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Facebook Dating launch blocked in Europe after it fails to show privacy workings

By Natasha Lomas

Facebook has been left red-faced after being forced to call off the launch date of its dating service in Europe because it failed to give its lead EU data regulator enough advanced warning — including failing to demonstrate it had performed a legally required assessment of privacy risks.

Late yesterday Ireland’s Independent.ie newspaper reported that the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) had sent agents to Facebook’s Dublin office seeking documentation that Facebook had failed to provide — using inspection and document seizure powers set out in Section 130 of the country’s Data Protection Act.

In a statement on its website the DPC said Facebook first contacted it about the rollout of the dating feature in the EU on February 3.

“We were very concerned that this was the first that we’d heard from Facebook Ireland about this new feature, considering that it was their intention to roll it out tomorrow, 13 February,” the regulator writes. “Our concerns were further compounded by the fact that no information/documentation was provided to us on 3 February in relation to the Data Protection Impact Assessment [DPIA] or the decision-making processes that were undertaken by Facebook Ireland.”

Facebook announced its plan to get into the dating game all the way back in May 2018, trailing its Tinder-encroaching idea to bake a dating feature for non-friends into its social network at its F8 developer conference.

It went on to test launch the product in Colombia a few months later. And since then it’s been gradually adding more countries in South American and Asia. It also launched in the US last fall — soon after it was fined $5BN by the FTC for historical privacy lapses.

At the time of its US launch Facebook said dating would arrive in Europe by early 2020. It just didn’t think to keep its lead EU privacy regulator in the loop — despite the DPC having multiple (ongoing) investigations into other Facebook-owned products at this stage.

Which is either extremely careless or, well, an intentional fuck you to privacy oversight of its data-mining activities. (Among multiple probes being carried out under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, the DPC is looking into Facebook’s claimed legal basis for processing people’s data under the Facebook T&Cs, for example.)

The DPC’s statement confirms that its agents visited Facebook’s Dublin office on February 10 to carry out an inspection — in order to “expedite the procurement of the relevant documentation”.

Which is a nice way of the DPC saying Facebook spent a whole week still not sending it the required information.

“Facebook Ireland informed us last night that they have postponed the roll-out of this feature,” the DPC’s statement goes on.

Which is a nice way of saying Facebook fucked up and is being made to put a product rollout it’s been planning for at least half a year on ice.

The DPC’s head of communications, Graham Doyle, confirmed the enforcement action, telling us: “We’re currently reviewing all the documentation that we gathered as part of the inspection on Monday and we have posed further questions to Facebook and are awaiting the reply.”

“Contained in the documentation we gathered on Monday was a DPIA,” he added.

This begs the question why Facebook didn’t send the DPIA to the DPC on February 3 — unless of course this document did not actually exist on that date…

We’ve reached out to Facebook for comment and to ask when it carried out the DPIA.

We’ve also asked the DPC to confirm its next steps. The regulator could ask Facebook to make changes to how the product functions in Europe if it’s not satisfied it complies with EU laws.

Under GDPR there’s a requirement for data controllers to bake privacy by design and default into products which are handling people’s information. And a dating product clearly is.

While a DPIA — which is a process whereby planned processing of personal data is assessed to consider the impact on the rights and freedoms of individuals — is a requirement under the GDPR when, for example, individual profiling is taking place or there’s processing of sensitive data on a large scale.

Again, the launch of a dating product on a platform such as Facebook — which has hundreds of millions of regional users — would be a clear-cut case for such an assessment to be carried out ahead of any launch.

Financing for social impact and climate businesses gets a billion dollar boost with new KKR fund

By Jonathan Shieber

KKR, the multi-billion dollar, multi-strategy investment firm, has closed on over $1.3 billion for companies focused on social and environmental challenges.

KKR Global Impact says its fund will focus on identifying and investing in companies worldwide where preformance and social impact are intrinsically aligned. Specifically, the fund will invest in companies in the lower middle market that contribute toward progress along the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

“The UN SDGS were developed to mobilize citizens, policymakers, technologists and investors to address global challenges. As investors, we have a significant role to play in building businesses that contribute to SDG solutions while also generating financial returns for our fund investors by doing so,” said Robert Antablin and Ken Mehlman, KKR Partners and Co-Heads of KKR Global Impact, in a statement. 

It’s a nice chunk of change that could potentially fund companies in the re-emerging climate and sustainability space, but it’s dwarfed by the $13.9 billion that KKR raised in 2017 for its Americas fund, or the $7 billion that the firm has to invest in infrastructure from its latest investment vehicle.

Mehlman’s role in promoting environmental and sustainable development stewardship belies his role as a senior administration official during George W. Bush’s tenure in the White House. He was appointed director of the Bush Administration’s Office of Political Affairs in 2000 and served in several administrative capacities both for the Republican Party within and outside of the White House.

Environmentalists have a pretty bleak assessment of the Bush years in office.

“[President Bush] has undone decades if not a century of progress on the environment,” Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, one of America’s largest environmental groups, said to the Guardian about the Bush administration’s environmental record back in a 2008 interview.

“The Bush administration has introduced this pervasive rot into the federal government which has undermined the rule of law, undermined science, undermined basic competence and rendered government agencies unable to do their most basic function even if they wanted to.”

Twenty years later, Mehlman is working in the private sector on financing companies involved in mitigating and adapting  the world to the climate crisis that inactivity from the administration he helped shepherd into office has exacerbated.

Other investment areas the KKR fund will focus on include responsible waste management, using technology to enhance safety, mobility and sustainability, creating more sustainable products and services and upgrading declining industry and infrastructure.

KKR launched its global impact business two years ago and its 12 person team has invested in Barghest Building Performance, Ramky Environ Engineers, KnowBe4, Burning Glass, and the construction of a wastewater treatment plant.

In addition to the external commitments KKR received, the firm said it will invest $130 million of capital in the fund through its own balance sheet.

“We are thrilled to see our investors’ shared enthusiasm for the tremendous opportunity we see ahead for KKR Global Impact and will build on this to help set the new standard across investing, value creation and measuring success in the space,” said Alisa Amarosa Wood, KKR Partner and Head of KKR’s Private Market Products Group. 

KKR did not respond to a request for comment about Mehlman’s previous work in the Bush Administration.

FAA’s proposed remote ID rules should make compliance easy

By Walter Thompson
Jon Hegranes Contributor
Jon is the CEO and co-founder of Kittyhawk, the leading provider of unmanned software and airspace systems.

When Josh, my co-founder, and I founded Kittyhawk, we saw the need for a new way to aviate with the demands and opportunities that unmanned systems would create. We set out to build the future of programmatic aviation, yet to enable this aviation renaissance we also knew that pragmatic innovation was key.

We didn’t rush into building cool but ineffective technologies. We ignored the lure of flashy solutions looking for problems. We started from day one working, learning and engaging directly with our customers, who are now some of the largest users of aviation. Unless our customers — operators of some of the largest manned and unmanned fleets in the U.S. — can leverage a piece of technology today, its usefulness is muted. Unless our platform can make the entire National Airspace System (NAS) safer for all stakeholders, the effectiveness is diluted.

Our DNA is built on skating where the puck is going, innovating at the edge so that we can move fast and deliver actual capabilities that are impactful from day one with the potential to accrue more value and evolve over time. There’s no better example of this than Remote ID.

More than two years ago, we released our real-time telemetry and tracking of aircraft. Not simple representations of a flight icon on a screen, but live data of aircraft that businesses, governments and public safety workers utilize every day. How we view the future of Remote ID is based on our experience of powering live-flight data and the feedback and learning that we’ve received over the last two years of enabling Remote ID across our user base. We’ve incorporated all of this data and practical experience — along with all of your feedback from our NPRM survey results — to inform our approach to Remote ID.

Below, we’ve attached the full public comments that we’ll submit to the FAA’s notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on Remote ID, but first, let’s begin with a few of our core beliefs that are central to how we operate as a company and the voice that we strive to give all of our users who fly with Kittyhawk:

  • We believe that technology and software innovations should enable flight.
    • Any rules, technologies or regulations that curtail or disenfranchise flight are not well-thought out and fail to appreciate what technology can solve.
  • We believe that technology should be adopted based on its merits and its core utility.
    • Regulating technologies based on the potential for misuse is unprecedented in our nation and has no place in the adoption of unmanned systems.
  • We believe the future of aviation requires new ways of thinking to accomplish scale requirements and the need for mass adoption.
    • Rules or processes that start and end within a traditional mindset are flawed and will fail to result in meaningful impact.
  • We believe the future is now.
    • Safety and speed are not mutually exclusive and there are ways to create a safer NAS today that all aviation users can adopt immediately.

On November 21, 2019, the FAA was rolling out a new batch of LAANC-enabled airports, including Washington Dulles International Airport (KIAD), which represents a huge swath of airspace in the security-sensitive area of Washington, DC. To give you a sense of how excited our users were for this, we began receiving support requests shortly after the strike of midnight as people were anxious to comply and fly in this airspace. Their initial authorization requests, however, were receiving errors, as it wouldn’t be until later that day that the FAA would officially flip the switch for these new airports and we could begin accepting LAANC requests for KIAD.

Moral of the story: If you give operators an easy way to comply, they’ll move faster than regulators to do everything they can to get in the air compliantly.

High-level comments on the NPRM

The current draft of the NPRM is overly complicated, presenting solutions for problems that don’t exist and introducing complexity that won’t solve the problems that do. We can create a baseline for Remote ID today that opens airspace and impacts safety. We can create a system that demands compliance without creating privacy black holes. There is a better way and we can do it in 2020.

No. 1: Leave OEM certification out of the picture completely

There is absolutely no reason that OEMs should be involved in the NPRM on Remote ID. The role of an aircraft is to reliably fly based on the controls it receives, not the other way around.

We do not require DVRs to prevent you from recording the Super Bowl on the off chance that you might redistribute it. We do not require cars to prevent you from driving if you don’t have validated licenses and registrations. Just because a piece of technology has the potential for misuse, it’s unprecedented and un-American to restrict capabilities at the hardware level based simply on what-ifs.

Any hardware requirement for Remote ID introduces unnecessary security concerns and also adds unnecessary time to the path to adoption. The thought of giving this much power to hardware manufacturers to control access to the NAS should scare everyone, and I’m surprised the FAA failed to consider this. OEM control of airspace access via Remote ID greatly expands the target landscape for hackers and data breaches.

By removing OEM requirements and proposals around things like new serial number systems, all current unmanned systems and models alike will not be relegated to the scrap heap. All current recreational and commercial operations will not need to buy new drones or worry about costly retrofits with untold timelines for potential compliance.

Recommendation: Put all the responsibility on the Remote Pilot In Command (RPIC). Delete all OEM manufacturer requirements from the rule.

No. 2: A logical, tiered approach is the only way

A tiered approach to Remote ID makes a lot of sense, but the proposed tiers in the NPRM are misguided and disjointed.

Remote ID tiers should account for different types of flight by different types of operations in different types of airspace. The more timely and rich the Remote ID data, the more freedom to the sky should be enabled, but there should be more tiers with a lower bar to simply get in the air.

To this end, there should be a tier that includes a volume-based Remote ID (like we have in the ASTM and like we’ve already developed and showcased in the open-source InterUSS Remote ID platform). Think LAANC reservation, but for Remote ID, where a user can announce a time/place of flight. This would require no new hardware and no new technology. Every operation from model aircraft to routine Part 107 commercial flights could adopt and comply with this, effective immediately at zero cost.

Additionally, there should be more privileges for sharing real-time data and having a connected operation that can communicate and deviate if required. If Remote ID is going to unlock BVLOS, then the highest tier of Remote ID operations should do just that.

Recommendation: A tiered system that creates a low-friction, zero-cost ability to comply with Remote ID, extending to a more demanding requirement that results in BVLOS without a waiver.

Tier 1 Tier 2 Tier 3
Ceiling (Uncontrolled Airspace) Up to 200ft Up to 400ft Up to 400ft
Ceiling (Controlled Airspace) Up to 100ft* Up to 400ft* Up to 400ft*
Range VLOS VLOS BVLOS
Remote ID Requirements Volume-based reservation of a time/place.

Can be done remotely, up to 90 days in advance.

Volume-based reservation of a time/place.

Plus live sharing of telemetry via broadcast or network.

Volume-based reservation of a time/place.

Plus live sharing of telemetry via broadcast or network.

Plus network connection for aircraft or control stations to send and receive real-time messages.

Process Submitted and processed like LAANC to a USS. Submitted and processed like LAANC to a USS.

Broadcast or network to meet data requirements (see below).

Submitted and processed like LAANC to a USS.

Broadcast or network to meet data requirements (see below).

*Or lower if flying in controlled airspace and LAANC ceiling is lower than the corresponding tier.

No. 3: Tier-based Remote ID data

Remote ID data for public consumption should be separate from law enforcement use cases that may come in the future. Conflating public use cases with law enforcement use cases adds unnecessary complexity and sacrifices privacy.

The objective with Remote ID data is that it’s actionable for other aircraft and flights in the area — and for the public — to understand what is buzzing over them. Yet, the public needs only a few data points to share with law enforcement who can then put the pieces together. The “license plate” is all law enforcement really needs to take action.

Anything else is a bonus and should be optional based on the tier of the flight you want to execute.

In our experience with customers who want to early adopt into Remote ID and from what we’ve seen in our Remote ID survey, people will gladly share more information with law enforcement. People will also gladly share more information if it results in more access to the air. Just as it is the RPIC’s responsibility to comply with Remote ID, it should also be up to the RPIC to control her data.

Recommendation: Fewer data requirements with more optional fields at lower-tier operations, with more demanding data sharing and real-time communications at the highest tier to enable advanced operations.

Tier 1 Tier 2 Tier 3
Aircraft Identity serial number or anonymous session ID** serial number or anonymous session ID** serial number or anonymous session ID**
Aircraft Location N/A real-time LAT/LONG real-time LAT/LONG
Operator Identity optional FAA registration number or anonymous operator ID** FAA registration number or anonymous operator ID**
Operator Location N/A N/A real-time LAT/LONG
Operator Contact Information optional optional required
Flight Plan optional optional Submitted with takeoff, landing, route and emergency landing points.

Updated in real time.

**Generated and stored by a USS.

The FAA remarked in the NPRM at the successful private-public partnership that is LAANC. Let’s build on that infrastructure. We don’t need a new class of USS but simply to extend where and how we announce flights in the NAS. We already see that behavior today where users want to create polygons and announce flights in uncontrolled airspace.

At Kittyhawk, we’re going to continue building this concept of Remote ID into our platform for all of our users and we welcome other USSs and partners who want to join us and bring an actionable form of Remote ID to the NAS.

If you share our vision, please let us know and also let the FAA know with comments on the NPRM. There is a simpler and more effective path to Remote ID and we can do it in 2020.

A US House candidate says she was hacked — now she’s warning others

By Zack Whittaker

“I cannot think of a reason not to share this with the public,” said Brianna Wu tweeted.

“Two of my non-campaign Google accounts were compromised by someone in Russia,” she said.

Wu isn’t just any other target. As a Democratic candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives in Massachusetts’ 8th District, she has a larger target on her back for hackers than the average constituent. And as a former software engineer, she knows all too well the cybersecurity risks that come along with running for political office.

But the breach of two of her non-campaign Google accounts was still a wake-up call.

Wu said she recently discovered that the two accounts had been breached. One of the accounts was connected to her Nest camera system at home, and the other was her Gmail account she used during the Gamergate controversy, during which Wu was a frequent target of vitriol and death threats. TechCrunch agreed to keep the details of the breach off the record as to not give any potential attackers an advantage. Attribution in cyberattacks, however, can be notoriously difficult because hackers can mask their tracks using proxies and other anonymity tools.

“I don’t believe anyone in Russia is targeting me specifically. I think it’s more likely they target everyone running for office,” she tweeted.

Wu said that both of her accounts had “solid protection measures” in place, including “unique, randomly generated passwords for both accounts.” She said that she reported the intrusions to the FBI.

“The worry is obviously that it could hurt the campaign,” she told TechCrunch. But she remains concerned that it could be an “active measure,” a term often used to describe Russian-led political interference in U.S. politics.

Politicians and political candidates are frequently targeted by hackers both in the U.S. and overseas. During the 2016 presidential election, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta had his personal email account hacked and thousands of emails published by WikiLeaks. The recently released report by Special Counsel Robert Mueller blamed hackers working for Russian intelligence for the intrusion as part of a wider effort to discredit then-candidate Clinton and get President Trump elected.

Yet to this day, political campaigns remain largely responsible for their own cybersecurity.

“There is only so much the feds can do here, given the sheer size of the candidate pool for federal office,” said Joseph Lorenzo Hall, an election security expert and senior vice president at the Internet Society.

Hall said much of the federal government’s efforts have been on raising awareness and on “low-hanging fruit,” like enabling two-factor authentication. Homeland Security continues to brief both parties to the major cybersecurity threats ahead of voting later in November, and the FBI has online resources for political campaigns.

It’s only been in the past few months that tech companies have been allowed to step in to help.

Fearing a repeat of 2016, the Federal Elections Commission last year relaxed the rules to allow political campaigns to receive discounted cybersecurity help. That has also allowed companies like Cloudflare to enter the political campaign space, offering cybersecurity services to campaigns — which was previously considered a campaign finance violation.

It’s not a catch-all fix. A patchwork of laws and rules across the U.S. make it difficult for campaigns to prioritize internal cybersecurity efforts. It’s illegal in Maryland, for example, to use campaign finances for securing the personal accounts of candidates and their staff — the same kind of accounts that hackers used to break into Podesta’s email account in 2016. It’s an attack that remains in hackers’ arsenals. Just last year, Microsoft found Iranian-backed hackers were targeting personal email accounts “associated” with a 2020 presidential candidate — which later transpired to be President Trump’s campaign.

Both of the major U.S. political parties have made efforts to bolster cybersecurity at the campaign level. The Democrats recently updated their security checklist for campaigns and published recommendations for countering disinformation, and the Republicans have put on training sessions to better educate campaign officials.

But Wu said that the Democrats could do more to support campaign cybersecurity, and that she was speaking out to implore others who are running for Congress to do more to bolster their campaign’s cybersecurity.

“There is absolutely no culture of information security within the Democratic Party that I have seen,” said Wu. Fundraising lists are “freely swapped in unencrypted states,” she said, giving an example.

“There is generally not a culture of updating software or performing security audits,” she said. “The fact that this is not taken seriously is really underscored by Iowa and the Shadow debacle,” she said, referring to the Iowa caucus last week, in which a result-reporting app failed to work. It was later reported that the app, built by Shadow Inc., had several security flaws that made it vulnerable to hacking.

Spokespeople for the FBI and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not respond to a request for comment prior to publication.

“Infosec is expensive, and I know for many campaigns it may seem like a low priority,” Wu told TechCrunch.

“But how can we lead the country on cybersecurity issues if we don’t hold ourselves to the same standards we’re asking the American people to follow?” she said.

Trump administration slashes basic science research while boosting space, AI and quantum tech funding

By Jonathan Shieber

The new fiscal year 2021 budget proposal from the Trump administration would increase funding for research and development by $142 billion over the administration’s previous year’s budget, but will still reduce overall spending for science and technology from alternative proposals coming from the U.S. House of Representatives.

Basic science funding would be hard hit under the Trump administration priorities.

A rundown of all of the programs that would be cut under the administration’s budget was published by Science Magazine and it includes:

  • National Institutes of Health: a cut of 7%, or $2.942 billion, to $36.965 billion
  • National Science Foundation (NSF): a cut of 6%, or $424 million, to $6.328 billion
  • Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science: a cut of 17%, or $1.164 billion, to $5.760 billion
  • NASA science: a cut of 11%, or $758 million, to $6.261 billion
  • DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy: a cut of 173%, which would not only eliminate the $425 million agency, but also force it to return $311 million to the U.S. Department of the Treasury
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agricultural Research Service: a cut of 12%, or $190 million, to $1.435 billion
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology: a cut of 19%, or $154 million, to $653 million
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: a cut of 31%, or $300 million, to $678 million
  • Environmental Protection Agency science and technology: a cut of 37%, or $174 million, to $318 million
  • Department of Homeland Security science and technology: a cut of 15%, or $65 million, to $357 million
  • U.S. Geological Survey: a cut of 30%, or $200 million, to $460 million

However, certain areas where venture investors and startups spend a lot of time should see a funding boost. These include new money for research and development in industries developing new machine learning and quantum computing technologies.

Artificial intelligence allocations across the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy’s Office of science, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Department of Defense’s Joint AI Center will reach a combined $1.724 billion — with portions of an additional $150 million allocation for the Department of Agriculture and the National Institutes of Health going to AI research.

Quantum information science is another area that’s set for a windfall of government dollars under the proposed Trump Administration Budget. The National Science Foundation will receive $210 million for quantum research, while the Department of Energy will receive a $237 million boost and an additional carve out of $25 million for the Depart of Energy to begin development of a nationwide Quantum Internet.

“Quantum computing, networking and sensing technologies are areas of incredible potential,” said Paul Dabbar, the under secretary for science at the Department of Energy.

As part of this development, Dabbar pointed to the work underway at the University of Chicago, where partners including the Argonne National Laboratory, Fermi Laboratory and the university have already launched a 52 mile quantum communication loop in Chicago.

There are plans underway to create six quantum internet nodes in the midwest and another node in Long Island near New York City to create a Northeastern quantum network hub.

“This will be the backbone of a national quantum internet extending coast to coast and border to border,” said Dabbar. “If we don’t, others will do it,” he said. “China and the EU have announced plans for investments in the area.”

Space is another area where spending will see a boost, under the Trump budget.

A key part of the package is a 12 percent boost to the budget of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, as the administration aims to get astronauts back on the surface of the moon by 2024. In all, the new budget will add $3 billion to funding for NASA to develop things like human landers and other technologies to capitalize on the potential assets and strategic importance of space. In all NASA will receive $25.2 billion, while the newly created Space Force will see an allocation of $15.4 billion in the new budget.

The budget will double research and development spending for quantum information science and non-defense artificial intelligence by the 2022 fiscal year, according to a statement from the administration.

Much of the administration’s budget seems focused on spending to catch up in areas where the U.S. may be losing its technological edge. China already spends tens of billions of dollars on research in both quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

While spending on quantum computing and artificial intelligence advances, the Trump Administration continues to slash budgets in other areas dependent on scientific study — where the discoveries of the scientific community and their implications contradict the political wishes of the President.

That includes the Environmental Protection Agency, which would see its total budget slashed by 26.5 percent over the next year. The Department of Health and Human Services would see its budget allocation shrink by 9 percent — although the administration actually plans to avoid cutting the budget for combating infections diseases through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Few of these allocations will actually make it through the Congressional budgeting process, since the Democrats control the House of Representatives and the most draconian parts of the budget proposed by the administration couldn’t even pass a Congress controlled by Republicans.

After Iowa caucus flub, can tech be trusted in elections?

By Devin Coldewey

An app intended to speed up reporting of election results for the Iowa caucuses has failed spectacularly, not only confusing the electorate but perhaps poisoning their feelings toward making any technological “improvements” to the voting process whatsoever.

TechCrunch staff reporters Brian Heater, Jonathan Shieber, Zack Whittaker, Devin Coldewey and Ingrid Lunden discussed the issue informally.

Brian Heater: We all agree that this is a good sign of a healthy democracy, right?

Jonathan Shieber: Totally agree with Brian here.

Brian Heater: I’m legitimately finding it difficult to discuss these sorts of things without delving into the conspiratorial. That said, I think it’s far more likely that this was just a massive fuck-up on the part of the Iowa Dems. Chalking it up to a conspiracy is honestly giving them entirely too much credit.

Devin Coldewey: But what’s the nature of the fuck-up? Fundamentally?

Brian Heater: An app that wasn’t tested at the scale of a statewide election. The more we move away from more traditional means of accounting, the more of these we’re going to see.

Qualcomm faces fresh competition scrutiny in Europe over RFFE chips for 5G

By Natasha Lomas

Qualcomm is facing fresh antitrust scrutiny from the European Commission, with the regulator raising questions about radio frequency front-end (RFFE) chips which can be used in 5G devices.

The chipmaker has been expanding into selling RFFE chips for 5G devices, per Reuters, encouraging buyers of its 5G modems to also buy its radio frequency front-end chips, rather than buying from other vendors and integrating their hardware with Qualcomm’s 5G modem chips.

A European Commission spokeswomen confirmed the action, telling us: “We can confirm that the Commission has sent out questionnaires, as part of a preliminary investigation into the market for radio frequency front end.”

We’ve reached out to Qualcomm for comment.

The chipmaker disclosed the activity in its 10Q investor filing — where it writes that the regulator wrote to request information in early December: “notifying us that it is investigating whether we engaged in anti-competitive behavior in the European Union (EU)/European Economic Area (EEA) by leveraging our market position in 5G baseband processors in the RFFE space”.

Qualcomm says it’s in the process of responding to the request for information.

It’s not yet clear whether the investigation will move to a formal footing in future. “Our preliminary investigation is ongoing. We cannot comment on or predict its timing or outcome,” the EC spokeswoman told us.

“It is difficult to predict the outcome of this matter or what remedies, if any, may be imposed by the EC,” Qualcomm also writes in the investor filing, adding: “We believe that our business practices do not violate the EU competition rules.”

If a violation is found it also warns investors that the EC has the power to impose a fine of up to 10% of its annual revenues, and could also issue injunctive relief that prohibits or restricts certain business practices.

The preliminary probe of Qualcomm’s 5G modem business is by no means the first antitrust action the chip giant has faced in Europe.

Last summer Europe’s competition commission fined Qualcomm close to $270M — following a long-running antitrust investigation into whether it used predatory pricing when selling UMTS baseband chips, with the regulator concluding Qualcomm had used predatory pricing to force a competitor out of the market.

Two years ago the Commission also fined the chipmaker a full $1.23BN in another antitrust case related to its dominance in LTE chipsets for smartphones, and specifically related to its relationship with iPhone maker, Apple.

In both cases Qualcomm is appealing the decisions.

It is also battling a major competition case on its home turf: In 2017 the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed charges against Qualcomm — accusing it of using anticompetitive tactics in an attempt to maintain a monopoly in its chip business.

Last year a US court sided with the FTC, agreeing the chip giant had violated antitrust law — and warning that such behavior would likely continue, given Qualcomm’s key role in making modems for next-gen 5G cellular tech. But, again, Qualcomm has appealed — and the legal process is continuing, with a decision on the appeal possible this year.

Its investor filing notes it was granted a motion to expedite the appeal against the FTC in July — with a hearing scheduled for February 13, 2020.

Most recently, in August, the chipmaker won a partial stay against an earlier court decision that had required it to grant patent licenses to rivals and end its practice of requiring its chip customers sign a patent license before purchasing chips.

“We will continue to vigorously defend ourself in the foregoing matters. However, litigation and investigations are inherently uncertain, and we face difficulties in evaluating or estimating likely outcomes or ranges of possible loss in antitrust and trade regulation investigations in particular,” Qualcomm adds.

Verana Health aims to organize and analyze doctors’ clinical data sets, whether patients like it or not

By Jonathan Shieber

If the two-year old healthcare startup Verana Health has its way it could become the Google for physician generated healthcare data.

The company has raised $100 million from GV (one of the corporate investment arms of Alphabet, the parent company of Google), Bain Capital Ventures, Casdin Capital and Define Ventures and counts the famous life sciences investor, Brook Byers, as the chairman of the company’s board.

The company offers products like Verana Practice Insights, which provides aggregated views on practice trends across the U.S, and it also has a service called “Trial Connect” which gives physicians the ability to find patients among their practices who may be suitable for clinical trials.

Verana has also built up the Axon Registry, which tracks the impact of treatments over time for conditions like multiple sclerosis, migraines, and epilepsy. The company points to the registry as an example of how the data collected can provide value for the entire healthcare ecosystem.

Verana has already inked data collection deals with the American Academy of Ophthalmology and the American Academy of Neurology to create large pools of de-identified patient data that can be used for drug discovery, population health analysis and medical research. But the company’s story actually begins nearly twenty years ago, when specialty medical associations started building clinical data sets to share information among medical practitioners and standardize reporting required by the federal government.

More recently, as Verana explains, medical associations realized that there was a lot of quality data locked away in those records. And since the medical communities lacked the wherewithal and technical expertise to digitize and analyze those records themselves, two years ago they decided to outsource those services to Verana, according to a blogpost from the company.

“Our society partners have entrusted us with their data to partner with them to advance the quality of patient care and to accelerate the adoption of evidence into practice,” the company states. “Through these partnerships, Verana supports the full operating costs for these registries, which enable physicians to track performance against federal quality measures and submit information for quality reporting at no expense to the physician practices and medical specialty organizations.”

It seems that Verana has made the same pitch to physicians that Google has made to consumers: give us all of your information, and we’ll organize it and manage it for you (as well as collect it to monetize in other ways that physicians have no control over).

Image via Getty Images / Ja_inter

Alongside its new financing, the San Francisco-based company also announced the acquisition of Knoxville, Ten.-based PYA Analytics, a company which has designed data analytics software and services for Medicare and Medicaid.

Verana Health is building the team and technology to unlock deep clinical insights that support the development of new treatments while increasing our understanding of how these treatments can benefit patients more broadly,” said Dr. Krishna Yeshwant, General Partner at GV. “Under the leadership of its strong management team, Verana continues to redefine how we approach medical research.”

While Verana is currently focused on ophthalmic and neurologic diseases, the company intends to expand into additional therapeutic categories over the next year while integrating imaging, genomic, and claims data sources into its data pools.

“Verana is assembling the most comprehensive datasets in medicine across multiple disease types with the goal of accelerating medical research for patients with ophthalmic and neurologic conditions,” said Miki Kapoor, the chief executive officer of Verana Health, in a statement. “The financing and the addition of PYAA enable us to enrich these large clinical databases, creating a longitudinal view of the complete patient journey to inform research and patient care.”

However, the company’s approach seems to disregard the role of the patient in the healthcare process. The emphasis on de-identification is one that new technology companies consistently rely on; however, evidence tells us that these practices aren’t as secure as consumers would want when it comes to sensitive information around health.

In June 2019, the University of Chicago Medical Center and Google were sued for allegedly violating HIPAA regulations by sharing patient records that weren’t de-identified properly. Google used the research for predictive data analysis based on massive population data. Google and the medical center have both filed motions to dismiss the lawsuit.

But even the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services warned that there’s a risk that de-identified data could be linked back to the corresponding patient. Indeed, new machine learning capabilities developed by companies like Google have already been used to re-identify anonymized patient data, according to a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Elon Musk promotes Texas ‘career day’ as SpaceX files paperwork for Starship flight as early as March

By Darrell Etherington

SpaceX’s next-generation spacecraft is already well into development, but company CEO and founder Elon Musk clearly would like things to be developing at an even faster rate: he tweeted early Tuesday morning that SpaceX would be hosting a “Starship career day” at the company’s Stargate building in Boca Chica, Texas, where it’s currently working on producing the next Starship testing prototype. Seperately, SpaceX also filed paperwork with the FCC seeking permission for communications for a 20km (65,000 foot) test flight with a start date beginning as early as March.

Musk added that the purpose of the hiring fair would be specifically to bring on new people to staff four full production shifts to allow production around the clock for “24/7 operations” at the Texas facility. He did add that SpaceX would also be looking for “engineers, supervisors & support personnel,” but it’s clearly the call is primarily to build out the production crews that assemble the Starship prototypes, which likely includes welders and others with experience in fabrication.

This is mainly for staffing up 4 production shifts for 24/7 operations, but engineers, supervisors & support personnel are certainly needed too. A super hardcore work ethic, talent for building things, common sense & trustworthiness are required, the rest we can train.

Elon Musk (@elonmusk) February 4, 2020

The latest Starship prototype is currently under construction in Boca Chica, and testing of some of its future components is preceding. This Starship, which SpaceX refers to as ‘SN1,’ is intended to be the first orbital prototype of the rocket, designed for high altitude flight testing. SpaceX previously constructed a sub-scale demonstrator called the ‘Starhopper’ for testing Starship’s engines, and then a ‘Mk1’ prototype which it originally said was planned for flight testing, but which ended up suffering a failure during pressure testing that resulted in SpaceX moving forward with an entirely new vehicle rather than trying to refurbish that one.

Earlier in Starship’s development, SpaceX had been simultaneously developing prototypes at both its Cape Canaveral, Florida facility as well as at Boca Chica, but more recently it shifted its focus entirely to Texas. That means Musk’s previously discussed plans of rapid iteration thanks to building two generations of vehicles at once across both facilities are no longer in effect, which is likely a contributing factor in why he and the company are so keen on increasing the rate of production at Boca Chica.

The stated goal for SpaceX by Musk to fly Starship SN1 sometime early this year, in as few as “2 to 3 months” from the end of 2019. These new FCC documents fall just inside of the window at the outside edge of the span they seek permission for the communications related to their flight – they list an operation date range of between March 16 and September 16, 2020.

Max Q: SpaceX’s Starlink constellation grows again

By Darrell Etherington

Max Q is a new weekly newsletter all about space. Sign up here to receive it weekly on Sundays in your inbox.

This week was the busiest yet for space-related news in 2020, thanks in part to the 23rd Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference that happened last week. The event saw participation from just about every company who has anything to do with commercial spaceflight, including SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, and dove deep on questions of regulation and congressional support for NASA’s Artemis program.

Our own TC Sessions: Space 2020 event, which is happening June 25 in LA, will zero in on the emerging startup economy that plays such a crucial role in commercial space, and it’s sure to touch on the same topics but get into a lot more detail on the innovation side of things as well.

SpaceX launches 60 more satellites – second Starlink launch already in 2020

SpaceX is clearly very eager to get its Starlink satellite broadband network operational, as the company has already launched not one, but two batches of 60 satellites for its constellation in 2020. After a launch early in January, the latest batch when up on January 29, moving SpaceX closer to the total volume of satellites needed for it to begin offering service in North America, its first target market for the (eventually) world-spanning network.

Rocket Lab launches its first mission in 2020

Busy launch week for new space launch companies, as Rocket Lab also launched a mission – its first of 2020. The launch was on behalf of client the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office, delivering a surveillance satellite for the U.S. intelligence agency. This is part of a new program the NRO has in place to quickly secure launch vehicles for small satellites, departing from its traditional practice of using large, geostationary Earth observation spacecraft.

NASA and Maxar to demo in-orbit spacecraft assembly

NASA and its partner Maxar are planning to demonstrate orbital manufacturing in a big way using a robotic platform in space that will assemble a new multipanel reflector antenna. It’ll also refuel a satellite in space, both demonstrations that would go a long way towards proving out the viability and potential commercial benefit of doing maintenance, upgrades and spacecraft assembly in orbit.

NASA teams with Axiom Space on first commercial ISS habitat module

NASA has tapped space station startup Axiom to build its first commercial module for the ISS designed to receive and house commercial astronauts. It’s a place designed for both work (research and science experimentation) and play (potentially receiving future paying orbital tourists) and it’s step one of Axiom’s grand vision for a fully private space station. Axiom is founded by a former ISS manager whose mission is to ensure we don’t lose human presence in orbit following the Space Station’s eventual decommission.

SpaceX looks to Port of LA for Starship manufacture

Starship Mk1 night

SpaceX will eventually have to manufacture a lot of Starships to meet founder Elon Musk’s ambitious goals for frequent flights and Mars colonization. Musk wants to build 1,000 Starships over the course of the next decade, and talks are ongoing with the Port of LA to potentially manufacture at least some of them there, where there’s easy access to water for shipping the rockets to launchpads including SpaceX’s Florida facilities.

Space needs an exit

Space startups are seeing record investment, and a record number of seed rounds indicating ample interest in starting new companies – but investors are still watching for that next big exit. They’ve been few and far between in the sector, which is not something you want to see if you want the hype to continue.

Kepler will build its satellites in Toronto

Satellite constellation startup Kepler Communication is going to be building its IoT small satellites in-house in downtown Toronto. Not necessarily everyone’s first choice when building satellites, but Kepler wants to keep things to its own backyard to eventually realize cost efficiencies, and to closely align design and development with manufacturing.

Playing traffic cop for drones in cities and towns nets Airspace Link $4 million

By Jonathan Shieber

As the number of drones proliferates in cities and towns across America, government agencies are scrambling to find ways to manage the oncoming traffic that’s expected to clog up their airspace.

Companies like Airmap and KittyHawk have raised tens of millions to develop technologies that can help cities manage congestion in the friendly skies, and now they have a new competitor in the Detroit-based startup, Airspace Link, which just raised $4 million from a swarm of investors to bring its services to the broader market.

The financing for Airspace Link follows the company’s reception of a stamp of approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for low-altitude authorization and notification capabilities, according to chief executive Michael Healander.

According to Healander, what distinguishes Airspace Link from the other competitors in the market is its integration with mapping tools used by municipal governments to provide information on ground-based risk.

“We’re creating the roads based on ground-based risk and we push that out into the drone community to let them know where it’s okay to fly,” says Healander.

That knowledge of terrestrial critical assets in cities and towns comes from deep integrations between Airspace Link and the mapping company ESRI, which has long provided federal, state and local governments with mapping capabilities and services.

We’ve just spent the past month understanding what regulation is going to be around to support it. In two years from now every drone will be live tracked in our platform,” says Healnder. “Today we’re just authorizing flight plans.”

As drone operators increase in number, the autonomous vehicles pose more potential risks to civilian populations in the wrong hands.

Parking lots, sporting events, concerts — really any public area — could be targets for potential attacks using drones.

“Drones are becoming more and more powerful and smarter,” EU Security Commissioner Julian King warned in a statement last summer, “which makes them more and more attractive for legitimate use, but also for hostile acts.”

Already roughly half of the population of the U.S. lives in controlled airspace where drones flying with more than a half a pound of weight require flight plan authorization, according to Healander.

“We build out population data and give state and local governments a tool to create advisories for emergency events or any areas where high densities of people will be,” says Healander. “That creates an advisory that goes through our platform to the drone industry.”

Airspace Link closed a $1 million pre-seed round in September 2019 with a $6 million post-money valuation. The current valuation of the company is undisclosed, but the company’s progress was enough to draw the attention of investors led by Indicator Ventures with participation from 2048 Ventures, Ludlow Ventures, Matchstick Ventures, Detroit Venture Partners and Invest Detroit.

For Healander, Airspace Link is only the latest entrepreneurial venture. He previously founded GeoMetri, an indoor GPS tracking company, which was acquired by Acuity Brands.

I’ve been a partner of ESRI my entire life,” says Healander. “I’ve been in the geospatial industry for four or five companies with them.”

The company has four main components of its service. There’s AirRegistry, where people can opt-in or out of receiving drone deliveries; AirInspect, which is a service that handles city and state permitting for drone operators; AirNetm, which works with the FAA to create approved air routes for drones; and AirLink, an API that connects drone operators with local governments and collects fees for registering drones.

Joby Aviation raises $590 million led by Toyota to launch an electric air taxi service

By Darrell Etherington

Joby Aviation has raised a $590 million Series C round of funding, including $394 million from lead investor Toyota Motor Corporation, the company announced today. Joby is in the process of developing an electric air taxi service, which will make use of in-house developed electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft that will in part benefit from strategic partner Toyota’s vehicle manufacturing experience.

This brings the total number of funding in Joby Aviation to $720 million, and its list of investors includes Intel Capital, JetBlue Technology Ventures, Toyota AI Ventures and more. Alongside this new round of funding, Joby gains a new board member: Toyota Motor Corporation EVP Shigeki Tomoyama.

Founded in 2009, Joby Aviation is based in Santa Cruz, California. The company was founded by JoeBen Bevirt, who also founded consumer photo and electronics accessory maker Joby. Its proprietary aircraft is a piloted eVTOL, which can fly at up to 200 miles per hour for a total distance of over 150 miles on a single charge. Because it uses an electric drivetrain and multi rotor design, Joby Aviation says it’s “100 times quieter than conventional aircraft during takeoff and landing, and near-silent when flying overhead.”

These benefits make eVTOL craft prime candidates for developing urban aerial transportation networks, and a number of companies, including Joby as well as China’s EHang, Airbus and more are all working on this type of craft for use in this kind of city-based short-hop transit for both people and cargo.

The sizeable investment made by Toyota in this round is a considerable bet for the automaker on the future of air transportation. In a press release detailing the round, Toyota President and CEO Akio Toyoda indicated that the company is serious about eVTOLs and air transport in general.

“Air transportation has been a long-term goal for Toyota, and while we continue our work in the automobile business, this agreement sets our sights to the sky,” Toyoda is quoted as saying. “As we take up the challenge of air transportation together with Joby, an innovator in the emerging eVTOL space, we tap the potential to revolutionize future transportation and life. Through this new and exciting endeavor, we hope to deliver freedom of movement and enjoyment to customers everywhere, on land, and now, in the sky.”

Joby Aviation believes that it can achieve significant cost benefits vs. traditional helicopters for short aerial flights, eventually lowering costs through maximizing utilization and fuel savings to the point where it can be “accessible to everyone.” To date, Joby has completed sub-scale testing on its aircraft design, and begun full flight tests of production prototypes, along with beginning the certification process for its aircraft with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) at the end of 2018.

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