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Uber reports a sharp rise in government demands for user data

By Zack Whittaker

Uber says the number of legal demands for riders’ data made by U.S. and Canadian authorities has risen sharply in the past year.

The ride-hailing company said the number of law enforcement demands for user data during 2018 are up 27% on the year earlier, according to its annual transparency report published Wednesday. Uber said the rise in demands was partly due to its business growing in size, but also a “rising interest” from governments to access data on its customers.

Uber said it received 3,825 demands for 21,913 user accounts from the U.S. government, with the company turning over some data in 72% of cases, during 2018.

That’s up from 2,940 demands for 17,181 user accounts a year earlier, with a slightly higher compliance rate of 73%.

Canadian authorities submitted 161 demands for data on 593 user accounts during 2018.

Uber said that the rise in demands for customer data presents a challenge for the ride-hailing company, previously valued at $82 billion, which went public in May. “Our responsibility to preserve consumer privacy while meeting regulatory and public safety obligations will become increasingly complex and challenging as we field a growing number of government requests for data every year,” said Uttara Sivaram, global privacy and security public policy manager at Uber.

The company also said it disclosed ride information on 34 million users to U.S. regulators and 1.8 million users to Canadian regulators, such as local taxi and transport authorities. Uber said it is mandated to give over the information to regulators as part of the “bespoke legal and regulatory requirements to which we are subject,” which can include pickup and drop-off locations, fares, and other data that may “identify individual riders,” the company said.

Uber isn’t the only company fielding a record number of demands from governments. Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Twitter have all reported a rise in government demands over the past year as their customer base continues to grow while governments become increasingly hungry for companies’ data.

But Uber’s figures offer insight into only the largest portions of its businesses — its consumer and business ride-hailing services, food delivery and electric scooters — and only covers North America, despite operating in hundreds of cities around the world.

Despite the rise in overall law enforcement requests, Uber said it “has not received a national security request” to date.

Such disclosures are rare but not unheard of. Most national security demands, such as orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and FBI-issued subpoenas, are coupled with secrecy rules that prevent the companies from disclosing anything about the demand. By proactively posting these so-called “warrant canary” statements, companies can quietly reveal when they have received such orders by removing the statements from their websites.

Apple famously used a warrant canary in its first transparency report in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. In 2016, Reddit quietly removed its warrant canary suggesting it had received a classified order.

Although the First Amendment protects government-compelled speech, the legality of warrant canaries remains legally questionable.

An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated Sivaram’s title. This has been corrected.

Samasource raises $14.8M for global AI data biz driven from Africa

By Jake Bright

AI training data provider Samasource has raised a $14.8 million Series A funding round led by Ridge Ventures.

The San Francisco headquartered company delivers Fortune 100 companies with the inputs they need for machine learning development in fields including autonomous transportation, e-commerce and communications and media.

And it does so with a global work-force of data-specialists, a large number of whom are located in East Africa.

In addition to San Francisco, New York and the Hague, Samasource has offices and teams in Kenya and Uganda. The company has a global staff of 2900 and is the largest AI and data annotation employer in East Africa, according to CEO and founder Leila Janah.

As part of its Series A, Samasource plans to upgrade the features of its platform. It also opened an AI Development Center in Montreal, Canada and expanded its digital delivery center in Kampala, Uganda to serve its corporate client-base.

“Typically we’re working with very large companies for whom AI is a key part of their business strategy. So therefore they have to be really careful about…bias in the algorithms or bad data,” Janah explained on a call with TechCrunch.

Samasource works through a discovery phase with customers — to determine the problems their trying to solve and their sources of input data — and customizes an approach to providing what they need.

“In some cases we might refine elements of our software…then we go into deployment and…annotation work,” said Janah, referring to the company’s SamaHub training data platform.

Samasource clients include Google, Continental, Walmart, and Ford. The company generates revenue primarily through its machine learning data annotation and validation services.

Samasource was originally founded by Janah as a non-profit in 2008. “I saw huge opportunity for tapping into the incredible depth of…talent in East Africa in the tech world,” she said of the firm’s origins.

Samasource converted to for-profit status in 2019, making the previous non-profit organization a shareholder.

“As a CEO I need to make it clear to investors that this is an investible entity,” Jana said of the reason for Samasource becoming a private company.

Ridge Ventures Principal Ben Metcalfe confirmed the fund’s lead on the $14.8 million Series A round and that he will take a board seat with Samasource. Other investors included, Social Impact Ventures, Bestseller Foundation, and Bluecrest Limited Capital.

Samasource’s founder thinks that providing for-profit AI training data to global companies can be done while improving lives in East Africa.

“I strongly believe you can combine the highest quality of service with the core mission of altruism,” she said.

“A big part of our values is offering living wages and creating dignified technology work for people. We hire people from low-income backgrounds and offer them training in AI and machine learning. And our teams achieve above the industry standard.”

It’s not unusual for Samasource to hear comparisons to Andela, the well-funded tech talent accelerator that trains and connects African developers to global companies.

“We are very different in that our whole model is about delivering high-quality training data. I would call Samasource an AI company and Andela a software training company,” she said.

Janah does see some parallels, however, in both companies’ recognizing and building tech-talent in Africa, along with a number of blue-chip entrants.

“I think it’s telling that Facebook, IBM and Google have all opened tech hubs in Africa, some of them AI or machine-learning focused,” she said.

Some Samasource professionals are also taking their skills on to other endeavors in Africa’s innovation ecosystem.

“A lot of our alums go on to do entrepreneurial things [and] start businesses and I think you’re going to see a lot more of that as we grow,” said Janah.

For now she will be the one hiring and training new tech workers in East Africa.

As part of its Series A, Samasource increased staff in Kampala to 90 people and plans to grow that by 150% in 2020, its CEO said.

Max Q: SpaceX starts building out its production Starlink constellation

By Darrell Etherington

There’s literally a lot more stuff in space than there was last week – or at least, the number of active human-made satellites in Earth’s orbit has gone up quite a bit, thanks to the launch of SpaceX’s first 60 production Starlink satellites. This week also saw movement in other key areas of commercial space, and some continued activity in early-stage space startup ecosystem encouragement.

Some of the ‘New Space’ companies are flexing the advantages that are helping them shake up an industry typically reserved for just a few deep-pocketed defence contractors, and NASA is getting ready for planetary space exploration in more ways than one.

1. SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites

The 60 Starlink satellites that SpaceX launched this week are the first that aren’t specifically designated as tester vehicles, even though it launched a batch of 60 earlier this year, too. These ones will form the cornerstone of between 300-400 or so that will provide the first commercial service to customers in the U.S. and Canada next year, if everything goes to SpaceX’s plan for its new global broadband service.

Aside from being the building blocks for the company’s first direct-to-consumer product, this launch was also an opportunity for SpaceX to show just how far its come with reusability. It flew the company’s first recovered rocket fairing, for instance, and also used a Falcon 9 booster for the fourth time – and landed it, so that it can potentially use it on yet another mission in the future.

2. Rocket Lab’s new room-sized robot can don in 12-hours what used to take ‘hundreds’

Rocket Lab is aiming to providing increasingly high-frequency launch capabilities, and the company has a new robot to help it achieve very quick turnaround on rocket production: Rosie. Rosie the Robot can produce a launch vehicle about once every 12 hours – handling the key task of processing the company’s Electron carbon composite stages in a way that cuts what used to take hundreds of manual work hours into something that can be done twice a day.

3. SpaceX completes Crew Dragon static fire test

This is big because the last time SpaceX fired up the Crew Dragon’s crucial SuperDraco thrust system, it exploded and took the capsule with it. Now, the crew spacecraft can move on to the next step of demonstrating an in-flight abort (the emergency ‘cancel’ procedure that will let astronauts on board get out with their lives in the case of a post-launch, mid-flight emergency) and then it’s on to crewed tests.

4. Virgin Galactic’s first paying customers are doing their astronaut training

It’s not like they’ll have to get out and fix something in zero gravity or anything, but the rich few who have paid Virgin Galactic $250,000 per seat for a trip to space will still need to train before they go up. They’ve now begun doing just that, as Virgin looks to the first half of next year for its first commercial space tourism flights.

5. TechStars launches another space tech accelerator

They have a couple now, and this new one is done in partnership with the U.S. Air Force, along with allied government agencies in The Netherlands and Norway. This one doesn’t require that participants relocated to a central hub for the duration of the program, which should mean more global appeal.

6. NASA funds new Stingray-inspired biomimetic spacecraft

Bespin’s cloud cars were cool, but a more realistic way to navigate the upper atmosphere of a gaseous planet might actually be with robotic stingrays that really flap their ‘fins.’ Yes, actually.

7. Blue Origin’s lunar lander partner Draper talks blending old and new space companies

Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos announced a multi-partner team that will work on the company’s lunar lander, and its orbital delivery mechanism. A key ingredient there is longtime space industry experts Draper, which was born out of MIT and which is perhaps most famous for having developed the Apollo 11 guidance system. Draper will be developing the avionics and guidance systems for Blue Origin’s lunar lander, too, and Mike Butcher caught up with Draper CEO Ken Gabriel to discuss. (Extra Crunch subscription required)

Disney+ has already attracted over 10 million subscribers

By Darrell Etherington

Disney’s launch of its premium subscription streaming service Disney+ was not without issues — high demand resulted in content not being accessible for hours on its first day of availability. The company cited higher-than-expected demand as a factor, and now we have a rough estimate of the size of that demand — Disney has revealed that it signed up 10 million users since its Tuesday debut.

That’s a lot of subscribers in a very short period. To put it in perspective, Netflix recently reported 158 million subscribers, but that’s its total audience after many years of availability, across a broad global market. Disney+ is launching only in a few markets around the world, including the U.S., Canada and the Netherlands, while Netflix has grown to cover much of the world. Netflix also started out with much lower subscriber counts when it was U.S.-only, with 7.38 million in 2007, the year it began offering streaming for the first time.

Disney+ has been offering customers in the U.S. the ability to pre-order their accounts for a couple of months, so its subscriber count represents a bit of runway and marketing effort, rather than just pent-up demand. It’s also offering a year of free access to qualifying Verizon subscribers. But that’s still a very impressive debut for a brand new streaming offering, and a firm basis upon which Disney can grow its audience through future releases and marketing efforts.

Watch live as SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites with a thrice-flown Falcon 9 rocket

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX has a big launch coming up this morning from Cape Canaveral in Florida – a Falcon 9 will carry a payload of 60 of its Starlink orbital communications satellites to space at 9:56 AM ET (6:56 AM PT). The Starlink satellites are the first non-test group of SpaceX’s new constellation heading up en masse, with the aim of helping set up a network that will eventually provide global high-speed Internet connectivity.

SpaceX has already sent up 62 Starlink satellites in total, across two test batch launches: Two launched in February 2018 from Vandenberg in California, aboard a rocket that was also transporting a satellite called ‘Paz’ for a client, and 60 launched in May of this year, a large test batch that was used to trial ground-based communications, as well as controlled de-orbiting mechanisms. Of those 60, 57 satellites are still in orbit while 3 became non-operational after launch.

This mission will set up this new batch of 60 Starlink satellites in orbit, which feature increase spectrum capacity and construction that features 100% “demisability,” which means that at the end of their operating life they’ll burn up completely upon controlled re-entry to ensure there’s nothing left behind once they’re no longer in use. This is one of six launches of Starlink satellites that SpaceX says will lead up to the launch of its service across the U.S. and Canada, and one of 24 launches that will enable global high-bandwidth broadband service.

Besides setting up the foundation for its global satellite internet network, this launch is noteworthy from the perspective of SpaceX’s focus on re-usability. The first stage for the Falcon 9 used here previously flew on three separate missions, a record for a Falcon 9 booster in terms of re-use, and the fairing used to protect the payload also flew before on the Falcon Heavy Arabsat-6A mission launched earlier this year. SpaceX also plans to land the booster again, and it will attempt to recover the fairing once again using its sea-borne catcher vessels in the Atlantic.

The launch window at 9:56 AM ET is instantaneous, and SpaceX should begin broadcasting the live stream above about 15 minutes prior to that.

Auto workers’ strike pushes GM losses past $1 billion

By Kirsten Korosec

The workers strike against General Motors — now in its third week — has cost the automaker more than $1 billion during the third quarter, according to a research note from J.P. Morgan analyst Ryan Brickman.

And those losses are accelerating with each passing week. GM lost about $480 million during the first week of the strike and another $575 million in the second, according to Brickman. GM is losing about $82 million of potential profit in North America every day.

TechCrunch will update the article if GM responds to a request for comment.

The effects of the production stoppage, which began Sept. 16 when 49,000 United Auto Workers went on strike, is causing a ripple effect through the Detroit automaker’s global operations. AP reported Tuesday that GM has shut down its pickup truck and transmission factories in Silao, Mexico, affecting 6,000 workers there. GM has also had to close an engine factory in Mexico and an assembly plant in Canada because of the strike.

“GM’s US production stopped immediately when the UAW [United Auto Workers] walked off the job on September 16 and we estimate its Canadian and Mexican facilities became progressively impacted throughout the first week,” Brinkman wrote in his research note this week.

Jefferies analyst Philippe Houchois also weighed in this week noting that the strike could restrict GM’s ability to make investments.

While pay, benefits and the status of temporary workers are the primary drivers of the strike, so are concerns about changes within the automaker towards electrification. GM and the rest of the automotive industry are pouring money into developing electric vehicles. But this shift is also affecting workers because electric vehicles, which require fewer parts, are easier to build. The UAW has said the shift from gas to electric engines could lead to a loss of 35,000 jobs over the next few years, according to a research study conduct by the union and recently noted by CNBC.

Last November GM CEO and Chairman Mary Barra announced plans to cut more than 14,000 jobs in North America, shutter factories and eliminate several car models in an effort to transform into a nimble company focused on high-margin SUVs, crossovers and trucks and investments in future products like electric and autonomous vehicles.

The actions were meant to safeguard the automaker from an expected downturn in the U.S. market and increase GM’s annual free cash flow by about $6 billion. But it has also caused discontent and concern among workers.

McDonald’s starts selling its Beyond Meat-based “P.L.T.” sandwich in Canada

By Jonathan Shieber

McDonald’s first foray into the plant-based protein patty market in North America is launching today in Canada.

The company’s “P.L.T.” (plant, lettuce, and tomato) sandwich, which uses patties from Beyond Meat, is now on sale at several locations in Canada.

This isn’t the first new vegetarian sandwich to launch at a “Golden Arches” location this year. Back in April, the company launched a new vegan sandwich for customers in its franchise locations across Germany.

McDonald’s has had vegetarian and vegan sandwich options on its international menu sporadically for years. Two years ago, it partnered with a specialty Norwegian food company called Orkla to launch its McVegan burger in Finland and Sweden.

With the launch in North American locations, McDonald’s is taking another step down the path toward potentially adding a vegetarian sandwich option to its menu in the U.S.

As the largest fast food restaurant in the world, any steps McDonald’s takes to move to adopt a plant-based protein product from Beyond Meat would represent a significant boost for the company.

It’s happening at a time when some of the world’s largest companies are beginning to launch their own meat-replacement products. Nestle, which partnered with McDonald’s on the launch of their vegan burger in Germany, is using products developed from the team responsible for Sweet Earth Foods.

Nestle bought the Moss Landing, Calif.-based business back in 2017 to get into the plant-based market, just as the company was beginning its work on a plant-based patty.

Other large food companies like Tyson have launched protein-based meat replacements, while industry players in the prepared food space including, McCain Foods have invested in Nuggs.

The fact that McDonald’s decided to go with Beyond for its North American debut points to the fact that the market for suppliers to the biggest restaurant chains is still contested.

Indeed, the major fast food burger chains appear to be taking a largely regional strategy with vendors as supply chain issues for meatless patties seemingly remain a concern.

For instance, while Burger King uses Impossible Foods patties for its Impossible Whopper, sources have said that the company may look for a regional supplier for plant-based products in Latin America.

And it’s important to note that these pilot tests don’t mean that fast food chains will stick to keeping plant based products on the menu. Even as Beyond Meat scores its huge win with its McDonald’s pilot across 28 locations in Canada, the company’s burgers were pulled from locations in another big regional Canadian fast food chain — Tim Hortons .

Beyond Meat benefits from a wider array of plant-based offerings than its closest competitor, Impossible Foods, which has stayed focused on a replacement for ground beef. The El Segundo, Calif.-based company has inked pilot deals with KFC for a plant-based chicken nugget, and a number of fast food outlets like Dunkin, are selling the company’s breakfast sausages.

But the competition extends beyond fast food chains. Big food service vendors like Sodexo and others that cater to corporations, colleges, and universities are trying to lock in suppliers of protein replacements as well.

Meanwhile, demand for alternative proteins continues to skyrocket, with most financial analysts predicting that the market for these types of products could take a significant bite out of the traditional meat industry over the next decade.

Analysts at Barclays predict the market for alternative proteins could hit $140 billion by 2029.

“During this test, we’re excited to hear what customers love about the P.L.T. to help our global markets better understand what’s best for their customers,” said Ann Wahlgren, McDonald’s VP of Global Menu Strategy, in a statement last week. “This test allows us to learn more about real-world implications of serving the P.L.T., including customer demand and impact on restaurant operations.” .

With the 2020 Cadillac CT4, GM begins to expand its hands-free Super Cruise driving system

By Kirsten Korosec

GM’s high-end brand unveiled Thursday the 2020 Cadillac CT4, a sporty and small sedan that is designed and priced to attract younger buyers looking to enter into the luxury car market.

The vehicle’s debut also marks an important expansion for GM’s hands-free driver assistance system, Super Cruise. The hands-free driving system has been lauded for its capabilities; it’s also been criticized because of its severe limitations. Today, Super Cruise is available in just one Cadillac model, the full-size CT6 sedan. And even in the CT6, the system is restricted to certain highways.

Super Cruise uses a combination of lidar map data, high-precision GPS, cameras and radar sensors, as well as a driver attention system, which monitors the person behind the wheel to ensure they’re paying attention. Unlike Tesla’s Autopilot driver assistance system, users of Super Cruise do not need to have their hands on the wheel. However, their eyes must remain directed straight ahead.

GM is finally starting to expand where the system can be used and bringing it to more models. Earlier this year, the company said it will add another 70,000 miles of compatible divided highways in the United States and Canada to the existing system via a software update. By the end of the year, Super Cruise will be available on more than 200,000 miles of highways.

The automaker plans to bring SuperCruise to other GM brands such as Chevrolet, GMC and Buick after 2020.

The expansion follows other improvements rolled out in 2018, including adding a dynamic lane offset so that a CT6 with Super Cruise activated can adjust slightly over in its lane for driver comfort when passing large vehicles. Gauge cluster messages were also added, to inform drivers why Super Cruise may not be available in certain instances.

Super Cruise isn’t the only feature of note in the 2020 Cadillac CT4 model. Cadillac is offering the CT4 in a few trim levels, all of which will have turbo engines. The standard version will have a an eight-speed transmission and a 2.0 turbo-4 engine that generates 237 horsepower and 258 pound-feet of torque.

The CT4-V, and the premium luxury version the CT4, have a 2.7-liter turbo-4 engine with a 10-speed automatic transmission.

The CT4 will come with unique grilles and bright exterior accents to distinguish the CT4 luxury and premium luxury models. The Sport and V-Series models are differentiated by darker accents and “performance-inspired” details, including unique grilles, fascias, rocker extensions, rear spoiler and exclusive performance design wheels, Cadillac said.

Every version of the CT4 will have LED exterior lighting including headlamps, tail lamps and signature vertical lights at all four corners.

Cadillac 2020 CT4 Sport 023

The interior of the 2020 Cadillac CT4.

Inside the car, drivers will find an 8-inch touchscreen that is mounted prominently in the center of the instrument panel. GM’s new digital platform, which can handle over-the-air software updates, is integrated into the CT4 as well.

“We developed CT4 to appeal to youthful buyers in the luxury market who may be new to the Cadillac brand,” said Andrew Smith, executive director of global Cadillac design. “The vehicle was intended to draw attention, using a combination of great proportions, taught surfacing and Cadillac family details that hint at the athletic driving experience this vehicle offers.”

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