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Google refreshes its mobile search experience

By Frederic Lardinois

Google today announced a subtle but welcome refresh of its mobile search experience. The idea here is to provide easier to read search results and a more modern look with a simpler, edge-to-edge design.

From what we’ve seen so far, this is not a radically different look, but the rounded and slightly shaded boxes around individual search results have been replaced with straight lines, for example, while in other places, Google has specifically added more roundness. You’ll find changes to the circles around the search bar and some tweaks to the Google logo. “We believe it feels more approachable, friendly, and human,” a Google spokesperson told me. There’s a bit more whitespace in places, too, as well as new splashes of color that are meant to help separate and emphasize certain parts of the page.

Image Credits: Google

“Rethinking the visual design for something like Search is really complex,” Google designer Aileen Cheng said in today’s announcement. “That’s especially true given how much Google Search has evolved. We’re not just organizing the web’s information, but all the world’s information. We started with organizing web pages, but now there’s so much diversity in the types of content and information we have to help make sense of.”

Image Credits: Google

Google is also extending its use of the Google Sans font, which you are probably already quite familiar with thanks to its use in Gmail and Android. “Bringing consistency to when and how we use fonts in Search was important, too, which also helps people parse information more efficiently,” Aileen writes.

In many ways, today’s refresh is a continuation of the work Google did with its mobile search refresh in 2019. At that time, the emphasis, too, was on making it easier for users to scan down the page by adding site icons and other new visual elements to the page. The work of making search results pages more readable is clearly never done.

For the most part, though, comparing the new and old design, the changes are small. This isn’t some major redesign but we’re talking about minor tweaks that the designers surely obsessed over but that the users may not even really notice. Now if Google had made it significantly easier to distinguish ads from the content you are actually looking for, that would’ve been something.

Image Credits: Google

Decrypted: With more SolarWinds fallout, Biden picks his cybersecurity team

By Zack Whittaker

All change in the capital as the Biden administration takes charge, and thankfully without a hitch (or violence) after the attempted insurrection two weeks earlier.

In this week’s Decrypted, we look at the ongoing fallout from the SolarWinds breach and who the incoming president wants to lead the path to recovery. Plus, the news in brief.


THE BIG PICTURE

Google says SolarWinds exposure “limited,” more breaches confirmed

The cyberattack against SolarWinds, an ongoing espionage campaign already blamed on Russia, claimed the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as another federal victim this week. The attack also hit cybersecurity company Malwarebytes, the company’s chief executive confirmed. Marcin Kleczynski said in a blog post that attackers gained access to a “limited” number of internal company emails. It was the same attackers as SolarWinds but using a different intrusion route. It’s now the third security company known to have been targeted by the same Russian hackers after a successful intrusion at FireEye and an unsuccessful attempt at CrowdStrike.

Today, I disclosed publicly that @Malwarebytes had been targeted by the same nation state actor that attacked SolarWinds. This attack is much broader than SolarWinds and I expect more companies will come forward soon.

— Marcin Kleczynski (@mkleczynski) January 19, 2021

Watch Blue Origin launch a rocket with an upgraded crew capsule live

By Darrell Etherington

Blue Origin is launching its New Shepard suborbital rocket for the first time in 2021, with a liftoff planned for 9:45 AM CST (10:45 AM EST/7:45 AM PST) [Update: Now targeting 10:57 AM CST (11:57 AM EST/8:57 AM PST)] from its launch facility in West Texas. This is the 14th flight of New Shepard, and it includes some key testing activities for Blue Origin in preparation for its first human spaceflight missions.

The company has been flying a crew capsule on board its rocket for quite a while now, albeit empty (or rather, loaded with scientific and other cargo, rather than people). This version includes some key systems that will be used when astronauts are inside, however, including communications systems, and cabin environment regulation technologies that will make the trip for private spacefarers more comfortable and safe.

Blue Origin has had 13 previous successful New Shepard launches, so one can reasonably expect things to go well today. But the company’s focus on that crew cabin and gathering data around systems crucial to human spaceflight is an exciting indicator that people could be on board that spacecraft sooner rather than later.

The stream above will begin 30 minutes before the liftoff time, so at around 10:15 AM EST/7:15 AM PST.

Snapchat permanently bans President Trump’s account

By Lucas Matney

Quite a bit has happened since Snapchat announced last week that it was indefinitely locking President Trump’s Snapchat account. After temporary bans from his Facebook, Instagram and YouTube accounts as well as a permanent ban from Twitter, Snap has decided that it will also be making its ban of the President’s Snapchat account permanent.

Thought Trump’s social media preferences as a user are clear, Snapchat gave the Trump campaign a particularly effective platform to target young users who are active on the service. A permanent ban will undoubtedly complicate his future business and political ambitions as he finds himself removed from most mainstream social platforms.

Snap says it made the decision in light of repeated attempted violations of the company’s community guidelines that had been made over the past several months by the President’s account.

“Last week we announced an indefinite suspension of President Trump’s Snapchat account, and have been assessing what long term action is in the best interest of our Snapchat community. In the interest of public safety, and based on his attempts to spread misinformation, hate speech, and incite violence, which are clear violations of our guidelines, we have made the decision to permanently terminate his account,” a Snap spokesperson told TechCrunch.

Snap’s decision to permanently ban the President was first reported by Axios.

App stores saw record 218 billion downloads in 2020, consumer spend of $143 billion

By Sarah Perez

Mobile adoption continued to grow in 2020, in part due to the market forces of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to App Annie’s annual “State of Mobile” industry report, mobile app downloads grew by 7% year-over-year to a record 218 billion in 2020. Meanwhile, consumer spending grew by 20% to also hit a new milestone of $143 billion, led by markets that included China, the United States, Japan, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

Consumers also spent 3.5 trillion minutes using apps on Android devices alone, the report found.

In another shift, app usage in the U.S. surged ahead of the time spent watching live TV. Currently, the average American watches 3.7 hours of live TV per day, but now spends four hours on their mobile device.

The increase in time spent is a trend that’s not unique to the U.S., but can be seen across several other countries, including both developing mobile markets like Indonesia, Brazil and India, as well as places like China, Japan, South Korea, the U.K., Germany, France and others.

The trend isn’t isolated to any one demographic, either, but is seen across age groups. In the U.S., for example, Gen Z, millennials and Gen X/Baby Boomers spent 16%, 18% and 30% more time in their most-used apps year-over-year, respectively. However, what those favorite apps looked like was very different.

For Gen Z in the U.S., top apps on Android phones included Snapchat, Twitch, TikTok, Roblox and Spotify.

Millennials favored Discord, LinkedIn, PayPal, Pandora and Amazon Music.

And Gen X/Baby Boomers used Ring, Nextdoor, The Weather Channel, Kindle and ColorNote Notepad Notes.

The pandemic didn’t necessarily change how consumers were using apps in 2020, but rather accelerated mobile adoption by two to three years’ time, the report found.

Investors were also eager to fuel mobile businesses as a result, pouring $73 billion in capital into mobile companies — a figure that’s up 27% year-over-year. According to Crunchbase data, 26% of total global funding dollars in 2020 went to businesses that included a mobile solution.

From 2016 to 2020, global funding to mobile technology companies more than doubled compared with the previous five years, and was led by financial services, transportation, commerce and shopping.

Mobile gaming adoption also continued to grow in 2020. Casual games dominated the market in terms of downloads (78%), but Core games accounted for 66% of games’ consumer spend and 55% of the time spent.

With many stuck inside due to COVID-19 lockdowns and quarantines, mobile games that offered social interaction boomed. Among Us, for example, became a breakout game in several markets in 2020, including the U.S.

Other app categories saw sizable increases over the past year, as well.

Time spent in Finance apps in 2020 was up 45% worldwide, outside of China, and participation in the stock market grew 55% on mobile, thanks to apps like Robinhood in the U.S. and others worldwide, that democratized investing and trading.

TikTok had a big year, too.

The app saw incredible 325% year-over-year growth, despite a ban in India, and ranked in the top five apps by time spent. The average monthly time spent per user also grew faster than nearly every other app analyzed, including 65% in the U.S. and 80% in the U.K., surpassing Facebook. TikTok is now on track to hit 1.2 billion active users in 2021, App Annie forecasts.

Other video services boomed in 2020, thanks to a combination of new market entrants and a lot of time spent at home. Consumers spent 40% more hours streaming on mobile devices, with time spent in streaming apps peaking in the second quarter in the west as the pandemic forced people inside.

YouTube benefitted from this trend, as it became the No. 1 streaming app by time spent among all markets analyzed except China. The time spent in YouTube is up to 6x that of the next closet app at 38 hours per month.

Of course, another big story for 2020 was the rise of e-commerce amid the pandemic. This made the past year the biggest ever for mobile shopping, with an over 30% increase in time spent in Shopping apps, as measured on Android phones outside of China.

Mobile commerce, however, looked less traditional in 2020.

Social shopping was a big trend, with global downloads of Pinterest and Instagram growing 50% and 20% year-over-year, respectively.

Livestreaming shopping grew, too, led by China. Downloads of live shopping TaoBao Live in China, Grip in South Korea and NTWRK in the U.S. grew 100%, 245% and 85%, respectively. NTWRK doubled in size last year, and now others are entering the space as well — including TikTok, to some extent.

The pandemic also prompted increased usage of mobile ordering apps. In the U.S., Argentina, the U.K., Indonesia and Russia, the app grew by 60%, 65%, 70%, 80% and 105%, respectively, in Q4.

Business apps, like Zoom and Google Meet among others, grew 275% in Q4, for example, as remote work and sometimes school, continued.

The analysis additionally included lists of the top apps by downloads, spending and monthly active users (MAUs).

Although TikTok had been topping year-end charts, Facebook continued to beat it in terms of MAUs. Facebook-owned apps controlled the top charts by MAUs, with Facebook at No. 1 followed by WhatsApp, Messenger and Instagram.

TikTok, however, had more downloads than Facebook and ranked No. 2 by consumer spending, behind Tinder.

The full report is available only as an online interactive experience this year, not a download. The report largely uses data from both the iOS App Store and Google Play, except where otherwise noted.

Scraped Parler data is a metadata gold mine

By Zack Whittaker

Embattled social media platform Parler is offline after Apple, Google and Amazon pulled the plug on the site after the violent riot at the U.S. Capitol last week that left five people dead.

But while the site is gone (for now), millions of posts published to the site since the riot are not.

A lone hacker scraped millions of posts, videos and photos published to the site after the riot but before the site went offline on Monday, preserving a huge trove of potential evidence for law enforcement investigating the attempted insurrection by many who allegedly used the platform to plan and coordinate the breach of the Capitol.

The hacker and internet archivist, who goes by the online handle @donk_enby, scraped the social network and uploaded copies to the Internet Archive, which hosts old and historical versions of web pages.

In a tweet, @donk_enby said she scraped data from Parler that included deleted and private posts, and the videos contained “all associated metadata.”

metadata such as https://t.co/f5y6AzZ3km pic.twitter.com/95cXeCbZo6

— crash override (@donk_enby) January 10, 2021

Metadata is information about a file — such as when it was made and on what device. This information is usually embedded in the file itself. The scraped videos from Parler appear to also include the precise location data of where the videos were taken. That metadata could be a gold mine of evidence for authorities investigating the Capitol riot, which may tie some rioters to their Parler accounts or help police unmask rioters based on their location data.

Most web services remove metadata when you upload your photos and videos, but Parler apparently didn’t.

Parler quickly became the social network of choice after President Trump was deplatformed from Twitter and Facebook for inciting the riot on January 6. But the tech giants said Parler violated their rules by not having a content moderation policy — which is what drew many users to the site.

Many of the posts made calls to “burn down [Washington] D.C.,” while others called for violence and the execution of Vice President Mike Pence.

Already several rioters have been arrested and charged with breaking into the Capitol building. Many of the rioters weren’t wearing masks (the pandemic notwithstanding), making it easier for them to be identified. But thanks to Parler’s own security blunder, many more could soon face an unwelcome knock at the door.

Parler jumps to No. 1 on App Store after Facebook and Twitter ban Trump

By Jonathan Shieber

Users are surging on small, conservative, social media platforms after President Donald Trump’s ban from the world’s largest social networks, even as those platforms are seeing access throttled by the app marketplaces of tech’s biggest players.

The social network, Parler, a network that mimics Twitter, is now the number one app in Apple’s app store and Gab, another conservative-backed service, claimed that it was seeing an explosion in the number of signups to its web-based platform as well.

Parler’s ballooning user base comes at a potentially perilous time for the company. It has already been removed from Google’s Play store and Apple is considering suspending the social media app as well if it does not add some content moderation features.

Both Parler and Gab have billed themselves as havens for free speech, with what’s perhaps the most lax content moderation online. In the past the two companies have left up content posted by an alleged Russian disinformation campaign, and allow users to traffic in conspiracy theories that other social media platforms have shut down.

The expectation with these services is that users on the platforms are in charge of muting and blocking trolls or offensive content, but, by their nature, those who join these platforms will generally find themselves among like-minded users.

Their user counts might be surging, but would-be adopters may soon have a hard time finding the services.

On Friday night, Google said that it would be removing Parler from their Play Store immediately — suspending the app until the developers committed to a moderation and enforcement policy that could handle objectionable content on the platform.

In a statement to TechCrunch, a Google spokesperson said:

“In order to protect user safety on Google Play, our longstanding policies require that apps displaying user-generated content have moderation policies and enforcement that removes egregious content like posts that incite violence. All developers agree to these terms and we have reminded Parler of this clear policy in recent months. We’re aware of continued posting in the Parler app that seeks to incite ongoing violence in the US. We recognize that there can be reasonable debate about content policies and that it can be difficult for apps to immediately remove all violative content, but for us to distribute an app through Google Play, we do require that apps implement robust moderation for egregious content. In light of this ongoing and urgent public safety threat, we are suspending the app’s listings from the Play Store until it addresses these issues.“

On Friday, Buzzfeed News reported that Parler had received a letter from Apple informing them that the app would be removed from the App Store within 24 hours unless the company submitted an update with a moderation improvement plan. Parler CEO John Matze confirmed the action from Apple in a post on his Parler account where he posted a screenshot of the notification from Apple.

“We want to be clear that Parler is in fact responsible for all the user generated content present on your service and for ensuring that this content meets App Store requirements for the safety and protection of our users,” text from the screenshot reads. “We won’t distribute apps that present dangerous and harmful content.

Parler is backed by the conservative billionaire heiress Rebekah Mercer, according to a November report in The Wall Street Journal. Founded in 2018, the service has experienced spikes in user adoption with every clash between more social media companies and the outgoing President Trump. In November, Parler boasted some 10 million users, according to the Journal.

Users like Fox Business anchor Maria Bartiromo and the conservative talk show host Dan Bongino, a wildly popular figure on Facebook who is also an investor in Parler, have joined the platform. In the Journal article Bongino called the company “a collective middle finger to the tech tyrants.”

It’s worth noting that Parler and Gab aren’t the only companies to see users numbers soar after the Trump bans. MeWe Network, OANN, Newsmax and Rumble have also seen adoption soar, according to data from the analytics company Apptopia.

The company noted that Parler was the #1 app on the iOS app store for two days surging from 18th on Thursday and 592 on Wednesday. Overall, the app was the 10th most downloaded social media app in 2020 with 8.1 million new installs.

“It is an event driven app though,” a company analyst noted. “After events like the election, BLM protests, Twitter first applying labels to Trump’s Tweets, we see bursts of downloads and usage but it will then drop off.”

Sarah Perez and Lucas Matney contributed additional reporting to this article. 

 

President Trump responds to Twitter account ban in tweet storm from @POTUS account

By Lucas Matney

After Twitter took the major step Friday of permanently banning President Trump’s @realdonaldtrump Twitter account, the President aimed to get the last word in through his government account @POTUS which has a fraction of the Twitter followers but still offered the President a megaphone on the service to send out a few last tweets.

The tweets were deleted within minutes by Twitter which does not allow banned individuals to circumvent a full ban by tweeting under alternate accounts.

In screenshots captured by TechCrunch, Trump responds to the account ban by accusing Twitter employees of conspiring with his political opponents. “As I have been saying for a long time, Twitter has gone further and further in banning free speech, and tonight, Twitter employees have coordinated with the Democrats and Radical Left in removing my account from their platform, to silence me — and YOU, the 75,000,000 great patriots who voted for me.”

The President’s rant further contends that he will soon be joining a new platform or starting his own. Many contended Trump would join right wing social media site Parler following the ban, though Friday afternoon the site was removed from the Google Play Store with the company saying Apple had threatened to suspend them as well.

“We have been negotiating with various other sites, and will have a big announcement soon, while we also look at the possibilities of building out our own platform in the near future,” other tweets from the @POTUS account read in part.

The same messages were later tweeted from the President’s @Teamtrump campaign account, which Twitter subsequently suspended.

In a statement to TechCrunch, A Twitter spokesperson wrote, “As we’ve said, using another account to try to evade a suspension is against our rules. We have taken steps to enforce this with regard to recent Tweets from the @POTUS account. For government accounts, such as @POTUS and @WhiteHouse, we will not suspend those accounts permanently but will take action to limit their use.”

Holographic startup Envisics partners with Panasonic to fast-track in-car AR tech

By Kirsten Korosec

Envisics founder and CEO Dr. Jamieson Christmas launched the startup three years ago to “revolutionize” the in-car experience with its holographic technology. Now, it has a partner that could help it achieve that mission.

The U.K.-based holographic technology startup said Friday it reached an agreement with Panasonic Automotive Systems to jointly develop and commercialize a new generation of head-up displays for cars, trucks and SUVs. Panasonic Automotive Systems is a Tier 1 automotive supplier and a division of Panasonic Corporation of North America. The head-up displays are units integrated in the dash of a vehicle that project images onto the windshield to aid drivers with navigation and provide other alerts. The Panasonic HUDs, as they’re often called, will use Envisics holographic technology.

The deal, announced ahead of the virtual 2021 CES tech trade show, follows Envisics’ $50 million Series B funding round and news that its tech will be integrated in the upcoming Cadillac Lyriq electric vehicle. The funding round, which brought Envisics a valuation of more than $250 million, included investments from Hyundai Mobis, GM Ventures, SAIC Ventures and Van Tuyl Companies.

Envisics’ technology, the foundation of which came out of Christmas’ PhD studies at Cambridge University more than 15 years ago, electronically manipulates the speed of light. This process enables images to appear three-dimensional, Christmas explained in a recent interview. The company has secured more than 250 patents and has another 160 pending certification.

The company is solely focused upon the automotive application of holography, Christmas said, adding that its first generation is already integrated in more than 150,000 Jaguar Land Rover vehicles.

Christmas said this new agreement aims to combine Panasonic’s expertise in optical design and its global reach as a Tier 1 supplier with Envisics’ technology to bring holography into the mainstream. Mass production of vehicles using its technology is slated for 2023, according to the companies.

“This is very much about part of our business plan, you know the Series B funding round we undertook was about scaling the business and enabling us to move forward as we enter the market,” Christmas said. “Part of that was a commitment to engage in partnerships with Tier ones that we can then work with to deliver these products to market.

“This is the first of those agreements,” he added, suggesting that Envisics has a much larger aim.

What that means, Christmas said, will be head-up displays with high resolution, wide color gamut and large images that can be overlaid upon reality. The technology can also project information at multiple distances simultaneously.

“That really unlocks very interesting applications,” he said. “In the short term, it will be kind of relatively simple augmented reality applications like navigation, highlighting the lane you’re supposed to be in and some safety applications. But as you look forward into things like autonomous driving it unlocks a whole realm of other opportunities like entertainment and video conferencing.”

He added that it could even be used for night vision applications such as overlaying enhanced information upon a dark road to make it clear where the road is going and what obstacles might be out there.

Twitter will reinstate Trump’s account following his deletion of tweets

By Brian Heater

A Twitter spokesperson has confirmed with TechCrunch this morning that Trump has deleted three tweets that led to the temporarily suspension of this account last night.

Twitter locked the account pending deletion of the offending tweets on Wednesday following the riot and siege of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., and said that the suspension would remain in place so long as the tweets were not removed, and that any further violation of its rules could result in an actual permanent account suspension for Trump.

The President’s account is to remain locked 12 hours after his deletion of the tweets (seen below). While we don’t have exact timing on when the countdown started, he has yet to tweet from the account. The account also still bears the warning that, “this Tweet is no longer available because it violated the Twitter Rules.”

While Trump has previously enjoyed the benefit of a rule Twitter put in place that allowed a special exemption for content that would normally violate its terms of service, but that it would allow to remain in the interest of public access in cases where it comes from accounts with a significant public interest component, like Trump’s while he’s occupying the office of U.S. President.

The three tweets that finally proved a bridge too far for Twitter included a video posted by Trump that called for an end to the violence on Capitol Hill, but that also said “We love you, you’re very special” to the terrorists taking part in the action. The other two included statements that falsely suggested the legitimate results of the most recent U.S. presidential election were somehow fraudulent, including one that suggested the terrorist actions in Washington that resulted were somehow justified.

It’s worth noting that Twitter didn’t actually deleted the offending tweets; the company generally has a policy of removing tweets that violate its terms from public view, and notifying the offending account that they must be deleted by the account holder themselves in order to re-instate the ability to actively use the account.

While Trump does not have access to his own official Twitter account, his deputy chief of staff Dan Scavino posted a statement early Thursday morning about the Electoral Certification process, which was completed in the early hours. The statement again included inciting language falsely disputing the election results, but remains available and untouched by any of Twitter’s flagging measures.

Until this week, most anticipated that Trump would continue to enjoy protections that come with his political status. Yesterday’s move marked a shift for Twitter, but there remains a major question around his status in the remaining two weeks of his Presidential term. Facebook, meanwhile, has taken the opposite action, altogether banning Trump from its platform, for “at least the next two weeks.”

Trump’s ability to maintain his favorite platform will hinge on whether Twitter determines that he has crossed the line one final time.

 

Mark Zuckerberg announces Trump banned from Facebook and Instagram for ‘at least the next two weeks’

By Darrell Etherington

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced via his platform that Donald Trump will be blocked from using both Facebook and Instagram “for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.” The company blocked his accounts temporarily on Wednesday following Trump’s posting of content that incited his followers to violence, but now Zuckerberg says the ban is extended “indefinitely,” extending at least until Biden takes over as president.

Both Facebook and Instagram removed Trump’s video post yesterday, in which the president called for rioters who laid siege to the Capitol building in Washington to go home — but in which he also said “we love you” to the same violent terrorists. They followed that action with a 24-hour account lock, preventing Trump from posting via his Facebook and Instagram accounts during that period.

Zuckerberg acknowledges that Trump content has in the past been labeled or removed when found to violate its policies, but that he had been allowed up until now to “use our platform consistent with our own rules.” He says that has now changed, due to “use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.”

There’s a lot of careful, heavily PR’d language doing heavy lifting here — Zuck is careful to say that use until now has lined up with the platform’s rules in place, and not instead been an exception to them, and he’s also careful not to say Trump has directly incited violent insurrection in leaving an actor out of that particular sentence. Still, this is the strongest action by far from the platform to date to limit Trump’s access.

Facebook’s decision to suspend the president’s account, even temporarily, is a shocking reversal from its longstanding attitude toward the world leader. Of course, that leader only remains in power for a few more days. With Trump out on January 20, Facebook will be dealing with President-elect Joe Biden and a Congress and administration very interested in imposing regulations on its business.

Historically, Facebook has been very permissive of Trump’s bad behavior on the platform, perhaps most famously when it did nothing to the president’s account after he called for state violence against racial justice protesters. Trump’s phrasing, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” echoed the same statement famously made by a racist Miami police chief in the 1960s.

That situation alone plunged Facebook into internal turmoil, as employees pushed back against the company’s attitude toward Trump. Yesterday, BuzzFeed News reported that Facebook shut down internal conversations about the Trump supporters who staged an insurrection at the Capitol, freezing comment threads calling for Trump to be removed from the platform.

Throughout his administration, Facebook has gone out of its way to accommodate Trump’s use of the platform. In 2019, facing pressure to take a more principled stance, Mark Zuckerberg struck a defiant pose in a grand speech at Georgetown, doubling down on the idea that Facebook had no responsibility to remove dangerous political content.

“We can either stand for free expression… or we can decide the cost is simply too great,” Zuckerberg said. “We must continue to stand for free expression.”

Here’s the full post from Zuckerberg:

The shocking events of the last 24 hours clearly demonstrate that President Donald Trump intends to use his remaining time in office to undermine the peaceful and lawful transition of power to his elected successor, Joe Biden.

His decision to use his platform to condone rather than condemn the actions of his supporters at the Capitol building has rightly disturbed people in the US and around the world. We removed these statements yesterday because we judged that their effect — and likely their intent — would be to provoke further violence.

Following the certification of the election results by Congress, the priority for the whole country must now be to ensure that the remaining 13 days and the days after inauguration pass peacefully and in accordance with established democratic norms.

Over the last several years, we have allowed President Trump to use our platform consistent with our own rules, at times removing content or labeling his posts when they violate our policies. We did this because we believe that the public has a right to the broadest possible access to political speech, even controversial speech. But the current context is now fundamentally different, involving use of our platform to incite violent insurrection against a democratically elected government.

We believe the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great. Therefore, we are extending the block we have placed on his Facebook and Instagram accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks until the peaceful transition of power is complete.

And a post from Instagram lead Adam Mosseri:

Given the exceptional circumstances, and the fact that the President has decided to condone rather than condemn yesterday’s violence at the Capital, we are extending the block we have placed on his accounts indefinitely and for at least the next two weeks.

— Adam Mosseri 😷 (@mosseri) January 7, 2021

Meanwhile, Twitter on Thursday revealed that Trump has complied with its requirement to delete three offending tweets before reinstating access to his locked account on that platform — meaning Trump will regain access to his account 12 hours from the time of deletion, or later on Thursday.

Developing…

 

Google opens its Fuchsia operating system to outside developers

By Frederic Lardinois

For the longest time, Google’s new Fuchsia operating system remained a bit of a mystery — with little information in terms of the company’s plans for it, even as the team behind it brought the code to GitHub under a standard open-source license. These days, we know that it’s Google’s first attempt at developing a completely new kernel and general purpose operating system that promises to be more than just an experiment (or a retention project to keep senior engineers from jumping ship). For the most part, though, Google has remained pretty mum about the subject.

It seems like Google is ready to start talking about Fuchsia a bit more now. The company today announced that it is expanding the Fuchsia open-source community and opening it up to contributions from the public. Typically, companies start opening up their open-source projects to outside contributors once they feel they have achieved a stable foundation that others can build on.

“Starting today, we are expanding Fuchsia‘s open source model to make it easier for the public to engage with the project,” the team writes. “We have created new public mailing lists for project discussions, added a governance model to clarify how strategic decisions are made, and opened up the issue tracker for public contributors to see what’s being worked on. As an open source effort, we welcome high-quality, well-tested contributions from all. There is now a process to become a member to submit patches, or a committer with full write access.”

Google is also publishing a technical roadmap for Fuchsia, with a driver framework, file system performance and expanding the input pipeline for accessibility at the top of the list.

The company also specifically notes that Fuchsia is not ready for general product development or even as a development target. Anybody with the right technical chops can clone the repository and build the code, though. Google already provides quite a bit of documentation around how to do that today, as well as an emulator.

Google also notes that it aims to build an include open source community around the project. “Fuchsia is an open source project that is inclusive by design, from the architecture of the platform itself, to the open source community that we’re building. The project is still evolving rapidly, but the underlying principles and values of the system have remained relatively constant throughout the project.”

Cloudflare and Apple design a new privacy-friendly internet protocol

By Zack Whittaker

Engineers at Cloudflare and Apple say they’ve developed a new internet protocol that will shore up one of the biggest holes in internet privacy that many don’t know even exists. Dubbed Oblivious DNS-over-HTTPS, or ODoH for short, the new protocol makes it far more difficult for internet providers to know which websites you visit.

But first, a little bit about how the internet works.

Every time you go to visit a website, your browser uses a DNS resolver to convert web addresses to machine-readable IP addresses to locate where a web page is located on the internet. But this process is not encrypted, meaning that every time you load a website the DNS query is sent in the clear. That means the DNS resolver — which might be your internet provider unless you’ve changed it — knows which websites you visit. That’s not great for your privacy, especially since your internet provider can also sell your browsing history to advertisers.

Recent developments like DNS-over-HTTPS (or DoH) have added encryption to DNS queries, making it harder for attackers to hijack DNS queries and point victims to malicious websites instead of the real website you wanted to visit. But that still doesn’t stop the DNS resolvers from seeing which website you’re trying to visit.

Enter ODoH, which decouples DNS queries from the internet user, preventing the DNS resolver from knowing which sites you visit.

Here’s how it works: ODoH wraps a layer of encryption around the DNS query and passes it through a proxy server, which acts as a go-between the internet user and the website they want to visit. Because the DNS query is encrypted, the proxy can’t see what’s inside, but acts as a shield to prevent the DNS resolver from seeing who sent the query to begin with.

“What ODoH is meant to do is separate the information about who is making the query and what the query is,” said Nick Sullivan, Cloudflare’s head of research.

In other words, ODoH ensures that only the proxy knows the identity of the internet user and that the DNS resolver only knows the website being requested. Sullivan said that page loading times on ODoH are “practically indistinguishable” from DoH and shouldn’t cause any significant changes to browsing speed.

A key component of ODoH working properly is ensuring that the proxy and the DNS resolver never “collude,” in that the two are never controlled by the same entity, otherwise the “separation of knowledge is broken,” Sullivan said. That means having to rely on companies offering to run proxies.

Sullivan said a few partner organizations are already running proxies, allowing for early adopters to begin using the technology through Cloudflare’s existing 1.1.1.1 DNS resolver. But most will have to wait until ODoH is baked into browsers and operating systems before it can be used. That could take months or years, depending on how long it takes for ODoH to be certified as a standard by the Internet Engineering Task Force.

California’s CA Notify app to offer statewide exposure notification using Apple and Google’s framework

By Darrell Etherington

The state of California has now expanded access of its CA Notify app to all in the state, after originally deploying the app in a pilot program at UC Berkeley in November, which later expanded to other UC campuses. The statewide launch of the app, announced by California Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday, means that the tool based on Apple and Google’s exposure notification API will be available for download and opt-in use to anyone with a compatible iPhone or Android device as of this Thursday, December 10.

Apple and Google’s jointly-developed exposure notification API uses Bluetooth to determine contact between confirmed COVID-positive individuals and others, alerting users to potential exposure without storing or transmitting any data related to their identity or location. The system uses a randomized, rolling identifier to communicate possible exposure to other devices, and individual state health authorities can customize specific details like how close, and for how long individuals need to be in contact in order to quality as an exposure risk.

In the case of California, the state has set contact with a confirmed COVID-19 positive individual of within 6 feet, for a period of 15 minutes or more as meriting an exposure notification. Users who receive a positive COVID-19 test will get a text message from the Department of Public Health for the state that contains a code they input in the CA Notify app in order to trigger an alert broadcast to any phones that met the criteria above during the prior 14 days (the period during which the virus is transmissible).

As mentioned, there’s no personal information transmitted from a user’s device via the notification system, and it’s a fully opt-in arrangement. Other states have already deployed exposure notification apps based on the Apple/Google API, as have many other countries around the world. It’s not a replacement for a contact tracing system, in which healthcare professionals attempt to determine who a COVID-19 patient came in contact with to find out how they might have contracted the virus, and to whom they may spread it, but it is a valuable component of a comprehensive tracing program that can improve its efficacy and success.

NASA selects four companies for moon material collection as it seeks to set precedent on private sector outer space mining

By Darrell Etherington

NASA has selected the winning candidates that they’ve decided to tap to collect lunar resources for eventual Earth return. The four companies all have rides booked on future commercial lunar lander missions, and the agency is using this as a demonstration of what kinds of efficiencies it can realize by piggybacking on private industry for serving its needs. It is also a precedent-setting event for NASA paying private companies to retrieve materials that they retrieved and owned privately for their own purposes prior to transferring ownership to the agency.

The winning bids were evaluated based on two simple criteria: Basically, were they technically feasible, and how much did they cost. There were four winners, each with a different ride out, which will seek to satisfy the conditions of NASA’s request, which is basically to collect a lunar regolith (essentially what we call “soil” on the moon) in an amount ranging from between 50 grams to 500 grams, with retrieval to be handled separately by NASA at a later date. The samples had to be collected before 2024 as part of the request, which sets them up for potential retrieval via NASA’s Artemis mission series, though the agency isn’t necessarily going to actually pick up the samples, it reserves the option to do so.

The four companies selected are:

  • Lunar Outpost, from Golden, Colorado, which bid to complete the contract for just $1, following the arrival of the Blue Origin lunar lander in 2023.
  • ispace Japan, which asked for $5,000 for a retrieval via the landing of its Hakuto-R lander during its first mission currently set for 2022.
  • ispace Europe, a part of ispace Japan’s global corporate footprint, which bid for $5,000 and an arrival in 2023 on the second Hakuto-R mission.
  • Masten Space Systems, which asked for $15,000, with an arrival in 2023 using its Masten XL lander.

The agency received 22 proposals in total, between 16 and 17 companies. This was intentionally designed to help NASA demonstrate the advantages of its public-private partnerships approach, and to set precedents about how resource material collection can happen on extra-terrestrial bodies like the moon.

“With the commercial partnerships, this is setting a precedent internally as well as externally, relative to NASA continuing that paradigm,” said NASA’s Acting Associate Administrator for International and Interagency Relations Mike Gold. “Rather than pay for the development of the systems themselves, NASA is playing the role as customer.”

More specifically, these contracts also set precedents in terms of what private companies can do in terms of collecting material from the moon, and who has ownership of that material once collected.

“I’ve often said that the rocket science part, the engineering, sometimes that seems like the easy aspect when it comes to all of the policy issues, legal or financial challenges that we have,” Gold said. “It’s very important that we resolve any legal or regulatory questions in advance because we never want policy, or regulations to slow down or hinder incredible innovations in development that we’re seeing from both the public and the private sector. So we think it’s very important to establish the precedent that the private sector entities can extract, take these resources that NASA can purchase, and utilize them to fuel, not only NASA’s activities, but a whole new dynamic era of public and private development and exploration on the moon, and then eventually to Mars.”

Basically, NASA wants this to set a precedent that private companies can go to the moon, and eventually Mars, and mine material and retain ownership of said material for later distribution to both public and other private customers.

That’s part of the reason these bids are so low — companies like ispace and Lunar Outpost have future business models that involve significant potential planetary-body mining components. The other is that these lunar lander missions were already planned, and as NASA explicitly laid out in their request for proposals for this bid, the agency did not want to pay for any development costs for the mission of getting to the moon itself — just the actual collection.

The Pandemic Gives Us a Chance to Change How We Get Around

By Tom Vanderbilt
City transportation ecosystems are suddenly getting more diverse, creating an opportunity to (finally) rethink the car.

Google Maps takes on Facebook with launch of its own news feed

By Sarah Perez

People are getting frustrated that Stories are everywhere now, but Google Maps is keeping it old school. Instead of adding tiny circles to the top of the app’s screen, Google Maps is introducing its own news feed. Technically, Google calls its new feature the “Community Feed,” as it includes posts from a local area. However, it’s organized as any other news feed would be — a vertically scrollable feed with posts you can “Like” by tapping on a little thumbs up icon.

The feed, which is found with the Explore tab of the Google Maps app, is designed to make it easier to find the most recent news, updates, and recommendations from trusted local sources. This includes posts business owners create using Google My Business to alert customers to new deals, menu updates, and other offers. At launch, Google says the focus will be on highlighting posts from food and drink businesses.

For years, businesses have been able to make these sorts of posts using Google’s tools. But previously, users would have to specifically tap to follow the business’s profile in order to receive their updates.

Now, these same sort of posts will be surfaced to even those Google Maps users who didn’t take the additional step of following a particular business. This increased exposure has impacted the posts’ views, Google says. In early tests of Community Feed ahead of its public launch, Google found that businesses’ posts saw more than double the number of views than before the feed existed.

Image Credits: Google

In addition to posts from businesses, the new Community Feed will feature content posted by Google users you follow as well as recent reviews from Google’s Local Guides — the volunteer program where users share their knowledge about local places in order to earn perks, such as profile badges, early access to Google features, and more. Select publishers will participate in the Community Feed, too, including The Infatuation and other news sources from Google News, when relevant.

Much of the information found in the Community Feed was available elsewhere in Google Maps before today’s launch.

For example, the Google Maps’ Updates tab offered a similar feed that included businesses’ posts along with news, recommendations, stories, and other features designed to encourage discovery. Meanwhile, the Explore tab grouped businesses into thematic groupings (e.g. outdoor dining venues, cocktail bars, etc.) at the top of the screen, then allowed users to browse other lists and view area photos.

With the update, those groups of businesses by category will still sit at the top of the screen, but the rest of the tab is dedicated to the scrollable feed. This gives the tab a more distinct feel than it had before. It could even position Google to venture into video posts in the future, given the current popularity of TikTok-style  short-form video feeds that have now cloned by Instagram and Snapchat.

Image Credits: Google

Today, it’s a more standard feed, however. As you scroll down, you can tap “Like” on those posts you find interesting to help better inform your future recommendations. You can also tap “Follow” on businesses you want to hear more from, which will send their alerts to your Updates tab, as well. Thankfully, there aren’t comments.

Google hopes the change will encourage users to visit the app more often in order to find out what’s happening in their area — whether that’s a new post from a business or a review from another user detailing some fun local activity, like a day trip or new hiking spot, for example.

The feature can be used when traveling or researching other areas, too, as the “Community Feed” you see is designated not based on where you live or your current location, but rather where you’re looking on the map.

The feed is the latest in what’s been a series of updates designed to make Google Maps more of a Facebook rival. Over the past few years, Google Maps has added features that allowed users to follow businesses, much like Facebook does, as well as message those businesses directly in the app, similar to Messenger. Businesses, meanwhile, have been able to set up their own profile in Google Maps, where they could add a logo, cover photo, and pick short name — also a lot like Facebook Pages offer today.

With the launch of a news feed-style feature, Google’s attempt to copy Facebook is even more obvious.

Google says the feature is rolling out globally on Google Maps for iOS and Android.

 

 

Google launches Android Enterprise Essentials, a mobile device management service for small businesses

By Sarah Perez

Google today introduced a new mobile management and security solution, Android Enterprise Essentials, which, despite its name, is actually aimed at small to medium-sized businesses. The company explains this solution leverages Google’s experience in building Android Enterprise device management and security tools for larger organizations in order to come up with a simpler solution for those businesses with smaller budgets.

The new service includes the basics in mobile device management, with features that allow smaller businesses to require their employees to use a lock screen and encryption to protect company data. It also prevents users from installing apps outside the Google Play Store via the Google Play Protect service, and allows businesses to remotely wipe all the company data from phones that are lost or stolen.

As Google explains, smaller companies often handle customer data on mobile devices, but many of today’s remote device management solutions are too complex for small business owners, and are often complicated to get up-and-running.

Android Enterprise Essentials attempts to make the overall setup process easier by eliminating the need to manually activate each device. And because the security policies are applied remotely, there’s nothing the employees themselves have to configure on their own phones. Instead, businesses that want to use the new solution will just buy Android devices from a reseller to hand out or ship to employees with policies already in place.

Though primarily aimed at smaller companies, Google notes the solution may work for select larger organizations that want to extend some basic protections to devices that don’t require more advanced management solutions. The new service can also help companies get started with securing their mobile device inventory, before they move up to more sophisticated solutions over time, including those from third-party vendors.

The company has been working to better position Android devices for use in workplace over the past several years, with programs like Android for Work, Android Enterprise Recommended, partnerships focused on ridding the Play Store of malware, advanced device protections for high-risk users, endpoint management solutions, and more.

Google says it will roll out Android Enterprise Essentials initially with distributors Synnex in the U.S. and Tech Data in the U.K. In the future, it will make the service available through additional resellers as it takes the solution global in early 2021. Google will also host an online launch event and demo in January for interested customers.

As e-bikes boom, FuroSystems raises its first venture funding round ahead of a new model launch

By Mike Butcher

With COVID-19 making commuters switch to bikes, and cities wanting cleaner air, the e-bike revolution is only just getting started. Further evidence of this is the news that today British e-bike manufacturer FuroSystems has closed its first institutional venture funding round of £750,000 with participation by TSP Ventures and European impact investment bank ClearlySo, as well as a number of angel investors.

Not unlike the ‘new wave’ of startup e-bike makers such as VanMoof and Cowboy, London-based FuroSystems is also bringing an interesting take on the e-bike concept. Key to its appeal is that its bikes are very light and can therefore be pedaled like normal bikes when not using the electric engine. Furthermore, their pricing is also highly competitive compared to conventional bikes.

Unlike many e-Bike makers, it also has a folding e-bike, the Furo X, whose carbon fiber frame makes it one of the lightest e-bikes in the world, weighing just 15kg. The high-density removable lithium-ion battery has a range of 55km. FuroSystems also makes a point of using industry-standard parts such as Shimano gears and hydraulic disk brakes, which makes it competitive with others such as Gocycle and Brompton.

These factors are helping to make them a hit amongst commuters.

As a result the company, which also makes electric scooters, says it has seen demand surge since the coronavirus lockdown, with year-on-year sales up fivefold. Unusually, the company says it has been profitable since it started, but this latest funding will be used to invest in R&D to create its next line of products.

CEO and co-founder Eliott Wertheimer, said in a statement: “We’re currently experiencing a once-in-a-century shift in transport, thanks to increasing awareness of the impact we are having on our environment along with a renewed desire to make healthier personal choices. Electric bikes and electric scooters are crucial to solving the mobility issues we see today, of congestion and pollution.”

Wertheimer added that part of the bike manufacturing is likely to be brought to Portugal in order to fulfill demand.

TSP Ventures CEO Chris Smith, commented: “The e-bike market has exploded in recent years with sales set to reach €10 billion by 2025 and FuroSystems is at the intersection of this burgeoning industry.”

The startup has also designed and manufactured the Fuze, a high-end e-scooter with over 800W of available peak power; double front and rear suspension; dual mechanical disc brakes; remote key lock and alarm system; reinforced inflatable pneumatic 10” wheels. The power and top-speed is able to be adjusted to comply with local regulations.

Upcoming will be the Aventa, an e-bike with aerospace-grade alloys; a boost system; hydraulic disk brakes; nine gears; high-performance clutch; integrated 504Wh battery; and the weight below 17kg. Prices for the Aventa will start at £1,399 and it will be available to pre-order from FuroSystems.com at the end of the month.

Founders Albert Nassar and Eliott Wertheimer met whilst studying mechanical and aerospace engineering respectively at the University of Bristol. Nassar went on to work with the autonomous drone inspection team at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory which later spun-out as Perceptual Robotics, whilst Wertheimer developed small nuclear batteries for tiny satellites in partnership with the European Space Agency and different UK universities. The pair reunited at Imperial College’s Business School in 2015, and created FuroSystems in 2017.

A bug meant Twitter Fleets could still be seen after they disappeared

By Zack Whittaker

Twitter is the latest social media site to allow users to experiment with posting disappearing content. Fleets, as Twitter calls them, allows its mobile users post short stories, like photos or videos with overlaying text, that are set to vanish after 24 hours.

But a bug meant that fleets weren’t deleting properly and could still be accessed long after 24 hours had expired. Details of the bug were posted in a series of tweets on Saturday, less than a week after the feature launched.

full disclosure: scraping fleets from public accounts without triggering the read notification

the endpoint is: https://t.co/332FH7TEmN

— cathode gay tube (@donk_enby) November 20, 2020

The bug effectively allowed anyone to access and download a user’s fleets without triggering a notification that the user’s fleet had been read and by whom. The implication is that this bug could be abused to archive a user’s fleets after they expire.

Using an app that’s designed to interact with Twitter’s back-end systems via its developer API. What returned was a list of fleets from the server. Each fleet had its own direct URL, which when opened in a browser would load the fleet as an image or a video. But even after the 24 hours elapsed, the server would still return links to fleets that had already disappeared from view in the Twitter app.

When reached, a Twitter spokesperson said a fix was on the way. “We’re aware of a bug accessible through a technical workaround where some Fleets media URLs may be accessible after 24 hours. We are working on a fix that should be rolled out shortly.”

Twitter acknowledged that the fix means that fleets should now expire properly, it said it won’t delete the fleet from its servers for up to 30 days — and that it may hold onto fleets for longer if they violate its rules. We checked that we could still load fleets from their direct URLs even after they expire.

Fleet with caution.

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