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Apple’s dangerous path

By Lucas Matney

Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review.

Last week, we dove into the truly bizarre machinations of the NFT market. This week, we’re talking about something that’s a little bit more impactful on the current state of the web — Apple’s NeuralHash kerfuffle.

If you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny


the big thing

In the past month, Apple did something it generally has done an exceptional job avoiding — the company made what seemed to be an entirely unforced error.

In early August — seemingly out of nowhere** — the company announced that by the end of the year they would be rolling out a technology called NeuralHash that actively scanned the libraries of all iCloud Photos users, seeking out image hashes that matched known images of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). For obvious reasons, the on-device scanning could not be opted out of.

This announcement was not coordinated with other major consumer tech giants, Apple pushed forward on the announcement alone.

Researchers and advocacy groups had almost unilaterally negative feedback for the effort, raising concerns that this could create new abuse channels for actors like governments to detect on-device information that they regarded as objectionable. As my colleague Zach noted in a recent story, “The Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week it had amassed more than 25,000 signatures from consumers. On top of that, close to 100 policy and rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, also called on Apple to abandon plans to roll out the technology.”

(The announcement also reportedly generated some controversy inside of Apple.)

The issue — of course — wasn’t that Apple was looking at find ways that prevented the proliferation of CSAM while making as few device security concessions as possible. The issue was that Apple was unilaterally making a massive choice that would affect billions of customers (while likely pushing competitors towards similar solutions), and was doing so without external public input about possible ramifications or necessary safeguards.

A long story short, over the past month researchers discovered Apple’s NeuralHash wasn’t as air tight as hoped and the company announced Friday that it was delaying the rollout “to take additional time over the coming months to collect input and make improvements before releasing these critically important child safety features.”

Having spent several years in the tech media, I will say that the only reason to release news on a Friday morning ahead of a long weekend is to ensure that the announcement is read and seen by as few people as possible, and it’s clear why they’d want that. It’s a major embarrassment for Apple, and as with any delayed rollout like this, it’s a sign that their internal teams weren’t adequately prepared and lacked the ideological diversity to gauge the scope of the issue that they were tackling. This isn’t really a dig at Apple’s team building this so much as it’s a dig on Apple trying to solve a problem like this inside the Apple Park vacuum while adhering to its annual iOS release schedule.

illustration of key over cloud icon

Image Credits: Bryce Durbin / TechCrunch /

Apple is increasingly looking to make privacy a key selling point for the iOS ecosystem, and as a result of this productization, has pushed development of privacy-centric features towards the same secrecy its surface-level design changes command. In June, Apple announced iCloud+ and raised some eyebrows when they shared that certain new privacy-centric features would only be available to iPhone users who paid for additional subscription services.

You obviously can’t tap public opinion for every product update, but perhaps wide-ranging and trail-blazing security and privacy features should be treated a bit differently than the average product update. Apple’s lack of engagement with research and advocacy groups on NeuralHash was pretty egregious and certainly raises some questions about whether the company fully respects how the choices they make for iOS affect the broader internet.

Delaying the feature’s rollout is a good thing, but let’s all hope they take that time to reflect more broadly as well.

** Though the announcement was a surprise to many, Apple’s development of this feature wasn’t coming completely out of nowhere. Those at the top of Apple likely felt that the winds of global tech regulation might be shifting towards outright bans of some methods of encryption in some of its biggest markets.

Back in October of 2020, then United States AG Bill Barr joined representatives from the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, India and Japan in signing a letter raising major concerns about how implementations of encryption tech posed “significant challenges to public safety, including to highly vulnerable members of our societies like sexually exploited children.” The letter effectively called on tech industry companies to get creative in how they tackled this problem.


other things

Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:

LinkedIn kills Stories
You may be shocked to hear that LinkedIn even had a Stories-like product on their platform, but if you did already know that they were testing Stories, you likely won’t be so surprised to hear that the test didn’t pan out too well. The company announced this week that they’ll be suspending the feature at the end of the month. RIP.

FAA grounds Virgin Galactic over questions about Branson flight
While all appeared to go swimmingly for Richard Branson’s trip to space last month, the FAA has some questions regarding why the flight seemed to unexpectedly veer so far off the cleared route. The FAA is preventing the company from further launches until they find out what the deal is.

Apple buys a classical music streaming service
While Spotify makes news every month or two for spending a massive amount acquiring a popular podcast, Apple seems to have eyes on a different market for Apple Music, announcing this week that they’re bringing the classical music streaming service Primephonic onto the Apple Music team.

TikTok parent company buys a VR startup
It isn’t a huge secret that ByteDance and Facebook have been trying to copy each other’s success at times, but many probably weren’t expecting TikTok’s parent company to wander into the virtual reality game. The Chinese company bought the startup Pico which makes consumer VR headsets for China and enterprise VR products for North American customers.

Twitter tests an anti-abuse ‘Safety Mode’
The same features that make Twitter an incredibly cool product for some users can also make the experience awful for others, a realization that Twitter has seemingly been very slow to make. Their latest solution is more individual user controls, which Twitter is testing out with a new “safety mode” which pairs algorithmic intelligence with new user inputs.


extra things

Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:

Our favorite startups from YC’s Demo Day, Part 1 
“Y Combinator kicked off its fourth-ever virtual Demo Day today, revealing the first half of its nearly 400-company batch. The presentation, YC’s biggest yet, offers a snapshot into where innovation is heading, from not-so-simple seaweed to a Clearco for creators….”

…Part 2
“…Yesterday, the TechCrunch team covered the first half of this batch, as well as the startups with one-minute pitches that stood out to us. We even podcasted about it! Today, we’re doing it all over again. Here’s our full list of all startups that presented on the record today, and below, you’ll find our votes for the best Y Combinator pitches of Day Two. The ones that, as people who sift through a few hundred pitches a day, made us go ‘oh wait, what’s this?’

All the reasons why you should launch a credit card
“… if your company somehow hasn’t yet found its way to launch a debit or credit card, we have good news: It’s easier than ever to do so and there’s actual money to be made. Just know that if you do, you’ve got plenty of competition and that actual customer usage will probably depend on how sticky your service is and how valuable the rewards are that you offer to your most active users….”


Thanks for reading, and again, if you’re reading this on the TechCrunch site, you can get this in your inbox from the newsletter page, and follow my tweets @lucasmtny

Lucas Matney

Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike review: Utility that shreds

By Rebecca Bellan

A recent move to Auckland, New Zealand — a city with lackluster public transit and hills that can turn a quick bike ride to the store into a sweaty workout — piqued my interest in e-bikes. 

Strong demand and skyrocketing prices, however, made it difficult to access these coveted e-bikes here in the Land of the Long White Cloud. That changed after learning about Ubco, the New Zealand-based electric utility bike startup that recently raised $10 million from investors. 

The company provided me with the Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike for nearly a month, which gave me plenty of time to put it to the test. 

I may not be Ubco’s target audience, although I did my best to use the bike as its design suggests, and packed it up with bags of books and other heavy things that might simulate the weight of delivered garlic bread, mail and other packages. The Ubco 2X2 Adventure Bike is made for city utility riding, with the option of going off-road, which I would later try with gusto.

The company’s flagship is the Ubco 2X2 Work Bike, an electric dirt bike that was originally designed to help farmers. The fresh capital the company raised in June will be used to expand into existing verticals like food delivery, postal service and last-mile logistics, scale a commercial subscription business and target sales growth in the United States. 

Domino’s drivers in Auckland, and I hear in the U.K., can be seen delivering hot pizzas on Ubco bikes, and the company has a range of other national clients, like the New Zealand Post, the Defense Force, the Department of Conservation, and Pāmu, or Landcorp Farming Limited, as well as other local restaurants and stores.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

The handoff

CEO and co-founder Timothy Allan drove out from the company headquarters in Tauranga to hand off the bike personally. It was a sunny day in my neighborhood, and I listened impatiently as he described the various bits and bobs, how to work the machine and how to charge it.

Allan helped me download the Ubco app to pair my phone with the bike, which, among other functionalities, allowed me to select beginner mode, which would cap the vehicle speed at around 20 miles per hour. I made a mental note so that I could write about it here, but was determined to reach the top speed of 30 miles per hour right away. 

I did, and it was … pretty sick. I’m not supposed to gush, but man! It’s a sweet ride. Here’s why:

Appearance

The Adventure Bike comes standard in white and sits on 17X2.75-inch multi-use tires with aluminum rims, both of which are DOT compliant. My version also had Maori decals on the frame, in a nod to the indigenous people of New Zealand.  

The bike’s height is about 41 inches and the seat comes to 32 inches. From wheel to wheel, it’s about 72 inches. The payload, including the rider, is about 330 pounds, so both my partner (6’2” man) and I (5’7” female) rode this bike with ease, needing only to adjust the wide rearview mirrors sticking out of the handlebars. And no, we didn’t ride it together. This bike is designed as a one-seater. 

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

That said, there’s a little cargo rack above the back wheel, which holds the license plate (apparently these are classified as mopeds, which require registration in many places) and any other cargo one might carry. I didn’t try, but I reckon it could hold at least five pizza boxes tied down with a bungee cord. The bike rack also allows for saddlebags to be strapped on. Ubco sells what it calls the Pannier Back Pack, a weather-resistant roll-top cargo bag, for $189 that slots in very nicely and is actually a quality bag with 5.28-gallon capacity. 

Accessories aside, the alloy frame is lightweight and step-through, which I love in a bike — it lets me start to shift myself off before I fully park and I feel super agile and swift. Speaking of parking, the rules are different everywhere, I assume, but here, you park it on the street or in parking spaces, not on the sidewalk. It’s got a kickstand to hold it in place, and you can lock the front wheel so no one can just wheel it away. They could, however, probably chuck it into the back of their pickup truck if they so chose, since it’s only 145 pounds. 

The appearance of the bike stood out, and not just to me. During my multi-week test drive, numerous tradesmen and bike folks went out of their way to compliment its design, the exact demographic that Ubco is aiming for. 

Rideability

The lightness of the bike means that it’s easy to take off and find your balance. The battery is also in the middle of the frame, just near where your feet sit, which anchors the bike and gives you a stable center of gravity.

The lightweight nature of the bike is a blessing and a curse. Cutting a turn is easy, but on a windy day and an open road, there were moments I worried that I’d be knocked off it — but maybe that had more to do with riding next to a 10-wheeler on the street. Because it’s so light, it did feel a bit strange to me to be in the street lane with the other bigger, meaner cars rather than in the bike lanes.

The bike accelerates quickly via the fully electronic throttle control, even up steep hills, due to the high torque geared drivetrain. The drivetrain has two 1kw Flux2 motors with sealed bearings, active heat management and active venting for residual moisture — a necessity in this moistest of cities.

The acceleration sound, which mimics those of a gas-powered dirt bike but with a softer electronic tone, was a surprising plus. I didn’t realize how much I relied on my sense of sound to tell how fast I was going until I rode the Ubco. 

The braking system was a bit touchy. It felt very sensitive to me, probably because hydraulic and regenerative brakes are operating together on the vehicle. There’s also a passive regenerative braking system, which I gather is what put the brakes on for me when I was just trying to coast down one of those mammoth hills.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

Both the front suspension, 130 mm, and rear suspension, 120 mm, have a coil spring with a hydraulic dampener and have preload and rebound adjustment. In other words, the shocks are awesome. Even when I actively drove myself off sidewalks and over speed bumps, I could barely feel a thing. 

To test its off-road capabilities, I took the bike to Cornwall Park, where I ran it at full speed on the grass, swerving between trees, flying over roots and rocks, doing doughnuts in the field. It was good fun and I felt completely in control of the vehicle. I can imagine why farmers have turned to the Work Bike.

When it was time to test out its use as a delivery bike, I packed the two saddlebags with books and groceries and took it for a spin. Still a great ride, although I was a little wobbly turning corners until I got the hang of it.

Value

Since the Ubco Adventure Bike doesn’t neatly fit into a specific bike category, it’s not a simple price comparison. An electric moped, like a Lexmoto Yadea or a Vespa Elettrica, could set you back anywhere from $2,400 or $7,000, respectively. Electric dirt bikes could cost anywhere from $6,000 to $11,000 for something like a KTM or Alta Motors. 

With that in mind, the Ubco Adventure Bike costs $6,999 with a 2.1 kW power supply and $7,499 for a 3.1 kW power supply. Depending on what you want it for, I’d say it’s somewhere around mid-range for a bike like this. Since you’d probably use it for work-related activities, it could get a tax write-off. Plus, you want quality in a bike that’s down to do some heavy lifting, and Ubco has plenty of that. It’s not only a handy utility bike, but it’s also got some excellent tech under the proverbial hood, which we’ll get to later. 

Ubco estimates a 10- to 15-year life expectancy, depending on use. Over-the-air software updates, replacing parts and full refurbishments can help keep the bike going for longer. The company encourages riders to send back the dead bikes because it’s committed to full product stewardship.

That said, if you wanted to buy a bike now, it’d be a preorder (unless your local Ubco dealer had some in stock). Ordering now could get you an Ubco by September if you live in the States. The company says it’s still feeling the effects of COVID, with high demand and a stretched supply chain causing delays. The preorder requires a $1,000 deposit. 

Ubco also has a subscription model, which is mainly available for enterprise customers at the moment and priced on a case-by-case basis. However, it’s piloting subscriptions for individuals in Auckland and Tauranga before rolling the program out globally. Subscriptions will start at around NZD $300 per month for a 36-month term.

Range

The Adventure Bike comes with either the 2.1 kWh battery pack, which has around 40 to 54 miles of range, or the 3.1 kWh, with 60 to 80 miles.

The battery is run off a management system, called “Scotty,” to monitor real-time performance and safety. The battery, which is sealed with alloy and vented during use, is made with 18650 lithium-ion cells, which means it’s a powerful battery that can handle up to 500 charging cycles. Ubco says its batteries are designed to be disassembled at the end of life.

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

The 10amp alloy fast charger can fuel the battery fully within four to six hours. You can charge it while it’s still in the vehicle by just connecting it to a power outlet, or you can unlock the battery and yank it out (it’s a little heavy) and charge it inside. Note: Charging is loud. Not sure if this is standard, but probably is. 

I charged it every two to three days, but that will depend on use and where you are. It’s winter in Auckland, so a bit cold, which affects battery life, and the hills are brutal, which also use up a lot of battery life.

I’d ride it downtown and around my neighborhood every day, but I’d wager a delivery driver would need to charge it nightly. As I mentioned earlier, the battery can be removed for charging, so if you take it to work, you can always take it up to the office or wherever to charge while you’re doing other things. 

Tech features

Vehicle management system

The vehicle runs off what Ubco calls its Cerebro vehicle management system, which integrates all electronic and electrical functions of the vehicles and provides control and updates via Bluetooth. Ubco builds with end of life in mind, so the CAN bus is isolated so future CAN devices can be easily integrated. 

Now, one of my first questions, given the heftiness of this bike and the likelihood of gig economy workers who would ride it for work living in urban dwellings, was this: How can I ensure no one will steal this thing when it’s on the street, because there’s no way I’m lugging it up to my fifth-floor walkup?

Like I said, you can lock the wheel in place, which would make it far more difficult for someone to wheel it off. If someone did decide to capture the whole cumbersome vehicle, Ubco would be able to track it for you. Each Ubco bike has telemetry, aka a SIM card, hardwired inside, and that can help provide data that can be used for location, servicing, theft, safety, route planning, etc. 

This VMS architecture is made for handling fleets via Ubco’s enterprise subscription vehicles, but it obviously has other uses, like providing peace of mind (personally, I’d still lock it up with chains, but I’m a New Yorker and trust no one). Obviously, if you think this telemetry is creepy, you can opt out, but it does come standard with subscriptions, allowing subscribers to track their bike’s location on the app.

Display

Image Credits: Rebecca Bellan

Mounted on the handlebar is an LCD display that shows speed, power levels and more. Also on the handlebars are switch controls for high or low beams, indicators and a horn. I found the indicators to be a bit sticky and sometimes I would slip and hit the horn. What I wish the handlebars also had was a mount for your phone so you could follow directions. I had my headphones in and was listening to Google Maps tell me how to get around, but that felt less safe and efficient. 

Turning it on

You can turn the power on with a keyless fob by either clicking the button on the fob or the button on the handlebars. I will note that the keyless fob button is weirdly sensitive. At multiple points, I had it in my pocket with my phone or other pocket inhabitants and it must have knocked into the button, turning the vehicle off while I was riding it. Thankfully, that never happened anywhere busy, but that’s something to be wary about. 

App

As I mentioned earlier, you could pair your phone, as well as other users’ phones, to the bike using the app. The app allows you to choose learner mode or restricted mode, which controls ride settings; turn the bike and lights on and off; change the metrics; and check the status of things like battery life, speed and motor temperature. It’s basically all the info on the dash, but on an app. I didn’t really feel the need to use it.

Lights

The LED headlights are on at all times when the vehicle is turned on, but there’s also a high and low beam, as well as peripheral parking lights, all of which are designed for disassembly at the end of life. There are also LED rear, brake and number plate lights, as well as DOT-approved indicator lights.

Other stuff

Among the features that don’t fit neatly into the other categories, there’s the field kit, which is fastened to the lift-up seat and contains a user manual and tools to set up and maintain the 2X2, which is really handy. Usually, when people buy an Ubco bike, it comes in a box and there are “a few simple steps to follow to get it ready to ride.” There’s also an UBCO University course that shows how to set it up. If you buy from one of Ubco’s dealers, they’ll unpack it and set it up when you come to collect it. 

Maintenance

Maintenance comes with the cost of a monthly subscription. Ubco has a network of technicians placed wherever the company sells its bikes if they’re in need of fixing. If there’s no authorized mechanic nearby, Ubco’s head office will work with customers to help them fix the bike. Ubco did not respond to information about how many authorized mechanics are in its network.

Again, being from New York, I’ve seen probably thousands of delivery riders on bikes and mopeds, oven mitts covered in a plastic bag taped onto the handlebars so drivers can keep their hands warm during the colder months. This bike can handle a hefty load for delivering goods, it’s quick and agile for weaving in and out of traffic, and it’s easy to ride and use.

The subscription offering, especially for enterprise, makes this a great city utility bike that can probably handle a range of weather conditions. I already know it can handle rain and mud, so all signs point to success in the sloshy, icy hell of a Northern city winter. And for the adventurer — the person who just wants to ride something sweet on- and off-road, out of the city and into the wilderness — this is also a great consumer ride that will last you quite a while.

KKR to acquire New Zealand bus company Ritchies Transport at value of $347M

By Rebecca Bellan

Global investment firm KKR has plans to acquire a New Zealand bus and coach company with an 86-year heritage, Ritchies Transport. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, but sources familiar with the circumstances say the deal values Ritchies at over $347 million ($500 million NZD).

On Thursday, the two companies signed the definitive agreements under which KKR will acquire Ritchies, marking KKR’s first infrastructure investment in New Zealand. KKR said acquiring the bus company, which currently has a fleet of more than 1,600 vehicles and 42 depots that operate across the country, will help it advance its mission “to better connect local communities, support the country’s expanding public transport network and promote greener transportation solutions.”

New Zealand is still largely an ICE-fueled nation, but the country has plans to electrify. The government now requires all of its agencies and ministries to electrify fleets within the next five years, and aims to decarbonize public transport, which mainly relies on buses, entirely by 2035. Kiwi Bus Builders, a New Zealand manufacturer, recently assembled a range of ADL electric buses which have made it to Auckland’s city streets.

Director on KKR’s infrastructure team Andrew Jennings said in a statement that Ritchies buses will represent “a highly visible opportunity to encourage the adoption of zero-emissions technology” as New Zealand continues to see “demand for high quality, greener public transport solutions.”

KKR told TechCrunch that it does have a plan to help Ritchies electrify its fleet, and that the firm has made advancements globally across areas related to sustainable transportation, and it will be leveraging those experiences to advance the country as it moves towards zero emissions.

The investment comes from KKR’s Asia Pacific Infrastructure Fund. The transaction is still conditional on OIO approval, which KKR says is expected within four to five months. Once the deal is completed, the Ritchie family will continue to hold a stake in the company, and Andrew Ritchie, current director of operations, will be appointed as CEO of the company as Glenn Ritchie, the current CEO, retires.

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UK names John Edwards as its choice for next data protection chief as gov’t eyes watering down privacy standards

By Natasha Lomas

The UK government has named the person it wants to take over as its chief data protection watchdog, with sitting commissioner Elizabeth Denham overdue to vacate the post: The Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) today said its preferred replacement is New Zealand’s privacy commissioner, John Edwards.

Edwards, who has a legal background, has spent more than seven years heading up the Office of the Privacy Commissioner In New Zealand — in addition to other roles with public bodies in his home country.

He is perhaps best known to the wider world for his verbose Twitter presence and for taking a public dislike to Facebook: In the wake of the 2018 Cambridge Analytica data misuse scandal Edwards publicly announced that he was deleting his account with the social media — accusing Facebook of not complying with the country’s privacy laws.

An anti-‘Big Tech’ stance aligns with the UK government’s agenda to tame the tech giants as it works to bring in safety-focused legislation for digital platforms and reforms of competition rules that take account of platform power.

Official announcement

Government announces preferred candidate for Information Commissioner – https://t.co/2fri3ROyhm https://t.co/i8b4OBcwzC

— John Edwards (@JCE_PC) August 26, 2021

If confirmed in the role — the DCMS committee has to approve Edwards’ appointment; plus there’s a ceremonial nod needed from the Queen — he will be joining the regulatory body at a crucial moment as digital minister Oliver Dowden has signalled the beginnings of a planned divergence from the European Union’s data protection regime, post-Brexit, by Boris Johnson’s government.

Dial back the clock five years and prior digital minister, Matt Hancock, was defending the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) as a “decent piece of legislation” — and suggesting to parliament that there would be little room for the UK to diverge in data protection post-Brexit.

But Hancock is now out of government (aptly enough after a data leak showed him breaching social distancing rules by kissing his aide inside a government building), and the government mood music around data has changed key to something far more brash — with sitting digital minister Dowden framing unfettered (i.e. deregulated) data-mining as “a great opportunity” for the post-Brexit UK.

For months, now, ministers have been eyeing how to rework the UK’s current (legascy) EU-based data protection framework — to, essentially, reduce user rights in favor of soundbites heavy on claims of slashing ‘red tape’ and turbocharging data-driven ‘innovation’. Of course the government isn’t saying the quiet part out loud; its press releases talk about using “the power of data to drive growth and create jobs while keeping high data protection standards”. But those standards are being reframed as a fig leaf to enable a new era of data capture and sharing by default.

Dowden has said that the emergency data-sharing which was waived through during the pandemic — when the government used the pressing public health emergency to justify handing NHS data to a raft of tech giantsshould be the ‘new normal’ for a post-Brexit UK. So, tl;dr, get used to living in a regulatory crisis.

A special taskforce, which was commissioned by the prime minister to investigate how the UK could reshape its data policies outside the EU, also issued a report this summer — in which it recommended scrapping some elements of the UK’s GDPR altogether — branding the regime “prescriptive and inflexible”; and advocating for changes to “free up data for innovation and in the public interest”, as it put it, including pushing for revisions related to AI and “growth sectors”.

The government is now preparing to reveal how it intends to act on its appetite to ‘reform’ (read: reduce) domestic privacy standards — with proposals for overhauling the data protection regime incoming next month.

Speaking to the Telegraph for a paywalled article published yesterday, Dowden trailed one change that he said he wants to make which appears to target consent requirements — with the minister suggesting the government will remove the legal requirement to gain consent to, for example, track and profile website visitors — all the while framing it as a pro-consumer move; a way to do away with “endless” cookie banners.

Only cookies that pose a ‘high risk’ to privacy would still require consent notices, per the report — whatever that means.

Oliver Dowden, the UK Minister for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, says that the UK will break away from GDPR, and will no longer require cookie warnings, other than those posing a 'high risk'.https://t.co/2ucnppHrIm pic.twitter.com/RRUdpJumYa

— dan barker (@danbarker) August 25, 2021

“There’s an awful lot of needless bureaucracy and box ticking and actually we should be looking at how we can focus on protecting people’s privacy but in as light a touch way as possible,” the digital minister also told the Telegraph.

The draft of this Great British ‘light touch’ data protection framework will emerge next month, so all the detail is still to be set out. But the overarching point is that the government intends to redefine UK citizens’ privacy rights, using meaningless soundbites — with Dowden touting a plan for “common sense” privacy rules — to cover up the fact that it intends to reduce the UK’s currently world class privacy standards and replace them with worse protections for data.

If you live in the UK, how much privacy and data protection you get will depend upon how much ‘innovation’ ministers want to ‘turbocharge’ today — so, yes, be afraid.

It will then fall to Edwards — once/if approved in post as head of the ICO — to nod any deregulation through in his capacity as the post-Brexit information commissioner.

We can speculate that the government hopes to slip through the devilish detail of how it will torch citizens’ privacy rights behind flashy, distraction rhetoric about ‘taking action against Big Tech’. But time will tell.

Data protection experts are already warning of a regulatory stooge.

While the Telegraph suggests Edwards is seen by government as an ideal candidate to ensure the ICO takes a “more open and transparent and collaborative approach” in its future dealings with business.

In a particularly eyebrow raising detail, the newspaper goes on to report that government is exploring the idea of requiring the ICO to carry out “economic impact assessments” — to, in the words of Dowden, ensure that “it understands what the cost is on business” before introducing new guidance or codes of practice.

All too soon, UK citizens may find that — in the ‘sunny post-Brexit uplands’ — they are afforded exactly as much privacy as the market deems acceptable to give them. And that Brexit actually means watching your fundamental rights being traded away.

In a statement responding to Edwards’ nomination, Denham, the outgoing information commissioner, appeared to offer some lightly coded words of warning for government, writing [emphasis ours]: “Data driven innovation stands to bring enormous benefits to the UK economy and to our society, but the digital opportunity before us today will only be realised where people continue to trust their data will be used fairly and transparently, both here in the UK and when shared overseas.”

The lurking iceberg for government is of course that if wades in and rips up a carefully balanced, gold standard privacy regime on a soundbite-centric whim — replacing a pan-European standard with ‘anything goes’ rules of its/the market’s choosing — it’s setting the UK up for a post-Brexit future of domestic data misuse scandals.

You only have to look at the dire parade of data breaches over in the US to glimpse what’s coming down the pipe if data protection standards are allowed to slip. The government publicly bashing the privacy sector for adhering to lax standards it deregulated could soon be the new ‘get popcorn’ moment for UK policy watchers…

UK citizens will surely soon learn of unfair and unethical uses of their data under the ‘light touch’ data protection regime — i.e. when they read about it in the newspaper.

Such an approach will indeed be setting the country on a path where mistrust of digital services becomes the new normal. And that of course will be horrible for digital business over the longer run. But Dowden appears to lack even a surface understanding of Internet basics.

The UK is also of course setting itself on a direct collision course with the EU if it goes ahead and lowers data protection standards.

This is because its current data adequacy deal with the bloc — which allows for EU citizens’ data to continue flowing freely to the UK is precariously placed — was granted only on the basis that the UK was, at the time it was inked, still aligned with the GDPR.

So Dowden’s rush to rip up protections for people’s data presents a clear risk to the “significant safeguards” needed to maintain EU adequacy.

Back in June, when the Commission signed off on the UK’s adequacy deal, it clearly warned that “if anything changes on the UK side, we will intervene”. Moreover, the adequacy deal is also the first with a baked in sunset clause — meaning it will automatically expire in four years.

So even if the Commission avoids taking proactive action over slipping privacy standards in the UK there is a hard deadline — in 2025 — when the EU’s executive will be bound to look again in detail at exactly what Dowden & Co. have wrought. And it probably won’t be pretty.

The longer term UK ‘plan’ (if we can put it that way) appears to be to replace domestic economic reliance on EU data flows — by seeking out other jurisdictions that may be friendly to a privacy-light regime governing what can be done with people’s information.

Hence — also today — DCMS trumpeted an intention to secure what it billed as “new multi-billion pound global data partnerships” — saying it will prioritize striking ‘data adequacy’ “partnerships” with the US, Australia, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, and the Dubai International Finance Centre and Colombia.

Future partnerships with India, Brazil, Kenya and Indonesia will also be prioritized, it added — with the government department cheerfully glossing over the fact it’s UK citizens’ own privacy that is being deprioritized here.

“Estimates suggest there is as much as £11 billion worth of trade that goes unrealised around the world due to barriers associated with data transfers,” DCMS writes in an ebullient press release.

As it stands, the EU is of course the UK’s largest trading partner. And statistics from the House of Commons library on the UK’s trade with the EU — which you won’t find cited in the DCMS release — underline quite how tiny this potential Brexit ‘data bonanza’ is, given that UK exports to the EU stood at £294 billion in 2019 (43% of all UK exports).

So even the government’s ‘economic’ case to water down citizens’ privacy rights looks to be puffed up with the same kind of misleadingly vacuous nonsense as ministers’ reframing of a post-Brexit UK as ‘Global Britain’.

Everyone hates cookies banners, sure, but that’s a case for strengthening not weakening people’s privacy — for making non-tracking the default setting online and outlawing manipulative dark patterns so that Internet users don’t constantly have to affirm they want their information protected. Instead the UK may be poised to get rid of annoying cookie consent ‘friction’ by allowing a free for all on people’s data.

 

Dawn Aerospace conducts five flights of its suborbital spaceplane

By Aria Alamalhodaei

While the rocket launch sector is quickly becoming crowded, the same can’t be said for companies developing suborbital spaceplanes. This means there’s plenty of room to grow for startups like Dawn Aerospace, which has now completed five test flights of its Mk-II Aurora spaceplane that is designed to fly up to 60 miles above the Earth’s surface.

The flights, which took place at the Glentanner Aerodrome in New Zealand’s South Island in July, were to assess the vehicle’s airframe and avionics. While the vehicle only reached altitudes of 3,400 feet, the flights allowed Dawn’s team to capture “extensive data enabling further R&D on the capability of Mk-II,” CEO Stefan Powell said in a statement.

Dawn’s approach is to build a vehicle that can take off and land from conventional airports and potentially perform multiple flights to and from space per day. The obvious benefit of this approach is that it’s significantly less capital-intensive than vertical launches. Mk-II is also barely the size of a compact car, less than 16 feet long and weighing only 165 pounds empty, which further lowers costs.

As the name suggests, the Mk-II is the second iteration of the vehicle, but Dawn doesn’t plan on stopping there. The company has plans to build a two-stage-to-orbit Mk-III spaceplane that can also be used to conduct scientific research, or even capture atmospheric data for weather observations and climate modeling. While Mk-II has a payload of 3U, or less than 8.8 pounds, Mk-III will be capable of carrying up to 551 pounds to orbit.

The Mk-III will ultimately be fitted with a rocket engine to enable supersonic performance and high-altitude testing.

The company hit a major milestone last December when it received an Unmanned Aircraft Operator Certificate from the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority to fly Mk-II from airports. It also received a grant from by the province of Zuid-Holland in the Netherlands, along with Radar Based Avionics and MetaSensing, to test a low-power sense and detect radar system. That demonstration, which is scheduled to take place next year, will happen once Mk-II undergoes some minor modifications, Powell told TechCrunch.

Peter Beck on Rocket Lab’s public listing debut, space SPACs and the Neutron rocket

By Aria Alamalhodaei

Peter Beck’s earliest memory is standing outside with his father in his hometown of Invercargill, New Zealand, looking up at the stars, and being told that there could very well be people on planets orbiting those stars looking right back at him.

“For a three or four year old, that was a mind-blowing thing that got etched into my memory and from that point onwards, that was me destined to work in the space industry,” he said at the Space Generation Fusion Forum (SGFF).

Of course, hindsight is 20/20. But it’s true that Beck’s career has been characterized by an unusually single-minded focus on rocketry. Instead of going to university, Beck got a trade job, working as a tool-making apprentice by day and a dilettante rocket engine maker by night. “I was very, very fortunate through my career that the companies I worked with and worked for, and the government organizations that I’ve worked for, always encouraged – or tolerated, maybe is a better word – me using their facilities and doing things in their facilities at night,” he said.

His tinkering matured with experience, and working double-time paid off: in 2006, he founded his space launch company Rocket Lab. Now, fifteen years and 21 launches later, the company has gone public through a merger with a blank-check firm that’s added $777 million to its war chest.

$RKLB has launched! Today’s exciting next step in Rocket Lab’s story was made possible by the incredible people behind us – our team, our families, our customers, and our investors. Thank you, thank you, thank you. #SpaceIsOpenForBusiness #NasdaqListed pic.twitter.com/DLmVsmtqOj

— Rocket Lab (@RocketLab) August 25, 2021

The space SPAC craze

The merger with Vector Acquisition catapulted Rocket Lab’s valuation to $4.8 billion, putting it second (by value) amongst space launch companies only to Elon Musk’s SpaceX. SPACs have become a popular route to going public amongst space industry companies looking to secure large amounts of capital; rival satellite launch startups Virgin Orbit and Astra have each started trading via a SPAC merger, in addition to other companies in the sector, like Redwire, Planet and Satellogic (to name just a few).

Beck told TechCrunch that going public has been part of Rocket Lab’s plans for years; the original plan was to use a traditional initial public offering, but the SPAC route in particular enabled certainty around capital and valuation. According to an March investor presentation in advance of the SPAC merger – documents that should always be taken with a large grain of salt – the future is bright: Rocket Lab anticipates revenues of $749 million in 2025 and surpassing $1 billion the following year. The company reported revenues of $48 million in 2019 and $33 million in 2020, and anticipates hitting around $69 million this year.

But he remains skeptical of pre-revenue space startups, or those that failed to raise capital, using SPACs as a financial instrument. “There has been a lot of space SPACs go out, and I think that there is a spectrum of quality there for sure – some that have failed to raise money in the private markets, and [a SPAC merger] is the last-ditch attempt. That is no way to become a public company.”

While the space industry is relatively crowded now, with companies like Rocket Lab and SpaceX sending payloads to orbit and myriad newer entrants looking to join them (or, more optimistically, take their leading place), Beck said he anticipates the crowd thinning out.

“It’s going to become blatantly obvious to investors really quickly, who’s executing, and who’s aspiring to execute,” he said. “We’re in a time where there’s lots of excitement, but at the end of the day, this industry and the public markets is all about execution. The wheat from the chaff will get separated very, very quickly here.”

From Electron to Neutron

Rocket Lab’s revenues have largely come from the small payload launch market, in which it’s managed to take a leading position with its Electron rocket. Electron is only 59 feet tall and scarcely four feet in diameter, significantly smaller than other rockets going to space today. The company conducts launches from two sites: its privately-owned launch range on Mahia Peninsula, New Zealand, and a launch pad out of NASA’s Wallops Island facility in Virginia (which has yet to play host to an actual Rocket Lab mission).

Rocket Lab is in the process of transitioning Electron’s first-stage booster to be reusable. The company has been implementing a new atmospheric reentry and ocean splashdown process that uses a parachute to slow the booster’s descent, but the ultimate goal is to catch it in the air using a helicopter.

Thus far, Rocket Lab and SpaceX have dominated the market, but that could change soon. Both Astra and Relativity are developing small launch vehicles – the latest iteration of Astra’s rocket is around 40 feet tall, while Relativity’s Terran 1 is in-between Electron and Falcon 9 at 115 feet.

For that reason, it makes sense that Rocket Lab is planning on expanding its operations to include medium-lift rocketry, with its much-anticipated (and very mysterious) Neutron launch vehicle. The company has been keeping the details about Neutron close to its chest so far – Beck told SGFF attendees that even publicly-released renderings of the rocket have been “a bit of a ruse” (meaning the image below bears little to no resemblance to what the Neutron actually looks like) – but it’s expected to be more than double the height of Electron and be capable of sending around 8,000 kilograms to low Earth orbit.

Image Credits: Rocket Lab

“We do see a lot of people in the industry copying us in many ways,” he explained to TechCrunch. “So, we’d rather get a little bit further down the path and then reveal the work that we’ve done.”

Rocket Lab estimates that Electron and Neutron will be capable of lifting 98% of all satellites forecasted to launch through 2029, making the need for an additional heavy-lift rocket unnecessary.

In addition to Neutron, the company has also started developing spacecraft. It’s called Photon, and Rocket Lab imagines it as a “satellite platform” that can easily be integrated with the Electron rocket. The company’s already lined up Photon missions to the moon and beyond: first to lunar orbit for NASA, as part of its Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) program.

Two Photons were selected earlier this month for an 11-month mission to Mars, and Beck has publicly discussed long-term plans to send a probe into Venus’ atmosphere via a Photon satellite.

Beyond Photon, Rocket Lab has also locked in a deal with space manufacturing startup Varda Space Industries to build it a spacecraft, to launch in 2023 and 2024.

Neutron has been designed to be human-rateable right from the start, meaning that it will meet certain safety specifications for carrying astronauts. Beck said he’s certain that “we are going to see the democratization of spaceflight” and he wants Rocket Lab to be well-poised to deliver that service in the future. In terms of whether Rocket Lab would eventually expand into building other spacecraft, like landers or human-rated capsules, Beck demurred.

“Never, ever say never,” he said. “That’s the one takeaway I’ve learned in my career as a space CEO.”

Apple launches a new iOS app, ‘Siri Speech Study,’ to gather feedback for Siri improvements

By Sarah Perez

Apple recently began a research study designed to collect speech data from study participants. Earlier this month, the company launched a new iOS app called “Siri Speech Study” on the App Store, which allows participants who have opted in to share their voice requests and other feedback with Apple. The app is available in a number of worldwide markets but does not register on the App Store’s charts, including under the “Utilities” category where it’s published.

According to data from Sensor Tower, the iOS app first launched on August 9 and was updated to a new version on August 18. It’s currently available in the U.S., Canada, Germany, France, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, and Taiwan — an indication of the study’s global reach. However, the app will not appear when searching the App Store by keyword or when browsing through the list of Apple’s published apps.

The Siri Speech Study app itself offers little information about the study’s specific goals, nor does it explain how someone could become a participant. Instead, it only provides a link to a fairly standard license agreement and a screen where a participant would enter their ID number to get started.

Reached for comment, Apple told TechCrunch the app is only being used for Siri product improvements, by offering a way for participants to share feedback directly with Apple. The company also explained people have to be invited to the study — there’s not a way for consumers to sign up to join.

Image Credits: App Store screenshot

The app is only one of many ways Apple is working to improve Siri.

In the past, Apple had tried to learn more about Siri’s mistakes by sending some small portion of consumers’ voice recordings to contractors for manual grading and review. But a whistleblower alerted media outlet The Guardian that the process had allowed them to listen in on confidential details at times. Apple shortly thereafter made manual review an opt-in process and brought audio grading in-house. This type of consumer data collection continues, but has a different aim that what a research study would involve.

Unlike this broader, more generalized data collection, a focus group-like study allows Apple to better understand Siri’s mistakes because it combines the collected data with human feedback. With the Siri Speech Study app, participants provide explicit feedback on per request basis, Apple said. For instance, if Siri misheard a question, users could explain what they were trying to ask. If Siri was triggered when the user hadn’t said “Hey Siri,” that could be noted. Or if Siri on HomePod misidentified the speaker in a multi-person household, the participant could note that, too.

Another differentiator is that none of the participants’ data is being automatically shared with Apple. Rather, users can see a list of the Siri requests they’ve made and then select which to send to Apple with their feedback. Apple also noted no user information is collected or used in the app, except the data directly provided by participants.

WWDC 2021 on device privacy

Image Credits: Apple WWDC 2021

Apple understands that an intelligent virtual assistant that understands you is a competitive advantage.

This year, the company scooped up ex-Google AI scientist Samy Bengio to help make Siri a stronger rival to Google Assistant, whose advanced capabilities are often a key selling point for Android devices. In the home, meanwhile, Alexa-powered smart speakers are dominating the U.S. market and compete with Google in the global landscape, outside China. Apple’s HomePod has a long way to go to catch up.

But despite the rapid progress in voice-based computing in recent years, virtual assistants can still have a hard time understanding certain types of speech. Earlier this year, for example, Apple said it would use a bank of audio clips from podcasts where users had stuttered to help it improve its understanding of this kind of speech pattern. Assistants can also stumble when there are multiple devices in a home that are listening for voice commands from across several rooms. And assistants can mess up when trying to differentiate between different family members’ voices or when trying to understand a child’s voice.

In other words, there are still many avenues a speech study could pursue over time, even if these aren’t its current focus.

That Apple is running a Siri speech study isn’t necessarily new. The company has historically run evaluations and studies like this in some form. But it’s less common to find Apple’s studies published directly on the App Store.

Though Apple could have published the app through the enterprise distribution process to keep it more under wraps, it chose to use its public marketplace. This more closely follows the App Store’s rules, as the research study is not an internally-facing app meant only for Apple employees.

Still, it’s not likely consumers will stumble across the app and be confused — the Siri Speech Study app is hidden from discovery. You have to have the app’s direct link to find it. (Good thing we’re nosy!)

Pokémon GO influencers threaten a boycott after Niantic removes COVID safety measures

By Amanda Silberling

The creators of Pokémon GO, Niantic developed one of the first mainstream augmented reality games, boasting 166 million users and over a billion dollars in revenue last year. Taking inspiration from the main series Pokémon games, Pokémon GO uses in-game incentives to encourage users to explore their surroundings, team up with other users to fight legendary beasts, and travel to places they’ve never been before.

Before the pandemic, this posed an accessibility issue — when certain tasks could only be completed by walking a certain distance, for example, it alienated users with physical conditions and disabilities that prevent them from easily taking a walk around the neighborhood. Plus, for players in wheelchairs, it might be impossible to access certain PokéStops and Gyms. It’s necessary to interact with these real-world landmarks to play the game to its fullest.

When much of the world entered lockdown March 2020, Pokémon Go doubled the size of the radius that players can be within to interact with a PokéStop or Gym, widening the radius from 40 meters to 80 meters. So, you could now be further away from a landmark but still reap its rewards. This made it easier for users to play from home, or play outside while social distancing — but it also made the game much more accessible. Plus, for a game that still gets a bad rep for causing traffic accidents, the increased radius helped pedestrian players access landmarks without brazenly jay-walking across the street (to be fair, it’s on users to make smart decisions while gaming in augmented reality — but, Niantic has responsibility here too). And for businesses that happened to be located in a prime location for raid battles, which require players to gather in-person within a Gym’s radius to defeat rare monsters, this meant that Pokémon players could maintain a respectful distance from store fronts while playing the game (later in the pandemic, it became possible to join raid battles remotely — this feature will remain in the game, probably because it proved profitable).

These pandemic incentives were always framed as temporary bonuses, but players embraced the changes — in 2020, Pokémon GO had its highest-earning year yet. Now, the increased landmark radius has been removed “as a test” in the U.S. and New Zealand.

“As we return to the outside world again, these changes are aimed at restoring the focus of Pokémon GO on movement and exploration in the real world,” the company wrote in a blog post. “These changes will be introduced slowly and carefully to make it more exciting to explore the world around you.”

One new incentive gives users 10x XP for visiting a new PokéStop for the first time (or, in real-world terms, visiting a new place). But as the Delta variant spreads in the U.S., players find these changes to be frustrating and misguided. Why roll back features that made the game more accessible while also netting the company more money?

The removal of double distance is nothing short of a slap in the face towards the #PokemonGO Community.

I’ll realistic and say I that I’ll quit GO if changes aren’t being made ASAP.

I REFUSE to cover a game that doesn’t have it’s player base in its best interest.

— REVERSAL – Pokémon GO (@REVERSALxPoGO) August 1, 2021

The Pokémon Go YouTuber, Reversal, who has created sponsored content for Niantic, wrote that he will quit the game if changes aren’t being made ASAP. Other players launched a petition with over 130,000 signatures to keep increased PokéStop and Gym interaction distance. Prominent Pokémon Go content creators like ZoëTwoDots and The Trainer Club have referenced a potential boycott of the game in videos they uploaded today, citing Niantic’s refusal to listen to community concerns after they announced the impending end of pandemic bonuses in June.

“I’m more than down to boycott the game with everyone if we’re vibing that,” ZoëTwoDots, who has also partnered with Niantic, told her 212,000 subscribers. “I know for myself personally, I’m just straight up not spending money in the game going forward until they address it publicly.”

My opinion on the Pokéstop radius hasn't changed. It was a clear quality of life change that was only fully realised because of a (ongoing) pandemic. It has provided accessibility to disabled players, safety to all players, and NEVER affected our enjoyment of exploration. https://t.co/DK1VWkw0ga

— ZoëTwoDots 🎀 (@_ZoeTwoDots) August 1, 2021

As the game celebrates its five year anniversary, the conflict it now faces isn’t about players wishing for the game to be easier. Rather, this represents a failure by Niantic to listen to its user base, prioritize accessibility, and incentivize users to stay home as COVID-19 cases rise again in the U.S.

Rocket Lab returns to flight after failed May mission with successful launch for US Space Force

By Darrell Etherington

Rocket Lab is back in business launching rockets after an issue during its last launch in May caused a total loss of the payloads on board. The company was quick to investigate the issue and announced just over a week ago that it had completed that work, identified the problem and implemented corrective action to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

The launch today, which took off from the company’s Launch Complex 1 in New Zealand, was an important one to get right: It delivered a satellite for the U.S. Space Force to low Earth orbit. This is the second Space Force mission that Rocket Lab has provided launch services for.

On board the Electron launch vehicle for this mission was a demonstration satellite called Monolith, which is equipped with a new kind of deployable sensor that could, if it works as designed, pave the way for significantly smaller satellite buses in future spacecraft designs for things like weather and observation satellites.

This turnaround after a failed launch and loss of client payload is another benefit of Rocket Lab’s ability to quickly turn around rockets and missions. It’ll definitely be under increased scrutiny for a little while, however, considering that this latest mishap was the second anomaly to result in mission failure in just under a year.

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