Even with U.N.’s previous goals unmet, delegates tried to water down provisions regarding protections for vulnerable populations and patents for essential drugs.
Even with U.N.’s previous goals unmet, delegates tried to water down provisions regarding protections for vulnerable populations and patents for essential drugs.
End-to-end encrypted email provider ProtonMail has officially confirmed it’s passed 50 million users globally as it turns seven years old.
It’s a notable milestone for a services provider that intentionally does not have a data business — opting instead for a privacy pledge based on zero access architecture that means it has no way to decrypt the contents of ProtonMail users’ emails.
Although, to be clear, the 50M+ figure applies to total users of all its products (which includes a VPN offering), not just users of its e2e encrypted email. (It declined to break out email users vs other products when we asked.)
Commenting in a statement, Andy Yen, founder and CEO, said: “The conversation about privacy has shifted surprisingly quickly in the past seven years. Privacy has gone from being an afterthought, to the main focus of a lot of discussions about the future of the Internet. In the process, Proton has gone from a crowdfunded idea of a better Internet, to being at the forefront of the global privacy wave. Proton is an alternative to the surveillance capitalism model advanced by Silicon Valley’s tech giants, that allows us to put the needs of users and society first.”
ProtonMail, which was founded in 2014, has diversified into offering a suite of products — including the aforementioned VPN and a calendar offering (Proton Calendar). A cloud storage service, Proton Drive, is also slated for public release later this year.
For all these products it claims take the same ‘zero access’ hands off approach to user data. Albeit, it’s a bit of an apples and oranges comparison to compare e2e encrypted email with an encrypted VPN service — since the issue with VPN services is that they can see activity (i.e. where the encrypted or otherwise packets are going) and that metadata can sum to a log of your Internet activity (even with e2e encryption of the packets themselves).
Proton claims it doesn’t track or record its VPN users’ web browsing. And given its wider privacy-dependent reputation that’s at least a more credible claim vs the average VPN service. Nonetheless, you do still have to trust Proton not to do that (or be forced to do that by, for e.g., law enforcement). It’s not the same technical ‘zero access’ guarantee as it can offer for its e2e encrypted email.
Proton does also offer a free VPN — which, as we’ve said before, can be a red flag for data logging risk — but the company specifies that users of the paid version subsidize free users. So, again, the claim is zero logging but you still need to make a judgement call on whether to trust that.
Over ProtonMail’s seven year run privacy has certainly gained cache as a brand promise — which is why you can now see data-mining giants like Facebook making ludicrous claims about ‘pivoting’ their people-profiling surveillance empires to ‘privacy’. So, as ever, PR that’s larded with claims of ‘respect for privacy’ demands very close scrutiny.
And while it’s clearly absurd for an adtech giant like Facebook to try to cloak the fact that its business model relies on stripping away people’s privacy with claims to the contrary, in Proton’s case the privacy claim is very strong indeed — since the company was founded with the goal of being “immune to large scale spying”. Spying such as that carried out by the NSA.
ProtonMail’s founding idea was to build a system “that does not require trusting us”.
While usage of e2e encryption has grown enormously since 2013 — when disclosures by NSA whistleblower, Edward Snowden, revealed the extent of data gathering by government mass surveillance programs, which were shown (il)liberally tapping into Internet cables and mainstream digital services to grab people’s data without their knowledge or consent — growth that’s certainly been helped by consumer friendly services like ProtonMail making robust encryption far more accessible — there are worrying moves by lawmakers in a number of jurisdictions that clash with the core idea and threaten access to e2e encryption.
In the wake of the Snowden disclosures, ‘Five Eyes’ countries steadily amped up international political pressure on e2e encryption. Australia, for example, passed an anti-encryption law in 2018 — which grants police powers to issue ‘technical notices’ to force companies operating on its soil to help the government hack, implant malware, undermine encryption or insert backdoors at the behest of the government.
While, in 2016, the UK reaffirmed its surveillance regime — passing a law that gives the government powers to compel companies to remove or not implement e2e encryption. Under the Investigatory Powers Act, a statutory instrument called a Technical Capability Notice (TCN) can be served on comms services providers to compel decrypted access. (And as the ORG noted in April, there’s no way to track usage as the law gags providers from reporting anything at all about a TCN application, including that it even exists.)
More recently, UK ministers have kept up public pressure on e2e encryption — framing it as an existential threat to child protection. Simultaneously they are legislating — via an Online Safety Bill, out in draft earlier this month — to put a legally binding obligation on service providers to ‘prevent bad things from happening on the Internet’ (as the ORG neatly sums it up). And while still at the draft stage, private messaging services are in scope of that bill — putting the law on a potential collision course with messaging services that use e2e encryption.
The U.S., meanwhile, has declined to reform warrantless surveillance.
And if you think the EU is a safe space for e2e encryption, there are reasons to be concerned in continental Europe too.
EU lawmakers have recently made a push for what they describe as “lawful access” to encrypted data — without specifying exactly how that might be achieved, i.e. without breaking and/or backdooring e2e encryption and therefore undoing the digital security they also say is vital.
In a further worrying development, EU lawmakers have proposed automated scanning of encrypted communications services — aka a provision called ‘chatcontrol’ that’s ostensibly targeted at prosecuting those who share child exploitation content — which raises further questions over how such laws might intersect with ‘zero access’ services like ProtonMail.
The European Pirate Party has been sounding the alarm — and dubs the ‘chatcontrol’ proposal “the end of the privacy of digital correspondence” — warning that “securely encrypted communication is at risk”.
A plenary vote on the proposal is expected in the coming months — so where exactly the EU lands on that remains to be seen.
ProtonMail, meanwhile, is based in Switzerland which is not a member of the EU and has one of the stronger reputations for privacy laws globally. However the country also backed beefed-up surveillance powers in 2016 — extending the digital snooping capabilities of its own intelligence agencies.
It does also adopt some EU regulations — so, again, it’s not clear whether or not any pan-EU automated scanning of message content could end up being applied to services based in the country.
The threats to e2e encryption are certainly growing, even as usage of such properly private services keeps scaling.
Asked whether it has concerns, ProtonMail pointed out that the EU’s current temporary chatcontrol proposal is voluntary — meaning it would be up to the company in question to decide its own policy. Although it accepts there is “some support” in the Commission for the chatcontrol proposals to be made mandatory.
“It’s not clear at this time whether these proposals could impact Proton specifically [i.e. if they were to become mandatory],” the spokesman also told us. “The extent to which a Swiss company like Proton might be impacted by such efforts would have to be assessed based on the specific legal proposal. To our knowledge, none has been made for now.”
“We completely agree that steps have to be taken to combat the spread of illegal explicit material. However, our concern is that the forced scanning of communications would be an ineffective approach and would instead have the unintended effect of undermining many of the basic freedoms that the EU was established to protect,” he added. “Any form of automated content scanning is incompatible with end-to-end encryption and by definition undermines the right to privacy.”
So while Proton is rightly celebrating that a steady commitment to zero access infrastructure over the past seven years has helped its business grow to 50M+ users, there are reasons for all privacy-minded folk to be watchful of what the next years of political developments might mean for the privacy and security of all our data.
Pinterest is expanding further into the creator community with today’s launch of a video-first feature called “Idea Pins,” aimed at creators who want to tell their stories using video, music, creative editing tools and more. The feature feels a lot like Pinterest’s own take on TikTok, mixed with Stories, as the new Pins allow creators to record and edit creative videos with up to 20 pages of content, using tools like voiceover recording, background music, transitions and other interactive elements.
The company says Idea Pins evolved out of its tests with Story Pins, launched into beta in September 2020, after various stages of development beginning the year prior. At the time, Pinterest explained that Story Pins were different from the Stories you’d find on other social networks, like Snapchat or Instagram, because they focused on what people were doing — like trying new ideas or new products, not giving you snapshots of a creator’s personal life.
Another notable differentiator was that Story Pins weren’t ephemeral. That is, they didn’t disappear after a certain amount of time, but rather could be surfaced through search and other discovery mechanisms.
Over the past eight months since their debut, Pinterest has worked with Story Pin creators on the experience. That’s led to the new concept of the Idea Pin — essentially a rebranded Story Pin, which now offers a broader suite of editing tools than what was previously available.
Video is a key element in Idea Pins, as the Pins target the increased consumer demand for short-form video content of a creative nature — like what’s being delivered through TikTok, Instagram Reels, YouTube Shorts and elsewhere. The videos in the Pins can be up to 60 seconds on iOS, Android and web for each page, with up to 20 total pages per Pin.
Creators can edit their videos by adding their own voiceover or using a “ghost mode” transition tool to better showcase their before-and-afters by overlaying one part of a video on another. And they can save drafts of their work in progress.
But Idea Pins still include a number of features common to Stories, like adding stickers or tagging other creators with an @username, for instance. Pinterest says it will start with over 100 stickers featuring hand-drawn illustrations focused on top categories and behaviors it expects to see, like food-themed illustrations, stickers for before-and-afters, seasonal moments, and more.
Pinterest is also working with the royalty-free music database Epidemic Sound to offer a catalog of free tracks for use in Idea Pins.
And because many creators will use Idea Pins to inspire people to try a recipe or project of some sort, they can include “detail pages” where viewers can find the ingredient list or instructions, which is handy.
Pins are shared to Pinterest, where the company says they help the creator build an audience by being distributed in several places across its platform, including in some markets, by locating Pins for creators you follow right at the top of the home page.
Creators can also apply topic tags when publishing to ensure they’re surfaced when people are seeking that sort of content. Each Idea Pin can have up to 10 topic tags, which help to distribute the content in a targeted way to users via the home feed and search, the company says.
While Pins can help creators build an audience on Pinterest, they can use Idea Pins to grow their audience on other platforms, too. The company says it will offer export options that let people share their Pins across the web and social media. To do so, they download their Pin as a video which includes a Pinterest watermark and profile name — a trick learned from TikTok. This can then be reshared elsewhere.
Pinterest users, meanwhile, can save Idea Pins like any other Pin on the platform.
“We believe the best inspiration comes from people who are fueled by their passions and want to bring positivity and creativity into the world,” said Pinterest co-founder and Chief Design and Creative Officer Evan Sharp, in a statement about the launch. “On Pinterest, anyone can inspire. From creators to hobbyists to publishers, Pinterest is a place where anyone can publish great ideas and discover inspiring content. We have creators with extraordinary ideas on Pinterest, and with Idea Pins, creators are empowered to share their passions and inspire their audiences,” he added.
The new Idea Pin format is rolling out today to all creators (users with a business account) in the U.S., U.K., Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Pinterest says, during tests, it found that Idea Pins were more engaging than standard Pins, with 9x the average comment rate. The number of Idea Pins (previously known as Story Pins) has also grown by 4x since January, as more creators adopted the format.
To help creators track how well Pins are performing, Pinterest is expanding its Analytics feature to include a new Followers and Profile Visits-driven metric to show creators how their Idea Pins have driven deeper engagement with their account.
The company says the next step is to make Idea Pins more shoppable, which it’s doing now with tests of product tagging underway.
Pinterest has been increasing its investment in the creator community in recent months, with the launch of its first-ever Creator Fund last month, and this month’s test of livestreamed events with 21 creators. It’s also now testing creator and brand collaborations with a select number of creators, including Domonique Panton, Peter Som and GrossyPelosi, it says.
While Idea Pins seem like a natural pivot from Pinterest’s founding as an inspiration and idea board, it will face serious competition when it comes to wooing the professional creator community to its platform. Other big tech companies are outspending Pinterest, whose new Creator Fund of $500K falls short of the $1 million per day Snap paid creators or the $100 million fund for YouTube Shorts creators, TikTok’s $200 million fund or the deals Instagram has been making to lure Reels creators. These platforms, as well as a host of startups, are also giving creators a way to directly monetize their efforts through features like tips, donations, subscriptions and more.
What Pinterest may have in its favor, though, is its reach. The company claims 475 million users, which makes it a destination some creators may not want to overlook in their bid for growth, and later, e-commerce.
In his new role, the tennis champion and avowed chocolate lover, shares favorite places to hike, play tennis and eat in his home country.
A rare exhibition, at a museum in Switzerland, brings together works that, despite sharing a common cultural tradition, come from different worlds.
SunRoof is a European startup that has come up with a clever idea. It has its own roof-tile technology which generates solar power. It then links up those houses, creating a sort of virtual power plant, allowing homeowners to sell surplus energy back to the grid.
It’s now closed a €4.5 million round (Seed extension) led by Inovo Venture Partners, with participation from SMOK Ventures (€2m of which came in the form of convertible notes). Other investors include LT Capital, EIT InnoEnergy, FD Growth Capital and KnowledgeHub.
Sweden-based SunRoof’s approach is reminiscent of Tesla Energy, with its solar roof tiles, but whereas Tesla runs a closed energy ecosystem, SunRoof plans to work with multiple energy partners.
To achieve this virtual power company, SunRoof CEO and serial entrepreneur Lech Kaniuk (formerly of Delivery Hero, PizzaPortal, and iTaxi), acquired the renewable energy system, Redlogger, in 2020.
SunRoof’s platform consists of 2-in-1 solar roofs and façades that generate electricity without needing traditional photovoltaic modules. Instead, they use monocrystalline solar cells sandwiched between two large sheets of glass which measure 1.7 sq meters. Because the surface area is large and the connections fewer, the roofs are cheaper and faster to build.
SunRoof give homeowners an energy app to manage the solar, based on Redlogger’s infrastructure
Tesla’s Autobidder is a trading platform that manages the energy from roofs but is a closed ecosystem. SunRoof, by contrast, works with multiple partners.
Kaniuk said: “SunRoof was founded to make the move to renewable energy not only easy, but highly cost-effective without ever having to sacrifice on features or design. We’ve already grown more than 500% year-on-year and will use the latest funding to double down on growth.”
Michal Rokosz, Partner at Inovo Venture Partners, commented: “The market of solar energy is booming, estimated to reach $334 billion by 2026. Technology of integrated solar roofs is past the inflection point. It is an economical no-brainer for consumers to build new homes using solar solutions. With a more elegant and efficient substitute to a traditional hybrid of rooftops and solar panels, SunRoof clearly stands out and has a chance to be the brand for solar roofs, making clean-tech more appealing to a wider customer-base.”
The team includes co-founder Marek Zmysłowski (ex-(Jumia Travel and HotelOnline.co), former Google executive, Rafal Plutecki, and former Tesla Channel Sales Manager, Robert Bruchner.
There are rollout plans for Sweden, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and the US.
Credit Suisse had admitted to helping American clients evade taxes in 2014 and was fined $2.6 billion, but it avoided even higher fines because of its vow that it had stopped the practice.
Growing pressure for accountability has convinced a few brands that it is time to reveal where they obtain some of their raw materials. Will more follow?
A group of wealthy friends and some specialty artisans turn out one over-the-top design each year.
In 2019, a fan traveled to the Swiss tennis star’s birthplace: “The fact that I was able to walk in Mr. Federer’s footsteps, and sit in a packed arena with 10,000 unmasked fans and watch him play feels like a dream to me now.”
They are frustrated with the industry’s reliance on outdated gender classifications and sexist marketing campaigns.
Universal jurisdiction, the idea that any nation’s courts can try people for atrocities committed anywhere, has gained as a tool of human rights lawyers battling impunity.
Investors from home and abroad continued to pump money into the Swiss property market last year, keeping demand and prices on the rise.
Crypto-currency pioneer and early Bitcoin thought-leader Diana Biggs has joined Swiss-based startup Valour, which lets investors easily buy digital assets through their bank or broker. The move is significant with the news that Tesla has bought $1.5 billion worth of Bitcoin, thus massively boosting the mainstream markets for crypto assets. Biggs explored the potential for blockchain technology to help solve humanitarian challenges through her venture, Proof of Purpose, in 2017, and her TEDx speech on Blockchain Technology that year is considered by many in the blockchain space to be one of the best in the genre.
Valour, a Zug, Switzerland-based issuer of investment products, brought in Biggs, the former Private Banking Global Head of Innovation for HSBC, as CEO after recently launching Bitcoin Zero, a fee-free, digital asset ETP product, which trades on the NGM stock exchange.
Biggs, who has been in the Bitcoin space since 2013 told TechCrunch: “I have never seen this much attention to Bitcoin and other crypto-assets… The time for decentralized technologies has arrived, and their potential is increasingly realized by institutional investors.”
Johan Wattenström, the founder of Valour, said: “Diana is the perfect candidate to lead the company through this next phase of growth and expansion. With a wealth of experience in traditional finance, as well as fintech, and her vision for bringing digital assets into the mainstream, we feel very lucky to have her on board.” Wattenström created and listed the digital asset ETP on Nasdaq Nordic, in 2015.
Biggs is an Associate Fellow at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School and served as Head Tutor for their Blockchain Strategy Programme from 2018 to 2020. She is on the Board of the World Economic Forum’s Digital Leaders of Europe community and is a member of the Milken Institute’s Young Leaders Circle. Prior to joining Valour, Biggs was Global Head of Innovation for HSBC Private Banking, where she led on fintech partnerships and driving open innovation.
The days of flying celebrities around the world for gigantic events may be over, but brands are pivoting to more strategic uses of all that star power.
Mr. Steinmetz, a French-Israeli businessman, was convicted on charges of corrupting foreign public officials in a bid to reap iron ore resources in Guinea. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
A sunny holiday weekend drew a crush of skiers to Austria’s slopes, with crowded lift lines and parking lots making a mockery of social distancing rules.
Internet sleuths have been captivated by the photos, which were recently developed and document a couple’s trip to the Swiss-Italian border with a dachshund.
In a step hailed by rights advocates, a Swiss court has charged former rebel leader Alieu Kosiah with murder, rape, recruiting child soldiers and cannibalism.
A referendum on Sunday, if approved, would make Swiss companies liable for human rights violations and environmental damage by their subsidiaries abroad.
Many of the continent’s museums, theaters, concert halls and bookshops have been forced to close again, and now, people’s reactions have changed.
European entrepreneurs who want to launch startups could do worse than Switzerland.
In a report analyzing Europe’s general economic health, cost of doing business, business environment and labor force quality, analysts looked for highly educated populations, strong economies, healthy business environments and relatively low costs for conducting business. Switzerland ended up ranking third out of 31 European nations, according to Nimblefins. (Germany and the UK came out first and second, respectively).
According to official estimates, the number of new Swiss startups has skyrocketed by 700% since 1996. Zurich tends to take the lion’s share, as the city’s embrace of startups has jump-started development, although Geneva and Lausanne are also hotspots.
As well as traditional software engineering startups, Switzerland’s largest city boasts a startup culture that emphasizes life sciences, mechanical engineering and robotics. Compared to other European countries, Switzerland has a low regulatory burden and a well-educated, highly qualified workforce. Google’s largest R&D center outside of the United States is in Zurich.
But it’s also one of the more expensive places to start a business, due to its high cost of living, salary expectations and relatively small labor market. Native startups will need 25,000 Swiss Francs to open an LLC and 50,000 more to incorporate. While they can withdraw those funds from the business the next day, local founders must still secure decent backing to even begin the work.
This means Switzerland has gained a reputation as a place to startup — and a place to relocate, which is something quite different. It’s one reason why the region is home to many fintech businesses born elsewhere that need proximity to a large banking ecosystem, as well as the blockchain/crypto crowd, which have found a highly amenable regulatory environment in Zug, right next door to Zurich. Zurich/Zug’s “Crypto Valley” is a global blockchain hotspot and is home to, among others, the Ethereum Foundation.
Lawyers and accountants tend to err on the conservative side, leading to a low failure rate of businesses but less “moonshot innovation,” shall we say.
But in recent years, corporate docs are being drawn up in English to facilitate communication both inside Switzerland’s various language regions and foreign capital, and investment documentation is modeled after the U.S.
Ten years ago startups were unusual. Today, pitch competitions, incubators, accelerators, VCs and angel groups proliferate.
The country’s Federal Commission for Technology and Innovation (KTI) supports CTI-Startup and CTI-Invest, providing startups with investment and support. Venture Kick was launched in 2007 with the vision to double the number of spin-offs from Swiss universities and draws from a jury of more than 150 leading startup experts in Switzerland. It grants up to CHF 130,000 per company. Fundraising platforms such as Investiere have boosted the angel community support of early funding rounds.
Swiss companies, like almost all European companies, tend to raise lower early-stage rounds than U.S. ones. A CHF 1-2 million Series A or a CHF 5 million Series B investment is common. This has meant smaller exits, and thus less development for the ecosystem.
These are the investors we interviewed:
Jasmin Heimann, partner, Ringier Digital Ventures
What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Consumer-facing startups with first revenues.
What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
AirConsole — a cloud-gaming platform where you don’t need a console and can play with all your friends and family.
Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I really wish that the business case for social and ecological startups will finally be proven (kind of like Oatly showed with the Blackstone investment). I also think that femtech is a hyped category but funding as well as renown exits are still missing.
What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
I am looking for easy, scalable solutions with a great team.
Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
I think the whole scooter/mobility space is super hyped but also super capital intensive so I think to compete in this market at this stage is hard. I also think that the whole edtech space is an important area of investment, but there are already quite a lot of players and it oftentimes requires cooperation with governments and schools, which makes it much more difficult to operate in. Lastly, I don’t get why people still start fitness startups as I feel like the market has reached its limits.
How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Switzerland makes — maximum — half of our investments. We are also interested in Germany and Austria as well as the Nordics.
Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Zurich and Lausanne are for sure the most exciting cities, just because they host great engineering universities. Berne is still lagging behind but I am hoping to see some more startups emerging from there, especially in the medtech industry.
How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Overall, Switzerland is a great market for a startup to be in — although small, buying power is huge! So investors should always keep this in mind when thinking about coming to Switzerland. The startup scene is pretty small and well connected, so it helps to get access through somebody already familiar with the space. Unfortunately for us, typical B2C cases are rather scarce.
Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I think it is hard to make any kind of predictions. But on the one hand, I could see this happening. On the other hand, I also think that the magic of cities is that there are serendipity moments where you can find your co-founder at a random networking dinner or come across an idea for a new venture while talking to a stranger. These moments will most likely be much harder to encounter now and in the next couple of months.
Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
I think travel is a big question mark still. The same goes for luxury goods, as people are more worried about the economic situation they are in. On the other hand, remote work has seen a surge in investments. Also sustainability will hopefully be put back on the agenda.
How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Not much. I think we allocated a bit more for the existing portfolio but otherwise we continue to look at and discuss the best cases. The biggest worries are the uncertainties about [what] the future might look like and the related planning. We tell them to first and foremost secure cash flow.
Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Totally! Some portfolio companies have really profited from the crisis, especially our subscription-based models that offer a variety of different options to spend time at home. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum after the lockdown.
What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
What gives me hope is to see that people find ways to still work together — the amount of online events, office hours, etc. is incredible. I see the pandemic also as a big opportunity to make changes in the way we worked and the way things were without ever questioning them.
Microsoft today announced its plans to launch a new data center region in Austria, its first in the country. With nearby Azure regions in Switzerland, Germany, France and a planned new region in northern Italy, this part of Europe now has its fair share of Azure coverage. Microsoft also noted that it plans to launch a new ‘Center of Digital Excellence’ to Austria to “to modernize Austria’s IT infrastructure, public governmental services and industry innovation.”
In total, Azure now features 65 cloud regions — though that number includes some that aren’t online yet. As its competitors like to point out, not all of them feature multiple availability zones yet, but the company plans to change that. Until then, the fact that there’s usually another nearby region can often make up for that.
Talking about availability zones, in addition to announcing this new data center region, Microsoft also today announced plans to expand its cloud in Brazil, with new availability zones to enable high-availability workloads launching in the existing Brazil South region in 2021. Currently, this region only supports Azure workloads but will add support for Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365 and Power Platform over the course of the next few months.
This announcement is part of a large commitment to building out its presence in Brazil. Microsoft is also partnering with the Ministry of Economy “to help job matching for up to 25 million workers and is offering free digital skilling with the capacity to train up to 5.5 million people” and to use its AI to protect the rainforest. That last part may sound a bit naive, but the specific plan here is to use AI to predict likely deforestation zones based on data from satellite images.
From sports tie-ins to online coverage, the Swiss industry has benefited from its marketing skill.
Bespoke options now exist in almost every price range.
Tidjane Thiam made Credit Suisse profitable again. But the Swiss rejected him as an outsider, and a sudden scandal took him down.
SOPHiA GENETICS, the shoutily and poorly capitalized named startup that’s combining machine learning tools for medical imaging and genetic sequencing to come up with a more holistic view of diseases for better patient care, has raised $110 million in new funding.
The Series F round for the company was led by aMoon an Israeli healthcare and life sciences investment fund, and HItachi Ventures, the investment arm of the Hitachi Group.
Financial services firms like Credit Suisse and the PIctet Group, along with previous investors including Swisscom Ventures, Endeavour Vision, Generation Investment Management, and Eurazeo Growth also participated in the financing.
The company’s technology uses multiple sources of medical data to come up with potentially novel insights about how diseases spread in the body and offer better ways to coordinate care among different . The Boston and Lausanne, Switzerland-based company’s tech is currently used by over 1,000 healthcare institutions and has analyzed 600,000 genomic profiles, according to a statement.
The goal, the company said, is better patient care.
According to a statement, the new funding will be used to expand the company’s footprint in the US and Asian markets.
It also appears that the company may be gearing up for a public offering. It’s added Didier Hirsch, the former chief financial officer of Agilent, to its board of directors and has created an audit committee (usually a stepping stone on the way to a dive into public market waters).
“We believe that SOPHIA’s decentralized model will play a pivotal role in empowering health organizations to offer better patient care,” said Dr. Tomer Berkovitz, Partner & CFO of aMoon, in a statement.
Fathers will be allowed 10 days of paid time off after voters endorsed a new law despite a conservative backlash that forced a referendum.
The fate of a law mandating two weeks of paid leave for fathers will be decided at the polls after a conservative backlash forced a referendum.
The survey, by Art Basel and UBS, analyzes the effect of the coronavirus on the world’s art dealers. Sales are down, but the wealthy are still buying.
The star of this short documentary calls himself ‘Catman.’
After a mother calmed her son’s pandemic fears, he went back to school happy. Now the family prepares for another anxiety-filled return to school.
Swiss computer vision startup, Advertima, has raised a €15 million Series A (~$17.5M) to build out a machine learning platform for physical retail stores to ‘upgrade’ the shopping experience via real-time shopper behavior analytics. The round is led by existing shareholder, Fortimo Group, a Swiss real estate company.
Fed by visual sensors, Advertima’s platform provides physical retail spaces with a real-time view of what’s going on in store — comprised of AI-powered behavioral and demographic analysis, as shoppers move through the space — with the aim of helping retailers better understand and respond dynamically to customers in store.
The startup calls this its “Human Data Layer” — noting that the tech can support features like smart inventory management and autonomous checkout.
Throw in digital signage (which it also offers) and its platform can be used to serve contextually relevant messaging intended for one or just a few pairs of nearby eyeballs — such as product offers for a particular gender or age bracket, or discounts for families — depending on who’s in proximity of the given digital eye.
Albeit ‘relevancy’ depends upon the calibre of the AI and the quality of the underlying training data. So certainly isn’t a given. Ads that seem to personally address you when you make eye contact, meanwhile, have been a sci-fi staple for years, of course. But the reality of ‘smart’ ads informed by AI analytics could very quickly stray into creepy territory.
An example message shown in a demo video on Advertima’s website isn’t great in this regard — as the system is shown IDing a stick woman and popping up a targeted message that reads: “Hello young woman. All alone?” (uhhh ). So retailers plugging such stuff into their stores need to be hyper sensitive to tone and context (and indeed take a robust approach to assessing how accurate the AI is, or isn’t).
Or, well, they could find shoppers fleeing in horror. (tl;dr no one likes to feel watched while they’re shopping. And if the AI misgenders a potential customer that could be a disaster.)
One flashy pledge from Advertima is that its approach to applying AI to guestimate who’s in the shop and what they’re doing is ‘privacy safe’ — with the startup noting there’s no facial recognition nor biometric detection involved in its system, for one thing.
It also specifies that the visual sensors required for the analytics to function do not store any image or video recordings. Instead it claims to “only process minimal anonymized data” — and only evaluate that in “aggregated form”.
“This means that the unintentional identification of a person is technically impossible,” is the top-line claim.
With long-standing data protection laws covering Europe, and EU lawmakers actively considering new rules to wrap around certain applications of artificial intelligence, there’s a legal incentive not to push such tech’s intrusiveness too far (at least for local use-cases). While Switzerland, which is not a Member of the EU (though it is part of the bloc’s single market), also has a reputation for strict domestic privacy laws — so this homegrown startup’s pitch at least reflects that context.
That said, its system appears to generate a “Person ID” (see below screengrab) — so we’ve asked how long it retains these individual-linked IDs for; and whether or not it links (or enables the linking of) the Person ID with any other data that might be gathered from the shopper, such as an email or a device ID. If the Person IDs are persistent it could enable a retailer to re-identify an individual via the Advertima visually tracked behavioral data — and then be in a position to plug these offline shopping behavior ‘insights’ into an identity-linked customer database or link it to an ad profile that’s maintained by a tracking giant or data broker for ad targeting purposes. All of which would be the opposite of ‘privacy safe’ — so we do have questions. We’ll update this report with any response from Advertima to this.
Advertima was founded back in 2016 and has so far forged partnerships with Switzerland’s largest retailer, Migros and the international grocer SPAR, to deploy its tech. It says the system is being used by 14 companies across eight countries at this stage.
It says the new funding will go on further developing its platform, and on scaling so the business can better address the global market for smart retail solutions. Although it’s competing in a space that includes Amazon’s cashierless tech so that’s one Goliath-sized big tech competitor to Advertima’s David.
In a press release announcing the Series A it notes it will be ploughing in €10M of its own revenue too — so touts a total spend of €25M over the next two years on building out its platform.
“We see a world where the physical and digital layers are merged to enhance our daily professional and private lives,” said Advertima Co-Founder and CEO, Iman Nahvi, commenting in a statement.
In a blog post announcing the Series A, he also talked up the autonomous store product — suggesting it will “change how people experience grocery shopping, cinemas, DIY stores, and a whole range of retailers”.
“Delivering smart inventory management, autonomous checkout, in-store analytics, and contextual content on smart digital screens will allow grocers and other retailers to maximize the efficiency of their stores, increase their revenues, and generate greater returns per square meter,” he wrote.
“Retailers can actualize an omnichannel strategy to orchestrate better experiences and relationships with their audience. Soon the standard for retailers will be holistically customer-centric: Cashierless checkouts, no lines, individualized experiences, and real-time product recognition for fast, easy, and fun shopping.”
Given that Amazon began licensing its ‘Just Walk Out’ cashierless tech to other retailers earlier this year, and various tech startups have sprung up to chase the potential of similar systems — such as AiFi, Grabango, Standard Cognition and Zippin — Advertima’s global growth ambitions are tempered by plenty of competition.
Physical retail has also taken a battering from the coronavirus pandemic. Although COVID-19 may, paradoxically, drive demand for cashierless tech — as a way to reduce the risk of viral exposure for staff and shoppers.
AI technology being applied to eliminate retail jobs does raise wider socioeconomic questions too, though.
Also commenting in a supporting statement, Fortimo Group founder Remo Bienz added: “It is clear that the rapid digitalisation of our society is going to have an impact on consumer habits, especially in the retail sector. Advertima is at the cutting-edge of technology in the retail space. As a long-standing shareholder, we know how visionary their technology is, but also how it has been successfully adopted by major, global organisations and already generated significant revenues. We’re excited to be part of Advertima’s journey.”
Swiss keyboard startup Typewise has bagged a $1 million seed round to build out a typo-busting, ‘privacy-safe’ next word prediction engine designed to run entirely offline. No cloud connectivity, no data mining risk is the basic idea.
They also intend the tech to work on text inputs made on any device, be it a smartphone or desktop, a wearable, VR — or something weirder that Elon Musk might want to plug into your brain in future.
For now they’ve got a smartphone keyboard app that’s had around 250,000 downloads — with some 65,000 active users at this point.
The seed funding breaks down into $700K from more than a dozen local business angels; and $340K via the Swiss government through a mechanism (called “Innosuisse projects“), akin to a research grant, which is paying for the startup to employ machine learning experts at Zurich’s ETH research university to build out the core AI.
The team soft launched a smartphone keyboard app late last year, which includes some additional tweaks (such as an optional honeycomb layout they tout as more efficient; and the ability to edit next word predictions so the keyboard quickly groks your slang) to get users to start feeding in data to build out their AI.
Their main focus is on developing an offline next word prediction engine which could be licensed for use anywhere users are texting, not just on a mobile device.
“The goal is to develop a world-leading text prediction engine that runs completely on-device,” says co-founder David Eberle. “The smartphone keyboard really is a first use case. It’s great to test and develop our algorithms in a real-life setting with tens of thousands of users. The larger play is to bring word/sentence completion to any application that involves text entry, on mobiles or desktop (or in future also wearables/VR/Brain-Computer Interfaces).
“Currently it’s pretty much only Google working on this (see Gmail’s auto completion feature). Applications such as Microsoft Teams, Slack, Telegram, or even SAP, Oracle, Salesforce would want such productivity increase – and at that level privacy/data security matters a lot. Ultimately we envision that every “human-machine interface” is, at least on the text-input level, powered by Typewise.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking all this sounds a bit retro, given the earlier boom in smartphone AI keyboards — such as SwiftKey (now owned by Microsoft).
The founders have also pushed specific elements of their current keyboard app — such as the distinctive honeycomb layout — before, going down a crowdfunding route back in 2015, when they were calling the concept Wrio. But they reckon it’s now time to go all in — hence relaunching the business as Typewise and shooting to build a licensing business for offline next word prediction.
“We’ll use the funds to develop advanced text predictions… first launching it in the keyboard app and then bringing it to the desktop to start building partnerships with relevant software vendors,” says Eberle, noting they’re working on various enhancements to the keyboard app and also plan to spend on marketing to try to hit 1M active users next year.
“We have more ‘innovative stuff’ [incoming] on the UX side as well, e.g. interacting with auto correction (so the user can easily intervene when it does something wrong — in many countries users just turn it off on all keyboards because it gets annoying), gamifying the general typing experience (big opportunity for kids/teenagers, also making them more aware of what and how they type), etc.”
The competitive landscape around smartphone keyboard tech, largely dominated by tech giants, has left room for indie plays, is the thinking. Nor is Typewise the only startup thinking that way (Fleksy has similar ambitions, for one). However gaining traction vs such giants — and over long established typing methods — is the tricky bit.
Android maker Google has ploughed resource into its Gboard AI keyboard — larding it with features. While, on iOS, Apple’s interface for switching to a third party keyboard is infamously frustrating and finicky; the opposite of a seamless experience. Plus the native keyboard offers next word prediction baked in — and Apple has plenty of privacy credit. So why would a user bother switching is the problem there.
Competing for smartphone users’ fingers as an indie certainly isn’t easy. Alternative keyboard layouts and input mechanism are always a very tough sell as they disrupt people’s muscle memory and hit mobile users hard in their comfort and productivity zone. Unless the user is patient and/or stubborn enough to stick with a frustratingly different experience they’ll soon ditch for the keyboard devil they know. (‘Qwerty’ is an ancient typewriter layout turned typing habit we English speakers just can’t kick.)
Given all that, Typewise’s retooled focus on offline next word prediction to do white label b2b licensing makes more sense — assuming they can pull off the core tech.
And, again, they’re competing at a data disadvantage on that front vs more established tech giant keyboard players, even as they argue that’s also a market opportunity.
“Google and Microsoft (thanks to the acquisition of SwiftKey) have a solid technology in place and have started to offer text predictions outside of the keyboard; many of their competitors, however, will want to embed a proprietary (difficult to build) or independent technology, especially if their value proposition is focused on privacy/confidentiality,” Eberle argues.
“Would Telegram want to use Google’s text predictions? Would SAP want that their clients’ data goes through Microsoft’s prediction algorithms? That’s where we see our right to win: world-class text predictions that run on-device (privacy) and are made in Switzerland (independent environment, no security back doors, etc).”
Early impressions of Typewise’s next word prediction smarts (gleaned by via checking out its iOS app) are pretty low key (ha!). But it’s v1 of the AI — and Eberle talks bullishly of having “world class” developers working on it.
“The collaboration with ETH just started a few weeks ago and thus there are no significant improvements yet visible in the live app,” he tells TechCrunch. “As the collaboration runs until the end of 2021 (with the opportunity of extension) the vast majority of innovation is still to come.”
He also tells us Typewise is working with ETH’s Prof. Thomas Hofmann (chair of the Data Analytic Lab, formerly at Google), as well as having has two PhDs in NLP/ML and one MSc in ML contributing to the effort.
“We get exclusive rights to the [ETH] technology; they don’t hold equity but they get paid by the Swiss government on our behalf,” Eberle also notes.
Typewise says its smartphone app supports more than 35 languages. But its next word prediction AI can only handle English, German, French, Italian and Spanish at this point. The startup says more are being added.
Some government agencies that use the software said they were surprised that Google may pick up the locations of certain app users. Others said they had unsuccessfully pushed Google to make a change.
Sophie Taeuber-Arp did it all: Installations, textiles, costumes, abstract art. Nearly 80 years after her death, an online gallery show commemorates her talent (and a major museum exhibition is coming).
The UK has given up building a centralized coronavirus contacts tracing app and will instead switch to a decentralized app architecture, the BBC has reported. This means its future app will be capable of plugging into the joint ‘exposure notification’ API which has been developed in recent weeks by Apple and Google.
The UK’s decision to abandon a bespoke app architecture comes more than a month after ministers had been reported to be eyeing such a switch. They went on to award a contract to an IT supplier develop a decentralized tracing app in parallel as a backup but continued to test the centralized app, called NHS COVID-19.
A number of European countries have now successfully launched contracts tracing apps with a decentralized app architecture that’s able to plug into the ‘Gapple’ API — including Denmark, Germany, Italy, Latvia and Switzerland. Several more such apps remain in testing. While EU Member States just agreed on a technical framework to enable cross-border interoperability of apps based on the same architecture.
Germany — which launched its ‘Corona Warning App’ this week — announced the software had been downloaded 6.5M times in the first 24 hours.
The UK’s NHS COVID-19 app, meanwhile, has faced a plethora of technical barriers and privacy challenges as a direct consequence of the government’s decision to opt for a proprietary system which uploads proximity data to a central server, rather than processing exposure notifications locally on device.
Apple and Google’s API, which is being used by all Europe’s decentralized apps, does not support centralized app architectures — meaning the UK app faced challenges related to accessing Bluetooth in the background.
The centralized choice also raised big questions around cross-border interoperability, as we’ve explained before. So the UK’s move to abandon the approach and adopt a decentralized model is hardly surprising — although the time it’s taken the government to arrive at the obvious conclusion does raise some major questions over its competence at handling technology projects.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, ministers are now heavily de-emphasizing the importance of having an app in the fight against the coronavirus at all. The Department for Health and Social Care’s, Lord Bethell, told the Science and Technology Committee yesterday the app will not now be ready until the winter. “We’re seeking to get something going for the winter, but it isn’t a priority for us,” he said.
Yet the centralized version of the NHS COVID-19 app has been in testing in a limited geographical pilot on the Isle of Wight since early May — and up until the middle of last month health minister, Matt Hancock, had said it would be rolled out nationally in mid May.
Of course that timeframe came and went without launch. And now the launch is being booted right into the back end of the year. Compare and contrast that with government messaging at its daily coronavirus briefings back in May — when Hancock made “download the app” one of the key slogans.
Michael Veale, a lecturer in digital rights and regulation at UCL — who has been involved in the development of the DP3T decentralized contacts tracing standard, which influenced Apple and Google’s choice of API — welcomed the UK’s decision to ditch a centralized app architecture but questioned why the government has wasted so much time.
“This is a welcome, if a heavily and unnecessarily delayed, move by NHSX,” Veale told TechCrunch. “The Google-Apple system in a way is home-grown: Originating with research at a large consortium of universities led by Switzerland and including UCL in the UK. NHSX has no end of options and no reasonable excuse to not get the app out quickly now. Germany and Switzerland both have high quality open source code that can be easily adapted. The NHS England app will now be compatible with Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, and also the many destinations for holidaymakers in and out of the UK.”
NHSX relayed our request for comment on the switch to a decentralized system and the new timeframe for an app launch to the Department of Health and Social Care — but the department had not responded to us at the time of publication.
Earlier this week the BBC reported that a former Apple executive, Simon Thompson, was taking charge of the delayed app project — while the two lead managers, the NHSX’s Matthew Gould and Geraint Lewis — were reported to be stepping back.
Government briefings to the press today have included suggestions that app testers on the Isle of Wight told it they were not comfortable receiving COVID-19 notifications via text message — and that the human touch of a phone call is preferred.
However none of the European countries that have already deployed contacts tracing apps has promoted the software as a one-stop panacea for tackling COVID-19. Rather tracing apps are intended to supplement manual contacts tracing methods — the latter involving the use of trained humans making phone calls to people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 to ask who they might have been in contact with over the infectious period.
Even with major resource put into manual contacts tracing, apps — which use Bluetooth signals to estimate proximity between smartphone users in order to calculate virus expose risk — could still play an important role by, for example, being able to trace strangers who are sat near an infected person on public transport.
European Union countries and the Commission have agreed on a technical framework to enable regional coronavirus contacts tracing apps to work across national borders.
A number of European countries have launched contacts tracing apps at this point, with the aim of leveraging smartphone technologies in the fight against COVID-19, but none of these apps can yet work across national borders.
Last month, EU Member States agreed to a set of interoperability guidelines for tracing apps. Now they’ve settled on a technical spec for achieving cross-border working of apps. The approach has been detailed in a specification document published today by the eHealth Network.
The Commission has called the agreement on a tech spec an important step in the fight against COVID-19, while emphasizing tracing apps are only a supplement to manual contacts tracing methods.
Commenting in a statement, European commissioner for the Internal Market, Thierry Breton, said: “As we approach the travel season, it is important to ensure that Europeans can use the app from their own country wherever they are travelling in the EU. Contact tracing apps can be useful to limit the spread of coronavirus, especially as part of national strategies to lift confinement measures.”
The system will involve a Federation Gateway Service, run by the Commission, that will receive and pass on “relevant information” from national contact tracing apps and servers — in order to minimise the amount of data exchanged and reduce users’ data consumption, per a Commission press release.
From the tech spec:
The pattern preferred by the European eHealth Network is a single European Federation Gateway Service. Each national backend uploads the keys of newly infected citizens (‘diagnosis keys’) every couple of hours and downloads the diagnosis keys from the other countries participating in this scheme. That’s it. Data conversion and filtering is done in the national backends.
“The proximity information shared between apps will be exchanged in an encrypted way that prevents the identification of an individual person, in line with the strict EU guidelines on data protection for apps; no geolocation data will be used,” the Commission added.
The key caveat attached to the agreed interoperability system is that it currently only works to link up decentralized contacts tracing apps — such as the Corona-Warn-App launched today by Germany — or the national apps recently released in Italy, Latvia and Switzerland.
Centralized coronavirus contacts tracing apps — which do not store and process proximity data locally on the device but upload it to a central server for processing, such as France’s StopCovid app; the UK’s NHS COVID-19 app; or the currently suspended Norwegian Smittestopp app — will not immediately be able to plug into the interoperability architecture, as we explained in our report last month.
Apple and Google’s joint API for coronavirus exposure notifications also only supports decentralized tracing apps.
“This document presents the basic elements for interoperability for ‘COVID+ Keys driven solutions’ [i.e. decentralized tracing systems],” notes the eHealth Network. “It aims to keep data volumes to the minimum necessary for interoperability to ensure cost efficiency and trust between the participating Member States. This document is therefore addressed only to Member States implementing this type of protocol.”
The Commission has been calling for a common approach to the use of tech and data to fight COVID-19 for months. However national governments have not fallen uniformly into line — with, still, a mixture of decentralized and centralized approaches for tracing apps in play (although the former now comprise “the great majority of national approved apps”, per the Commission).
It’s also playing the diplomat — saying it “continues to support the work of Member States on extending interoperability also to centralised tracing apps”.
Although it has not provided any detail on how that might be achieved in a way that’s satisfactory for both app architecture camps, given associated privacy risks/security trade-offs of crossing opposing technical streams.
This means that citizens in European countries whose governments have chosen a centralized approach for coronavirus contacts tracing may find, on traveling elsewhere in the region, they will need to download another country’s national app to be able to receive and send coronavirus exposure notifications.
Even decentralized national apps aren’t able to exchange relevant data yet, though. The interoperability architecture’s gateway interface still needs to be deployed — and national apps launched and/or updated before all the relevant pieces can start talking. So there’s a way to go before any digital contacts tracing is working smoothly across European borders.
Meanwhile, some EU countries have already started to reopen their borders to other European countries — ahead of a wider reopening planned for the summer.
This week, for example, a few thousand German holidaymakers were allowed to travel to Spain’s Balearic Islands as part of a trial aimed at restarting tourism. So EU citizens are already flowing across borders before national apps are in a position to securely exchange data on exposure risk.
Quantum computing hardware continues to improve to the point where we may actually see real-world use cases in the next few years and so it’s probably no surprise that we are also seeing a steady increase in research projects that focus on how to best program these machines. One of the newest efforts in this space is Silq, a high-level programming language for quantum computers out of Switzerland’s ETH Zurich.
The emphasis here is on ‘high-level programming language,’ as the researchers behind the language note that existing quantum languages for programmers still work at a very low abstraction level, which makes life for quantum programmers a lot harder than necessary.
“The history of the project is that we wanted to solve a core problem in quantum computing,” ETH associate professor of computer science Martin Vechev told me. “And if you want to solve a core problem in quantum computing, for instance, if you want to analyze and reason about quantum programs, you need to have a language in which these problems are expressed — and there are existing languages. We looked at various problems in quantum computing but what kept coming up as a fundamental issue is that we looked at the programs and how they are expressed — and you see that this is not ideal, this is not optimal.”
“Originally, we didn’t think we would need to create a new language,” Vechev’s Ph.D. student Benjamin Bichsel added. “And we didn’t even consider this in the very beginning. We wanted to solve much more advanced problems in quantum computing. We thought, okay, let’s quickly pick a language and then work with that. And then we realized that the existing languages are completely inadequate for the kind of more high-level properties that we are interested in reasoning about.”
One of the co-authors of the paper on Silq that the team is presenting this week at PLDI 2020 (which includes Timon Gehr and Maximilian Baader, together with Bichsel and Vechev, as co-authors), even said he wouldn’t work with any of the existing languages because they were too annoying for him.
So what’s wrong with the existing languages? “A great way to start entering this is looking at one of the fundamental challenges in quantum computation that doesn’t appear in classical languages, which is that of uncomputation,” Vechev noted. Indeed, uncomputation is at the core of Silq’s approach and built-in natively. While there is a classical analog to uncomputation, it’s not necessarily the most intuitive of concepts.
“In classical languages, if you compute ‘A OR B OR C,’ you would compute ‘A OR B’ first and then use this to compute ‘[the result of this] OR C,’ and just forget about this temporary value that you’ve computed in the meantime,” explained Bichsel. “If you do this in quantum, then you get unintended side effects. […] The bottom line is, what you would expect to happen won’t happen in this case. So you have to deal with this somehow. And what this means for essentially all existing quantum languages is that you are forced to work at a very low level of abstraction, where you have to think about all temporary values. And this essentially prevents any sort of high-level thinking.”
This means that even if you want to do something relatively trivial, like adding to integers, on a quantum machine, you have to think about all of the temporary values you create in the process and explicitly handle them.
“For quantum computation, because you always have to deal with this garbage, like the temporary values that you need to discard — you always have to deal with this. And this makes it extremely annoying to work in these languages,” said Bichsel. Current quantum languages try to work around this, but in a relatively convoluted way, while Silq enables safe, automatic uncomputation out of the box.
Vechsel also added that writing low-level programs is more error-prone and makes it more difficult to understand what the algorithm is actually doing. In addition, Silq’s compiler also tries to prevent programmers from making common mistakes. The team also looked at recent developments in classical languages (like ownership types, linear type systems, etc.) and implemented them in the context of quantum computing — something that’s also a first in Silq.
It’s probably no surprise then that the team found that its language produced programs that were significantly shorter than those written in Q# and Quipper, for example, and used far fewer quantum primitives.
For the time being, Silq is still a research project that doesn’t yet run on any of the existing quantum hardware platforms. Instead, the researchers wrote their own quantum emulator to test their assumptions. “In our case, because we are more high-level, we envision the compilation as a two-step process, where first you express your high-level intent and then it’s the job of the compiler to decide which architecture will this run on and how to optimize for a particular architecture,” said Bichsel.
If you want to delve into all of the details of Silq, the teams paper is now available here.
The child had his mug shot taken after trying to use a fake €50 bill at a local shop. The incident will be on police records until at least 2025.
A Times photojournalist and correspondent spent two weeks driving through Europe as it edged out of lockdown. Here is what they saw in six countries.
The UK may be rethinking its decision to shun Apple and Google’s API for its national coronavirus contacts tracing app, according to the Financial Times, which reported yesterday that the government is paying an IT supplier to investigate whether it can integrate the tech giants’ approach after all.
As we’ve reported before coronavirus contacts tracing apps are a new technology which aims to repurpose smartphones’ Bluetooth signals and device proximity to try to estimate individuals’ infection risk.
The UK’s forthcoming app, called NHS COVID-19, has faced controversy because it’s being designed to use a centralized app architecture. This means developers are having to come up with workarounds for platform limitations on background access to Bluetooth as the Apple-Google cross-platform API only works with decentralized systems.
The choice of a centralized app architecture has also raised concerns about the impact of such an unprecedented state data grab on citizens’ privacy and human rights, and the risk of state ‘mission creep‘.
The UK also looks increasingly isolated in its choice in Europe after the German government opted to switch to a decentralized model, joining several other European countries that have said they will opt for a p2p approach, including Estonia, Ireland and Switzerland.
In the region, France remains the other major backer of a centralized system for its forthcoming coronavirus contacts tracing app, StopCovid.
Apple and Google, meanwhile, are collaborating on a so-called “exposure notification” API for national coronavirus contacts tracing apps. The API is slated to launch this month and is designed to remove restrictions that could interfere with how contact events are logged. However it’s only available for apps that don’t hold users’ personal data on central servers and prohibits location tracking, with the pair emphasizing that their system is designed to put privacy at the core.
Yesterday the FT reported that NHSX, the digital transformation branch of UK’s National Health Service, has awarded a £3.8M contract to the London office of Zuhlke Engineering, a Switzerland-based IT development firm which was involved in developing the initial version of the NHS COVID-19 app.
The contract includes a requirement to “investigate the complexity, performance and feasibility of implementing native Apple and Google contact tracing APIs within the existing proximity mobile application and platform”, per the newspaper’s report.
The work is also described as a “two week timeboxed technical spike”, which the FT suggests means it’s still at a preliminary phase — thought it also notes the contract includes a deadline of mid-May.
The contracted work was due to begin yesterday, per the report.
We’ve reached out to Zuhlke for comment. Its website describes the company as “a strong solutions partner” that’s focused on projects related to digital product delivery; cloud migration; scaling digital platforms; and the Internet of Things.
We also put questions arising from the FT report to NHSX.
At the time of writing the unit had not responded but yesterday a spokesperson told the newspaper: “We’ve been working with Apple and Google throughout the app’s development and it’s quite right and normal to continue to refine the app.”
The specific technical issue that appears to be causing concern relates to a workaround the developers have devised to try to circumvent platform limitations on Bluetooth that’s intended to wake up phones when the app itself is not being actively used in order that the proximity handshakes can still be carried out (and contacts events properly logged).
Thing is, if any of the devices fail to wake up and emit their identifiers so other nearby devices can log their presence there will be gaps in the data. Which, in plainer language, means the app might miss some close encounters between users — and therefore fail to notify some people of potential infection risk.
Recent reports have suggested the NHSX workaround has a particular problem with iPhones not being able to wake up other iPhones. And while Google’s Android OS is the more dominant platform in the UK (running on circa ~60% of smartphones, per Kantar) there will still be plenty of instances of two or more iPhone users passing near each other. So if their apps fail to wake up they won’t exchange data and those encounters won’t be logged.
On this, the FT quotes one person familiar with the NHS testing process who told it the app was able to work in the background in most cases, except when two iPhones were locked and left unused for around 30 minutes, and without any Android devices coming within 60m of the devices. The source also told it that bringing an Android device running the app close to the iPhone would “wake up” its Bluetooth connection.
Clearly, the government having to tell everyone in the UK to use an Android smartphone not an iPhone wouldn’t be a particularly palatable political message.
One source with information about the NHSX testing process told us the unit has this week been asking IT suppliers for facilities or input on testing environments with “50-100 Bluetooth devices of mixed origin”, to help with challenges in testing the Bluetooth exchanges — which raises questions about how extensively this core functionality has been tested up to now. (Again, we’ve put questions to the NHSX about testing and will update this report with any response.)
Work on planning and developing the NHS COVID-19 app began March 7, according to evidence given to a UK parliamentary committee by the NHSX CEO’s, Matthew Gould, last month.
Gould has also previously suggested that the app could be “technically” ready to launch in as little as two or three weeks time from now. While a limited geographical trial of the app kicked off this week in the Isle of Wight. Prior to that, an alpha version of the app was tested at an RAF base involving staff carrying out simulations of people going shopping, per a BBC report last month.
Gould faced questions over the choice of centralized vs decentralized app architecture from the human rights committee earlier this week. He suggested then that the government is not “locked” to the choice — telling the committee: “We are constantly reassessing which approach is the right one — and if it becomes clear that the balance of advantage lies in a different approach then we will take that different approach. We’re not irredeemably wedded to one approach; if we need to shift then we will… It’s a very pragmatic decision about what approach is likely to get the results that we need to get.”
However it’s unclear how quickly such a major change to app architecture could be implemented, given centralized vs decentralized systems work in very different ways.
Additionally, such a big shift — more than two months into the NHSX’s project — seems, at such a late stage, as if it would be more closely characterized as a rebuild, rather than a little finessing (as suggested by the NHSX spokesperson’s remark to the FT vis-a-vis ‘refining’ the app).
In related news today, Reuters reports that Colombia has pulled its own coronavirus contacts tracing app after experiencing glitches and inaccuracies. The app had used alternative technology to power contacts logging via Bluetooth and wi-fi. A government official told the news agency it aims to rebuild the system and may now use the Apple-Google API.
Australia has also reported Bluetooth related problems with its national coronavirus app. And has also been reported to be moving towards adopting the Apple-Google API.
While, Singapore, the first country to launch a Bluetooth app for coronavirus contacts tracing, was also the first to run into technical hitches related to platform limits on background access — likely contributing to low download rates for the app (reportedly below 20%).
The UK has this week started testing a coronavirus contacts-tracing app which NHSX, a digital arm of the country’s National Health Service, has been planning and developing since early March. The test is taking place in the Isle of Wight, a 380km2 island off the south coast of England, with a population of around 140,000.
The NHS COVID-19 app uses Bluetooth Low Energy handshakes to register proximity events (aka ‘contacts’) between smartphone users, with factors such as the duration of the ‘contact event’ and the distance between the devices feeding an NHS clinical algorithm that’s being designed to estimate infection risk and trigger notifications if a user subsequently experiences COVID-19 symptoms.
The government is promoting the app as an essential component of its response to fighting the coronavirus — the health minister’s new mantra being: ‘Protect the NHS, stay home, download the app’ — and the NHSX has said it expects the app to be “technically” ready to deploy two to three weeks after this week’s trial.
However there are major questions over how effective the tool will prove to be, especially given the government’s decision to ‘go it alone’ on the design of its digital contacts-tracing system — which raises some specific technical challenges linked to how modern smartphone platforms operate, as well as around international interoperability with other national apps targeting the same purpose.
In addition, the UK app allows users to self report symptoms of COVID-19 — which could lead to many false alerts being generated. That in turn might trigger notification fatigue and/or encourage users to ignore alerts if the ratio of false alarms exceeds genuine alerts.
How users will generally respond to this technology is a major unknown. Yet mainstream adoption will be needed to maximize utility; not just one-time downloads. Dealing with the coronavirus will be a marathon not a sprint — which means sustaining usage will be vital to the app functioning as intended. And that will require users to trust that the app is both useful for the claimed public health purpose, by being effective at shrinking infection risk, and also that using it will not create any kind of disadvantages for them personally or for their friends and family.
The NHSX has said it will publish the code for the app, the DPIA (data protection impact assessment) and the privacy and security models — all of which sounds great, though we’re still waiting to see those key details. Publishing all that before the app launches would clearly be a boon to user trust.
A separate consideration is whether there should be a dedicated legislation wrapper put around the app to ensure clear and firm legal bounds on its use (and to prevent abuse and data misuse).
As it stands the NHS COVID-19 app is being accelerated towards release without this — relying on existing legislative frameworks (with some potential conflicts); and with no specific oversight body to handle any complaints. That too could impact user trust.
The overarching idea behind digital contacts tracing is to leverage uptake of smartphone technology to automate some contacts tracing, with the advantage that such a tool might be able to register fleeting contacts, such as between strangers on the street or public transport, that may more difficult for manual contacts-tracing methods to identify. Though whether these sorts of fleeting contacts create a significant risk of infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus has not yet been quantified.
All experts are crystal clear on one thing: Digital contacts tracing is only going to be — at very best — a supplement to manual contact tracing. People who do not own or carry smartphones or who do not or cannot use the app obviously won’t register in any captured data. Technical issues may also create barriers and data gaps. It’s certainly not a magic bullet — and may, in the end, turn out to be ill-suited for this use case (we’ve written a general primer on digital contacts tracing here).
One major component of the UK approach is that it’s opted to create a so-called ‘centralized’ system for coronavirus contacts tracing — which leads to a number of specific challenges.
While the NHS COVID-19 app stores contacts events on the user’s device initially, at the point when (or if) a user chooses to report themselves having coronavirus symptoms then all their contacts events data is uploaded to a central server. This means it’s not just a user’s own identifier but a list of any identifiers they have encountered over the past 28 days — so, essentially, a graph of their recent social interactions.
This data cannot be deleted after the fact, according to the NHSX, which has also said it may be used for “research” purposes related to public health — raising further questions around privacy and trust.
Questions around the legal bases for this centralized approach also remain to be answered in detail by the government. UK and EU data protection law emphasize data minimization as a key principle; and while there’s flexibility built into these frameworks for a public health emergency there is still a requirement on the government to detail and justify key data processing decisions.
The UK’s decision to centralize contacts data has another obvious and immediate consequence: It means the NHS COVID-19 app will not be able to plug into an API that’s being jointly developed by Apple and Google to provide technical support for Bluetooth-based national contacts-tracing apps — and due to be release this month.
The tech giants have elected to support decentralized app architectures for these apps — which, conversely, do not centralize social graph data. Instead, infection risk calculations are performed locally on the device.
By design, these approaches avoid providing a central authority with information on who infected whom.
In the decentralized scenario, an infected user consents to their ephemeral identifier being shared with other users so apps can do matching locally, on the end-user device — meaning exposure notifications are generated without a central authority needing to be in the loop. (It’s also worth noting there are ways for decentralized protocols to feed aggregated contact data back to a central authority for epidemiological research, though the design is intended to prevent users’ social graph being exposed. A system of ‘exposure notification’, as Apple and Google are now branding it, has no need for such data, is their key argument. The NHSX counters that by suggesting social graph data could provide useful epidemiological insights — such as around how the virus is being spread.)
At the point a user of the NHS COVID-19 app experiences symptoms or gets a formal coronavirus diagnosis — and chooses to inform the authorities — the app will upload their recent contacts to a central server where infection risk calculations are performed.
The system will then send exposure notifications to other devices — in instances where the software deems there may be at risk of infection. Users might, for example, be asked to self isolate to see if they develop symptoms after coming into contact with an infected person, or told to seek a test to determine if they have COVID-19 or not.
A key detail here is that users of the NHS COVID-19 app are assigned a fixed identifier — basically a large, random number — which the government calls an “installation ID”. It claims this identifier is ‘anonymous’. However this is where political spin in service of encouraging public uptake of the app is being allowed to obscure a very different legal reality: A fixed identifier linked to a device is in fact pseudonymous data, which remains personal data under UK and EU law. Because, while the user’s identity has been ‘obscured’, there’s still a clear risk of re-identification.
Truly ‘anonymous’ data is a very high bar to achieve when you’re dealing with large data-sets. In the NHS COVID-19 app case there’s no reason beyond spin for the government to claim the data is “anonymous”; given the system design involves a device-linked fixed identifier that’s uploaded to a central authority alongside at least some geographical data (a partial postcode: which the app also asks users to input — so “the NHS can plan your local NHS response”, per the official explainer).
The NHSX has also said future versions of the app may ask users to share even more personal data, including their location. (And location data-sets are notoriously difficult to defend against re-identification.)
Nonetheless the government has maintained that individual users of the app will not be identified. But under such a system architecture this assertion sums to ‘trust us with your data’; the technology itself has not been designed to remove the need for individual users to trust a central authority, as is the case with bona fide decentralized protocols.
This is why Apple and Google are opting to support the latter approach — it cuts the internationally thorny issue of ‘government trust’ out of their equation.
However it also means governments that do want to centralize data face a technical headache to get their apps to function smoothly on the only two smartphone platforms that matter.
The specific technical issue here relates to how these mainstream platforms manage background access to Bluetooth.
Using Bluetooth as a proxy for measuring coronavirus infection risk is of course a very new and novel technology. Singapore was reported to be the first country to attempt this. Its TraceTogether app, which launched in March, reportedly gained only limited (<20%) uptake — with technical issues on iOS being at least partly blamed for the low uptake.
The problem that the TraceTogether app faced initially is the software needed to be actively running and the iPhone open (not locked) for the tracing function to work. That obviously interferes with the normal multitasking of the average iPhone user — discouraging usage of the app.
It’s worth emphasizing that the UK is doing things a bit differently vs Singapore, though, in that it’s using Bluetooth handshakes rather than a Bluetooth advertising channel to power the contacts logging.
The NHS COVID-19 app has been designed to listen passively for other Bluetooth devices and then wake up in order to perform the handshake. This is intended as a workaround for these platform limits on background Bluetooth access. However it is still a workaround — and there are ongoing questions over how robustly it will perform in practice.
An analysis by The Register suggests the app will face a fresh set of issues in that iPhones specifically will fail to wake each other up to perform the handshakes — unless there’s also an Android device in the vicinity. If correct, it could result in big gaps in the tracing data (around 40% of UK smartphones run iOS vs 60% running Android).
Battery drain may also resurface as an issue with the UK system, though the NHSX has claimed its workaround solves this. (Though it’s not clear if they’ve tested what happens if an iPhone user switches on a battery saving mode which limits background app activity, for example.)
Other Bluetooth-based contract-tracing apps that have tried to workaround platforms limits have also faced issues with interference related to other Bluetooth devices — such as Australia’s recently launched app. So there are a number of potential issues that could trouble performance.
Being outside the Apple-Google API also certainly means the UK app is at the mercy of future platform updates which could derail the specific workaround. Best laid plans that don’t involve using an official interface as your plug are inevitably operating on shaky ground.
Finally, there’s a huge and complex issue that’s essentially being glossed over by government right now: Interoperability with other national apps.
How will the UK app work across borders? What happens when Brits start travelling again? With no obvious route for centralized vs decentralized systems to interface and play nice with each other there’s a major question mark over what happens when UK citizens want to travel to countries with decentralized systems (or indeed vice versa). Mandatory quarantines because the government picked a less interoperable app architecture? Let’s hope not.
Notably, the Republic of Ireland has opted for a decentralized approach for its national app, whereas Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK but shares a land border with the Republic, will — baring any NHSX flip — be saddled with a centralized and thus opposing choice. It’s the Brexit schism all over again in app form.
Earlier this week the NHSX was asked about this cross-border issue by a UK parliamentary committee — and admitted it creates a challenge “we’ll have to work through”, though it did not suggest how it proposes to do that.
And while that’s a very pressing backyard challenge, the same interoperability gremlins arise across the English Channel — where a number of European countries are opting for decentralized apps, including Estonia, Germany and Switzerland. While Apple and Google’s choice at the platform level means future US apps may also be encouraged down a decentralized route. (The two US tech giants are demonstrably flexing their market power to press on and influence governments’ app design choices internationally.)
So countries that fix on a ‘DIY’ approach for the digital component of their domestic pandemic response may find it leads to some unwelcome isolation for their citizens at the international level.