Brexit ad blitz data firm paid by Vote Leave broke privacy laws, watchdogs find

joint investigation by watchdogs in Canada and British Columbia has found that Cambridge Analytica-linked data firm, Aggregate IQ, broke privacy laws in Facebook ad-targeting work it undertook for the official Vote Leave Brexit campaign in the UK’s 2016 EU referendum.

A quick reminder: Vote Leave was the official leave campaign in the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. While Cambridge Analytica is the (now defunct) firm at the center of a massive Facebook data misuse scandal which has dented the company’s fortunes and continues to tarnish its reputation.

Vote Leave’s campaign director, Dominic Cummings — now a special advisor to the UK prime minister — wrote in 2017 that the winning recipe for the leave campaign was data science. And, more specifically, spending 98% of its marketing budget on “nearly a billion targeted digital adverts”.

Targeted at Facebook users.

The problem is, per the Canadian watchdogs’ conclusions, AIQ did not have proper legal consents from UK voters for disclosing their personal information to Facebook for the Brexit ad blitz which Cummings ordered.

Either for “the purpose of advertising to those individuals (via ‘custom audiences’) or for the purpose of analyzing their traits and characteristics in order to locate and target others like them (via ‘lookalike audiences’)”.

Oops.

Last year the UK’s Electoral Commission also concluded that Vote Leave breached election campaign spending limits by channeling money to AIQ to run the targeting political ads on Facebook’s platform, via undeclared joint working with another Brexit campaign, BeLeave. So there’s a full sandwich of legal wrongdoings stuck to the brexit mess that UK society remains mired in, more than three years later.

Meanwhile, the current UK General Election is now a digital petri dish for data scientists and democracy hackers to run wild experiments in microtargeted manipulation — given election laws haven’t been updated to take account of the outgrowth of the adtech industry’s tracking and targeting infrastructure, despite multiple warnings from watchdogs and parliamentarians.

Data really is helluva a drug.

The Canadian investigation cleared AIQ of any wrongdoing in its use of phone numbers to send SMS messages for another pro-Brexit campaign, BeLeave; a purpose the watchdogs found had been authorized by the consent provided by individuals who gave their information to that youth-focused campaign.

But they did find consent problems with work AIQ undertook for various US campaigns on behalf of Cambridge Analytica affiliate, SCL Elections — including for a political action committee, a presidential primary campaign and various campaigns in the 2014 midterm elections.

And, again — as we know — Facebook is squarely in the frame here too.

“The investigation finds that the personal information provided to and used by AIQ comes from disparate sources. This includes psychographic profiles derived from personal information Facebook disclosed to Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, and onward to Cambridge Analytica,” the watchdogs write.

“In the case of their work for US campaigns… AIQ did not attempt to determine whether there was consent it could rely on for its use and disclosure of personal information.”

The investigation also looked at AIQ’s work for multiple Canadian campaigns — finding fewer issues related to consent. Though the report states that in: “certain cases, the purposes for which individuals are informed, or could reasonably assume their personal information is being collected, do not extend to social media advertising and analytics”.

AIQ also gets told off for failing to properly secure the data it misused.

This element of the probe resulted from a data breach reported by UpGuard after it found AIQ running an unsecured GitLab repository — holding what the report dubs “substantial personal information”, as well as encryption keys and login credentials which it says put the personal information of 35 million+ people at risk.

Double oops.

“The investigation determined that AIQ failed to take reasonable security measures to ensure that personal information under its control was secure from unauthorized access or disclosure,” is the inexorable conclusion.

Turns out if an entity doesn’t have a proper legal right to people’s information in the first place it may not be majorly concerned about where else the data might end up.

The report flows from an investigation into allegations of unauthorized access and use of Facebook user profiles which was started by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner for BC in late 2017. A separate probe was opened by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada last year. The two watchdogs subsequently combined their efforts.

The upshot for AIQ from the joint investigation’s finding of multiple privacy and security violations is a series of, er, “recommendations”.

On the data use front it is suggested the company take “reasonable measures” to ensure any third-party consent it relies on for collection, use or disclosure of personal information on behalf of clients is “adequate” under the relevant Canadian and BC privacy laws.

“These measures should include both contractual measures and other measures, such as reviewing the consent language used by the client,” the watchdogs suggest. “Where the information is sensitive, as with political opinions, AIQ should ensure there is express consent, rather than implied.”

On security, the recommendations are similarly for it to “adopt and maintain reasonable security measures to protect personal information, and that it delete personal information that is no longer necessary for business or legal purposes”.

“During the investigation, AIQ took steps to remedy its security breach. AIQ has agreed to implement the Offices’ recommendations,” the report adds.

The upshot of political ‘data science’ for Western democracies? That’s still tbc. Buckle up.

Uber reports a sharp rise in government demands for user data

Uber says the number of legal demands for riders’ data made by U.S. and Canadian authorities has risen sharply in the past year.

The ride-hailing company said the number of law enforcement demands for user data during 2018 are up 27% on the year earlier, according to its annual transparency report published Wednesday. Uber said the rise in demands was partly due to its business growing in size, but also a “rising interest” from governments to access data on its customers.

Uber said it received 3,825 demands for 21,913 user accounts from the U.S. government, with the company turning over some data in 72% of cases, during 2018.

That’s up from 2,940 demands for 17,181 user accounts a year earlier, with a slightly higher compliance rate of 73%.

Canadian authorities submitted 161 demands for data on 593 user accounts during 2018.

Uber said that the rise in demands for customer data presents a challenge for the ride-hailing company, previously valued at $82 billion, which went public in May. “Our responsibility to preserve consumer privacy while meeting regulatory and public safety obligations will become increasingly complex and challenging as we field a growing number of government requests for data every year,” said Uttara Sivaram, Uber’s global privacy and security public policy chief.

The company also said it disclosed ride information on 34 million users to U.S. regulators and 1.8 million users to Canadian regulators, such as local taxi and transport authorities. Uber said it is mandated to give over the information to regulators as part of the “bespoke legal and regulatory requirements to which we are subject,” which can include pickup and drop-off locations, fares, and other data that may “identify individual riders,” the company said.

Uber isn’t the only company fielding a record number of demands from governments. Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Twitter have all reported a rise in government demands over the past year as their customer base continues to grow while governments become increasingly hungry for companies’ data.

But Uber’s figures only offer insight into only the largest portions of its businesses — its consumer and business ride-hailing services, food delivery, and electric scooters — and only covers the North America, despite operating in hundreds of cities around the world.

Despite the rise in overall law enforcement requests, Uber said it “has not received a national security request” to date.

Such disclosures are rare but not unheard of. Most national security demands, such as orders issued by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and FBI-issued subpoenas, are coupled with secrecy rules that prevent the companies from disclosing anything about the demand. By proactive posting these so-called “warrant canary” statements, companies can quietly reveal when they have received such orders by removing the statements from their websites.

Apple famously used a warrant canary in its first transparency report in the wake of the NSA surveillance scandal, as revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. In 2016, Reddit quietly removed its warrant canary suggesting it had received a classified order.

Although the First Amendment protects government-compelled speech, the legality of warrant canaries remain legally questionable.

Max Q: SpaceX starts building out its production Starlink constellation

There’s literally a lot more stuff in space than there was last week – or at least, the number of active human-made satellites in Earth’s orbit has gone up quite a bit, thanks to the launch of SpaceX’s first 60 production Starlink satellites. This week also saw movement in other key areas of commercial space, and some continued activity in early-stage space startup ecosystem encouragement.

Some of the ‘New Space’ companies are flexing the advantages that are helping them shake up an industry typically reserved for just a few deep-pocketed defence contractors, and NASA is getting ready for planetary space exploration in more ways than one.

1. SpaceX launches 60 Starlink satellites

The 60 Starlink satellites that SpaceX launched this week are the first that aren’t specifically designated as tester vehicles, even though it launched a batch of 60 earlier this year, too. These ones will form the cornerstone of between 300-400 or so that will provide the first commercial service to customers in the U.S. and Canada next year, if everything goes to SpaceX’s plan for its new global broadband service.

Aside from being the building blocks for the company’s first direct-to-consumer product, this launch was also an opportunity for SpaceX to show just how far its come with reusability. It flew the company’s first recovered rocket fairing, for instance, and also used a Falcon 9 booster for the fourth time – and landed it, so that it can potentially use it on yet another mission in the future.

2. Rocket Lab’s new room-sized robot can don in 12-hours what used to take ‘hundreds’

Rocket Lab is aiming to providing increasingly high-frequency launch capabilities, and the company has a new robot to help it achieve very quick turnaround on rocket production: Rosie. Rosie the Robot can produce a launch vehicle about once every 12 hours – handling the key task of processing the company’s Electron carbon composite stages in a way that cuts what used to take hundreds of manual work hours into something that can be done twice a day.

3. SpaceX completes Crew Dragon static fire test

This is big because the last time SpaceX fired up the Crew Dragon’s crucial SuperDraco thrust system, it exploded and took the capsule with it. Now, the crew spacecraft can move on to the next step of demonstrating an in-flight abort (the emergency ‘cancel’ procedure that will let astronauts on board get out with their lives in the case of a post-launch, mid-flight emergency) and then it’s on to crewed tests.

4. Virgin Galactic’s first paying customers are doing their astronaut training

It’s not like they’ll have to get out and fix something in zero gravity or anything, but the rich few who have paid Virgin Galactic $250,000 per seat for a trip to space will still need to train before they go up. They’ve now begun doing just that, as Virgin looks to the first half of next year for its first commercial space tourism flights.

5. TechStars launches another space tech accelerator

They have a couple now, and this new one is done in partnership with the U.S. Air Force, along with allied government agencies in The Netherlands and Norway. This one doesn’t require that participants relocated to a central hub for the duration of the program, which should mean more global appeal.

6. NASA funds new Stingray-inspired biomimetic spacecraft

Bespin’s cloud cars were cool, but a more realistic way to navigate the upper atmosphere of a gaseous planet might actually be with robotic stingrays that really flap their ‘fins.’ Yes, actually.

7. Blue Origin’s lunar lander partner Draper talks blending old and new space companies

Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos announced a multi-partner team that will work on the company’s lunar lander, and its orbital delivery mechanism. A key ingredient there is longtime space industry experts Draper, which was born out of MIT and which is perhaps most famous for having developed the Apollo 11 guidance system. Draper will be developing the avionics and guidance systems for Blue Origin’s lunar lander, too, and Mike Butcher caught up with Draper CEO Ken Gabriel to discuss. (Extra Crunch subscription required)

Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 starts shipping

Earlier this year, at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Microsoft announced the second generation of its HoloLens augmented reality visor. Today, the $3,500 HoloLens 2 is going on sale in the United States, Japan, China, Germany, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, France, Australia and New Zealand, the same countries where it was previously available for pre-order.

Ahead of the launch, I got to spend some time with the latest model, after a brief demo in Barcelona earlier this year. Users will immediately notice the larger field of view, which still doesn’t cover your full field of view, but offers a far better experience compared to the first version (where you often felt like you were looking at the virtual objects through a stamp-sized window).

The team also greatly enhanced the overall feel of wearing the device. It’s not light, at 1.3 pounds, but with the front visor that flips up and the new mounting system that is far more comfortable.

In regular use, existing users will also immediately notice the new gestures for opening up the Start menu (this is Windows 10, after all). Instead of a ‘bloom’ gesture, which often resulted in false positives, you now simply tap on the palm of your hand, where a Microsoft logo now appears when you look at it.

Eye tracking, too, has been greatly improved and works well, even over large distances, and the new machine learning model also does a far better job at tracking all of your fingers. All of this is powered by a lot of custom hardware, including Microsoft’s second-generation ‘holographic processing unit.’

Microsoft has also enhanced some of the cloud tools it built for HoloLens, including Azure Spatial Anchors that allow for persistent holograms in a given space that anybody else who is using a holographic app can then see in the same spot.

Taken together, all of the changes result in a more comfortable and smarter device, with reduced latencies when you look at the various objects around you and interact with them.

Uber Freight expands app to Canada

Uber Freight, the Uber business unit that helps truck drivers connect with shipping companies, said Wednesday it’s launching the app in Canada as part of its global expansion plan.

The move into Canada will give Uber Freight access to the country’s $68 billion trucking industry, which is facing severe driver shortage that has constrained freight capacity, the company said. It also follows Uber Freight’s announcement in September that it was expanding into Europe.

Since launching in May 2017, Uber Freight has grown from limited regional operations in Texas to the rest of the continental U.S., Europe and now Canada.

“Since the beginning, we have been dedicated to scaling our operations to enable opportunity for both Uber Freight and the shippers and carriers that keep our world moving,” said Lior Ron, who leads Uber Freight.

The company said that its platform can help increase efficiency in the sector and reduce trucks running empty miles across North America. Local carriers and their drivers based in the U.S. and Canada are able to book and move domestic and cross border loads with the Uber Freight app, now available in both English and French, the company said.

The company is focused on routes in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec as well as across the Canadian border into the Midwestern and Northeastern United States. Uber Freight said it plans to expand to the rest of Canada.

Uber Freight serves more than 1,000 shippers, including companies such as AB Inbev, Niagara Bottling and Land O’Lakes.

Earlier this year, Uber Freight established its headquarters in Chicago as part of its parent company’s broader plan to invest more than $200 million annually in the region, including hiring hundreds of workers. Uber said at the time, it would hire 2,000 new employees in the region over the next three years; most of which will be dedicated to Uber Freight.

Uber Freight, which with also has offices in San Francisco  and Amsterdam, has become an important piece to Uber’s larger business strategy to generate revenue from all forms of transportation, including logistics for packages. Uber has dedicated more resources to the trucking platform since August 2018 when Uber Freight spun out as a separate business unit. Since then, the company has expanded its operations and redesigned the app, including the addition of new navigation features, an updated map view and a search bar across the top of the screen.

Uber Freight expands app to Canada

Uber Freight, the Uber business unit that helps truck drivers connect with shipping companies, said Wednesday it’s launching the app in Canada as part of its global expansion plan.

The move into Canada will give Uber Freight access to the country’s $68 billion trucking industry, which is facing severe driver shortage that has constrained freight capacity, the company said. It also follows Uber Freight’s announcement in September that it was expanding into Europe.

Since launching in May 2017, Uber Freight has grown from limited regional operations in Texas to the rest of the continental U.S., Europe and now Canada.

“Since the beginning, we have been dedicated to scaling our operations to enable opportunity for both Uber Freight and the shippers and carriers that keep our world moving,” said Lior Ron, who leads Uber Freight.

The company said that its platform can help increase efficiency in the sector and reduce trucks running empty miles across North America. Local carriers and their drivers based in the U.S. and Canada are able to book and move domestic and cross border loads with the Uber Freight app, now available in both English and French, the company said.

The company is focused on routes in the provinces of Ontario and Quebec as well as across the Canadian border into the Midwestern and Northeastern United States. Uber Freight said it plans to expand to the rest of Canada.

Uber Freight serves more than 1,000 shippers, including companies such as AB Inbev, Niagara Bottling and Land O’Lakes.

Earlier this year, Uber Freight established its headquarters in Chicago as part of its parent company’s broader plan to invest more than $200 million annually in the region, including hiring hundreds of workers. Uber said at the time, it would hire 2,000 new employees in the region over the next three years; most of which will be dedicated to Uber Freight.

Uber Freight, which with also has offices in San Francisco  and Amsterdam, has become an important piece to Uber’s larger business strategy to generate revenue from all forms of transportation, including logistics for packages. Uber has dedicated more resources to the trucking platform since August 2018 when Uber Freight spun out as a separate business unit. Since then, the company has expanded its operations and redesigned the app, including the addition of new navigation features, an updated map view and a search bar across the top of the screen.

Duffel raises $30M led by Index Ventures to disintermediate legacy travel platforms

Huge travel platforms that run airline booking systems like Sabre and Amadeus were invented eons ago and are so large and cumbersome that innovating with them is no easy feat. In the same way that challenger banks have come along to re-invent the banking software Starck, UK startup Duffel has done the same in the travel market, linking up airlines directly with travel agents with a 21st Century platform.

Today it’s announced a $30m Series B funding round from investors Index Ventures, and they were joined by existing investors Benchmark Capital and Blossom Capital . Its airline partners already include American Airlines, British Airways, Lufthansa Group, Aegean Airlines, Vueling, and Iberia.

Duffel will use the new funds to hire more engineers and increase its broader team. It is focusing on expanding in North America and Europe, with its first customers drawn from the US, UK, Canada, France, Germany and Spain.

Duffel enables travel agencies to plug in directly to airlines’ reservation systems via an API so that they can pull real-time flight offers, make bookings, access live seat availability, and buy extra services. This means new digital and mobile app-based travel agencies – Duffel’s target market – can bypass the long lead times and high costs associated with the legacy flight booking systems. They are then able to see live seat availability from some of the world’s biggest airlines, as well as additional offers on in-flight meals or luggage allocations.

Steve Domin, co-founder and CEO of Duffel, said: “A new breed of online agencies want to access reservation systems quickly and seamlessly. By reinventing the underwiring between online agents and airlines we can transform the world of travel booking and reduce barriers to entry for innovative new companies that are offering travelers a whole new way of creating a holiday or trip.”

In the same way that banking systems have been opened up by deregulation, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) created a new industry standard, known as New Distribution Capability (NDC), which transformed the way air products are retailed through the use of modern XML technology. The problem was, the legacy platforms didn’t take much interest. Duffel has obviously come along to take advantage of that.

Jan Hammer, partner at Index Ventures, said: “We are incredibly impressed by the Duffel team, who we have supported since the days of their seed funding. There is an opportunity here to transform the booking experience for travelers and ease many of the pain points in the industry. From the launch of budget airlines to sharing economy businesses like Airbnb, travel has changed and Duffel will provide the tools, built from the ground up, that make the next wave of innovation possible.”

Speaking to TechCrunch, Domin said: “Historically it’s been very hard to sell travel products to agencies. Integrations are hard. There is too much complexity. We are bundling it all into a very simple API and 2 hours later you can have it running on a site or a mobile app.”

“We are connecting directly to airlines’ reservation systems. If you go on a site that uses Duffel, we will forward – to the airline – the right search request, and the airline generates the offer in real-time.”

“Airlines were trying to modernize their booking systems with Amadeus and Sabre but they have not moved quickly on adapting to what the airlines wanted. When the IATA came up with its new XML platform, no-one wanted to use it. So we did.”

Is Duffel a threat to the legacy platforms? “Potentially,” he says, “but I don’t think they see it that way. They don’t see the benefit of engineering and developer experience. In a way, I hope we will be a threat but I don’t think we are right now.”

He said Duffel has future plans to expand to other products like trains and hotels.

SpaceX intends to offer Starlink satellite broadband service starting in 2020

SpaceX will look to launch its Starlink service for consumers sometime next year, SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell confirmed at a media roundtable meeting at the company’s offices in Washington during the International Astronautical Congress this week (via SpaceNews). Shotwell, who also appeared on stage at the event to share some updates around SpaceX’s recent progress across the company, told reporters present that in order to make the date, it’ll need to launch between six and eight different grouped payloads of Starlink satellites, a number that includes the batch that went up in May of this year.

All told, SpaceX has shared previously that it’ll need 24 launches in order to make the constellation global, and it also shared at that time that it intends to start with service in the Northern United States and parts of Canada beginning next year. Though 24 launches will provide full global coverage, Shotwell told media that it’ll still be doing additional launches after that in order to expand and improve coverage.

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell

In fact, SpaceX recently filed paperwork to launch as many as 30,000 satellites in addition to the 12,000 it has already gotten permission to put up, for a total constellation size of up to 42,000. A SpaceX spokesperson previously described this as “taking steps to responsibility scale Starlink’s total network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users’ anticipated needs” in a statement provided to TechCrunch.

Owning and operating a global broadband satellite constellation could be a considerable revenue driver for SpaceX, and an important product pillar upon which the company can rely for recurring profit as it pursues its more ambitious programs, including eventual Mars launch services. Setting up the satellite constellation, especially at the scale intended, will definitely be a cost-intensive process on its own, but SpaceX is looking to its product developments like its Starship, which will be able to take much more cargo to orbit in terms of payload capacity, to reduce its own, and customer launch costs over time.

Shotwell also told reporters at the gathering that the company is already testing Starlink connectivity for U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory use, and while she didn’t reveal consumer pricing, did note that many in the U.S. pay $80 for service that is sub-par already, per SpaceNews.

Looking to become the central hub for logistics management, Shipwell raises $35 million

Shipwell, the software platform for managing trucking logistics, has raised $35 million and is expanding its suite of services to become a full-service hub for logistics management. 

The new round led by Georgian Partners comes as the company has just expanded its suite of tracking and management tools to integrate with FedEx’s parcel shipping services. The company also is planning an expansion into ocean shipping in the coming months, according to chief executive Gregory Price.

The Austin-based company works with multiple service providers — including the logistics services unicorn Flexport — but operates as a marketplace for shippers to connect with freight companies and online tools to manage those shipments. In effect, the company is pitching to any retailer or outlet a version of the proprietary logistics management toolkit that has made Amazon so successful.

Since its last round of funding a year ago, Shipwell has grown to service more than 4,000 customers per month with supply chains spanning multiple geographies. The company now operates in Canada, Mexico and even across Europe.

With the new funding the company intends to open new offices in Chicago and expand to a second location in its home base of Austin.

The company has also launched a new application program interface that allows it to help manage logistics through other modes than just trucking. Price says the company has about 20 companies beta-testing the tool, which is set to launch publicly in November.

SpaceX files paperwork to launch up to 30,000 more Starlink global internet satellites

SpaceX has filed documents with the International Telecommunication Union, which governs international use of global bandwidth, to launch up to 30,000 more satellites for its Starlink global broadband constellation, SpaceNews reports. That’s on top of the 12,000 it already has permission to launch. Why so many? SpaceX says that it’s about ensuring its network can meet anticipated demand “responsibly.”

“As demand escalates for fast, reliable internet around the world, especially for those where connectivity is non-existent, too expensive or unreliable, SpaceX is taking steps to responsibly scale Starlink’s total network capacity and data density to meet the growth in users’ anticipated needs,” wrote a SpaceX spokesperson in an emailed statement to TechCrunch.

The ITU filing doesn’t mean SpaceX is launching 30,000 satellites tomorrow: In fact, the company is looking to launch likely only a few hundred in the coming year. But SpaceX is anticipating big increases in the demand for low-latency and high-capacity broadband globally, and its initial deployment plans only cover a fraction of that demand. Plus, given the increased interest in providing communications from orbit, there’s bound to be a growing rush on spectrum over the next few years.

Starlink will originally set out to provide service in the northern U.S., as well as parts of Canada, beginning as early as next year when the network goes live. The plan is to then scale the network to global coverage over the course of around 24 launches of Starlink satellites. It’s betting that it’ll need to scale by adding on nodes opportunistically to address demand, especially because most current coverage demand models don’t take into account regions that are getting broadband access for the first time.

SpaceX is also priming Starlink for high-traffic operation (though the total constellation won’t all be operating in the same orbital region, it’ll still be a considerable addition to the orbital population relative to the roughly 8,000 objects that have been launched to space to date — in total). The measures SpaceX is taking to deal with traffic include building in automated collision avoidance systems, structure de-orbiting plans, information sharing about orbital routes for their satellites and more, and the company says it’s meeting or exceeding the industry standards that have been established thus far around this.

To address the concerns of astronomers, SpaceX is also turning the base or Earth-facing portion of all future Starlink satellites back, which should help address concerns of space watchers who are concerned about the impact that large constellations will have on stellar observation and research. The company will also take steps to adjust satellite orbits where it’s shown that its constellation is impeding serious scientific pursuit.

Starlink launched its first 60 satellites back in May, and the plan is that each roughly 500-lb satellite will work in tandem with the others to communicate with ground stations that end users will then be able to connect to in order to get a broadband network signal.