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Uber’s self-driving unit starts mapping Washington, D.C. ahead of testing

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber Advanced Technologies Group will start mapping Washington, D.C., ahead of plans to begin testing its self-driving vehicles in the city this year.

Initially, there will be three Uber vehicles mapping the area, a company spokesperson said. These vehicles, which will be manually driven and have two trained employees inside, will collect sensor data using a top-mounted sensor wing equipped with cameras and a spinning lidar. The data will be used to build high-definition maps. The data will also be used for Uber’s virtual simulation and test track testing scenarios.

Uber intends to launch autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C. before the end of 2020.

At least one other company is already testing self-driving cars in Washington, D.C. Ford announced in October 2018 plans to test its autonomous vehicles in Washington, D.C. Argo AI is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles.

Argo, which is backed by Ford and Volkswagen, started mapping the city in 2018. Testing was expected to begin in the first quarter of 2019.

Uber ATG has kept a low profile ever since one of its human-supervised test vehicles struck and killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona in March 2018. The company halted its entire autonomous vehicle operation immediately following the incident.

Nine months later, Uber ATG resumed on-road testing of its self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh, following a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation decision to authorize the company to put its autonomous vehicles on public roads. The company hasn’t resumed testing in other markets such as San Francisco.

Uber is collecting data and mapping in three other cities in Dallas, San Francisco and Toronto. In those cities, just like in Washington, D.C., Uber manually drives its test vehicles.

Uber spun out the self-driving car business in April 2019 after closing $1 billion in funding from Toyota, auto-parts maker Denso and SoftBank’s Vision Fund. The deal valued Uber ATG at $7.25 billion, at the time of the announcement. Under the deal, Toyota and Denso are providing $667 million, with the Vision Fund throwing in the remaining $333 million.

UN calls for investigation after Saudis linked to Bezos phone hack

By Zack Whittaker

United Nations experts are calling for an investigation after a forensic report said Saudi officials “most likely” used a mobile hacking tool built by mobile spyware maker, the NSO Group, to hack into the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ phone.

Remarks made by U.N. human rights experts on Wednesday said said the Israeli spyware maker’s flagship Pegasus mobile spyware was likely used to exfiltrate gigabytes of data from Bezos’ phone in May 2018, about six months after the Saudi government first obtained the spyware.

It comes a day after news emerged, citing a forensics report commissioned to examine the Amazon founder’s phone, that the malware was delivered from a number belonging to Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. The forensics report, carried out by FTI Consulting, said it was “highly probable” that the phone hack was triggered by a malicious video sent over WhatsApp to Bezos’ phone. Within hours, large amounts of data on Bezos’ phone had been exfiltrated.

U.N. experts Agnes Callamard and Davie Kaye, who were given a copy of the forensics report, said the breach of Bezos’ phone was part of “a pattern of targeted surveillance of perceived opponents and those of broader strategic importance to the Saudi authorities.”

But the report left open the possibility that technology developed by another mobile spyware maker may have been used.

The Saudi government has rejected the claims, calling them “absurd.”

NSO Group said in a statement that its technology “was not used in this instance,” saying its technology “cannot be used on U.S. phone numbers.” The company said any suggestion otherwise was “defamatory” and threatened legal action.

Forensics experts are said to have began looking at Bezos’ phone after he accused the National Enquirer of blackmail last year. In a tell-all Medium post, Bezos described how he was targeted by the tabloid, which obtained and published private text messages and photos from his phone, prompting an investigation into the leak.

The subsequent forensic report, which TechCrunch has not yet seen, claims the initial breach began after Bezos and the Saudi crown prince exchanged phone numbers in April 2018, a month before the hack.

The report said several other prominent figures, including Saudi dissidents and political activists, also had their phones infected with the same mobile malware around the time of the Bezos phone breach. Some whose phones were infected including those close to Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi critic and columnist for the Washington Post — which Bezos owns — who was murdered five months later.

“The information we have received suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia,” the U.N. experts said.

U.S. intelligence concluded that bin Salman ordered Khashoggi’s death.

The U.N. experts said the Saudis purchased the Pegasus malware, and used WhatsApp as a way to deliver the malware to Bezos’ phone.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for creating and using the Pegasus malware, which exploits a since-fixed vulnerability in the the messaging platform. Once exploited, sometimes silently and without the target knowing, the operators can download data from the user’s device. Facebook said at the time more than the malware was delivered on more than 1,400 targeted devices.

The U.N. experts said they will continue to investigate the “growing role of the surveillance industry” used for targeting journalists, human rights defenders, and owners of media outlets.

Amazon did not immediately comment.

NextNav raises $120M to deploy its indoor positioning tech to find people in skyscrapers

By Kirsten Korosec

NextNav LLC has raised $120 million in equity and debt to commercially deploy an indoor-positioning system that can pinpoint a device’s location — including what floor it’s on — without GPS .

The company has developed what it calls a Metropolitan Beacon System, which can find the location of devices like smartphones, drones, IoT products or even self-driving vehicles in indoor and urban areas where GPS or other satellite location signals cannot be reliably received. Anyone trying to use their phone to hail an Uber or Lyft in the Loop area of Chicago has likely experienced spotty GPS signals.

The MBS infrastructure is essentially bolted onto cellular towers. The positioning system uses a cellular signal, not line-of-sight signal from satellites like GPS does. The system focuses on determining the “altitude” of a device, CEO and co-founder Ganesh Pattabiraman told TechCrunch.

GPS can provide the horizontal position of a smartphone or IoT device. And wifi and Bluetooth can step in to provide that horizontal positioning indoors. NextNav says its MBS has added a vertical or “Z dimension” to the positioning system. This means the MBS can determine within less than 3 meters the floor level of a device in a  multi-story building.

It’s the kind of system that can provide emergency services with critical information such as the number of people located on a particular floor. It’s this specific use-case that NextNav is betting on. Last year, the Federal Communication Commission issued new 911 emergency requirements for wireless carriers that mandates the ability to determine the vertical position of devices to help responders find people in multi-story buildings.

Today, the MBS is in the Bay Area and Washington D.C. The company plans to use this new injection of capital to expand its network to the 50 biggest markets in the U.S., in part to take advantage of the new FCC requirement.

The technology has other applications. For instance, this so-called Z dimension could come in handy for locating drones. Last year, NASA said it will use NextNav’s MBS network as part of its City Environment for Range Testing of Autonomous Integrated Navigation facilities at its Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

The round was led by funds managed by affiliates of Fortress Investment Group . Existing investors Columbia Capital, Future Fund, Telcom Ventures, funds managed by Goldman Sachs Asset Management, NEA and Oak Investment Partners also participated.

XM Satellite Radio founder Gary Parsons is executive chairman of the Sunnyvale, Calif-based company.

In the shadow of Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle startups are having a moment

By Kate Clark

Venture capital investment exploded across a number of geographies in 2019 despite the constant threat of an economic downturn.

San Francisco, of course, remains the startup epicenter of the world, shutting out all other geographies when it comes to capital invested. Still, other regions continue to grow, raking in more capital this year than ever.

In Utah, a new hotbed for startups, companies like Weave, Divvy and MX Technology raised a collective $370 million from private market investors. In the Northeast, New York City experienced record-breaking deal volume with median deal sizes climbing steadily. Boston is closing out the decade with at least 10 deals larger than $100 million announced this year alone. And in the lovely Pacific Northwest, home to tech heavyweights Amazon and Microsoft, Seattle is experiencing an uptick in VC interest in what could be a sign the town is finally reaching its full potential.

Seattle startups raised a total of $3.5 billion in VC funding across roughly 375 deals this year, according to data collected by PitchBook. That’s up from $3 billion in 2018 across 346 deals and a meager $1.7 billion in 2017 across 348 deals. Much of Seattle’s recent growth can be attributed to a few fast-growing businesses.

Convoy, the digital freight network that connects truckers with shippers, closed a $400 million round last month bringing its valuation to $2.75 billion. The deal was remarkable for a number of reasons. Firstly, it was the largest venture round for a Seattle-based company in a decade, PitchBook claims. And it pushed Convoy to the top of the list of the most valuable companies in the city, surpassing OfferUp, which raised a sizable Series D in 2018 at a $1.4 billion valuation.

Convoy has managed to attract a slew of high-profile investors, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff and even U2’s Bono and the Edge. Since it was founded in 2015, the business has raised a total of more than $668 million.

Remitly, another Seattle-headquartered business, has helped bolster Seattle’s startup ecosystem. The fintech company focused on international money transfer raised a $135 million Series E led by Generation Investment Management, and $85 million in debt from Barclays, Bridge Bank, Goldman Sachs and Silicon Valley Bank earlier this year. Owl Rock Capital, Princeville Global,  Prudential Financial, Schroder & Co Bank AG and Top Tier Capital Partners, and previous investors DN Capital, Naspers’ PayU and Stripes Group also participated in the equity round, which valued Remitly at nearly $1 billion.

Up-and-coming startups, including co-working space provider The Riveter, real estate business Modus and same-day delivery service Dolly, have recently attracted investment too.

A number of other factors have contributed to Seattle’s long-awaited rise in venture activity. Top-performing companies like Stripe, Airbnb and Dropbox have established engineering offices in Seattle, as has Uber, Twitter, Facebook, Disney and many others. This, of course, has attracted copious engineers, a key ingredient to building a successful tech hub. Plus, the pipeline of engineers provided by the nearby University of Washington (shout-out to my alma mater) means there’s no shortage of brainiacs.

There’s long been plenty of smart people in Seattle, mostly working at Microsoft and Amazon, however. The issue has been a shortage of entrepreneurs, or those willing to exit a well-paying gig in favor of a risky venture. Fortunately for Seattle venture capitalists, new efforts have been made to entice corporate workers to the startup universe. Pioneer Square Labs, which I profiled earlier this year, is a prime example of this movement. On a mission to champion Seattle’s unique entrepreneurial DNA, Pioneer Square Labs cropped up in 2015 to create, launch and fund technology companies headquartered in the Pacific Northwest.

Boundless CEO Xiao Wang at TechCrunch Disrupt 2017

Operating under the startup studio model, PSL’s team of former founders and venture capitalists, including Rover and Mighty AI founder Greg Gottesman, collaborate to craft and incubate startup ideas, then recruit a founding CEO from their network of entrepreneurs to lead the business. Seattle is home to two of the most valuable businesses in the world, but it has not created as many founders as anticipated. PSL hopes that by removing some of the risk, it can encourage prospective founders, like Boundless CEO Xiao Wang, a former senior product manager at Amazon, to build.

“The studio model lends itself really well to people who are 99% there, thinking ‘damn, I want to start a company,’ ” PSL co-founder Ben Gilbert said in March. “These are people that are incredible entrepreneurs but if not for the studio as a catalyst, they may not have [left].”

Boundless is one of several successful PSL spin-outs. The business, which helps families navigate the convoluted green card process, raised a $7.8 million Series A led by Foundry Group earlier this year, with participation from existing investors Trilogy Equity Partners, PSL, Two Sigma Ventures and Founders’ Co-Op.

Years-old institutional funds like Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group have done their part to bolster the Seattle startup community too. Madrona raised a $100 million Acceleration Fund earlier this year, and although it plans to look beyond its backyard for its newest deals, the firm continues to be one of the largest supporters of Pacific Northwest upstarts. Founded in 1995, Madrona’s portfolio includes Amazon, Mighty AI, UiPath, Branch and more.

Voyager Capital, another Seattle-based VC, also raised another $100 million this year to invest in the PNW. Maveron, a venture capital fund co-founded by Starbucks mastermind Howard Schultz, closed on another $180 million to invest in early-stage consumer startups in May. And new efforts like Flying Fish Partners have been busy deploying capital to promising local companies.

There’s a lot more to say about all this. Like the growing role of deep-pocketed angel investors in Seattle have in expanding the startup ecosystem, or the non-local investors, like Silicon Valley’s best, who’ve funneled cash into Seattle’s talent. In short, Seattle deal activity is finally climbing thanks to top talent, new accelerator models and several refueled venture funds. Now we wait to see how the Seattle startup community leverages this growth period and what startups emerge on top.

Uber guarantees space for skis and snowboards with Uber Ski feature

By Kirsten Korosec

Uber is launching a new feature aimed at skiers and snowboarders.

The ride-hailing company said Wednesday that beginning December 17 an Uber Ski icon will pop up on the app that will let customers order a ride with confirmed extra vehicle space or a ski/snowboarding rack.

Uber is launching the feature in 23 U.S. cities located areas near mountain resorts such as Anchorage, Boise, Boston, Eastern Washington, Flagstaff, Arizona and Grand Rapids, Michigan, Green Bay, Wisconsin, Lehigh Valley, Minneapolis-St. Paul, New Hampshire, Portland, Oregon, Portland,Maine,  Salt Lake City, Seattle, Upstate New York, Vermont, Wilkes-Barre Scranton and Worcester, Wyoming. Riders living in Colorado cities such as Colorado Springs, Denver, Fort Collins and the front range of the Rockies where numerous resorts are located will also have the feature.

Uber hasn’t said if it will offer the ski feature outside of the United States.

Uber Ski is the latest of additional features aimed at attracting new users or retaining existing ones. Uber wouldn’t say if a bike option might be next. However, Nundu Janakiram, head of rider experience, said to expect more features like this one.

“No one customer is the same, which is why part of our platform strategy is unlocking capabilities for unique needs, at the right times,” Janakiram said. “Uber Ski is the latest step toward that goal, and we’ll have more to share in the future as we continue to identify ways we can do more in the vein of Uber Ski, Uber Pet, and more for riders that love Uber’s convenience.”

The feature comes with a cost. Riders pay an additional surcharge for the selection, on top of their standard trip fare. Riders will be able to view the Uber Ski surcharge on their receipt, and the surcharge will be added to their upfront price when that option is selected in-app, the company said.

Drivers don’t have to participate in Uber Ski. They can opt-out of Uber Ski trips in the driver preferences menu in the app, while still receiving other eligible trip opportunities, according to the company. If they choose to accept Uber Ski trips, drivers will also receive a significant portion of that surcharge, on top of their standard trip earnings.

Drivers who want to participate will first need to snap and upload a photo of their vehicle to the app’s documents section to confirm eligibility.

Earth is headed for its second warmest year in recorded history (the record was three years ago)

By Jonathan Shieber

Data from the U.S. government sure seems to indicate that the Earth is warming (despite what the current leadership may say).

Apparently, the globe just experienced the second-hottest October ever recorded and is on track for the second-hottest year to date on record, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Not only are we experiencing a run of hot Octobers (this is the tenth year that temperatures have hit recorded-history highs since 2003 and all five of the highest temperature years were in the past five years), but arctic ice has also shrunk to its lowest extent since satellite records began in 1979.

Even as the Trump Administration enacts policies to reverse course on curbing the emissions that seem to be leading to a changing global climate, federal agencies like the NOAA keep releasing reports that reveal exactly how much the planet is changing.

Earlier this month Secretary of State Mike Pompeo began the process of formally withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change. As with most momentous events of the Administration, the world was notified via Twitter.

Today we begin the formal process of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. The U.S. is proud of our record as a world leader in reducing all emissions, fostering resilience, growing our economy, and ensuring energy for our citizens. Ours is a realistic and pragmatic model.

— Secretary Pompeo (@SecPompeo) November 4, 2019

While Secretary Pompeo was praising the nation’s approach to “reducing all emissions”, Europe, Africa, Oceania, the Caribbean and Hawaiian Islands hit historic record-setting temperatures and the world’s average sea surface temperature hit its second-warmest ever-recorded temperature.

Meanwhile, new projections are revising the risk that cities face from rising sea levels that are caused by melting glaciers due to warmer temperatures.

Maps created by the research organization Climate Central, and published in the journal Nature Communications indicate that rising seas could flood land that’s currently home to some 150 million people at high-tide by 2050, if steps aren’t taken to improve the resiliency of cities to flooding or reverse course on climate.

Even the Federal Reserve is waking up to climate change risks. The regulator responsible for U.S. monetary policy convened an event earlier this month to focus on the financial impacts of climate change.

“By participating more actively in climate-related research and practice, the Federal Reserve can be more effective in supporting a strong economy and a stable financial system,” Lael Brainard, a member of the Fed’s board in Washington, said in prepared remarks at the same event, according to a report in The New York Times. 

‘Magic: The Gathering’ game maker exposed 452,000 players’ account data

By Zack Whittaker

The maker of Magic: The Gathering has confirmed that a security lapse exposed the data on hundreds of thousands of game players.

The game’s developer, the Washington-based Wizards of the Coast, left a database backup file in a public Amazon Web Services storage bucket. The database file contained user account information for the game’s online arena. But there was no password on the storage bucket, allowing who with the bucket’s name to access the files inside.

The bucket is not believed to have been exposed for long — since around early-September — but it was long enough for U.K. cybersecurity firm Fidus Information Security to find the database.

A review of the database file showed there were 452,634 players’ information, including about 470 email addresses associated with Wizards’ staff. The database included player names and usernames, email addresses, and the date and time of the account’s creation. The database also had user passwords, which were hashed and salted, making it difficult but not impossible to unscramble.

None of the data was encrypted. The accounts date back to at least 2012, according to our review of the data.

Fidus reached out to Wizards of the Coast but did not hear back. It was only after TechCrunch reached out that the game maker pulled the storage bucket offline.

Bruce Dugan, a spokesperson for the game developer, told TechCrunch in a statement: “We learned that a database file from a decommissioned website had inadvertently been made accessible outside the company.”

“We removed the database file from our server and commenced an investigation to determine the scope of the incident,” he said. “We believe that this was an isolated incident and we have no reason to believe that any malicious use has been made of the data,” but the spokesperson did not provide any evidence for this claim.

“However, in an abundance of caution, we are notifying players whose information was contained in the database and requiring them to reset their passwords on our current system,” he said.

Harriet Lester, Fidus’ director of research and development, said it was “surprising in this day and age that misconfigurations and lack of basic security hygiene still exist on this scale, especially when referring to such large companies with a userbase of over 450,000 accounts.”

“Our research team work continuously, looking for misconfigurations such as this to alert companies as soon as possible to avoid the data falling into the wrong hands. It’s our small way of helping make the internet a safer place,” she told TechCrunch.

The game maker said it informed the U.K. data protection authorities about the exposure, in line with breach notification rules under Europe’s GDPR regulations. The U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office did not immediately return an email to confirm the disclosure.

Companies can be fined up to 4% of their annual turnover for GDPR violations.

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