisa Monaco.

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