One Democrat attempts to flip the script by speaking out against government red tape.
A Saudi-led coalition has killed civilians with U.S. weapons, but the State Department and the Pentagon have fallen short on tracking the deaths, U.S. investigators found.
Sanctions alone will not force Russia to end its war in Ukraine.
Lawmakers asked the Government Accountability Office to review “critical incident teams,” and two House committees will conduct a separate investigation.
Getting the James Webb Space Telescope to the launchpad has been a difficult journey that has taken decades.
“The New Map of Life” reimagines education, careers, cities and life transitions for lives that span a century (or more).
A decision to move the Bureau of Land Management’s headquarters to Colorado caused staff to quit, according to a critical report.
Hello friends, and welcome back to Week in Review!
I’m back from a very fun and rehabilitative couple weeks away from my phone, my Twitter account and the news cycle. That said, I actually really missed writing this newsletter, and while Greg did a fantastic job while I was out, I won’t be handing over the reins again anytime soon. Plenty happened this week and I struggled to zero in on a single topic to address, but I finally chose to focus on Bezos’s Blue Origin suing NASA.
The big thing
I was going to write about OnlyFans for the newsletter this week and their fairly shocking move to ban sexually explicit content from their site in a bid to stay friendly with payment processors, but alas I couldn’t help myself and wrote an article for ole TechCrunch dot com instead. Here’s a link if you’re curious.
Now, I should also note that while I was on vacation I missed all of the conversation surrounding Apple’s incredibly controversial child sexual abuse material detection software that really seems to compromise the perceived integrity of personal devices. I’m not alone in finding this to be a pretty worrisome development despite Apple’s intention of staving off a worse alternative. Hopefully, one of these weeks I’ll have the time to talk with some of the folks in the decentralized computing space about how our monolithic reliance on a couple tech companies operating with precious little consumer input is very bad. In the meantime, I will point you to some reporting from TechCrunch’s own Zack Whittaker on the topic which you should peruse because I’m sure it will be a topic I revisit here in the future.
Now then! Onto the topic at hand.
Federal government agencies don’t generally inspire much adoration. While great things have been accomplished at the behest of ample federal funding and the tireless work of civil servants, most agencies are treated as bureaucratic bloat and aren’t generally seen as anything worth passionately defending. Among the public and technologists in particular, NASA occupies a bit more of a sacred space. The American space agency has generally been a source of bipartisan enthusiasm, as has its goal to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024.
Which brings us to some news this week. While so much digital ink was spilled on Jeff Bezos’s little jaunt to the edge of space, cowboy hat, champagne and all, there’s been less fanfare around his space startup’s lawsuit against NASA, which we’ve now learned will delay the development of a new lunar lander by months, potentially throwing NASA’s goal to return astronauts to the moon’s surface on schedule into doubt.
Bezos’s upstart Blue Origin is protesting the fact that they were not awarded a government contract while Elon Musk’s SpaceX earned a $2.89 billion contract to build a lunar lander. This contract wasn’t just recently awarded either, SpaceX won it back in April and Blue Origin had already filed a complaint with the Government Accountability Office. This happened before Bezos penned an open letter promising a $2 billion discount for NASA which had seen budget cuts at the hands of Congress dash its hoped to award multiple contracts. None of these maneuverings proved convincing enough for the folks at NASA, pushing Bezos’s space startup to sue the agency.
This little feud has caused long-minded Twitter users to dig up this little gem from a Bezos 2019 speech — as transcribed by Gizmodo — highlighting Bezos’s own distaste for how bureaucracy and greed have hampered NASA’s ability to reach for the stars:
“To the degree that big NASA programs become seen as jobs programs and that they have to be distributed to the right states where the right Senators live, and so on. That is going to change the objective. Now your objective is not to, you know, whatever it is, to get a man to the moon or a woman to the moon, but instead to get a woman to the moon while preserving X number of jobs in my district. That is a complexifier, and not a healthy one…[…]
Today, there would be, you know, three protests, and the losers would sue the federal government because they didn’t win. It’s interesting, but the thing that slows things down is procurement. It’s become the bigger bottleneck than the technology, which I know for a fact for all the well meaning people at NASA is frustrating.
A Blue Origin spokesperson called the suit, an “attempt to remedy the flaws in the acquisition process found in NASA’s Human Landing System.” But the lawsuit really seems to highlight how dire this deal is to the ability of Blue Origin to lock down top talent. Whether the startup can handle the reputational risk of suing NASA and delaying America’s return to the moon seems to be a question very much worth asking.
Here are the TechCrunch news stories that especially caught my eye this week:
OnlyFans bans “sexually explicit content”
A lot of people had pretty visceral reactions to OnlyFans killing off what seems to be a pretty big chunk of its business, outlawing “sexually explicit content” on the platform. It seems the decision was reached as a result of banking and payment partners leaning on the company.
Musk “unveils” the “Tesla Bot”
I truly struggle to even call this news, but I’d be remiss not to highlight how Elon Musk had a guy dress up in a spandex outfit and walk around doing the robot and spawned hundreds of news stories about his new “Tesla Bot.” While there certainly could be a product opportunity here for Tesla at some point, I would bet all of the dogecoin in the world that his prototype “coming next year” either never arrives or falls hilariously short of expectations.
Facebook drops a VR meeting simulator
This week, Facebook released one of its better virtual reality apps, a workplace app designed to help people host meetings inside virtual reality. To be clear, no one really asked for this, but the company made a full court PR press for the app which will help headset owners simulate the pristine experience of sitting in a conference room.
Social platforms wrestle with Taliban presence on platforms
Following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, social media platforms are being pushed to clarify their policies around accounts operated by identified Taliban members. It’s put some of the platforms in a hairy situation.
Facebook releases content transparency report
This week, Facebook released its first ever content transparency report, highlighting what data on the site had the most reach over a given time period, in this case a three-month period. Compared to lists highlighting which posts get the most engagement on the platform, lists generally populated mostly by right wing influencers and news sources, the list of posts with the most reach seems to be pretty benign.
Safety regulators open inquiry into Tesla Autopilot
While Musk talks about building a branded humanoid robot, U.S. safety regulators are concerned with why Tesla vehicles on Autopilot are crashing into so many parked emergency response vehicles.
Some of my favorite reads from our Extra Crunch subscription service this week:
The Nuro EC-1
“..Dave Ferguson and Jiajun Zhu aren’t the only Google self-driving project employees to launch an AV startup, but they might be the most underrated. Their company, Nuro, is valued at $5 billion and has high-profile partnerships with leaders in retail, logistics and food including FedEx, Domino’s and Walmart. And, they seem to have navigated the regulatory obstacle course with success — at least so far…”
A VC shares 5 keys to pitching VCs
“The success of a fundraising process is entirely dependent on how well an entrepreneur can manage it. At this stage, it is important for founders to be honest, straightforward and recognize the value meetings with venture capitalists and investors can bring beyond just the monetary aspect..“
A crash course on corporate development
“…If you’re going to get acquired, chances are you’re going to spend a lot of time with corporate development teams. With a hot stock market, mountains of cash and cheap debt floating around, the environment for acquisitions is extremely rich.”
Thanks for reading! Until next week…
In two separate hearings, the F.B.I. director and Pentagon officials answered questions about the failure to adequately prepare for and respond to the Jan. 6 attack.
The I.R.S. almost never audits private equity firms, even as whistle-blowers have filed claims alleging illegal tax avoidance.
A sprawling system meant to police trillions of dollars is showing signs of strain as watchdogs warn of waste, fraud and abuse.
Donald Trump cares about nothing else except undermining our country’s election results.
A government watchdog has criticized U.S. border authorities for failing to properly disclose the agency’s use of facial recognition at airports, which included instructions on how Americans can opt out.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), tasked with protecting the border and screening immigrants, has deployed its face-scanning technology in 27 U.S. airports as part of its Biometric Entry-Exit Program.
The program was set up to catch visitors who overstay their visas.
Foreign nationals must complete a facial recognition check before they are allowed to enter and leave the United States, but U.S. citizens are allowed to opt out.
But the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a new report out Wednesday that CBP did “not consistently” provide notices that informed Americans that they would be scanned as they depart the United States.
“These notices are intended to provide travelers with information about CBP’s use of facial recognition technology at locations where this technology has been deployed, and how data collected will be used. The notices should also provide information on procedures for opting out, if applicable, among other things,” according to the watchdog. “However, we found that CBP’s notices were not always current or complete, provided limited information on how to request to opt out of facial recognition, and were not always available.”
Some of the notices were outdated and contained wrong or inconsistent information, the watchdog said. But CBP officials told the GAO that printing new signs is “costly” and “not practical” after each policy change.
CBP uses the airlines to collect biometric scans of a traveler’s face before boarding a plane. The data is fed into a database run by CBP, where face scans are held for two weeks for U.S. citizens and up to 75 years for nonimmigrant visitors.
As part of this cooperation, CBP is required to conduct audits to ensure that airlines are compliant with the agency’s data collection and privacy practices. But the watchdog found that CBP had only audited one airline, and as of May had “not yet audited the majority of its airline business partners to ensure they are adhering to CBP’s privacy requirements.”
The watchdog took issue with this following the 2019 data breach involving CBP subcontractor Perceptics, a license plate recognition company, which CBP accused of transferring travelers’ license plate data to its network without permission.
Hackers stole about 100,000 traveler images and license plate records in the breach, which were later posted on the dark web.
CBP said it concurred with the watchdog’s five overall recommendations.
“Any time you’re moving dirt you have to have somebody come in and assess it, whether that’s under a state or federal jurisdiction… because of the waters that are present,” says Ecobot co-founder and chief executive, Lee Lance. “It has been a pen and paper process since the Clean Water Act about two decades ago.”
Those assessments amount to a $10 billion industry in wetland environmental impact studies alone, according to Lance. There are actually very few ways to track how much is spent on these environmental assessments, according to a 2014 study from the Government Accountability Office, there’s little oversight or research into the environmental impact surveys or environmental assessments. However, cost estimates for the impact surveys range from $250,000 to $2 million.
It’s in this little known corner of the development and construction business, that Ecobot is looking to make a splash. The company has acquired another company active in the market, called Wetform, and is now hoping to aggressively expand beyond its base in North Carolina.
Ecobot already has 56 customers, according to Lance, and he says that it’s solving the biggest bottleneck in the process, the cost and duration of conducting these environmental surveys and assessments.
“We’re saving employees two-and-a-half hours per-person per-day in the field and what used to be thirty hours of office work is now down to 45 minutes,” says Lance.
Lance estimates that an assessment on a large project can cost up to $1.25 million and that Ecobot’s software can save project developers on the order of $50,000 per day.
Ecobot has already received some backing from investors who see value in the company’s software. It raised roughly $1.1 million from investors in North Carolina led by Cofounders Capital, a Cary, NC-based investment firm.
The company first raised money back in 2018 when Lance and his co-founder Jeremy Shewe, a professional wetlands scientist, met through a mutual friend. Lance had been running a small software development shop in that did projects for regional customers and began talking with Shewe about opportunities.
“I thought maybe this would make an interesting project, but very quickly saw an opportunity for the whole business,” Lance said.
A self-professed student of Jason Lemkin’s model of nail a niche and focus on a sector before expanding into ancillary areas, Lance said that there’s a big market out there that’s relatively untouched by software providers. The 200 largest companies in engineering consulting represent a $60 billion market in the US alone, he said. And that’s the market that Ecobot is hoping to capture.
The acting secretary of homeland security, Chad F. Wolf, and his deputy, Kenneth T. Cuccinelli, were appointed to their posts in violation of federal law, Congress’s watchdog determined.
Defendants convicted of killing white people, the study found, were far more likely to be executed than the killers of Black people.
The Government Accountability Office has found that the Trump administration is undervaluing the cost of climate change to boost its deregulatory efforts.
Congress is still owed answers about President Trump’s dismissal of inspectors general.
Now they are using lessons from the experience to urge action on the growing problem of drug-resistant infections before it’s too late.
It seems unlikely the space agency will meet President Trump’s goal of a return to the lunar surface by the end of 2024.