SpaceX ‘getting ready’ to fly orbital Starship design with new FCC filing

SpaceX is taking the steps necessary to begin test flying the orbital-class version of its Starship spacecraft, with new documents filed by the company (via Teslarati) with the FCC seeking necessary permissions for it to communicate with the prototype while it’s in flight.

The company filed documents with the U.S. regulatory agency this week in advance of the flight, which lists a max altitude of 74,000 feet, which is a far cry from Earth orbit but still a much greater distance vs. the 500 or so feet achieved by the squat ‘Starhopper’ demonstration and test vehicle that SpaceX has been actively operating in preparation for Starship .

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk confirmed that prep was underway via tweet. Musk has previously said that he hoped to follow the Starhopper’s most recent and final successful test quickly with tests of the full-scale vehicle. Like with that low-altitude test, SpaceX will aim to launch and land the Starhopper, with touch down planned just a short distance away.

Assembly and construction of the Starship prototype looks to be well underway, and Musk recently teased a Starship update event for September 28, which is likely when we’ll see this prototype assembled and ready to go ahead of its planned October first test flight window.

Starship is the next generation of SpaceX spacecraft, designed for maximum reusability, and with the aim of creating one vehicle that can serve the needs of current and future customers, eventually replacing both Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy. Starship is also a key ingredient in Musk’s ambitious plan to reach and establish a continuing human presence on Mars.

AT&T and T-Mobile team up to fight scam robocalls

Two major U.S. carriers, AT&T and T-Mobile, announced this morning a plan to team up to protect their respective customer bases from the scourge of scam robocalls. The two companies will today begin to roll out new cross-network call authentication technology based on the STIR/SHAKEN standards — a sort of universal caller ID system designed to stop illegal caller ID spoofing.

Robocalls have become a national epidemic. In 2018, U.S. mobile users received nearly 48 million robocalls — or more than 150 calls per adult, the carriers noted.

A huge part of the problem is that these calls now often come in with a spoofed phone number, making it hard for consumers to screen out unwanted calls on their own. That’s led to a rise in robocall blocking and screening apps. Even technology companies have gotten involved, with Google introducing a new AI call screener in Android and Apple rolling out Siri-powered spam call detection with iOS 13.

To help fight the call spoofing problem, the industry put together a set of standards called STIR/SHAKEN (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs), which effectively signs calls as “legitimate” as they travel through the interconnected phone networks.

However, the industry has been slow to roll out the system, which prompted the FCC to finally step in.

In November 2018, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote to U.S. mobile operators, asking them to outline their plans around the implementation of the STIR/SHAKEN standards. The regulator also said that it would step in to mandate the implementation if the carriers didn’t meet an end-of-2019 deadline to get their call authentication systems in place.

Today’s news from AT&T and T-Mobile explains how the two will work together to authenticate calls across their networks. By implementing STIR/SHAKEN, calls will have their Caller ID signed as legitimate by the originating carrier, then validated by other carriers before they reach the consumer. Spoofed calls would fail this authentication process, and not be marked as “verified.”

As more carriers participate in this sort of authentication, more calls can be authenticated.

However, this system alone won’t actually block the spam calls — it just gives the recipient more information. In addition, devices will have to support the technology, as well, in order to display the new “verification” information.

T-Mobile earlier this year was first to launch a caller verification system on the Samsung Galaxy Note9, and today it still only works with select Android handsets from Samsung and LG. AT&T meanwhile, announced in March it was working with Comcast to exchange authenticated calls between two separate networks — a milestone in terms of cooperation between two carriers. T-Mobile and Comcast announced their own agreement in April.

The news also follows a statement by Chairman Pai that says the FCC will sign off to approve a T-Mobile/Sprint merger, as has been expected.

SNES controller for Switch shows up in FCC filing, hinting at SNES games for Nintendo Online

Nintendo looks set to release wireless SNES controllers for the Nintendo Switch, which likely means it’ll also be bringing classic SNES titles to its Nintendo Online virtual gaming library. The news comes via an FCC filing (hat tip to Eurogamer) , which includes a diagram of what looks very clearly to be the backside of a Super Nintendo-style wireless controller.

The diagram includes a model number that uses the ‘HAC’ code that Nintendo employs to designate Switch accessories, and past history suggests that the arrival of retro-inspired hardware for the Switch also means throwback games are on their way. Nintendo launched wireless NES controllers for the Nintendo Switch in September, and they arrived alongside NES games delivered via Nintendo Online as free perks for subscribers.

The FCC filing is more or less concrete proof that Nintendo intends to release something, but the rest is speculation (if very likely, informed speculation) at this point. Still, it seems inevitable that Nintendo bring its SNES library to the Switch, especially since it did so for the Wii Virtual Console before.

Reports say White House has drafted an order putting the FCC in charge of monitoring social media

The White House is contemplating issuing an executive order that would widen its attack on the operations of social media companies.

The White House has prepared an executive order called “Protecting Americans from Online Censorship” that would give the Federal Communications Commission oversight of how Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies monitor and manage their social networks, according to a CNN report.

Under the order, which has not yet been announced and could be revised, the FCC would be tasked with developing new regulations that would determine when and how social media companies filter posts, videos or articles on their platforms.

The draft order also calls for the Federal Trade Commission to take those new policies into account when investigating or filing lawsuits against technology companies, according to the CNN report.

Social media censorship has been a perennial talking point for President Donald Trump and his administration. In May, the White House set up a tip line for people to provide evidence of social media censorship and a systemic bias against conservative media.

In the executive order, the White House says it received more than 15,000 complaints about censorship by the technology platforms. The order also includes an offer to share the complaints with the Federal Trade Commission.

As part of the order, the Federal Trade Commission would be required to open a public complaint docket and coordinate with the Federal Communications Commission on investigations of how technology companies curate their platforms — and whether that curation is politically agnostic.

Under the proposed rule, any company whose monthly user base includes more than one-eighth of the U.S. population would be subject to oversight by the regulatory agencies. A roster of companies subject to the new scrutiny would include Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, Snap and Pinterest .

At issue is how broadly or narrowly companies are protected under the Communications Decency Act, which was part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Social media companies use the Act to shield against liability for the posts, videos or articles that are uploaded from individual users or third parties.

The Trump administration aren’t the only politicians in Washington are focused on the laws that shield social media platforms from legal liability. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took technology companies to task earlier this year in an interview with Recode.

The criticisms may come from different sides of the political spectrum, but their focus on the ways in which tech companies could use Section 230 of the Act is the same.

The White House’s executive order would ask the FCC to disqualify social media companies from immunity if they remove or limit the dissemination of posts without first notifying the user or third party that posted the material, or if the decision from the companies is deemed anti-competitive or unfair.

The FTC and FCC had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

Google’s Pixel 4 smartphone will have motion control and face unlock

Google’s Pixel 4 is coming out later this year, and it’s getting the long reveal treatment thanks to a decision this year from Google to go ahead and spill some of the beans early, rather than saving everything for one big final unveiling closer to availability. A new video posted by Google today about the forthcoming Pixel 4 (which likely won’t actually be available until fall) shows off some features new to this generation: Motion control and face unlock.

The new “Motion Sense” feature in the Pixel 4 will detect waves of your hand and translate them into software control, including skipping songs, snoozing alarms and quieting incoming phone call alerts, with more planned features to come, according to Google. It’s based on Soli, a radar-based fine motion detection technology that Google first revealed at its I/O annual developer conference in 2016. Soli can detect very fine movements, including fingers pinched together to mimic a watch-winding motion, and it got approval from the FCC in January, hinting it would finally be arriving in production devices this year.

Pixel 4 is the first shipping device to include Soli, and Google says it’ll be available in “select Pixel countries” at launch (probably due to similar approvals requirements wherever it rolls out to consumers).

Google also teased “Face unlock,” something it has supported in Android previously – but Google is doing it very differently than it has been handled on Android in the past with the Pixel 4. Once again, Soli is part of its implementation, turning on the face unlock sensors in the device as it detects your hand reaching to pick up the device. Google says this should mean that the phone will be unlocked by the time you’re ready to use it, since it does this all on the fly, and works from pretty much any authentication.

Face unlock will be supported for authorizing payments and logging into Android apps, as well, and all of the facial recognition processing done for face unlock will occur on the device – a privacy-oriented feature that’s similar to how Apple handles its own Face ID. In fact, Google will also be storing all the facial recognition data securely in its own dedicated on-device Titan M security chip, another move similar to Apple’s own approach.

Google made the Pixel 4 official and tweeted photos (or maybe photorealistic renders) of the new smartphone back in June, bucking the trend of keeping things unconfirmed until an official reveal closer to release. Based on this update, it seems likely we can expect to learn more about the new smartphone ahead of its availability, which is probably going to happen sometime around October based on past behavior.

How US national security agencies hold the internet hostage

Team Telecom, a shadowy US national security unit tasked with protecting America’s telecommunications systems, is delaying plans by Google, Facebook and other tech companies for the next generation of international fiber optic cables.

Team Telecom is comprised of representatives from the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Justice (including the FBI), who assess foreign investments in American telecom infrastructure, with a focus on cybersecurity and surveillance vulnerabilities.

Team Telecom works at a notoriously sluggish pace, taking over seven years to decide that letting China Mobile operate in the US would “raise substantial and serious national security and law enforcement risks,” for instance. And while Team Telecom is working, applications are stalled at the FCC.

The on-going delays to submarine cable projects, which can cost nearly half a billion dollars each, come with significant financial impacts. They also cede advantage to connectivity projects that have not attracted Team Telecom’s attention – such as the nascent internet satellite mega-constellations from SpaceX, OneWeb and Amazon .

Team Telecom’s investigations have long been a source of tension within Silicon Valley. Google’s subsidiary GU Holdings Inc has been building a network of international submarine fiber-optic cables for over a decade. Every cable that lands on US soil is subject to Team Telecom review, and each one has faced delays and restrictions.

Amazon expands Transparency anti-counterfeit codes to Europe, India and Canada

Amazon is no stranger to the nefarious forces of e-commerce: fake reviews, counterfeit goods and scams have all reared their heads on its marketplace in one place or another, with some even accusing it of turning a blind eye to them since, technically, Amazon profits from any transactions, not just the legit ones. The company has been working to fight that image, though, and today it announced its latest development in that mission: it announced that Transparency — a program to serialize products sold on its platform with a T-shaped QR-style code to identify when an item is counterfeit — is expanding to Europe, India and Canada. (More detail on how it actually works below.)

“Counterfeiting is an industry-wide concern – both online and offline. We find the most effective solutions to prevent counterfeit are based on partnerships that combine Amazon’s technology innovation with the sophisticated knowledge and capabilities of brands,” said Dharmesh Mehta, vice president, Amazon Customer Trust and Partner Support, in a statement. “We created Transparency to provide brands with a simple, scalable solution that empowers brands and Amazon to authenticate products within the supply chain, stopping counterfeit before it reaches a customer.”

The growth of Transparency has been quite slow so far: it has taken more than two years for Amazon to offer the service outside of the US market, where it launched first with Amazon’s own products in March 2017 and then expanded to third-party items. Even today, while Transparency is launching to sellers in more markets, the app for consumers to scan the items themselves is still only available in the US, according to Amazon’s FAQ.

In that time, take-up has been okay but not massive. Amazon says that some 4,000 brands have enrolled in the program, covering 300 million unique codes, leading to Amazon halting more than 250,000 counterfeit sales (these would have been fake versions of legit items and brands enrolled in the Transparency program).

There is some evidence that all this works. Amazon says that 2019, for products fully on-boarded into the Transparency service, there have been zero reports of counterfeit from brands or customers who purchased these products on Amazon.

But how wide ranging that is, though, compared to the bigger problem, is not quite clear. While it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison — Amazon doesn’t disclose collectively how many brands are sold on its platform, although Amazon itself accounts for 450 brands itself — there are some 2.5 million sellers on its platform globally, and my guess is that 4,000 is just a small fraction of Amazon’s branded universe.

Recent developments have put an increased focus on what role Amazon has been playing to keep in check rampant activity around counterfeiting and other illegal activity.

The NYT published a damning expose in June that highlighted how one medical publisher found rampant counterfeiting of one of its books, a guide for doctors prescribing medications to help them determine dosages of drugs, an alarming situation considering the subject matter. Regulators like the FCC have also taken action to ask Amazon (among others like eBay) to make a better effort to remove the sale of products in specific categories, such as fake pay-TV boxes.

Coupled with other kinds of dodgy activity on the platform like fake reviews, Amazon has been making more moves of late to get a grip and create more channels for brands and sellers to help themselves, from product launches and expansions, to taking legal measures to go after bad actors.

Transparency is part of former category, and it sits alongside one of the company’s other recent, big initiatives called Project Zero, an AI-based continuous monitoring of products and activities launched four months ago to proactively identify counterfeit sellers and items on the platform.

Screenshot 2019 07 10 at 11.47.45Transparency works by way of a unique code — which looks a bit like a “T” — printed on each manufactured unit. When a customer orders the product, Amazon scans the code to verify that the product it’s shipping is legit. Customers can also scan the code after receiving the item to verify authenticity. Other details that are encoded in the T are manufacturing date, manufacturing place, and other product information like ingredients.

This system also throws some light on some of the strange workings of e-commerce, supply chains, and how marketplaces operate.

On Amazon, an item you buy that might be branded — say, a North Face jacket — may not actually be sold by North Face itself, but a reseller. And those resellers may just as likely never even touch the item: they are working off stock that is distributed from another place altogether, or perhaps manufactured and sent in bulk to Amazon or another fulfilment provider that sends the item when the order is made. All of these tradeoffs within the supply chain create an environment where counterfeit goods might creep in.

Amazon’s system, by working directly with brands and not sellers, is trying to provide an over-arching level of monitoring and control into the mix, and it notes in its announcement that its Transparency codes are trackable “regardless of where customers purchased their units.”

Ironically for a service called “Transparency”, Amazon doesn’t seem to list the price for sellers to use this service, but four months ago, when Amazon launched Project Zero, we reported that the serialization service are charged between $0.01 and $0.05 per unit, based on volume. It’s a price that especially smaller brands, which are even less immune to copycats than well-capitalized big brands, are willing to pay:

“Amazon’s proactive approach and investment in tools like Transparency have allowed us to grow consumer confidence in our products and prevent inauthentic product from ending up in the hands of our customers,” said Matt Petersen, Chief Executive Officer at Neato Robotics, a maker of smart robotic vacuum cleaners, in a statement.

“Blocking counterfeits from the source has always been a tough task for us – it’s something all brand owners face through nearly all channels around the world,” said Bill Mei, Chief Executive Officer at Cowin, a manufacturer of noise cancelling audio devices, in his own statement. “After we joined Transparency, our counterfeit problem just disappeared for products protected by the program.”

Amazon seeks FCC approval to launch over three thousand broadband satellites

Amazon previously revealed its Project Kuiper plan to establish a constellation of broadband internet satellites in low-Earth orbit, but now we know a bit more about the specifics of its plan thanks to an FCC filing first reported by GeekWire. The filing seeks permission from the U.S. communications regulator to launch a total of 3,236 communications satellites to provide the backbone of its network.

The satellite network will offer more reliable access and broadband-speed connectivity to many of the existing 3.8 billion people globally, and 21.3 million Americans that don’t currently enjoy any access to ground-based broadband, Amazon claims in the new filing. In addition to underserved consumers in rural areas, Amazon will also use the network to offer “mobile broadband connectivity services for aircraft, maritime vessels and land vehicles,” the filing also notes.

Others are attempting to serve the same need in the same way, including SpaceX, which is looking to launch a network of nearly 12,000 broadband satellites for its Starlink network. Starlink satellites are already in orbit, including 57, once you take out the three with which SpaceX lost contact post-launch.

There’s already been considerable blow-back against SpaceX because of the impact its satellites are having on astronomers’ views of the night sky, and many in space research and industrial development are concerned about debris and crowding in the low-Earth orbit area in which satellites providing broadband connectivity will operate.

FTC, Justice Dept. takes coordinated action against robocallers

Federal authorities have announced its latest crackdown on illegal robocallers — taking close to a hundred actions against several companies and individuals blamed for the recent barrage of spam calls.

In the so-called “Operation Call It Quits,” the Federal Trade Commission brought four cases — two filed on its behalf by the Justice Department — and three settlements in cases said to be responsible for making more than a billion illegal robocalls.

Several state and local authorities also brought actions as part of the operation, officials said.

Each year, billions of automatically dialed or spoofed phone calls trick millions into picking up the phone. An annoyance at least, at worse it tricks unsuspecting victims into turning over cash or buying fake or misleading products. So far, the FTC has fined companies more than $200 million but only collected less than 0.01% of the fines because of the agency’s limited enforcement powers.

In this new wave of action, the FTC said it will send a strong signal to the robocalling industry.

Andrew Smith, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection, said Americans are “fed up” with the billions of robocalls received every year. “Today’s joint effort shows that combatting this scourge remains a top priority for law enforcement agencies around the nation,” he said.

It’s the second time the FTC has acted in as many months. In May, the agency also took action against four companies accused of making “billions” of robocalls.

The FTC said its latest action brings the number of robocall violators up to 145.

Several of the cases involved shuttering operations that offer consumers “bogus” credit card interest rate reduction services, which the FTC said specifically targeted seniors. Other cases involved the use of illegal robocalls to promote money-making schemes.

Another cases included actions against Lifewatch, a company pitching medical alert systems, which the FTC contended uses spoofed caller ID information to trick victims into picking up the phone. The company settled for $25.3 million. Meanwhile, Redwood Scientific settled for $18.2 million, suspended due to the inability for defendant Danielle Cadiz to pay, for “deceptively” marketing dentistry products, according to the FTC’s complaint.

The robocalling epidemic has caught the attention of the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the telecoms and internet industries. Last month, its commissioners proposed a new rule that would make it easier for carriers to block robocalls.

Why carriers keep your data longer

Your wireless carrier knows where you are as you read this on your phone—otherwise, it couldn’t connect your phone in the first place.

But your wireless carrier also has a memory. It knows where you took your phone in the last hour, the last week, the last month, the last year—and maybe even the last five years.

That gives it an enormous warehouse of data on your whereabouts that can help your wireless carrier fix coverage gaps while revealing much more. Depending on the density of cell sites around you at any one point, the location data triangulated from them can not only highlight your home and office but point to the bars you frequented, the houses at which you spent the night, and the offices of therapists you visited.