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SoftBank reportedly plans to lend employees as much as $20 billion to invest in its VC fund

SoftBank has a plant to loan up to $20 billion to its employees, including CEO Masayoshi Son, for the purposes of having that capital re-invested in SoftBank’s own Vision venture fund, according to a new report from the Wall Street Journal. That’s a highly unusual move that could be risky in terms of how much exposure SoftBank Group has on the whole in terms of its startup bets, but the upside is that it can potentially fill out as much as a fifth of its newly announced second Vision Fund’s total target raise of $108 billion from a highly aligned investor pool.

SoftBank revealed its plans for its second Vision Fund last month, including $38 billion from SoftBank itself, as well as commitments from Apple, Microsoft and more. The company also took a similar approach to its original Vision Fund, WSJ reports, with stakes from employees provided with loans totalling $8 billion of that $100 billion commitment.

The potential pay-off is big, provided the fund has some solid winners that achieve liquidation events that provide big returns that employees can then use to pay off the original loans, walking away with profit. That’s definitely a risk, however, especially in the current global economic client. As WSJ notes, the Uber shares that Vision Fund I acquired are now worth less than what SoftBank originally paid for them according to sources, and SoftBank bet WeWork looks poised to be another company whose IPO might not make that much, if any, money for later stage investors.




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8 million Android users tricked into downloading 85 adware apps from Google Play

Dozens of Android adware apps disguised as photo editing apps and games have been caught serving ads that would take over users’ screens as part of a fraudulent money-making scheme.

Security firm Trend Micro said it found 85 individual apps downloaded more than eight million times from the Google Play — all of which have since been removed from the app store.

More often than not adware apps will run on a user’s device and will silently serve and click ads in the background and without the user’s knowledge to generate ad revenue. But these apps were particularly brazen and sneaky, one of the researchers said.

“It isn’t your run-of-the-mill adware family,” said Ecular Xu, a mobile threat response engineer at Trend Micro. “Apart from displaying advertisements that are difficult to close, it employs unique techniques to evade detection through user behavior and time-based triggers.”

The researchers discovered that the apps would keep a record when they were installed and sit dormant for around half-an-hour. After the delay, the app would hide its icon and create a shortcut on the user’s home screen, the security firm said. That, they say, helped to protect the app from being deleted if the user decided to drag and drop the shortcut to the ‘uninstall’ section of the screen.

“These ads are shown in full screen,” said Xu. “Users are forced to view the whole duration of the ad before being able to close it or go back to app itself.”

When the app unlocked, it displayed ads on the user’s home screen. The code also checks to make sure it doesn’t show the same ad too frequently, the researchers said.

Worse, the ads can be remotely configured by the fraudster, allowing ads to be displayed more frequently than the default five minute intervals.

Trend Micro provided a list of the apps — including Super Selfie Camera, Cos Camera, Pop Camera, and One Stroke Line Puzzle — all of which had a million downloads each.

Users about to install the apps had a dead giveaway: most of the apps had appalling reviews, many of which had as many one-star reviews as they did five-stars, with users complaining about the deluge of pop-up ads.

Google does not typically comment on app removals beyond acknowledging their removal from Google Play.

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Flower delivery startup UrbanStems raises $12M to fund national expansion

UrbanStems is announcing that it has raised $12 million in Series B funding.

CEO Seth Goldman told me the startup has already been using the money to expand nationally. He explained that UrbanStems now has two delivery models — there are bike couriers who deliver plants and flowers within two hours in New York City and Washington, D.C. (where the company is headquartered), and then there’s a third-party shipping partner who offers next-day delivery to anywhere else in the United States.

The company started out with bike couriers, and Goldman said it’s not abandoning that strategy: “We will find areas where there’s enough demand to warrant jumping in, boots on the ground.”

At the same time, he said next-day shipping has allowed the company “grow a lot faster in the short term.” (Regardless of method, UrbanStems does not charge an extra delivery fee.)

Recent initiatives include a partnership with Vogue, with bouquets created by Vogue editors. In addition, the company has been expanding beyond flowers (where prices start at $35) and plants ($50) by offering curated gift boxes ($55). It sounds like Goldman has plans to do more in this area, too.

“The gifting market is far bigger than just the flower market,” he said. “We are providing more than a product … Gifting itself is a highly emotional, vulnerable experience. [You want to] make sure it gets there successfully, make sure it gets there on-time, make sure they love it, it’s packaged well, every little detail feels personal and special.”

The round was led by SWaN & Legend Venture Partners (who also led the startup’s $6.8 million Series A) and Motley Fool Ventures, with participation from Middleland Capital, NextGen Venture Partners and Sagamore Ventures.

“We are excited to continue to invest in the growth of UrbanStems,” said SWaN & Legend Managing Director David Strasser in a statement. “We continue to be impressed with the team led by Seth Goldman, as he builds on the strong foundation the cofounders laid out in building the pre-eminent gifting platform of the future.”

The funding came after a leadership change at the company, with Goldman (who joined as COO in 2017 after serving as CEO for HelloFresh USA) taking over the chief executive role from co-founder Ajay Kori in May of last year.

When asked about the transition, Goldman noted that Kori remains involved as chairman of the board, and he said, “We partnered a lot on this and kept our team from making it feel like it was a huge deal — which is a weird thing to say, even though it is a huge deal. But I was already managing more than half of the headcount of entire team across the company … so they knew what they were getting with me as a leader.”




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WeWork’s S-1 misses these three key points

No startup is as polarizing as WeWork, and for good reason. The company, whose relentless growth has seen it open 528 locations across 111 cities in just about nine years, has never been entirely forthcoming on exactly how the unit economics add up at its locations. And so we have had a beautiful Rorschach test for the financial class these past few years regarding the company: it’s either the greatest financial return of all time or a Ponzi scheme (and absolutely nothing  in between dammit).

That ambiguity is supposed to change with the company’s S-1, where it is required by law to show a reasonably comprehensive set of numbers to investors in order to go public. Unfortunately, despite all the verbiage (“Our mission is to elevate the world’s consciousness.”) and data, we still don’t know the health of the core of the company’s business model or fully understand the risks it is undertaking. 

Here are three questions that remain unanswered so far by the company’s filing.

No cohort data on contribution margin

As I pointed out a couple of months ago, the ability for investors to understand the true unit economics of WeWork’s business is critical for cutting through the debate over its financial future.

It’s not as though WeWork hasn’t tried to give us some insight in its S-1. One of WeWork’s core operating metrics is “contribution margin including non-cash GAAP straight-line lease cost” (or what I will abbreviate just this one time as CMINCGAAAPSLLC). Through this metric, the company offers us a single number into the health of its business — essentially a way for investors to understand the performance of the company’s mature office locations.




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Spotify’s podcast dashboard comes out of beta

Over the last couple of years, Spotify has made a big push into podcasts. The tip of the spear has been major investments, including acquisitions of companies like Gimlet and Anchor. It’s all part of the company’s attempt harness a massively growing category and build an audience beyond music.

The other great thing about podcasts for a company like Spotify is the access to a tremendous amount of free content created by third-party producers. They record it, edit it and host it, and all Spotify has to do is index the stuff. Spotify for Podcasters is a new platform for the company designed to give creators more control — or at least insight — into how that content is served up.

The feature came out of beta today and is available for all users, showing key analytics like listening time, number of listeners and episode streams. “With so many podcasts out there, it’s more important than ever that you have the data you need to help you understand and grow your audience,” the company writes. “That’s exactly what your dashboard is designed to provide.”

I’ve been playing around with the feature a bit this morning and am finding some interesting bits of demographic info based on the sample. My show RiYL is a mix of different interviews with subjects across a wide variety of different mediums.

No surprise, the ones with musical guests are doing far better than any other. I suspect many or most users are discovering episodes will searching for music on the service. That will likely be the case until Spotify becomes more known for podcast offerings.

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Seems the show’s listeners are mostly male (disappointing, but perhaps not surprising), aged 35-44, located in the United States. The also listen to a lot of Beatles, Bon Iver, Velvet Underground and Radiohead. Go figure.

The feature follows the similar Spotify for Artists offering and promises additional information/insight as it matures.




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Twitter’s latest test lets users subscribe to a tweet’s replies

Twitter in more recent months has been focused on making conversations on its platform easier to follow, participate in, and in some cases, block. The company’s latest test, announced via a tweet ahead of the weekend, will allow users to subscribe to replies to a particularly interesting tweet they want to follow, too, in order to see how the conversation progresses. The feature is designed to complement the existing notifications feature you may have turned on for your “must-follow” accounts.

Many people already have Twitter alert them via a push notification when an account they want to track sends out a new tweet. Now you’ll be able to visit that tweet directly and turn on the option to receive reply notifications, if you’re opted in to this new test.

If you have the new feature, you’ll see a notification bell icon in the top-right corner of the screen when you’re viewing the tweet in Twitter’s mobile app.

When you click the bell icon, you’ll be presented with three options: one to subscribe to the “top” replies, another to subscribe to all replies, and a third to turn reply notifications off.

Twitter says top replies will include those from the author, anyone they mentioned, and people you follow.

This is the same set of “interesting” replies that Twitter has previously experimented with highlighting in other ways — including through the use of labels like “Original Tweeter” or “Author,” and as of last month, with icons instead of text-based labels. For example, one test displayed a microphone icon next to a tweet from the original poster in order to make their replies easier to spot.

The larger goal of those tests and this new one is to personalize the experience of participating in Twitter conversations by showcasing what the people you follow are saying, while also making a conversation easier to follow by seeing when the original poster and those they mentioned have chimed in.

This latest test takes things a step further by actually subscribing you to those sorts of replies — or even all the replies to a tweet, if you choose.

The new experiment comes at a time when Twitter is attempting to solve the overwhelming problem of conversation health in other ways, too. Beyond attempting to write and enforce tougher rules regarding online abuse and harassment, it also last month officially launched a “Hide Replies” feature in Canada that would allow the original poster to put replies they didn’t feel were valuable behind an icon so they weren’t prominently displayed within the conversation. It’s unclear how “Hide Replies” would work with this new reply notifications option, however — presumably, you’d still get alerts when someone you follow responded, even if the original poster hid their reply from view.

Twitter says the new test is available on iOS or Android.




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2020 and the black-box ballot box

One of the scarier notions in the world today is the prospect of American voting machines being compromised at scale: voters thrown off rolls, votes disregarded, vote tallies edited, entire elections hacked.

That’s why the nation’s lawmakers and civil servants flocked (relatively speaking) to Def Con in Las Vegas this week, where hackers at its Voting Village do their best to prove the potential vulnerabilities — including, in some cases, remote command and control — of voting systems.

There are several ways to help secure voting. One, thankfully, is already in place; the decentralization of systems such that every state and county maintains its own, providing a bewildering panoply of varying targets, rather than a single tantalizing point of failure. A second, as security guru Bruce Schneier points out, is to eschew electronic voting machines altogether and stick with good old-fashioned paper ballots.

But paper ballots don’t help much if you use machines to tabulate them, and those machines are compromised — so it’s especially worrying if those are, in engineering parlance, black boxes, i.e. machines which provide visibility only of their inputs and their outputs, not their inner workings.

A solution to this black-box problem is to either tabulate by hand, or instantiate a separate audit process after each election. That means independently sampling and hand-counting a small fraction of the votes, ensuring that the audit result is statistically in line with the overall tally — and if it isn’t, increasing the sample size, up to and including a full recount.

The election threat model is broader than you might think. Researchers can, for instance, transform ballot images so that votes move imperceptibly. Which is one of many reasons why paper ballots are so critical. I have some good news there: as Politico’s excellent voting machine interactive shows, most US states have and/or are moving to paper ballots (and most of the remainder were/are going to mostly vote for the party apparently opposed to democracy anyway.)

The audit situation, though, is … more complicated. Only 25 states require any audits of federal elections, for instance, and only some of those audits have teeth. Witness Verified Voting’s superb interactive explainers of post election audits and state audit laws.

I don’t want to minimize the significance of secure voting machines and the Voting Village hackers’ work. It’s as important as everyone says. But as any security expert will tell you, defense in depth is often even more important than the strength of any individual layer.

Secure machines, which generate individual paper ballots, to be hand-tabulated and/or audited — that’s the kind of defense in depth we want, and personally I’m a little concerned that the final moat, the audit, doesn’t get the attention it deserves. To quote, of all people, a Republican president: “Trust, but verify.”




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Kobalt, Apple and smartwatches, Hadoop, customer support, and social work and AI

The Kobalt EC-1: How a Swedish saxophonist built Kobalt, the world’s next music unicorn

My favorite pieces we host on Extra Crunch are our EC-1 series of in-depth profiles and analyses of high-flying, fascinating startups. We launched Extra Crunch with a multi-part series on Patreon, and then we covered augmented reality and Pokémon Go creator Niantic and gaming platform Roblox.

This week, Extra Crunch media columnist Eric Peckham launched the first part of his three-part EC-1 series looking at music “operating system” startup Kobalt. Kobalt is not perhaps a popular household name like Roblox, but it’s influence is heard pretty much every single time you listen to music. Kobalt is upending the traditional infrastructure to track music plays to capture royalties for artists, an industry that today still involves people literally walking into bars and writing down what’s playing. From that base, Kobalt wants to expand into services to empower the next-generation of stars and mid-market talent.

What I loved about this story is that not only is Kobalt completely rebuilding an otherwise stagnant industry, but its founder and CEO is also such a dynamic individual. Willard Ahdritz was a former saxophonist whose band was essentially abandoned by their music label — even while that label wouldn’t give up the economics that would allow the band to continue (some founders may have similar experiences with their venture investors). Ahdritz would eventually start his own music label called Telegram, and a bit later started Kobalt to solve the problems he kept running into on the music publishing side.

It’s been almost two decades, but today, Kobalt offers a suite of technologies and services and has its crosshairs on the big three labels — Universal, Sony, and Warner. It’s also raised a boatload of venture capital and is closing in on a unicorn valuation. Read the full story, learn more about this analytically fascinating business, and get ready for parts two and three coming soon.

Refer a friend to Extra Crunch




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Amazon’s lead EU data regulator is asking questions about Alexa privacy

Amazon’s lead data regulator in Europe, Luxembourg’s National Commission for Data Protection, has raised privacy concerns about its use of manual human reviews of Alexa AI voice assistant recordings.

A spokesman for the regulator confirmed in an email to TechCrunch it is discussing the matter with Amazon, adding: “At this stage, we cannot comment further about this case as we are bound by the obligation of professional secrecy.” The development was reported earlier by Reuters.

We’ve reached out to Amazon for comment.

Amazon’s Alexa voice AI, which is embedded in a wide array of hardware — from the company’s own brand Echo smart speaker line to an assortment of third party devices (such as this talkative refrigerator or this oddball table lamp) — listens pervasively for a trigger word which activates a recording function, enabling it to stream audio data to the cloud for processing and storage.

However trigger-word activated voice AIs have been shown to be prone to accidental activation. While a device may be being used in a multi-person household. So there’s always a risk of these devices recording any audio in their vicinity, not just intentional voice queries…

In a nutshell, the AIs’ inability to distinguish between intentional interactions and stuff they overhear means they are natively prone to eavesdropping — hence the major privacy concerns.

These concerns have been dialled up by recent revelations that tech giants — including Amazon, Apple and Google — use human workers to manually review a proportion of audio snippets captured by their voice AIs, typically for quality purposes. Such as to try to improve the performance of voice recognition across different accents or environments. But that means actual humans are listening to what might be highly sensitive personal data.

Earlier this week Amazon quietly added an option to the settings of the Alexa smartphone app to allow users to opt out of their audio snippets being added to a pool that may be manually reviewed by people doing quality control work for Amazon — having not previously informed Alexa users of its human review program.

The policy shift followed rising attention on the privacy of voice AI users — especially in Europe.

Last month thousands of recordings of users of Google’s AI assistant were leaked to the Belgian media which was able to identify some of the people in the clips.

A data protection watchdog in Germany subsequently ordered Google to halt manual reviews of audio snippets.

Google responded by suspending human reviews across Europe. While its lead data watchdog in Europe, the Irish DPC, told us it’s “examining” the issue.

Separately, in recent days, Apple has also suspended human reviews of Siri snippets — doing so globally, in its case — after a contractor raised privacy concerns in the UK press over what Apple contractors are privy to when reviewing Siri audio.

The Hamburg data protection agency which intervened to halt human reviews of Google Assistant snippets urged its fellow EU privacy watchdogs to prioritize checks on other providers of language assistance systems — and “implement appropriate measures” — naming both Apple and Amazon.

In the case of Amazon, scrutiny from European watchdogs looks to be fast dialling up.

At the time of writing it is the only one of the three tech giants not to have suspended human reviews of voice AI snippets, either regionally or globally.

In a statement provided to the press at the time it changed Alexa settings to offer users an opt-out from the chance of their audio being manually reviewed, Amazon said:

We take customer privacy seriously and continuously review our practices and procedures. For Alexa, we already offer customers the ability to opt-out of having their voice recordings used to help develop new Alexa features. The voice recordings from customers who use this opt-out are also excluded from our supervised learning workflows that involve manual review of an extremely small sample of Alexa requests. We’ll also be updating information we provide to customers to make our practices more clear.




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Statespace picks up $2.5M to help gamers train

Gaming continues to grow in popularity, with esports revenue growing 23 percent from last year to top $1 billion in 2019.

But the metrics by which talent is evaluated in gaming, and the methods by which gamers can train to better hone their craft, are varied and at times non-existent. That’s where StateSpace, and specifically the company’s gaming arm Klutch, come into play.

In 2017, Statespace launched out of stealth with their first product, Aim Lab. Aim Lab is meant to mimic the physical rules of a game to give gamers a practice space where they can improve their skills. Moreover, Aim Lab identifies weaknesses in a player’s gameplay — one person might struggle with their visual acuity in the top left quadrant of the screen, while another might have trouble spotting or aiming at targets on the bottom right side of the screen — and allows gamers to focus in on their weaknesses to get better.

Today, the company has announced a $2.5 million seed funding round led by FirstMark Capital, with participation from Expa, Lux Capital and WndrCo. This brings the company’s total funding to $4 million.

Alongside growing Aim Lab, which is on track to soon reach 1 million users, one of the company’s main goals is to create a standardized metric by which gamers’ skills can be measured. In football, college athletes and NFL coaches have the Scouting Combine to make decisions around recruiting. This doesn’t necessarily take into account stats like yardage or touchdowns, but rather the raw skills of a player such as 40-yard sprint speed.

In fact, Statespace has partnered with the Pro Football Hall of Fame for ‘The Cognitive Combine’, becoming the official integrative medicine program cognitive assessment partner of the organization. Statespace wants to create a similar ‘combine’ for gaming.

The hope is that the company can offer this metric to publishers, colleges and esports orgs, giving them the ability to not only evaluate talent, but to better serve casual users through improved matchmaking and cheat detection.

“We want to go a level beyond your kill:death ratio,” said cofounder and CEO Dr. Wayne Mackey. Those metrics greatly depend on factors like who you’re playing with. You won’t always be matched against players who are on an even keel with you. So we want to look at fundamental skills like hand eye coordination, visual acuity, spatial processing skills, and working memory capacity.”

Klutch has partnered with the National Championship Series as the official FPS training partner for 2019. NCS has majors for both CS:Go and Overwatch, two of the biggest competitive FPS games in the world. The company is also partnering with top Twitch streamers and Masterclass to create The Academy.

Academy users will be able to get advanced tutorials from streamers like KingGeorge (Rainbox Six Siege), SypherPK (Fortnite), Valkia (Overwatch), Drift0r (CoD), and Launders (CS:GO).

Obviously, gaming is a major part of Statespace’s business model. But the skeleton of the technology has a number of different applications, particularly in medicine. Statespace is currently in the research phase of rolling out an Aim Lab product that is specifically focused on helping people who have had strokes recover and rehabilitate.

Statespace wants to use the funding to build out the team and expand the Klutch Aim Lab platform beyond Steam to mobile and eventually console, with Xbox prioritized over PlayStation, as well as launching the Academy.




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