Growing up in the Philippines, Andreia Carrillo always liked the stars. It’s what brought her to the United States to study astronomy, and why she wants others to follow in her footsteps and study the stars.
“Though, we’ll see if that happens now,” Carrillo said.
Carrillo is one of the hundreds of thousands of students affected by a recent rule change, issued by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to no longer allow international students from staying in the U.S. if their university moves classes fully online.
The rule change, published Monday, lands as the threat of the coronavirus pandemic grows across the country, forcing some universities to shift to digital-only operations for the fall.
News of the rule change caught immigration lawyers by surprise. The Trump administration said nothing more about the policy beyond a tweet from the president: “SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!,” a decision over which the federal government has little authority. It’s a sharp reversal from the administration’s position in March — at the height of the pandemic’s spread in the U.S. — allowing students to retain their lawful immigration status even as in-person classes were suspended across the country.
SCHOOLS MUST OPEN IN THE FALL!!!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 6, 2020
The sudden rule change puts universities in a difficult dynamic: administrators can let campuses stay open to keep international students in the country but run the risk of spreading the virus; or close up, maintain social distancing, and international students be damned.
But the knock-on effect will be felt across the U.S., not just by the students, the universities whose revenue largely depends on higher tuition fees from international students, or even the college towns whose economies rely on schools keeping their doors open. The rule change will also impact the fields that these students pursue, largely engineering, math, and computer science, and the rate of innovation that can be sustained in a country without the core, often invisible, talent behind it.
After all, one of the most popular destinations for international students is the state of California, the heart of Silicon Valley.
Eric Tarczynski, the founder of Contrary Capital, says that he’s seen “scores of entrepreneurial people come to universities from abroad explicitly because it’s their gateway to building a company in the United States.
“To some extent, it’s their Ellis Island, and we’ve funded several companies this way,” he said. He pointed to alternative programs, like Lambda School, will help the same talented students shift online.
New York University president Andrew Hamilton said in response to the government’s rule change that “requiring international students to maintain in person instruction or leave the country, irrespective of their own health issues or even a government mandated shutdown of New York City, is just plain wrong and needlessly rigid.”
“If there were a moment for flexibility in delivering education, this would be it,” he wrote..
NYU will join a chorus of other schools in reaching out to federal officials to ask them to revoke the rule change. Harvard and MIT have gone further by suing ICE to stop the rule change going into effect.
“The coronavirus has become a vehicle for the administration to continue in its advancement of anti-immigrant policies,” Tahmina Watson, an immigration lawyer, told TechCrunch. “With the election looming in a few months, the administration is looking for every possible angle to block immigration.”
“The invisible wall is real and gets higher every day,” said Watson.
One option for schools is going to the hybrid model route where some classes are taught live and others are taught online. Harvard, for example, said it will bring up to only 40% of undergraduates to campus this fall. Universities that go virtual may struggle to justify their traditionally exorbitant tuition fees.
The rule change touches on a nerve that has been agitated throughout the pandemic: how remote education shapes what we can learn, and more importantly, who can have the opportunity to learn. Some have noted that a remote shift might harshly impact international students who have spotty connections in other countries. Others say that higher education’s appeal in the U.S. is largely the network it provides.
In Carrillo’s case, there was no opportunity to study astronomy in the Philippines. She had to come to the U.S. if she wanted to pursue her dream career path.
The rule change is likely to face legal challenges. Watson noted that Monday’s policy has questionable legality. The administration referred to it as a “temporary final rule,” which she says essentially avoids the rule going through a more typical public comment period.
“I am sure schools, among others, would have a lot to say about this policy,” said Watson. “If the administration wants to change long standing policy, the Administrative Procedure Act should be followed at every step.”
The rule, thus, awaits more direction and clarity from the administration. Until then, it is up to colleges and students to figure out how to process the drastic step.
One international student who attends graduate school at University of Washington, who asked to remain anonymous fearing their visa status, said that the rule change puts their research and scholarship at risk if they are forced to go back to their home. If their school opts for a hybrid model, they worry about their health.
“I’ve never felt so disrespected in the United States,” the student said. “If only the international students are required to go back to class, and there is a chance of getting the virus, you’re risking the international students to get infected, they said.
When Carrillo heard the rule change, she said she panicked and emailed her department. To her relief, her current college — the University of Texas, Austin — will take a hybrid approach to classes in the fall. She can stay in the country, for now.
But the news isn’t a complete sigh of relief. International students, like Carrillo, are used to feeling a false sense of security under the Trump administration.
“I feel so shitty for wanting things to be hybrid,” she said. “Morally I want things to be safer and have things online, but then that would also mess up my stay here.”
Tesla’s 2014 acquisition of SolarCity turned the electric vehicle manufacturer into the undisputed largest player in residential solar, but that lead has steadily eroded as its major competitor, Sunrun, surged ahead with more aggressive plans. Now with the $3.2 billion dollar acquisition of the residential solar installation company, Vivint Solar, Sunrun looks to solidify its place in the top spot.
From Tesla’s very early days Elon Musk has tried to define the company as an energy company rather than just a manufacturer of electric vehicles. When Tesla made its $2.6 billion bid for SolarCity the move was viewed as the culmination of the first phase of its “master plan,” which called for Tesla to “provide zero emission electric power generation options.”
Now that plan faces a major test from a publicly traded competitor that’s focused solely on providing residential solar power and the ability to lower costs for its panels through greater efficiencies of scale, according to analysts who track the solar energy sector.
Indeed, the combined companies will save roughy $90 million per year thanks to operational efficiencies, according to a statement from Sunrun. And the economies of scale will give the companies even more leverage when they contract with utilities on feeding power into the electric grid.
As Sunrun acknowledged in the announcement of its acquisition of the Blackstone-backed Vivint, the combined customer base of 500,000 homes represents over 3 gigawatts of solar assets. That figure still is only 3% penetration of the total market for residential solar in the United States.
Sunrun had already edged out Tesla for the top spot in residential solar installations and together the two companies account for 75% of new residential solar leases each quarter, according to data from Bloomberg NEF.
“Americans want clean and resilient energy. Vivint Solar adds an important and high-quality sales channel that enables our combined company to reach more households and raise awareness about the benefits of home solar and batteries,” Sunrun CEO and co-founder Lynn Jurich said in a statement. “This transaction will increase our scale and grow our energy services network to help replace centralized, polluting power plants and accelerate the transition to a 100% clean energy future.”
Even as Sunrun’s $1.46 billion stock (and the assumption of about $1.8 billion in debt) creates a massive competitor to Tesla’s solar business, there’s an opportunity for Tesla to sell more batteries through its residential solar competitor.
Sunrun and Vivint will likely be pushing their customers to add energy storage to their solar installations and that means using either Tesla’s Powerwall batteries or its own Brightbox batteries manufactured in partnership with LG Chem .
Investors have responded to Sunrun’s latest maneuver by pouring money into the stock. Sunrun’s shares were up over $5 in midday trading.
Image Courtesy: Yahoo Finance
“Vivint Solar and Sunrun have long shared a common goal of bringing clean, affordable, resilient energy to homeowners,” said David Bywater, Chief Executive Officer of Vivint Solar, in a statement. “Joining forces with Sunrun will allow us to reach a broader set of customers and accelerate the pace of clean energy adoption and grid modernization. We believe this transaction will create value for our customers, our shareholders, and our partners.”
Last week was, for most Americans, a four-day work week. But a lot still happened in the security world.
The U.S. government’s cybersecurity agencies warned of two critical vulnerabilities — one in Palo Alto’s networking tech and the other in F5’s gear — that foreign, nation state-backed hackers will “likely” exploit these flaws to get access to networks, steal data or spread malware. Plus, the FCC formally declared Chinese tech giants Huawei and ZTE as threats to national security.
Here’s more from the week.
Last week’s takedown of EncroChat was, according to police, the “biggest and most significant” law enforcement operation against organized criminals in the history of the U.K. EncroChat sold encrypted phones with custom software akin to how BlackBerry phones used to work; you needed one to talk to other device owners.
But the phone network was used almost exclusively by criminals, allowing their illicit activities to be kept secret and go unimpeded: drug deals, violent attacks, corruption — even murders.
An encrypted phone network used to exchange millions of messages between criminals to plan serious crimes across Europe.
— Europol (@Europol) July 2, 2020
That is, until French police hacked into the network, broke the encryption and uncovered millions of messages, according to Vice, which covered the takedown of the network. The circumstances of the case are unique; police have not taken down a network like this before.
But technical details of the case remain under wraps, likely until criminal trials begin, at which point attorneys for the alleged criminals are likely to rest much of their defense on the means — and legality — in which the hack was carried out.
New York-based startup iRocket has landed a contract award from the U.S. Air Force to develop and build its fully autonomous small payload rockets, which the company says will be able to launch and propulsively land both its first and second stages, with the potential of launching small payloads on demand in as little as 24 hours.
iRocket is one of a few different companies looking to provide quick turnaround, rapid-response launch capabilities to serve a growing need among defense customers, particularly in the U.S., for those services. U.S. defense agencies are seeking this specifically to help them send up small satellites in greater numbers, with greater frequency, in order to help provide redundancy and address specific needs as they arise.
The iRocket Shockwave launch vehicles are intended to carry a payload with maximum size of around 1,500 kg (around 3,300 lbs) and are best to take off from sites inlacing Spaceport Oklahoma and potentially Launch Complex 48 at Kennedyy Space Cetner in Cape Canaveral. Flexibility in terms of launch sites, including inland in the continental U.S., is another way they can support for flexibility and responsive operations for the Department of Defense and others.
iRocket plans to fly its first launch in just under three years’ time, with a plan to begin offering on-orbit satellite servicing as one of its products by 2025. It has a long way to go before that, but there’s definitely plenty of institutional interest in this from deep-pocketed government and defense customers.
A court has granted a bid by Microsoft to seize and take control of malicious web domains used in a large-scale cyberattack targeting victims in 62 countries with spoofed emails in an effort to defraud unsuspecting businesses.
The technology giant announced the takedown of the business email compromise operation in a Tuesday blog post.
Tom Burt, Microsoft’s consumer security chief, said the attackers tried to gain access to victims’ email inboxes, contacts and other sensitive files in order to send emails to businesses that look like they came from a trusted source. The end goal of the attack is to steal information or redirect wire transfers.
Last year, the FBI said businesses lost more than $1.7 billion as a result of business email compromise attacks.
Microsoft said it first detected and scuppered the operation in December, but that the attackers returned, using the COVID-19 pandemic as a fresh lure to open malicious emails. In one week alone, the attackers sent malicious emails to millions of users, Microsoft said.
Last month, the company secretly sought legal action by asking a federal court to allow it to take control and “sinkhole” the attacker’s domains, effectively shutting down the operation. The court granted Microsoft’s request shortly after but under seal, preventing the attackers from learning of the imminent shutdown of their operation.
Details of the case were unsealed Monday after Microsoft secured control of the domains.
It shows a growing trend of using the U.S. courts system to shut down cyberattacks when time is of the essence, without having to involve the federal authorities, a process that’s frequently cumbersome, bureaucratic, and seldom quick.
“This unique civil case against COVID-19-themed [business email compromise] attacks has allowed us to proactively disable key domains that are part of the criminals’ malicious infrastructure, which is a critical step in protecting our customers,” said Burt.
Microsoft declined to say who, or if it knew, who was behind the attack but a spokesperson confirmed it was not a nation state-backed operation.
The attack worked by tricking victims into turning over access to their email accounts. Court filings seen by TechCrunch describe how the attackers used “phishing emails are designed to look like they come from an employer or other trusted source,” while designed to look like they are legitimate emails from Microsoft.
The malicious web app that steals victims’ account access tokens. (Image: Microsoft)
Once clicked, the phishing email opens a legitimate Microsoft login page. But once the victim enters their username and password, the victim is redirected to a malicious web app that was built and controlled by the attackers. If the user is tricked into approving the web app access to their accounts, the web app siphons off and sends the victim’s account access tokens to the attackers. Account access tokens are designed to keep users logged in without having to re-enter their passwords, but if stolen and abused, can grant full access to a victim’s account.
Burt said the malicious operation allowed the attackers to trick victims into giving over access to their accounts “without explicitly” requiring the victim to turn over their username and password, “as they would in a more traditional phishing campaign.”
With access to those accounts, the attackers would have full control of the accounts to send spoofed messages designed to trick companies into turning over sensitive information or carry out fraud, a common tactic for financially-driven attackers.
By taking out the attackers’ domains used in the attack, Burt said the civil case against the attackers let the company “to proactively disable key domains that are part of the criminals’ malicious infrastructure.”
It’s not the first time Microsoft has asked a court to grant it ownership of malicious domains. In the past two years, Microsoft took control of domains belonging to hackers backed by both Russia and Iran.
French startup Lydia is announcing a new partnership with Younited Credit, which lets you borrow anything between €500 and €3,000 and pay back within 6 to 36 months. The feature will be released in France at some point during the summer.
This isn’t the first time Lydia is playing around with credit. The company already partnered with Banque Casino to let users borrow between €100 and €1,000. But that feature was limited to short-term credit as you had to reimburse everything over three installments.
This time, you can borrow more money and you have more time to pay back your loan. Lydia will try to be as transparent as possible when it comes to interests. And there’s no fee in case or early repayment.
Compared to the first credit product, you can’t borrow money instantly. You apply for a loan in the app and get an answer within 24 hours. If you accept the offer, you have seven days to change your mind — it’s a regulatory requirement in France. You then receive money on your account.
By offering two different credit products, Lydia wants to cover more use cases. If something unexpected happens (your laptop broke down, you have to book an emergency flight, etc.), you can borrow as much as €1,000 in just a few seconds.
You receive the money on your Lydia account and you can start using it instantly using a virtual card, Apple Pay, Google Pay, Samsung Pay, Lydia’s debit cards or Lydia’s peer-to-peer payments.
Fees on instant credit lines are pretty high as you pay 3.13% in interests and a one-time fee of €6.90 to €19.90 to receive the money instantly depending on how much you borrow.
If you’re planning a big purchase but you can wait a week, you can go through the new credit offering with Younited Credit . This isn’t the first time Younited Credit offers an integrated credit product with another fintech startup. For instance, N26 also offers credit lines with Younited Credit in France.
Lydia started as a peer-to-peer payment app with 3.5 million users in Europe. It recently raised a $45 million funding round led by Tencent. The startup now wants to build a marketplace of financial products. And integrating Younited Credit in the app seems in line with that strategy.
Distressed satellite constellation operator OneWeb, which had entered bankruptcy protection proceedings at the end of March, has completed a sale process, with a consortium led by the UK Government as the winner. The group, which includes funding from India’s Bharti Global – part of business magnate Sunila Mittal’s Bharti Enterprises – plan to pursue OneWeb’s plans of building out a broadband internets satellite network, while the UK would also like to potentially use the constellation for Positioning, Navigation and Timing (PNT) services in order to replace the EU’s sat-nav resource, which the UK lost access to in January as a result of Brexit.
The deal involves both Bharti Global and the UK government putting up around $500 million each, respectively, with the UK taking a 20 percent equity stake in OneWeb, and Bharti supplying the business management and commercial operations for the satellite firm.
OneWeb, which has launched a total of 74 of its planned 650 satellite constellation to date, suffered lay-offs and the subsequent bankruptcy filing after an attempt to raise additional funding to support continued launches and operations fell through. That was reportedly due in large part to majority private investor SoftBank backing out of commitments to invest additional funds.
The BBC reports that while OneWeb plans to essentially scale back up its existing operations, including reversing lay-offs, should the deal pass regulatory scrutiny, there’s a possibility that down the road it could relocate some of its existing manufacturing capacity to the UK. Currently, OneWeb does its spacecraft manufacturing out of Florida in a partnership with Airbus.
OneWeb is a London-based company already, and its constellation can provide access to low latency, high-speed broadband via low Earth orbit small satellites, which could potentially be a great resource for connecting UK citizens to affordable, quality connections. The PNT navigation services extension would be an extension of OneWeb’s existing mission, but theoretically, it’s a relatively inexpensive way to leverage planned in-space assets to serve a second purpose.
Also, while the UK currently lacks its own native launch capabilities, the country is working towards developing a number of spaceports for both vertical and horizontal take-off – which could enable companies like Virgin Orbit, and other newcomers like Skyrora, to establish small-sat launch capabilities from UK soil, which would make maintaining and extending in-space assets like OneWeb’s constellation much more accessible as a domestic resource.
Venture capital is “not the only fruit” for entrepreneurs, as the often quieter ‘Growth Capital’ can also see great returns for entrepreneurs who prefer to retain a lot of ownership and control but are also willing to bootstrap over a longer period in order to reach revenues and profits. With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing millions of people online, tech investors of all classes are now reaping the dividends in this accelerated, Coronavirus-powered transition to digital.
Thus it is that Kennet Partners, a leading European technology growth equity investor, has raised $250m (€223m) for its fifth fund, ‘Kennet V’, in partnership with Edmond de Rothschild Private Equity, the Private Equity division of the Edmond de Rothschild Group.
Kennet is perhaps best know for its involvement in companies such as Receipt Bank, Spatial Networks and its exist from Vlocity, IntelePeer, and MedeAnalytics. It’s also invested in Eloomi, Codility, Nuxeo and Rimilia. In raising this new fund, Kennet says it exceeded its target and secured new investors from across Europe and Asia.
The Kennet V fund has already started to deploy the capital into new investments in B2B, SaaS across the UK, Europe and the US.
Typically, Kennet invests in the first external funding that companies receive and is used to finance sales and marketing expansion, particularly internationally. It’s cumulative assets managed are approximately $1 billion.
Hillel Zidel, managing director, Kennet Partners, told me by phone that: “We were fortunate in that most of the capital was raised just before Covid hit. But we were still able to bring additional investors in. Had we been designing a fund for now, then this would have been it, because people have rushed towards technology out of necessity. So this has brought forward digitization but at least five years.”
Johnny El-Hachem, CEO, Edmond de Rothschild Private Equity said in a statement: “We partnered with Kennet, because we liked the dynamism of the team coupled with their strategy of financing businesses providing mission-critical technology solutions. The COVID crisis has underscored the importance of many of these tools to business continuity.”
When Nicole Poindexter left the energy efficiency focused startup, Opower a few months after the company’s public offering, she wasn’t sure what would come next.
At the time, in 2014, the renewable energy movement in the US still faced considerable opposition. But what Poindexter did see was an opportunity to bring the benefits of renewable energy to Africa.
“What does it take to have 100 percent renewables on the grid in the US at the time was not a solvable problem,” Poindexter said. “I looked to Africa and I’d heard that there weren’t many grid assets [so] maybe I could try this idea out there. As I was doing market research, I learned what life was like without electricity and I was like.. that’s not acceptable and I can do something about it.”
Poindexter linked up with Joe Philip, a former executive at SunEdison who was a development engineer at the company and together they formed Energicity to develop renewable energy microgrids for off-grid communities in Africa.
“He’d always thought that the right way to deploy solar was an off-grid solution,” said Poindexter of her co-founder.
At Energicity, Philip and Poindexter are finding and identifying communities, developing the projects for installation and operating the microgrids. So far, the company’s projects have resulted from winning development bids initiated by governments, but with a recently closed $3.25 million in seed financing, the company can expand beyond government projects, Poindexter said.
“The concessions in Benin and Sierra Leone are concessions that we won,” she said. “But we can also grow organically by driving a truck up and asking communities ‘Do you want light?’ and invariably they say yes.”
To effectively operate the micro-grids that the company is building required an end-to-end refashioning of all aspects of the system. While the company uses off-the-shelf solar panels, Poindexter said that Energicity had built its own smart meters and a software stack to support monitoring and management.
So far, the company has installed 800 kilowatts of power and expects to hit 1.5 megawatts by the end of the year, according to Poindexter.
Those micro-grids serving rural communities operate through subsidiaries in Ghana, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, and currently serve thirty-six communities and 23,000 people, the company said. The company is targeting developments that could reach 1 million people in the next five years, a fraction of what the continent needs to truly electrify the lives of the population.
Through two subsidiaries, Black Star Energy, in Ghana, and Power Leone, in Sierra Leone, Energicity has a 20-year concession in Sierra Leone to serve 100,000 people and has the largest private minigrid footprint in Ghana, the company said.
Most of the financing that Energicity has relied on to develop its projects and grow its business has come from government grants, but just as Poindexter expects to do more direct sales, there are other financial models that could get the initial developments off the ground.
Carbon offsets, for instance, could provide an attractive mechanism for developing projects and could be a meaningful gateway to low-cost sources of project finance. “We are using project financing and project debt and a lot of the projects are funded by aid agencies like the UK and the UN,” Poindexter said.
The company charges its customers a service fee and a fixed price per kilowatt hour for the energy that amounts to less than $2 per month for a customers that are using its service for home electrification and cell phone charging, Poindexter said.
While several other solar installers like M-kopa and easy solar are pitching electrification to African consumers, Poindexter argues that her company’s micro-grid model is less expensive than those competitors.
“Ecosystem Integrity Fund is proud to invest in a transformational company like Energicity Corp,” said James Everett, managing partner, Ecosystem Integrity Fund, which backed the company’s. most recent round. “The opportunity to expand clean energy access across West Africa helps to drive economic growth, sustainability, health, and human development. With Energicity’s early leadership and innovation, we are looking forward to partnering and helping to grow this great company.”
France’s top court for administrative law has dismissed Google’s appeal against a $57M fine issued by the data watchdog last year for not making it clear enough to Android users how it processes their personal information.
The State Council issued the decision today, affirming the data watchdog CNIL’s earlier finding that Google did not provide “sufficiently clear” information to Android users — which in turn meant it had not legally obtained their consent to use their data for targeted ads.
“Google’s request has been rejected,” a spokesperson for the Conseil D’Etat confirmed to TechCrunch via email.
“The Council of State confirms the CNIL’s assessment that information relating to targeting advertising is not presented in a sufficiently clear and distinct manner for the consent of the user to be validly collected,” the court also writes in a press release [translated with Google Translate] on its website.
It found the size of the fine to be proportionate — given the severity and ongoing nature of the violations.
Importantly, the court also affirmed the jurisdiction of France’s national watchdog to regulate Google — at least on the date when this penalty was issued (January 2019).
The CNIL’s multimillion dollar fine against Google remains the largest to date against a tech giant under Europe’s flagship General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — lending the case a certain symbolic value, for those concerned about whether the regulation is functioning as intended vs platform power.
While the size of the fine is still relative peanuts vs Google’s parent entity Alphabet’s global revenue, changes the tech giant may have to make to how it harvests user data could be far more impactful to its ad-targeting bottom line.
Under European law, for consent to be a valid legal basis for processing personal data it must be informed, specific and freely given. Or, to put it another way, consent cannot be strained.
In this case French judges concluded Google had not provided clear enough information for consent to be lawfully obtained.
It also objected to a pre-ticked checkbox — which it said does not meet the requirements of the GDPR.
So, tl;dr, the CNIL’s decision has been entirely vindicated.
Reached for comment on the court’s dismissal of its appeal, a Google spokeswoman sent us this statement:
People expect to understand and control how their data is used, and we’ve invested in industry-leading tools that help them do both. This case was not about whether consent is needed for personalised advertising, but about how exactly it should be obtained. In light of this decision, we will now review what changes we need to make.
GDPR came into force in 2018, updating long standing European data protection rules and opening up the possibility of supersized fines of up to 4% of global annual turnover.
However actions against big tech have largely stalled, with scores of complaints being funnelled through Ireland’s Data Protection Commission — on account of a one-stop-shop mechanism in the regulation — causing a major backlog of cases. The Irish DPC has yet to issue decisions on any cross border complaints, though it has said its first ones are imminent — on complaints involving Twitter and Facebook.
Ireland’s data watchdog is also continuing to investigate a number of complaints against Google, following a change Google announced to the legal jurisdiction of where it processes European users’ data — moving them to Google Ireland Limited, based in Dublin, which it said applied from January 22, 2019 — with ongoing investigations by the Irish DPC into a long running complaint related to how Google handles location data and another major probe of its adtech, to name two.
On the GDPR one-stop shop mechanism — and, indirectly, the wider problematic issue of ‘forum shopping’ and European data protection regulation — the French State Council writes: “Google believed that the Irish data protection authority was solely competent to control its activities in the European Union, the control of data processing being the responsibility of the authority of the country where the main establishment of the data controller is located, according to a ‘one-stop-shop’ principle instituted by the GDPR. The Council of State notes however that at the date of the sanction, the Irish subsidiary of Google had no power of control over the other European subsidiaries nor any decision-making power over the data processing, the company Google LLC located in the United States with this power alone.”
In its own statement responding to the court’s decision, the CNIL also notes its view that GDPR’s one-stop-shop mechanism was not applicable in this case — writing that: “It did so by applying the new European framework as interpreted by all the European authorities in the guidelines of the European Data Protection Committee.”
Privacy NGO noyb — one of the privacy campaign groups which lodged the original ‘forced consent’ complaint against Google, all the way back in May 2018 — welcomed the court’s decision on all fronts, including the jurisdiction point.
Commenting in a statement, noyb’s honorary chairman, Max Schrems, said: “It is very important that companies like Google cannot simply declare themselves to be ‘Irish’ to escape the oversight by the privacy regulators.”
A key question is whether CNIL — or another (non-Irish) EU DPA — will be found to be competent to sanction Google in future, following it’s shift to naming Google Ireland as their data processor.
French digital rights group, La Quadrature du Net — which had filed a related complaint against Google, feeding the CNIL’s investigation — also declared victory today, noting it’s the first sanction in a number of GDPR complaints it has lodged against tech giants on behalf of 12,000 citizens.
Nouvelle victoire !
— La Quadrature du Net (@laquadrature) June 19, 2020
“The rest of the complaints against Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft are still under investigation in Ireland. In any case, this is what his authority promises us,” it adds in another tweet.
Have you ever wondered why online ads appear for things that you were just thinking about?
There’s no big conspiracy. Ad tech can be creepily accurate.
Tech giant Oracle is one of a few companies in Silicon Valley that has near-perfected the art of tracking people across the internet. The company has spent a decade and billions of dollars buying startups to build its very own panopticon of users’ web browsing data.
One of those startups, BlueKai, which Oracle bought for a little over $400 million in 2014, is barely known outside marketing circles, but it amassed one of the largest banks of web tracking data outside of the federal government.
BlueKai uses website cookies and other tracking tech to follow you around the web. By knowing which websites you visit and which emails you open, marketers can use this vast amount of tracking data to infer as much about you as possible — your income, education, political views, and interests to name a few — in order to target you with ads that should match your apparent tastes. If you click, the advertisers make money.
But for a time, that web tracking data was spilling out onto the open internet because a server was left unsecured and without a password, exposing billions of records for anyone to find.
Security researcher Anurag Sen found the database and reported his finding to Oracle through an intermediary — Roi Carthy, chief executive at cybersecurity firm Hudson Rock and former TechCrunch reporter.
TechCrunch reviewed the data shared by Sen and found names, home addresses, email addresses and other identifiable data in the database. The data also revealed sensitive users’ web browsing activity — from purchases to newsletter unsubscribes.
“There’s really no telling how revealing some of this data can be,” said Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told TechCrunch.
“Oracle is aware of the report made by Roi Carthy of Hudson Rock related to certain BlueKai records potentially exposed on the Internet,” said Oracle spokesperson Deborah Hellinger. “While the initial information provided by the researcher did not contain enough information to identify an affected system, Oracle’s investigation has subsequently determined that two companies did not properly configure their services. Oracle has taken additional measures to avoid a reoccurrence of this issue.”
Oracle did not name the companies or say what those additional measures were, and declined to answer our questions or comment further.
But the sheer size of the exposed database makes this one of the largest security lapses this year.
BlueKai relies on vacuuming up a never-ending supply of data from a variety of sources to understand trends to deliver the most precise ads to a person’s interests.
Marketers can either tap into Oracle’s enormous bank of data, which it pulls in from credit agencies, analytics firms, and other sources of consumer data including billions of daily location data points, in order to target their ads. Or marketers can upload their own data obtained directly from consumers, such as the information you hand over when you register an account on a website or when you sign up for a company’s newsletter.
But BlueKai also uses more covert tactics like allowing websites to embed invisible pixel-sized images to collect information about you as soon as you open the page — hardware, operating system, browser and any information about the network connection.
This data — known as a web browser’s “user agent” — may not seem sensitive, but when fused together it can create a unique “fingerprint” of a person’s device, which can be used to track that person as they browse the internet.
BlueKai can also tie your mobile web browsing habits to your desktop activity, allowing it to follow you across the internet no matter which device you use.
Say a marketer wants to run a campaign trying to sell a new car model. In BlueKai’s case, it already has a category of “car enthusiasts” — and many other, more specific categories — that the marketer can use to target with ads. Anyone who’s visited a car maker’s website or a blog that includes a BlueKai tracking pixel might be categorized as a “car enthusiast.” Over time that person will be siloed into different categories under a profile that learns as much about you to target you with those ads.
The technology is far from perfect. Harvard Business Review found earlier this year that the information collected by data brokers, such as Oracle, can vary wildly in quality.
But some of these platforms have proven alarmingly accurate.
In 2012, Target mailed maternity coupons to a high school student after an in-house analytics system figured out she was pregnant — before she had even told her parents — because of the data it collected from her web browsing.
Some might argue that’s precisely what these systems are designed to do.
Jonathan Mayer, a science professor at Princeton University, told TechCrunch that BlueKai is one of the leading systems for linking data.
“If you have the browser send an email address and a tracking cookie at the same time, that’s what you need to build that link,” he said.
The end goal: the more BlueKai collects, the more it can infer about you, making it easier to target you with ads that might entice you to that magic money-making click.
But marketers can’t just log in to BlueKai and download reams of personal information from its servers, one marketing professional told TechCrunch. The data is sanitized and masked so that marketers never see names, addresses or any other personal data.
As Mayer explained: BlueKai collects personal data; it doesn’t share it with marketers.
Behind the scenes, BlueKai continuously ingests and matches as much raw personal data as it can against each person’s profile, constantly enriching that profile data to make sure it’s up to date and relevant.
But it was that raw data spilling out of the exposed database.
TechCrunch found records containing details of private purchases. One record detailed how a German man, whose name we’re withholding, used a prepaid debit card to place a €10 bet on an esports betting site on April 19. The record also contained the man’s address, phone number and email address.
Another record revealed how one of the largest investment holding companies in Turkey used BlueKai to track users on its website. The record detailed how one person, who lives in Istanbul, ordered $899 worth of furniture online from a homeware store. We know because the record contained all of these details, including the buyer’s name, email address and the direct web address for the buyer’s order, no login needed.
We also reviewed a record detailing how one person unsubscribed from an email newsletter run by an electronics consumer, sent to his iCloud address. The record showed that the person may have been interested in a specific model of car dash-cam. We can even tell based on his user agent that his iPhone was out of date and needed a software update.
The more BlueKai collects, the more it can infer about you, making it easier to target you with ads that might entice you to that magic money-making click.
The data went back for months, according to Sen, who discovered the database. Some logs dated back to August 2019, he said.
“Fine-grained records of people’s web-browsing habits can reveal hobbies, political affiliation, income bracket, health conditions, sexual preferences, and — as evident here — gambling habits,” said the EFF’s Cyphers. “As we live more of our lives online, this kind of data accounts for a larger and larger portion of how we spend our time.”
Oracle declined to say if it informed those whose data was exposed about the security lapse. The company also declined to say if it had warned U.S. or international regulators of the incident.
Under California state law, companies like Oracle are required to publicly disclose data security incidents, but Oracle has not to date declared the lapse. When reached, a spokesperson for California’s attorney general’s office declined to say if Oracle had informed the office of the incident.
Under Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, companies can face fines of up to 4% of their global annual turnover for flouting data protection and disclosure rules.
BlueKai is everywhere — even when you can’t see it.
One estimate says BlueKai tracks over 1% of all web traffic — an unfathomable amount of daily data collection — and tracks some of the world’s biggest websites: Amazon, ESPN, Forbes, Glassdoor, Healthline, Levi’s, MSN.com, Rotten Tomatoes, and The New York Times. Even this very article has a BlueKai tracker because our parent company, Verizon Media, is a BlueKai partner.
But BlueKai is not alone. Nearly every website you visit contains some form of invisible tracking code that watches you as you traverse the internet.
As invasive as it is that invisible trackers are feeding your web browsing data to a gigantic database in the cloud, it’s that very same data that has kept the internet largely free for so long.
To stay free, websites use advertising to generate revenue. The more targeted the advertising, the better the revenue is supposed to be.
While the majority of web users are not naive enough to think that internet tracking does not exist, few outside marketing circles understand how much data is collected and what is done with it.
Take the Equifax data breach in 2017, which brought scathing criticism from lawmakers after it collected millions of consumers’ data without their explicit consent. Equifax, like BlueKai, relies on consumers skipping over the lengthy privacy policies that govern how websites track them.
In any case, consumers have little choice but to accept the terms. Be tracked or leave the site. That’s the trade-off with a free internet.
But there are dangers with collecting web-tracking data on millions of people.
“Whenever databases like this exist, there’s always a risk the data will end up in the wrong hands and in a position to hurt someone,” said Cyphers.
Cyphers said the data, if in the hands of someone malicious, could contribute to identity theft, phishing or stalking.
“It also makes a valuable target for law enforcement and government agencies who want to piggyback on the data gathering that Oracle already does,” he said.
Even when the data stays where it’s intended, Cyphers said these vast databases enable “manipulative advertising for things like political issues or exploitative services, and it allows marketers to tailor their messages to specific vulnerable populations,” he said.
“Everyone has different things they want to keep private, and different people they want to keep them private from,” said Cyphers. “When companies collect raw web browsing or purchase data, thousands of little details about real people’s lives get scooped up along the way.”
“Each one of those little details has the potential to put somebody at risk,” he said.
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I recently sat on a panel for gaming website Pocket Gamer that was focused on esports and the Olympics. We were debating whether esports were filling the gap in sporting events, including the Olympic games, which have been paused due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was an interesting conversation that started out like most esports panels. The only difference here is that instead of the typical question, “When will esports catch up to traditional sports?” it was, “Will esports become mainstream enough to make it into the Olympics?” A slightly different question, but the same sentiment: The international games are one of televised sports’ marquee events, and esports companies hope to earn a seat at the grown-up’s table.
In truth, the Olympics have been dropping in ratings relatively steadily in the U.S. for a long time. The only Olympic games that scored in the top five ratings going back to 1992 were the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, presumably because they were held in the United States. Overall, viewership has been declining in recent years and the games don’t hold the prestige they once did.
Additionally, audiences are slowly becoming worth less and less to advertisers because the age of the average viewer is rising rapidly, a trend we are seeing in almost all traditional sports.
I doubt it would surprise anyone to learn that the average age of almost all traditional sports viewership skews older than esports’ audience. Even then, I think the actual data will be quite surprising. Only one professional sport (women’s tennis) actually saw its average viewers age come down in the last decade or so. Even in that context, the average age of a Women’s Tennis Association home spectator is 55 years old.
The average age of esports viewership looks to be around 26 years old. Think about that from a marketer’s perspective. Traditional sports are just missing young people, by a wide margin.
But there are more factors at play than just a lack of interest from millennials and Gen Z driving this trend: There’s also a question of access.
The IOC made the decision in recent years to stream the Olympics (the way most younger people consume content), but it capped the ability to watch online to 30 minutes if viewers didn’t sign in with their cable company (a relationship many millennials don’t have) to continue watching.
Additionally, the IOC made the laughable decision to “ban” GIFs with the press covering the event, which qualifies as one of the more stupid things a governing body has ever tried to do. First, it won’t work. Secondly, and more to the point, it demonstrates how out of touch the IOC is with the ways in which media has evolved in the last 20 years.
However, unlike the Olympics, where no corporation owns the rights to volleyball or the pole vault, all esports companies own the IP associated with the game itself. That means, by default, the IOC would not have carte blanche when making decisions about how to represent the games, programming, licensing rights and other factors it has enjoyed for a long time.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the IOC doesn’t like the idea of “violent” games being added to the Olympic roster. It would prefer to see current sports transformed into virtual competitions. But anyone who knows anything about esports understands that this isn’t how esports works. Before a game ascends to esports royalty, it needs to be a good game. If nobody plays it, it’s unlikely anyone will want to watch it.
Secondly, it has be digestible as a viewing experience. World of Warcraft Arena is a game that draws a lot of players, but it’s almost impossible to know what is going on unless you’re an expert at the game or you have a godly shoutcaster who can translate the on-screen action. You can’t make track and field an esport and hope audiences will want to watch.
The IOC has taken steps to try and stave off declining youth viewership trends by adopting sports considered “young” in the past few years. Five sports recently added to the Olympic games include:
The baseball/softball addition notwithstanding, I think you would have to live under a rock if you thought that competitive sport climbing held a candle to Fortnite or League of Legends in terms of generating youth interest. Frankly, this seems like an idea that came from an old person trying to find a way to “get the kids back.”
To the IOC’s credit, it has begun to hold panels and conferences with esports experts and game publishers, but the deals that will come from these will look REALLY different than what they are used to. It seems to me that we have a long way to go here.
For my part of the panel, I argued that the Olympics need esports much more than esports need the Olympics. Media companies are only going to overpay for broadcasting rights for traditional sports for so long. At some point, someone is going to notice that the “inside the demo” group isn’t there and move on.
The thing that esports CAN get from the Olympics is understanding a better way to monetize its audience, something that the Olympics do well and esports doesn’t do well right now. A report from Goldman Sachs shows the audience size and monetization based on that audience, showing that esports dramatically underindex on monetization relative to their more established sports league equivalents. It is clear that esports is immature from a monetization perspective and, while the Olympics aren’t on this chart, I would assume that it punches WAY above its weight, much like MLB does, trading on its reputation more than on actual results these days.
The IOC should act fast, though. It won’t be long until esports figures this whole thing out and once they do, the Olympic games won’t have anything to offer this emerging media powerhouse.
Twitter tries to make audio tweets a thing, the U.K. backtracks on its contact-tracing app and Apple’s App Store revenue share is at the center of a new controversy.
Here’s your Daily Crunch for June 18, 2020.
Twitter is rolling out audio tweets, which do exactly what you’d expect — allow users to share thoughts in audio form. The feature will only be available to some iOS users for now, though the company says all iOS users should have access “in the coming weeks.” (No word on an Android or web rollout yet.)
This feature potentially allows for much longer thoughts than a 280-character tweet. Individual audio clips will be limited to 140 seconds, but if you exceed the limit, a new tweet will be threaded beneath the original.
The U.K.’s move to abandon the centralized approach and adopt a decentralized model is hardly surprising, but the time it’s taken the government to arrive at the obvious conclusion does raise some major questions over its competence at handling technology projects.
Apple this week is getting publicly dragged for digging in its heels over its right to take a cut of subscription-based transactions that flow through its App Store. This is not a new complaint, but one that came to a head this week over Apple’s decision to reject app updates from Basecamp’s newly launched subscription-based email app called Hey.
Payfone has built a platform to identify and verify people using data (but not personal data) gleaned from your mobile phone. CEO Rodger Desai said the plan for the funding is to build more machine learning into the company’s algorithms, expand to 35 more geographies and to make strategic acquisitions to expand its technology stack.
We had an extensive conversation with Vohra as part of Extra Crunch Live, also covering why the email app still has more than 275,000 people on its wait list. (Extra Crunch membership required.)
Founded in 2017 by ex-Googlers, the AI vending machine startup formerly known as Bodega first raised blood pressures — people hated how it was referenced and poorly “disrupted” mom-and-pop shops in one fell swoop — and then raised a lot of money. But ultimately, it was no match for COVID-19 and how it reshaped our lifestyles.
With TechCrunch Disrupt going virtual, this is your chance to get featured in front of our largest audience ever. The post says you’ve only got 72 hours left, but the clock has been ticking since then — the deadline is 11:59pm Pacific tomorrow, June 19. So get on it!
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Amazon is ramping up its efforts to tackle counterfeiting on its platform by aiming for the higher end of the fashion market. Today the e-commerce giant announced that it has jointly filed a lawsuit with Italian luxury brand Valentino against Buffalo, New York-based Kaitlyn Pan Group, LLC and New York resident Hao Pan for copying a famous Valentino shoe style — the Garavani Rockstud, pictured above — and subsequently selling those products on Amazon and Kaitlyn Pan’s own site, “in violation of Amazon’s policies and Valentino’s intellectual property rights.”
Amazon said that any proceeds that result from the suit will go straight to Valentino itself. We’ve asked how much the companies are seeking in damages and will update this post with more information as we get it. We are embedding the suit below the article.
Notably, this is the first time that Amazon has teamed up with a luxury brand to go after counterfeiters in the courts, although it has partnered with other brands in the past. As with those previous cases, it’s important for Amazon to work with the brands to show it’s a friend to legitimate commerce by working actively to stop illicit sales.
Alongside that, however, Amazon has been making huge efforts to raise its game in fashion, and so it’s extremely important that it fights against the image that it’s a fertile ground for selling and buying illegal knock-off items of famous brands.
Getting off on the right foot — so to speak — with Valentino is part of that. The Garavani Rockstud (“Garavani” comes from Valentino’s full name, Valentino Clemente Ludovico Garavani) is one of Valentino’s most iconic styles, with its metallic lines of studs making an appearance on a range of Valentino footwear, including sandals, heels and flats. They were first introduced in 2010 and Valentino has design patents on the style.
Kaitlyn Pan currently sells a number of models that riff on that basic concept. Typically, authentic Valentino Rockstud shoes retail for between $425 and $1,100, while the Pan versions sell for significantly less, around $100.
You can see where the problem lies.
While the shoes are not being sold as Valentino and do not use the Rockstud branding, they could easily be mistaken for them (and may have even been promoted using that keyword when they were still being sold on Amazon):
One thing that isn’t really covered in the Amazon/Valentino suit, but you have to wonder about, is the role that others play in enabling the illicit sales of the items. In the case of Kaitlyn Pan, the site is powered by none other than Shopify, for example.
“The vast majority of sellers in our store are honest entrepreneurs but we do not hesitate to take aggressive action to protect customers, brands and our store from counterfeiters,” said Dharmesh Mehta, vice president, Customer Trust and Partner Support, in a statement. “Amazon and Valentino are holding this company accountable in a court of law and we appreciate Valentino’s collaboration throughout this investigation.”
Amazon said that it shut down Kaitlyn Pan’s seller account in September 2019, and it did not specify how many pairs of Pan’s shoes were sold via Amazon before then. As of today, the Pan models are still being sold directly on Kaitlyn Pan Shoes.
And rather audaciously, despite getting forced out of Amazon’s marketplace and being slapped with cease and desist orders from Valentino, Kaitlyn Pan has applied to the United States Patent and Trademark Office to trademark the style.
Valentino, like other expensive luxury brands, regularly gets copied and counterfeited, and that has been the case for decades. But arguably, the rise of e-commerce, where it can be harder to trace sellers and products have a higher chance of being disseminated more widely, has compounded that problem.
So the company has made a more concerted effort to fight back. In the past three years, it’s worked with United States Customs and Border Protection to seize more than 2,000 counterfeit products and work on a surveillance system to detect counterfeit products on sale in the U.S. market, leading to the removal of more than 7,000 listings across multiple marketplaces, 360 websites and more than 1,000 social media accounts.
“The Maison Valentino is one of the main protagonists of International fashion and plays a major role in the luxury division by sustaining Made in Italy,” Valentino said in a statement. “The brand represents in the global market, one of the Italian excellences in the execution of the industrial process in Italy and of the artisanal and handmade workmanship that are entirely produced in the historic Atelier of Piazza Mignanelli in Rome. We consider Made in Italy to be a fundamental value to be fully endorsed, respected and at the forefront of our business and creations. Valentino is an Italian brand operating globally and is a mirror of society. One of our core missions is to safeguard our brand and protect the Valentino Community by celebrating inclusivity and with creativity at the heart of everything we do. We feel this connection with Amazon will highlight the importance also in fashion for greater awareness, knowledge and understanding by shielding the brand online and its resources.”
Amazon’s role in creating an avenue for counterfeit items to be sold has been a problematic one for the company for years. It has invested in building technology to tackle the problem: In 2019, it said that it had invested over $500 million and dedicated 8,000 employees to work on fraud and abuse (which includes IP infringement and counterfeit goods), and it works with law enforcement and collaborates with authorities to build cases against infringing companies and people. But its critics continue to call out the company and its track record, saying it still has not done enough to address the issue — which of course still results in sales, and thus revenues — on its platform.
We’ll update this post as we learn more.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that President Donald Trump’s administration unlawfully ended the federal policy providing temporary legal status for immigrants who came to the country as children.
The decision, issued Thursday, called the termination of the Obama-era policy known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program “arbitrary and capricious.” As a result of its ruling, nearly 640,000 people living in the United States are now temporarily protected from deportation.
While a blow to the Trump Administration, the ruling is sure to be hailed nearly unanimously by the tech industry and its leaders, who had come out strongly in favor of the policy in the days leading up to its termination by the current president and his advisors.
At the beginning of 2018, many of tech’s most prominent executives, including the CEOs of Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google, joined more than 100 American business leaders in signing an open letter asking Congress to take action on the DACA program before it expired in March.
Tim Cook, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Sundar Pichai made a full-throated defense of the policy and pleaded with Congress to pass legislation ensuring that “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children and were granted approval by the program, can continue to live and work in the country without risk of deportation.
At the time, those executives said the decision to end the program could potentially cost the U.S. economy as much as $215 billion.
In a 2017 tweet, Tim Cook noted that Apple employed roughly 250 “Dreamers.”
250 of my Apple coworkers are #Dreamers. I stand with them. They deserve our respect as equals and a solution rooted in American values.
— Tim Cook (@tim_cook) September 3, 2017
The list of tech executives who came out in support of the DACA initiative is long. It included: IBM CEO Ginni Rometty; Brad Smith, the president and chief legal officer of Microsoft; Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman; and CEOs or other leading executives of AT&T, Dropbox, Upwork, Cisco Systems, Salesforce, LinkedIn, Intel, Warby Parker, Uber, Airbnb, Slack, Box, Twitter, PayPal, Code.org, Lyft, Etsy, AdRoll, eBay, StitchCrew, SurveyMonkey, DoorDash and Verizon (the parent company of Verizon Media Group, which owns TechCrunch).
At the heart of the court’s ruling is the majority view that Department of Homeland Security officials didn’t provide a strong enough reason to terminate the program in September 2017. Now, the issue of immigration status gets punted back to the White House and Congress to address.
As the Boston Globe noted in a recent article, the majority decision written by Chief Justice John Roberts did not determine whether the Obama-era policy or its revocation were correct, just that the DHS didn’t make a strong enough case to end the policy.
“We address only whether the agency complied with the procedural requirement that it provide a reasoned explanation for its action,” Roberts wrote.
While the ruling from the Supreme Court is some good news for the population of “Dreamers,” the question of their citizenship status in the country is far from settled. The U.S. government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has basically consisted of freezing as much of the nation’s immigration apparatus as possible.
An executive order in late April froze the green card process for would-be immigrants, and the administration was rumored to be considering a ban on temporary workers under H1-B visas as well.
The president has, indeed, ramped up the crackdown with strict border control policies and other measures to curb both legal and illegal immigration.
More than 800,000 people joined the workforce as a result of the 2012 program crafted by the Obama administration. DACA allows anyone under 30 to apply for protection from deportation or legal action on their immigration cases if they were younger than 16 when they were brought to the U.S., had not committed a crime and were either working or in school.
In response to the Supreme Court decision, the President tweeted “Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?”
Do you get the impression that the Supreme Court doesn’t like me?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 18, 2020
The economic lockdown resulting from the coronavirus pandemic has had an immediate negative impact on renewable energy projects and electric vehicles sales, but the sustainable trends are still in place and may even be strengthened over the longer term.
For the first time in four decades, global installation of solar, wind and other renewable energy will be less than the previous year, according to the International Energy Agency, which is projecting a 13% reduction in installations in 2020 compared to 2019. Woods Mackenzie projects an 18% reduction for global solar installations in 2020. Morgan Stanley is projecting declines in U.S. solar PV installations from 48% in second quarter to 17% in the fourth quarter of 2020.
This is due to a combination of construction delays, supply chain disruptions and a capital crunch.
Installation of rooftop solar has been hit particularly hard. Access to homes and businesses was generally halted in March 2020 for several months. Installers have indicated that as much as half the workforce had to be furloughed. The supply chain was also disrupted as PV manufacturing in China was temporarily suspended. Installations and the supply chain will resume, and most contracts are still in place, but the robust projected growth in rooftop PV for 2020 will not be met, and it may take more than a year to catch up. Also, some businesses that planned installations may have higher priorities for cash and investment now as they reopen. Many of the small businesses planning solar installations may not return at all.
On the other hand, utility scale electricity generation from renewable energy continues to grow and take market share. In the first part of this year, renewable energy has produced more electricity than coal for the first time since the late 19th century, when hydropower started the power industry. Wind and solar are the cheapest alternatives for new electric generation in the U.S. The pandemic and collapse in oil prices will not change that. The closure of coal plants has been accelerating this year, and wind and solar will continue to be competitive with gas.
Furthermore, most solar and wind farms were already financed and construction underway in rural areas not affected by the lockdown. About 30 GW of new solar capacity have already been contracted, and as long as interest rates remain low, financing should not be a problem. In fact, many solar and wind projects in the U.S and China are rushing to completion this year to qualify for government incentives.
But supply chains for utility scale renewables were still disrupted. Solar panel manufacturing in China was halted during the first quarter and has now reopened, but facing reduced orders. At one point, 18 wind turbine manufacturing facilities in Spain and Italy were stopped while social distancing and sanitation measures were put in place. Mining operations in Africa and other countries were also temporarily halted and now face reduced demand.
The replacement of oil and gas electricity generation with renewables in developing countries is not going to seem as attractive as a few years ago. Emerging economies need to expand electricity as cheaply as possible, which means coal, gas and even diesel plants. New fossil fuel plants in developing nations could lock in carbon emissions for years.
Electric vehicle sales globally have also been severely impacted. The transition to electric vehicles takes place as people purchase new vehicles. The price of oil has collapsed, used-car prices are dropping and unemployment has soared to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Cheap gas, cheap cars and high unemployment will dramatically lower the expectations for multipassenger EV sales in 2020. Wood Mackenzie has projected a 43% global decline in EV sales in 2020 from 2019. Furthermore, many new electric models from the automakers are not expected until 2021.
However, the long-term transition to EVs will continue and may even accelerate. It still costs less to drive a mile on electricity compared to gasoline, and when the upfront cost of electric vehicles becomes competitive with internal combustion vehicles in a few years, the market should quickly move to EVs. Now that the battery range is adequate for the average driver, the last barrier seems to be the availability of fast charging stations between cities.
Before the collapse in oil demand this year, the oil majors were expecting peak oil demand to occur sometime during the 2040s. Now peak oil demand is expected earlier, perhaps in the mid-2020s. Some even think that 2019 might turn out to be the highest level of oil consumption historically. At any rate, it seems that it will be at least a few years until the 2019 levels are reached again, if ever.
However, the recent collapse in oil prices means the oil and gas industry will be able to supply fuel at very competitive prices for decades. This will at least make it more difficult for electric vehicles to take market share in the short term, and very difficult for alternative liquid fuels to be competitive. For biofuels and synthetic fuels, it seems to be a repeat of earlier decades when cheap oil crushed those industries. Replacing gas and diesel-powered cars is certainly going to be unattractive in the impoverished economies of developing nations.
But there are also bright spots for clean transportation alternatives emerging. Electric bicycles, for example, are a hot item. As people look for alternatives to mass transit and want something to move outdoors in the fresh air, electric-assisted bikes are a great solution and are no longer looked down upon as a vehicle for older (or lazy) cyclists.
Telecommuting struggled for years to take hold, but the pandemic seems to have finally changed that. The recent national lockdown has spurred many large businesses to set up their employees to work from home. They have found that it works fairly well, and many will not return to packed downtown offices.
Several experts have cited the potential for cleaner energy alternatives because the public is seeing cleaner air and the environmental benefits of a 30% reduction in daily oil consumption. Some consumer surveys have indicated a greater interest in electric vehicles.
There is certainly the hope that we will take the opportunity to revive the economy with cleaner technologies than before the lockdown. However, the reality is that workers and businesses need to start up again with the infrastructure they have, and investment in cleaner technology requires capital. Since many business operations are struggling to find cash and loans to just remain open, new clean technology may be delayed.
Yet the major infrastructure changes for a sustainable future are well underway. Solar and wind are rapidly replacing fossil fuels for electricity. Automakers and governments are committed to electrification of the transportation sector. The pandemic may be a near-term obstacle, but the transition to a sustainable economy is just delayed and may even be accelerated in the coming years.
Ford will start offering a hands-free driving feature in the second half 2021, beginning with its new Mustang Mach-E electric vehicle.
The hands-free feature, called Active Drive Assist, is part of a larger package of advanced driver assistance features collectively called Ford Co-Pilot360 Active 2.0 Prep Package. But it’s the hands-free offering that is getting all of the attention today.
The hands-free feature has been anticipated since the Mustang Mach-E — which has a driving monitoring system situated above the steering wheel — was revealed last year.
There are important caveats to Ford’s announcement. The tech, while notable, won’t be available everywhere and in every Ford vehicle. Drivers who want the feature will have to buy a 2021 Mustang Mach-E and the additional Active 2.0 Prep Package, which includes the proper hardware, such as sensors to support the system. The software is purchased separately and at a later date once it’s ready. The software can be added either at a dealership or via over-the-air updates in the third quarter of 2021, Ford said. And all this will come at a price, which is still unknown.
The hands-free feature will work on about 100,000 miles of pre-mapped, divided highways in the U.S. and Canada. The monitoring system will include an advanced infrared driver-facing camera that will track eye gaze and head position to ensure drivers are paying attention to the road. The DMS will be used in the hands-free mode and when drivers opt for lane-centering mode, which works on any road with lane lines. Drivers who don’t keep their eyes forward will be notified by visual prompts on their instrument cluster.
This “prep package” also includes the latest iteration of park assist, which will handle maneuvering into parallel and perpendicular spaces. It also offers a “Park Out Assist” feature, with side-sensing capability that helps drivers navigate out of a parking spot when someone’s parked too close.
Ford made a point of comparing its system in the Mustang Mach-E to Tesla’s Model Y. In particular, Ford notes that it is hands-free, while Tesla’s driver assistance system, known as Autopilot, is not. But the comparison doesn’t quite square.
A better comparison might be with its rival GM, which has taken a similarly cautious approach to introducing its hand-free driving system known as Super Cruise, which also has a driver-monitoring system. GM limited Super Cruise to just one Cadillac branded model, the full-size CT6 sedan, and restricted its use to certain divided highways. Over the past year, GM has improved the capabilities of the feature, expanded where it can be deployed and is offering it in other models.
The UK has given up building a centralized coronavirus contacts-tracing app and will instead switch to a decentralized app architecture, the BBC has reported. This suggests its any future app will be capable of plugging into the joint ‘exposure notification’ API which has been developed in recent weeks by Apple and Google.
The UK’s decision to abandon a bespoke app architecture comes more than a month after ministers had been reported to be eyeing such a switch. They went on to award a contract to an IT supplier to develop a decentralized tracing app in parallel as a backup — while continuing to test the centralized app, which is called NHS COVID-19.
At the same time, a number of European countries have now successfully launched contracts-tracing apps with a decentralized app architecture that’s able to plug into the ‘Gapple’ API — including Denmark, Germany, Italy, Latvia and Switzerland. Several more such apps remain in testing. While EU Member States just agreed on a technical framework to enable cross-border interoperability of apps based on the same architecture.
Germany — which launched the decentralized ‘Corona Warning App’ this week — announced its software had been downloaded 6.5M times in the first 24 hours. The country had initially appeared to favor a centralized approach but switched to a decentralized model back in April in the face of pushback from privacy and security experts.
The UK’s NHS COVID-19 app, meanwhile, has not progressed past field tests, after facing a plethora of technical barriers and privacy challenges — as a direct consequence of the government’s decision to opt for a proprietary system which uploads proximity data to a central server, rather than processing exposure notifications locally on device.
Apple and Google’s API, which is being used by all Europe’s decentralized apps, does not support centralized app architectures — meaning the UK app faced technical hurdles related to accessing Bluetooth in the background. The centralized choice also raised big questions around cross-border interoperability, as we’ve explained before. Questions had also been raised over the risk of mission creep and a lack of transparency and legal certainty over what would be done with people’s data.
So the UK’s move to abandon the approach and adopt a decentralized model is hardly surprising — although the time it’s taken the government to arrive at the obvious conclusion does raise some major questions over its competence at handling technology projects.
Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at UCL — who has been involved in the development of the DP3T decentralized contacts-tracing standard, which influenced Apple and Google’s choice of API — welcomed the UK’s decision to ditch a centralized app architecture but questioned why the government has wasted so much time.
“This is a welcome, if a heavily and unnecessarily delayed, move by NHSX,” Veale told TechCrunch. “The Google -Apple system in a way is home-grown: Originating with research at a large consortium of universities led by Switzerland and including UCL in the UK. NHSX has no end of options and no reasonable excuse to not get the app out quickly now. Germany and Switzerland both have high quality open source code that can be easily adapted. The NHS England app will now be compatible with Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and also the many destinations for holidaymakers in and out of the UK.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, UK ministers are now heavily de-emphasizing the importance of having an app in the fight against the coronavirus at all.
The Department for Health and Social Care’s, Lord Bethell, told the Science and Technology Committee yesterday the app will not now be ready until the winter. “We’re seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn’t a priority for us,” he said.
Yet the centralized version of the NHS COVID-19 app has been in testing in a limited geographical pilot on the Isle of Wight since early May — and up until the middle of last month health minister, Matt Hancock, had said it would be rolled out nationally in mid May.
Of course that timeframe came and went without launch. And now the prospect of the UK having an app at all is being booted right into the back end of the year.
Compare and contrast that with government messaging at its daily coronavirus briefings back in May — when Hancock made “download the app” one of the key slogans — and the word ‘omnishambles‘ springs to mind…
NHSX relayed our request for comment on the switch to a decentralized system and the new timeframe for an app launch to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) — but the department had not responded to us at the time of publication.
Earlier this week the BBC reported that a former Apple executive, Simon Thompson, was taking charge of the delayed app project — while the two lead managers, the NHSX’s Matthew Gould and Geraint Lewis — were reported to be stepping back.
Back in April, Gould told the Science and Technology Committee the app would “technically” be ready to launch in 2-3 weeks’ time, though he also said any national launch would depend on the preparedness of a wider government program of coronavirus testing and manual contacts tracing. He also emphasized the need for a major PR campaign to educate the public on downloading and using the app.
Government briefings to the press today have included suggestions that app testers on the Isle of Wight told it they were not comfortable receiving COVID-19 notifications via text message — and that the human touch of a phone call is preferred.
However none of the European countries that have already deployed contacts-tracing apps has promoted the software as a one-stop panacea for tackling COVID-19. Rather tracing apps are intended to supplement manual contacts-tracing methods — the latter involving the use of trained humans making phone calls to people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 to ask who they might have been in contact with over the infectious period.
Even with major resource put into manual contacts-tracing, apps — which use Bluetooth signals to estimate proximity between smartphone users in order to calculate virus expose risk — could still play an important role by, for example, being able to trace strangers who are sat near an infected person on public transport.
Update: The DHSC has now issued a statement addressing reports of the switch of app architecture for the NHS COVID-19 app — in which it confirms, in between reams of blame-shifting spin, that it’s testing a new app that is able to plug into the Apple and Google API — and which it says it may go on to launch nationally, but without providing any time frame.
It also claims it’s working with Apple and Google to try to enhance how their technology estimates the distance between smartphone users.
“Through the systematic testing, a number of technical challenges were identified — including the reliability of detecting contacts on specific operating systems — which cannot be resolved in isolation with the app in its current form,” DHSC writes of the centralized NHS COVID-19 app.
“While it does not yet present a viable solution, at this stage an app based on the Google / Apple API appears most likely to address some of the specific limitations identified through our field testing. However, there is still more work to do on the Google / Apple solution which does not currently estimate distance in the way required.”
“Based on this, the focus of work will shift from the current app design and to work instead with Google and Apple to understand how using their solution can meet the specific needs of the public,” it adds.
We reached out to Apple and Google for comment. Apple declined to comment.
According to one source, the UK has been pressing for the tech giants’ API to include device model and RSSI info alongside the ephemeral IDs which devices that come into proximity exchange with each other — presumably to try to improve distance calculations via a better understanding of the specific hardware involved.
However introducing additional, fixed pieces of device-linked data would have the effect of undermining the privacy protections baked into the decentralized system — which uses ephemeral, rotating IDs in order to prevent third party tracking of app users. Any fixed data-points being exchanged would risk unpicking the whole anti-tracking approach.
Norway, another European country which opted for a centralized approach for coronavirus contacts tracing — but got an app launched in mid April — made the decision to suspend its operation this week, after an intervention by the national privacy watchdog. In that case the app was collecting both GPS and Bluetooth — posing a massive privacy risk. The watchdog warned the public health agency the tool was no longer a proportionate intervention — owing to what are now low levels of coronavirus risk in the country.
Urbint, a developer of a field safety information service for industrial workforces, has raised $20 million in a new round of funding as it looks to expand its research and development capabilities, grow internationally, and develop services for new industrial categories.
With the bulk of its business in the North America utility market, it was time for the company to expand its geographic horizons, something that it should be able to do with the addition of the venture arm of the UK-based utility company National Grid as one of its backers.
“A few years ago, we saw that utilities were facing an overwhelming number of threats in the field, stemming from aging infrastructure, extreme weather, and workforce turnover, and didn’t have adequate tools to make informed risk-driven safety decisions,” said Corey Capasso, the founder and chief executive of Urbint, in a statement. “We built Urbint to arm them with predictive AI to stay one step ahead. The pandemic has only intensified this need as dangers to infrastructure and essential workers increase and resources are strained. This investment will grow our reach to keep even more communities safe.”
The company also said it will work to improve its diversity and inclusion efforts as it considers where to allocate its resources, Capasso said in an interview with TechCrunch.
Urbint works by aggregating information around various risks that field workers might face including data around weather, planned construction, and even incidence of infection or disease spread (a new addition in response to the COVID-19 epidemic in the US), according to Capasso.
The company currently counts 40 utilities in the US among its customer base and the new capital will help expand beyond that base, Capasso said.
“Not only are we an investor in Urbint, but National Grid also uses Urbint’s technology to predict and prevent safety incidents, keeping the community safe,” said Lisa Lambert, Founder and President of National Grid Partners, in a statement. “AI safety technology is especially vital to reduce risk during this pandemic, and we’re proud to grow our investment in Urbint.”
Kaia Health, a digital therapeutics startup which uses computer vision technology for real-time posture tracking via the smartphone camera to deliver human-hands-free physiotherapy, has closed a $26 million Series B funding round.
The funding was led by Optum Ventures, Idinvest and capital300 with participation from existing investors Balderton Capital and Heartcore Capital, in addition to Symphony Ventures — the latter in an “investment partnership” with world famous golfer, Rory McIlroy, who knows a thing or two about chronic pain.
Back in January 2019, when Kaia announced a $10M Series A, its business ratio was split 80:20 Europe to US. Now, says co-founder and CEO Konstantin Mehl — speaking to TechCrunch by Zoom chat from New York where he’s recently relocated — it’s flipped the other way.
Part of the new funding will thus go on building out its commercial team in the US — now its main market. He says they’ll also be spending to fund more clinical studies, and to conduct more R&D, including looking at how to supplement their 2D posture modelling with 3D data they can pull from modern, depth-sensing smartphone cameras.
“We use the smartphone camera to give you real-time feedback on your physical exercises. We are already pretty good at that but there are a lot more sensors in the iPhone so we’ll build out the computer vision team to start with 3D tracking,” he tells TechCrunch. “Including the depth cameras of the latest Samsung and Apple devices — mixing that with the 2D data we basically get from all the devices to see what we can do with these two data sets.”
On the research front, Kaia published a randomized control trial in the journal Nature last year — comparing its app-based therapy with multidisciplinary pain treatment programs for lower back pain which combine physiotherapy and online learning. “We have another large scale trial which is currently in the peer review process,” says Mehl, adding: “There will be a couple of interesting clinical trials getting published in the next six to nine months.
“We already have clinical studies that look specifically at how accurate the motion tracking technology is at the moment and how fast patients can learn exercises with the technology and how correct it is compared to when they learn it with real physical therapists — I think that’s an exciting study.”
He also flags another published app study which examined the treatment link between sleep and chronic back pain.
“We right now have nine clinical studies ongoing — part of the studies have the goal to compare our therapy apps against a lot of care treatments,” he goes on, fleshing out the reason for having such a strong focus on research. “The other part of the studies specifically look at AI features that we have and how they increase the quality of care for patients.
“Because a lot of startups say they have AI for healthcare or for patients but you never know what it exactly means, or if it really helps the patient or if it’s just material for the pitch, for investors. So that’s why we’d really like to do a lot more effort here, even if we already have nine studies ongoing — because it’s just a very powerful way to show how the products work. And it also helps to get more credibility as an industry.”
Kaia retired an earlier direct consumer subscription strand of its business to focus fully on b2b — chasing the “holy grail” of having its digital therapies fully reimbursed via users’ medical insurance.
Though it does still offer a number of free apps for consumers, with a physical trainer type function, as a way to gather movement data to feed its posture tracking models.
Overall it claims some 400,000 users across all its apps at this point.
“Back in Germany we have the majority of the population that can get the chronic pain app reimbursed already so there we do b2c marketing but the insurances reimburse it,” says Mehl. “In the US we mostly sell it to self-insured employers — the big employers.”
“Our goal in the end is always to get reimbursed as a medical claim because if you think back to our strong clinical focus, it just adds credibility — if you do the full homework,” he adds. “In medicine the holy grail is always to get reimbursed as a medical claim, that’s why we focus on that.”
So far Kaia offers app-based therapy for chronic back pain; a digital treatment for pulmonary rehabilitation treatment targeting at COPD (Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease); and is set to launch a new app, in about a month, tackling knee and hip osteoarthritis.
It calls its approach ‘multimodal’ — offering what it describes as “mind body therapy” for musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders which consists of guided physical exercises, psychological techniques and medical education.
Unlike some rivals in the same digital therapeutics for MSK space — notably Hinge Health, which recently raised a $90M Series C — Kaia’s approach is purely software based, with no additional sensor hardware required to be used by patients.
Mehl says it has steered clear of wearables to ensure the widest possible accessibility for its app-based treatments — a point it seeks to hammer home on its website via a table comparing what it dubs a “typical sensor-based system” and its “health motion coach”.
Competition in the digital health space has clearly heated up in the almost half decade since Kaia got started but Mehal argues that major b2b buyers now want to work with therapy platform providers, rather than buying “point solutions” for one disease, giving this relative veteran an edge over some of the more recent entrants.
“We now have three therapies against three very big diseases so I think that helps us,” he says. “We we started 4.5 years ago it was pretty unsexy to start something in digital therapies and now there are so many startups getting started for digital therapies or digital health. And what we’re seeing is that the big b2b customers now move away from wanting to buy point solutions, against one disease, more towards buying a couple of diseases — in the end they want to work more with platforms.”
“The important thing here is we never invent any therapy — we just digitize the best in class therapy and that’s important because if not you have very different requirements of what you have to prove,” he adds. “Now we always just prove that the digital delivery of the best in class therapy works as good or better than the offline role model.”
A key focus for Kaia’s business in the US is working directly with health insurance claims payers — such as Optum — who manage budgets for the employers providing cover to staff, with the aim of getting its digital therapy reimbursed as a medical claim, rather than having to convince employers to fund the software as a workplace benefit.
“We focus on working directly with these payers to be reimbursed by them so that we help them reduce the costs and stay on budget,” he explains. “We already have some really interesting partnerships there — obviously Optum Ventures invested in us, and Optum is the biggest player with [its parent company] UnitedHealth… So we have a very big partner there.
“Once you get reimbursed as a medical claim, the employer doesn’t really have to pay you anymore out of the separate benefits budget — which includes all kinds of other benefits, and which is relatively small compared to the medical claims budget. So if you’re reimbursed it’s a no brainer for an employer to basically buy your therapy. So it’s a fast-track through the US healthcare system.”
The team is also positioning the business to work with the growing number of telemedicine providers — and its app-based therapy something those services could offer as a bolt on for their own patients.
Mehl argues that the coronavirus crisis has transformed interest in digital care provision, and, again, contends that Kaia is well positioned to plug into a future of healthcare service provision that’s increasingly digital.
“Our goal is to not only have a therapy app that works in parallel to the healthcare system but to integrate in a full treatment pathway that a patient goes through. The obvious first thing is that we integrate more with doctors — we are currently talking with a lot of different players in the market how we can do that because if you use one of the many apps where you can talk to a doctor, what do you do afterwards?
“If they prescribe you in person physical therapy or even surgery you can’t really do that at the moment. So to have this full treatment pathway in the digital world just became mass market now. Before the crisis it was more like an early adopter market and now people have no other choice or don’t really want to go out even if the restrictions are lifted because they just don’t feel safe.”