Reports raise video privacy concerns for Amazon-owned Ring

Amazon -owned smart doorbell maker Ring is facing claims that might give some smart home enthusiasts pause. Recent reports from The Intercept and The Information have accused the company of mishandling videos collected by its line of smart home devices, failing to inform users that their videos would be reviewed by humans and failing to protect the sensitive video footage itself with encryption.

In 2016, Ring moved some of its R&D operations to Ukraine as a cost saving move. According to the Intercept’s sources, that team had “unfettered access to a folder on Amazon’s S3 cloud storage service that contained every video created by every Ring camera around the world.” That group was also privy to a database that would allow anyone with access the ability to conduct a simple search to find videos linked to any Ring owner. At this time, the video files were unencrypted due to the “sense that encryption would make the company less valuable” expressed by leadership at the company.

At the same time the Ukraine team was allowed this access, Ring “executives and engineers” in the U.S. were allowed “unfiltered, round-the-clock live feeds from some customer cameras” even if that access was completely unnecessary for their work.

Ring reportedly leaned on its team in Ukraine, known as Ring Labs, to fill in the gaps for its troubled AI efforts. Those employees would comb through videos and manually tag objects in order to train software to one day be able to perform the recognition tasks. The videos included video from outside houses as well as video inside of them.

The company objected to the Intercept’s characterization of the situation, claiming that the training material was culled from public videos via a Ring app called Neighbors, a neighborhood watch app. It’s not clear that participants in the Neighbors app are aware that their videos are being reviewed manually by Ring’s “data operators” in Ukraine.

Ring provided the following statement to TechCrunch:

“We take the privacy and security of our customers’ personal information extremely seriously. In order to improve our service, we view and annotate certain Ring video recordings. These recordings are sourced exclusively from publicly shared Ring videos from the Neighbors app (in accordance with our terms of service), and from a small fraction of Ring users who have provided their explicit written consent to allow us to access and utilize their videos for such purposes. Ring employees do not have access to livestreams from Ring products.

We have strict policies in place for all our team members. We implement systems to restrict and audit access to information. We hold our team members to a high ethical standard and anyone in violation of our policies faces discipline, including termination and potential legal and criminal penalties. In addition, we have zero tolerance for abuse of our systems and if we find bad actors who have engaged in this behavior, we will take swift action against them.”

While it sounds like Ring may not have taken user privacy very seriously in the past, that attitude appears to have shifted upon the company’s acquisition by Amazon last year. The Information describes that scenario in reporting from December:

“After a visit by Amazon representatives to the Ukraine office in May, Amazon moved to restrict access to sensitive customer information, former employees said, requiring a digital key that could only be used from within the Kiev office.

But employees quickly found ways around the restriction. “We had to apply and get access. The Ukraine office wasn’t comfortable with this, so we found a workaround,” a former Kiev employee said. “Workers could then access the system from any computer, at home or anywhere.”

It’s impossible to know if Amazon is running a tight ship with Ring’s sensitive user data now, but it’s yet another reason to consider the privacy risks posed by smart home devices, particularly surveillance ones. Setting up an at-home panopticon might feel more secure, but know you might not be the only one keeping a watchful eye on your home.

DiscountMugs.com says four months of customer credit cards stolen by hackers

DiscountMugs.com, a large online custom mug and apparel store, had a four-month-long data breach just before the busy Christmas holiday season.

The company said in a letter to state attorneys general that hackers siphoned off credit card numbers from customers who made orders through its site between August 5 and November 16, 2018 using code injected on the company’s payments page.

The malicious card skimming code was removed from the site after it was discovered.

According to the letter, the hackers stole credit card numbers, the security code and expiration date, as well as names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses and ZIP codes — everything that someone might need to make fraudulent payments.

But the company didn’t say how many people were affected by the breach. It’s believed to be thousands of customers who made purchases through the site during the four-month period.

TechCrunch reached out to Sai Koppaka, chief executive of parent company Bel USA, who did not respond to a request for comment, nor did the company’s spokesperson. Emails sent to Comvest, a private equity firm and an investor in Bel USA, also went unreturned.

DiscountMugs.com might not be a household name, but it ranks in the top 10,000 sites in the U.S., according to Alexa, bringing in thousands of customers every day.

The company becomes the latest in a line of websites affected by credit card skimming code. The so-called Magecart group of hackers have targeted thousands of sites in the past few years, scraping credit card data when a customer enters their information at the checkout and silently sending it on to the hackers’ servers.

Other big-name companies were hit, including British Airways, Newegg and Ticketmaster.

MIT researchers are now 3D printing glass

While the thought of a machine that can squirt out endless ropes of molten glass is a bit frightening, the folks at MIT have just about perfected the process. In a paper published in 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing, researchers Chikara Inamura, Michael Stern, Daniel Lizardo, Peter Houk, and Neri Oxman describe a system for 3D printing glass that offers far more control over the hot material and the final product.

Their system, called G3DP2, “is a new AM platform for molten glass that combines digitally integrated three-zone thermal control system with four-axis motion control system, introducing industrial-scale production capabilities with enhanced production rate and reliability while ensuring product accuracy and repeatability, all previously unattainable for glass.”

The system uses a closed, heated box that holds the melted glass and another thermally controlled box where it prints the object. A moveable plate drops the object lower and lower as it is being printed and the print head moves above it. The system is interesting because it actually produces clear glass structures that can be used for decoration or building. The researchers take special care to control the glass extrusion system to ensure that it cools down and crystallizes without injecting impurities or structural problems.

“In the future, combining the advantages of this AM technology with the multitude of unique material properties of glass such as transparency, strength, and chemical stability, we may start to see new archetypes of multifunctional building blocks,” wrote the creators.

Looker snags $103 million investment on $1.6 billion valuation

Looker has been helping customers visualize and understand their data for seven years now and today it got a big reward, a $103 million Series E investment on a $1.6 billion valuation.

The round was led by Premji Invest with new investment from Cross Creek Advisors and participation from the company’s existing investors. With today’s investment Looker has raised $280.5 million, according the company.

In spite of the large valuation, Looker CEO Frank Bien really wasn’t in the mood to focus on that particular number, which he said was arbitrary, based on the economic conditions at the time of the funding round. He said having an executive team old enough to remember the dot-com bubble from the late 1990s and the crash of 2008, keeps them grounded when it comes to those kinds of figures

Instead, he preferred to concentrate on other numbers. He reported that the company has 1600 customers now and just crossed the $100 million revenue run rate, a significant milestone for any enterprise SaaS company. What’s more, Bien reports revenue is still growing 70 percent year over year, so there’s plenty of room to keep this going.

He said he took such a large round because there was interest and he believed that it was prudent to take the investment as they move deeper into enterprise markets. “To grow effectively into enterprise customers, you have to build more product, and you have to hire sales teams that take longer to activate. So you look to grow into that, and that’s what we’re going to use this financing for,” Bien told TechCrunch.

He said it’s highly likely that this is the last private fund-raising the company will undertake as it heads toward an IPO at some point in the future. “We would absolutely view this as our last round unless something drastic changed,” Bien told TechCrunch.

For now, he’s looking to build a mature company that is ready for the public markets whenever the time is right. That involves building internal processes of a public company even if they’re not there yet. “You create that maturity either way, and I think that’s what we’re doing. So when those markets look okay, you could look at that as another funding source,” he explained.

The company currently has around 600 employees. Bien indicated that they added 200 this year alone and expect to add additional headcount in 2019 as the business continues to grow and they can take advantage of this substantial cash infusion.

Insurance startup Bright Health raises $200M at ~$950M valuation

A flurry of digital-first insurers are betting they can surpass industry incumbents with a little help from technology and a lot of help from venture capitalists. The latest to land a massive check is Bright Health , a Minneapolis-headquartered provider of affordable individual, family and Medicare Advantage healthcare plans in Alabama, Tennessee.

Venture firms are making more hires – here’s what that means for entrepreneurs

There's an increase in the number of venture firms making new hires, and it's having a ripple effect on how entrepreneurs raise capital. A new report from compensation data firm J.Thelander Consulting shows that 80% of venture capital and private equity firms brought on new members in 2018, a 14% uptick from last year.

Gift Guide: The best gear for that friend who wants to start a podcast

Welcome to TechCrunch’s 2018 Holiday Gift Guide! Need more gift ideas? Check out our Gift Guide Hub.

“How do I start a podcast?”

As the producer of the TechCrunch podcast Equity, I get this question all the time. Fortunately, it’s easier than ever to get your voice out there, even on a shoestring budget.

As interest sky rockets, the barrier to entry is getting lower, with more microphones, gadgets and services hitting the market all the time. But unless you have an audio engineering degree, it can all be a bit overwhelming.

I’ve spent a lot of time researching, testing and breaking podcasting gear so you don’t have to. We all have that friend who always talks about starting their very own podcast. Want to help them (or you) get the ball rolling this holiday season? Here’s where I’d start.



Microphones

Never let the gear get in the way of getting your voice heard. First you’ll need a microphone. For better or worse, there are microphones in everything these days — and some of them are actually pretty decent. If all you have is your phone, your phone is all you need. Get that voice memo application out and hit record.

While the built-in microphone will do in a pinch, a few bucks can go a long way to improve the sound quality that you can capture with your phone. Pop on this Rode VideoMic Me ($50 on Amazon) and the audio captured by your phone will be greatly improved (pro tip: you’ll need a dongle if your phone, like many these days, doesn’t have a headphone jack.)

If you want those sexy ASMR sounds, though, you will have to invest in a bigger microphone.

In the mid-level range, the microphone I most often recommend is the Blue Yeti Pro ($250 on Amazon). It’s simple and sounds great, and is the closest thing to a plug-and-play solution that I have found. It supports both USB and XLR, which makes it way more flexible (and makes it play friendly with audio interfaces, which I’ll talk about next.) Blue Mics also sells a cheaper alternative with the non-pro Yeti ($130 on Amazon), the downside being that there’s no XLR support there.

If you are looking for something on the higher end, here at TC we run our podcasts off of four Neumann KMS 105 Handheld Condenser Microphones ($699 on Amazon). They sound amazing — but if you’re just getting started, it’s almost certainly not a big enough improvement from the Yeti to justify the price.


Audio Interfaces

Macs are unable to run two of the same USB mics at the same time. When you need more than one mic at one time, you’ll need an interface that lets you funnel and control multiple mics into one computer.

We use the Tascam US-4×4 4-Channel USB Audio Interface ($200 on Amazon). It’s simple and does its job well, handling up to 4 four mics at once. Tascam also sells a 2-mic version ($150 on Amazon) if you don’t need as many mics simultaneously — but at only $50 cheaper, you might want to spend the cash now for the sake of future flexibility.


Handheld devices

You can’t always be in the studio, but podcasting on-the-go can be a pain in the ass. Imagine having to lug around a bunch of mics and interfaces and tangled-up wires just to shoot an episode from the road.

One solution to this problem is to use a smaller recording device. Again, here, your phone works. But when I need higher fidelity when recording remotely, I tap one of the portable recorders put out by Zoom.

My go-to is the Zoom H4N ($220 on Amazon). This thing is an audio beast with the ability to capture stereo audio with the built-in microphones on the top in addition to being able to connect two external mics. I see a ton of reporters running around with this recorder.

Smaller and less robust than the H4N, but still able to capture that crisp juicy audio, is the Zoom H1N ($120 on Amazon). It doesn’t have the ability to connect external mics and can’t act as an audio interface like the more capable H4N — but for getting audio on the fly, this small package is what you are looking for.



Remote recording software

In addition to hardware, any fledgling podcaster will need some software to get the job done. A common situation that many podcasters come across is how to record an interview or conversation with multiple people when all of those people are in different locations.

Zencastr is essentially a conference call service that has a bunch of extra features specifically designed for podcasters. It records your audio and the audio of your guest locally. That greatly improves the audio quality of your guest, making sure their side of the conversation doesn’t sound like a Skype call. They have a free option (two guests, 8 hours of recording per month) to get you started, but $20 a month bumps you up to unlimited guests and unlimited recordings.

Another neat feature Zencastr offers is automatic post-production; just select the tracks from your recording session and in a few minutes Zencastr spits out a track that has perfectly leveled sound. Zencastr also allows you to input your intro music, sound effects or anything else you’ve got pre-recorded to cut down on the things you need to add in post-production. Zencastr is the only service out there that I have found that incorporates all these essentials — it’s not perfect, but it’s the best thing I’ve seen out there.

If you didn’t want to spend the money on a subscription service, you can always patchwork it together with Skype, the ECAMM recorder plug-in, Soundflower, and Linein. To explain how to rig all of these together would require a separate post that I hope to never write, but Googling those keywords should get you started.


Editing Software

Unless you’re a one take wonder, you’re going to need to get yourself some editing software. You might get away with posting raw audio at first, but eventually you’ll want to edit out those umms and uhhs and trim out any random background noise.

These editing programs can get complicated and expensive, and it’s easy to find yourself in the editing deep end. My suggestion? Start with the free stuff.

The first podcasts I ever edited were done on GarageBand. It was free and simple enough for me to learn quickly, with the catch that it’s Mac/iOS only. Another option for simple/free is Audacity. Unlike GarageBand, it’s available on Windows/Linux — and it does a lot more than you might expect from the price tag.

Once you reach the point where you find yourself needing to spend money, you have all sorts of options to pick from. Ask five editors what to use and each will give you a different answer. Most will just recommend the program that they learned on. The big three are Audition by Adobe, Pro Tools by Avid, and Logic Pro X by Apple. The first two have free trials, so start there and figure out what you like best.

Hosting

Where is your podcast going to live?

Before it can make it onto iTunes, your podcast needs to be hosted somewhere. There are many ways to do this from building your pod a website on services like Squarespace or Wix. Another option is to use to use the music / audio sharing service Soundcloud.

My favorite option for hosting is a service called Simplecast. Simplecast makes uploading and distributing your podcast… well, simple. For about 10 bucks a month Simplecast will host as many episodes as you can make, provides you with an RSS feed to submit to iTunes, and provides you with nifty perks like embeddedable players for social media.

But by far one of the best features of Simplecast is their analytics. They provide you with how many downloads each episode gets, where those downloads are coming from, and what service your audience is listening on (whether it be Pocketcast, Apple’s podcasting app, or the embedded player you just tweeted out).

I hope that helps you on your podcasting journey. Now get out there and start making content!

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