Equifax CEO Richard Smith steps down in aftermath of massive breach

Equifax Chairman and CEO Richard Smith stepped down Tuesday in the wake of a massive cybersecurity breach that exposed the birth dates, social security numbers, and other personal information of 143 million Equifax customers, The New York Times reports.

Paulino do Rego Barros Jr. will vacate his post as the company’s president of the Asia-Pacific region to assume the CEO duties in an interim capacity, the Times says. Equifax will consider candidates from both inside and outside the company as permanent replacements.

According to the Times, Mark Feidler will become chairman of the board.

“Speaking for everyone on the board, I sincerely apologize [for failing to protect the seized data],” Feidler said in a statement, per the Times. Feidler said, per the Times, that the board has formed a special committee to handle the breach.

Lawmakers, as well as the general public, have taken issue with Equifax’s failure to secure the data, and some have cast aspersions upon the company’s handling of the fallout that followed the breach.

Equifax set up a special-purpose website to provide information about the attack, and to help customers contain the damage. Among the website’s primary offerings was a tool by which a customer could enter his information and find out whether the breach had affected him. But the tool ran into a number of problems. Moreover, the company struggled to field the myriad calls that flooded its customer support lines.

The Times reports that three Equifax executives sold a combined $1.8 million worth of stock in the company in the days after the breach had been discovered but before it had been disclosed. Equifax said, per the Times, that the executives mentioned were unaware of the breach when they offloaded the shares.

Smith is the third prominent Equifax executive to vacate his post in response to the breach. The company’s chief information officer and chief security officer both stepped down September 14.

“Mr. Smith has been very cooperative and supportive of this approach,” Equifax spokesman Wyatt Jefferies said per the Times.

Smith had served as CEO since 2005. In his 12 years with the company, he more than doubled its annual revenue, the Times notes. He was renowned amongst Wall Street experts for his ability to develop innovative products, and for his sales acumen.

As of now, Equifax has not terminated Mr. Smith, but the terms reached prior to his departure allow the board to retroactively fire him for cause, the Times says. The company will provide neither severance nor accelerated vesting of stock options to Smith, and he will not receive a bonus for 2017 (Equifax awarded him $3-million bonuses in 2015 and 2016).

Smith will retain $18.4 million in pension benefits.

Smith is scheduled to appear at congressional meetings regarding the breach in the coming weeks: one held by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on October 3, the other by the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee the following day.

Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a leading member of the latter committee, issued a statement ordering Smith to appear for the appointment and admonishing the former executive for shirking his responsibility for the breach.

“A CEO walking out the door just days before he is to appear before Congress is an abdication of his responsibility,” Schatz said, according to the Times.

But, Jefferies, the Equifax spokesman, has indicated that Smith intends to comply with Congress’ demands. “If Congress asks him, he will go,” said Jefferies of Smith.

Schatz is one of the several senators who have, in the wake of the Equifax incident, advocated legislation that would give consumers more latitude to protect their credit information.

The FBI is currently leading a criminal investigation into the breach, the Times says, and attorneys general in 30 states have launched their own probes into the matter. On September 19, the Massachusetts Attorney General sued Equifax seeking civil damages and more compensation.

Featured image via Vimeo

China bans Facebook messaging service WhatsApp

The Chinese government has disabled Facebook-owned messaging service WhatsApp, the New York Times reports.

Nadim Kobeissi, an applied cryptographer at Paris-based research firm Symbolic Software, told the Times his company began noticing slowdowns in the service Wednesday. By Monday, the block had become comprehensive.

Authorities blocked video-chat and file-sharing functions within WhatsApp in mid-July, but the app’s messaging capabilities, which employ a rare and strong form of encryption, remained functional. The government lifted bans on video chat and file sharing later, but has since disabled the app in its entirety, reports say.

WhatsApp’s messaging service uses a renowned end-to-end encryption technique. As the Times explains it, even Facebook itself cannot decode messages sent via the app. The encryption method is not widely used and is therefore difficult to compromise.

But the ban, as the Times points out, indicates that Chinese authorities have developed a means by which to breach WhatsApp messaging encryption.

“This is not the typical technical method in which the Chinese government censors something,” Kobeissi said.

Censorship of various technological communication services is commonplace in the country. If the government does not disable a service entirely, it slows down that service to such a degree that it becomes unusable.

“If you’re only allowed to drive one mile per hour, you’re not going to drive on that road, even if it’s not technically blocked,” Lokman Tsui, an internet communications specialist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, explained to the Times.

The goal of the censorship is to funnel users toward a handful of communication services that the government can easily monitor. WeChat is one such service. It is similar to WhatsApp except that the former, according to the Times, offers broader functionality.

Tencent, the company that runs WeChat, is based in Shenzhen and has said that it will comply with the government’s requests for information. In total, 963 million people use WeChat, the Times says.

Services like WhatsApp and WeChat have largely replaced e-mail in China, and are vital to many business operations. A large number of China-based businesses were unwilling to use WeChat, whether because of the threat of surveillance or some other reason.

Some former WhatsApp users in China expressed frustration on social media, the Times reports.

“Losing contact with my clients, forced back to the age of telephone and email for work now,” one user complained on Weibo, a Twitter-like microblogging site.

“Even WhatsApp is blocked now? I’m going to be out of business soon,” another person said via the same site.

WhatsApp was the last Facebook product available in mainland China, the Times says. The country banned the company’s main social media site in 2009. Instagram, another Facebook offering, is disabled as well.

The WhatsApp ban represents a setback for the social media behemoth, whose founder and chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, has been advocating and taking steps toward re-entering the Chinese market.

The handful of American-created communication services China does tolerate include Microsoft’s Skype and Apple’s FaceTime. The former does not employ end-to-end encryption, the Times points out, and is, therefore, easier for the government to monitor. The latter does use end-to-end encryption but is less secure than WhatsApp.

The Times notes that the Office of the United States Trade Representative is investigating whether Chinese authorities have violated the intellectual property rights of American citizens. The Office has not clarified whether it will consider the bans as part of the investigation, or merely look for cases in which China has stolen US technology.

The WhatsApp ban comes just prior to the country’s Communist Party Congress on October 18, during which authorities appoint the leaders of the party, who in turn run the country.

According to the Times, the meeting, which the country holds once every five years, will likely reinstall President Xi Jinping as party leader. The question remains as to who will join Xi on the Standing Committee of Politburo, the party’s highest ranking group.

Under Xi’s leadership, the Times notes, China has tightened censorship, closed several churches and jailed a number of human rights activists.

Featured image via Pixabay

Walmart to test in-home delivery program

Remember when you had to go down to the mailbox or onto your doorstep to pick up items you ordered online?

If a program Walmart is testing takes off, people may be asking that question within the next several years. The program will allow delivery drivers to leave packages inside a customer’s home, and groceries in the fridge or freezer, TechCrunch reports.

“…we want to do more in the future by delivering groceries and other orders in whatever location works best for our customers – inside the house for some and in the fridge/freezer in the garage for others,” said Sloan Eddleston, Vice President of Walmart’s eCommerce Strategy & Business Operations, in the official announcement.

When the delivery driver arrives at a participant’s home, he will enter a one-time passcode on an August Home smart lock to gain entry. Walmart says customers will be able to watch the driver enter and move around in their houses via a video feed on their smartphones. When the driver exits the home, the door will lock automatically.

Walmart has hired same-day delivery service Deliv to perform the deliveries themselves. Sam’s Club, a Walmart affiliate, partnered with Deliv in March 2016 to test a grocery delivery program.

This most recent pilot program will be available in Silicon Valley to a select group of August Home users who have chosen to participate. As TechCrunch points out, if the program is successful, Walmart may expand the list of supported smart-home providers beyond August Home.

TechCrunch further notes that Walmart has not indicated how long the program will run, nor whether the company intends to expand the trial to locales outside of Silicon Valley.

Walmart says it has designed the test to gauge how much customers are willing to pay for the service. The company has yet to disclose a pricing model.

Walmart has partnered with smart-home companies to enhance delivery operations in the past. In June, online retailer jet.com, which Walmart acquired in August 2016, teamed with Latch to install high-tech lockboxes on the front doors of 1,000 apartment buildings. Among other functions, the system allows customers to remotely grant access to their apartment complex so that drivers can deliver packages even when the customer is not home.

In its continued effort to keep pace with online retail giants like Amazon, Walmart has experimented with other augmentations to its delivery operations, TechCrunch notes. The company offered a discount to customers who had online orders shipped to Walmart stores, and tried allowing in-store employees to deliver packages from the store to customers’ homes.

In emulation of Amazon Prime, Walmart instituted a two-day shipping option that is free for rewards members.

In June 2016, the company tested a system whereby Uber and Lyft drivers delivered groceries to customers’ homes. Customers ordered groceries online, paying a $7 to $10 delivery fee. Then, a Walmart employee culled the requested items from the shelves, placed them in a bag, and called an Uber or Lyft driver to pick the order up from the store and deliver it to the customer’s home.

Meanwhile, Amazon—arguably Walmart’s chief competitor—is making its own efforts to cut delivery times. Through that company’s Prime Now program, customers can have tens of thousands of items delivered to their doors in less than an hour.

Amazon also offers grocery delivery and one-hour restaurant delivery through its Prime membership program

Moreover, the company is testing autonomous drones that can deliver items weighing under five pounds in 30 minutes or less. Last December, as part of a pilot program in the UK, Amazon completed its first drone delivery. The company says it is working with regulators to get Prime Air, as the service is called, off the ground around the world.

Featured image via Hurlburt Field

Silicon Valley startup Aeva aims to give driverless cars better vision

In January, with funding from Lux Capital and other venture capital firms, two former members of Apple’s Special Projects Group, Soroush Salehian and Mina Rezk, started Aeva.

The company aims to improve the ability of self-driving cars to see their surroundings, according to New York Times report. Salehian and Rezk are reimagining Lidar—that is, Light Detection and Ranging—technology, which today’s self-driving cars use along with cameras, radar, GPS antennas, and other implements to create a picture of the world around them.

Aeva’s lidar, the company says, measures distances more accurately than other such systems. And, unlike other lidar systems, Aeva’s judges velocity. It is also smaller and less expensive than today’s lidar technology.

Aeva aims to have it on the market by 2018.

Traditional lidar devices emit pulses of light and measure their wavelength and return times to determine how far away a given object is. Then, computers use the data to construct three-dimensional models of the surrounding world.

But, today’s lidar systems can only detect objects that are relatively close, and cannot always differentiate between one object and another, the Times notes. As a result, they do not perform well in bad weather or when moving at high speeds.

Radar, which uses electromagnetic waves rather than light waves to map the world, can detect objects at greater distances, making it more suitable when traveling at high speeds, and cameras can “read” street signs and differentiate between, say, a pedestrian and a crosswalk.

So, cameras, radar, lidar and other devices work together to “drive” today’s autonomous vehicles. Driverless cars will likely continue to employ this combination for the foreseeable future, as multiple detection systems represent multiple layers of security.

Lidar devices, along with the rest of the ensemble, are expensive. It costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to outfit a self-driving car with the necessary hardware. The prohibitive cost of production prevents companies from marketing self-driving cars to average consumers. So, the first self-driving cars are not privately owned; rather, they have debuted in the fleets of companies like Lyft and Uber.

But, the Times cites a report by the Boston Consulting Group that projects that the self-driving car market will be worth $42 billion by 2025. For that to happen, companies must find ways to produce the vehicles more affordably.

The Times equates Aeva’s system to a cross between lidar—which is ideal for judging distances—and radar, which is best at detecting speed. Rather than emitting a series of light pulses, the device sends out a constant wave of light. This approach, Rzek told the Times, allows Aeva lidar to produce a better resolution, work better in inclement weather, and handle reflective surfaces better than standard systems do.

“I don’t even think of this as a new kind of lidar,” Tarin Ziyaee, co-founder and chief technology officer at the self-driving taxi start-up Voyage, who has seen the Aeva prototype, told the Times. “It’s a whole different animal.”

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, developed a similar continuous-wave lidar system back in 2014, the Times notes. Other companies that develop lira technology, such as Velodyne and Oryx Vision, are exploring similar options, according to said publication.

Lidar’s applications go well beyond driverless cars. Law enforcement uses the technology to create automated speed traps. Lidar may one day track a user’s movements for virtual-reality environments.

Today, video game systems like the Xbox Kinect do not use Lidar, because Lidar devices are too expensive, too bulky, and too power-consumptive for the purpose. But, continuous-wave Lidar systems are cheaper and lighter than pulse-based ones.

Behnam Behroozpour of U.C. Berkeley told phys.org in 2014 that he envisions that Lidar can be used for “a host of new applications that have not even been invented yet.” For instance, cell phones could use the technology to recognize a user and detect his hand motions from across the room, allowing him to control the device with simple hand gestures.

BMW’s first level-5 self-driving offering, which the company plans to release by 2021, will allow human riders to use hand gestures to order Amazon packages, make a dinner reservation, and perform a range of other actions.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Toshiba board agrees to sell memory business to Bain-led group

Wednesday, the board of reeling technology giant Toshiba announced that it has approved the $18 billion sale of the company’s flash memory operation, Toshiba Memory Corporation (TMC), to a group of buyers that includes American venture capital firm Bain Capital, and a pair of government-owned Japanese organizations, the Innovation Network Corporation of Japan, the New York Times reports.

The Financial Times says the Japanese government’s involvement in the deal evinces the integrality of Toshiba’s success to the Japanese economy.

Toshiba is fighting to stay afloat after its nuclear power subsidiary, Westinghouse Electric Company, lost money on a number of ill-fated American nuclear projects. Westinghouse, which Toshiba acquired for $5.4 billion in Spring 2006, filed for bankruptcy protection in March.

Toshiba has entered survival mode, draining its cash reserves to remain operational. With the sale of TMC, the company is seeking to generate a short-term cash infusion that will facilitate a recovery.

According to the New York Times, Toshiba was in danger in March of being barred from the Tokyo Stock Exchange unless the company generated new capital.

Though Toshiba just created TMC in April, the company has been a major player in the flash memory sector since the inception of the technology.

A Toshiba engineer invented flash memory in 1980, and the company introduced the technology to the world in 1987. Since, Toshiba’s memory business has provided an integral revenue stream. Today, the company is the world’s second-largest producer of microchips, by volume, second only to South Korean competitor Samsung.

Flash memory is solid-state, meaning it stores data electronically rather than mechanically. Unlike RAM, another solid-state storage system, flash memory does not require power to preserve data, making it ideal for use in portable devices like digital cameras, video game consoles, smartphones, etc.

Even after the sale, Toshiba will likely maintain a significant amount of control over the business, though the buyers will take the lion’s share of the profits.

Toshiba has indicated plans to partner with Bain to create the special purpose company that will purchase TMC.

The new company—which Bain has dubbed Pangea, according to the Financial Timeshas received financial support from Apple, Dell, and others.

Analysts expect Toshiba to hold a minority stake in the new company, and to have considerable decision-making power.

The shareholder structure, the New York Times says, could allow Toshiba to maintain control of the new company’s operations. Buyers will get “a mix of regular shares, preferred shares — which normally do not carry voting rights — and bonds that could eventually be converted into shares.”

The sale awaits antitrust review and has attracted legal opposition from Western Digital, an American company that co-runs a joint microchip-production operation with Toshiba in Japan.

Western Digital claims that the partnership gives it a vested interest in Toshiba’s memory business and that Toshiba is not authorized to sell TMC without Western Digital’s approval. The American firm has initiated legal action to block the sale. The International Court of Arbitration is now reviewing the case.

Western Digital issued a statement Wednesday calling Toshiba’s pursuit of the selloff “troubling” and expressing confidence that the court would side with Western Digital.

Because the sale has yet to be finalized, the door remains open for Toshiba to negotiate with and field offers from other buyers.

A bidding war has been ongoing for the past several months.

Earlier this month, Taiwanese tech behemoth Foxconn, with the support of Apple, venture capital firm SoftBank and others, made a bid to buy TMC. The New York Times’ source says Foxconn offered a healthy sum, but that Japanese authorities feared selling to Foxconn would compromise the country’s leadership in the global technology market.

Western Digital been among TMC’s suitors.

Toshiba stock has dropped about 50 percent since April 2013. As of Thursday afternoon, shares are down 2.9 percent on the news.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Amazon glitch gives customers big news

Amazon sent several customers e-mail alerts Tuesday notifying them that items on their baby registries had been purchased and were on the way, MarketWatch reports.

But, many who received the e-mails did not have registries and were not expecting babies. Some such customers assumed the messages were spam and did not click the link provided. Those who followed the link were directed to a broken page, according to MarketWatch.

An informal poll conducted in the Fortune office indicated that most people who received the e-mail did have registries via Amazon. MarketWatch says such customers clicked the link to find that nothing on their registries had in fact been purchased.

“A technical glitch caused us to inadvertently send a gift alert e-mail earlier today,” Amazon said in an e-mail to affected customers. “We apologize for any confusion this may have caused.”

Customers who received the e-mail in error took to social media. All were baffled. Some were amused. Others were offended.

Several hoped their non-existent babies had received alcoholic beverages.

“It better be wine cause I’m definitely not pregnant,” one woman tweeted.

A man who received the email expressed a similar wish. “Amazon notified me that someone bought a gift from my baby registry. Shocked to learn I’m a father; hope his wishlist was mostly bourbon,” he wrote.

Washington Post reporter Karen Tumulty, who also received the e-mail in error, tweeted: “My baby is 21, and hopes it’s a keg.”

Some took sheer delight in Amazon’s miscue. In a tweet directed at the company, one woman wrote: “Please don’t fire the person who accidentally sent all those baby registry emails, it was really funny and made my day.”

Of course, Amazon’s statement implies the culprit was not a person but a misguided piece of software.

Some have joked that Amazon’s software, which collects extensive data on customers, perhaps knew users were pregnant before users themselves did.

One woman tweeted: “Me: *opens email* Amazon baby registry gift? But I’m not pregnant. Amazon’s new AI program: that’s what you think.”

Some women who are infertile or have miscarried took offense at the blunder.

“Pro tip @amazon & @amazonregistry,” one woman wrote. “Don’t send infertile women who’ve miscarried notices for gifts for a baby registry they don’t have.” The woman asked for an apology and an explanation from Amazon.

Glitches are rare for Amazon but do happen. In mid-July, on Prime Day, a 30-hour sales event during which Amazon offers promotions to members of its benefits program, the company’s website fell victim to slowdowns and other quirks.

Some customers saw error messages when they tried to add items to their digital “carts.” Others reported getting multiple “Prime Savings” discounts on a single item.

Amazon’s system unintentionally discounted several video games. Some PlayStation 4 games were listed for as little as $12.

The sale is among Amazon’s busiest events of the year. Mehdi Daoudi, CEO of Catchpoint, a firm that collects traffic and speed data for websites, said that, overall, Amazon, which is renowned for its ability to accommodate spikes in site traffic, managed the frenzy well.

“As usual, Amazon is handling the extra load very well, despite the fact that their web pages got heavier than usual with all the Prime Day product images,” he said per Digital Commerce 360.

While Tuesday’s Amazon glitch concerned the gift of new life, a blunder by Facebook last November involved the other end of the life cycle. The social media giant erroneously flagged some profiles with messages saying their owners were dead.

The bug even killed off Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Engadget notes. A banner on his profile read: “We hope people who love Mark will find comfort in the things others share to remember and celebrate his life.”

Here in the 21st century, of course, we live and die by technology.

Featured image via Pixabay

More and more Amish businesses are using technology

There are 2,000 thriving Amish businesses in the Lancaster, PA area, Donald B. Kraybill, a retired professor at Elizabethtown’s Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies, told the New York Times. Many are worth several million dollars.

More and more of those businesses are not strictly agrarian. Many now function with the aid of technology, which the Amish traditionally shun.

Amish communities are growing rapidly, the Times notes, citing an August report by researchers at Elizabethtown College near Lancaster that estimates the Amish population in the U.S. at 313,000. That figure represents a 150 percent increase from 25 years ago.

Most of the growth occurs internally. On average, the Times says, an Amish married-woman has seven children. Marriage is more common in their tight-knit communities than in America as a whole, and they tend to marry younger than the average American does.

With the population growth, farmland has become scarce and more expensive, compelling many Amish people to relocate to rural areas in places like upstate New York, and/or to adopt business trades. In many cases, the move toward such trades necessitates increased interaction with the non-Amish community and requires the Amish to commute into cities for work.

Both of those demands entail the use of modern conveniences and technology traditionally prohibited within the sect.

Moses Smucker, an Amish man who lives in Lancaster, runs a food store and sandwich shop, Smuckers Quality Meats and Grill, in Philadelphia, which lies 80 miles east of Lancaster. Six days a week, a non-Amish driver to takes Smucker, who does not drive a car, into the city.

Smucker told the Times he enjoys escaping the city after his work is done. “Philadelphia is very fast-paced,” he said. “Then I go home, and I can drive my horse. I enjoy horses. Some people don’t, but I do. It slows everything down.”

With regard to technology, Smucker said: “You have to do what you have to do to stay in business. People are starting to understand that.”

Smucker’s shop, which gets four and a half stars on 80 reviews on Yelp!, accepts credit cards as payment.

Amish Country Gazebos, which supplies landscaping structures for the Marriott, the Hilton, Harrah’s and other notable chains, operates online and makes deliveries using its own trucks.

John, an Amish man in his late 60s, cuts wood for the gazebo company using a computer-driven crosscut saw. (Like many people who appear in the Times article, John, in deference to Amish values of humility, declined to provide his surname.)

“We call him the computer geek sometimes,” John’s son, Junior, told the Times.

Sam, a 29-year-old Amish man, used to make deliveries for Amish Country Gazebos, but now works on a computer in the company’s shop. It was difficult for him to learn how to interact with the machine, but once he did, he saw how it could facilitate business operations.

“I thought, I need to know how this computer thinks, or the computer needs to know how I think—we need to get along!” he said, per the Times.

Now, he appreciates the efficiency of the machine. “I can easily see it helping as far as numbers go — oh my goodness — to get rid of all these papers.”

But, Sam told the Times he has “never thought about bringing a computer” onto his property in Lancaster. Like many in his community, he draws a sharp line between business and home life, especially with respect to technology.

Still, technology is becoming part of the fabric of Amish life even at home. Many members of the community use lawnmowers and other electric yard-care equipment.

Though hooking into a public utility feed remains unheard of, some Amish people electrify their homes using power generators and solar panels.

Smartphones are becoming increasingly common in the community. The opening of the Pandora’s box that is the internet has given rise to fears about pornography and excessive influence from the outside world.

Through social media, for instance, Amish children may develop romantic attachments toward non-Amish peers—Amish rules frown upon such relationships.

“There’s always a concern about what would lead our young folk out of the church and into the world,” said John.

“Amish life is about recognizing the value of agreed-upon limits,” Erik Wesner, an author who studies the Amish way of life and runs a blog called Amish America, “and the spirit of the internet cuts against the idea of limits.”

While Marilyn, an 18-year-old Amish woman, values limits—she said she made an effort to respect church leaders’ wishes by limiting her cell phone usage in church—she says there must be a limit to the Amish’s resistance to technology.

“We can’t live like we did 50 years ago because so much has changed,” she said. “You can’t expect us to stay the same way. We love our way of life, but a bit of change is good.”

John’s wife, Lizzie, was disturbed by people’s obsession with their phones. “People are treating those phones like they are gods,” she told the Times. “They’re bowing down to it at the table, bowing down to it when they’re walking. Here we say we don’t bow down to idols, and that’s getting dangerously close, I think.”

Having lived without technology for so long, the Amish are more sensitive to its effect on human interaction than others are, Kraybill said per the Times.

Despite the concerns it raises in the community, technology is becoming more and more necessary as the Amish adapt what Kraybill calls their ““very entrepreneurial, very capitalistic” spirit for the 21st century.

“We’re not supposed to have computers; we’re not supposed to have cell phones,” said John. “We’re allowed to have a phone, but not in the house. But to do business, you need a computer, or access to one, and that phone moves into the house. So how do you balance that?”

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Best Buy is quietly thriving in an Amazon world

In an eCommerce age in which every brick-and-mortar enterprise is expected to roll over and die, Best Buy is adapting to the changing market. Under the guidance of CEO Hubert Joly, Best Buy is engineering an impressive turnaround, the New York Times reports.

According to the Times, Best Buy’s revenue has exceeded analysts’ expectations in six of the last seven quarters. The company’s stock has climbed more than 50 percent over the last 12 months.

Joly took the reins at Best Buy in 2012, as Amazon was capturing an increasing share of the retail market, and the iconic brick-and-mortar chain was struggling to keep up. The practice of “showrooming,” which involves customers testing and trying a product in a physical store, then buying it at a lower price online, was increasingly cutting into Best Buy’s sales.

So, the Times says, Joly instituted a price-matching guarantee so that customers who came in to check out a given product could feel comfortable buying it in-store.

“Until I match Amazon’s prices, the customers are ours to lose,” Mr. Joly said.

In order to slash prices, of course, one must cut costs. In fact, as the Times says, cutting costs is integral to the recovery of almost any struggling business. But, rather than induce a huge, public wave of layoffs, which would have crippled morale amongst employees and given shareholders the impression that the company was on thin ice, Joly quietly let go of extraneous employees at the middle management level. Rather than closing a massive number of stores, he waited for leases to run out at unprofitable locations.

Joly eliminated 400 Geek Squad positions that involved assisting customers remotely, via phone or internet chat. Rather than firing the employees who filled those positions, though, he offered them reassignment within the company.

“Taking people out is the last resort,” said Joly in 2015, according to the Times. “Because you need to capture the hearts and minds of the employees.”

One measure he took to recapture those hearts and minds was to reinstate an employee discount, the Times says.

Joly knows that Best Buy’s employees—and their ability to provide human interaction at the point of sale—give the company a competitive advantage over Amazon. Best Buy representatives serve as approachable, flesh-and-blood intermediaries between customers and the often-intimidating world of consumer electronics.

In an effort to double down on customer service, Joly retrained employees to improve their knowledge of cutting-edge devices like smart home appliances and virtual reality headsets. He expanded the Geek Squad overall, reassigning many of the aforementioned remote employees to roles in which they provide in-home consultations to customers, recommending products and installation techniques.

Best Buy tested the in-home program in select locales last year; now, it is going nationwide.

The company has also revamped its eCommerce operations, making shipping more efficient. Before Joly stepped in as CEO, Best Buy shipped all items ordered online from centralized warehouses. Joly gave stores themselves the means to ship products. Effectually, Best Buy stores are now also miniature shipping warehouses.

When a customer orders a product online, it is shipped from whichever location will provide the fastest delivery, whether that location is a nearby store or a traditional warehouse.

In an effort to turn the “showrooming” phenomenon to his advantage, Joly reimagined the manner in which items were displayed in his stores. He gave iconic electronics manufacturers like Apple, Microsoft and even Amazon their own kiosks in Best Buy stores. High-demand items are prominently displayed, and customers are excited about browsing the store.

Many factors beyond the company’s control have further spurred its revival. With competitors including Circuit City, Radio Shack, and HH Gregg having gone bankrupt or closing their doors, Best Buy is among the only brick-and-mortar electronics retailers left, the Times notes.

Many people remain reluctant to make big-ticket purchases online, so Best Buy’s highest-priced products are still in demand.

The company depends on manufacturers to continue to make products that create a buzz amongst customers. As Joly implied on the August earnings call, that dependence means Best Buy’s performance will ebb and flow with the popularity of new gadgets.

“They’re at the mercy of the product cycles,” said Stephen Baker, a tech industry analyst at NPD Group, per the Times. “If people stop buying PCs or they don’t care about big-screen TVs anymore, they have a challenge.”

Featured image via Flickr/Mike Mozart

Equifax could have prevented breach with a simple patch, experts say

Last Thursday, credit-monitoring firm Equifax announced that hackers had breached its computer systems and compromised the data of as many as 143 million Americans. Thursday, the company confirmed that the perpetrators of the attack did, as rumored, exploit a weakness in Apache STRUTS.

Equifax identified the exploited vulnerability as Apache Struts CVE-2017-5638.

In March, industry experts pinpointed the CVE-2017-5368 vulnerability. That same month, Apache released a patch to correct it, the New York Times notes. Apache also published instructions describing how to implement the patch.

Three days after the Apache STRUTS weakness was discovered, reports surfaced indicating that hackers had begun taking advantage of it. At that point, it was clear that the Apache vulnerability presented a considerable security threat.

Therefore, many are scratching their heads as to why Equifax neglected to install the patch before hackers accessed the company’s systems in mid-May. Ars Technica notes that implementing the update would have been labor-intensive because after downloading the patch, one would need to rebuild all applications built with older, vulnerable versions of the software.

Still, Bas van Schaik, a product manager and researcher at Semmle, an analytics security firm, points out, it is Equifax’s responsibility to take the measures necessary to protect its customers’ data.

“This vulnerability was disclosed back in March. There were clear and simple instructions of how to remedy the situation. The responsibility is then on companies to have procedures in place to follow such advice promptly,” says per WIRED. “The fact that Equifax was subsequently attacked in May means that Equifax did not follow that advice. Had they done so this breach would not have occurred.”

But, Avivah Litan, a security analyst with the research firm Gartner, told the Times a high-profile company like Equifax needs a multi-faceted security system so that if one aspect fails, others provide reinforcement.

“You have to have layered security controls,” she said. “You have to assume that your prevention methods are going to fail.”

Apache STRUTS is an open-source web development framework used to create Java applications that run Web servers, Ars Technica explains. The software is free, and about 65 percent of Fortune 100 companies, including Lockheed Martin, Citigroup, Vodafone, Virgin Atlantic, Reader’s Digest, Office Depot, and Showtime, use it, per the New York Post. Banks and government agencies—including the IRS—also use the software.

Generally speaking, though, open-source software is particularly vulnerable to hacks.

Developers use Apache STRUTS to develop applications for front-end as well as back-end servers. Front-end servers contain code that translates the website’s content into something the user can see, while back-end ones contain the building blocks of a website and are only accessible to site administrators.

Equifax has not said whether the hackers exploited the company’s back-end or its front-end servers. Accessing the back-end would have required access to the company’s private network, the Times notes.

Several hacking experts have already noted the sophistication of the attack—the sheer amount of data stolen is sufficient to indicate the intricacy of the operation.

Investigators have yet to identify the perpetrators of the attack. A group calling itself the PastHole Hacking Team has claimed responsibility and threatened to release the seized data Friday unless a 600-bitcoin ($2.5-million) ransom is paid.

Several people have concluded that PastHole’s claiming responsibility was a hoax. The leading theory among investigators, the Times says, holds that a nation-state, or a group of hackers sponsored by a nation-state, carried out the attack. A government holding animosity toward the U.S. could cull the stolen data in search of information that could be used for espionage or blackmail.

Investigators note that the amount of data stolen casts further doubt on the notion that a small, financially motivated group of hackers perpetrated the attack.

Such a group would likely sell the information on the Dark Web. While there is a market amongst cyber-criminals for sensitive data, particularly permanent information, like birth dates and social security numbers one can use to access a victim’s bank account, medical records, etc., the market likely would not support such a massive amount of data.

“Are cybercriminals going to try and sell circa 150 million records in dark web auctions? That’s nearly half the population of the United States,” said Thomas Boyden, president of GRA Quantum, a company that specialized in cyberattack incident response, per the Times. “Are there standard cybercriminals out there with the purchasing power for that type of data?”

Equifax said in a statement Wednesday: “We continue to work with law enforcement as part of our criminal investigation, and have shared indicators of compromise with law enforcement.”

Featured image via Pexels

High-tech retail startup Bodega raises $2.5 million in funding round

Bodega, a San Francisco-based startup that operates fully-automated kiosks roughly the size of vending machines, introduced itself to the world Wednesday. The company has raised $2.5 million in a funding round led by venture capital firms Homebrew and First Round Capital, TechCrunch reports.

Thirty Bodega kiosks (which the company calls “bodegas”) are already operational in apartment buildings, gyms and office buildings throughout the Bay Area. The company will presumably use the seed money to expand.

Bodega users create an account on the company’s smartphone app and input their credit card information. As a customer approaches a kiosk, he/she inputs a three-digit, kiosk-specific code via the app. The code unlocks the kiosk so the customer can reach in and grab what he/she needs.

Cameras track the movement of the customer’s hand to determine what he has picked out, and then automatically charge the customer’s credit card.

Though the eight-square-foot cabinets may sound like high-tech vending machines (essentially, they are), Bodega kiosks stock a wider and more customized range of products than traditional vending machines do. The particular items stocked at a given kiosk are tailored to the demands of the customers who use that kiosk. A Bodega in an apartment building, for instance, may offer everything from toothbrushes to Solo cups. A kiosk located in a gym might have health food, sportswear, etc.

Depending on its location, a kiosk will come stocked with a “base set of products” (TechCrunch’s words). As customers begin to buy things, the Bodega system tracks the purchases to gauge which products are in demand at a given kiosk, and surveys repeat customers to ask what they would like to see added. The company refines the offerings accordingly.

The kiosks bring “the relevant slice of a store” to within 100 feet of a customer, the company’s website says

“Retailers are contouring their business around this fact that users want convenience,” said Paul McDonald, a thirteen-year Google veteran who now runs the startup. “There’s really only been two options: you can go to the store, or you can order something online. What we’re trying to do is introduce a third option, a new way of buying things. Shrink the store, bring the best parts in a smaller form factor and bring it to where you are.”

Some have criticized the “Bodega” name and its implication that the company intends to compete with local corner stores like the bodegas in New York and Los Angeles, which are often centerpieces in their communities.

“Bodega” is a Spanish word meaning, more or less, “local shop.” McDonald says, per GQ.com, that his company surveyed the Latin American community as to whether the name was a misappropriation of the term, and 97 percent of respondents said “no.”

“But it’s clear that we may not have been asking the right questions of the right people,” McDonald admits. 

“Despite our best intentions and our admiration for traditional bodegas, we clearly hit a nerve this morning, we apologize. Rather than disrespect to traditional corner stores — or worse yet, a threat — we intended only admiration.”

McDonald said the company would review the criticism and consider changing the name.

Many are concerned Bodega, whatever it is called, will threaten traditional bodegas.  The company indicated Wednesday that it intends to offer the “same ease and convenience” the ubiquity of corner stores in places like New York City affords.

Bodega clarified that it does not intend to compete with tradition bodegas, which, McDonald says, stock more products than a Bodega kiosk ever could, and offer “integral human connection” between patrons and clerks. Rather than challenge established bodegas, the company says it wants to “bring commerce to places where commerce currently doesn’t exist.”

Still, it seems that, in the places where they do appear, the high-tech Bodegas might siphon a certain amount of business away from local shops. For instance, a person who generally goes to the local bodega when he/she needs milk at 2 a.m., might be inclined to get that milk at a Bodega kiosk were one available in his/her apartment building.

Bodega notes the grocery market is but one of many markets it is targeting. The company envisions itself a competitor more to huge chains like Wal-Mart than small, local shops.

“The market we’re going after is some combination of the grocery, gym market, and everyday essentials. Eventually, what we see is a world where you don’t have to go to the 30,000 square foot stores. Instead, we distribute the store based on products you buy once a week or month,” said McDonald.

The autonomy of Bodega kiosks may threaten retail jobs. “Retail in The U.S. is huge, 10% of Americans work in retail,” McDonald himself notes. “The folks who are retailers want technology to reduce their costs and bring products closer [to consumers].”

In reducing employers’ costs, one may infer, Bodega may take employees’ jobs.

But, McDonald says: “Rather than take away jobs, we hope Bodega will help create them. We see a future where anyone can own and operate a Bodega—delivering relevant items and a great retail experience to places no corner store would ever open.”

Featured image via http://observatoriodainternet.br

Bitcoin plummets as economists, regulators express skepticism of cryptocurrency boom

Bitcoin’s value, which nearly quintupled from the first of the year through the first of September, peaking at $4,950.72 per coin on the latter date, has fallen more than 20 percent this month and over 15 percent in the past seven days, as of 4:15 p.m. EST Wednesday.

The decline comes as a number of regulatory agencies and economic experts around the globe express skepticism regarding Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

China banned Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs)—the means by which creators introduce and raise capital for new cryptocurrency projects—earlier this month, and Chinese news outlet Caixin reported Friday that the country might prohibit cryptocurrency exchanges entirely in the near future, Business Insider notes. 

But, Bloomberg’s Lulu Yilun Chen tweeted Friday that the Chinese government had yet to mandate the shutdown of Okcoin and Huobi PRs, two of the country’s most prominent cryptocurrency exchange platforms.

Some say China will relax the pressure it has placed on the cryptocurrency market once the government has found a viable means of regulating that market.

“China [is] saying, ok, we need to push back on these for now until we figure out how to deal with them,” said Zennon Kapron, director of the Shanghai-based financial technology consultancy Kapronasia, per Reuters, in reference to the country’s ICO ban. Kapron added that he expects the country’s government to eventually ease the ban.

Previous Chinese regulations against cryptocurrencies have proved temporary. The country prohibited the withdrawal of Bitcoin investments in February, but allowed withdrawals to resume in June, Business Insider points out.

Chinese regulators are not the only ones wary of the cryptocurrency boom.

Tuesday, the U.K.’s Financial Conduct Authority released a statement cautioning investors about the risks of ICO investors, Business Insider reports. These risks, according to the FCA, include the lack of regulation governing the cryptocurrency market, the volatility of cryptocurrencies, the potential for fraudulent ICOs, and the experimental nature of cryptocurrency projects.

“ICOs are very high-risk, speculative investments,” the FCA’s warning reads. “You should be conscious of the risks involved … and fully research the specific project if you are thinking about buying digital tokens. You should only invest in an ICO project if you are an experienced investor, confident in the quality of the ICO project itself (e.g., business plan, technology, people involved) and prepared to lose your entire stake.”

Also on Tuesday, Business Insider says, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon predicted an imminent crash of what he sees as the Bitcoin bubble. His prediction, so far, has been self-fulfilling. Dimon said he “would fire any trader that transacted Bitcoin for being stupid” (Business Insider’s paraphrasing).

As of 5:15 p.m. EST, Bitcoin’s value has fallen six percent on Tuesday’s news.

Business Insider notes that early this month, in an interview with Quartz, Yale economics professor and Nobel Prize winning author Robert Shiller, who predicted the crash of the housing and technology markets in his 2000 book “Irrational Exuberance,” called Bitcoin the best example in today’s market of a speculative bubble.

A “speculative bubble” occurs when unrealistic expectations amongst investors of an asset’s future performance drive the market value of that asset beyond any real gains it is capable of accruing.

In the aforementioned book, Shiller argues that the tech bubble formed because “a fundamental deep angst of our digitization and computers” compelled investors to seek a false sense of understanding and comfort by gobbling up tech stocks.

“Somehow Bitcoin…gives a [similar] sense of empowerment: I understand what’s happening! I can speculate and I can be rich from understanding this! That kind of is a solution to the fundamental angst,” Shiller told Quartz.

There is no question that investors have been exuberant about cryptocurrencies this year. ICOs have raised over $2 billion in 2017. The question is whether the exuberance is irrational. As a number of financial experts answer that question in the affirmative, once-exuberant cryptocurrency backers are growing skittish.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Equifax stares down almost two dozen class actions after cyberattack

Credit reporting and monitoring company Equifax is facing at least 23 proposed class action lawsuits in the wake of its announcement Thursday that a cyber attack compromised the personal information of up to 143 million Equifax customers, USA Today reports.

Various law firms have filed suits in 14 different states as well as D.C., according to USA Today. More suits will likely come. Victimized customers may receive a pretrial settlement from Equifax, and/or may be entitled to some portion of any financially pejorative judgment levied against the firm.

“Equifax probably injured 143 million people, which is kind of a record…with 143 million people it doesn’t surprise me there are already 23 suits,” said John Coffee, who directs the Center on Corporate Governance at Columbia Law School.

USA Today notes that the number of people the breach potentially victimized represents 44 percent of the U.S. population.

“Assume that if you’re an American with a credit card or a mortgage, your data has been leaked,” Zach Whittaker, security editor for CBS’s ZDNet, tweeted.

Hackers carried out the attack from mid-May through July, seizing customers’ names, social security numbers, birth dates, addresses and, in some cases, driver’s license numbers. Equifax says it became aware of the breach in late July. The company alerted the public of the incident on September 7. In the interim, Equifax hired third-party consultants to investigate the crime and provide suggestions as to how the company might bolster its cyber-defenses.

Many of the lawsuits take issue with the lag time between Equifax’s discovery of the attack and the firm’s notification of the public. USA Today says one suit calls the delayed disclosure “willful, or at least negligent.” Another argues that the delay “deprived [consumers] of their opportunity to meaningfully consider and address issues related to the potential fraud, as well as to avail themselves of the remedies available under the FCRA (U.S. Fair Credit Reporting Act) to prevent further dissemination of their private information.”

The company would presumably argue that it was justified in assessing the nature and extent of the attack before alarming the public.

A third suit notes that Equifax fell victim to similar attacks earlier this year, as well as in 2013 and 2016. Therefore, said suit argues, Equifax “knew and should have known of the inadequacy of its own data security.”

Other filings take aim at TrustedID, an Equifax service that provides identity theft protection and credit monitoring. One document says the company “failed to disclose to consumers that it owned TrustedID,” and baited customers into signing up for the service.

To help customers identify whether their information was compromised by the attack, Equifax is offering free TrustedID service to all U.S. customers

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who is investigating the Equifax case, took issue with a clause in the agreement Equifax requires TrustedID members sign. The clause in question says that in signing up for TrustedID, a user waives his/her “right to bring or participate in any class action…or to share in any class action awards.”

“This language is unacceptable and unenforceable,” Schneiderman tweeted Friday. “My staff has already contacted @Equifax to demand that they remove it.”

Equifax subsequently explained that the waiver does not prohibit TouchID members from participating in class actions regarding the cyber security incident.

In addition to Schneiderman, other government entities are pursuing the Equifax case. USA Today obtained a copy of a letter Senators Omin Hatch and Ron Wyden, both of whom hold key positions on the Senate Committee on Finance, sent to Equifax requesting details about the attack and the manner in which the company is handling it.

The letter requests a timeline of the breach and asks how Equifax is identifying affected customers and what measures the company is taking to limit consumer harm. The document also asks Equifax to clarify the amount of information that was compromised.

Legal arguments must take place before the proposed suits achieve class action status. If the court grants class action status, USA Today says, a “federal panel on multi district litigation” will likely consolidate the suits into a single case, then assign that case to a judge, who would, in turn, appoint one law firm or a group of law firms as plaintiff counsel.

At the market’s close Tuesday, Equifax stock has dipped 18.7 percent since the original announcement. 4.7 percent of the drop has come since Monday morning when news of the proposed class actions broke.

Featured image via Pixabay

Spanish Data Protection Agency fines Facebook $1.4 billion

The Spanish Data Protection Agency (AEPD) has fined Facebook €1.2 million (just under $1.44 million) for three violations of data protection laws, TechCrunch reports. The two less serious infractions carry fines of €300,000; the more serious one would cost the social networking giant €600,000.

The AEPD’s investigation found that Facebook’s privacy policy contains “generic and unclear terms,” and does not adequately familiarize a user possessing “an average knowledge of the new technologies” with the ways in which his/her personal data is collected, stored and used, the regulator said.

Facebook gathers data from users’ actions on its site, as well as from third parties. The company uses some of that data for advertising purposes, and some for “secret,” undisclosed purposes, according to the AEPD. Facebook also gathers data regarding people’s behavior on third-party sites that feature embedded Facebook “Like” buttons.

The AEPD says Facebook collects the personal data even of internet users who do not hold accounts with the social media service when such users visit a Facebook page. The company tracks account holders’ behavior on third-party sites, even when an account holder is not logged into Facebook. In this last case, the AEPD says, “the platform adds the information collected in [third-party] pages to the one associated with your account on the social network.”

Non-Facebook users, then, are unaware that the social media company is harvesting their personal data, and Facebook account holders are unaware of the nature and extent of the data being harvested. Other European regulators, TechCrunch notes, have made similar accusations against the company.

The AEPD also alleges that Facebook unlawfully retains the data it has collected from a given user even after that user terminates his/her Facebook account. The company “captures and treats information [concerning former users who have deleted their accounts] for more than 17 months [after an account has been terminated] through a deleted account cookie,” the regulator says, even though the information in question is “no longer useful for the purpose for which [it was allegedly] collected.”

Facebook intends to appeal the AEPD’s ruling even though, as TechCrunch notes, the $1.4 million sum of the fines represent but a minute fraction of the $27.64 billion in revenue the company reported in 2016. The motivation behind Facebook’s appeal of the penalties, then, is not financial but political. The company aims to protect its public image by proving that it does not violate users’ privacy.

“We take note of the DPA’s decision with which we respectfully disagree. Whilst we value the opportunities we’ve had to engage with the DPA to reinforce how seriously we take the privacy of people who use Facebook, we intend to appeal this decision. As we made clear to the DPA, users choose which information they want to add to their profile and share with others, such as their religion. However, we do not use this information to target adverts to people,” Facebook said in a statement.

Facebook also contends that because its headquarters of its European operations are situated in Ireland, the company is subject only to Irish data protection laws.

In May, the EU is scheduled to implement tighter General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will permit fines of up to four percent of a company’s global annual turnover, according to TechCrunch. Should Facebook be convicted of an infraction under the new rules, the company could face a fine of as much as $1 billion.

The new GDPR will also expand the definition of personal data and give EU citizens the right to demand that their personal data be deleted. It will likely also allow regulators across the EU to work together to police companies like Facebook that operate across multiple jurisdictions.

Per TechCrunch, Facebook says it has assembled “the largest cross functional team in the history of the Facebook family” to “fully analyze the legislation and help us understand what this would mean from a legal, policy and product perspective.”

“Ahead of next May we are working with our product, design and engineering teams to enhance existing products and build new products in a way that simultaneously provides an intuitive, user-centric experience and permits us to meet our obligations under the GDPR,” said Stephen Deadman, Facebook’s deputy chief global privacy officer, in a statement.

The privacy policy, the AEPD contends, contains “generic and unclear terms,” and “inaccurately” describes the manner in which Facebook uses user data.

Featured image via Pixabay

Deere & Co. to acquire Blue River Technology for $305 million

Deere & Co. announced Wednesday that it has signed a “definitive agreement” to acquire Blue River Technology, an agriculture technology company, in a $305 million deal, TechCrunch reports. The deal will likely be finalized next month.

Blue River specializes in “precision farming,” a technique that uses technology to streamline traditional farming methods. Precision farming is crucial to Deere’s future, the company said in its statement regarding the deal.

“As a leader in precision agriculture, John Deere recognizes the importance of technology to our customers. Machine learning [read: artificial intelligence] is an important capability for Deere’s future,” said John May, President, Agricultural Solutions, and Chief Information Officer at Deere.

Technology reduces labor costs—machines now perform tasks human beings used to have to do—and maximises yield.

Blue River’s flagship product, which it dubs “See and Spray,” uses computer vision to identify and exterminate weeds, thereby reducing herbicide waste. The system references a given plant against a massive image library to determine whether that plant is a weed. If it is, the machine sprays it with herbicide but leaves surrounding soil and crops untouched.

Another Blue Ridge offering, LettuceBot, thins lettuce crops. Farmers plant more lettuce seeds than they wish to cultivate to ensure that enough seeds sprout to create a proper yield. LettuceBot uses technology to evaluate the health, uniformity of size, and spacing of each lettuce plant and determine which plants need to be eliminated. Once LettuceBot identifies unwanted plants, it kills them with a concentrated dose of fertilizer.

“LettuceBot completes a labor-intensive task quickly and easily…and does so with far greater precision than a human hand,” according to Blue River’s website. The machine evaluates 5,000 plants per minute, sprays unwanted ones with quarter-inch precision, and covers 40 acres per day.

“Blue River is advancing precision agriculture by moving farm management decisions from the field level to the plant level,” said Jorge Heraud, co-founder and CEO of Blue River Technology in the aforementioned statement. “We are using computer vision, robotics, and machine learning to help smart machines detect, identify, and make management decisions about every single plant in the field.”

Blue River flies drones over fields to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of See and Spray, LettuceBot and other machines.

In November 2015, Deere & Co. reached an agreement with Monsanto Co. to purchase the latter firm’s Ag-Tech subsidiary, Precision Planting, LLC. But, the companies abandoned the deal in May after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block it. The DOJ said the acquisition would have given Deere & Co. an 86 percent share of the “high-speed precision planting market,” TechCrunch’s words reports.

When it announced the Monsanto deal in 2015, Deere used the same language it is now using to describe the Blue River acquisition, saying the companies had reached a “definitive agreement.”

The Monsanto deal would have cost Deere $190 million, the DOJ estimated. The Blue River acquisition will be almost twice as expensive.

Founded in Sunnyvale, CA in 2011, Blue River remains privately held. TechCrunch cites CrunchBase as saying the company has raised a total of $30.5 million in funding. The firm employs 60 people, all of whom will remain in Sunnyvale even though Deere is based in Moline, Illinois.

Forbes reported in March that Deere has already developed a number of high-tech farming solutions. SeedStar Mobile, for instance, provides data on the performance of equipment in real time, allowing farmers to make immediate adjustments to maximize their machines’ efficiency.

Deere is also developing self-driving farm vehicles that can navigate themselves through the rows of a corn field without damaging crops, Forbes says.

The farming industry as a whole is increasingly embracing technological advancements. “The idea that agriculture is now a tech industry is firmly established,” Roger Royse, a Silicon Valley attorney who works with ag-tech startups, told Forbes. “The farming community knows they have to embrace this.”

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

IBM to spend $240 million on an AI research lab at MIT

IBM will spend $240 million to fund a Watson-branded AI research lab at MIT, CNBC reports. At the facility, MIT and IBM researchers will collaborate to create AI algorithms, optimize AI hardware, study the societal implications of AI, and apply AI to the business world.

Researchers will work at the MIT campus as well as at IBM’s nearby Watson Health and Securities Center.

Tech companies are increasingly partnering with institutions of higher learning to develop and explore AI technology. DeepMind, an Alphabet subsidiary dedicated to AI research, has announced plans to open a research facility in Edmonton, Canada, at which the company will collaborate with researchers from the University of Alberta.

Alphabet says “more than a dozen [University of Alberta] graduates have joined…DeepMind.” DeepMind has sponsored the University’s machine learning lab.

The University of Alberta program marks DeepMind’s first expansion outside of the United Kingdom.

According to CNBC, Alphabet and Microsoft have both announced intentions to fund research at McGill University and the University of Montreal, both of which are located in Montreal. The combined total of the two tech giants’ contributions is less than $10 million.

As artificial intelligence technology becomes more viable in a widening array of business sectors, tech companies are increasing their focus on the field, notes Dario Gil, vice president of AI and Q (for quantum) at IBM, per CNBC.

“AI as a field has been going on for many decades, but it is quite obvious right now it has raised to a level of centrality for every major technology company, including us and frankly every other business and area,” Gill told CNBC.

Research at the new IBM-MIT facility will center around the cyber security and healthcare fields. In the healthcare sector, IBM says it has already developed technology by which Watson can analyze “genetic testing results” to improve the precision of cancer medication. Watson also has the potential to discover new drugs that might aid patients who are resistant to established treatments, according to IBM.

But, some say Watson has thus far failed to deliver on the promises its creators made on its behalf.

Since IBM began marketing and selling Watson as a cancer treatment resource in 2014, less than 50 hospitals have adopted the system, which IBM envisioned as a new industry standard.

Watson has the capacity to gather and sift through unfathomable amounts of data with inhuman speed, but the human beings must tell the computer how to interpret the data it collects. In other words, Watson struggles to synthesize data. Therefore, some have cast doubt on IBM’s claims that the computer can identify novel medications and treatment methods.

Given IBM’s commitment to study the healthcare applications of AI at the MIT facility, researchers at the new lab will likely work to hone Watson’s cancer treatment abilities.

In February, IBM made Watson available as a cyber security “cop.” The company said it had “trained [the robot] on the language of cyber security.” IBM found that human cyber security teams analyze more than 200,000 “security events” every day, and waste 20,000 hours per year “chasing false positives.” Were these processes automated, cyber security could become more efficient and effective.

And with hackers developing new threats at an accelerating rate, the workload of cyber security teams is ever-increasing.

Of course, there will be kinks to iron out in Watson’s cyber security functionality as well.

As yet, the practical experience of AI powerhouses like Watson is limited. “The field of artificial intelligence, despite its progress, is in its infancy,” Gil said.

Still, artificial intelligence is increasingly hard to ignore. As more and more minds collaborate to refine robots like Watson, and as such robots gain more and more “hands-on” experience, AI is poised to become an integral part of the business world.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

Carpooling service Via closes investment round, plans U.S. and oversea expansion

Carpooling service Via just completed a funding round, the proceeds of which the company intends to use to expand its service in the U.S. and to establish a presence in Europe, TechCrunch reports. Via will begin London operations in the near future, and Paris service soon after.

The amount of the funding round remains undisclosed, but a source told TechCrunch the number was $250 million.

Prior to the investment round, Zirra estimated the company’s value between $450 million and $500 million, TechCrunch notes. Following the round, then, Via could be worth as much as $750 million.

Via provides carpool service to riders seeking a cheaper alternative to operations like Uber and Lyft. A single Via vehicle carries up to five passengers at a time, so customers can book rides for as little as $5 plus tax. An algorithm determines routes in real-time as customers request rides, so unlike conventional public transit systems, Via is not constrained by a preset schedule. The company’s website says the average wait time is five minutes.

Today, Via runs 24-hour service in its hometown of New York City and also operates in Washington, D.C. and Chicago. TechCrunch says the service gives about one million rides per month.

In addition to running its own operation, Via licenses its platform to other transportation companies, including Arriva—a subsidiary of German-based railway company Deutsche Bahn AG—which operates buses, trains, and other mass transit options across 14 countries in Europe, and Keolis, a subsidiary of France-based SNCF, which offers similar service worldwide.

Daimler AG, which owns Mercedes-Benz, led Via’s most recent funding round, and the two companies plan to intensify their partnership. In addition to its contribution to the funding round, Daimler will provide $50 million towards a joint venture project with Via.

The two companies have been collaborating for years, TechCrunch notes. In late 2015, Via joined forces with Mercedes-Benz Research and Development North America, Inc. to launch a pilot program in Orange County, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles. Mercedes provided Via with Metris passenger vans for that trial program.

Daimler and Mercedes will likely provide vehicles for Via’s European expansion as well. The partnership with Via will give Daimler a ready-made sales connection and will provide a platform through which Daimler can develop and test vehicles optimized for carpooling.

As tech-based transportation start-ups change the way consumers approach moving around, automakers are seeking the most efficient ways to adapt to the changes in the industry.

“One big question is, ‘what is the right vehicle?’” Via CTO and co-founder Oren Shoval told TechCrunch “There are the seating arrangements, how you connect the sensors, what kind of door it should have. This is a big piece of mobility.”

Shoval adds that the Via-Mercedes partnership will streamline and solidify Via’s service. “We also believe that the vehicles in the network, at the end of the day, it’s not just an app but a whole service that you are getting. It makes sense to have these things converge,” said Shoval.

Volker Mornhinweg, head of Mercedes-Benz Vans, echoed Shoval’s sentiment that the partnership would improve Via’s service, and added that the collaboration was important to Daimler’s long-term strategy in the changing transportation sector.

“Via is one of the most successful providers in the growing ride-sharing sector while Mercedes-Benz Vans has the perfect vehicles that are being continuously optimized for this job,” he said. “By deepening our cooperation with Via, we are thus taking the next logical step in the context of our strategy for the future and are expanding our range of new mobility services.”

Daimler launched Car2Go, which allows users to rent cars parked in various places around a city and then return those cars to one of many drop zones around town, in 2008. Now, Car2Go operates in 26 cities across North America, Europe and Asia, and serves 2.5 million registered members.

Daimler, in tandem with Audi and BMW, bought GPS mapping service Here in late 2015 and has independently acquired a number of ride-sharing companies, including Germany’s MyTaxi, the U.K.’s Hailo, and Taxibeat in Greece. All three of those services have merged under the MyTaxi umbrella since Daimler acquired them.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

Chinese authorities crackdown on cryptocurrency ICOs

Monday, the Chinese government banned the practice of creating and selling new cryptocurrencies, Reuters reports

With the rise of Blockchain technology, initial coin offerings (ICOs)—which give investors the opportunity to buy newly-created cryptocurrencies—have gained popularity. In total, Reuters says, ICOs have raised $2.32 billion since the inception of the cryptocurrency market; $2.16 billion of that amount has come in 2017.

In China this year, 65 ICOs have raised a combined 2.62 billion yuan ($394.6-million) and attracted 105,000 investors, according to Reuters.

The value of Ethereum, the cryptocurrency in which most ICOs are transacted, has plummeted on the news. On Sunday, one Ethereum token was worth $349.93. Late Monday, that figure had fallen 14.3 percent to $299.72. As of 1:33 p.m. Eastern Tuesday, Ethereum has recovered slightly; the USD-Ethereum exchange rate sits at 307.56 to one.

The Bitcoin-USD exchange rate has dropped 5.9 percent since midnight Monday morning on China’s news. Late Sunday night, one bitcoin was worth $4,632.46. As of 1:39 Eastern Tuesday, the value of a single bitcoin token is $4,359.07.

The market capitalization of the cryptocurrency industry as a whole dropped 11.66 percent Monday, from $165.095 billion to $145.833 billion. Since midnight Tuesday morning, though, the industry’s market cap has gained 1.7 percent. As of 1:55 p.m. Eastern, the industry is worth $148.358 billion.

“The large price falls can be attributed to panic amongst traders and profit-taking,” said Cryptocompare founder Charles Hayter, per Reuters.

Indeed, China’s announcement had many investors across the internet predicting doom and gloom. A participant in one chatroom set up for an upcoming ICO said “the music has stopped” for the cryptocurrency boom, Reuters reports.

“Sell all your bitcoins now,” another advised, again per Reuters.

The organizer of the ICO to which the chatroom was dedicated, which was meant to launch a new cryptocurrency called SelfSell, has suspended the project.

Regulators around the world are struggling to understand cryptocurrency investment and the risks associated with it, said Zennon Kapron, director of the Shanghai-based financial technology consultancy Kapronasia, per Reuters.

Prior to China’s announcement, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, as well as similar agencies in Singapore and Canada, warned that regulations would likely be needed to control the cryptocurrency market.

The lack of regulation governing cryptocurrency and investment in it is unprecedented. Blockchain, the backbone of cryptocurrency transactions, functions without a centralized overseer.

The nature of investment in cryptocurrency is also unconventional. When one contributes to a fundraiser for a traditional company, one generally receives a share in the company and/or a security. ICO investors, Reuters notes, receive neither.

Therefore, Reuters points out, an investment in a cryptocurrency is little more than a bet that demand for that currency will exceed supply, driving up value. It is a risky bet, considering the volatility of cryptocurrencies.

With risks to investors so high, government regulators are purportedly taking strides to protect their citizens. Cryptocurrency expert and Blockchain proponent Oliver Bussman said, per Reuters, that the lack of private financial advice firms in China obligates the government to be especially vigilant in protecting the finances of its constituents.

Of course, many would argue that it is an investor’s own responsibility to protect him/herself.

Despite some predictions that China’s move spells the beginning of the end of the cryptocurrency boom, many experts believe the regulatory shutdown is but a temporary measure designed to give the country’s government time to develop a strategy by which to handle cryptocurrencies.

“China, in many ways, is no different than the U.S. or Singapore in saying, ok, we need to push back on these for now until we figure out how to deal with them,” Kapron said, per Reuters, adding that he expected regulators in China to eventually ease the ICO ban.

Bussman says, per Reuters, that cryptocurrency technology is too revolutionary, too integral to the future of global economics, to be shutdown. Cryptocurrency, he says, has already worked itself into the fabric of modern investment.

“The initial coin offering is a new business model leveraging blockchain technology and it will remain. This is not the end of the ICO – absolutely not,” he said.

Featured Image via Flickr/BTC Keychain

Cummins unveils fully-electric semi mere weeks before Tesla

Tuesday, Cummins, an Indiana-based manufacturer of diesel and natural gas engines for commercial trucks, unveiled a fully-operational, one-hundred-percent electric truck cab, forbes.com reports. The company plans to begin selling the battery systems that power the vehicle to commercial truck fleets and bus operators in 2019.

Cummins calls the cab AEOS, Forbes says, after one of the four-winged horses who pulls the chariot of the sun god, Helios, in Greek mythology.

The cab Cummins showed weighs 18,000 pounds (nine tons) and can haul up to 22 tons. A 140 kWh battery pack, which charges in about an hour, gives the vehicle a range of 100 miles. Cummins aims to cut the charging time down to 20 minutes by 2020.

Given their range, though, AEOS-powered vehicles will perform urban deliveries and short-haul trips.

Cummins CEO Thomas Linebarger said per Forbes that an electric eighteen-wheeler is not yet viable because an electric system cannot support the weight eighteen-wheelers haul, nor the distances they travel. However, Linebarger notes that electric propulsion technology is moving forward at such a pace that impracticalities are fast becoming realities.

“There are more technologies coming into economic relevance than we’ve seen in my career, ever,” Linebarger said per Forbes.

And Linebarger plans to keep his company on the cutting edge as the industry roars ahead.

“This is what we do,” he said, per Forbes. “We feel we do better when technologies are shifting.”

Forbes notes that Cummins was quick to adapt as environmental regulations began to tighten.

Cummins intends to offer an extended-range version of AEOS by 2020. That system will be a hybrid, and its diesel engine will double as an onboard generator, allowing for a range of 300 miles. The extended-range model will boast 50 percent better fuel emissions than any diesel hybrid available today.

Though Cummins has been developing electric powertrains and fuel cells for about 10 years, the company will buy the fuel cells from an unidentified third-party. It will not build vehicles in-house but rather will sell the AEOS system to companies that do. Those companies will install the system into their trucks.

Cummins’s announcement comes just weeks before Tesla plans to unveil its own electric hauler, which will probably employ some degree of autonomous driving technology. Tesla’s reveal should come sometime next month, according to a tweet by CEO Elon Musk.

Reuters speculated last week that Tesla’s semi will have a range of between 200 and 300 miles per charge, meaning it will qualify as a “long-haul” vehicle. Tesla declined to confirm or deny Reuters’ report regarding the truck’s range, and Scott Perry, an executive at fleet operator Ryder Systems, told Reuters he would not “count [Tesla] out for having a strategy for longer distances or ranges.”

If Tesla’s truck does achieve a range of 200 or 300 miles, its distance capabilities will be but a shadow of those of today’s conventional diesel trucks, which, according to Reuters, can travel as many as 1,000 miles on one tank of fuel.

A few companies besides Cummins and Tesla are also building large, electric vehicles. Proterra is testing fully electric buses meant to revolutionize public transport, and Nikola Motor Company is developing a pair of hydrogen-powered semis with ranges of up to 1,200 miles and a 15-minute refill time.

“All those competitors we take very seriously,” Linebarger said. “They’re innovative, well-funded and have a technology mindset, much like Cummins.”

Linebarger also notes, though, that the shift into a world in which the roads are full of 100 percent electric vehicles will be gradual, and that the AEOS will not meet every customer’s needs.

“We know that we cannot have one solution for everybody,” he said, per Forbes. ”We need to make sure we have the right technology for the right application. Even if the electrified power train replaces the internal combustion engine completely, that’s still a 20- to 25-year transition period customers have to manage through. If we have good technology, they’ll want to buy it from us.”

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

Village Voice to discontinue print publication, go digital

The Village Voice, the liberal, independent newspaper that has been a fixture in New York culture since the mid-20th century, announced Tuesday that it would discontinue its print publication, The New York Times reports. The paper will operate entirely online and will publish on a daily rather than a weekly basis.

The publication has not yet finalized the date of its final print edition, a spokeswoman told the Times.

The paper’s owner, Peter Barbey, who bought The Voice from Voice Media in October 2015, said in a statement that the decision to go paperless was an effort to keep up with the continued shift of media and its audience into the digital sphere.

Under Barbey’s leadership, the publication redesigned its website in 2015, and has since reported an increase in online traffic, the Times says.

The digitization, Barbey says, was also a response to readers’ desires to see Voice content more frequently. “Our audience,” wrote Barbey, per the Times, “…expects us to do what we do not just once a week, but every day, across a range of media.”

What is it, exactly, that the Voice does? It helps New Yorkers find everything from jobs to apartments to local music to phone sex. It offers political commentary, literary criticism, and descriptions of New York culture.

According to the Times, The Voice was “where many New Yorkers learned to be New Yorkers.”

Norman Mailer, Dan Wolf, and Ed Fancher founded the paper in 1955 in Greenwich Village. Since, the pages of The Voice have held the words of investigative reporters including Wayne Barrett and Jack Newfield, and music critics including Gary Giddins, Ellen Willis, and Robert Christgau. Nat Hentoff published a column in the Voice for more than 50 years.

Hilton Als, who has written for the New Yorker since 1994, and who won a Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2017, began his career at The Voice, as did novelist Colson Whitehead, who has won two Pulitzers for his fiction.

The paper has also published content by James Baldwin, E.E. Cummings, Allen Ginsberg, and a host of other notable writers.

The paper was sold until 1996 when management dropped the price in an effort to keep pace with competitors and to increase circulation. Then, Barbey notes, per the Times, “Craigslist was in its infancy, Google and Facebook weren’t yet glimmers in the eyes of their founders, and alternative weeklies — and newspapers everywhere — were still packed with classified advertising.”

Now, the Voice is making another change in an attempt to keep up with the industry. Some New Yorkers told the Times the Voice was already obsolete.  “You have Uber killing the taxi biz, are you going to lose sleep over The Village Voice?” said Paul Vezza, 60, the third generation owner of Astor Place Hairstylists. “No.”

Vezza remembers when hordes came into the shop every week just to pick up the most recent edition of the paper. He still keeps a stack of print copies of the Voice in his shop, but they remain mostly untouched, the Times says.

Alicia Johnson, a 46-year-old from Brooklyn, told the Times she hadn’t read anything in the Voice for a while. Still, she certainly hasn’t forgotten about it.

“That’s the iconic paper of this neighborhood,” she said. “If you are a New Yorker you should know that, period.”

Many New Yorkers, though, recognize the Village Voice by the red street corner boxes containing free copies of the paper. The recent announcement means those will be gone, and Johnson wonders how The Voice will capture the ears of New Yorkers without them.

But Barbey says that boxes or no boxes, weekly or daily, ink or pixels, the Voice will roar on.

“The most powerful thing about The Voice wasn’t that it was printed on newsprint or that it came out every week. It was that The Village Voice was alive, and that it changed in step with and reflected the times and the ever-evolving world around it,” Barbey said in a statement. “I want The Village Voice brand to represent that for a new generation of people — and for generations to come.”

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons

Wisconsin State Assembly approves bill to incentivize proposed in-state Foxconn factory

Thursday, by a vote of 59-30, Wisconsin’s Republican-controlled State Assembly approved legislation that would provide $3 billion worth of incentives—mostly cash—to technology manufacturer Foxconn over 15 years, Reuters reports.

Foxconn, based in Taiwan, has proposed to build a 20 million square-foot liquid-crystal display (LCD) plant on a 1,000-acre plot in the southeastern sector of the state. The company’s initial investment in the plant, which would be operational by 2020 will be $10 billion.

The bill still awaits approval by the state senate and a joint finance committee, both of which Republicans control. Republicans generally support the bill, while Democrats oppose it, but the Assembly’s vote Thursday did not strictly follow party lines; two Republicans voted against, and three Democrats in favor, according to Reuters.

Proponents point out that the plant would bring tens of thousands of jobs to the area, and “transform Wisconsin’s economy,” as Foxconn said in a statement. The facility would create 10,000 construction jobs and 22,000 ancillary jobs, according to Reuters. Initially, it would employ 3,000, but could ultimately employ 13,000.

“We are ready to take advantage of this historic opportunity … and build a long-lasting relationship with Foxconn,” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a Republican who was instrumental in the orchestration of the deal, said in a statement, per Reuters.

“We look forward to continuing to work with them [i.e. legislators] to transform Wisconsin’s economy and make it a center of worldwide high-tech manufacturing,” Foxconn said in a statement.

President Donald Trump, who made the domestication of jobs a primary platform of his campaign, has played a large part in negotiating with the company for the plant. Trump met with Foxconn’s founder and chairman, Terry Gou, three times to discuss the plan, according to Fortune.

“I would see Terry, and I would say, ‘Terry, you have to give us one of these massive places you do great work with,’” Trump said, per The Washington Post. The president says he also told Gou, “The American worker will not let you down.”

In a testament to the importance of the deal for the Trump Administration’s economic agenda, Gou, Trump, Walker and others announced the completion of the negotiations in the East Room of the White House, the Post reports,

“The construction of this facility,” said Trump late last month, “represents the return of LCD electronics—and electronic manufacturing—to the United States.”

The bill’s detractors point out that the incentives would put Wisconsin’s government in considerable debt. The government would not break even on the deal for almost 25 years, according to a legislative analysis released last week, Reuters says.

Critics have called the incentives a “corporate welfare” project (Reuters’ words), and believe policymakers are rushing the bill.

“I think we need more time,” Democratic Representative Jill Billings said. “I want a better deal and more guarantees for my taxpayers.”

Early in the debate, Reuters says, the legislative body nixed a motion by Democrats to allow the finance committee to review the bill prior to the vote. The Assembly also shot down three amendments proposed by Democrats.

Many worry about the impact the making of LCDs has on the environment. According to a 2008 CNET article, the “chemical vapor deposition” process that produces LCDs, semi-conductors and synthetic diamond relies on a “missing greenhouse gas” known as nitrogen trifluoride, the globe-warming effect of which could be as much as 17,000 times stronger than that of CO2, according to an independent report cited by CNET.

Foxconn builds electronics for Apple, Google, Amazon, and a host of other tech giants.

The Washington Post points out that the move to build a factory on American soil is unprecedented for Foxconn, which stations most of its production operations in underdeveloped countries, where the cost of labor is cheaper.

The Post further notes that the company has a reputation for overworking employees and for dangerous work environments. In 2011, an explosion at a Foxconn factory in China killed three workers and injured 16. Some Foxconn workers report working seven days a week, living in cramped dorms, and standing so long that their legs would swell.

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons