A family tracking app was leaking real-time location data

A popular family tracking app was leaking the real-time locations of more than 238,000 users for weeks after the developer left a server exposed without a password.

The app, Family Locator, built by Australia-based software house React Apps, allows families to track each other in real-time, such as spouses or parents wanting to know where their children are. It also lets users set up geofenced alerts to send a notification when a family member enters or leaves a certain location, such as school or work.

But the backend MongoDB database was left unprotected and accessible by anyone who knew where to look.

Sanyam Jain, a security researcher and a member of the GDI Foundation, found the database and reported the findings to TechCrunch.

Based on a review of the database, each account record contained a user’s name, email address, profile photo and their plaintext passwords. Each account also kept a record of their own and other family members’ real-time locations precise to just a few feet. Any user who had a geofence set up also had those coordinates stored in the database, along with what the user called them — such as “home” or “work.”

None of the data was encrypted.

TechCrunch verified the contents of the database by downloading the app and signing up using a dummy email address. Within seconds, our real-time location appeared as precise coordinates in the database.

We contacted one app user at random who, albeit surprised and startled by the findings, confirmed to TechCrunch that the coordinates found under their record were accurate. The Florida-based user, who did not want to be named, said that the database was the location of their business. The user also confirmed that a family member listed in the app was their child, a student at a nearby high school.

Several other records we reviewed also included the real-time locations of parents and their children.

TechCrunch spent a week trying to contact the developer, React Apps, to no avail. The company’s website had no contact information — nor did its bare-bones privacy policy. The website had a privacy-enabled hidden WHOIS record, masking the owner’s email address. We even bought the company’s business records from the Australian Securities & Investments Commission, only to learn the company owner’s name — Sandip Mann Singh — but no contact information. We sent several messages through the company’s feedback form, but received no acknowledgement.

On Friday, we asked Microsoft, which hosted the database on its Azure cloud, to contact the developer. Hours later, the database was finally pulled offline.

It’s not known precisely how long the database was exposed for. Singh still hasn’t acknowledged the data leak.

Shiok Meats takes the cultured meat revolution to the seafood aisle with plans for cultured shrimp

Rising consumer interest in alternative proteins and meat replacements has brought hundreds of millions of dollars to companies trying to grow or replace beef or chicken, but few companies have turned their attention to developing seafood alternatives.

Now Shiok Meats is looking to change that. The company has raised pre-seed financing from investors like AIM Partners, Boom Capital, and Bryan Bettencourt and is now part of the recent Y Combinator cohort presenting next week.

Co-founders Sandiya Shriram and Ka Yi Ling are both stem cell scientists working at Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research who decided to leave their cushy government posts for life in the fast lane of entrepreneurship. 

The two have set themselves a goal of creating a shrimp substitute that would be similar to what’s typically found in the freezer section of most grocery stores — and a minced shrimp-replacement for use in dumplings.

There’s a huge market for seafood across the globe, but especially in Asia and Southeast Asia where crustaceans are a huge part of the diet. Chinese consumers alone account for the consumption of some 3.6 million tons of crustaceans, according to a 2015 study from the Food and Agriculture Department of the United Nations .

Shrimp cultivation as it stands is also a pretty dirty business. The industry is constantly being criticized for poor working conditions, unsanitary farms, and ancillary environmental damage. A blockbuster report from the Associated Press revealed instances of modern slavery in the Thai seafood industry.

“We chose to start with shrimp because it’s an easier animal to deal with compared to crabs and lobsters,” says Shriram. But the company will be expanding its offerings over time to those higher-end crustaceans.

Right now, the focus is squarely on shrimp. The company’s early tests have proved successful and the company estimates that it can make a kilogram of shrimp meat for somewhere around $5,000.

While that may sound expensive, it’s still much less than many of the lab-grown meat companies are pending to produce their replacement beef.

“We’re still relatively low compared to the other clean meat companies, which are still at hundreds of thousands of dollars,” says Ling.

The company is looking to bring its first product to market in the next three-to-five years and will initially target the Asia-Pacific consumer.

That means initially selling into their home market of Singapore and expanding into Hong Kong, India and eventually, Australia.

 

Google has quietly added DuckDuckGo as a search engine option for Chrome users in ~60 markets

In an update to the chromium engine, which underpins Google’s popular Chrome browser, the search giant has quietly updated the lists of default search engines it offers per market — expanding the choice of search product users can pick from in markets around the world.

Most notably it’s expanded search engine lists to include pro-privacy rivals in more than 60 markets globally.

The changes, which appear to have been pushed out with the Chromium 73 stable release yesterday, come at a time when Google is facing rising privacy and antitrust scrutiny and accusations of market distorting behavior at home and abroad.

Many governments are now actively questioning how competition policy needs to be updated to rein in platform power and help smaller technology innovators get out from under the tech giant shadow.

But in a note about the changes to chromium’s default search engine lists on an Github instance, Google software engineer Orin Jaworski merely writes that the list of search engine references per country is being “completely replaced based on new usage statistics” from “recently collected data”.

Their choices appear to loosely line up with top four marketshare.

The greatest beneficiary of the update appears to be pro-privacy Google rival, DuckDuckGo, which is now being offered as an option in more than 60 markets, per the Github instance.

Previously DDG was not offered as an option at all.

Another pro-privacy search rivals, French search engine Qwant, has also been added as a new option — though only in its home market, France.

Whereas DDG has been added in Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Brunei, Bolivia, Brazil, Belize, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Germany, Denmark, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Faroe Islands, Finland, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Hungary, Indonesia, Ireland, India, Iceland, Italy, Jamaica, Kuwait, Lebanon, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Monaco, Moldova, Macedonia, Mexico, Nicaragua, Netherlands, Norway, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Poland, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Paraguay, Romania, Serbia, Sweden, Slovenia, Slovakia, El Salvador, Trinidad and Tobago, South Africa, Switzerland, UK, Uruguay, US and Venezuela.

“We’re glad that Google has recognized the importance of offering consumers a private search option,” DuckDuckGo founder Gabe Weinberg told us when approached for comment about the change.

DDG has been growing steadily for years — and has also recently taken outside investment to scale its efforts to capitalize on growing international appetite for pro-privacy products.

Interestingly, the chromium Github instance is dated December 2018 which appears to be around about the time when Google (finally) passed the Duck.com domain to DuckDuckGo, after holding onto the domain and pointing it to Google.com for years.

We asked Google for comment on the timing of the changes to search engine options in chromium. At the time of writing the search giant had not responded.

We’ve also reached out to Qwant for comment on being added as an option in its home market.

 

Boeing is moving to address potential issues in new 737s as Europe bans its plane

In the wake of the second fatal crash in six months involving Boeing 737 Max 8 airplanes, the European Aviation and Safety Administration is grounding the planes as Boeing said it was taking additional steps to address an issue that may have contributed to the crash.

On Sunday, a Boeing 737 Max 8 plane operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed just minutes after takeoff, killing all 157 on board the flight. Last October, a Lion Air flight departing from Jakarta crashed in similar circumstances, killing all 189 people on board. The plane involved was also a 737 Max 8.

Responding to the incidents, the European Union Aviation and Safety Administration has banned the plane from operating in European airspace.

Here’s the statement from the EASA:

Following the tragic accident of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 involving a Boeing 737 MAX 8, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is taking every step necessary to ensure the safety of passengers.

As a precautionary measure, EASA has published today an Airworthiness Directive, effective as of 19:00 UTC, suspending all flight operations of all Boeing Model 737-8 MAX and 737-9 MAX aeroplanes in Europe. In addition EASA has published a Safety Directive, effective as of 19:00 UTC, suspending all commercial flights performed by third-country operators into, within or out of the EU of the above mentioned models.

Meanwhile, Boeing has issued a statement saying that it has been developing a software update following the Lion Air crash. “This includes updates to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System flight control law, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training.”

Essentially, faulty sensors may have been to blame for the Lion Air crash. “The enhanced flight control law incorporates angle of attack (AOA) inputs, limits stabilizer trim commands in response to an erroneous angle of attack reading, and provides a limit to the stabilizer command in order to retain elevator authority,” Boeing said in a statement about its software update.

Essentially, the sensors think the plane is stalling and they apply an opposite remedial action which trims an airplane down, Flying Magazine columnist and small-plane pilot Peter Garrison tells me. It then takes enormous force from the pilots to hold the nose up, rendering them unable to address the problem, he adds.

“Once you are holding on to the controls for dear life you don’t have any hands left to correct the problem,” says Garrison. “You expect that confronted in an emergency the pilot will analyze what’s happening and act accordingly. Human beings don’t necessarily panic, but they lose their ability to reason clearly and to weigh alternative hypotheses when they are under basically what is a threat of death. Even though it may seem obvious that all you have to do is interrupt the autopilot, amazingly that may not occur to a pilot who is hundreds of feet off the ground and has to pull back on a control yoke with hundreds of pounds of force.”

According to Garrison, the blame on Boeing may be misplaced.

“People like to talk about this as the airplane is defective and they’re correcting it with software,” he says. “That’s all nonsense. Planes today are a mix of automatic systems — and by automatic I of course mean digital electronic systems and mechanical ones — and the natural aerodynamics of the airplane, and you can’t separate these.”

If Boeing had made any mistakes, Garrison believes it was in the company’s inability to adequately communicate the problem to pilots and get them ready for taking action in the event of a malfunction.

Even in perfectly designed systems, the transition from automated controls to manual manipulation is difficult to achieve, says Garrison. “It’s not that hard to understand that automation does not make a smooth interface with human control. There’s a break there and it’s a dangerous break,” he said.

Here’s an explanation from Business Insider over the latest thinking around the Lion Air crash that provides further detail.

At the heart of the controversy surrounding the 737 Max is MCAS, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. To fit the Max’s larger, more fuel-efficient engines, Boeing had to redesign the way it mounts engines on the 737. This change disrupted the plane’s center of gravity and caused the Max to have a tendency to tip its nose upward during flight, increasing the likelihood of a stall. MCAS is designed to automatically counteract that tendency and point the nose of the plane downward.

Initial reports from the Lion Air investigation, however, indicate that a faulty sensor reading may have triggered MCAS shortly after the flight took off. Observers fear that a similar thing may have happened in Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines flight.

“Boeing has been working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on development, planning and certification of the software enhancement, and it will be deployed across the 737 MAX fleet in the coming weeks,” the company said in a statement. “The update also incorporates feedback received from our customers.”

Boeing expects the update to be completed across its fleet by April.

In the interim, U.S. politicians have been pleading with the Federal Aviation Administration to take the same steps as countries from around the globe, including the entire European Union, China, Ethiopia, Australia, Singapore and Indonesia, as well as Norwegian Air, Aeromexico, Gol Airlines from Brazil, the South Korean airline, Easair, the South African airline, Comair and others.

No less an authority on aviation than President Donald Trump has also weighed in on the crashes and attendant controversy.

Setting aside the president’s calls to return aviation to the early part of the 20th century, several aviation administrations and airlines have grounded the Boeing 737 Max.

So the FAA is among the only civil aviation administrations in the world to keep the Boeing 737 Max 8 airborne.

“An FAA team is on-site with the NTSB in its investigation of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. We are collecting data and keeping in contact with international civil aviation authorities as information becomes available,” the FAA said in a statement yesterday. “The FAA continuously assesses and oversees the safety performance of U.S. commercial aircraft. If we identify an issue that affects safety, the FAA will take immediate and appropriate action.”

A spokesperson for the administration said there were no other statements from the administration available at this time.

Earlier today, politicians from both sides of the aisle — including the Republican Utah Senator Mitt Romney and Democratic Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren — pleaded with the FAA to reverse their decision, according to Politico.

“Today, immediately, the FAA needs to get these planes out of the sky,” Warren said Tuesday.

That’s not just the view of this columnist. It’s also the opinion of Ray LaHood, the former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, who grounded the 787 Dreamliner following fires in its lithium-ion battery packs in 2013.

“The flying public has to be assured that these planes are safe, and they don’t feel that way now,” LaHood told Bloomberg. “The Secretary of Transportation should announce today that these planes will be grounded until there is 100 percent assurance from Boeing that these planes are safe to fly, because unless they can give that assurance they’re not holding up their promise to be the top safety agency in the U.S.”

Such a move could be bad for Boeing. The 737 is Boeing’s most popular aircraft and the heart of the company’s fleet.

The company has been struggling to keep up with demand for its newest model of the 737, according to reports in The Seattle Times. And the new plane was Boeing’s best seller, keeping the stock buoyant.

A report from National Public Radio showed just how robust sales were for the new aircraft. It’s the fastest-selling plane that Boeing has ever produced. Expectations from executives were for the Max model to account for 90 percent of all 737 deliveries in 2019, according to a statement from the company’s chief financial officer, Gregory Smith, NPR reported.

Boeing stock is down nearly 6 percent in trading on the New York Stock Exchange.

Bike sharing pioneer Mobike is retreating to China

In a telling sign of the state of bike sharing, Mobike, a once red-hot startup that attracted billions in investment capital, is closing down all international operations and putting its sole focus on China.

On Friday, Mobike laid off its operations teams in APAC, which entailed more than 15 full-time employees and many more contractors and third-party agency staff across Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, India and Australia. Those affected were told the company will “ramp down” the regional business without being provided specific reasons for the rollback, five people familiar with the matter told TechCrunch.

These layoffs are a key step towards the eventual goal of closing Mobike’s international footprint since the Asia Pacific region accounts for the majority of its non-China business. More staff cuts are impending outside Asia that can include Europe and the Americans, according to two sources. Eventually, Mobike will only be operational in its native China, which accounts for the majority of its overall global business.

The change of strategy encapsulates the struggle that Chinese bike sharing companies have experienced over the past year. Mobike was arguably the most successful from the camp. Before it was ultimately bought by Chinese delivery giant Meituan for $2.7 billion 11 months ago, it had raised over $900 million from investors such as Tencent, Foxconn, Hillhouse Capital and Warburg Pincus as bike-sharing became the hot topic in 2017. Ultimately, though, Mobike wasn’t able to find a sustainable business model amid tough competition and tight financials.

mobike

Photo source: Mobike

Employees were taken aback by Friday’s announcement as they had been under the impression that Mobike’s prospects were bright and there had not been issues with salaries or other financial concerns. In Singapore, specifically, the bike app claims to be the top player and is working closely with the government to make the city-state greener.

“I was shocked. The business is doing well from my perspective,” one source told TechCrunch. “But just because one country does well doesn’t mean the whole region will survive. Mobike ran a lot of analysis on profits and losses in the [overseas] region and came to the conclusion that there is no way it would turn profitable.”

Things were rosier just a year ago. When Meituan, the one-stop app for neighborhood services in China, acquired Mobike, the buyout was widely seen as a triumph for the young startup as its Chinese peer Ofo suffered mounting financial pressures standing as an independent company. Ofo started to phase out its international operations last year and was reportedly preparing for bankruptcy recently.

Before long, Meituan also started to show its restraint over the mobility segment. In an effort to cut costs, the Hong Kong-listed firm focusing on food delivery and hotel booking announced it would pause expansions on dockless bikes and car-hailing. Its bike unit is also facing growing competition from Hellobike, which is Alibaba’s latest attempt to crack China’s two-wheel transport industry.

Despite the hurdles, Mobike’s APAC employees told TechCrunch that they had believed the overseas business would stick it out as they had generated “a lot of cost-saving and progresses” in recent months after being assigned to boost the company’s operational efficiency.

mobike 3

Photo source: Mobike

Those affected won’t have much time to ponder but feel “unbalanced” and “upset” about the company’s “one-sided” decision. TechCrunch understands that staff weren’t given a chance to negotiate and most will leave by mid-April with a limited number of “key” employees asked to stay until the “ramping down” is completed. Severance packages vary on people’s termination dates, while some employees received no compensation altogether as the notice had arrived before the 30-day period required by the contract.

Meituan’s decision to close down the regional business has also come as a risky move for the company. In Singapore, Mobike’s largest market outside China, bike-sharing companies are required to file an exit plan with the government before they pull the trigger. Mobike has not informed the Singapore Land Transport Authority of its layoff as of Friday, according to two sources, although it has been in talks with the transportation regulator regarding a potential shutdown. Mobike told employees to keep news of the job cuts private before it announces them officially to the LTA.

Meituan declined to comment for this story. The company is scheduled to report earnings on Monday which may shed more light on the situation.

Airbnb agrees to acquire last-minute hotel-booking app HotelTonight

As Airbnb gears up for its big leap into the public markets, it’s expanding its accommodations platform to include more than just treehouses and quirky homes.

Today, the company has confirmed its intent to acquire HotelTonight, the developer of a hotel-booking application that lets travelers arrange last-minute accommodations. The deal was previously reported by The Wall Street Journal, which wrote in January that negotiations for the transaction had “gone cold.”

Airbnb is expected to complete an initial public offering as soon as this year, though co-founder and chief executive officer Brian Chesky has refrained from revealing a specific timeline. Like Uber, which plans to become the ultimate transportation company, Airbnb’s long-term ambition is to build an end-to-end travel platform complete with home sharing, hotel booking, business travel arrangements, experiences and more.

Airbnb declined to disclose terms of its HotelTonight acquisition. Once the deal is complete, the HotelTonight app and website will continue to operate independently, with co-founder and CEO Sam Shank reporting to Airbnb’s president of homes, Greg Greeley.

“We started HotelTonight because we knew people wanted a better way to book an amazing hotel room on-demand, and we are excited to join forces with Airbnb to bring this service to guests around the world,” Shank said in a statement. “Together, HotelTonight and Airbnb can give guests more choices and the world’s best boutique and independent hotels a genuine partner to connect them with those guests.”

Founded in 2010, San Francisco-based HotelTonight garnered a valuation of $463 million with a $37 million Series E funding in 2017, according to PitchBook. In total, the startup has raised $131 million in venture capital funding from Accel and Battery Ventures, which have participated in nearly every funding round for HotelTonight. Other early investors include Forerunner Ventures and First Round Capital.

[gallery ids="1794066,1794068,1794069"]

Airbnb, for its part, was valued at $31 billion in 2017, with a $1 billion round. In January, Airbnb said it was profitable for the second consecutive year on an EBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization) basis.

HotelTonight offers discounts at hotels in the Americas, Europe and Australia. The company partners with hotels to offer un-sold rooms, catering to business travelers or those looking to make last-minute arrangements. The deal will make it easier for Airbnb users to book hotels without planning weeks or months in advance and will help Airbnb expand its community beyond short-term rental hosts and guests.

Airbnb introduced boutique hotels to its platform in early 2018 and has boasted its quick growth. In 2018, the business said it more than doubled the number of boutique hotels, bed and breakfasts, hostels and resorts available. Airbnb’s business travel unit, Airbnb for Work, also had quick success. Launched in 2014, it now accounts for 15 percent of bookings. In total, Airbnb offers some 5 million places to stay in 191 countries.

Airbnb is kicking off 2019 with an acquisitive streak. In January, the company acquired Danish startup Gaest, a provider of a marketplace-style platform for people to post and book venues for meetings and other work-related events. The company again declined to pinpoint the price, though given Gaest had raised just $3.5 million in equity funding, the deal pales in comparison to Airbnb’s HotelTonight acquisition.

2019 is stacking up to be a particularly busy year for unicorn IPOs, some of which were likely delayed by a weeks-long government shutdown at the start of the year. Lyft, which recently unveiled its S-1, is poised to be the first billion-dollar company to exit to the stock markets, followed by Uber, Slack and Pinterest. Will Airbnb nudge its way into that lineup? We’ll see.

Eargo raises $52M for virtually invisible, rechargeable hearing aids

Eargo wants to become the ultimate consumer hearing brand.

The company’s small and virtually invisible direct-to-consumer hearing aids, which come in an AirPods-style chargeable case, are designed to help destigmatize hearing loss. One month after revealing its newest product — the Eargo Neo ($2,550), which can be customized remotely via the case’s Bluetooth connectivity — the startup has closed a $52 million Series D, bringing its total raised to date to $135 million.

The latest round of capital comes from new investor Future Fund (Australia’s sovereign wealth fund) and existing investors NEA, the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, Nan Fung Life Sciences and Maveron. 

Headquartered in San Jose, Eargo, which counts 20,000 users, will use the cash to continuing crafting and innovating new products targeting baby boomers. The newly-launched Eargo Neo is the business’s third line of high-tech hearing aids. The first, Eargo Plus ($1,450), was released in 2017 and the Eargo Max ($2,510) was launched the following year.

“We can see that the product is really making a difference for users,” Eargo chief executive officer Christian Gormsen told TechCrunch. “We have the opportunity to really create a leading brand in the consumer hearing health space.”

Roughly 48 million Americans, or 20 percent of the population, suffer from hearing loss but, aside from some Medicare Advantage programs, insurance companies provide no reimbursement for hearing aids. Despite high price tags — this is expensive tech — Eargo’s priority is still to make its hearing aids as accessible as possible and to send a message that there’s nothing wrong with admitting to hearing loss.

“Getting a hearing aid feels like admitting a defeat like there’s something wrong with you but that’s not true, hearing loss is natural and happens,” Gormsen said. “The number one challenge for the entire industry is awareness. There is so little knowledge about hearing loss out there; it’s such a stigmatized category and how do you change that? The current channel doesn’t do anything to address it, the only way you can address it is through education and communication.”

“I think we’ve come far, but we are looking at 48 million Americans and we are still barely scratching the surface.”

 

Koala-sensing drone helps keep tabs on drop bear numbers

It’s obviously important to Australians to make sure their koala population is closely tracked — but how can you do so when the suckers live in forests and climb trees all the time? With drones and AI, of course.

A new project from Queensland University of Technology combines some well-known techniques in a new way to help keep an eye on wild populations of the famous and soft marsupials. They used a drone equipped with a heat-sensing camera, then ran the footage through a deep learning model trained to look for koala-like heat signatures.

It’s similar in some ways to an earlier project from QUT in which dugongs — endangered sea cows — were counted along the shore via aerial imagery and machine learning. But this is considerably harder.

A koala.

“A seal on a beach is a very different thing to a koala in a tree,” said study co-author Grant Hamilton in a news release, perhaps choosing not to use dugongs as an example because comparatively few know what one is.

“The complexity is part of the science here, which is really exciting,” he continued. “This is not just somebody counting animals with a drone, we’ve managed to do it in a very complex environment.”

The team sent their drone out in the early morning, when they expected to see the greatest contrast between the temperature of the air (cool) and tree-bound koalas (warm and furry). It traveled as if it was a lawnmower trimming the tops of the trees, collecting data from a large area.

Infrared image, left, and output of the neural network highlighting areas of interest.

This footage was then put through a deep learning system trained to recognize the size and intensity of the heat put out by a koala, while ignoring other objects and animals like cars and kangaroos.

For these initial tests, the accuracy of the system was checked by comparing the inferred koala locations with ground truth measurements provided by GPS units on some animals and radio tags on others. Turns out the system found about 86 percent of the koalas in a given area, considerably better than an “expert koala spotter,” who rates about a 70. Not only that, but it’s a whole lot quicker.

“We cover in a couple of hours what it would take a human all day to do,” Hamilton said. But it won’t replace human spotters or ground teams. “There are places that people can’t go and there are places that drones can’t go. There are advantages and downsides to each one of these techniques, and we need to figure out the best way to put them all together. Koalas are facing extinction in large areas, and so are many other species, and there is no silver bullet.”

Having tested the system in one area of Queensland, the team is now going to head out and try it in other areas of the coast. Other classifiers are planned to be added as well, so other endangered or invasive species can be identified with similar ease.

Their paper was published today in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Europe is prepared to rule over 5G cybersecurity

The European Commission’s digital commissioner has warned the mobile industry to expect it to act over security concerns attached to Chinese network equipment makers.

The Commission is considering a defacto ban on kit made by Chinese companies including Huawei in the face of security and espionage concerns, per Reuters.

Appearing on stage at the Mobile World Congress tradeshow in Barcelona today, Mariya Gabriel, European commissioner for digital economy and society, flagged network “cybersecurity” during her scheduled keynote, warning delegates it’s stating the obvious for her to say that “when 5G services become mission critical 5G networks need to be secure”.

Geopolitical concerns between the West and China are being accelerated and pushed to the fore as the era of 5G network upgrades approach, as well as by ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China over trade.

“I’m well away of the unrest among all of you key actors in the telecoms sectors caused by the ongoing discussions around the cybersecurity of 5G,” Gabriel continued, fleshing out the Commission’s current thinking. “Let me reassure you: The Commission takes your view very seriously. Because you need to run these systems everyday. Nobody is helped by premature decisions based on partial analysis of the facts.

“However it is also clear that Europe has to have a common approach to this challenge. And we need to bring it on the table soon. Otherwise there is a risk that fragmentation rises because of diverging decisions taken by Member States trying to protect themselves.”

“We all know that this fragmentation damages the digital single market. So therefore we are working on this important matter with priority. And to the Commission we will take steps soon,” she added.

The theme of this year’s show is “intelligent connectivity”; the notion that the incoming 5G networks will not only create links between people and (many, many more) things but understand the connections they’re making at a greater depth and resolution than has been possible before, leveraging the big data generated by many more connections to power automated decision-making in near real time, with low latency another touted 5G benefit (as well as many more connections per cell).

Futuristic scenarios being floated include connected cars neatly pulling to the sides of the road ahead of an ambulance rushing a patient to hospital — or indeed medical operations being aided and even directed remotely in real-time via 5G networks supporting high resolution real-time video streaming.

But for every touted benefit there are easy to envisage risks to network technology that’s being designed to connect everything all of the time — thereby creating a new and more powerful layer of critical infrastructure society will be relying upon.

Last fall the Australia government issued new security guidelines for 5G networks that essential block Chinese companies such as Huawei and ZTE from providing equipment to operators — justifying the move by saying that differences in the way 5G operates compared to previous network generations introduces new risks to national security.

New Zealand followed suit shortly after, saying kit from the Chinese companies posed a significant risk to national security.

While in the U.S. President Trump has made 5G network security a national security priority since 2017, and a bill was passed last fall banning Chinese companies from supplying certain components and services to government agencies.

The ban is due to take effect over two years but lawmakers have been pressuring to local carriers to drop 5G collaborations with companies such as Huawei.

In Europe the picture is so far more mixed. A UK government report last summer investigating Huawei’s broadband and mobile infrastructure raised further doubts, and last month Germany was reported to be mulling a 5G ban on the Chinese kit maker.

But more recently the two EU Member States have been reported to no longer be leaning towards a total ban — apparently believing any risk can be managed and mitigated by oversight and/or partial restrictions.

It remains to be seen how the Commission could step in to try to harmonize security actions taken by Member States around nascent 5G networks. But it appears prepared to set rules.

That said, Gabriel gave no hint of its thinking today, beyond repeating the Commission’s preferred position of less fragmentation, more harmonization to avoid collateral damage to its overarching Digital Single Market initiative — i.e. if Member States start fragmenting into a patchwork based on varying security concerns.

We’ve reached out to the Commission for further comment and will update this story with any additional context.

During the keynote she was careful to talk up the transformative potential of 5G connectivity while also saying innovation must work in lock-step with European “values”.

“Europe has to keep pace with other regions and early movers while making sure that its citizens and businesses benefit swiftly from the new infrastructures and the many applications that will be built on top of them,” she said.

“Digital is helping us and we need to reap its opportunities, mitigate its risks and make sure it is respectful of our values as much as driven by innovation. Innovation and values. Two key words. That is the vision we have delivered in terms of the defence for our citizens in Europe. Together we have decided to construct a Digital Single Market that reflects the values and principles upon which the European Union has been built.”

Her speech also focused on AI, with the commissioner highlighting various EC initiatives to invest in and support private sector investment in artificial intelligence — saying it’s targeting €20BN in “AI-directed investment” across the private and public sector by 2020, with the goal for the next decade being “to reach the same amount as an annual average” — and calling on the private sector to “contribute to ensure that Europe reaches the level of investment needed for it to become a world stage leader also in AI”.

But again she stressed the need for technology developments to be thoughtfully managed so they reflect the underlying society rather than negatively disrupting it. The goal should be what she dubbed “human-centric AI”.

“When we talk about AI and new technologies development for us Europeans it is not only about investing. It is mainly about shaping AI in a way that reflects our European values and principles. An ethical approach to AI is key to enable competitiveness — it will generate user trust and help facilitate its uptake,” she said.

“Trust is the key word. There is no other way. It is only by ensuring trustworthiness that Europe will position itself as a leader in cutting edge, secure and ethical AI. And that European citizens will enjoy AI’s benefits.”

Twitter names first international markets to get checks on political advertisers

Twitter has announced it’s expanding checks on political advertisers outside the U.S. to also cover Australia, India and all the member states of the European Union.

This means anyone wanting to run political ads on its platform in those regions will first need to go through its certification process to prove their identity and certify a local location via a verification letter process.

Enforcement of the policies will kick in in the three regions on March 11, Twitter said today in a blog post. “Political advertisers must apply now for certification and go through the every step of the process,” it warns.

The company’s ad guidelines, which were updated last year, are intended to make it harder for foreign entities to target elections by adding a requirement that political advertisers self-identify and certify they’re locally based.

A Twitter spokeswoman told us that advertiser identity requirements include providing a copy of a national ID, and for candidates and political parties specifically it requires an official copy of their registration and national election authority.

The company’s blog post does not explain why it’s selected the three international regions it has named for its first expansion of political checks outside the U.S. But they do all have elections upcoming in the next months.

Elections to the EU parliament take play in May, while India’s general elections are expected to take place in April and May. Australia is also due to hold a federal election by May 2019.

Twitter has been working on ad transparency since 2017, announcing the launch of a self-styled Advertising Transparency Center back in fall that year, following political scrutiny over the role social media platforms in spreading Kremlin-backed disinformation during the 2016 US presidential election. It went on to launch the center in June 2018.

It also announced updated guidelines for political advertisers in May 2018 which also came into effect last summer, ahead of the U.S. midterms.

The ad transparency hub lets anyone (not just Twitter users) see all ads running on its platform, including the content/creative; how long ads have been running; and any ads specifically targeted at them if they are a user. Ads can also be reported to Twitter as inappropriate via the Center.

Political/electioneering ads get a special section that also includes information on who’s paying for the ad, how much they’ve spent, impressions per tweet and demographic targeting.

Though initially the political transparency layer only covered U.S. ads. More than half a year on and Twitter is now preparing to expand the same system of checks to its first international regions.

In regions where it has implemented the checks, organizations buying political ads on its platform are also required to comply with a stricter set of rules for how they present their profiles to enforce a consistent look vis-a-vis how they present themselves online elsewhere — to try to avoid political advertisers trying to pass themselves off as something they’re not.

These consistency rules will apply to those wanting to run political ads in Europe, India and Australia from March. Twitter will also require political advertisers in the regions include a link to a website with valid contact info in their Twitter bio.

While those political advertisers with Twitter handles not related to their certified entity must also include a disclaimer in their bio stating the handle is “owned by”  the certified entity name.

The company’s move to expand political ad checks outside the U.S. is certainly welcome but it does highlight how piecemeal such policies remain with many more international regions with upcoming elections still lacking such checks — nor even a timeline to get them.

Including countries with very fragile democracies where political disinformation could be a hugely potent weapon.

Indonesia, which is a major market for Twitter, is due to hold a general election in April, for instance. The Philippines is also due to hold a general election in May. While Thailand has an election next month.

We asked Twitter whether it has any plans to roll out political ad checks in these three markets ahead of their key votes but the company declined to make a statement on why it had focused on the EU, Australia and India first.

A spokeswoman did tell us that it will be expanding the policy and enforcement globally in the future, though she would not provide a timeline for any further international expansion.