Estimote launches wearables for workplace-level contact tracing for COVID-19

Bluetooth location beacon startup Estimote has adapted its technological expertise to develop a new product designed specifically at curbing the spread of COVID-19. The company created a new range of wearable devices that co-founder Steve Cheney believes can enhance workplace safety for those who have to be colocated at a physical workplace even while social distancing and physical isolation measures are in place.

The devices, called simply the “Proof of Health” wearables, aim to provide contact tracing – in other words, monitoring the potential spread of the coronavirus from person-to-person – at the level of a local workplace facility. The intention is to give employers a way to hopefully maintain a pulse on any possible transmission among their workforces and provide them with the ability to hopefully curtail any local spread before it becomes an outsized risk.

The hardware includes passive GPS location-tracking, as well as proximity sensors powered by Bluetooth and ultra-wide band radio connectivity, a rechargeable battery, and built-in LTE. It also includes a manual control to change a wearer’s health status, recording states like certified health, symptomatic, and verified infected. When a user updates their state to indicate possible or verified infection, that updates others they’ve been in contact with based on proximity and location-data history. This information is also stored in a health dashboard that provides detailed logs of possible contacts for centralized management. That’s designed for internal use within an organization for now, but Cheney tells me he’s working now to see if there might be a way to collaborate with WHO or other external health organizations to potentially leverage the information for tracing across enterprises and populations, too.

These are intended to come in a number of different form factors: the pebble-like version that exists today, which can be clipped to a lanyard for wearing and displaying around a person’s neck; a wrist-worn version with an integrated adjustable strap; and a card format that’s more compact for carrying and could work alongside traditional security badges often used for facility access control. The pebble-like design is already in production and 2,000 will be deployed now, with a plan to ramp production for as many as 10,000 more in the near future using the company’s Poland-based manufacturing resources.

Estimote has been building programmable sensor tech for enterprises for nearly a decade and has worked with large global companies, including Apple and Amazon . Cheney tells me that he quickly recognized the need for the application of this technology to the unique problems presented by the pandemic, but Estimote was already 18 months into developing it for other uses, including in hospitality industries for employee safety/panic button deployment.

“This stack has been in full production for 18 months,” he said via message. “We can program all wearables remotely (they’re LTE connected). Say a factory deploys this – we write an app to the wearable remotely. This is programmable IoT.

“Who knew the virus would require proof of health vis-a-vis location diagnostics tech,” he added.

Many have proposed technology-based solutions for contact tracing, including leveraging existing data gathered by smartphones and consumer applications to chart transmission. But those efforts also have considerable privacy implications, and require use of a smartphone – something that Cheney says isn’t really viable for accurate workplace tracking in high-traffic environments. By creating a dedicated wearable, Cheney says that Estimote can help employers avoid doing something “invasive” with their workforce, since it’s instead tied to a fit-for-purpose device with data shared only with their employers, and it’s in a form factor they can remove and have some control over. Mobile devices also can’t do nearly as fine-grained tracking with indoor environments as dedicated hardware can manage, he says.

And contact tracing at this hyperlocal level won’t necessarily just provide employers with early warning signs for curbing the spread earlier and more thoroughly than they would otherwise. In fact, larger-scale contact tracing fed by sensor data could inform new and improved strategies for COVID-19 response.

“Typically, contact tracing relies on the memory of individuals, or some high-level assumptions (for example, the shift someone worked),” said Brianna Vechhio-Pagán of John Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab via a statement. “New technologies can now track interactions within a transmissible, or ~6-foot range, thus reducing the error introduced by other methods. By combining very dense contact tracing data from Bluetooth and UWB signals with information about infection status and symptoms, we may discover new and improved ways to keep patients and staff safe.”

With the ultimate duration of measures like physical distancing essentially up-in-the-air, and some predictions indicating they’ll continue for many months, even if they vary in terms of severity, solutions like Estimote’s could become essential to keeping essential services and businesses operating while also doing the utmost to protect the health and safety of the workers incurring those risks. More far-reaching measures might be needed, too, including general-public-connected, contact-tracing programs, and efforts like this one should help inform the design and development of those.

An EU coalition of techies is backing a ‘privacy-preserving’ standard for COVID-19 contacts tracing

A European coalition of techies and scientists drawn from at least eight countries, and led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecoms (HHI), is working on contacts-tracing proximity technology for COVID-19 that’s designed to comply with the region’s strict privacy rules — officially unveiling the effort today.

China-style individual-level location-tracking of people by states via their smartphones even for a public health purpose is hard to imagine in Europe — which has a long history of legal protection for individual privacy. However the coronavirus pandemic is applying pressure to the region’s data protection model, as governments turn to data and mobile technologies to seek help with tracking the spread of the virus, supporting their public health response and mitigating wider social and economic impacts.

Scores of apps are popping up across Europe aimed at attacking coronavirus from different angles. European privacy not-for-profit, noyb, is keeping an updated list of approaches, both led by governments and private sector projects, to use personal data to combat SARS-CoV-2 — with examples so far including contacts tracing, lockdown or quarantine enforcement and COVID-19 self-assessment.

The efficacy of such apps is unclear — but the demand for tech and data to fuel such efforts is coming from all over the place.

In the UK the government has been quick to call in tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Palantir, to help the National Health Service determine where resources need to be sent during the pandemic. While the European Commission has been leaning on regional telcos to hand over user location data to carry out coronavirus tracking — albeit in aggregated and anonymized form.

The newly unveiled Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project is a response to the coronavirus pandemic generating a huge spike in demand for citizens’ data that’s intended to offer not just an another app — but what’s described as “a fully privacy-preserving approach” to COVID-19 contacts tracing.

The core idea is to leverage smartphone technology to help disrupt the next wave of infections by notifying individuals who have come into close contact with an infected person — via the proxy of their smartphones having been near enough to carry out a Bluetooth handshake. So far so standard. But the coalition behind the effort wants to steer developments in such a way that the EU response to COVID-19 doesn’t drift towards China-style state surveillance of citizens.

While, for the moment, strict quarantine measures remain in place across much of Europe there may be less imperative for governments to rip up the best practice rulebook to intrude on citizens’ privacy, given the majority of people are locked down at home. But the looming question is what happens when restrictions on daily life are lifted?

Contacts tracing — as a way to offer a chance for interventions that can break any new infection chains — is being touted as a key component of preventing a second wave of coronavirus infections by some, with examples such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app being eyed up by regional lawmakers.

Singapore does appear to have had some success in keeping a second wave of infections from turning into a major outbreak, via an aggressive testing and contacts-tracing regime. But what a small island city-state with a population of less than 6M can do vs a trading bloc of 27 different nations whose collective population exceeds 500M doesn’t necessarily seem immediately comparable.

Europe isn’t going to have a single coronavirus tracing app. It’s already got a patchwork. Hence the people behind PEPP-PT offering a set of “standards, technology, and services” to countries and developers to plug into to get a standardized COVID-19 contacts-tracing approach up and running across the bloc.

The other very European flavored piece here is privacy — and privacy law. “Enforcement of data protection, anonymization, GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation] compliance, and security” are baked in, is the top-line claim.

“PEPP-PR was explicitly created to adhere to strong European privacy and data protection laws and principles,” the group writes in an online manifesto. “The idea is to make the technology available to as many countries, managers of infectious disease responses, and developers as quickly and as easily as possible.

“The technical mechanisms and standards provided by PEPP-PT fully protect privacy and leverage the possibilities and features of digital technology to maximize speed and real-time capability of any national pandemic response.”

Hans-Christian Boos, one of the project’s co-initiators — and the founder of an AI company called Arago –discussed the initiative with German newspaper Der Spiegel, telling it: “We collect no location data, no movement profiles, no contact information and no identifiable features of the end devices.”

The newspaper reports PEPP-PT’s approach means apps aligning to this standard would generate only temporary IDs — to avoid individuals being identified. Two or more smartphones running an app that uses the tech and has Bluetooth enabled when they come into proximity would exchange their respective IDs — saving them locally on the device in an encrypted form, according to the report.

Der Spiegel writes that should a user of the app subsequently be diagnosed with coronavirus their doctor would be able to ask them to transfer the contact list to a central server. The doctor would then be able to use the system to warn affected IDs they have had contact with a person who has since been diagnosed with the virus — meaning those at risk individuals could be proactively tested and/or self-isolate.

On its website PEPP-PT explains the approach thus:

Mode 1
If a user is not tested or has tested negative, the anonymous proximity history remains encrypted on the user’s phone and cannot be viewed or transmitted by anybody. At any point in time, only the proximity history that could be relevant for virus transmission is saved, and earlier history is continuously deleted.

Mode 2
If the user of phone A has been confirmed to be SARS-CoV-2 positive, the health authorities will contact user A and provide a TAN code to the user that ensures potential malware cannot inject incorrect infection information into the PEPP-PT system. The user uses this TAN code to voluntarily provide information to the national trust service that permits the notification of PEPP-PT apps recorded in the proximity history and hence potentially infected. Since this history contains anonymous identifiers, neither person can be aware of the other’s identity.

Providing further detail of what it envisages as “Country-dependent trust service operation”, it writes: “The anonymous IDs contain encrypted mechanisms to identify the country of each app that uses PEPP-PT. Using that information, anonymous IDs are handled in a country-specific manner.”

While on healthcare processing is suggests: “A process for how to inform and manage exposed contacts can be defined on a country by country basis.”

Among the other features of PEPP-PT’s mechanisms the group lists in its manifesto are:

  • Backend architecture and technology that can be deployed into local IT infrastructure and can handle hundreds of millions of devices and users per country instantly.
  • Managing the partner network of national initiatives and providing APIs for integration of PEPP-PT features and functionalities into national health processes (test, communication, …) and national system processes (health logistics, economy logistics, …) giving many local initiatives a local backbone architecture that enforces GDPR and ensures scalability.
  • Certification Service to test and approve local implementations to be using the PEPP-PT mechanisms as advertised and thus inheriting the privacy and security testing and approval PEPP-PT mechanisms offer.

Having a standardized approach that could be plugged into a variety of apps would allow for contacts tracing to work across borders — i.e. even if different apps are popular in different EU countries — an important consideration for the bloc, which has 27 Member States.

However there may be questions about the robustness of the privacy protection designed into the approach — if, for example, pseudonymized data is centralized on a server that doctors can access there could be a risk of it leaking and being re-identified. And identification of individual device holders would be legally risky.

Europe’s lead data regulator, the EDPS, recently made a point of tweeting to warn an MEP (and former EC digital commissioner) against the legality of applying Singapore-style Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing in the EU — writing: “Please be cautious comparing Singapore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.”

A spokesman for the EDPS told us it’s in contact with data protection agencies of the Member States involved in the PEPP-PT project to collect “relevant information”.

“The general principles presented by EDPB on 20 March, and by EDPS on 24 March are still relevant in that context,” the spokesman added — referring to guidance issued by the privacy regulators last month in which they encouraged anonymization and aggregation should Member States want to use mobile location data for monitoring, containing or mitigating the spread of COVID-19. At least in the first instance.

“When it is not possible to only process anonymous data, the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security (Art. 15),” the EDPB further noted.

“If measures allowing for the processing of non-anonymised location data are introduced, a Member State is obliged to put in place adequate safeguards, such as providing individuals of electronic communication services the right to a judicial remedy.”

We reached out to the HHI with questions about the PEPP-PT project and were referred to Boos — but at the time of writing had been unable to speak to him.

“The PEPP-PT system is being created by a multi-national European team,” the HHI writes in a press release about the effort. “It is an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when traveling between countries through an anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism. No personal data, no location, no Mac-Id of any user is stored or transmitted. PEPP-PT is designed to be incorporated in national corona mobile phone apps as a contact tracing functionality and allows for the integration into the processes of national health services. The solution is offered to be shared openly with any country, given the commitment to achieve interoperability so that the anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism remains functional.”

“PEPP-PT’s international team consists of more than 130 members working across more than seven European countries and includes scientists, technologists, and experts from well-known research institutions and companies,” it adds.

“The result of the team’s work will be owned by a non-profit organization so that the technology and standards are available to all. Our priorities are the well being of world citizens today and the development of tools to limit the impact of future pandemics — all while conforming to European norms and standards.”

The PEPP-PT says its technology-focused efforts are being financed through donations. Per its website, it says it’s adopted the WHO standards for such financing — to “avoid any external influence”.

Of course for the effort to be useful it relies on EU citizens voluntarily downloading one of the aligned contacts tracing apps — and carrying their smartphone everywhere they go, with Bluetooth enabled.

Without substantial penetration of regional smartphones it’s questionable how much of an impact this initiative, or any contacts tracing technology, could have. Although if such tech were able to break even some infection chains people might argue it’s not wasted effort.

Notably, there are signs Europeans are willing to contribute to a public healthcare cause by doing their bit digitally — such as a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app which last week racked up 750,000 downloads in the UK in 24 hours.

But, at the same time, contacts tracing apps are facing scepticism over their ability to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Not everyone carries a smartphone, nor knows how to download an app, for instance. There’s plenty of people who would fall outside such a digital net.

Meanwhile, while there’s clearly been a big scramble across the region, at both government and grassroots level, to mobilize digital technology for a public health emergency cause there’s arguably greater imperative to direct effort and resources at scaling up coronavirus testing programs — an area where most European countries continue to lag.

Germany — where some of the key backers of the PEPP-PT are from — being the most notable exception.

This Week in Apps: Apple launches a COVID-19 app, the outbreak’s impact on social and video apps and more

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all.

The app industry saw a record 204 billion downloads and $120 billion in consumer spending in 2019, according to App Annie’s “State of Mobile” annual report. People are now spending 3 hours and 40 minutes per day using apps, rivaling TV. Apps aren’t just a way to pass idle hours — they’re a big business. In 2019, mobile-first companies had a combined $544 billion valuation, 6.5x higher than those without a mobile focus.

In this Extra Crunch series, we help you keep up with the latest news from the world of apps, delivered on a weekly basis.

This week, we’re continuing our special coverage of how the COVID-19 outbreak is impacting apps and the wider mobile app industry as more COVID-19 apps appear — including one from Apple built in partnership with the CDC, among others. We also take a look at the gains made by social and video apps in recent weeks as people struggle to stay connected while stuck at home in quarantine. In other headlines, we dig into Instagram’s co-watching feature, the Google for Games conference news, Apple’s latest releases and updates, Epic Games expansion into publishing and more.

Coronavirus Special Coverage

Social video apps are exploding due to the COVID-19 pandemic

Volvo’s Polestar begins production of the all-electric Polestar 2 in China

Polestar has started production of its all-electric Polestar 2 vehicle at a plant in China amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has upended the automotive industry and triggered a wave of factory closures throughout the world.

The start of Polestar 2 production is a milestone for Volvo Car Group’s standalone electric performance brand  — and not just because it began in the midst of global upheaval caused by COVID-19, a disease that stems from the coronavirus. It’s also the first all-electric car under a brand that was relaunched just three years ago with a new mission.

Polestar was once a high-performance brand under Volvo Cars. In 2017, the company was recast as an electric performance brand aimed at producing exciting and fun-to-drive electric vehicles — a niche that Tesla was the first to fill and has dominated ever since. Polestar is jointly owned by Volvo Car Group and Zhejiang Geely Holding of China. Volvo was acquired by Geely in 2010.

COVID-19 has affected how Polestar and its parent company operate. Factory closures began in China, where the disease first swept through the population. Now Chinese factories are reopening as the epicenter of COVID-19 moves to Europe and North America. Most automakers have suspended production in Europe and North America.

Polestar CEO Thomas Ingenlath said the company started production under these challenging circumstances with a strong focus on the health and safety. He added that the Luqiao, China factory is an example of how Polestar has leveraged the expertise of its parent companies.

Extra precautions have been taken because of the outbreak, including frequent disinfecting of work spaces and requiring workers to wear masks and undergo regular temperature screenings, according to the company. Polestar has said that none of its workers in China tested positive of COVID-19 as a result of its efforts.

COVID-19 has also affected Polestar’s timeline. Polestar will only sell its vehicles online and will offer customers subscriptions to the vehicle. It previously revealed plans to open “Polestar Spaces,” a showroom where customers can interact with the product and schedule test drives. These spaces will be standalone facilities and not within existing Volvo retailer showrooms. Polestar had planned to have 60 of these spaces open by 2020, including Oslo, Los Angeles and Shanghai.

COVID-19 has delayed the opening of the showrooms. The company will have some pop up stores opening as soon as that situation improves, so people can go see the cars and learn more while the permanent showrooms are still under construction, TechCrunch has learned.

It’s not clear just how many Polestar 2 vehicles will be produced, Polestar has told TechCrunch that it is in the “tens of thousands” of cars per calendar year. Those numbers will also depend on demand for the Polestar 2 and other models that are built in the same factory.

Polestar 2 EV

Image Credits: Screenshot/Polestar

Polestar also isn’t providing the exact number of reservations until it begins deliveries, which are supposed to start this summer in Europe followed by China and North America. It was confirmed to TechCrunch that reservations are in the “five digits.”

The Polestar 2, which was first revealed in February 2019, has been positioned by the company to go up against Tesla Model 3. (The company’s first vehicle, the Polestar 1, is a plug-in hybrid with two electrical motors powered by three 34 kilowatt-hour battery packs and a turbo and supercharged gas inline 4 up front.)

But it will likely face off against other competitors launching new EVs in 2020 and 2021, including Volkswagen, GM, Ford and startups Lucid Motors and even adventure-focused Rivian.

Polestar is hoping customers are attracted to the tech and the performance of the fastback, which is produces 408 horsepower, 487 pound feet of torque and a 78 kWh battery pack that delivers an estimated range of 292 miles under Europe’s WLTP.

The Polestar 2’s infotainment system will be powered by Android OS and, as a result, bring into the car embedded Google services such as Google Assistant, Google Maps and the Google Play Store. This shouldn’t be confused with Android Auto, which is a secondary interface that lies on top of an operating system. Android OS is modeled after its open-source mobile operating system that runs on Linux. But instead of running smartphones and tablets, Google modified it so it could be used in cars.

Israel passes emergency law to use mobile data for COVID-19 contact tracing

Israel has passed an emergency law to use mobile phone data for tracking people infected with COVID-19 including to identify and quarantine others they have come into contact with and may have infected.

The BBC reports that the emergency law was passed during an overnight sitting of the cabinet, bypassing parliamentary approval.

Israel also said it will step up testing substantially as part of its respond to the pandemic crisis.

In a statement posted to Facebook, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote: “We will dramatically increase the ability to locate and quarantine those who have been infected. Today, we started using digital technology to locate people who have been in contact with those stricken by the Corona. We will inform these people that they must go into quarantine for 14 days. These are expected to be large – even very large – numbers and we will announce this in the coming days. Going into quarantine will not be a recommendation but a requirement and we will enforce it without compromise. This is a critical step in slowing the spread of the epidemic.”

“I have instructed the Health Ministry to significantly increase the number of tests to 3,000 a day at least,” he added. “It is very likely that we will reach a higher figure, even up to 5,000 a day. To the best of my knowledge, relative to population, this is the highest number of tests in the world, even higher than South Korea. In South Korea, there are around 15,000 tests a day for a population five or six times larger than ours.”

On Monday an Israeli parliamentary subcommittee on intelligence and secret services discussed a government request to authorize Israel’s Shin Bet security service to assist in a national campaign to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus — but declined to vote on the request, arguing more time is needed to assess it.

Civil liberties campaigners have warned the move to monitor citizens’ movements sets a dangerous precedent.

According to WHO data, Israel had 200 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of yesterday morning. Today the country’s health ministry reported cases had risen to 427.

Details of exactly how the tracking will work have not been released — but, per the BBC, the location data of people’s mobile devices will be collected from telcos by Israel’s domestic security agency and shared with health officials.

It also reports the health ministry will be involved in monitoring the location of infected people to ensure they are complying with quarantine rules — saying it can also send text messages to people who have come into contact with someone with COVID-19 to instruct them to self isolate.

In recent days Netanyahu has expressed frustration that Israel citizens have not been paying enough mind to calls to combat the spread of the virus via voluntary social distancing.

“This is not child’s play. This is not a vacation. This is a matter of life and death,” he wrote on Facebook. “There are many among you who still do not understand the magnitude of the danger. I see the crowds on the beaches, people having fun. They think this is a vacation.”

“According to the instructions that we issued yesterday, I ask you not leave your homes and stay inside as much as possible. At the moment, I say this as a recommendation. It is still not a directive but that can change,” he added.

Since the Israeli government’s intent behind the emergency mobile tracking powers is to combat the spread of COVID-19 by enabling state agencies to identify people whose movements need to be restricted to avoid them passing the virus to others, it seems likely law enforcement agencies will also be involved in enacting the measures.

That will mean citizens’ smartphones being not just a tool of mass surveillance but also a conduit for targeted containment — raising questions about the impact such intrusive measures might have on people’s willingness to carry mobile devices everywhere they go, even during a pandemic.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that the US government is considering similar location-tracking technology measures in a bid to check the spread of COVID-19 — with discussions ongoing between tech giants, startups and White House officials on measures that could be taken to monitor the disease.

Last week the UK government also held a meeting with tech companies to ask for their help in combating the coronavirus. Per Wired some tech firms offered to share data with the state to help with contact tracing — although, at the time, the government was not pursuing a strategy of mass restrictions on public movement. It has since shifted position.

U.S. government reportedly in talks with tech companies on how to use location data in COVID-19 fight

U.S. government officials are currently in discussion with a number of tech companies, including Facebook and Google, around how data from cell phones might provide methods for combatting the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, according to a new Washington Post report. The talks also include health experts tracking the pandemic and its transmission, and one possible way in which said data could be useful is through aggregated, anonymized location data, per the report’s sources.

Location data taken from the smartphones of Americans could help public health experts track and map the general spread of the infection, the group has theorized, though of course the prospect of any kind of location tracking is bound to leave people uncomfortable, especially when it’s done at scale and involves not only private companies with which they have a business relationship, but also the government.

These efforts, however, would be strictly aimed at helping organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) get an overview of patterns, decoupled from any individual user identity. The Post’s sources stress that this would not involve the generation of any kind of government database, and would instead focus on anodized, aggregated data to inform modelling of the COVID-19 transmission and spread.

Already, we’ve seen unprecedented collaboration among some of the largest tech companies in the world on matters related to the coronavirus pandemic. Virtually every large tech company that operates a product involved in information dissemination came together on Monday to issue a statement about working closely together in order to fight the spread of fraud and disinformation about the virus.

The White House has also been consulting with tech companies around the virus and the U.S. response, including via a meeting last week that included Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has been in regular contact with the current administration as his company is increasingly playing a central and important role in how people are dealing with essentially global guidelines of isolation, social distancing, quarantine and even shelter-in-place orders.

Earlier this week, an open letter co-signed by a lengthy list of epidemiologists, excecutives, physicians and academics also sought to outline what tech companies could contribute to the ongoing effort to stem the COVID-19 pandemic, and one of the measures suggested (directed at mobile OS providers Apple and Google specifically) is an “opt-in, privacy preserving OS feature to support contact tracing” for individuals who might have been exposed to someone with the virus.

Of course, regardless of assurances to the contrary, it’s natural to be suspicious of any widespread effort to collect personal data. Especially when it’s historically been the case that in times of extreme duress, people have made trade-offs about personal freedoms and protections that have subsequently backfired. The New York Times also reported this week on an initiative to track the location data of people who have contracted the virus using an existing, previously undisclosed database of cellphone data from Israeli cellphone selfie providers and their customers.

Still, there’s good reason not to instantly dismiss the idea of trying to find some kind of privacy-protecting way of harnessing the information available to tech companies, since it does seem like a way to potentially provide a lot of benefit – particularly when it comes to measuring the impact of social distancing measures currently in place.

Apple agrees to settlement of up to $500 million from lawsuit alleging it throttled older phones

Apple Inc. has agreed to pay a settlement of up to $500 million, following a lawsuit accusing the company of intentionally slowing down the performance of older phones to encourage customers to buy newer models or fresh batteries.

The preliminary proposed class action lawsuit was disclosed Friday night and would see Apple pay consumers $25 per-phone, as reported by Reuters.

Any settlement needs to be approved by U.S. District Judge Edward Davila, who oversaw the case brought in San Jose, Calif.

For consumers, the $25 payout may seem a little low as a new iPhone can cost anywhere from $649 to $849 (for a lower-end model). The cost may be varied depending on how many people sue and the company is set to pay at least $310 million under the terms of the settlement.

For its part, Apple is denying wrongdoing in the case and said it was only agreeing to avoid the cost and burden associated with the lawsuit.

Any U.S. owner of the iPhone 6, 6 Plus, 6s, 6s Plus, 7 Plus or SE that ran on iOS 10.2.1 or any of the later operating systems are covered by the settlement. Users of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus which ran iOS 11.2 or later before Dec. 21, 2017 are also covered by the settlement.

Apple customers said their phone performance slowed down after they installed Apple software updates. The customers contend that Apple’s software updates intentionally degraded the performance of older models to encourage customers to unnecessarily upgrade to newer models or install new batteries.

Lawyers for Apple said that the problems were mainly due to high usage, temperature changes and other issues and that its engineers tried to address the problems as quickly as possible.

In February, Apple was fined $27 million by the French government for the same issue.

As we reported at the time:

A couple of years ago, Apple  released an iOS update (10.2.1 and 11.2) that introduced a new feature for older devices. If your battery is getting old, iOS would cap peak performances as your battery might not be able to handle quick peaks of power draw. The result of those peaks is that your iPhone might shut down abruptly.

While that feature is technically fine, Apple failed to inform users that it was capping performances on some devices. The company apologized and introduced a new software feature called “Battery Health,” which lets you check the maximum capacity of your battery and if your iPhone can reach peak performance.

And that’s the issue here. Many users may have noticed that their phone would get slower when they play a game, for instance. But they didn’t know that replacing the battery would fix that. Some users may have bought new phones even though their existing phone was working fine.

Shares of Apple were up over 9% today in a general market rally.

Apple has blocked Clearview AI’s iPhone app for violating its rules

An iPhone app built by controversial facial recognition startup Clearview AI has been blocked by Apple, effectively banning the app from use.

Apple confirmed to TechCrunch that the startup “violated” the terms of its enterprise developer program.

The app allows its users — which the company claims it serves only law enforcement officers — to use their phone camera or upload a photo to search its database of 3 billion photos. But BuzzFeed News revealed that the company — which claims to only cater to law enforcement users — also includes many private-sector users, including Macy’s, Walmart and Wells Fargo.

Clearview AI has been at the middle of a media — and legal — storm since its public debut in The New York Times last month. The company scrapes public photos from social media sites, drawing ire from the big tech giants that claim Clearview AI misused their services. But it’s also gained attention from hackers. On Wednesday, Clearview AI confirmed a data breach in which its client list was stolen.

The public Amazon S3 page containing the iPhone app. (Image: TechCrunch)

TechCrunch found Clearview AI’s iPhone app on an public Amazon S3 storage bucket on Thursday, despite a warning on the page that the app is “not to be shared with the public.”

The page asks users to “open this page on your iPhone” to install and approve the company’s enterprise certificate, allowing the app to run.

But this, according to Apple’s policies, is prohibited if the app’s users are outside of Clearview AI’s organization.

Clearview AI’s use of an enterprise certificate on an iPhone. (Image: TechCrunch)

Enterprise certificates are issued by Apple to allow companies to build and approve iPhone and iPad apps designed for internal company use only. It’s common for these certificates to be used to test apps internally before they are pushed out to the App Store. Apple maintains a strict set of rules on use of enterprise certificates, and says they cannot be used by consumers. But there have been cases of abuse.

Last year, TechCrunch exclusively reported that both Facebook and Google were using their enterprise certificates for consumer-facing apps in an effort to bypass Apple’s App Store. Apple revoked the tech giants’ enterprise certificates, disabling the infracting app but also any other app that relied on the certificate, including their catering and lunch menu apps.

The app was labeled as “beta” — typically a pre-release or a test version of the app. Besides this claim, there is no evidence to suggest this app was not used by Clearview AI customers.

Clearview AI chief executive Hoan Ton-That told TechCrunch: “We are in contact with Apple and working on complying with their terms and conditions.”

A brief analysis of the app through network traffic tools and disassembly tools shows it works largely in the same way as Clearview AI’s Android app, which was discovered by Gizmodo on Thursday.

Like the Android app, a user needs a Clearview AI-approved username and password to use the app.

Samsung’s Galaxy S20 Ultra is a lot of phone for a lot of money

Let’s talk about money. More specifically, let’s talk about how much things cost. A few years back, the price of flagship smartphones leapt above the $1,000 threshold, owing largely to the cost of screen technology. It’s a tough calculus, but that’s the price of innovation.

The rising cost of smartphones is largely regarded as a major contributing factor to flagging smartphone sales. Phones have gotten better and last longer, and with four-digit prices, users are far less compelled to upgrade every two years or so.

Samsung knows this as well as anyone. Along with its usual array of budget phones, the company’s gone to great lengths to offer “budget flagships,” a relatively new category that aims to find the sweet spot between high-end features and less-impressive components, first through the S10e and now its new lite devices.

The Galaxy S20 Ultra is decidedly not that. It’s a picture of smartphone opulence in an era of declining smartphone sales. It’s yet another new tier in the company’s ballooning flagship smartphone line(s) designed to reestablish Samsung’s place in the bleeding edge of mobile technologies, while appealing to those with a little extra money to spend in order to future-proof their devices.

“A little more” here being defined as starting at $1,399. Or $1,599, if you’re, say, feeling extra flush after your tax returns and looking to upgrade to 512GB from the default 128GB. As for what top of the line means these days, that, too, has changed. Samsung was ahead of the curve by introducing multiple 5G phones last year. At the time, the handsets were, understandably, confined to the top tier, due to both cost of hardware and the general lack of global coverage.

For 2020, it’s 5G across the board, on all S20 models, so the kitchen sink Ultra needs to find ways to further set itself apart from the S20+. There are a few keys areas in which the Ultra sets itself apart. First and most immediate is size. Along with increased prices, the other thing you can count on, like clockwork, is bigger displays. The good news is that Samsung’s hardware advances have kept the footprint roughly the size of the last generation of devices.

Samsung continues to impress on that front, this time sneaking a roomy 6.9-inch display into a 166.9 x 76 x 8.8 mm; compare that to the 162.6 x 77.1 x 7.9 mm on the 6.7-inch S10 5G. The thick profile is almost certainly due to a larger battery. The 4,500 mAh found on last year’s device and this year’s S20+ is upgraded to a beefy 5,000 mAh.

Samsung remains conservative with its own expected battery life, owing to power-hungry features like the big AMOLED with a 120Hz refresh rate and the 5G radio. The company rates the phone as “all-day battery.” It’s a pretty nebulous phrase, all things considered. I suspect there’s still research to be done on the adverse impact of next-gen radios on battery life. With the default settings on (and little to no 5G, owing at least somewhat to some network issues), I found I got about 28 total hours on a charge.

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That certainly qualifies for the “all-day” mark, even if it’s a bit disappointing given the massive battery size. But it should definitely get you through a day and then some, with no issues. The other good news on that front is super-fast charging if you use the included wall adapter. I was able to go from zero to fully charged in just under an hour.

The design language is pretty much identical on all three S20s, and honestly, largely unchanged from last year’s model, though Samsung has moved to a hole-punch camera (a generous 40 megapixels for selfies) up front. Flip it around and the biggest difference is immediately apparent. The camera module on the Ultra is, well, ultra. There are four cameras back there, in a lip that occupies about a sixth of the phone’s total surface area.

The S20+’s more than adequate 12MP, 64MP telephoto, 12MP ultra wide and time of flight sensor have been bumped up to a 108MP main, 48MP 10x telephoto, 12MP ultra wide and time of flight. The ToF, mind you, is absent on the plain-old S20, bringing an added sense of depth for bokeh effects and fun tricks like 3D scanning. One also gets the sense that Samsung is very much laying the groundwork for an even stronger play in the AR world, extending beyond the current selection of AR emoji. Though, as with the rest of the industry, mainstream implementation is still slow going.

The biggest thing here — both figuratively and literally — is the telephoto. The camera features a folded telephoto, which is essentially turned on its side to fit the form factor. The camera is capable of a solid 10x hybrid zoom. Using a combination of the hardware and software, the company is able to achieve the 100x “Space Zoom,” versus the other models’ 30x max. It’s impressive all around, but important to note that the claims of “losslessness” only extend to 10x.

Beyond that, things start to degrade. And honestly, by the time you get to 100x, things start looking like a digital Monet painting. You can generally make out the objects, but in most cases, it’s probably not something you’re going to rush out to share on Instagram. For things like nosebleed seats at concerts or sporting events, however, sometimes it’s just enough to remember you’re there.

Honestly, though, I think Samsung is laying the groundwork for future updates, as it is with the ToF sensor. It’s easy to imagine how a 100x zoom coupled with some future imaging AI could lead to some pretty impressive telephoto shots, without the need for an external, optical lens. For now, however, it feels like more of a novelty. Honestly, a number of the upgrades over the S20+ feel a bit like excesses, and none but true devotees need to go all in with the Ultra.

My only momentary hesitation in recommending one of the lower-tier devices over the Ultra are questions of what happens to battery life when you dip below 5,000 mAh. The 120Hz screen is great for things like gaming, but for most users, I’d recommended keeping it off most of the time. That should buy you an extra couple of hours of life, switching to 120Hz when needed and back to 60 the rest of the time.

Ditto for the 108-megapixel camera. For most photos it makes sense to utilize pixel binning, which makes for a small 12-megapixel shot, but allows for a lot more light to be let in on a per pixel basis. Photo are brighter and sharper and the phone does better in low light. Also, the image isn’t gigantic — I forgot to swap the setting for a few photos and didn’t realize how massive they were until I sent them.

The best new photo feature, however, isn’t hardware at all. I’ve long posited that the key to a good imaging feature is simplicity. Cameras keep getting better and offer more features for those who want to shoot more professional photos on their mobile devices. That’s great, and if you’re Google, it means that the legendary Annie Leibovitz will show up to your launch event and sing your device’s praises.

But unless something works out of the box, it’s going to be of little use to a majority of consumers. Single Take is a clever addition to default camera settings that takes a whole bunch of different types of photos at once (provided you can stand still for 10 seconds). You get Live Focus, Timelapse and Ultra-Wide all at once. The camera saves everything to the roll, where you can choose the best image. It’s a larger file, but not huge in the grand scheme of things. For those who don’t want to be a digital hoarder, you can always just go in and manually delete them.

The biggest updates to the S20 line feel like future-proofing. Elements like like 5G, 100x zoom and 8K video record don’t always make a ton of sense as of this writing, but much of Samsung’s biggest plays have been centered around getting out in front of the curve. With 5G, for example, there are still coverage barriers, but with users holding onto their handsets for longer, it’s almost certain that the next-gen wireless technology will be ubiquitous before the time comes for many users to upgrade.

In its current state, however, charging $1,399 and up for the Ultra is a pretty hard ask. Thankfully, however, Samsung has more than enough options for users looking for something a little cheaper. It’s a list that now includes the S10 Lite line and newly discounted standard S10 devices. Features like 100x, on the other hand, are novel, but it’s hard to justify the premium.

Huawei’s ill-fated foldable returns with a more robust upgrade

MWC may have been canceled on account of rising coronavirus concerns, but the party still went on for Huawei (albeit to what appears to have been a mostly empty room). A year after wowing crowds with the Mate X, the company is introducing the Mate Xs.

Rather than a proper successor, the device appears to be the result of Huawei’s decision to go back to the drawing board, following Samsung’s very public problems with its own original foldable.

The design looks nearly identical to the original version of the phone — which is a pro. Honestly, the one major downside of the device (aside from a lofty price tag) is the fact that it never fully arrived, outside of what appears to be a relatively small batch offering in China.

Like Samsung, Huawei’s update focused a lot on the hinge; with increased mechanical components, the product should be more rugged than the original. Keep in mind that, while we were able to play around with the original Mate X, that was about it. Personally, I saw one at MWC and had an opportunity to try one for a few minutes during lunch, between meetings at Huawei HQ in Shenzhen.

Now that foldables have arrived, it seems Huawei is finally ready to take the leap. Of course, one ought not forget the company’s ongoing issues here in the States that will not only make it more difficult to procure here, but also blocks access to Android apps and services. That will continue to be a major issue for the company’s products, going forward.

Price, too, will continue to be an issue, at around $2,700 when it goes up for sale in certain markets next month. That extremely inflated price gets you a 6.6-inch display, 5G, a beefy 4,500 mAh battery, the latest Kirin 990 chip, 8GB of RAM and 512GB of storage. Go big and/or go home, right?