An EU coalition of techies is backing a “privacy-preserving” standard for COVID-19 contacts tracing

A European coalition of techies and scientists drawn from at least eight countries, and led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Heinrich Hertz Institute for telecoms (HHI), is working on contacts-tracing proximity technology for COVID-19 that’s designed to comply with the region’s strict privacy rules — officially unveiling the effort today.

China-style individual-level location-tracking of people by states via their smartphones even for a public health purpose is hard to imagine in Europe — which has a long history of legal protection for individual privacy. However the coronavirus pandemic is applying pressure to the region’s data protection model, as governments turn to data and mobile technologies to seek help with tracking the spread of the virus, supporting their public health response and mitigating wider social and economic impacts.

Scores of apps are popping up across Europe aimed at attacking coronavirus from different angles. European privacy not-for-profit, noyb, is keeping an updated list of approaches, both led by governments and private sector projects, to use personal data to combat SARS-CoV-2 — with examples so far including contacts tracing, lockdown or quarantine enforcement and COVID-19 self-assessment.

The efficacy of such apps is unclear — but the demand for tech and data to fuel such efforts is coming from all over the place.

In the UK the government has been quick to call in tech giants, including Google, Microsoft and Palantir, to help the National Health Service determine where resources need to be sent during the pandemic. While the European Commission has been leaning on regional telcos to hand over user location data to carry out coronavirus tracking — albeit in aggregated and anonymized form.

The newly unveiled Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing (PEPP-PT) project is a response to the coronavirus pandemic generating a huge spike in demand for citizens’ data that’s intended to offer not just an another app — but what’s described as “a fully privacy-preserving approach” to COVID-19 contacts tracing.

The core idea is to leverage smartphone technology to help disrupt the next wave of infections by notifying individuals who have come into close contact with an infected person — via the proxy of their smartphones having been near enough to carry out a Bluetooth handshake. So far so standard. But the coalition behind the effort wants to steer developments in such a way that the EU response to COVID-19 doesn’t drift towards China-style state surveillance of citizens.

While, for the moment, strict quarantine measures remain in place across much of Europe there may be less imperative for governments to rip up the best practice rulebook to intrude on citizens’ privacy, given the majority of people are locked down at home. But the looming question is what happens when restrictions on daily life are lifted?

Contacts tracing — as a way to offer a chance for interventions that can break any new infection chains — is being touted as a key component of preventing a second wave of coronavirus infections by some, with examples such as Singapore’s TraceTogether app being eyed up by regional lawmakers.

Singapore does appear to have had some success in keeping a second wave of infections from turning into a major outbreak, via an aggressive testing and contacts-tracing regime. But what a small island city-state with a population of less than 6M can do vs a trading bloc of 27 different nations whose collective population exceeds 500M doesn’t necessarily seem immediately comparable.

Europe isn’t going to have a single coronavirus tracing app. It’s already got a patchwork. Hence the people behind PEPP-PT offering a set of “standards, technology, and services” to countries and developers to plug into to get a standardized COVID-19 contacts-tracing approach up and running across the bloc.

The other very European flavored piece here is privacy — and privacy law. “Enforcement of data protection, anonymization, GDPR [the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation] compliance, and security” are baked in, is the top-line claim.

“PEPP-PR was explicitly created to adhere to strong European privacy and data protection laws and principles,” the group writes in an online manifesto. “The idea is to make the technology available to as many countries, managers of infectious disease responses, and developers as quickly and as easily as possible.

“The technical mechanisms and standards provided by PEPP-PT fully protect privacy and leverage the possibilities and features of digital technology to maximize speed and real-time capability of any national pandemic response.”

Hans-Christian Boos, one of the project’s co-initiators — and the founder of an AI company called Arago –discussed the initiative with German newspaper Der Spiegel, telling it: “We collect no location data, no movement profiles, no contact information and no identifiable features of the end devices.”

The newspaper reports PEPP-PT’s approach means apps aligning to this standard would generate only temporary IDs — to avoid individuals being identified. Two or more smartphones running an app that uses the tech and has Bluetooth enabled when they come into proximity would exchange their respective IDs — saving them locally on the device in an encrypted form, according to the report.

Der Spiegel writes that should a user of the app subsequently be diagnosed with coronavirus their doctor would be able to ask them to transfer the contact list to a central server. The doctor would then be able to use the system to warn affected IDs they have had contact with a person who has since been diagnosed with the virus — meaning those at risk individuals could be proactively tested and/or self-isolate.

On its website PEPP-PT explains the approach thus:

Mode 1
If a user is not tested or has tested negative, the anonymous proximity history remains encrypted on the user’s phone and cannot be viewed or transmitted by anybody. At any point in time, only the proximity history that could be relevant for virus transmission is saved, and earlier history is continuously deleted.

Mode 2
If the user of phone A has been confirmed to be SARS-CoV-2 positive, the health authorities will contact user A and provide a TAN code to the user that ensures potential malware cannot inject incorrect infection information into the PEPP-PT system. The user uses this TAN code to voluntarily provide information to the national trust service that permits the notification of PEPP-PT apps recorded in the proximity history and hence potentially infected. Since this history contains anonymous identifiers, neither person can be aware of the other’s identity.

Providing further detail of what it envisages as “Country-dependent trust service operation”, it writes: “The anonymous IDs contain encrypted mechanisms to identify the country of each app that uses PEPP-PT. Using that information, anonymous IDs are handled in a country-specific manner.”

While on healthcare processing is suggests: “A process for how to inform and manage exposed contacts can be defined on a country by country basis.”

Among the other features of PEPP-PT’s mechanisms the group lists in its manifesto are:

  • Backend architecture and technology that can be deployed into local IT infrastructure and can handle hundreds of millions of devices and users per country instantly.
  • Managing the partner network of national initiatives and providing APIs for integration of PEPP-PT features and functionalities into national health processes (test, communication, …) and national system processes (health logistics, economy logistics, …) giving many local initiatives a local backbone architecture that enforces GDPR and ensures scalability.
  • Certification Service to test and approve local implementations to be using the PEPP-PT mechanisms as advertised and thus inheriting the privacy and security testing and approval PEPP-PT mechanisms offer.

Having a standardized approach that could be plugged into a variety of apps would allow for contacts tracing to work across borders — i.e. even if different apps are popular in different EU countries — an important consideration for the bloc, which has 27 Member States.

However there may be questions about the robustness of the privacy protection designed into the approach — if, for example, pseudonymized data is centralized on a server that doctors can access there could be a risk of it leaking and being re-identified. And identification of individual device holders would be legally risky.

Europe’s lead data regulator, the EDPS, recently made a point of tweeting to warn an MEP (and former EC digital commissioner) against the legality of applying Singapore-style Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing in the EU — writing: “Please be cautious comparing Singapore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder.”

A spokesman for the EDPS told us it’s in contact with data protection agencies of the Member States involved in the PEPP-PT project to collect “relevant information”.

“The general principles presented by EDPB on 20 March, and by EDPS on 24 March are still relevant in that context,” the spokesman added — referring to guidance issued by the privacy regulators last month in which they encouraged anonymization and aggregation should Member States want to use mobile location data for monitoring, containing or mitigating the spread of COVID-19. At least in the first instance.

“When it is not possible to only process anonymous data, the ePrivacy Directive enables Member States to introduce legislative measures to safeguard public security (Art. 15),” the EDPB further noted.

“If measures allowing for the processing of non-anonymised location data are introduced, a Member State is obliged to put in place adequate safeguards, such as providing individuals of electronic communication services the right to a judicial remedy.”

We reached out to the HHI with questions about the PEPP-PT project and were referred to Boos — but at the time of writing had been unable to speak to him.

“The PEPP-PT system is being created by a multi-national European team,” the HHI writes in a press release about the effort. “It is an anonymous and privacy-preserving digital contact tracing approach, which is in full compliance with GDPR and can also be used when traveling between countries through an anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism. No personal data, no location, no Mac-Id of any user is stored or transmitted. PEPP-PT is designed to be incorporated in national corona mobile phone apps as a contact tracing functionality and allows for the integration into the processes of national health services. The solution is offered to be shared openly with any country, given the commitment to achieve interoperability so that the anonymous multi-country exchange mechanism remains functional.”

“PEPP-PT’s international team consists of more than 130 members working across more than seven European countries and includes scientists, technologists, and experts from well-known research institutions and companies,” it adds.

“The result of the team’s work will be owned by a non-profit organization so that the technology and standards are available to all. Our priorities are the well being of world citizens today and the development of tools to limit the impact of future pandemics — all while conforming to European norms and standards.”

The PEPP-PT says its technology-focused efforts are being financed through donations. Per its website, it says it’s adopted the WHO standards for such financing — to “avoid any external influence”.

Of course for the effort to be useful it relies on EU citizens voluntarily downloading one of the aligned contacts tracing apps — and carrying their smartphone everywhere they go, with Bluetooth enabled.

Without substantial penetration of regional smartphones it’s questionable how much of an impact this initiative, or any contacts tracing technology, could have. Although if such tech were able to break even some infection chains people might argue it’s not wasted effort.

Notably, there are signs Europeans are willing to contribute to a public healthcare cause by doing their bit digitally — such as a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app which last week racked up 750,000 downloads in the UK in 24 hours.

But, at the same time, contacts tracing apps are facing scepticism over their ability to contribute to the fight against COVID-19. Not everyone carries a smartphone, nor knows how to download an app, for instance. There’s plenty of people who would fall outside such a digital net.

Meanwhile, while there’s clearly been a big scramble across the region, at both government and grassroots level, to mobilize digital technology for a public health emergency cause there’s arguably greater imperative to direct effort and resources at scaling up coronavirus testing programs — an area where most European countries continue to lag.

Germany — where some of the key backers of the PEPP-PT are from — being the most notable exception.

ImmunityBio and Microsoft team up to precisely model how key COVID-19 protein leads to infection

An undertaking that involved combining massive amounts of graphics processing power could provide key leverage for researchers looking to develop potential cures and treatments for the novel coronavirus behind the current global pandemic. Immunotherapy startup ImmunityBio is working with Microsoft’s Azure to deliver a combined 24 petaflops of GPU computing capability for the purposes of modelling, in a very high degree of detail, the structure o the so-called “spike protein” that allows the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 to enter human cells.

This new partnership means that they were able to produce a model of the spike protein within just days, instead of the months it would’ve taken previously. That time savings means that the model can get in the virtual hands of researchers and scientists working on potential vaccines and treatments even faster, and that they’ll be able to gear their work towards a detailed replication of the very protein they’re trying to prevent from attaching to the human ACE-2 proteins’ receptor, which is what sets up the viral infection process to begin with.

The main way that scientists working on treatments look to prevent or minimize the spread of the virus within the body is to block the attachment of the virus to these proteins, and the simplest way to do that is to ensure that the spike protein can’t connect with the receptor it targets. Naturally-occurring antibodies in patients who have recovered from the novel coronavirus do exactly that, and the vaccines under development are focused on doing the same thing pre-emptively, while many treatments are looking at lessening the ability of the virus to latch on to new cells as it replicates within the body.

In practical terms, the partnership between the two companies included a complement of 1,250 NVIDIA V100 Tensor Core GPUs designed for use in machine learning applications from a Microsoft Azure cluster, working with ImmunityBio’s existing 320 GPU cluster that is tuned specifically to molecular modeling work. The results of the collaboration will now be made available to researchers working on COVID-19 mitigation and prevention therapies, in the hopes that they will enable them to work more quickly and effectively towards a solution.

Microsoft launches Edge Zones for Azure

Microsoft today announced the launch of Azure Edge Zones, which will allow Azure users to bring their applications to the company’s edge locations. The focus here is on enabling real-time low-latency 5G applications. The company is also launching a version of Edge Zones with carriers (starting with AT&T) in preview, which connects these zones directly to 5G networks in the carrier’s data center. And to round it all out, Azure is also getting Private Edge Zones for those who are deploying private 5G/LTE networks in combination with Azure Stack Edge.

In addition to partnering with carriers like AT&T, as well as Rogers, SK Telecom, Telstra and Vodafone, Microsoft is also launching new standalone Azure Edge Zones in more than 10 cities over the next year, starting with L.A., Miami and New York later this summer.

“For the last few decades, carriers and operators have pioneered how we connect with each other, laying the foundation for telephony and cellular,” the company notes in today’s announcement. “With cloud and 5G, there are new possibilities by combining cloud services, like compute and AI with high bandwidth and ultra-low latency. Microsoft is partnering with them bring 5G to life in immersive applications built by organization and developers.”

This may all sound a bit familiar and that’s because only a few weeks ago, Google launched Anthos for Telecom and its Global Mobile Edge Cloud, which at first glance offers a similar promise of bringing applications close to that cloud’s edge locations for 5G and telco usage. Microsoft argues that its offering is more comprehensive in terms of its partner ecosystem and geographic availability. But it’s clear that 5G is a trend all of the large cloud providers are trying to tap into. Microsoft’s own acquisition of 5G cloud specialist Affirmed Networks is yet another example of how it is looking to position itself in this market.

As far as the details of the various Edge Zone versions go, the focus of Edge Zones is mostly on IoT and AI workloads, while Microsoft notes that Edge Zones with Carriers is more about low-latency online gaming, remote meetings and events, as well as smart infrastructure. Private Edge Zones, which combine private carrier networks with Azure Stack Edge, is something only a small number of large enterprise companies is likely to look into, given the cost and complexity of rolling out a system like this.

 

Video conferencing apps saw a record 62M downloads during one week in March

Work-from-home policies, social distancing, and government lockdowns have increased the demand for video conferencing apps, for both business and personal use. According to a new report from App Annie, out on Monday, business conferencing apps have been experiencing record growth, as a result, and just hit their biggest week ever in March, when they topped 62 million downloads during the week of March 14-21. Meanwhile, social networking video app Houseparty has also seen phenomenal growth in Europe during lockdowns and home quarantines.

While such growth was to be expected, App Annie’s report provides real-world context about just how many new customers these apps are gaining during this time.

For example, the jump in business app downloads to 62 million across iOS and Google Play earlier in March, was up 45% from just the prior week. It was also the highest growth among any category across the app stores that week, the report said. And it was up 90% from the weekly average of business app downloads in 2019.

Much of the growth in the category is due to the increased adoption of apps like Google’s Hangouts Meet, Microsoft Teams, and Zoom Cloud Meetings.

Zoom topped the charts worldwide in February and March, and continues to see high numbers of downloads in the U.S., U.K., and elsewhere in Europe.

During the record week of downloads, Zoom was downloaded 14 times more than the weekly average during the fourth quarter of 2019 in the U.S. It was also downloaded more than 20 times Q4’s weekly average in the U.K., 22 times more in France, 17 times more in Germany, 27 times more in Spain, and an even larger 55 times more in Italy.

A related report from the app store intelligence firm Sensor Tower saw Zoom’s U.S. downloads somewhat higher in mid-March, but noted that the term “Zoom” wasn’t a top 100 search term in the U.S. App Store before the week of March 9. That meant many new users were being sent the app’s installation page directly — such as via a link shared in a work email, calendar invite, or an intranet site, perhaps.

At the same time in March, Google’s Hangouts Meet was seeing strong downloads in the U.K., U.S., Spain, and Italy, in particular, with 24x, 30x, 64x, and 140x the average weekly downloads in Q4, respectively.

Microsoft Teams saw significant — though not quite as strong — growth in Spain, France, and Italy, at 15x, 16x, and 30x the weekly levels of downloads in Q4, respectively.

In terms of consumer apps, social video conferencing app Houseparty, popular among Gen Z, has been rapidly growing in Europe and elsewhere. The app benefits from network effects — meaning as more friends and family join Houseparty, the app becomes more useful. It then gets launched and used more often, too. In Italy, the week ending on March 21 saw Houseparty downloads surge at 423 times the average weekly number of downloads in Q4 2019.

In Spain, Houseparty skyrocketed with 2360 times the number of downloads in the week ending March 21, compared with Q4. Also notable is that Spain was a market where, before, Houseparty didn’t have any wide-scale penetration. Because of the COVID-19 outbreak, it now has a base in a region where it otherwise may have never reached.

Unlike the business conferencing apps, Houseparty aims to make video chat a more personal and social experience. When you launch the app, it shows you’re free to talk and whose else is online — similar to other messaging apps. But there are also live parties to join and in-app games to play, which signals the app is not meant for your virtual office meetings.

Business apps aren’t the only ones booming at this time, of course.

Educational apps, including Google Classroom and ABCmouse, have also spiked in March as have grocery delivery apps, like Instacart.

“As people face uncertain timelines for the length of social isolation, video conferencing apps have the potential to vastly influence our daily habits — breaking down geological barriers and fostering the ability to work and socialize relatively seamlessly,” noted App Annie, in its report. “It is an unprecedented time for the world and an incredibly dynamic time for mobile — we are seeing shifts in consumer behavior surface daily across virtually every sector,” the firm concluded.

Microsoft Teams is coming to consumers — but Skype is here to stay

Microsoft today announced that later this year, it will launch what is essentially a consumer version of Teams, its Slack-like text, audio and video chat application. Teams for your personal life, as Microsoft likes to call it, will feature a number of tools that will make it easier for families and small groups to organize events, share information and get on video calls, too.

As Google has long demonstrated, there can never be enough messaging applications, but it’s interesting to see Microsoft preview this direction for Teams when it has long solely focused on Skype as its personal chat, audio and video call app. But as Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s corporate VP for Modern Life, Search and Devices, told me, Skype isn’t going away. Indeed, he noted that over half a billion people are using tools like Skype today.

“Skype continues,” he said when I asked him about the future of that service. “We remain committed to Skype. Skype today is used by a hundred million people on a monthly basis. The way I think about it is that Skype is a great solution today for personal use. A lot of broadcast companies use it as well. Teams is really the more robust offering, as you will, where in addition to doing video and chat calling, we also bring in rich communications and templates […], we have things like dashboard and it also helps you pull in a richer set of tools.”

With the more personal Teams only launching later this year, Skype remains Microsoft’s main consumer chat service for the time being. Indeed, about 40 million people current use it daily, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the company is seeing a 220 percent increase in Skype-to-Skype call minutes.

While Microsoft thought about giving this new personal take on Teams a different brand, the company decided that Teams had pretty broad brand awareness already. In addition, the focus of today’s updates was very much on bridging the gap between work life and home life, so it makes sense for the company to try to combine both enterprise and personal features into the same application.

Microsoft Edge is getting smart copy and paste, a password monitor and vertical tabs

Microsoft announced a ton of new features for its productivity apps today, but it also used today’s release to highlight a few new features that are coming to its Chromium-based Edge browser in the near future.

Most of these are pretty straightforward and expected, like its Collections bookmarking feature coming to mobile later this year, but some are quite a surprise. Edge is getting vertical tabs, for example. A lot of browsers have experimented with this in the past but it has often been seen as a niche feature for advanced users. Microsoft clearly doesn’t think of it that way. But you’ll have to wait a bit to try this out, as it’s currently scheduled to roll out to the preview channels in the next few months (or to get a taste of it today, you could try an alternative browser like Vivaldi, which has a number of other advanced tab management features, too).

Also coming to an Edge browser near you in the next few months is Smart Copy. If you’ve ever tried to copy and paste a table from a website in the past, you know that the result is always messy. With Smart Copy, Edge can preserve the formatting when you paste the table into a document. It’ll launch in the Edge Insider channels in the next month.

Also coming in the next few months is a new Password Monitor in Edge, which Microsoft built from the ground up. Like similar features in other browsers and extensions like Google’s Password Checkup, Password Monitor constantly scans the web to make sure your credentials haven’t been stolen. One nifty feature here is that you don’t just get a notification but that this notification will also take you right to the respective service’s site for changing your password.

It’s no secret that Microsoft is very excited about collections in Edge. You can think of them as a tool for bookmarking related sites, images and even text snippets. That’s a useful feature for when you are planning a trip, organizing a dinner or researching anything online. It’s a bit more ephemeral than bookmarks yet more durable than simply keeping a bunch of tabs open. As Microsoft today announced, Collections are coming to the mobile version of Edge, too, and users will be able to sync their Collections between devices.

Microsoft brings Teams to consumers and launches Microsoft 365 personal and family plans

Microsoft today announced a slew of new products, but at the core of the release is a major change to how the company is marketing its tools and services to consumers.

Office 365, which has long been the brand for the company’s subscription service for its productivity tools like Word, Excel and Outlook, is going away. On April 21, it’ll be replaced by new Microsoft 365 plans, including new personal and family plans (for up to six people), at $6.99 and $9.99 respectively. That’s the same price as the existing Office 365 Personal and Home plans.

“We are basically evolving our subscription from — in our minds — a set of tools to solutions that help you manage across your work and life,” Yusuf Mehdi, Microsoft’s CVP of Modern Life, Search and Devices, told me ahead of today’s announcement.

Microsoft is making similar branding changes to its business plans for Office 365. For the most part. There, they are a bit more convoluted, with Office 365 Business Premium now called Microsoft 365 Business Standard and Microsoft 365 Business now becoming Microsoft 365 Business Premium, but for the most part, this is about branding while prices stay the same.

These new Microsoft 365 Personal and Family plans will include access to Outlook and the Office desktop apps for Windows and macOS, 1TB of OneDrive storage per person (including unlimited access to the more secure OneDrive Personal Vault service) and 50G of Outlook.com email storage, Skype call recording and 60 minutes of Skype landline and mobile phone calls.

And since this is now Microsoft 365 and not Office 365, you can also get Windows 10 technical support with the subscription, as well as additional security features to protect you from phishing and malware attacks.

More than 37 million people currently have personal Office 365 subscriptions and chances are these lower prices will bring more users to the platform in the long run. As Mehdi stressed, Microsoft’s free offerings aren’t going away.

But with today’s release, Microsoft isn’t just changing the branding and launching these new plans, it’s also highlighting quite a few new capabilities in its various applications that are either launching today or in the coming months.

Microsoft Teams gets a personal edition

The highlight of this launch, especially given the current situation around COVID-19, is likely the announcement of Teams for consumers. Teams is already one of Microsoft’s fastest-growing products for businesses, with 44 million people using it. But in its efforts to help people bridge their work and personal lives, it will now launch a new Teams edition for consumers, as well.

Just like you can switch between work and personal accounts in Outlook, you will soon be able to do the same in Teams. The personal teams view will look a little bit different, with shared calendars for the family, access to OneDrive vaults, photo sharing, etc., but it sits on the same codebase as the business version. You’ll also be able to do video calls and shared to-do lists.

Better writing through AI

About a year ago, Microsoft announced that Word Online would get a new AI-powered editor that would help you write better. You can think of it as a smarter grammar checker that can fix all of your standard grammar mistakes but can also help you avoid overly complex sentences and bias in your word choices.

This editor is now the Microsoft Editor, and the company is expanding it well beyond Word. The new AI-powered service is now available in 20 languages in Word and Outlook.com — and maybe most importantly, it’ll be available as a Microsoft Edge and Google Chrome plug-in, too.

Free users will get basic spelling and grammar features, while Microsoft 365 subscribers will get a number of more advanced features like the ability to ask the editor to suggest a rewrite of a mangled sentence, a plagiarism checker, style analysis to see if your writing is unclear or too formal, and access to an inclusive language critique to help you avoid unintentional bias.

If you’ve used Grammarly in the past, then a lot of this will sound familiar. Both services now offer a similar set of capabilities, but Microsoft may have an edge with its ability to rewrite sentences.

Better presentations through technology

In a similar vein, Microsoft also launched a presentation coach for PowerPoint as a limited test last September. This AI-driven feature helps you avoid filler words and other presentation no-nos.

This feature first launched in the online version of PowerPoint, with a basic set of features. Now, Microsoft 365 subscribers will get two new advanced features, too, that can help you avoid a monotone pitch that puts your audience to sleep and avoid grammar mistakes in your spoken sentences.

Currently, these are still available as a free preview to all but will become Microsoft 365-only features soon.

PowerPoint is also getting an updated Designer to help you create better presentations. It can now easily turn text into a timeline, for example, and when you add an image, it can present you with a set of potential slide layouts.

Microsoft 365 subscribers now also get access to over 8,000 images and 175 looping videos from Getty Images, as well as 300 new fonts and 2,800 new icons.

Excel + Plaid

For you spreadsheet jockeys out there, Microsoft also has some good news, especially if you want to use Excel to manage your personal budgets.

In partnership with Plaid, you can now link your bank accounts to Excel and import all of your expenses into your spreadsheets. With that, you can then categorize your spend and build your own personal Mint. This feature, dubbed “Money in Excel,” will launch in the U.S. in the coming months.

In addition, Excel is getting a lot more cloud- and AI-driven data types that now cover over 100 topics, including nutrition, movies, places, chemistry and — because why not — Pokémon. Like some of the previous features, this is an extension of the work Microsoft did on Excel in the last few years, starting with the ability to pull in stock market and geographical data.

And just like with the previous set of features, you’ll need a Microsoft 365 subscription to get access to these additional data types. Otherwise, you’ll remain restricted to the stock market and geography data types, which will become available to Office Insiders in the spring and then Personal and Family subscribers in the U.S. in the coming months.

Outlook gets more personal

Even though you may want to forget about Outlook and ignore your inbox for a while, Microsoft doesn’t. In Outlook on the web, you can now link your personal and work calendars to ensure you don’t end up with a work meeting in the middle of a personal appointment, because Chris from marketing really needs another sync meeting during your gym time even though a short email would suffice.

Outlook for Android can now summarize and read your emails aloud for you, too. This feature will roll out in the coming months.

Family Safety

While most of the new features here focus on existing applications, Microsoft is also launching one completely new app: Microsoft Family Safety. This app is coming to Microsoft 365 subscribers on iOS and Android and will bring together a set of tools that can help families manage their online activities and track the location of family members.

The app lets families manage the screen time of their kids (and maybe parents, too) across Windows, Android and Xbox, for example. Parents can also set content filters that only allow kids to download age-appropriate apps. But it also allows parents to track their kids in the real world through location tracking and even driving reports. This, as Mehdi stressed, is a feature that kids can turn off, but they’ll probably have to explain themselves to their parents then. Indeed, he stressed that a lot of what the app does is give parents a chance to have a dialog with their kids. What makes the service unique is that it works across platforms, with iOS support coming in the future.

This app is launching as a limited preview now and will be available in the coming months (I think you can spot a trend here).

Partner benefits

Mehdi noted that Microsoft is also partnering with companies like Adobe, Bark, Blinkist, Creative Live, Experian, Headspace and TeamSnap to provide Microsoft 365 subscribers with additional benefits like limited-time access to their products and services. Subscribers will get three free months of access to Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan, for example.

At the core of today’s updates, though, is a mission to bring a lot of the productivity tools that people know from their work life to their personal life, too, with the personal edition of Teams being the core example.

“We’re very much excited to bring this type of value — not increase the price of Office 365 — take a big step forward, and then move to this,” Mehdi said. “We think now more than ever, it is valuable for people to have the subscription service for their life that helps them make the most of their time, protects their family, lets them develop and grow. And our goal or aspiration is: Can we give you the most valuable subscription for your life? I know people value their video subscriptions and music subscriptions. Our aspiration is to provide the most valuable subscription for your life via Microsoft 365 Personal and Family.”

Stratolaunch reveals updated fleet, including two hypersonic aircraft and a space plane

High-altitude launch startup Stratolaunch has gone through some changes, but on Monday it revealed design details of two hypersonic aircraft, along with a space plane, all designed to take-off from its flying carrier plane launch platform. If all goes to plan, test flights of the first of these new vehicles will begin in 2022, and the company says it’s fully funded to be able to get to that point.

Stratolaunch was originally founded in 2011 by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. Allen unfortunately passed away last year, and the company is now led by a group of investors led by Steve Feinberg. The new ownership is still tracking towards the original goal of the company, however, which is to develop hypersonic atmospheric aircraft.

On Monday, it also unveiled an extension of its mission to get into spaceflight via a new space plane that could potentially carry both cargo and crew. It’s designed to be fully reusable, and is meant to both take up and return cargo with conventional runway landing capabilities.

Stratolaunch’s first goal, however, will be to bring its Talon A hypersonic autonomous aircraft to life. Also designed for full reusability, the Talon A will measure roughly 28 feet in length, and have an 11.3-foot wingspan. It’s designed to fly for over a minute in hypersonic mode for testing, and then slide back down for a fully autonomous landing on a standard runway. The aircraft will not only be able to be deployed from the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft, but will also be designed to take-off on its own autonomously, also like a traditional aircraft from a standard runway.

The aircraft’s main purpose is to provide a testbed for various types of instrumentation and data gathering during hypersonic flight – it’s essentially a lab that can provide real-world experience of something perviously available only in simulation. Up to three of the Talon A vehicles can be transported and launched from one of Stratolaunch’s carrier aircraft at once.

Talon Z, meanwhile, looks to be a larger hypersonic aircraft, but Stratolaunch isn’t sharing much more in the way of details about its capabilities or intended purpose yet. The Black Ice space plane will likewise probably mostly serve customers looking for orbital experimentation, but its cargo and future potential crew capabilities could actually make it well-suited to orbital logistics and potentially even satellite deployment capabilities.

Stratolaunch’s approach with Black Ice is somewhat akin to what Virgin Galactic and Virgin Orbit are doing for commercial passenger spaceflight and small satellite cargo, respectively. The two Virgin companies also use traditional take-off aircraft as the launch platforms for their vehicles, but they’re much further along in their development program. Stratolaunch did complete the first test flight of its carrier aircraft last year, and is aiming to have Talon A ready for commercial service by 2023.

Divesting from one facial recognition startup, Microsoft ends outside investments in the tech

Microsoft is pulling out of an investment in an Israeli facial recognition technology developer as part of a broader policy shift to halt any minority investments in facial recognition startups, the company announced late last week.

The decision to withdraw its investment from AnyVision, an Israeli company developing facial recognition software, came as a result of an investigation into reports that AnyVision’s technology was being used by the Israeli government to surveil residents in the West Bank.

The investigation, conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his team at Covington & Burling, confirmed that AnyVision’s technology was used to monitor border crossings between the West Bank and Israel, but did not “power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank.”

Microsoft’s venture capital arm, M12 Ventures, backed AnyVision as part of the company’s $74 million financing round which closed in June 2019. Investors who continue to back the company include DFJ Growth and OG Technology Partners, LightSpeed Venture Partners, Robert Bosch GmbH, Qualcomm Ventures, and Eldridge Industries.

Microsoft first staked out its position on how the company would approach facial recognition technologies in 2018, when President Brad Smith issued a statement calling on government to come up with clear regulations around facial recognition in the U.S.

Smith’s calls for more regulation and oversight became more strident by the end of the year, when Microsoft issued a statement on its approach to facial recognition.

Smith wrote:

We and other tech companies need to start creating safeguards to address facial recognition technology. We believe this technology can serve our customers in important and broad ways, and increasingly we’re not just encouraged, but inspired by many of the facial recognition applications our customers are deploying. But more than with many other technologies, this technology needs to be developed and used carefully. After substantial discussion and review, we have decided to adopt six principles to manage these issues at Microsoft. We are sharing these principles now, with a commitment and plans to implement them by the end of the first quarter in 2019.

The principles that Microsoft laid out included privileging: fairness, transparency, accountability, non-discrimination, notice and consent, and lawful surveillance.

Critics took the company to task for its investment in AnyVision, saying that the decision to back a company working with the Israeli government on wide-scale surveillance ran counter to the principles it had set out for itself.

Now, after determining that controlling how facial recognition technologies are deployed by its minority investments is too difficult, the company is suspending its outside investments in the technology.

“For Microsoft, the audit process reinforced the challenges of being a minority investor in a company that sells sensitive technology, since such investments do not generally allow for the level of oversight or control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology,” the company wrote in a statement on its M12 Ventures website. “Microsoft’s focus has shifted to commercial relationships that afford Microsoft greater oversight and control over the use of sensitive technologies.”

 

 

It looks like Brandon Middaugh is heading up the $1B Microsoft climate fund

Earlier this year, Microsoft made waves in the corporate community by coming out with one of the most ambitious and wide-ranging strategies to reduce carbon emissions from the company’s operations.

Part of that plan was a $1 billion fund that would invest in climate change mitigation technologies — specifically focused on decarbonization. At the time, details were scarce, but it looks like the strategy is becoming a little more clear, with details beginning to emerge about who will be running the show.

According to sources — and a LinkedIn profile search — it appears that Brandon Middaugh is taking point on the investment fund.

Middaugh has been at Microsoft for more than four years and worked as one of the architects of the company’s climate strategy during her tenure at the company. In her previous role as part of the company’s Cloud Energy and Sustainability team, Middaugh led the distributed energy strategy and was a part of the partnership Microsoft initiated with the East Coast regional transmission organization, the PJM — which manages the power grid for a large swath of the Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S.

It appears that Middaugh is going to be taking point on the deployment of that $1 billion fund Microsoft announced in January, according to people who have discussed the company’s investments.

At the January event, Microsoft committed to going “carbon negative” by 2030 and said that it would remove by 2050 the equivalent of all the carbon it had emitted into the atmosphere since its founding in 1975. Those commitments are far more aggressive than any made by any other corporation in any industry.

Part of the plan involves expanding the carbon fee the company has imposed internally on its direct emission across its supply and value chains. The $1 billion fund is part of that effort to reduce emissions from suppliers and customers by financing projects and technologies that can reduce emissions with new generation or efficiency technologies, or capture and remove carbon from the atmosphere.

Equity and debt investments have to meet four criteria, including: the ability to drive meaningful decarbonization, climate resilience or other sustainability-related goals; have additional market impacts for future climate solutions; can address Microsoft’s own climate debt; and have implications for the unequal distribution of climate impacts.

Late last year, Amazon committed that it would move to 100% renewable energy powering its operations by 2030 and that it would achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040. Meanwhile, Alphabet has been developing renewable energy projects under its moonshot division and has long been an investor in climate mitigation technologies, including the use of renewables to power its operations.

All of these efforts will need to be met by additional work from corporations and financial institutions across every industry if the world is to reduce the most dire effects of dramatic climate change. Already forest fires, flooding and other climate-related catastrophes have led financial investors and insurers to push for better mitigation strategies and to bring climate impacts front and center within corporate strategies.

Microsoft had not replied to a request for comment by the time of publication.