Ukrainian police arrest multiple Clop ransomware gang suspects

Multiple suspects believed to be linked to the Clop ransomware gang have been detained in Ukraine after a joint operation from law enforcement agencies in Ukraine, South Korea, and the United States.

The Cyber Police Department of the National Police of Ukraine confirmed that six arrests were made after searches at 21 residences in the capital Kyiv and nearby regions. While it’s unclear whether the defendants are affiliates or core developers of the ransomware operation, they are accused of running a “double extortion” scheme, in which victims who refuse to pay the ransom are threatened with the leak of data stolen from their networks prior to their files being encrypted.

“It was established that six defendants carried out attacks of malicious software such as ‘ransomware’ on the servers of American and [South] Korean companies,” alleged Ukraine’s national police force in a statement.

The police also seized equipment from the alleged Clop ransomware gang, said to behind total financial damages of about $500 million. This includes computer equipment, several cars — including a Tesla and Mercedes, and 5 million Ukrainian Hryvnia (around $185,000) in cash. The authorities also claim to have successfully shut down the server infrastructure used by the gang members to launch previous attacks.

“Together, law enforcement has managed to shut down the infrastructure from which the virus spreads and block channels for legalizing criminally acquired cryptocurrencies,” the statement added.

These attacks first began in February 2019, when the group attacked four Korean companies and encrypted 810 internal services and personal computers. Since, Clop — often styled as “Cl0p” — has been linked to a number of high-profile ransomware attacks. These include the breach of U.S. pharmaceutical giant ExecuPharm in April 2020 and the attack on South Korean e-commerce giant E-Land in November that forced the retailer to close almost half of its stores.

Clop is also linked to the ransomware attack and data breach at Accellion, which saw hackers exploit flaws in the IT provider’s File Transfer Appliance (FTA) software to steal data from dozens of its customers. Victims of this breach include Singaporean telecom Singtel, law firm Jones Day, grocery store chain Kroger, and cybersecurity firm Qualys.

At the time of writing, the dark web portal that Clop uses to share stolen data is still up and running, although it hasn’t been updated for several weeks. However, law enforcement typically replaces the targets’ website with their own logo in the event of a successful takedown, which suggests that members of the gang could still be active.

“The Cl0p operation has been used to disrupt and extort organizations globally in a variety of sectors including telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, aerospace, and technology,” said John Hultquist, vice president of analysis at Mandiant’s threat intelligence unit. “The actor FIN11 has been strongly associated with this operation, which has included both ransomware and extortion, but it is unclear if the arrests included FIN11 actors or others who may also be associated with the operation.”

Hultquist said the efforts of the Ukrainian police “are a reminder that the country is a strong partner for the U.S. in the fight against cybercrime and authorities there are making the effort to deny criminals a safe harbor.”

The alleged perpetrators face up to eight years in prison on charges of unauthorized interference in the work of computers, automated systems, computer networks, or telecommunications networks and laundering property obtained by criminal means.

News of the arrests comes as international law enforcement turns up the heat on ransomware gangs. Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice announced that it had seized most of the ransom paid to members of DarkSide by Colonial Pipeline.

#aerospace, #colonial-pipeline, #crime, #cybercrime, #e-commerce, #extortion, #government, #kroger, #law, #law-enforcement, #malware, #mandiant, #oil-and-gas, #pharmaceuticals, #qualys, #ransomware, #security, #security-breaches, #singtel, #south-korea, #telecommunications, #tesla, #ukraine, #united-states

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Carbyne raises $20M more so when death knocks, you don’t answer the door

Chaos and crisis are sisters, and none more so than when you dial for emergency help. A call to 911 in the United States and urgent numbers globally spins off a number of additional calls to emergency response teams, ambulances, hospitals and other actors who need to coordinate action to save your life. Theoretically, everyone should be working off the same data, but also theoretically, I should be able to eat ice cream without getting fat.

Israel-based Carbyne’s software platform coordinates these calls so that critical details — say, location or medical allergies — don’t get lost from the 911 call taker to the paramedic in the field.

Now, it’s taking a second scoop on its capital cone in the form of a $20 million new round, following a $25 million Series B that my colleague Ingrid Lunden reported on in January. The new funding was led by Global Medical Response, one of the world’s largest emergency medical providers who operates fleets of vehicles, trucks, helicopters and planes to get patients to hospital facilities expeditiously. GMR was founded in 2018 from a rollup of emergency services led by private equity giant KKR.

This new round was in the form of a convertible note that will convert into Carbyne’s next fundraise according to CEO and co-founder Amir Elichai. Also joining the round was Hanaco VC, Intercap VC, Elsted Capital and others. Elichai said that the round took about three weeks to fundraise and close, and was held to $20 million given the company’s earlier funding this year, which at the time we reported was “over $100 million” in valuation.

Carbyne and GMR have been partners since late 2020, and their ties are deepening. GMR COO Edward Van Horne will join Carbyne’s board of directors.

In addition to offering more advanced location services for emergency callers, Carbyne’s technology allows for callers to activate a video channel, giving emergency response personnel more live information about what’s happening. That’s critical in GMR’s business, where first responders need the most up-to-date information to increase their effectiveness.

“The ability to get smarter information, and to increase situational awareness to each case whatever it is, will give emergency medical services the ability to better triage and to make faster and smarter responses to events that occur within their jurisdiction,” Elichai explained. “So basically the entire ecosystem is becoming much more reliable and efficient, thanks to the Carbyne ecosystem that we’re putting together with GMR.”

My colleague wrote a great deep dive into the company in January, so read that for some background on the company’s founding and product and how it weathered the pandemic. A few more updates though in the past few months bear mentioning.

Elichai said that the company has doubled the recurring revenues of its business since the beginning of 2021, although wouldn’t provide those ever elusive absolute figures. The company has also expanded its employee base by 30% over the same period. Among the success stories is New Orleans, which is moving its emergency centers to Carbyne, as well as centers in Texas, Georgia and Florida. Elichai said that much of this transition was prompted by additional federal investment in 911 infrastructure appropriated in recent COVID-19 stimulus bills.

The company’s CTO and co-founder, Alex Dizengof, will move from Israel to the United States to start an R&D center.

Last week, the company announced a new “Ultra Emergency Network” that it is building with Israel Aerospace Industries that will allow phones to communicate emergency location information in post-disaster scenarios where commercial mobile services degrade or disappear entirely.

The company’s newest investment is in line with growing interest from venture capitalists in the disaster space, with more data, investments in communications infrastructure, and more dollars flowing into the space than ever before.

#911, #amir-elichai, #carbyne, #funding, #fundings-exits, #global-medical-response, #government, #health, #startups

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Biden revokes and replaces Trump actions targeting TikTok and WeChat

President Joe Biden signed an executive order on Wednesday revoking actions targeting TikTok and WeChat signed by former President Donald Trump, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.

President Biden signed a new order instead requiring the Commerce Department to review apps with ties to “jurisdiction of foreign adversaries” that may pose national security risks.

The U.S. Department of Commerce, Tencent and ByteDance could not be immediately reached for comment.

This is a developing story.

#asia, #government

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CISA launches platform to let hackers report security bugs to US federal agencies

The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency has launched a vulnerability disclosure program allowing ethical hackers to report security flaws to federal agencies.

The platform, launched with the help of cybersecurity companies Bugcrowd and Endyna, will allow civilian federal agencies to receive, triage and fix security vulnerabilities from the wider security community.

The move to launch the platform comes less than a year after the federal cybersecurity agency, better known as CISA, directed the civilian federal agencies that it oversees to develop and publish their own vulnerability disclosure policies. These policies are designed to set the rules of engagement for security researchers by outlining what (and how) online systems can be tested, and which can’t be.

It’s not uncommon for private companies to run VDP programs to allow hackers to report bugs, often in conjunction with a bug bounty to pay hackers for their work. The U.S. Department of Defense has for years warmed to hackers, the civilian federal government has been slow to adopt.

Bugcrowd, which last year raised $30 million at Series D, said the platform will “give agencies access to the same commercial technologies, world-class expertise, and global community of helpful ethical hackers currently used to identify security gaps for enterprise businesses.”

The platform will also help CISA share information about security flaws between other agencies.

The platform launches after a bruising few months for government cybersecurity, including a Russian-led espionage campaign against at least nine U.S. federal government agencies by hacking software house SolarWinds, and a China-linked cyberattack that backdoored thousands of Microsoft Exchange servers, including in the federal government.

#bugcrowd, #cisa, #computer-security, #computing, #cyberattack, #cybercrime, #cyberwarfare, #federal-government, #government, #information-technology, #internet-security, #security, #solarwinds, #united-states

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Apple’s new encrypted browsing feature won’t be available in China, Saudi Arabia and more: report

Apple announced a handful of privacy-focused updates at its annual software developer conference on Monday. One called Private Relay particularly piques the interest of Chinese users living under the country’s censorship system, for it encrypts all browsing history so nobody can track or intercept the data.

As my colleague Roman Dillet explains:

When Private Relay is turned on, nobody can track your browsing history — not your internet service provider, anyone standing in the middle of your request between your device and the server you’re requesting information from. We’ll have to wait a bit to learn more about how it works exactly.

The excitement didn’t last long. Apple told Reuters that Private Relay won’t be available in China alongside Belarus, Colombia, Egypt, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkmenistan, Uganda and the Philippines.

Apple couldn’t be immediately reached by TechCrunch for comment.

Virtual private networks or VPNs are popular tools for users in China to bypass the “great firewall” censorship apparatus, accessing web services that are otherwise blocked or slowed down. But VPNs don’t necessarily protect users’ privacy because they simply funnel all the traffic through VPN providers’ servers instead of users’ internet providers, so users are essentially entrusting VPN firms with protecting their identities. Private Relay, on the other hand, doesn’t even allow Apple to see one’s browsing activity.

In an interview with Fast Company, Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering, explained why the new feature may be superior to VPNs:

“We hope users believe in Apple as a trustworthy intermediary, but we didn’t even want you to have to trust us [because] we don’t have this ability to simultaneously source your IP and the destination where you’re going to–and that’s unlike VPNs. And so we wanted to provide many of the benefits that people are seeking when in the past they’ve decided to use a VPN, but not force that difficult and conceivably perilous privacy trade-off in terms of trusting it a single intermediary.”

It’s unclear whether Private Relay will simply be excluded from system upgrades for users in China and the other countries where it’s restricted, or it will be blocked by internet providers in those regions. It also remains to be seen whether the feature will be available to Apple users in Hong Kong, which has seen an increase in online censorship in the past year.

Like all Western tech firms operating in China, Apple is trapped between antagonizing Beijing and flouting the values it espouses at home. Apple has a history of caving in to Beijing’s censorship pressure, from migrating all user data in China to a state-run cloud center, cracking down on independent VPN apps in China, limiting free speech in Chinese podcasts, to removing RSS feed readers from the China App Store.

#apple, #asia, #beijing, #belarus, #china, #colombia, #craig-federighi, #egypt, #firewall, #government, #great-firewall, #internet-censorship, #internet-security, #internet-service, #isp, #kazakhstan, #philippines, #saudi-arabia, #security, #south-africa, #tc, #uganda, #vpn

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Twitter restricts accounts in India to comply with government legal request

Twitter disclosed on Monday that it blocked four accounts in India to comply with a new legal request from the Indian government.

The American social network disclosed on Lumen Database, a Harvard University project, that it took action on four accounts — including those of hip-hop artist L-Fresh the Lion and singer and song-writer Jazzy B — to comply with a legal request from the Indian government it received over the weekend. The accounts are geo-restricted within India but accessible from outside of the South Asian nation. (As part of their transparency efforts, some companies including Twitter and Google make requests and orders they receive from governments and other entities public on Lumen Database.)

All four accounts, like several others that the Indian government ordered to be blocked in the country earlier this year, had protested New Delhi’s agriculture reforms and some had posted other tweets that criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s seven years of governance in India, an analysis by TechCrunch found.

A Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch that when the company receives a valid legal request, it reviews it under both its own rules and local laws.

“If the content violates Twitter’s Rules, the content will be removed from the service. If it is determined to be illegal in a particular jurisdiction, but not in violation of the Twitter Rules, we may withhold access to the content in India only. In all cases, we notify the account holder directly so they’re aware that we’ve received a legal order pertaining to the account,” the spokesperson added.

The new legal request, which hasn’t been previously reported, comes at a time when Twitter is making efforts to comply with the Indian government’s new IT rules, new guidelines that several of its peers including Facebook and Google have already complied with.

On Saturday, India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology had given a “final notice” to Twitter to comply with its new rules, which it unveiled in February this year. The new rules require significant social media firms to appoint and share contact details of representatives tasked with compliance, nodal point of reference and grievance redressals to address on-ground concerns.

Tension has been brewing between Twitter and the government of India of late. Last month, police in Delhi visited Twitter offices to “serve a notice” about an investigation into its intel on classifying Indian politicians’ tweets as misleading. Twitter called the move a form of intimidation, and expressed concerns for its employees and requested the government to respect citizens’ rights to free speech. Late last month, Twitter had requested New Delhi to extend the deadline for compliance with the new rules by at least three months.

The Jack Dorsey-led company has grappled with several tough situations in India this year. After briefly complying with a New Delhi order early this year, the company faced heat from the government for restoring accounts that had posted tweets critical of the Indian government’s policy or the Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The two faced off again publicly in April after New Delhi ordered Twitter and Facebook to take down posts that were critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

#asia, #facebook, #google, #government, #india, #social, #twitter

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China’s drive to compete against Starlink for the future of orbital internet

There has been a wave of businesses over the past several years hoping to offer broadband internet delivered from thousands of satellites in low-earth orbit (LEO), providing coverage of most of the earth’s surface.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen excitement in the category. Companies and people that you have heard of — Bill Gates and Motorola, to name a few — invested billions of dollars into this business model two decades ago in an adventure that ended in many bankruptcies and very few people connected to the internet from low-earth orbit. Yet, here we are 20 years later, witnessing billionaires from Elon Musk to Jeff Bezos and entities from SoftBank to the United Kingdom investing billions into broadband from space in a gold rush that began around 2015, and has only accelerated since the beginning of 2020.

During that same period, we have seen a parallel ascendance of China’s space capabilities. In tandem with the accelerated deployment of SpaceX’s Starlink constellation in 2020, China has rapidly responded in terms of policy, financing, and technology, including most notably the creation of a “Chinese answer to Starlink”, namely constellation operating company China SatNet, and the associated GuoWang (国网, or National Net(work)) constellation.

While still in early development, SatNet and GuoWang are likely to compete in certain markets with Starlink and others, while also fulfilling what may be a similar strategic purpose from a government perspective. With considerable backing from very high-level actors, we are likely to see the rollout of a Red Star(link) over China (and the rest of the world) over the coming several years.

The rapid rise of Starlink

China’s LEO constellation plans cannot be understood in a vacuum. Like many other areas of high-tech investment, China’s actions here are partially reactive to developments in the West. The acceleration and expansion of Western LEO constellations in recent years — most notably Starlink — has been an accelerant to China’s own plans.

#asia, #china, #government, #satellites, #space, #spacex, #starlink, #tc

0

White House expands investment ban on Chinese tech and telecom companies

The Biden administration has replaced and expanded Trump-era restrictions on investing in certain Chinese firms deemed supportive of that country’s surveillance and military apparatus. Major tech, space, and telecom companies are listed in the initial 59 covered by the Executive Order, with more to come by order of the Treasury.

“I find that the use of Chinese surveillance technology outside the PRC and the development or use of Chinese surveillance technology to facilitate repression or serious human rights abuse, constitute unusual and extraordinary threats,” writes President Biden in the introduction to the order.

The E.O. has its roots in the Trump administration’s long-running and evolving blacklist of Chinese companies, whether for government procurement, private investment by U.S. firms, or other purposes. Major tech companies like ZTE and Huawei were put on the list straight away in 2019, but others were steadily added over time.

The Biden order refines these orders, revising certain portions and expanding others, particularly in the definition of what constitutes dangerous behavior or collaboration with Chinese authorities. Notably it stretches this to cover companies involved in domestic surveillance of Uygur Muslims in China and political dissidents in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

The new list of companies includes many of those listed over the last two years, and adds plenty more. Seemingly any major company that deals with tech, communications or aerospace is at risk of being entered on the list, from China Mobile and China Unicom to China Aerospace, Hikvision, and SMIC. Direct investment in the companies is disallowed, as is investing in an intermediary such as an index fund that includes one of the prohibited companies.

The Treasury — rather than the Defense Department, as it was previously — is given the responsibility of maintaining and updating the list, either adding to or subtracting from it.

“Tackling these challenges head-on is consistent with the Biden Administration’s commitment to protecting core U.S. national security interests and democratic values, and the Administration will continue to update the list of PRC entities as appropriate,” read a fact sheet accompanying the order.

Clearly the White House aims to continue and refine the trade war with China started by Trump. Whether U.S. pressure will be enough to influence Chinese policy or if the international community’s support will be necessary may soon be clear as the President goes to visit allies in search of support on this and other measures.

#china, #china-ban, #government

0

One Concern raises $45M from SOMPO to scale its disaster resilience platform across Japan

Climate change is intensifying across the globe, and one of the most challenging cases is Japan. In addition to lying on a major fault, the archipelago is increasingly inundated from rising sea levels that make the country more prone to disasters. A decade ago, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami dealt billions of dollars in damage, and the recovery from that tragedy remains a major international relations flashpoint.

Technology to address disasters and resilience is a key area of venture capital investment these days, and now another startup in the space is proving that there is widespread interest in this growing market.

One Concern, which builds a platform to model and simulate community resilience and response to earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters, announced this morning that it has raised $45 million from SOMPO Holdings, the venture wing of Japan’s SOMPO, one of the country’s largest insurers. The investment is part of a total $100 million, multi-year deal that will plug One Concern’s platform into the Japanese market.

Japan has been something of a gem in One Concern’s market development the past few years. The startup hired Hitoshi Akimoto as country manager for Japan in late 2019 before formally announcing that it was expanding to Japan in February 2020. In August last year, it announced a strategic partnership with SOMPO, and the insurer’s venture wing invested $15 million. Today’s deal expands that partnership further.

According to its press release, One Concern will sell its platform to six or more Japanese cities as part of the tie-up.

Previously, One Concern had raised three rounds of capital according to Crunchbase and SEC filings: a seed round in October 2015, a $33 million Series A round led by NEA in 2017, and a $37 million round also co-led by NEA. The company was founded in 2015.

#disaster-recovery, #funding, #fundings-exits, #government, #greentech, #startups

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Indivisible is training an army of volunteers to neutralize political misinformation

The grassroots Democratic organization Indivisible is launching its own team of stealth fact-checkers to push back against misinformation — an experiment in what it might look like to train up a political messaging infantry and send them out into the information trenches.

Called the “Truth Brigade,” the corps of volunteers will learn best practices for countering popular misleading narratives on the right. They’ll coordinate with the organization on a biweekly basis to unleash a wave of progressive messaging that aims to drown out political misinformation and boost Biden’s legislative agenda in the process.

Considering the scope of the misinformation that remains even after social media’s big January 6 cleanup, the project will certainly have its work cut out for it.

“This is an effort to empower volunteers to step into a gap that is being created by very irresponsible behavior by the social media platforms,” Indivisible co-founder and co-executive director Leah Greenberg told TechCrunch. “It is absolutely frustrating that we’re in this position of trying to combat something that they ultimately have a responsibility to address.”

Greenberg co-founded Indivisible with her husband following the 2016 election. The organization grew out of the viral success the pair had when they and two other former House staffers published a handbook to Congressional activism. The guide took off in the flurry of “resist”-era activism on the left calling on Americans to push back on Trump and his agenda.

Indivisible’s Truth Brigade project blossomed out of a pilot program in Colorado spearheaded by Jody Rein, a senior organizer concerned about what she was seeing in her state. Since that pilot began last fall, the program has grown into 2,500 volunteers across 45 states.

The messaging will largely center around Biden’s ambitious legislative packages: the American Rescue plan, the voting rights bill HR1 and the forthcoming infrastructure package. Rather than debunking political misinformation about those bills directly, the volunteer team will push back with personalized messages promoting the legislation and dispelling false claims within their existing social spheres on Facebook and Twitter.

The coordinated networks at Indivisible will cross-promote those pieces of semi-organic content using tactics parallel to what a lot of disinformation campaigns do to send their own content soaring (In the case of groups that make overt efforts to conceal their origins, Facebook calls this “coordinated inauthentic behavior.”) Since the posts are part of a volunteer push and not targeted advertising, they won’t be labeled, though some might contain hashtags that connect them back to the Truth Brigade campaign.

Volunteers are trained to serve up progressive narratives in a “truth sandwich” that’s careful to not amplify the misinformation it’s meant to push back against. For Indivisible, training volunteers to avoid giving political misinformation even more oxygen is a big part of the effort.

“What we know is that actually spreads disinformation and does the work of some of these bad actors for them,” Greenberg said. “We are trying to get folks to respond not by engaging in that fight — that’s really doing their work for them — but by trying to advance the kind of narrative that we actually want people to buy into.”

She cites the social media outrage cycle perpetuated by Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene as a harbinger of what Democrats will again be up against in 2022. Taylor Greene is best known for endorsing QAnon, getting yanked off of her Congressional committee assignments and comparing mask requirements to the Holocaust — comments that inspired some Republicans to call for her ouster from the party.

Political figures like Greene regularly rile up the left with outlandish claims and easily debunked conspiracies. Greenberg believes that political figures like Greene who regularly rile up the online left suck up a lot of energy that could be better spent resisting the urge to rage-retweet and spreading progressive political messages.

“It’s not enough to just fact check [and] it’s not enough to just respond, because then fundamentally we’re operating from a defensive place,” Greenberg said.

“We want to be proactively spreading positive messages that people can really believe in and grab onto and that will inoculate them from some of this.”

For Indivisible, the project is a long-term experiment that could pave the way for a new kind of online grassroots political campaign beyond targeted advertising — one that hopes to boost the signal in a sea of noise.

#articles, #biden, #disinformation, #energy, #government, #misinformation, #operating-systems, #policy, #president, #social-media, #social-media-platforms, #tc, #trump, #twitter

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Facebook changes misinfo rules to allow posts claiming Covid-19 is man-made

Facebook made a few noteworthy changes to its misinformation policies this week, including the news that the company will now allow claims that Covid was created by humans — a theory that contradicts the previously prevailing assumption that humans picked up the virus naturally from animals.

“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps,” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch. “We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.”

The company is adjusting its rules about pandemic misinformation in light of international investigations legitimating the theory that the virus could have escaped from a lab. While that theory clearly has enough credibility to be investigated at this point, it is often interwoven with demonstrably false misinformation about fake cures, 5G towers causing Covid and most recently the false claim that the AstraZeneca vaccine implants recipients with a bluetooth chip.

Earlier this week, President Biden ordered a multi-agency intelligence report evaluating if the virus could have accidentally leaked out of a lab in Wuhan, China. Biden called this possibility one of two “likely scenarios.”

“… Shortly after I became President, in March, I had my National Security Advisor task the Intelligence Community to prepare a report on their most up-to-date analysis of the origins of COVID-19, including whether it emerged from human contact with an infected animal or from a laboratory accident,” Biden said in an official White House statement, adding that there isn’t sufficient evidence to make a final determination.

Claims that the virus was man-made or lab-made have circulated widely since the pandemic’s earliest days, even as the scientific community largely maintained that the virus probably made the jump from an infected animal to a human via natural means. But many questions remain about the origins of the virus and the U.S. has yet to rule out the possibility that the virus emerged from a Chinese lab — a scenario that would be a bombshell for international relations.

Prior to the Covid policy change, Facebook announced that it would finally implement harsher punishments against individuals who repeatedly peddle misinformation. The company will now throttle the News Feed reach of all posts from accounts that are found to habitually share known misinformation, restrictions it previously put in place for Pages, Groups, Instagram accounts and websites that repeatedly break the same rules.

#astrazeneca, #biden, #china, #covid-19, #facebook, #government, #misinformation, #president, #social, #tc, #united-states, #white-house

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Facebook, WhatsApp, Google and other internet giants comply with India’s IT rules

Google, Facebook, Telegram, LinkedIn and Tiger Global-backed Indian startups ShareChat and Koo have either fully or partially complied with the South Asian nation’s new IT rules, according to two people familiar with the matter and a government note obtained by TechCrunch.

India’s new IT rules, unveiled in February this year, required firms to appoint and share contact details of representatives tasked with compliance, nodal point of reference, and grievance redressals to address on-ground concerns. 

The aforementioned firms have complied with this requirement, the government note and a person familiar with the matter said. The firms were required to comply with the new IT rules by this week.

Twitter has yet to comply with the rules. “Twitter sent a communication late last night, sharing details of a lawyer working in a law firm in India as their Nodal Contact Person and Grievance Officer,” a note prepared by New Delhi said, adding that the rules require for the aforementioned officials to be direct employees.

Tension has been brewing between Twitter and the government of India of late. This week, police in Delhi visited Twitter offices to “serve a notice” about an investigation into its intel on classifying politicians’ tweets as misleading. Twitter called the move a form of intimidation, and requested the government to respect citizens’ rights to free speech.

WhatsApp has complied with the aforementioned rules, but not with the requirement about traceability, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. WhatsApp sued the Indian government earlier this week over the requirement about bringing a way to trace the originator of messages.

It is unclear at this point whether Apple, which operates iMessage, and Signal have complied with the rules.

India’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology on Wednesday had asked the social media firms for an update on their compliant status, TechCrunch first reported.

India is a key overseas market for several technology giants including Facebook and Google, both of which identify the nation as its biggest market by users. Pakistan, which had proposed similar rules as India last year, had to withdraw them after tech giants united and threatened to leave the nation.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

#apps, #asia, #facebook, #google, #government, #india, #koo, #sharechat, #twitter, #whatsapp

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Twitter says concerned with India intimidation, requests 3 more months to comply with new IT rules

Twitter called the recent visit by police to its Indian offices a form of intimidation and said it was concerned by some of the requirements in New Delhi’s new IT rules.

Speaking for the first time since a special squad of Delhi police made a surprise visit to two of its offices on Monday, Twitter said it is “concerned by recent events regarding our employees in India and the potential threat to freedom of expression for the people we serve.”

The company also said that it joins many organizations in India and around the world that have “concerns with regards to the use of intimidation tactics by the police in response to enforcement of our global Terms of Service, as well as with core elements of the new IT Rules.”

A Twitter spokesperson added: “We plan to advocate for changes to elements of these regulations that inhibit free, open public conversation. We will continue our constructive dialogue with the Indian Government and believe it is critical to adopt a collaborative approach. It is the collective responsibility of elected officials, industry, and civil society to safeguard the interests of the public.”

Tension between American tech giants Twitter and Facebook and the Indian government has been brewing for months. Twitter faced heat from politicians after it refused to block accounts that criticised New Delhi’s reforms and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

India is one of the largest markets for American tech firms that poured billions of dollars in the South Asian nation in the past decade to get more people connected to the web. According to Indian government estimates, Twitter has 175 million users in India, while WhatsApp has amassed over 530 million users.

Their tension escalated Wednesday after WhatsApp sued the Indian government in a court in Delhi over the new IT rules that it said would compromise users’ privacy and give New Delhi the power to conduct mass surveillance.

India announced the new IT rules in February and gave firms three months to comply. The deadline expired this week, and on Wednesday the Ministry of Electronics and IT asked social media firms for an update on their compliant status, TechCrunch first reported.

Twitter said Thursday that the new IT rules’ requirements to make a compliance officer criminally liable for content on the platform, proactive monitoring, and blanket authority to seek information about users represented a dangerous overreach that was inconsistent with open and democratic principles.

The microblogging platform also requested New Delhi to consider granting a minimum of 3 months extension to comply with the new IT rules and publish Standard Operating Protocols on aspects of compliance of public consultation.

Twitter said it was recently served with another non-compliance notice in India and withheld a portion of the content identified in the notice under. The content identified in the notice, Twitter said, was originally reported in the blocking orders since February 2021.

It said in recent months it has been compelled to withhold content in response to a non-compliance notice. Not doing so, it said, poses penal consequences with many risks for Twitter employees.

#asia, #facebook, #government, #india, #twitter, #whatsapp

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India says WhatsApp’s lawsuit over new regulations a clear act of defiance

India said on Wednesday WhatsApp’s lawsuit challenging the new local IT rules is an “unfortunate last moment” attempt to prevent new regulations from going into effect in a clear act of defiance, and said the Facebook-owned firm didn’t raise any specific objection in writing to the traceability requirement after October 2018.

Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s Electronics and IT Minister, said WhatsApp’s refusal to comply with the guidelines, the deadline of which expired Wednesday, is a “clear act of defiance of a measure whose intent can certainly not be doubted.”

WhatsApp sued the Indian government earlier on Wednesday in a Delhi High Court, saying the world’s second largest internet market’s new IT rules could allow authorities to make people’s private messages “traceable,” and conduct mass surveillance.

India is the largest market by users for the Facebook-owned popular instant messaging service. According to government estimates, WhatsApp has amassed over 530 million users in India.

Prasad said any company’s operations in India is “subject to the law of the land.”

One one hand, “WhatsApp seeks to mandate a privacy policy wherein it will share the data of all its user with its parent company, Facebook, for marketing and advertising purposes,” he added. “On the other hand, WhatsApp makes every effort to refuse the enactment of the Intermediary Guidelines which are necessary to uphold law and order and curb the menace of fake news.”

The Ministry of Electronics and IT said New Delhi needs to trace the first originator of a message for the “purposes of prevention, investigation, punishment etc. of inter alia an offence relating to sovereignty, integrity and security of India, public order incitement to an offence relating to rape, sexually explicit material or child sexual abuse material punishable with imprisonment for not less than five years.”

“It is in public interest that who started the mischief leading to such crime must be detected and punished. We cannot deny as to how in cases of mob lynching and riots etc. repeated WhatsApp messages are circulated and recirculated whose content are already in public domain. Hence the role of who originated is very important.”

This is a developing story. More to follow…

#apps, #asia, #facebook, #government, #india, #whatsapp

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India asks social media firms if they have complied with the new regulations

India has asked social media firms to provide specific details about whether they have complied with its new IT rules “as soon as possible” and “preferably today” even as the new regulations are being challenged by WhatsApp.

In a letter to “significant social media intermediaries” — which New Delhi defines as social media firms with over 5 million registered users in India — on Wednesday, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology asked the firms to share the names of their apps, websites, or services that will come under the scope of the new IT rules and the status of their compliance.

The letter, obtained by TechCrunch, also asks the firms to provide names and contact details of chief compliance officer, nodal contact person, and resident grievance officer that they have appointed in India as part of the compliance, and also asked for the physical address of the local office. The new rules mandate that firms have several officials in India to address on-ground concerns.

The letter also implies that India doesn’t plan to give social media firms any extension on the deadline to comply with the new regulations. “The additional due diligence required from SSMI have come into effect today, at the conclusion of three additional months given to SSMIs,” it said.

“If you are not considered as SSMI, please provide the reasons for the same including the registered users on each of the services provided by you,” the letter adds. “The government reserves the right to seek any additional information, as may be permitted within these Rules and the IT Act.”

Earlier on Wednesday, WhatsApp sued the Indian government challenging the second largest internet market’s new regulations that it said could allow authorities to make people’s private messages “traceable,” and conduct mass surveillance.

#asia, #facebook, #government, #india, #twitter, #whatsapp

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Tesla will store Chinese user data locally, following Apple’s suit

The handling of user data in China has become a delicate matter for American tech companies operating in the country. Apple’s move to store the data of its Chinese customers in servers managed by a Chinese state-owned cloud service has stoked controversy in the West over the years. A recent New York Times investigation found that the setup could give the Chinese government easy access to Apple’s user data in China, compromising”, but Apple said it “never compromised the security” of its customers or their data.

Tesla, one of the few U.S. tech heavyweights that generate substantial revenues from China, is working out a similar data plan. The electric carmaker said it has established a data center in China to carry out the “localization of data storage,” with more data facilities incoming, the company announced through its account on microblogging platform Weibo. All data generated by Tesla vehicles sold in mainland China will be stored domestically.

Tesla is acting in response to new requirements drafted by the Chinese government to regulate how cameras- and sensors-enabled carmakers collect and utilized information. One of the requirements states that “personal or important data should be stored within the [Chinese] territory.”

It’s unclear what level of access Chinese authorities have to Tesla’s China-based data. In the case of Apple, the phone maker said it controlled the keys that protect the data of its Chinese customers.

Tesla recently fell out of favor with Chinese media and the public after a customer protested the carmaker’s faulted parts at an auto show in Shanghai, earning her widespread sympathy. Tesla also faces fierce competition from Chinese rivals like Nio and Xpeng, which are investing heavily in world-class designs and autonomous driving technology.

The American firm clearly wants the government’s good graces in its second-largest market. It appeared a few days ago at an industry symposium along with Baidu, Alibaba, research institutions, and think tanks to discuss the new vehicle policy proposed by the country’s cybersecurity watchdog.

“Important data” generated by vehicles as defined by the Chinese internet regulator include traffic conditions in military and government compounds; surveying and mapping data beyond what the government discloses; status of electric charging grids; face, voice, and car plate information; and any data deemed as affecting national security and public interest.

The regulations also urge car service providers to not track users by default, as well as inform them of the kinds of and reasons for data collection. If gathered, information should be anonymized and stored for only “the minimum period of time.”

#alibaba, #apple, #asia, #baidu, #china, #government, #nio, #shanghai, #tc, #tesla, #transportation, #xpeng

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WhatsApp sues India government over new regulations

WhatsApp is suing the Indian government over new regulations in India that could allow authorities to make people’s private messages “traceable,” and conduct mass surveillance.

The Facebook-owned instant messaging service, which identifies India as its biggest market, said it filed the lawsuit in the High Court of Delhi on Wednesday. It said New Delhi’s “traceability” requirement, unveiled in February this year, violated citizens’ constitutional right to privacy.

“Civil society and technical experts around the world have consistently argued that a requirement to ‘trace’ private messages would break end-to-end encryption and lead to real abuse. WhatsApp is committed to protecting the privacy of people’s personal messages and we will continue to do all we can within the laws of India to do so,” WhatsApp said.

India first proposed WhatsApp to make software changes to make the originator of a message traceable in 2018. But its suggestion didn’t become the law until this year. Wednesday is the deadline for firms, including Facebook, to comply with India’s new IT rules.

WhatsApp’s move on Wednesday has come as a surprise and is highly unusual. Facebook has engaged closely with New Delhi over the years — to a point where allegations were made that it didn’t take action on some politicians’ objectionable posts because it feared it would hurt its business in India, the world’s second largest internet market.

WhatsApp itself is fighting a legal case in India currently, in the same aforementioned court, over its new privacy policy as New Delhi tries to get the Facebook-owned firm to withdraw the new terms.

Last year India banned over 200 Chinese apps, including TikTok, which at the time of blocking identified India as its biggest overseas market. India said it was banning the apps because they posed threat to national security and defence of India.

None of the Chinese firms sued the Indian government, with at least two telling TechCrunch on the condition of anonymity that it’s nearly impossible to win a court case in India when the national security issue has been raised. “So much so, that you are going to have a hard time even finding a lawyer who represents you,” an Indian official had told TechCrunch earlier.

India’s IT minister Ravi Shankar Prasad cited similar national concerns as he unveiled the revised IT rules in February this year.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

#apps, #asia, #government, #india, #whatsapp

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US removes Xiaomi’s designation as a Communist Chinese Military Company

Xiaomi, one of China’s high-profile tech firms that fell in the crosshairs of the Trump administration, has been removed from a U.S. government blacklist that designated it as a Communist Chinese Military Company.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has vacated the Department of Defence’s designation of Xiaomi as a CCMC in January, a document filed on May 25 shows.

In February, Xiaomi sued the U.S. government over its inclusion in the military blacklist. In March, the D.C. court granted Xiaomi a preliminary injunction against the DoD designation, which would have forbidden all U.S. persons from purchasing or possessing Xiaomi’s securities, saying the decision was “arbitrary and capricious.” The ruling was made to prevent “irreparable harm” to the Chinese phone maker.

Xiaomi has this to say about getting off the blacklist:

The Company is grateful for the trust and support of its global users, partners, employees and shareholders. The Company reiterates that it is an open, transparent, publicly traded, independently operated and managed corporation. The Company will continue to provide reliable consumer electronics products and services to users, and to relentlessly build amazing products with honest prices to let everyone in the world enjoy a better life through innovative technology.

Xiaomi’s domestic competitor Huawei is still struggling with its inclusion in the U.S. trade blacklist, which bans it from accessing critical U.S. technologies and has crippled its smartphone sales around the world.

#asia, #china, #gadgets, #government, #telecommunications, #trump-administration, #u-s-government, #united-states, #xiaomi

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DC Attorney General files antitrust suit against Amazon over third-party seller agreements

Washington DC Attorney General Karl Racine announced a new antitrust suit against Amazon Tuesday, accusing the company of stifling competition by exerting control over third-party sellers.

The lawsuit, filed in DC Superior Court, alleges that Amazon fixed prices on its massive online retail platform by blocking third-party sellers from selling their products for less elsewhere. Racine argues that this kind of arrangement means that sellers roll Amazon’s hefty fees into their prices, creating an “artificially high” price floor across the online retail market.

That practice may run afoul of the District of Columbia’s Antitrust Act. The AG’s office argues that the practice allows Amazon to exert monopoly power in online retail.

“Amazon has used its dominant position in the online retail market to win at all costs. It maximizes its profits at the expense of third-party sellers and consumers, while harming competition, stifling innovation, and illegally tilting the playing field in its favor,” Racine said.

“We filed this antitrust lawsuit to put an end to Amazon’s illegal control of prices across the online retail market. We need a fair online marketplace that expands options available to District residents and promotes competition, innovation, and choice.”

The DC AG lawsuit is the latest state-level effort to take tech’s most powerful companies down a notch. Facebook and Google are both facing multi-state lawsuits for alleged anticompetitive behavior, even as federal lawmakers creep toward major antitrust reform.

#government

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Florida’s ban on bans will test First Amendment rights of social media companies

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has signed into law a restriction on social media companies’ ability to ban candidates for state offices and news outlets, and in doing so offered a direct challenge to those companies’ perceived free speech rights. The law is almost certain to be challenged in court as both unconstitutional and in direct conflict with federal rules.

The law, Florida Senate Bill 7072, provides several new checks on tech and social media companies. Among other things:

  • Platforms cannot ban or deprioritize candidates for state office
  • Platforms cannot ban or deprioritize any news outlet meeting certain size requirements
  • Platforms must be transparent about moderation processes and give users notice of moderation actions
  • Users and the state will have the right to sue companies that violate the law

The law establishes rules affecting these companies’ moderation practices; that much is clear. But whether doing so amounts to censorship — actual government censorship, not the general concept of limitation frequently associated with the word — is an open question, if a somewhat obvious one, that will likely be forced by legal action against SB 7072.

While there is a great deal of circumstantial precedent and analysis, the problem of “are moderation practices of social media companies protected by the First Amendment” is as yet unsettled. Legal scholars and existing cases fall strongly on the side of “yes,” but there is no single definitive precedent that Facebook or Twitter can point to.

The First Amendment argument starts with the idea that although social media are very unlike newspapers or book publishers, they are protected in much the same way by the Constitution from government interference. “Free speech” is a term that is interpreted extremely liberally, but if a company spending money is considered a protected expression of ideas, it’s not a stretch to suggest that same company applying a policy of hosting or not hosting content should be as well. If it is, then the government is prohibited from interfering with it beyond very narrow definitions of unprotected speech (think shouting “fire” in a crowded theater). That would sink Florida’s law on constitutional grounds.

The other conflict is with federal law, specifically the much-discussed Section 230, which protects companies from being liable for content they publish (i.e. the creator is responsible instead), and also for the choice to take down content via rules of their own choice. As the law’s co-author Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has put it, this gives those companies both a shield and a sword with which to do battle against risky speech on their platforms.

But SB 7072 removes both sword and shield: it would limit who can be moderated, and also creates a novel cause for legal action against the companies for their remaining moderation practices.

Federal and state law are often in disagreement, and there is no handbook for how to reconcile them. On one hand, witness raids of state-legalized marijuana shops and farms by federal authorities. On the other, observe how strong consumer protection laws at the state level aren’t preempted by weaker federal ones because to do so would put people at risk.

On the matter of Section 230 it’s not straightforward who is protecting whom. Florida’s current state government claims that it is protecting “real Floridians” against the “Silicon Valley elites.” But no doubt those elites (and let us be candid — that is exactly what they are) will point out that in fact this is a clear-cut case of government overreach, censorship in the literal sense.

These strong legal objections will inform the inevitable lawsuits by the companies affected, which will probably be filed ahead of the law taking effect and aim to have it overturned.

Interestingly, two companies that will not be affected by the law are two of the biggest, most uncompromising corporations in the world: Disney and Comcast. Why, you ask? Because the law has a special exemption for any company “that owns and operates a theme park or entertainment complex” of a certain size.

That’s right, there’s a Mouse-shaped hole in this law — and Comcast, which owns Universal Studios, just happens to fit through as well. Notably this was added in an amendment, suggesting two of the largest employers in the state were unhappy at the idea of new liabilities for any of their digital properties.

This naked pandering to local corporate donors puts proponents of this law at something of an ethical disadvantage in their righteous battle against the elites, but favor may be moot in a few months’ time when the legal challenges, probably being drafted at this moment, call for an injunction against SB 7072.

#facebook, #first-amendment, #free-speech, #google, #government, #moderation, #sb-7072, #section-230, #social, #tc

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Delhi Police, run by India’s central government, ‘raids’ Twitter offices over manipulated label

Delhi Police, controlled by India’s central government, on Monday evening “raided” offices of Twitter in Delhi and Gurgaon as it sought more information on why the social network tagged one of the tweets by ruling partly BJP spokesperson as “manipulated media.”

Delhi Police IT Cell team vacated both of Twitter’s offices because the offices were closed and there were no Twitter employee to engage, many local TV channels reported.

A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment.

“Delhi Police is enquiring into a complaint in which clarification is sought from the Twitter regarding the classification of a tweet by Shri Sambit Patra (BJP spokesman) as ‘manipulative’. It appears that Twitter has some information which is not known to us on the basis of which they have classified it as such,” Delhi Police said in statements to local TV channels and other journalists.

“This information is relevant to the enquiry. Special Cell which is conducting the enquiry wants to find out the truth. Twitter which has claimed to know the underlying truth should clarify,” it added.

Several policy executives and other officials questioned Delhi Police’s motives.

This is a developing story. More to follow…

#asia, #facebook, #government, #india, #twitter, #twitter-india

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In a YC “power” play, Gridware girds $5.3M to save humanity from weather

You might have thought that with more than 300 companies joining this year’s winter batch of Y Combinator, the investor interest might have thinned. Well, it’s 2021 and investors are hopping around like crazy to invest in ideas that push the boundaries in fields far flung from enterprise SaaS.

Case in point today: Gridware. It’s a startup I profiled earlier this year when it had just started up in its YC batch. As I wrote about how it wants to save our power grids from the ravages of climate change:

Its approach is to use a small, sensor-laden box that can be installed to a power pole with just four screws. Gridware’s package contains microphones and other sensors to sense the ambient environment around a power pole, and it uses on-board AI/ML processing to listen for anomalies and report them to the relevant managers as appropriate.

Hardware, IoT, infrastructure, utilities and government are five keywords you probably most would have wanted to avoid when pitching investors even a few years ago. But with power disappearing in states like California and Texas for stretches of time, investors have perhaps finally realized there is an opportunity to save the planet and make a bit of money here.

Gridware today announced that it has raised $5.3 million in a seed round led by Priscilla Tyler of True Ventures and Seth Bannon and Shu Yang of Fifty Years. CEO and co-founder Tim Barat said fundraising was quite fierce. “We had 130 investors reach out to us, and I wasn’t even able to get back to some of them yet … [I’m] still going back through the emails,” he said. “Even before Demo Day, we had raised a significant portion of our round.”

For him and the Gridware team, they were looking for investors who were mission-driven and really understood the timeline it would take to build the company. “You see a lot of investors say they are mission-driven … but when it comes time to put their money where their mouth is, it often goes to consumer technology where it is safer,” he said. Tyler at True leads climate investing for the firm, and True has made a variety of bets in the space. Fifty Years focuses on startups tackling the UN’s list of 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

You can read more about the company’s product and market in my profile from three months ago, but with the new funding, Gridware wants to double down on building a very intentional team capable of tackling this tough market. “Dealing with this multi-stakeholder business model is very challenging, so bringing on people with the experience, knowledge and wits to deal with this kind of environment is key,” Barat said.

As I explored recently, the disaster response space is probably one of the toughest markets in the world to sell into. Barat acknowledged the intrinsic difficulty, but sees huge potential in the long run. “One of the things that I have observed with the companies being successful — they really spend the time to meet as many stakeholders as possible,” he said. “With consumer, you can stand in front of a shopping mall and talk to 100 customers in a day [but] in govtech, getting 100 meetings even within a year is a huge accomplishment.”

The company will be re-opening its Bay Area office in Walnut Creek next week on June 1.

#disaster-response, #fifty-years, #funding, #fundings-exits, #government, #gridware, #power-grid, #recent-funding, #seth-bannon, #startups, #true-ventures

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US towns are buying Chinese surveillance tech tied to Uighur abuses

At least a hundred U.S. counties, towns, and cities have bought China-made surveillance systems that the U.S. government has linked to human rights abuses, according to contract data seen by TechCrunch.

Some municipalities have spent tens of thousands of dollars or more to buy surveillance equipment made by two Chinese technology companies, Hikvision and Dahua, after the companies were added to the U.S. government’s economic backlist in 2019 after the companies were linked to China’s ongoing efforts to suppress ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, where most Uighur Muslims live. Congress also banned U.S. federal agencies from buying new Hikvision and Dahua technology or renewing contracts over fears that it could help the Chinese government to conduct espionage.

But those federal actions broadly do not apply at the state and city level, allowing local governments to buy these China-made surveillance systems — including video cameras and thermal imaging scanners — largely uninhibited, so long as federal funds are not used to buy the equipment.

Details of the contracts were provided by GovSpend, which tracks federal and state government spending, to TechCrunch via IPVM, a leading news publication on video surveillance, which has followed the Hikvision and Dahua bans closely.

The biggest spender, according to the data and as previously reported by IPVM, showed that the Board of Education in Fayette County, Georgia spent $490,000 in August 2020 on dozens of Hikvision thermal cameras, used for temperature checks at its public schools.

A statement provided by Fayette County Public Schools spokesperson Melinda Berry-Dreisbach said the cameras were purchased from its longtime security vendor, authorized dealer for Hikvision. The statement did not address whether the Board of Education was aware of Hikvision’s links to human rights abuses. Berry-Dreisbach did not respond to our follow-up questions.

IPVM research found many thermal scanners, including Hikvision and Dahua models, produced inaccurate readings, prompting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to issue a public health alert warning that misreported readings could present “potentially serious public health risks.”

Nash County in North Carolina, which has a population of 95,000 residents, spent more than $45,000 between September and December 2020 to buy Dahua thermal cameras. County Manager Zee Lamb forwarded emails that confirmed the purchases and that the gear was deployed at the county’s public schools, but did not comment.

The data also shows that the Parish of Jefferson in Louisiana, which includes part of the city of New Orleans, spent $35,000 on Hikvision surveillance cameras and video storage between October 2019 and September 2020. A parish spokesperson did not comment.

Only one municipality we contacted addressed the links between the technology they bought and human rights abuses. Kern County in California spent more than $15,000 on Hikvision surveillance cameras and video recording equipment in June 2020 for its probation department offices. The contract data showed a local vendor, Tel Tec Security, supplied the Hikvision technology to the county.

Ryan Alsop, chief administrative officer for Kern County, said he was “not familiar at all with the issues you’re referencing with regard to Hikvision,” when asked about Hikvision’s links to human rights abuses.

“Again, we didn’t contract with Hikvision, we contracted with Tel Tec Security,” said Alsop.

Kern County spent more than $15,000 on Hikvision equipment at its county probation service offices. (Data: GovSpend/supplied)

A spokesperson for the City of Hollywood in Florida, which spent close to $30,000 on Hikvision thermal cameras, said the Chinese technology maker “was the only major manufacturer with a viable solution that was ready for delivery; would serve the defined project scope; and was within the project budget.” The cameras were used to take employees’ body temperatures to curb the spread of COVID-19. The spokesperson did not address the links to human rights abuses but noted that the federal ban did not apply to the city.

Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said a lack of privacy regulations at the local level contributed to municipalities buying this technology.

“One of the problems is that these kinds of cameras, regardless of the country of origin and regardless of whether or not they’re even linked to human rights abuses, have been introduced to various parts of the country — especially at state and city levels — without any kind of regulation to ensure that they comply with privacy standards,” said Wang in a call. “There is, again, no kind of regulatory framework to vet the companies based on their track record, whether or not they have abused human rights in their practices, such that we can evaluate or choose better companies, and encourage the ones with better privacy protections to win, essentially.”

Chief among the U.S. government’s allegations are that Beijing has relied heavily on Hikvision, Dahua, and others to supply the surveillance technology it uses to monitor the Uighur population as part of the government’s ongoing efforts to suppress the ethnic group, which it has repeatedly denied.

United Nations watchdogs say Beijing has detained more than a million Uighurs in internment camps in recent years as part of these efforts, which led to the U.S. blacklisting of the two surveillance technology makers.

In adding the companies to the government’s economic blacklist, the Commerce Department said Hikvision and Dahua “have been implicated in human rights violations and abuses in the implementation of China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention, and high-technology surveillance against Uighurs, Kazakhs, and other members of Muslim minority groups.” The Biden administration called the human rights abuses a “genocide.”

IPVM has also reported extensively on how the companies’ surveillance technology has been used to suppress the Uighurs. Dahua was found to have race detection in its code for providing “real-time Uighur warnings” to police.

Earlier this year, the Thomson Reuters Foundation found half of London’s councils and the largest 20 U.K. cities were using the technology linked to Uighur abuses. The Guardian also found that Hikvision surveillance technology was used in U.K. schools.

When reached, Dahua pointed to a blog post with a statement, and claimed that “contrary to some reporting in the media, our company has never developed any technology or solution that seeks to target a specific ethnic group.” The statement added: “Claims to the contrary are simply false and we are aware of no evidence that has ever been put forward to support such claims.”

Hikvision did not respond to a request for comment.


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#china, #dahua, #government, #hikvision, #human-rights, #privacy, #security, #surveillance, #u-s-government

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India objects to ‘manipulated’ label on politicians tweets

The Indian government has expressed strong objection to Twitter for classifying certain tweets by Indian politicians as “manipulated media,” according to a notice leaked to journalists Friday.

The notice comes two days after Twitter labeled a tweet from Sambit Patra, the spokesperson of India’s ruling party BJP, as “manipulated media.” In the tweet, Patra had claimed that Congress, the leading opposition party in India, was using a so-called “toolkit” to derail the Indian government’s efforts against the coronavirus pandemic.

The notice didn’t mention any politician by name nor did it identify any tweets.

In the notice, the Indian government said Twitter chose to designate tweets as “manipulated” “prejudicially” even though an investigation hadn’t been conducted, and also “asked” Twitter to remove such tags in the interest of “fairness and equity.”

Twitter’s action, the Indian government said, dilutes its credibility as a “neutral and unbiased” platform as well as puts a “question mark on the status of Twitter as an ‘Intermediary.’ Twitter, Facebook, and any other social media firm with over 5 million users are identified as an “intermediary” in India, according to a recently unveiled law, which provisions some of the world’s toughest rules for internet companies.

A spokesperson of Twitter — which has labeled several politicians’ tweets over the years to provide more context or correction, citing news media and independent fact checkers, in many markets — told TechCrunch that the company had no comment.

The new notice underscores the dilemma Twitter faces in India, the world’s second largest internet market, where it has amassed over 100 million users and has also backed local startups.

The Jack Dorsey-led company has had to grappled several tough situations in India this year. After briefly complying with a New Delhi order early this year, the company faced heat from the government for restoring accounts that had posted tweets critical of the Indian government’s policy or the Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The two faced off again publicly last month after New Delhi ordered Twitter and Facebook to take down posts that were critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

#apps, #asia, #government, #india, #social, #twitter

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US Treasury calls for stricter cryptocurrency rules, IRS reporting for transfers over $10K

President Biden’s vision for an empowered, expanded IRS is poised to have a big impact on cryptocurrency trading.

According to a new report from the U.S. Treasury Department, the administration wants to put new requirements in place that would make it easier for the government to see how money is moving around, including digital currencies. The report notes that cryptocurrencies pose a “significant detection problem” and are used regularly by top earners who wish to evade taxes.

The proposed changes would create new reporting requirements built on the framework of existing 1099-INT forms that taxpayers currently use to report interest earned. Cryptocurrency exchanges and custodians would be required to report more information on the “gross inflows and outflows” of money moving through their accounts. Businesses would also be required to report cryptocurrency transactions above $10,000 under the new reporting requirements.

“Although cryptocurrency is a small share of current business transactions, such comprehensive reporting is necessary to minimize the incentives and opportunity to shift income out of the new information reporting regime,” the report states.

The Treasury Department notes that wealthy tax filers are often able to escape paying fair taxes through complex schemes that the IRS currently doesn’t have the resources to disrupt. According to the report, the IRS collects 99 percent of taxes due on wages, but that number is estimated to be as low as 45 percent on non-labor income, a discrepancy that hugely benefits high earners with “less visible” income sources. The Treasury calls virtual currency, which has some reporting requirements but still operates mostly out of sight in regulatory grey areas, a particular challenge.

“These opportunities are particularly available for those in the top end of the income distribution who can avoid taxes through sophisticated strategies such as offshoring, creating complex partnership structures, or moving taxable assets into the crypto economy,” the Treasury report states.

The report details a multiyear effort to bolster IRS enforcement that would bring in as much as $700 billion in tax revenue over the next 10 years. The proposed changes, if implemented, would go into effect starting in 2023.

#biden, #cryptocurrency, #decentralization, #digital-currency, #financial-technology, #government, #internal-revenue-service, #tax, #tc

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India tells WhatsApp to withdraw its new policy terms

The Indian government is not pleased with WhatsApp’s new privacy policy. The nation’s Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) has once again directed the Facebook-owned company to withdraw the planned update.

In a letter to WhatsApp on Tuesday — which was read to TechCrunch — MeitY has given the popular instant messaging provider seven days to offer a “satisfactory” response. Failure to do so, the ministry warned, will prompt lawful measures.

“In fulfilment of its sovereign responsibility to protect the rights and interests of Indian citizens, the government of India will consider various options available to it under laws in India,” the letter reads.

The letter comes at a time when the ministry is also pursuing a legal case on this matter in the Delhi High Court — and  the second largest internet market is also conducting an antitrust probe on the subject.

This is not the first time New Delhi has issued a notice to WhatsApp about the new privacy terms. Earlier this year, in a similar letter,” the Indian government had expressed “grave concerns” about the planned update.

Following backlash from several governments and users, WhatsApp earlier this year delayed enforcement of the privacy update by three months — to May 15. Last week, it somewhat relaxed the deadline, though users need to still need to comply to access some basic features.

A spokesperson at the time told TechCrunch that the vast majority of users who had seen the new privacy terms on the app had accepted it.

With over 450 million users, India is WhatsApp’s biggest market by users.

The ministry in its notice this week has asked WhatsApp why it needs to enforce the new changes to its terms of service — the first major update in years — to users in India when those in the EU have been exempted from it.

The updated privacy terms grant WhatsApp the consent to share some personal information — such as their phone number and location — with parent firm Facebook. WhatsApp has clarified that communication between two individuals remains just as private as before.

“It is not just problematic, but also irresponsible, for WhatsApp to leverage this position to impose unfair terms and conditions on Indian users, particularly those that discriminate against Indian users vis-à-vis users in Europe,” the ministry wrote in the letter.

In response to a petition filed in the Delhi High Court earlier this month, WhatsApp argued that many Indian firms maintain similar policies and share more data. In the petition, WhatsApp had identified food delivery startup Zomato, ride-hailing giant Ola, online grocer BigBasket, as well as Swedish giant Truecaller, which counts India as its largest market by users, as some examples.

#apps, #asia, #facebook, #government, #india, #whatsapp

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Dorothy is a startup that offers faster cash post-disaster

When disaster strikes, costs pile up quickly. Flood waters can wipe out the foundation of a home or building, just as much as wildfires can burn down the walls or the entire structure. For residents and business owners, rebuilding and rebuilding quickly is crucial: they ultimately need some place to live and offer services, and they often can’t afford to be shut out for extended periods of time.

Of course, the need for speed among consumers hits the brick wall that is the insurance industry and government’s timeline for dispersing post-disaster insurance claims and aid. It’s not uncommon for federal aid to take months or even years to arrive, and insurance companies can often take months as well to process claims, particularly after large disasters like hurricanes where thousands of claims arrive simultaneously.

Dorothy is a startup that is aiming to bridge the gap by offering, well, gap loans to users who already have existing private insurance or federal flood insurance policies. The idea is to extend cash as quickly as possible after qualification, and then Dorothy gets paid back when a claim is later processed. Much like other advance cash startups in other sectors, Dorothy takes a fee based on the size of the loan.

The company’s underwriting model assesses the likelihood that a claim will be approved given the details of a particular disaster and the user’s insurance policy.

Arianna Armelli and Claudio Angrigiani founded the company last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, naming it for the character from the Wizard of Oz who repeatedly said “there’s no place like home.” They met each other in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and explored different ways to solve the challenges of disaster finance.

Armelli, for her part, had experienced these challenges firsthand in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. She was an architect, and her office in Manhattan had to be evacuated. She returned a few days later, but over time, realized that many of her friends still couldn’t return to their homes even weeks after the hurricane had passed. She volunteered with recovery efforts, and I “went house to house in the Rockaways to remove drywall from their basements,” she said.

She continued her career, spending nearly six years as an architect and urban planner, and that training drove some of her early ideas about how to improve post-disaster recovery. “I thought the answer to these problems was designing better infrastructure and long-term sustainable solutions with planning,” she said. “After six years in planning, [I] realized these were 40-year projects.”

After meeting Angrigiani, the two explored ways to make the insurance system better for end users. They began by investigating how better flood data could help insurance companies underwrite better policies and process claims faster. They realized over time though that the insurance industry was quite sclerotic, and that a third-party provider of better flood predictive data wasn’t going to have a large impact on outcomes.

As COVID bared down on the world, they then explored business interruption insurance. Using their technology for disaster prediction, they saw an opportunity to offer “a financial supplementary product for businesses,” essentially a “credit line product that is offered to commercial business owners similar to a credit card,” Armelli said. That idea eventually morphed into the company’s current product offering targeting property owners, both businesses and individuals, with the same sort of gap loan to solve immediate cash-flow problems.

Dorothy participated in the latest cohort of Urban-X and closed a pre-seed round this past February. The company has raised a $250,000 debt facility to further test out its gap loan product, and it has 25 qualified customers in its pipeline. It’s early days, but an interesting new bet on how to make insurance actually useful when people face some of the toughest moments of their lives.

It’s just one of a new crop of startups that are building new offerings in a world increasingly filled with massive disasters.

#finance, #fintech, #government, #insurance, #insuretech, #startups

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Uptrust raises $2M to fight the billions of dollars wasted on useless mass incarceration

A technical violation is one of those Orwellian terms used by the U.S. government to occlude the absurd morass of process and procedure that is the modern criminal justice system in this country. After an offender has served their sentence, they are often placed under probation, which is accompanied by scores of rules on everything from where the person can go to who they can see. If a person commits a technical violation, they often are sent back to prison — perhaps months or years for an action as simple as being minutes late to a parole hearing.

Technical violations are expensive for all of us. Earlier this year, New York’s capital newspaper the Times Union reported that “New York imprisons more people for technical parole violations than any other state, and at a rate almost three times higher than the national average” and “The re-incarceration of those individuals cost taxpayers at least $683 million…” based on a report by Columbia University and The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform.

It’s Orwellian, and also Kafkaesque. And it’s a disastrous waste of public resources. Yet, it’s also a problem that lends itself to potential solutions, and that’s where Uptrust wants to make a difference.

Uptrust is a service that connects people returning to society with their public defenders and court records, ensuring that they have the calendars, appointments, rules, and procedures they need to avoid technical violations — improving their re-entry into normal life while saving significant expenses for taxpayers.

The company announced today that it has raised $2 million in seed funding from a trio of lead investors: the Decarceration Fund, Luminate, and Stand Together Ventures Lab. That’s on top of a $1.3 million round we reported on last year.

The company, which came together in 2015 and launched its first product in 2016, was co-founded by Jacob Sills and Elijah Gwynn as they explored how to improve the criminal justice system. They looked at areas like bail bonds, but kept coming back to a fundamental issue: many people were stuck in the system because of missed appointments or other technical violations. “There are way too many people not exiting the system … and they are circling back through,” Sills said.

Uptrust works through text messaging or its own app. Often, it’s linked with a public defender, since a defense attorney is more likely to get through to their clients than other members of the criminal justice system.

Uptrust’s app allows for quick check-ins with probation officers and also monitors key calendar appointments. Image Credits: Uptrust

The company has been on a growth spree after years of trialing various iterations of its product, and it’s now located in 150 sites in 28 states, up from 30 sites just 18 months ago according to Sills. The state of Virginia, which currently uses the service in two sites, will expand it statewide by the end of this year or early next year.

Currently, the company charges a fee to governments to use the service, with the goal of limiting any financial costs to its end users who often lack the funds to pay. Longer term, however, the company sees a large opportunity in connecting its growing population of users to new services as they re-enter society. “More than half of them have challenges accessing health care,” Sills said, and he sees opportunities in areas as diverse as health care, finance and banking, and housing where the app could play a role in the future.

Yet, he acknowledged that this is still a “new market” that isn’t attractive to many traditional venture capital firms. So with this fundraise, Sills and his team decided to target funds that were deeply steeped in criminal justice issues who would understand both the problem being solved and how Uptrust could both succeed in its mission and also succeed as a business.

They also wanted what Sills described as “good diversity of thought.” Decarceration Fund invests in precisely what it says it does, and Luminate, which is part of the progressive-leaning Omidyar Network, is a philanthropy focused on civic engagement. Meanwhile, Stand Together Ventures Lab is funded by Stand Together which was founded by Charles Koch, who in addition to widely funding Republican and conservative causes, has in recent years also increasingly pursued criminal justice reform to minimize the government’s power over private citizens.

Chris Bentley, managing principal at Decarceration Fund, picked Uptrust as the firm’s first investment because he believed that the company understood precisely what this unique population needed. There’s a “very significant history of well-intended companies in this space causing unintended consequences,” he said. The fund is focused on investing in companies with clear guardrails and business models that are aligned with positive outcomes. “Half of our investment committee are founders themselves but are also returning citizens with real, lived experience with the system,” he said.

Uptrust has now grown to 15 people, centered in San Francisco and also scattered up and down the Eastern Seaboard. The “track record of for-profit companies is pretty bad, since most of them just build what the criminal legal system wants,” Sills said. “We are trying to prove that you can make money and do good and have real impact.”

#criminal-justice, #funding, #fundings-exits, #government, #luminate, #policy, #startups, #uptrust

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India offers $2.46B incentive to boost domestic production of batteries

India’s cabinet on Wednesday approved Department of Heavy Industry’s proposal to provide incentives to boost domestic production of batteries with advanced energy storage, the latest in a series of efforts by New Delhi to make the world’s second largest internet market less reliant on other nations for various electronics goods and shrink its trade deficit.

The government’s new $2.46 billion plan, dubbed “National Programme on Advanced Chemistry Cell (ACC) Battery Storage,” is aimed at cutting the nation’s import volume, said Prakash Javadekar, India’s Minister of Heavy Industry and Public Enterprises, in a news conference.

“All the demand of the ACCs is currently being met through imports in India. The National Programme on Advanced Chemistry Cell (ACC) Battery Storage will reduce import dependence,” the ministry said in a statement.

The government, which said it will conduct a transparent competitive bidding process and disburse incentives over a course of five years, aims to achieve the manufacturing capacity of 50GWh of ACC and 5GWh of “Niche” ACC, it said.

The ministry said the firms that are granted the incentives will be expected to set up manufacturing facilities in India, conduct research and development to achieve high energy sensitive and cycles, invest around $6.1 billion in ACC battery storage manufacturing projects, and facilitate demand creation for battery storage in the country.

The initiative will also help bring down the “oil import bill and help in earning green energy credentials. Besides powering electric vehicles, it will also generate clean energy for domestic consumption,” said Manish Sharma, Chair FICCI Energy Storage Committee and CEO of Panasonic India, in a statement.

“The manufacturing of ACCs will facilitate demand for EVs [Electric Vehicles], which are proven to be significantly less polluting. As India pursues an ambitious renewable energy agenda, the ACC program will be a key contributing factor to reduce India’s GreenHouse Gas (GHG) emissions which will be in line with India’s commitment to combat climate change,” the ministry said.

Wednesday’s announcement follows similar incentives New Delhi has approved in recent quarters. In February, India approved $1 billion plan to boost local manufacturing and exports of laptops, tablets, and PCs. In October, India offered smartphone manufacturers incentives of 4% to 6% over five years on sales of some products made in India. Reuters reported earlier this year that India was also considering giving cash incentives of more than $1 billion to each firm that sets up chip fabrication unit in the country.

The nation, whose economy has been hit hard by the pandemic, has in recent years tried a combination of tariffs and perks to persuade companies to produce more in India, which also creates local jobs.

#government, #india

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FCC begins rollout of $10B in connectivity aid through emergency funds

After months of deliberations, the FCC is ready to start helping people cover the cost of broadband and connected devices through two emergency funds amounting to more than $10 billion. If your household has trouble paying for internet access or shares a single computer, or your wallet has just had a rough year, you probably qualify for help.

The two distinct programs are the Emergency Connectivity Fund Program and the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. They sound similar, and in a general sense they do similar things, but they’re distinct programs intended to help close the connectivity gap in America, especially for those most adversely affected by the pandemic.

The first, which we’ll just call the Connectivity Fund, is not something you as an ordinary consumer necessarily need to worry about, but your household may still benefit from it. It’s intended, as FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has explained, to close the “homework gap” specifically, meaning kids who lack the ability to take part in online schoolwork because they lack a suitable device or connection.

The fund will work with schools and libraries to cover the cost of things like portable wi-fi hot spots, tablets, laptops, or other connectivity-related items. Basically, those institutions will do their own work to identify the kids and families that need help, provide what they think is needed, and then send the bill to the FCC.

As a parent, you may have to respond to a survey or talk to your kid’s teacher about what would help most, but you probably won’t have to do much in the way of paperwork. That said, you might ask an administrator whether they’re aware of and participating in the program — it goes through the FCC’s E-rate program, which might be a more familiar term to them.

The Emergency Broadband Benefit is the one that ordinary users will need to do a little legwork to take advantage of. This $3B fund is a one-time thing, available only while the money lasts, and the FCC in a call with media wasn’t really able to estimate exactly how long that is likely to be, since it depends on how many people sign up in the first place.

The program subsidizes $50 (or $75 in tribal lands) in broadband costs and provides a one-time $100 discount for hardware, provided you meet the eligibility requirements. The short version is if you qualify for any other federal assistance, like Pell grants, free and reduced-price lunch, Medicaid, etc, you almost certainly qualify here. And if you earn less than $99K and “experienced a substantial loss of income” in the last year, you also qualify — which covers a whole lot more people.

You can apply online or via mail starting tomorrow, May 12, but the easiest thing to do might be to check if your current broadband provider is participating and just ask them to enroll you in the program. They may have their own form you have to fill out, but the result is $50 off your internet for as long as there’s money in the FCC’s $3B bag.

When I asked an FCC representative whether the two programs could complement or interfere with one another in a single household, they said there will probably be some limitations but that specifics will come later. Basically there are provisions to prevent a single internet connection or device from receiving discounts from both programs, but because they’re administered differently you shouldn’t have to worry about that. Just ask the school what they’ve got for you and sign up for the broadband benefit, and you should be good. (Likewise for Lifeline and other benefits — should be fine.)

Incidentally, the two measures were both passed unanimously by the FCC, and the comments of the individual commissioners show that they are pleased to get this out the door — this really is a $10B giveaway to those who need it most, and though it took some time to achieve, it should be helpful to quite a lot of people.

#broadband, #fcc, #government

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The human-focused startups of the hellfire

Disasters may not always be man-made, but they are always responded to by humans. There’s a whole panoply of skills and professions required today to respond to even the tiniest emergency, and that doesn’t even include the needs during pre-disaster planning and post-disaster recovery. It’s not a very remunerative industry for most and the mental health effects from stress can linger for decades, but the mission at the core of this work — to help people in the time of their greatest need — is what continues to attract many to partake in this never-ending battle anyway.

In the last three parts of this series on the future of technology and disaster response, I’ve focused on, well, technology, and specifically the sales cycle for new products, the sudden data deluge now that Internet of Things (IoT) is in full force, and the connectivity that allows that data to radiate all around. What we haven’t looked at enough so far is the human element: the people who actually respond to disasters as well as what challenges they face and how technology can help them.

So in this fourth and final part of the series, we’ll look at four areas where humans and technology intersect within disaster response and what future opportunities lie in this market: training and development, mental health, crowdsourced responses to disasters, and our doomsday future of hyper-complex emergencies.

Training in a hellfire

Most fields have linear approaches to training. To become a software engineer, students learn some computer science theory, add in some programming practice, and voilà (note: your mileage may vary). To become a medical doctor, aspiring physicians take an undergraduate curriculum teeming with biology and chemistry, head to medical school for two deadened years of core anatomy and other classes and then switch into clinical rotations, a residency, and maybe fellowships.

But how do you train someone to respond to emergencies?

From 911 call takers to EMTs and paramedics to emergency planning officials and the on-the-ground responders who are operating in the center of the storm as it were, there are large permutations in the skills required to do these jobs well. What’s necessary aren’t just specific hard skills like using call dispatch software or knowing how to upload video from a disaster site, but also critically-important softer skills as well: precisely communicating, having sangfroid, increasing agility, and balancing improvisation with consistency. The chaos element also can’t be overstated: every disaster is different, and these skills must be viscerally recombined and exercised under extreme pressure with frequently sparse information.

A whole range of what might be dubbed “edtech” products could serve these needs, and not just exclusively for emergency management.

Communications, for instance, isn’t just about team communications, but also communicating with many different constituencies. Aaron Clark-Ginsberg, a social scientist at RAND Corporation, said that “a lot of these skills are social skills — being able to work with different groups of people in culturally and socially appropriate ways.” He notes that the field of emergency management has heightened attention to these issues in recent years, and “the skillset we need is to work with those community structures” that already exist where a disaster strikes.

As we’ve seen in the tech industry the last few years, cross-cultural communication skills remain scarce. One can always learn this just through repeated experiences, but could we train people to develop empathy and understanding through software? Can we develop better and richer scenarios to train emergency responders — and all of us, really — on how to communicate effectively in widely diverging conditions? That’s a huge opportunity for a startup to tackle.

Emergency management is now a well-developed career path. “The history of the field is very fascinating, [it’s] been increasingly professionalized, with all these certifications,” Clark-Ginsberg said. That professionalization “standardizes emergency response so that you know what you are getting since they have all these certs, and you know what they know and what they don’t.” Certifications can indicate singular competence, but perhaps not holistic assessment, and it’s a market that offers opportunities for new startups to create better assessments.

Like many of us, responders get used to doing the same thing over and over again, and that can make training for new skills even more challenging. Michael Martin of emergency data management platform RapidSOS describes how 911 call takers get used to muscle memory, “so switching to a new system is very high-risk.” No matter how bad existing software interfaces are, changing them will very likely slow every single response down while increasing the risk of errors. That’s why the company offers “25,000 hours a year for training, support, integration.” There remains a huge and relatively fragmented market for training staff as well as transitioning them from one software stack to another.

Outside these somewhat narrow niches, there is a need for a massive renaissance in training in this whole area. My colleague Natasha Mascarenhas recently wrote an EC-1 on Duolingo, an app designed to gamify and entrance students interested in learning second languages. It’s a compelling product, and there is no comparative training system for engaging the full gamut of first responders.

Art delaCruz, COO and president of Team Rubicon, a non-profit which assembles teams of volunteer military veterans to respond to natural disasters, said that it’s an issue his organization is spending more time thinking about. “Part of resilience is education, and the ability to access information, and that is a gap that we continue to close on,” he said. “How do you present information that’s more simple than [a learning management system]?” He described the need for “knowledge bombs like flash cards” to regularly provide responders with new knowledge while testing existing ideas.

There’s also a need to scale up best practices rapidly across the world. Tom Cotter, director of emergency response and preparedness at Project Hope, a non-profit which empowers local healthcare workers in disaster-stricken and impoverished areas, said that in the context of COVID-19, “a lot of what was going to be needed [early on] was training — there were huge information gaps at the clinical level, how to communicate it at a community level.” The organization developed a curriculum with Brown University’s Watson Institute in the form of interactive PowerPoints that were ultimately used to train 100,000 healthcare workers on the new virus, according to Cotter.

When I look at the spectrum of edtech products existing today, one of the key peculiarities is just how narrow each seems to focus. There are apps for language learning and for learning math and developing literacy. There are flash card apps like Anki that are popular among medical students, and more interactive approaches like Labster for science experiments and Sketchy for learning anatomy.

Yet, for all the talk of boot camps in Silicon Valley, there is no edtech company that tries to completely transform a student in the way that a bona fide boot camp does. No startup wants to holistically develop their students, adding in hard skills while also advancing the ability to handle stress, the improvisation needed to confront rapidly-changing environments, and the skills needed to communicate with empathy.

Maybe that can’t be done with software. Maybe. Or perhaps, no founder has just had the ambition so far to go for broke — to really revolutionize how we think about training the next generation of emergency management professionals and everyone else in private industry who needs to handle stress or think on their feet just as much as frontline workers.

That’s the direction where Bryce Stirton, president and co-founder of public-safety company Responder Corp, has been thinking about. “Another area I am personally a fan of is the training space around VR,” he said. “It’s very difficult to synthesize these stressful environments,” in areas like firefighting, but new technologies have “the ability to pump the heart that you need to experience in training.” He concludes that “the VR world, it can have a large impact.”

Healing after disaster

When it comes to trauma, few fields face quite the challenge as emergency response. It’s work that almost by definition forces its personnel to confront some of the most harrowing scenes imaginable. Death and destruction are given, but what’s not always accounted for is the lack of agency in some of these contexts for first responders — the family that can’t be saved in time so a 911 call taker has to offer final solace, or the paramedics who don’t have the right equipment even as they are showing up on site.

Post-traumatic stress is perhaps the most well-known and common mental health condition facing first responders, although it is hardly the only one. How to ameliorate and potentially even cure these conditions represents a burgeoning area of investment and growth for a number of startups and investors.

Risk & Return, for instance, is a venture firm heavily focused on companies working on mental health as well as human performance more generally. In my profile of the firm a few weeks ago, managing director Jeff Eggers said that “We love that type of technology since it has that dual purpose: going to serve the first responder on the ground, but the community is also going to benefit.”

Two examples of companies from its portfolio are useful here to explore as examples of different pathways in this category. The first is Alto Neuroscience, which is a stealthy startup founded by Amit Etkin, a multidisciplinary neuroscientist and psychiatrist at Stanford, to create new clinical treatments to post-traumatic stress and other conditions based on brainwave data. Given its therapeutic focus, it’s probably years before testing and regulatory approvals come through, but this sort of research is on the cutting-edge of innovation here.

The second company is NeuroFlow, which is a software startup using apps to guide patients to better mental health outcomes. Through persistent polling, testing, and collaboration with practitioners, the company’s tools allow for more active monitoring of mental health — looking for emerging symptoms or relapses in even the most complicated cases. NeuroFlow is more on the clinical side, but there are obviously a wealth of wellness startups that have percolated in recent years as well like Headspace and Calm.

Outside of therapeutics and software though, there are entirely new frontiers around mental health in areas like psychedelics. That was one of the trends I called out as a top five area for investment in the 2020s earlier this year, and I stand by that. We’ve also covered a startup called Osmind which is a clinical platform for managing patients with a psychedelic focus.

Risk & Return itself hasn’t made an investment in psychedelics yet, but Bob Kerrey, the firm’s board chairman and the former co-chair of the 9/11 Commission as well as former governor and senator of Nebraska, said that “it’s difficult to do this if you are the government, but easier to do this in the private sector.”

Similar to edtech, mental health startups might get their start in the first responder community, but they are hardly limited to this population. Post-traumatic stress and other mental health conditions affect wide swaths of the world’s population, and solutions that work in one community can often translate more broadly to others. It’s a massive, massive market, and one that could potentially transform the lives of millions of people for the better.

Before moving on, there’s one other area of interest here, and that is creating impactful communities for healing. First responders and military veterans experience a mission and camaraderie in their service that they often lack once they are in new jobs or on convalescence. DelaCruz of Team Rubicon says that one of the goals of bringing veterans to help in disaster regions is that the veterans themselves “reconnect with identity and community — we have these incredible assets in these men and women who have served.” It’s not enough to just find a single treatment per patient — we oftentimes need to zoom out to the wider population to see how mental health ripples out.

Helping people find purpose may not be the easiest challenge to solve as a startup, but it’s certainly a major challenge for many, and an area fermenting with new approaches now that the the social networking wave has reached its nadir.

Crowdsourcing disaster response

Decentralization has been all the rage in tech in recent years — just mention the word blockchain in a TechCrunch article to get at least 50 PR emails about the latest NFT for a toilet stain. While there is obviously a lot of noise, one area where substance may pan out well is in disaster response.

If the COVID-19 pandemic showed anything, it was the power of the internet to aggregate as well as verify data, build dashboards, and deliver highly-effective visualizations of complex information for professionals and laypeople alike. Those products were developed by people all around the world often from the comfort of their own homes, and they demonstrate how crowds can quickly draft serious labor to help respond to crises as they crop up.

Jonathan Sury, project director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at the Earth Institute at Columbia University, said that “COVID has really blown so much of what we think about out of the water.” With so many ways to collaborate online right now, “that’s what I would say is very exciting … and also practical and empowering.”

Clark-Ginsberg of RAND calls it the “next frontier of disaster management.” He argues that “if you can use technology to broaden the number of people who can participate in disaster management and respond to disasters,” then we might be reaching an entirely new paradigm for what effective disaster response will look like. “Formal structures [for professional frontline workers] have strengthened and that has saved lives and resources, but our ability to engage with everyday responders is still something to work on.”

Many of the tools that underpin these crowdsourced efforts don’t even focus on disasters. Sury pointed to Tableau and data visualization platform Flourish as examples of the kinds of tools that remote, lay first responders are using. There are now quite robust tools for tabular data, but we’re still relatively early in the development of tools for handling mapping data — obviously critical in the crisis context. Unfolded.ai, which I profiled earlier this year, is working on building scalable geospatial analytics in the browser. A lot more can be done here.

Oftentimes there are ways to coordinate the coordinators. Develop for Good, which I looked at late last year, is a non-profit designed to connect enterprising computer science students to software and data projects at non-profits and agencies that needed help during the pandemic. Sometimes these coordinators are non-profit orgs, and sometimes, just very active Twitter accounts. There’s a lot more experimentation possible on how to coordinate efforts in a decentralized way while still engaging with professional first responders and the public sector.

Speaking of decentralization, it’s even possible that blockchain could play a role in disaster and crisis response. Many of these opportunities rest on using blockchain for evidence collection or for identity. For example, earlier this week Leigh Cuen took a careful look at an at-home sexual assault evidence collection kit from Leda Health that uses the blockchain to establish a clear time for when a sample was collected.

There is a lot more potential to harness the power of crowdsourcing and decentralization, and many of these projects have applications far outside disaster management itself. These tools not only solve real problems — they provide real community to people who may not be related to the disaster itself, but are enthusiastic to do their part to help others.

The black swans of black swans

In terms of startups, the three markets I identified — better training, better mental health, and better crowdsourcing collaboration tools, particularly around data — collectively represent a very compelling set of markets that will not only be valuable for founders, but can rapidly improve lives.

In his book Normal Accidents, Charles Perrow talks about how an increasing level of complexity and coupledness in our modern technical systems all but guarantee disasters to occur. Add in a warming world as well as the intensity, frequency, and just plain unusualness of disasters arriving each year, and we are increasingly seeing entirely novel forms of emergencies we have never responded to before. Take most recently the ultra-frigid conditions in Texas that sapped power from its grid, leading to statewide blackouts for hours and days in some parts of the state.

Clark-Ginsberg said, “We are seeing these risks emerge that aren’t just typical wildfires — where we have a response structure that we can easily setup and manage the hazard, [we’re] very good at managing these typical disasters. There are more of these atypical disasters cropping up, and we have a very hard time setting up structures for this — the pandemic is a great example of that.”

He describes these challenges as “trans-boundary risk management,” disasters that cross bureaucratic lines, professions, societies, and means of action. “It takes a certain agility and the ability to move quickly and the ability to work in ways outside typical bureaucratic structures, and that is just challenging full stop,” he said.

The Future of Technology and Disaster Response

Even as we begin to have better point solutions to the individual problems that disasters and their responses require, we can’t be remiss in neglecting the more systematic challenges that these emergencies are bringing to the fore. We have to start thinking about bringing humans together faster and in more novel ways to be the most effective, while coupling them flexibly and with agility to the best tools that meet their needs in the moment. That’s probably not literally “a startup,” but more a way of thinking about what it means to construct a disaster response fresh given the information available.

Amanda Levin, a policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said that “even if we mitigate, there are huge pressures and huge impacts today from a warming world … even if we stop emissions today, [they] will still persist.” As one of my interviewees in government service who asked to go unnamed noted about disaster response, “You always are coming up short somewhere.” The problems are only getting harder, and we humans need much better tools to match the man-made trials we created for ourselves. That’s the challenge — and opportunity — for a tough century ahead.

#anki, #bob-kerrey, #calm, #disaster, #disaster-response, #duolingo, #education, #emergency-management, #enterprise, #government, #headspace, #health, #jeff-eggers, #michael-martin, #policy

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When the Earth is gone, at least the internet will still be working

The internet is now our nervous system. We are constantly streaming and buying and watching and liking, our brains locked into the global information matrix as one universal and coruscating emanation of thought and emotion.

What happens when the machine stops though?

It’s a question that E.M. Forster was intensely focused on more than a century ago in a short story called, rightly enough, “The Machine Stops,” about a human civilization connected entirely through machines that one day just turn off.

Those fears of downtime are not just science fiction anymore. Outages aren’t just missing a must-watch TikTok clip. Hospitals, law enforcement, the government, every corporation — the entire spectrum of human institutions that constitute civilization now deeply rely on connectivity to function.

So when it comes to disaster response, the world has dramatically changed. In decades past, the singular focus could be roughly summarized as rescue and mitigation — save who you can while trying to limit the scale of destruction. Today though, the highest priority is by necessity internet access, not just for citizens, but increasingly for the on-the-ground first responders who need bandwidth to protect themselves, keep abreast of their mission objectives, and have real-time ground truth on where dangers lurk and where help is needed.

While the sales cycles might be arduous as we learned in part one and the data trickles have finally turned to streams in part two, the reality is that none of that matters if there isn’t connectivity to begin with. So in part three of this series on the future of technology and disaster response, we’re going to analyze the changing nature of bandwidth and connectivity and how they intersect with emergencies, taking a look at how telcos are creating resilience in their networks while defending against climate change, how first responders are integrating connectivity into their operations, and finally, exploring how new technologies like 5G and satellite internet will affect these critical activities.

Wireless resilience as the world burns

Climate change is inducing more intense weather patterns all around the world, creating second- and third-order effects for industries that rely on environmental stability for operations. Few industries have to be as dynamic to the changing context as telecom companies, whose wired and wireless infrastructure is regularly buffeted by severe storms. Resiliency of these networks isn’t just needed for consumers — it’s absolutely necessary for the very responders trying to mitigate disasters and get the network back up in the first place.

Unsurprisingly, no issue looms larger for telcos than access to power — no juice, no bars. So all three of America’s major telcos — Verizon (which owns TechCrunch’s parent company Verizon Media, although not for much longer), AT&T and T-Mobile — have had to dramatically scale up their resiliency efforts in recent years to compensate both for the demand for wireless and the growing damage wrought by weather.

Jay Naillon, senior director of national technology service operations strategy at T-Mobile, said that the company has made resilience a key part of its network buildout in recent years, with investments in generators at cell towers that can be relied upon when the grid cannot. In “areas that have been hit by hurricanes or places that have fragile grids … that is where we have invested most of our fixed assets,” he said.

Like all three telcos, T-Mobile pre-deploys equipment in anticipation for disruptions. So when a hurricane begins to swirl in the Atlantic Ocean, the company will strategically fly in portable generators and mobile cell towers in anticipation of potential outages. “We look at storm forecasts for the year,” Naillon explained, and do “lots of preventative planning.” They also work with emergency managers and “run through various drills with them and respond and collaborate effectively with them” to determine which parts of the network are most at risk for damage in an emergency. Last year, the company partnered with StormGeo to accurately predict weather events.

Predictive AI for disasters is also a critical need for AT&T. Jason Porter, who leads public sector and the company’s FirstNet first-responder network, said that AT&T teamed up with Argonne National Laboratory to create a climate-change analysis tool to evaluate the siting of its cell towers and how they will weather the next 30 years of “floods, hurricanes, droughts and wildfires.” “We redesigned our buildout … based on what our algorithms told us would come,” he said, and the company has been elevating vulnerable cell towers four to eight feet high on “stilts” to improve their resiliency to at least some weather events. That “gave ourselves some additional buffer.”

AT&T has also had to manage the growing complexity of creating reliability with the chaos of a climate-change-induced world. In recent years, “we quickly realized that many of our deployments were due to weather-related events,” and the company has been “very focused on expanding our generator coverage over the past few years,” Porter said. It’s also been very focused on building out its portable infrastructure. “We essentially deploy entire data centers on trucks so that we can stand up essentially a central office,” he said, empathizing that the company’s national disaster recovery team responded to thousands of events last year.

Particularly on its FirstNet service, AT&T has pioneered two new technologies to try to get bandwidth to disaster-hit regions faster. First, it has invested in drones to offer wireless services from the sky. After Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana last year with record-setting winds, our “cell towers were twisted up like recycled aluminum cans … so we needed to deploy a sustainable solution,” Porter described. So the company deployed what it dubs the FirstNet One — a “dirigible” that “can cover twice the cell coverage range of a cell tower on a truck, and it can stay up for literally weeks, refuel in less than an hour and go back up — so long-term, sustainable coverage,” he said.

AT&T’s FirstNet One dirigible to offer internet access from the air for first responders. Image Credits: AT&T/FirstNet

Secondly, the company has been building out what it calls FirstNet MegaRange — a set of high-powered wireless equipment that it announced earlier this year that can deploy signals from miles away, say from a ship moored off a coast, to deliver reliable connectivity to first responders in the hardest-hit disaster zones.

As the internet has absorbed more of daily life, the norms for network resilience have become ever more exacting. Small outages can disrupt not just a first responder, but a child taking virtual classes and a doctor conducting remote surgery. From fixed and portable generators to rapid-deployment mobile cell towers and dirigibles, telcos are investing major resources to keep their networks running continuously.

Yet, these initiatives are ultimately costs borne by telcos increasingly confronting a world burning up. Across conversations with all three telcos and others in the disaster response space, there was a general sense that utilities just increasingly have to self-insulate themselves in a climate-changed world. For instance, cell towers need their own generators because — as we saw with Texas earlier this year — even the power grid itself can’t be guaranteed to be there. Critical applications need to have offline capabilities, since internet outages can’t always be prevented. The machine runs, but the machine stops, too.

The trend lines on the frontlines are data lines

While we may rely on connectivity in our daily lives as consumers, disaster responders have been much more hesitant to fully transition to connected services. It is precisely in the middle of a tornado and the cell tower is down that you realize a printed map might have been nice to have. Paper, pens, compasses — the old staples of survival flicks remain just as important in the field today as they were decades ago.

Yet, the power of software and connectivity to improve emergency response has forced a rethinking of field communications and how deeply technology is integrated on the ground. Data from the frontlines is extremely useful, and if it can be transmitted, dramatically improves the ability of operations planners to respond safely and efficiently.

Both AT&T and Verizon have made large investments in directly servicing the unique needs of the first responder community, with AT&T in particular gaining prominence with its FirstNet network, which it exclusively operates through a public-private partnership with the Department of Commerce’s First Responder Network Authority. The government offered a special spectrum license to the FirstNet authority in Band 14 in exchange for the buildout of a responder-exclusive network, a key recommendation of the 9/11 Commission, which found that first responders couldn’t communicate with each other on the day of those deadly terrorist attacks. Now, Porter of AT&T says that the company’s buildout is “90% complete” and is approaching 3 million square miles of coverage.

Why so much attention on first responders? The telcos are investing here because in many ways, the first responders are on the frontiers of technology. They need edge computing, AI/ML rapid decision-making, the bandwidth and latency of 5G (which we will get to in a bit), high reliability, and in general, are fairly profitable customers to boot. In other words, what first responders need today are what consumers in general are going to want tomorrow.

Cory Davis, director of public safety strategy and crisis response at Verizon, explained that “more than ever, first responders are relying on technology to go out there and save lives.” His counterpart, Nick Nilan, who leads product management for the public sector, said that “when we became Verizon, it was really about voice [and] what’s changed over the last five [years] is the importance of data.” He brings attention to tools for situational awareness, mapping, and more that are a becoming standard in the field. Everything first responders do “comes back to the network — do you have the coverage where you need it, do you have the network access when something happens?”

The challenge for the telcos is that we all want access to that network when catastrophe strikes, which is precisely when network resources are most scarce. The first responder trying to communicate with their team on the ground or their operations center is inevitably competing with a citizen letting friends know they are safe — or perhaps just watching the latest episode of a TV show in their vehicle as they are fleeing the evacuation zone.

That competition is the argument for a completely segmented network like FirstNet, which has its own dedicated spectrum with devices that can only be used by first responders. “With remote learning, remote work and general congestion,” Porter said, telcos and other bandwidth providers were overwhelmed with consumer demand. “Thankfully we saw through FirstNet … clearing that 20 MHz of spectrum for first responders” helped keep the lines clear for high-priority communications.

FirstNet’s big emphasis is on its dedicated spectrum, but that’s just one component of a larger strategy to give first responders always-on and ready access to wireless services. AT&T and Verizon have made prioritization and preemption key operational components of their networks in recent years. Prioritization gives public safety users better access to the network, while preemption can include actively kicking off lower-priority consumers from the network to ensure first responders have immediate access.

Nilan of Verizon said, “The network is built for everybody … but once we start thinking about who absolutely needs access to the network at a period of time, we prioritize our first responders.” Verizon has prioritization, preemption, and now virtual segmentation — “we separate their traffic from consumer traffic” so that first responders don’t have to compete if bandwidth is limited in the middle of a disaster. He noted that all three approaches have been enabled since 2018, and Verizon’s suite of bandwidth and software for first responders comes under the newly christened Verizon Frontline brand that launched in March.

With increased bandwidth reliability, first responders are increasingly connected in ways that even a decade ago would have been unfathomable. Tablets, sensors, connected devices and tools — equipment that would have been manual are now increasingly digital.

That opens up a wealth of possibilities now that the infrastructure is established. My interview subjects suggested applications as diverse as the decentralized coordination of response team movements through GPS and 5G; real-time updated maps that offer up-to-date risk analysis of how a disaster might progress; pathfinding for evacuees that’s updated as routes fluctuate; AI damage assessments even before the recovery process begins; and much, much more. In fact, when it comes to the ferment of the imagination, many of those possibilities will finally be realized in the coming years — when they have only ever been marketing-speak and technical promises in the past.

Five, Gee

We’ve been hearing about 5G for years now, and even 6G every once in a while just to cause reporters heart attacks, but what does 5G even mean in the context of disaster response? After years of speculation, we are finally starting to get answers.

Naillon of T-Mobile noted that the biggest benefit of 5G is that it “allows us to have greater coverage” particularly given the low-band spectrum that the standard partially uses. That said, “As far as applications — we are not really there at that point from an emergency response perspective,” he said.

Meanwhile, Porter of AT&T said that “the beauty of 5G that we have seen there is less about the speed and more about the latency.” Consumers have often seen marketing around voluminous bandwidths, but in the first-responder world, latency and edge computing tends to be the most desirable features. For instance, devices can relay video to each other on the frontlines, without necessarily needing a backhaul to the main wireless network. On-board processing of image data could allow for rapid decision-making in environments where seconds can be vital to the success of a mission.

That flexibility is allowing for many new applications in disaster response, and “we are seeing some amazing use cases coming out of our 5G deployments [and] we have launched some of our pilots with the [Department of Defense],” Porter said. He offered an example of “robotic dogs to go and do bomb dismantling or inspecting and recovery.”

Verizon has made innovating on new applications a strategic goal, launching a 5G First Responders Lab dedicated to guiding a new generation of startups to build at this crossroads. Nilan of Verizon said that the incubator has had more than 20 companies across four different cohorts, working on everything from virtual reality training environments to AR applications that allow firefighters to “see through walls.” His colleague Davis said that “artificial intelligence is going to continue to get better and better and better.”

Blueforce is a company that went through the first cohort of the Lab. The company uses 5G to connect sensors and devices together to allow first responders to make the best decisions they can with the most up-to-date data. Michael Helfrich, founder and CEO, said that “because of these new networks … commanders are able to leave the vehicle and go into the field and get the same fidelity” of information that they normally would have to be in a command center to receive. He noted that in addition to classic user interfaces, the company is exploring other ways of presenting information to responders. “They don’t have to look at a screen anymore, and [we’re] exploring different cognitive models like audio, vibration and heads-up displays.”

5G will offer many new ways to improve emergency responses, but that doesn’t mean that our current 4G networks will just disappear. Davis said that many sensors in the field don’t need the kind of latency or bandwidth that 5G offers. “LTE is going to be around for many, many more years,” he said, pointing to the hardware and applications taking advantage of LTE-M standards for Internet of Things (IoT) devices as a key development for the future here.

Michael Martin of emergency response data platform RapidSOS said that “it does feel like there is renewed energy to solve real problems,” in the disaster response market, which he dubbed the “Elon Musk effect.” And that effect definitely does exist when it comes to connectivity, where SpaceX’s satellite bandwidth project Starlink comes into play.

Satellite uplinks have historically had horrific latency and bandwidth constraints, making them difficult to use in disaster contexts. Furthermore, depending on the particular type of disaster, satellite uplinks can be astonishingly challenging to setup given the ground environment. Starlink promises to shatter all of those barriers — easier connections, fat pipes, low latencies and a global footprint that would be the envy of any first responder globally. Its network is still under active development, so it is difficult to foresee today precisely what its impact will be on the disaster response market, but it’s an offering to watch closely in the years ahead, because it has the potential to completely upend the way we respond to disasters this century if its promises pan out.

Yet, even if we discount Starlink, the change coming this decade in emergency response represents a complete revolution. The depth and resilience of connectivity is changing the equation for first responders from complete reliance on antiquated tools to an embrace of the future of digital computing. The machine is no longer stoppable.


Future of Technology and Disaster Response Table of Contents


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