Several months into this pandemic, you can no doubt already eyeball six feet/two meters with the best of them. But if you’re still having trouble — and happen to have an Android device handy — Google’s got you covered, I guess.
The latest project out of the company’s Experiments With Google collection, Sodar is a simple browser-based app that uses WebXR to offer a mobile augmented reality social distance. Visiting the site in Chrome on an Android handset will bring up the app. From there you’ll need to point your camera at the ground and move it around as the device recognizes the plane with a matrix of dots.
Sodar – use WebXR to help visualise social distancing guidelines in your environment. Using Sodar on supported mobile devices, create an augmented reality two meter radius ring around you. #hacktohelp https://t.co/Bu78QrEN9f pic.twitter.com/kufatNFDQk
Move it up, and you’ll get a visual perimeter of two meters (that’s 6.6 feet for us imperial unit loving Americans) — the CDC-recommended length to help curb the spread of COVID-19. The organization also handily lists it as “about two arms’ length. The app is probably more clever than it is useful at this point. Perhaps some day in the future, if smart glasses ever really take off. A big if, of course.
Meantime, holding a phone up to make sure you’re a proper distance away from your fellow human/disease vector is a bit less practical than good old fashioned common sense.
Two years ago, Google open-sourced Plus Codes, a digital addressing system to help billions of people navigate to places that don’t have clear addresses. The company said today it is making it easier for anyone with an Android device to share its rendition of an address — a six-digit alphanumeric code.
Google Maps users on Android can now tap the blue dot that represents their current location to view and share their unique six-digit coordinate with friends. Anyone with the code can look it up on Google Maps or Google Search to get the precise location of the destination.
The codes look like this: G6G4+CJ Delhi, India. Google says it divides the geographical surface of the world into tiled areas and attributes a unique six-letter code and the name of the city and country to each of them.
More than 2 billion people on the planet either don’t have an address or have an address that isn’t easy to locate. This challenge is more prevalent in developed markets such as India where a street address could often be as long as a paragraph, and where people often rely on nearby landmarks to navigate their way.
Google is not the only firm that is attempting to simplify the addressing system. London-based what3words has broken the world in 57 trillion squares and assigned each of those blocks with three randomly combined words such as toddler.geologist.animated that are easier to decipher and share. The company told TechCrunch earlier that it had partnered with a number of firms including several carmakers to expand its reach.
But what3words and five-year-old project Plus Codes have both struggled to gain wider traction. When Google announced this project in India, its executives told this correspondent that they were exploring ways to work with logistics firms and government agencies such as the postal department to get wider adoption — though none of it has materialized yet. At the time, the company had also tested Plus Codes at some concerts in India, the executives said.
To get wider adoption, Google open sourced Plus Codes in 2018 so that developers and businesses could find their own use cases. “If you’ve ever been in an emergency, you know that being able to share your location for help to easily find you is critical. Yet in many places in the world, organizations struggle with this challenge on a daily basis,” the company said today.
Weeks after Facebook acquired a 9.9% stake in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms, two more American firms are reportedly interested in the Indian telecom market.
Google is considering buying a stake of about 5% in Vodafone Idea, the second largest telecom operator in India, according to Financial Times. Separately, Microsoft is in talks to invest up to $2 billion in Reliance Jio Platforms, Indian newspaper Mint reported Friday.
According to Financial Times, Google has also held talks with Reliance Jio Platforms, a three-and-a-half-old telecom operator that has raised $10.3 billion in the last couple of weeks from Facebook and U.S. privacy equity firms Silver Lake, KKR, General Atlantic, and Vista.
Buzz about Microsoft’s interest in Reliance Jio Platforms, the top telecom operator in India with more than 388 million subscribers, has been swirling in the market for more than a month, though both the companies have declined to comment. A spokesperson of Google declined to comment today.
India has emerged as the one of the latest global battlegrounds for American and Chinese firms that are looking for their next billion users. About half a billion Indians came online in the last decade, with just as many still living offline.
In the last decade, Facebook and Google have launched connectivity efforts in India to bring more people online. While Facebook maintains one such effort, called Express Wi-Fi, in India, Google discontinued a project that allowed millions of Indians to access mobile internet for free at more than 400 railway stations earlier this year.
Both the companies have traditionally struggled to make much money from these users in India, the world’s second largest internet market with more than 600 million users.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said last month that the company would work with Jio Platforms to help small merchants and businesses come online. The two companies have already kick-started their collaboration.
Already struggling to improve their profits because of Jio’s aggressive expansion, Vodafone Idea and nation’s third largest telecom operator Airtel are also scrambling to pay India billions of dollars that they owe to the government because of a decade old case.
Executives at Vodafone Idea, a joint venture between UK-headquartered Vodafone and India’s Aditya Birla Group, said earlier this year that they may have to shut the telecom operator if the government did not provide them some relief.
The American giants have formed multiple partnerships with telecom operators in the key overseas market over the years to expand their reach in the nation. Microsoft has a partnership with Reliance Jio to bring Office 365 to millions of small businesses at subsidized cost. Google maintains a similar partnership with Airtel for its Google Cloud suite.
Browser developers love to add small Easter Eggs to their apps to help you while away the hours when your interent is down, for example. Chrome has long had the Dino game, that you can start from the “No internet” error screen, for example. With its surf game, Microsoft’s Edge team built something similar into its pre-release channels earlier this year and, as the company announced today, it’s now also available in the stable channel, too.
Just type in “edge://surf” into your URL bar and you’re off to the races. The surf game is an endless scroller where you try to avoid obstacles, other surfers and the occasional attention-starved kraken. It’s more fun than the Dino game and also a bit more fully featured. There are different game modes (endless, time trial, zig zag) and you can play with keyboard, mouse, touch or gamepad. If you like your games even more casual, there is a reduced speed mode and there is a high-visibility mode for those with visual impairments.
After almost a year in public preview, the Edge team launched its first stable version earlier this year and only last week, Microsoft announced a slew of new features at its virtual Build developer conference. Even during its preview period, Edge was already a capable browser, though it lacked any killer features — unless being a very good Chromium-based browser made by Microsoft was really what you were always looking for. That’s slowly changing now, as the team is now building out the Edge feature set. The surf game isn’t exactly a killer feature, but it does help set the overall vibe for the browser and shows that Microsoft is looking to go beyond the basics now.
Security researchers have found a major vulnerability in almost every version of Android, which lets malware imitate legitimate apps to steal app passwords and other sensitive data.
The vulnerability, dubbed Strandhogg 2.0 (named after the Norse term for a hostile takeover) affects all devices running Android 9.0 and earlier. It’s the “evil twin” to an earlier bug of the same name, according to Norwegian security firm Promon, which discovered both vulnerabilities six months apart. Strandhogg 2.0 works by tricking a victim into thinking they’re entering their passwords on a legitimate app while instead interacting with a malicious overlay. Strandhogg 2.0 can also hijack other app permissions to siphon off sensitive user data, like contacts, photos, and track a victim’s real-time location.
The bug is said to be more dangerous than its predecessor because it’s “nearly undetectable,” Tom Lysemose Hansen, founder and chief technology officer at Promon, told TechCrunch.
The good news is that Promon said it has no evidence that hackers have used the bug in active hacking campaigns. The caveat is that there are “no good ways” to detect an attack. Fearing the bug could still be abused by hackers, Promon delayed releasing details of the bug until Google could fix the “critical”-rated vulnerability.
A spokesperson for Google told TechCrunch that the company also saw no evidence of active exploitation. “We appreciate the work of the researchers, and have released a fix for the issue they identified.” The spokesperson said Google Play Protect, an app screening service built-in to Android devices, blocks apps that exploit the Strandhogg 2.0 vulnerability.
Standhogg 2.0 works by abusing Android’s multitasking system, which keeps tabs on every recently opened app so that the user can quickly switch back and forth. A victim would have to download a malicious app — disguised as a normal app — that can exploit the Strandhogg 2.0 vulnerability. Once installed and when a victim opens a legitimate app, the malicious app quickly hijacks the app and injects malicious content in its place, such as a fake login window.
When a victim enters their password on the fake overlay, their passwords are siphoned off to the hacker’s servers. The real app then appears as though the login was real.
Strandhogg 2.0 doesn’t need any Android permissions to run, but it can also hijack the permissions of other apps that have access to a victim’s contacts, photos, and messages by triggering a permissions request.
“If the permission is granted, then the malware now has this dangerous permission,” said Hansen.
Once that permission is granted, the malicious app can upload data from a user’s phone. The malware can upload entire text message conversations, said Hansen, allowing the hackers to defeat two-factor authentication protections.
The risk to users is likely low, but not zero. Promon said updating Android devices with the latest security updates — out now — will fix the vulnerability. Users are advised to update their Android devices as soon as possible.
The lead data regulator for much of big tech in Europe is moving inexorably towards issuing its first major cross-border GDPR decision — saying today it’s submitted a draft decision related to Twitter’s business to its fellow EU watchdogs for review.
“The draft decision focusses on whether Twitter International Company has complied with Articles 33(1) and 33(5) of the GDPR,” said the Irish Data Protection Commission (DPC) in a statement.
Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation came into application two years ago, as an update to the European Union’s long-standing data protection framework which bakes in supersized fines for compliance violations. More interestingly, regulators have the power to order that violating data processing cease. While, in many EU countries, third parties such as consumer rights groups can file complaints on behalf of individuals.
Since GDPR begun being applied, there have been thousands of complaints filed across the bloc, targeting companies large and small — alongside a rising clamour around a lack of enforcement in major cross-border cases pertaining to big tech.
So the timing of the DPC’s announcement on reaching a draft decision in its Twitter probe is likely no accident. (GDPR’s actual anniversary of application is May 25.)
The draft decision relates to an inquiry the regulator instigated itself, in November 2018, after the social network had reported a data breach — as data controllers are required to do promptly under GDPR, risking penalties should they fail to do so.
Other interested EU watchdogs (all of them in this case) will now have one month to consider the decision — and lodge “reasoned and relevant objections” should they disagree with the DPC’s reasoning, per the GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism which enables EU regulators to liaise on cross-border inquiries.
In instances where there is disagreement between DPAs on a decision the regulation contains a dispute resolution mechanism (Article 65) — which loops in the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) to make a final decision on a majority basis.
On the Twitter decision, the DPC told us it’s hopeful this can be finalized in July.
Commissioner Helen Dixon has previously said the first cross border decisions would be coming “early” in 2020. However the complexity of working through new processes — such as the one-stop-shop — appear to have taken EU regulators longer than hoped.
The DPC is also dealing with a massive case load at this point, with more than 20 cross border investigations related to complaints and/or inquiries still pending decisions — with active probes into the data processing habits of a large number of tech giants; including Apple, Facebook, Google, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tinder, Verizon (TechCrunch’s parent company) and WhatsApp — in addition to its domestic caseload (operating with a budget that’s considerably less than it requested from the Irish government).
The scope of some of these major cross-border inquiries may also have bogged Ireland’s regulator down.
But — two years in — there are signs of momentum picking up, with the DPC’s deputy commissioner, Graham Doyle, pointing today to developments on four additional investigations from the cross-border pile — all of which concern Facebook owned platforms.
The furthest along of these is a probe into the level of transparency the tech giant provides about how user data is shared between its WhatsApp and Facebook services.
“We have this week sent a preliminary draft decision to WhatsApp Ireland Limited for their submissions which will be taken in to account by the DPC before preparing a draft decision in that matter also for Article 60 purposes,” said Doyle in a statement on that. “The inquiry into WhatsApp Ireland examines its compliance with Articles 12 to 14 of the GDPR in terms of transparency including in relation to transparency around what information is shared with Facebook.”
The other three cases the DPC said it’s making progress on relate to GDPR consent complaints filed back in May 2018 by the EU privacy rights not-for-profit, noyb.
noyb argues that Facebook uses a strategy of “forced consent” to continue processing individuals’ personal data — when the standard required by EU law is for users to be given a free choice unless consent is strictly necessary for provision of the service. (And noyb argues that microtargeted ads are not core to the provision of a social networking service; contextual ads could instead be served, for example.)
Per its statement today, the DPC said it has now completed the investigation phase of this complaint-based inquiry which it said is focused on “Facebook Ireland’s obligations to establish a lawful basis for personal data processing”.
“This inquiry is now in the decision-making phase at the DPC,” it added.
In further related developments it said it’s sent draft inquiry reports to the complainants and companies concerned for the same set of complaints for (Facebook owned) Instagram and WhatsApp.
Doyle declined to give any firm timeline for when any of these additional inquiries might yield final decisions. But a summer date would, presumably, be the very earliest timeframe possible.
The regulator’s hope looks to be that once the first cross-border decision has made it through the GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism — and yielded something all DPAs can sign up to — it will grease the tracks for the next tranche of decisions.
That said, not all inquiries and decisions are equal clearly. And what exactly the DPC decides in such high profile probes will be key to whether or not there’s disagreement from other data protection agencies. Different EU DPAs can take a harder or softer line on applying the bloc’s rules, with some considerably more ‘business friendly‘ than others. Albeit, the GDPR was intended to try to shrink differences of application.
If there is disagreement among regulators on major cross border cases, such as the Facebook ones, the GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism will require more time to work through to find consensus. So critics of the regulation are likely to have plenty of attack area still.
Some of the inquiries the DPC is leading are also likely to set standards which could have major implications for many platforms and digital businesses so there will be vested interests seeking to influence outcomes on all sides. But with GDPR hitting its second birthday — and still hardly any decision-shaped lumps taken out of big tech — the regional pressure for enforcements to get flowing is massive.
Given the blistering pace of tech developments — and the market muscle of big tech being applied to steamroller individual rights — EU regulators have to be able to close the gap between investigation and enforcement or watch their flagship framework derided as a paper tiger…
Just in time for the 2nd anniversary of the #GDPR the @DPCIreland dropped publicly that it *will* issue the first GDPR fine — not against Facebook, WhatsApp, Apple, LinkedIn, Instagram (…), but against the state child care agency.. #Enforcewhat?https://t.co/jbjZYYqSXg
— Max Schrems (@maxschrems) May 18, 2020
Summer is also shaping up to be an interesting time for privacy watchers for another reason, with a landmark decision due from Europe’s top court on July 16 on the so called ‘Schrems II’ case (named for the Austrian lawyer, privacy rights campaigner and noyb founder, Max Schrems, who lodged the original complaint) — which relates to the legality of Standard Contractual Clauses (SCC) as a mechanism for personal data transfers out of the EU.
The DPC’s statement today makes a point of flagging this looming decision, with the regulator writing: “The case concerns proceedings initiated and pursued in the Irish High Court by the DPC which raised a number of significant questions about the regulation of international data transfers under EU data protection law. The judgement from the CJEU on foot of the reference made arising from these proceedings is anticipated to bring much needed clarity to aspects of the law and to represent a milestone in the law on international transfers.”
A legal opinion issued at the end of last year by an influential advisor to the court emphasized that EU data protection authorities have an obligation to step in and suspend data transfers by SCC if they are being used to send citizens’ data to a place where their information cannot be adequately protected.
Should the court hold to that view, all EU DPAs will have an obligation to consider the legality of SCC transfers to the US “on a case-by-case basis”, per Doyle.
“It will be in every single case you’d have to go and look at the set of circumstances in every single case to make a judgement whether to instruct them to cease doing it. There won’t be just a one size fits all,” he told TechCrunch. “It’s an extremely significant ruling.”
(If you’re curious about ‘Schrems I’, read this from 2015.)
Apple is facing fresh questions from its lead data protection regulator in Europe following a public complaint by a former contractor who revealed last year that workers doing quality grading for Siri were routinely overhearing sensitive user data.
Earlier this week the former Apple contractor, Thomas le Bonniec, sent a letter to European regulators laying out his concern at the lack of enforcement on the issue — in which he wrote: “I am extremely concerned that big tech companies are basically wiretapping entire populations despite European citizens being told the EU has one of the strongest data protection laws in the world. Passing a law is not good enough: it needs to be enforced upon privacy offenders.”
The timing of the letter comes as Europe’s updated data protection framework, the GDPR, reaches its two-year anniversary — facing ongoing questions around the lack of enforcement related to a string of cross-border complaints.
Ireland’s Data Protection Commission (DPC) has been taking the brunt of criticism over whether the General Data Protection Regulation is functioning as intended — as a result of how many tech giants locate their regional headquarters on its soil (Apple included).
Responding to the latest Apple complaint from le Bonniec, the DPC’s deputy commissioner, Graham Doyle, told TechCrunch: “The DPC engaged with Apple on this issue when it first arose last summer and Apple has since made some changes. However, we have followed up again with Apple following the release of this public statement and await responses.”
At the time of writing Apple had not responded to a request for comment.
The Irish DPC is currently handling more than 20 major cross-border cases, as lead data protection agency — probing the data processing activities of companies including Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter. So le Bonniec’s letter adds to the pile of pressure on commissioner Helen Dixon to begin issuing decisions vis-à-vis cross-border GDPR complaints. (Some of which are now a full two years old.)
Last year Dixon said the first decisions for these cross-border cases would be coming “early” in 2020.
At issue is that if Europe’s recently updated flagship data protection regime isn’t seen to be functioning well two years in — and is still saddled with a bottleneck of high-profile cases, rather than having a string of major decisions to its name — it will be increasingly difficult for the region’s lawmakers to sell it as a success.
At the same time the existence of a pan-EU data protection regime — and the attention paid to contravention, by both media and regulators — has had a tangible impact on certain practices.
Apple suspended human review of Siri snippets globally last August, after The Guardian had reported that contractors it employed to review audio recordings of users of its voice assistant tech — for quality grading purposes — regularly listened in to sensitive content such as medical information and even recordings of couples having sex.
Later the same month it made changes to the grading program, switching audio review to an explicitly opt-in process. It also brought the work in house — meaning only Apple employees have since been reviewing Siri users’ opt-in audio.
The tech giant also apologized, but did not appear to face any specific regulatory sanction for practices that do look to have been incompatible with Europe’s laws — owing to the lack of transparency and explicit consent around the human review program. Hence le Bonniec’s letter of complaint now.
A number of other tech giants also made changes to their own human grading programs around the same time.
Doyle also pointed out that guidance for EU regulators on voice AI tech is in the works, saying: “It should be noted that the European Data Protection Board is working on the production of guidance in the area of voice assistant technologies.”
We’ve reached out to the European Data Protection Board for comment.
There are a number of different technologies both proposed and in development to help smooth the reopening of parts of the economy even as the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic continues. One such tech solution launching today comes from Brian McClendon, co-founder of Keyhole, the company that Google purchased in 2004 that would form the basis of Google Earth and Google Maps. McClendon’s new CVKey Project is a registered nonprofit that is launching with an app for symptom self-assessment that generates a temporary QR code, which will work with participating community facilities as a kind of health “pass” on an opt-in basis.
Ultimately, CVKey Project hopes to launch an entire suite of apps dedicated to making it easier to reopen public spaces safely. Apple and Google recently launched an exposure notification API that would allow CVKey to include those notifications in its apps. CVKey also plans to provide information about facilities open under current government guidelines and their policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible.
The core element of CVKey Project’s approach, however, is the use of a QR code generated by its app that essentially acts as a verification that you’re “safe” to enter one of these shared spaces. The system is designed with user privacy in mind, according to McClendon. Any identity or health data exists only on a user’s individual device — no date is ever uploaded to a cloud server or shared without a user’s consent. Information is also provided about what that sharing entails. Users voluntarily offer their health info, and the app never asks for location information. Most of what it does can be done without an internet connection at all, McClendon explains.
When you generate and scan a QR code at a participating location, a simple binary display (based on the location’s policies) indicates whether you’re cleared to pass. The location won’t see any specifics about your health information. The code simply transmits the particulars of shown symptoms (which ones and how recently, for instance), and then that is matched against the public space’s policy. The app then provides a “go”/”no-go” response.
McClendon created CVKey Project with former Google Earth, Google Maps and Uber co-workers Manik Gupt and Waleed Kadous, as well as Dr. Marci Nielsen, a public health specialist with a long history of public and private institution leadership.
The apps created by CVKey Project will be available soon, and the nonprofit is looking for potential partners to participate in its program. Like just about everything else designed to address the COVID-19 crisis, it’s not a simple fix, but it could form part of a larger strategy that provides a path forward for dealing with the pandemic.
Google has announced a new, welcome and no doubt long asked-for feature to its Maps app: wheelchair accessibility info. Businesses and points of interest featuring accessible entrances, bathrooms and other features will now be prominently marked as such.
Millions, of course, require such accommodations as ramps or automatic doors, from people with limited mobility to people with strollers or other conveyances. Google has been collecting information on locations’ accessibility for a couple years, and this new setting puts it front and center.
The company showed off the feature in a blog post for Global Accessibility Awareness Day. To turn it on, users can go to the “Settings” section of the Maps app, then “Accessibility settings,” then toggle on “Accessible places.”
This will cause any locations searched for or tapped on to display a small wheelchair icon if they have accessible facilities. Drilling down into the details where you find the address and hours will show exactly what’s available. Unfortunately it doesn’t indicate the location of those resources (helpful if someone is trying to figure out where to get dropped off, for instance), but knowing there’s an accessible entrance or restroom at all is a start.
The information isn’t automatically created or sourced from blueprints or anything — like so much on Google, it comes from you, the user. Any registered user can note the presence of accessible facilities the way they’d note things like in-store pickup or quick service. Just go to “About” in a location’s description and hit the “Describe this place” button at the bottom.
Daniel Graf has had a long career in the tech industry. From founding his own startup in the mid-2000s to working at Google, then Twitter, and finally Uber, the tech business has made him extremely wealthy.
But after leaving Uber, he wasn’t necessarily interested in working at another business… At least, not until he spent an afternoon in the spring of 2019 with an old friend, General Catalyst managing director Hemant Taneja, walking in San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood and hearing Taneja talk about a new startup called Mindstrong.
Taneja told Graf that by the fall of that year, he’d be working at Mindstrong… and Taneja was right.
“I was intrigued by healthtech previously,” said Graf. “The problem always was…and it sounds a little too money oriented.. but if there’s no clear visibility around who pays who in a startup, the startup isn’t going to work,” and that was always his issue with healthcare businesses.
NEW YORK, NY – MAY 21: Daniel Graf accepts a Webby award for Google Maps for Iphone at the 17th Annual Webby Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on May 21, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The Webby Awards)
With Mindstrong, which announced today that it has raised $100 million in new financing, the issue of who pays is clear.
So Graf joined the company in November as chief executive, taking over from Paul Dagum, who remains with Mindstrong as its chief scientific officer.
“Daniel joined the company as it was moving from pure R&D into being something commercially available,” said Taneja, in an email. “In healthcare, it’s increasingly important to understand how to build for the consumer and that’s where Daniel’s experience and background comes in. Paul remains a core part of the team because none of this happens without the science.”
The company, which has developed a digital platform for providing therapy to patients with severe mental illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to obsessive compulsive disorders, is looking to tackle a problem that costs the American healthcare system $20 billion per month, Graf said.
Unlike companies like Headspace and Calm that have focused on the mental wellness market for the mass consumer, Mindstrong is focused on people with severe mental health conditions, said Graf. That means people who are either bipolar, schizophrenic or have major depressive disorder.
It’s a much larger population than most Americans think and they face a critical problem in their ability to receive adequate care, Graf said.
“1 in 5 adults experience mental illness, 1 in 25 experience serious mental illness, and the pandemic is making these numbers worse. Meanwhile, more than 60% of US counties don’t have a single practicing psychiatrist,” said Joe Lonsdale, the founder of 8VC, and investor in the latest Mindstrong Health round, in a statement.
Dagum, Mindstrong Health’s founder has been working on the issue of how to provide better access and monitor for indications of potential episodes of distress since 2013. The company’s technology provides a range of monitoring and measurement tools using digital biomarkers that are currently being validated through clinical trials, according to Graf.
“We’re passively measuring the usage of the phone and the timing of the keyboard strokes to measure how [a patient] is doing,” Graf said. These smartphone interactions can provide data around mental acuity and emotional valence, according to Graf — and can provide signs that someone might be having problems.
The company also provides access to therapists via phone and video consultations or text-based asynchronous communications, based on user preference.
“Think of us more as a virtual hospital… our care pathways are super complex for this population,” said Graf. “We’re not aware of other startups working with this population. These folks, the best you get right now is the county mental health.”
Mindstrong’s Series C raise included participation from new and existing investors, including General Catalyst, ARCH Ventures, Optum Ventures, Foresite Capital, 8VC, What If Ventures and Bezos Expeditions, along with other, undisclosed investors.
And while mental health is the company’s current focus, the platform for care delivery that the company is building has broader implications for the industry, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, according to General Catalyst managing director, Taneja.
“I expect that we’ll see discoveries in biomarker tech like Mindstrong’s that could be applied horizontally across almost any area of healthcare,” Taneja said in an email. “Because healthcare is so broad and varied, going vertical like Mindstrong is makes a lot of sense. There’s opportunity to become a successful and very impactful company by staying narrowly focused and solving some really hard problems for even a smaller part of the overall population.”
Apple has released iOS 13.5, which includes support for the Exposure Notification API that it co-created with Google to support public health authorities in their contact-tracing efforts to combat COVID-19. The API requires third-party apps developed by public health authorities for use, and none have yet been released, but iOS device users already have access to COVID-19 Exposure Logging global settings.
As previewed in the beta release, you can access the Exposure Logging settings under the Settings app, then navigate to the Privacy subsection. From there, you can select the Health submenu and find the COVID-19 Exposure Logging setting, which will be off be default. It can’t be turned on at all until you actually get an authorized app to enable them, at which point you’ll receive a pop-up asking you to authorize Exposure Notifications access. Once you do, you can return here to toggle notifications off, and also manually delete your device’s exposure log should you choose to opt out.
Apple and Google both have emphasized that they want as much user control and visibility into the Exposure Notification API as possible. They’re using randomized, temporary identifiers that are not centrally stored to do the exposure notification, and are also forbidding the simultaneous use of geolocation services and the Exposure Notification API within the same app. This manual control is another step to ensure that users have full control over what info they share to participate in the system, and when.
Contact tracing is a time-tested strategy for combating the spread of infectious disease, and has traditionally worked by attempting to trace potential exposure by interviewing infected individuals and learning as much as possible about their movements during their infectious period. Modern connected devices mean that we can potentially make this far more efficient and accurate, but Google and Apple have worked with privacy experts to try to determine a way to make this happen without exposing users to privacy risks. Matching also happens locally on a user’s device, not in any centralized database.
Apple and Google are currently working with public health authorities who are building apps based on this API, and the companies also have noted that this is a temporary measure that has been designed from the beginning to be disabled once the threat of COVID-19 has passed.
Apple and Google today made available the first public version of their exposure notification API, which was originally debuted as a joint-contact tracing software tool. The partners later renamed it the Exposure Notification system to more accurately reflect its functionality, which is designed to notify individuals of potential exposure to others who have confirmed cases of COVID-19, while preserving privacy around identifying info and location data.
The launch today means that public health agencies can now use the API in apps released to the general public. To date, Apple and Google have only released beta versions of the API to help developed with the development process.
To be clear, this launch means that developers working on behalf of public health agencies can now issue apps that make use of it – Apple and Google themselves are not creating an exposure notification or contact tracing app. The companies say that many U.S. states and 22 countries across five continents have already asked for, and been provided access to the API to support their development efforts, and they anticipate more being added going forward. So far, Apple and Google say they have conducted over 24 briefings and tech talks for public health officials, epidemiologists, and app developers working on their behalf.
The exposure notification API works using a decentralized identifier system that uses randomly generated temporary keys created on a user’s device (but not tied to their specific identify or info). Apple and Google’s API allows public health agencies to define what constitutes potential exposure in terms of exposed time and distance, and they can tweak transmission risk and other factors according to their own standards.
Further, Apple and Google will allow apps to make use of a combination of the API and voluntarily submitted user data that they provide through individual apps to enable public health authorities to contact exposure users directly to make them aware of what steps they should take.
During the course of the API’s development, Apple and Google have made various improvements to ensure that privacy is an utmost consideration, including encrypting all Bluetooth metadata (like signal strength and specific transmitting power) since that could potentially be used to determine what type of device was used, which offers a slim possibility of associating an individual with a specific device and using that as one vector for identification.
The companies have also explicitly barred use of the API in any apps that also seek geolocation information permission from users – which means some apps being developed by public health authorities for contact tracing that use geolocation data won’t be able to access the exposure notification API. That has prompted some to reconsider their existing approach.
Apple and Google provided the following joint statement about the API and how it will support contact tracing efforts undertaken by public health officials and agencies:
One of the most effective techniques that public health officials have used during outbreaks is called contact tracing. Through this approach, public health officials contact, test, treat and advise people who may have been exposed to an affected person. One new element of contact tracing is Exposure Notifications: using privacy-preserving digital technology to tell someone they may have been exposed to the virus. Exposure Notification has the specific goal of rapid notification, which is especially important to slowing the spread of the disease with a virus that can be spread asymptomatically.
To help, Apple and Google cooperated to build Exposure Notifications technology that will enable apps created by public health agencies to work more accurately, reliably and effectively across both Android phones and iPhones. Over the last several weeks, our two companies have worked together, reaching out to public health officials scientists, privacy groups and government leaders all over the world to get their input and guidance.
Starting today, our Exposure Notifications technology is available to public health agencies on both iOS and Android. What we’ve built is not an app — rather public health agencies will incorporate the API into their own apps that people install. Our technology is designed to make these apps work better. Each user gets to decide whether or not to opt-in to Exposure Notifications; the system does not collect or use location from the device; and if a person is diagnosed with COVID-19, it is up to them whether or not to report that in the public health app. User adoption is key to success and we believe that these strong privacy protections are also the best way to encourage use of these apps.
Today, this technology is in the hands of public health agencies across the world who will take the lead and we will continue to support their efforts.
The companies previously announced plans to make Exposure Notification a system-level feature in a later update to both their respective mobile operating systems, to be released sometime later this year. That ‘Phase two’ portion of the strategy might be under revision, however, as Google and Apple said they continue to be in conversation with public health authorities about what system-level features will be useful to them in development of their COVID-19 mitigation strategies.
Google dropped out of the Pentagon’s JEDI cloud contract battle fairly early in the game, citing it was in conflict with its “AI principals.” However, today the company announced a new 7 figure contract with DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), a big win for the cloud unit and CEO Thomas Kurian.
While the company would not get specific about the number, the new contract involves using Anthos, the tool the company announced last year to secure DIU’s multi-cloud environment. In spite of the JEDI contract involving a single vendor, the DoD has always used solutions from all three major cloud vendors — Amazon, Microsoft and Google — and this solution will provide a way to monitor security across all three environments, according to the company.
“Multi-cloud is the future. The majority of commercial businesses run multi-cloud environments securely and seamlessly, and this is now coming to the federal government as well,” Mike Daniels, VP of Global Public Sector at Google Cloud told TechCrunch.
The idea is to manage security across three environments with help from cloud security vendor Netskope, which is also part of the deal.”The multi-cloud solution will be built on Anthos, allowing DIU to run web services and applications across Google Cloud, Amazon Web Services, and Microsoft Azure — while being centrally managed from the Google Cloud Console,” the company wrote in a statement.
Daniels says that while this is a deal with DIU, he could see it expanding to other parts of DoD. “This is a contract with the DIU, but our expectation is that the DoD will look at the project as a model for how to implement their own security posture.”
While JEDI, a $10 billion, winner-take-all prize remains mired in controversy and an on-going battle between The Pentagon, Amazon and Microsoft, this deal shows that the defense department is looking at advanced technology like Anthos to help it manage a multi-cloud world regardless of what happens with JEDI.
As the pharmaceuticals industry turns its attention to precision medicine — the search for ever more tailored treatments for specific diseases using genetic engineering — Octant is using the same technologies to engage in drug discovery and diagnostics on a mass scale.
The company’s technology genetically engineers DNA to act as an identifier for the most common drug receptors inside the human genome. Basically, it’s creating QR codes that can flag and identify how different protein receptors in cells respond to chemicals. These are the biological sensors which help control everything from immune responses to the senses of sight and smell, the firing of neurons; even the release of hormones and communications between cells in the body are regulated.
“Our discovery platform was designed to map and measure the interconnected relationships between chemicals, multiple drug receptor pathways and diseases, enabling us to engineer multi-targeted drugs in a more rational way, across a wide spectrum of targets,” said Sri Kosuri, Octant’s co-founder and chief executive officer, in a statement.
Octant’s work is based on a technology first developed at the University of California Los Angeles by Kosuri and a team of researchers, which slashed the cost of making genetic sequences to $2 per gene from $50 to $100 per gene.
“Our method gives any lab that wants the power to build its own DNA sequences,” Kosuri said in a 2018 statement. “This is the first time that, without a million dollars, an average lab can make 10,000 genes from scratch.”
Joining Kosuri in launching Octant is Ramsey Homsany, a longtime friend of Kosuri’s, and a former executive at Google and Dropbox . Homsany happened to have a background in molecular biology from school, and when Kosuri would talk about the implications of the technology he developed, the two men knew they needed to for a company.
“We use these new tools to know which bar code is going with which construct or genetic variant or pathway that we’re working with [and] all of that fits into a single well,” said Kosuri. “What you can do on top of that is small molecule screening… we can do that with thousands of different wells at a time. So we can build these maps between chemicals and targets and pathways that are essential to drug development.”
Before coming to UCLA, Kosuri had a long history with companies developing products based on synthetic biology on both the coasts. Through some initial work that he’d done in the early days of the biofuel boom in 2007, Kosuri was connected with Flagship Ventures, and the imminent Harvard-based synthetic biologist George Church . He also served as a scientific advisor to Gen9, a company acquired by the multi-billion dollar synthetic biology powerhouse, Ginkgo Bioworks.
“Some of the most valuable drugs in history work on complex sets of drug targets, which is why Octant’s focus on polypharmacology is so compelling,” said Jason Kelly, the co-founder and CEO of Gingko Bioworks, and a member of the Octant board, in a statement. “Octant is engineering a lot of luck and cost out of the drug discovery equation with its novel platform and unique big data biology insights, which will drive the company’s internal development programs as well as potential partnerships.”
The new technology arrives at a unique moment in the industry where pharmaceutical companies are moving to target treatments for diseases that are tied to specific mutations, rather than look at treatments for more common disease problems, said Homsany.
“People are dropping common disease problems,” he said. “The biggest players are dropping these cases and it seems like that just didn’t make sense to us. So we thought about how would a company take these new technologies and apply them in a way that could solve some of this.”
One reason for the industry’s turn away from the big diseases that affect large swaths of the population is that new therapies are emerging to treat these conditions which don’t rely on drugs. While they wouldn’t get into specifics, Octant co-founders are pursuing treatments for what Kosuri said were conditions “in the metabolic space” and in the “neuropsychiatric space”.
Helping them pursue those targets, since Octant is very much a drug development company, is $20 million in financing from investors led by Andreessen Horowitz .
“Drug discovery remains a process of trial and error. Using its deep expertise in synthetic biology, the Octant team has engineered human cells that provide real-time, precise and complete readouts of the complex interactions and effects that drug molecules have within living cells,” said Jorge Conde, general partner at Andreessen Horowitz, and member of the Octant board of directors. “By querying biology at this unprecedented scale, Octant has the potential to systematically create exhaustive maps of drug targets and corresponding, novel treatments for our most intractable diseases.”
Boasting a technology that can dramatically increase the capacity of existing polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing used to identify people infected with COVID-19 and other illnesses, ChromaCode has attracted new funding from Bill Gates-backed Adjuvant Capital.
“We want a good solution for a resource-limited environment,” says ChromaCode founder and executive chairman Alex Dickinson, a serial entrepreneur who has worked with Caltech researchers spinning out companies since the early 2000s.
The technology was based on research conducted by California Institute of Technology graduate student Aditya Rajagopal. A former researcher at Google[x] working on novel medical imaging methods, Rajagopal is the inventor of HDPCR, the tech at the heart of ChromaCode’s product.
With the help of Dickinson, Rajagopal spun out the technology he’d developed to form ChromaCode in 2012, according to Crunchbase, and raised its initial capital to develop a diagnostic tool that could use algorithms and new sensing technologies to increase the number of targets that can be analyzed by traditional PCR analysis.
The polymerase chain reaction tests were invented in 1985 by Kary Mullis, who was working as a chemist at the Cetus Corp., and use copies of very small amounts of DNA sequences that are amplified in a series of cycles of temperature changes. It’s one of the foundations of genetic analysis.
While traditional PCR testing relies on differentiation of targets by color, the HDPCR technology developed by ChromaCode’s co-founder uses signal intensity to identify multiple different targets and signify them as curve signatures encoded into a single color channel. Think of the technology as using color gradients to identify multiple targets in a test instead of just one color.
“It’s like image compression,” Dickinson said.
For COVID-19 specifically, the use of ChromaCode’s technology could expand available testing capacity threefold, the company said.
“Right now the basic test looks at three different things,” said Dickinson. “These machines have wells and they can do 96 tests at a time. The challenge is that you would typically use three of those wells for each test. We let them do all of the test in one well, which would give you a three times multiple.”
That means instead of testing 32 individuals using existing PCR equipment, labs would be able to perform 96 tests at a time.
Even more significant is the ability for ChromaCode’s technology to identify other illnesses alongside COVID-19. “What we’re planning for is the fall when we will be taking the existing COVID test and layering in flu and other diseases,” says Dickinson.
The ability to test for multiple pathogens has important implications for the ability to adequately test, track and trace the spread of the disease in the low and medium income countries that are now undergoing their own outbreaks. “The problem in Africa is that someone has a fever and it might be COVID or that might be Dengue fever,” said Dickinson. Using ChromaCode’s technology, diagnosticians and physicians can tell the difference without having to use new machines.
“The supply chain on the tests will continue to be strained so people will be looking for more efficient mechanisms,” said Gosch.
Adjuvant Capital, the investment fund spun out from a collaboration between the Gates Foundation and JP Morgan Chase, had already identified ChromaCode as a potential investment target well before the pandemic hit, according to managing partner Jenny Yip.
The investment firm began speaking with ChromaCode in the summer of 2019, and was drawn to the company for its ability to expand testing capacity well before the COVID-19 outbreak brought the problems of adequate testing into stark relief.
“From a global health perspective, ChromaCode’s technology ability to be installed in the existing technology base is very powerful,” said Yip. Given the low resource base in some of the countries where testing is needed the most, requiring the installation of an entirely new suite of hardware and software tools is untenable — let alone developing a supply chain that can service and maintain the technology.
The lack of adequate testing in the United States remains the biggest obstacle to safely fully re-starting the country’s economy and ensuring that any future outbreaks of the disease can be managed successfully, according to experts.
“Testing is your first fundamental step in a plan to keep infected people from susceptible people,” Ashish Jha, the K. T. Li Professor of Global Health at Harvard and the director of the Harvard Global Health Institute, told The Atlantic.
“There’s a strong sense that the White House knows the amount of testing we need is far more than we have right now,” he said. “It is really stunning and disappointing.”
Microsoft today announced the launch of the Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare, an industry-specific cloud solution for healthcare providers. This is the first in what is likely going to be a set of cloud offerings that target specific verticals and extends a trend we’ve seen among large cloud providers (especially Google) that tailor specific offerings to the needs of individual industries.
“More than ever, being connected is critical to create an individualized patient experience,” writes Tom McGuinness, corporate vice president, Worldwide Health at Microsoft, and Dr. Greg Moore, corporate vice president, Microsoft Health, in today’s announcement. “The Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare helps healthcare organizations to engage in more proactive ways with their patients, allows caregivers to improve the efficiency of their workflows and streamline interactions with Classified as Microsoft Confidential patients with more actionable results.”
Like similar Microsoft-branded offerings from the company, Cloud for Healthcare is about bringing together a set of capabilities that already exist inside of Microsoft. In this case, that includes Microsoft 365, Dynamics, Power Platform and Azure, including Azure IoT for monitoring patients. The solution sits on top of a common data model that makes it easier to share data between applications and analyze the data they gather.
“By providing the right information at the right time, the Microsoft Cloud for Healthcare will help hospitals and care providers better manage the needs of patients and staff and make resource deployments more efficient,” Microsoft says in its press materials. “This solution also improves end-to-end security compliance and accessibility of data, driving better operational outcomes.”
Since Microsoft never passes up a chance to talk up Teams, the company also notes that its communications service will allow healthcare workers to more efficiently communicate with each other, but it also notes that Teams now includes a Bookings app to help its users — including healthcare providers — schedule, manage and conduct virtual visits in Teams. Some of the healthcare systems that are already using Teams include St. Luke’s University Health Network, Stony Brook Medicine, Confluent Health and Calderdale & Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust in the U.K.
In addition to Microsoft’s own tools, the company is also working with its large partner ecosystem to provide healthcare providers with specialized services. These include the likes of Epic, Allscripts, GE Healthcare, Adaptive Biotechnologies and Nuance.
At its Build developer conference, Microsoft today announced that Azure Arc, its service for managing cloud resources anywhere, including competing clouds like AWS and GCP and platforms like Red Hat’s Open Shift, is now in public preview.
Microsoft first announced this Kubernetes-based solution at its Ignite event in Orland last September. One feature that makes it stand out is that it takes some of what Microsoft has learned from its Azure Stack project for bringing Azure Services to its customers’ data centers (and unsurprisingly, Azure Arc also supports deployments on Azure Stack). Thanks to this, Azure Arc doesn’t just allow you to manage containerized workloads anywhere but also includes the ability to bring services like Azure SQL Database and Azure Database for PostgreSQL to these platforms. It’s also worth noting that while this is a Microsoft service, it supports both Windows and Linux servers.
As part of today’s public preview launch, Microsoft also announced that Arc now supports SUSE Linux Enterprise Server and the SUSE CaaS Platform. “Azure Arc for servers gives customers a central management control plane with security and governance capabilities for SUSE Linux Enterprise Server systems hosted outside of the Azure cloud, such as edge deployments,” says SUSE President of Engineering and Innovation Thomas Di Giacomo.
It’s no secret that most large cloud vendors now have some kind of multi-cloud management service that’s similar to Azure Arc. Google is betting heavily on Anthos, for example, while AWS offers its fully-managed Outpost service. They all have slightly different characteristics and philosophies, but the fact that every major cloud player is now offering some version of this is a clear sign that enterprises don’t want to be locked into using a single cloud — even as these services make them place a bet on a specific vendor for their management services, though.
In a related set of announcements, Microsoft also launched a large set of new features for Azure Stack. This includes the private preview of Azure Stack Hub fleet management for monitoring deployments across Azure and Azure Stack Hub, as well as GPU partitioning using AMD GPU’s, which is also now in private preview. This last part matters not just for using those GPUs for visualization but also for enabling graphics-intensive workloads on virtualized desktop environments through Azure Stack Hub for enterprises that use AMD GPUs in their servers. With GPU partitioning, admins can give multiple users access to their share of the overall GPUs power.
The announcement — made ahead of the now-remote digital advertising NewFronts next month — doesn’t reflect a broader change in who gets to monetize their videos (something that’s been a fraught topic at the Google-owned video service), but it is part of an ongoing effort to assure marketers that they can safely advertise on YouTube.
In a blog post, YouTube advertising’s vice president of product management Vishal Sharma wrote that YouTube Select is “a reimagination and unification” of existing products for premium advertisers, including Google Preferred and prime packs.
Like Google Preferred (which is being phased out by the end of 2020), YouTube Select is meant to give advertisers access to a more curated, higher quality selection of creators and publishers. A YouTube spokesperson told me that the core content lineups will be the same as they were under Google Preferred, with categories like music, sports, gaming and technology.
However, YouTube Select is also introducing a package focused specifically on YouTube and YouTube TV content that’s streaming to TVs (something that the service has already been emphasizing). And it’s adding new lineups of up-and-coming or niche creators.
“With YouTube Select, you can be confident that your ad buys are brand-safe,” Sharma wrote. “You’ll have access to advanced brand suitability controls, as well as the option to only serve ads on videos that have been machine classified and human-verified across all lineups (lineup/market dependent).”
Last week, Mount Sinai showcased how it’s started using Nest devices to monitor patients remotely. Today, Google’s showing off how the Nest Hub Max is helping retirement home residents feel a little less isolated amid the COVID-19 lockdown.
To help matters along, the company is currently testing a simplified interface to make the smart screen easier to operate for less tech savvy residents. Google is currently piloting the device’s use in by handing units out to people at Merrill Gardens in Washington State. They’ll be the first to get a crack at the new UI.
Updates include additional “What can you do” cards serving as shortcuts to common requests like alarms, weather and music. Recipients will also get their devices preloaded with contacts for video calls — likely the primary use, as homes across the country institute social distancing.
“It’s important for seniors’ mental and emotional health to stay connected, and social isolation during this quarantine makes doing that especially hard,” Google’s Molly McHugh-Johnson says in a post. “As I learned with my grandma, Nest Hub Max and Duo video calling can help keep us ‘together’ while we’re apart.”
Retirement and nursing homes have been disproportionately impact during the COVID-19 pandemic. The elderly community in general has been hard hit by the virus, with a mortality rate of three to 11% for ages 65 to 84 and 10 to 27% for ages 85 and up. For that reason it’s become particularly important for communities to enact strong social distancing measures.
Congress will allow remote voting for the first time in its history, after the U.S. House approved Resolution 965 late Friday in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The measure — sponsored by Massachusetts Representative Jim McGovern — authorizes proxy voting by members for renewable periods of 45 days and allows for remote participation in committee hearings.
H.R. 965 could also permanently alter the way Congress operates through a provision that establishes a bi-partisan process to explore digital voting away from Capitol Hill.
Per the directive, “The chair of the Committee on House Administration, in consultation with the ranking minority member, shall study the feasibility of using technology to conduct remote voting in the House, and shall provide certification…that operable and secure technology exists.”
Previous House rules required in person voting only. The Senate still makes decisions by recording verbal “Yeas” and “Nays” on a tally sheet.
Friday’s congressional action is another example of how COVID-19 is forcing every organization in the U.S. to overhaul longstanding ways of doing things, usually through a mix of digital tools.
We still don’t have clear details on what tech the U.S. House will use to implement both the short and longer term provisions of H.R. 965.
The proxy voting arrangement will allow members to vote remotely through designated representatives on Capitol Hill — effectively a form of pinch-hitting for Congress. For remote participation in hearings, there are a range of options that could be selected — from Google Meet to Microsoft Teams. Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci testified before the U.S. Senate using Zoom.
On determining long-term means for remote voting, that’s now up to the Chairperson of the Committee on House Administration — representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) — and the ranking minority member Rodney Davis (R-IL), who voted against H.R. 965.
Lofgren offered a preview of how it could shape up in a statement supporting H.R. 965 late Friday: “For voting on the floor, we will rely on a secure email system, coupled with member-driven, remotely-directed authorizations. This system would use secure email for proxy votes: a solid, well known, resilient technology with very low bandwidth requirements that we understand very well from a cybersecurity standpoint.”
Of course, she and Republican Congressman Davis will have to find agreement on this during a time when both parties rarely agree on anything. The vote on H.R. 965 was split along party lines, with 217 Dems voting in favor and not a single Republican member supporting the measure.
In the past, Congress has resisted calls to allow for remote voting. There was discussion of the need for such provisions after the September 11 attacks and 2001 Anthrax attacks. These was overridden by a long time expectation that those elected to represent constituencies be physically present to vote.
Over the last two months, it appeared the House might become a last holdout in the U.S. for in person only workplaces, as much of the country has shifted to tech-enabled measures for remote operations.
Shortly after the coronavirus outbreak hit the U.S. in March, Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-CA) pressed a resolution with Arkansas Representative Rick Crawford (R-AR) that would allow members to participate virtually in hearings and vote remotely, under special circumstances.
Image Credits: Bill Dickinson/Getty Images
That was nixed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi who, at the time, wanted Congress to remain in session and present to pass the first coronavirus stimulus bill.
Two months and nearly one hundred thousand American deaths later, it appears COVID-19 could force one of the more significant procedural changes in the House’s 231 year history.
In person voting could soon be replaced with some form of two-factor authentication, digital voting. This could change longstanding patterns for how lawmakers travel, interact with constituencies, and divide their time between the Beltway and districts back home.