How Volvo is leaning on software to drive its next great safety revolution

Volvo is one of those brands with a core identity so firmly cemented that no amount of marketing can counter it. Volvo is safety first.

Even if you don’t know the details of their involvement with the three-point seatbelt (they invented it) or the airbag (one of the first to bring them to market in the ’80s), even if you haven’t checked the company’s cars’ crash test ratings lately (five-stars across the board), you know that if you have to be in a crash, you probably want to be in a Volvo.

But with other manufacturers deploying hyperbolic technologies that promise to avoid collisions altogether, seatbelts and airbags seem like crude solutions.

How can Volvo maintain its reputation in this era? Software, according to new Volvo CEO Jim Rowan.

Rowan believes that the company’s coders and the tightly integrated stacks they develop will not only maintain Volvo’s leadership in the rather important task of keeping you alive, but will drive innovations and sales with even broader implications to vehicular safety than we’ve ever considered.

Volvo Cars CEO Jim Rowan

Volvo Cars CEO and President Jim Rowan Image credit: Volvo

With silicon and sensors coming from suppliers, ostensibly available to any OEM, software will be a critical tool to unlock more safety features. In other words, Volvo will need to leverage software as more and more components of the car become, well, componentized.

If successful, Volvo will be able to add new features like more advanced threat alerts outside the car and even detect intoxicated driving within the car, all powered by proprietary algorithms that evolve and grow the car over time.

While Rowan is keen to double down on software, the company had already started to ramp up its efforts before his arrival in spring 2022. Volvo announced in June 2021 it would take software development in-house and that its next-generation of EVs would run on its own operating system called VolvoCars.OS. The operating system, which will be supported by a core computing system, aims to bring the company’s various operating systems such as Android Automotive OS, QNX, AUTOSAR and Linux all under one roof.

Now, under Rowan, the company is beefing up its talent pool and continuing to work with a number of hardware and software companies that it previously invested in such as imaging and optics startup Spectralics and lidar Luminar.

Take a look at Volvo’s job site and one can see where software and safety land on its priority list.

Of the 1,527 open roles on Volvo’s job site, a whopping 384 are software-related, with about 20% of those specifically relating to vehicle safety. Does Volvo have the talent it needs to drive innovation in that space? Rowan, who said Volvo does have the talent to drive innovation in this area, added that the company will continue to expand its teams in Stockholm, Shanghai, Bangalore, and elsewhere, fighting the “talent war” that has all manufacturers scrambling.

Software is what Volvo needs to tie it altogether and make the most out of the tech.

New CEO, new priorities

Rowan, a 57-year-old Scot, took the reins of Volvo in March of this year, inheriting leadership from Håkan Samuelsson.

In Samuelsson’s 10-year-tenure, the stoic Swede led and navigated Volvo from Ford ownership and oversight to its current Geely parentage — all the while deploying a completely new and thoroughly Scandinavian portfolio of cars. Rowan served most recently as CEO at Dyson until 2020, overseeing that company as it experimented with its own, ultimately failed EV aspirations.

The goal, for Dyson at the time, was to disrupt the automotive industry: “We’d like to go into industries that already had a known need for that product, be that vacuum cleaners or hair dryers or whatever, and then go in with disruptive play,” Rowan told me, saying that his position as an automotive outsider helped him learn a lot very quickly. “You learn a whole bunch because you ask a whole bunch of dumb questions that otherwise you probably wouldn’t ask if you came from the industry.”

Those learnings didn’t help Dyson overcome a significant barrier of entry: “If you already have the manufacturing, the supply chain, the engineering talent, the design studios, it’s much, much easier for those incumbent car companies like ourselves to transition into next-gen mobility than it is a brand new startup.”

For Volvo, the road has fewer obstacles.

“The decision had already been taken, as we went through the IPO, that we would be an electric car company by a certain date, by 2030. And that really made it easy for me to come as CEO because that decision had been taken. So, every investment decision we made, every hiring decision that we made, every design decision that we made was geared towards becoming an electric car company.”

Still, one speed bump remains. As the market rapidly skews towards electrification, a big battery and a couple of motors in a car will be less of a distinguishing factor. The table stakes are higher than ever for companies to find new ways to attract customers.

Volvo has already experienced what can happen when software doesn’t meet expectations. In 2021, some Volvo vehicles became inoperable after an over-the-air software update inadvertently triggered an anti-theft mode and a batch of Volvo XC40 Recharge electric SUVs, which left the factory without its Volvo On Call software activated, were stuck in U.S. ports awaiting an software update.

Next-gen mobility

As Volvo evolves into what Rowan calls the era of “next-gen mobility” — an idyllic future where ride-sharing is the norm and autonomy is limited only by local regulations and not technologies — safety will become an even more important factor.

Early implementations of next-gen safety systems will not come cheap, thanks to expensive sensor packages and also development of complicated software to control them.

In time, industry trends suggest next-gen safety systems will become ubiquitous, much like airbags and three-point seatbelts are today. Until we get to that point, business opportunities abound.

Volvo believes its next big gains will come by enabling the car to see more, both inside and out.

On the outside, Lidar from Luminar will enable far better perception than possible given Volvo’s current, optics- and radar-based active safety suite, identifying threats 250 meters down the road.

“What that lidar image sees is the digital image of ones and zeros, and our perception software then translates that to say: Is that a bike? Is that a child? Is that a deer or is it another car? Is it a tree? And being able to take that software so that it can very quickly compute that and tell the car: ‘There’s danger ahead. Let’s take evasive action,'” Rowan said.

This is very much the same as many other lidar-equipped concepts that we’ve seen over the past decade.

Luminar LiDAR Volvo

Luminar lidar integrated into the roofline of a Volvo. Image Credits: Volvo

The difference is that Volvo will build this technology into its upcoming EX90, a real car. This is the company’s next model, a fully-electric SUV set to debut before the end of the year. It won’t be the first lidar-equipped car to hit the market but it will be one of the very few.

The EX90 is Volvo’s successor to the venerable XC90, the big, flagship SUV that, with its 2014 redesign, kicked off the post-Ford era for Volvo. While a plug-in hybrid powertrain was an option, gasoline and diesel were the XC90’s primary sources of power. The EX90, meanwhile, will be fully electric from the beginning, again marking the beginning of a new phase for Volvo.

“It’s actually designed so that it can take us all the way through to full AD,” Rowan said, echoing autonomous driving promises made by Elon Musk about Tesla’s current sensor suite, which lacks not only lidar but is now making do without radar.

Driver monitoring

Volvo Driver Monitoring Camera in a Volvo research vehicle

Driver Monitoring Camera in a Volvo research vehicle. Image credit: Volvo

But there’s another, potentially even larger blind spot in Tesla’s sensing suite that Rowan says Volvo is doubling down on: driver monitoring.

Two cameras, monitored by proprietary Volvo algorithms, will monitor the driver at all times, Rowan said. “You have certain patterns, your head starts to nod, you start to jerk the steering wheel, and immediately the software can say, ‘This guy looks like he’s falling asleep, let’s wake them up.’ Or, if he’s inebriated, let’s pull to the side of the road.”

Detecting drunk drivers? Yes, Rowan says Volvo’s software can identify eye patterns indicative of inebriation, though the software isn’t finalized enough to be “definitive.” Distracted driving detection, however, is much further along: “The big one really for us is are they distracted on their phone. We find that a lot of, a lot of these accidents happen because these people are texting on their phone, and that’s a very distinct pattern that you can see when someone’s trying to text and trying to drive at the same time.”

Rowan declined to say whether and how Volvo’s cars in the future would actually intervene when a drunk driver is detected. While the EX90 will be able to safely pull itself over in the case of a driver falling asleep or suffering some sort of a medical emergency, whether it will do so in the case of simple inattention or inebriation remains to be seen.

Another way the EX90 will protect its occupants is a whole-car, internal radar system, capable of detecting movement and preventing the doors from being locked. The Occupant Sensing Technology will be standard, with the primary goal of preventing the tragic death of children locked in cars on hot days.

Like the three-point safety belt all those years ago, this will be a true industry first.

Solving supply

Volvo’s core computing system, is made up of three main computers. Volvo is working with Nvidia on the system. Image credits: Volvo

If all this talk of new sensors inside and out has you thinking about little chips and the massive supply chain woes they can bring, your head is in the right place. I asked Rowan about this, whether Volvo was considering getting in the silicon game like Tesla and building its own chips.

When it comes to hardware, sensors, and the silicon that powers them, Rowan is a buy vs. build kind of CEO: “We’ve made the choice that we are going to buy our silicon, because we think that people like Nvidia and Qualcomm are, you know, they have the infrastructure, they have the know-how, and they will progress quickly.”

Sensors too, whether lidar, radar, or other, will be brought in from suppliers. “What we’re really interested in doing is writing the software that takes you from the silicon to the application layer.”

So the future of Volvo is electric, obviously, but it’s also riddled with sensors and loaded up with stacks of software, all translating masses of raw data from hundreds of sensors into meaningful information.

It’s enough information, theoretically, for these cars to predict risky situations. Over the past decade we’ve seen an evolving focus from passive safety, things that save your life in a crash, to active safety, technologies that help to prevent that crash that’s only seconds away. With lidar looking farther down the road and sensors monitoring for problems inside the cabin, the next step increasingly feels a little like pre-crime: Preventing situations that might have cost lives in the first place.

How Volvo is leaning on software to drive its next great safety revolution by Tim Stevens originally published on TechCrunch

What the CHIPS and Science Act means for the future of the semiconductor industry

This year is proving to be momentous for U.S. semiconductor manufacturing. During a global chip shortage and record inflation, U.S. President Biden signed into effect the CHIPS and Science Act, the greatest boon to U.S. semiconductor manufacturing in history, with $52 billion in subsidies for chip manufacturers to build fabrication plants in the U.S.

The CHIPS Act seems like a green light for domestic manufacturing. However, a presidential executive order (Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity) published earlier in the year may be a stumbling block for semiconductor design shops eager to serve national security projects.

Rolled out several months before the CHIPS Act was signed, this executive order defines parameters that will force U.S.-based software companies to change long-established development and design processes if they want to comply with federal regulations regarding information sharing between the government and the private sector.

Let’s take a look at how these two measures relate, what they mean for semiconductor companies, and why the highs and lows of American semiconductor manufacturing boil down to one thing: Security.

With most of today’s manufacturing happening overseas, the DoD has had major challenges executing its national security-related projects.

The CHIPS Act

The CHIPS and Science Act of 2022 provides $52 billion in subsidies for chip manufacturers to build fabrication plants in the U.S. To put that into perspective, consider that currently only 12% of all semiconductor chips are made in the U.S.

This Act comes amidst a global economic downturn, with lawmakers hoping that American-made chips will solve security and supply chain issues. In short, this is something the U.S. needs to reassert its historical influence on semiconductor manufacturing.

One of the biggest considerations, and benefits, for domestic-made semiconductors is national security. Recent geopolitical instability has caused concern over potential IP leakage and theft. For the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD), it is imperative to have a secure and trusted ecosystem for the design and manufacture of semiconductors.

But with most of today’s manufacturing happening overseas, the DoD has had major challenges executing its national security-related projects.

What the CHIPS and Science Act means for the future of the semiconductor industry by Ram Iyer originally published on TechCrunch

Parler forms a new parent company to offer ‘uncancelable’ cloud services

One of the alternative social networks to emerge out of the social media backlash of the Trump era is apparently going to try something new.

Parler announced Friday that it has acquired a cloud company called Dynascale in order to expand its vision beyond offering an (ostensibly) anything-goes social app to providing infrastructure for businesses that run the risk of getting the boot from mainstream providers.

The social app Parler will now operate under a new parent company known as Parlement Technologies, which also announced a fresh round of $16 million for the pivot toward infrastructure. The company didn’t name who contributed the new money, but previously received key investment from the deep-pocketed Republican donor Rebekah Mercer.

Parler’s CEO George Farmer, who will also lead the new parent company, told the Wall Street Journal that Parlement is “talking to a large range of conservative businesses” that could use its new cloud services. Farmer took over at Parler following the ouster of John Matze, a change of leadership apparently orchestrated by Mercer.

Parler topped App Store charts in early January 2021 after Twitter and Facebook banned President Trump for inciting violence at the U.S. Capitol. But that success was short lived — Apple and Google removed the app from their respective software stores after drawing a line between Parler and the January 6 violence. Amazon also pulled its web hosting, a trifecta of consequences that clearly made an impact on the company, even after it returned to tech giants’ good graces.

Apple reinstated Parler in April 2021 after the app promised to moderate additional content on iOS, bringing it into compliance with the company’s standards. Google only allowed the app back into the Play Store earlier this month, indicating that Parler adjusted the Android app to meet the company’s requirements for “robust” moderation.

Parler returns to a more crowded landscape of platforms catering to conservatives ready to jump ship from mainstream social networks. Trump launched his own app, Truth Social, in February, luring his supporters with the promise of unfiltered tweet-like posts.

Trump remains banned from Twitter for life, but the company’s reluctant new owner-to-be previous declared that he would reverse the decision, opening the door for Trump to return to his former platform of choice, likely at the expense of his current one.

Parler forms a new parent company to offer ‘uncancelable’ cloud services by Taylor Hatmaker originally published on TechCrunch

‘Top Widgets’ soars to No 1 on the App Store, displacing BeReal, as iOS 16 customization takes off

As iOS 16 Lock Screen customization takes off, an iPhone personalization app called Top Widgets has soared to the No. 1 spot on the U.S. App Store’s top free apps list, displacing BeReal. The Sichuan, China-based app maker first introduced Top Widgets in August 2020 to capitalize on the introduction of Home Screen widgets with the release of iOS 14. With its newly added support for iOS 16’s Lock Screen widgets, the app has gained approximately 1.3 million downloads in the two days following Monday’s iOS 16 launch.

That’s up 1,812% from the two days prior to iOS 16’s release, when the app saw approximately 68,000 installs, according to data from mobile intelligence firm Sensor Tower.

To date, Top Widgets has topped 30 million worldwide installs, the firm says. The majority are from the company’s home country of China, which accounts for around 25.8 million lifetime downloads, or 86% of the total. The U.S., by comparison, is a smaller market for this app, with some 730,000 installs to date, or 2% of the total.

In addition to ranking in the No. 1 position on the U.S. App Store as of Thursday, the app is also No. 1 in 58 other global markets. It’s the No. 1 app in the Utilities category in 80 markets.

Top Widgets is similar in some ways to other popular widget designers, like Widgetsmith — one of the more successful apps to emerge from the original iPhone customization craze, thanks to its DIY tools for creating custom widgets that match your overall iPhone theme, wallpaper and icons. (In fact, Top Widgets even stuffs the keyword “widgetsmith” into its App Store description!)

Image Credits: Top Widgets

Like other widget markers, Top Widgets’ tools allow users to select from a range of common Home Screen widget types, like photos, clocks, calendars, weather, reminders, and more.

But it also includes a few features that differentiate it from other widget apps on the market, including a transparent widget type that doesn’t block your iPhone’s background wallpaper as well as a variety of “quick launcher” widget styles that let you put tappable access to favorite apps in a widget format — which offers more customization possibilities compared with the use of app icons.

@itshibazia a tutorial on how to actually get your apps like this… you don’t need ios 16 #topwidgets #topwidgetstutorial #ChewTheVibes #fyp #iphonetutorial #applewatch #iphoneorganization #iphoneapps #tech #apple #ios16 #iphonehacks #iphonetutorials ♬ original sound – Hiba Zia

In addition, the app includes an interesting widget type it calls “x-panel,” which puts a variety of informational blocks — like battery percentage, storage space used, Wi-Fi toggles and more — into a single dashboard-like widget that can be pinned to your Home Screen.

With its iOS 16 release, this x-panel style widget has now been ported to the Lock Screen, providing a tiny dashboard of information about your phone you can view without having to unlock your device. This could be useful for those who want more at-a-glance information available, since the current Lock Screen design limits the number of widgets that can be added. (But you’ll need good eyesight to read it!)

The iOS 16 version of the Top Widgets app also offers a number of other Lock Screen widget types — like animations and cartoons that cleverly use the Lock Screen’s rectangular widget designs to create an image stretched across two widgets placed side-by-side.

For example, you can add two Lock Screen widgets with a cupid shooting his arrow through a beating heart or watch as a bunny inflates a balloon. Or, if you prefer to use square widgets, the app offers a set of smaller emoji-like widgets that could to be added together in a row, including things like a smiley, heart, and little chick.

These sorts of widgets have an obvious appeal to a younger, Gen Z crowd, who may be more interested in personalizing their Lock Screen with cute characters, designs and animations, rather than the sort of “boring” information an adult would want to see — like their next calendar appointment, emails, or reminders, for instance.

Naturally, this found the app featured in a variety of TikTok videos this week, including one top viral video that’s now pulled in over 514,000 views and has been bookmarked 87.4K times.

@tinylittleangel.77 I’m in love &lt3 APPS USED: TOP WIDGETS #ios16 #ios16features #iosupdate #ios14homescreen #ios16new #iphone #iphone11 #topwidgets #widgetsmith #fyp #fypage #xyzbca ♬ there is a light and it never goes out spedup – posh 🍋

While the App Store’s Top Charts algorithm has historically relied on factors like the number of installs and the velocity of those installs, among other factors, it’s now being regularly manipulated by TikTok-based marketing efforts. It’s likely this viral video and others featuring the widget are behind many of Top Widgets’ new U.S. installs these past few days.

The app itself is published under the developer name of Chengdu Guluoying Technology Co. and points to the website xiaozujian.com. No developer names or contact information, beyond a postal mailing address, is provided on its site. TechCrunch attempted to reach the company through various standard email addresses ahead of publication. We did not hear back.

‘Top Widgets’ soars to No 1 on the App Store, displacing BeReal, as iOS 16 customization takes off by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

TikTok claims it’s not collecting U.S. users’ biometric data, despite what privacy policy says

Last year, TikTok quietly updated its privacy policy to allow the app to collect biometric data on U.S. users, including “faceprints and voiceprints” — a concerning change that the company declined to detail at the time, or during a subsequent Senate hearing held last October. Today, the tech company was again asked about its intentions regarding this data collection practice during a Senate hearing focused on social media’s impact on homeland security. 

TikTok’s earlier privacy policy change had introduced a new section called “Image and Audio Information” under the section “Information we collect automatically.” Here, it detailed the types of images and audio that could be collected, including: “biometric identifiers and biometric information as defined under U.S. laws, such as faceprints and voiceprints.”

The policy language was vague as it didn’t clarify whether it was referring to federal law, state laws, or both, nor did it explain why, exactly, this information was being collected, or how it might be shared.

To learn more, Senator Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) today asked TikTok’s representative for the hearing, its Chief Operating Officer Vanessa Pappas, if the biometric data of Americans had ever been accessed by or provided to any person located in China.

She also wanted to know if it was possible for this biometric data to be be accessed by anyone in China. 

Pappas didn’t directly answer the question with a simple yes or no, but rather went on to clarify how TikTok defines biometric data. 

Noting that everyone has their own definition of what “biometrics” means, Pappas claimed TikTok did not use “any sort of facial, voice or audio, or body recognition that would identify an individual.”

She further explained that such data collection was only used for video effects and stored locally on users’ devices, where it’s subsequently deleted.

“…the way that we use facial recognition, for example, would be is if we’re putting an effect on the creator’s video — so, you were uploading a video and you wanted to put sunglasses or dog ears on your video — that’s when we do facial recognition. All of that information is stored only in your device. And as soon as it’s applied — like that filter is applied and posted — that data is deleted,” Pappas said. “So we don’t have that data.”

In other words, the TikTok exec saying that ByteDance employees in China would have no way of collecting this data from TikTok’s U.S. users in the first place, because of how this process works at a technical level. (TikTok, of course, has hundreds of filters and effects in its app, so analyzing how each one works independently would take technical expertise and time.)

Notably, this is the first time the company has responded to U.S. Senators’ inquiries about the app’s use of biometrics, as the question brought up during the October 2021 hearing was essentially dodged at the time. When Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) followed up with TikTok for more information after that hearing, the question about facial recognition and voiceprints hadn’t been included on the list of questions TikTok returned to her office later that year in December.

The biometrics issue also didn’t come up in the letter TikTok sent to a group of U.S. senators in June 2022, to answer follow-up questions about Chinese ByteDance employees’ access to TikTok U.S. users’ data, after BuzzFeed News’ damning report on the matter. Instead, that letter was focused more on how TikTok had been working to move its U.S. users’ data to Oracle’s cloud to further limit access from staff in China.

The lack of understanding about TikTok’s use of biometrics aspect raised further concerns in April 2022, when the ACLU pointed out that a new TikTok trend involved having users film their eyes up close, then using a high-resolution filter to show the details, patterns and colors of their irises. At the time of its report, over 700,000 videos had been created using the filter within a month’s time, it said. (Today, TikTok’s app reports only 533,000+ videos.) In an email to TechCrunch, the ACLU had also suggested taking a look at Oracle’s biometric technology, given its plans to host TikTok user data.

In addition to questions about biometric data collection, TikTok was also asked in today’s hearing whether or not it was tracking users’ keystrokes.

This related to an independent privacy researcher’s finding, released in August, which claimed the TikTok iOS app had been injecting code that could allow it to essentially perform keylogging. Ireland’s Data Protection Commission also requested a meeting with TikTok after this research was released.

At the time, TikTok explained the report was misleading, as the app’s code was not doing anything malicious, but was rather used for things like debugging, troubleshooting and performance monitoring. The company also said that it used keystroke information to detect unusual patterns to protect against fake logging, spam comments and other behavior that could threaten its platform.

At today’s hearing, Pappas again stressed that TikTok was never collecting the content of what was being typed, and that, to her knowledge, this had been “an anti-spam measure.”

 

 

TikTok claims it’s not collecting U.S. users’ biometric data, despite what privacy policy says by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

Apollo’s app brings Reddit to your iOS 16 Lock Screen

A popular mobile app is bringing access to Reddit to the iPhone Lock Screen with iOS 16. The new version of the Apollo for Reddit iOS app has embraced the iOS 16 feature that allows third-party developers to build custom widgets that can appear on the phone’s Lock Screen, offering at-a-glance information or even a way to tap directly into a favorite app. We’ve already seen a number of new apps take advantage of this functionality. However, Apollo’s iOS 16 update is one of the more comprehensive yet, offering not just one or two new widgets — but a whole lineup designed to appeal to the heaviest Reddit users.

The updated app (version 1.14 on the App Store) introduces a range of widgets for the iOS 16 Lock Screen that can be used either independently or together, allowing Reddit users to keep an eye on the site as well as their own Reddit activity.

One of the new options is a Trending Post widget that lets you pin a particular subreddit to the Lock Screen where it will cycle through the various trending posts throughout the day. Or you can simply pin a favorite subreddit to use as a shortcut that will launch you directly to its page when tapped. (Possibly a better option for a subreddit whose posts might be too embarrassing to actually highlight on your Lock Screen!)

Image Credits: Apollo

Users can also track various aspects related to their Reddit usage — like the number of unread messages in their Reddit inbox, how well their most recent post is doing in terms of both upvotes and comments, how well their most recent comment is doing, or their Reddit “karma” (the site’s user score metric that reflects your overall contributions to the Reddit community).

An interesting — and humorous — addition to Apollo’s Lock Screen widget lineup is its new Scroll Distance stats widget. Aimed at the most addicted Reddit users, this widget will track how far you’ve scrolled in the app in the distance measurement of your choice. Scroll distance in feet? Miles? Kilometers? This is a crazy way to see your Reddit obsession quantified.

Image Credits: Apollo

The new widgets aren’t the only iOS 16 features the app has in store.

It’s also introducing a Live Text feature that allows you to select any text on images posted to Reddit and interact with it. This technology had previously been available in iOS 15, but only in Apple’s Photos app, Apollo’s developer Christian Selig notes. But with iOS 16, third-party developers can now access those same APIs, he explained.

The feature could be useful for things like copying a recipe’s text or translating a meme into another language, the app’s update description on the App Store suggests.

In addition, Apollo will now display a city’s weather and current time when you navigate to a subreddit for that locale, like r/London, for example. This feature is powered by Apple’s new WeatherKit framework, which publicly launched this week along with iOS 16.

The app has another easter egg, too. Though developers are intrigued by the new “Dynamic Island” user interface update that turns the pill-shaped notch at the top of the iPhone 14 Pro into a tappable and interactive feature for notifications, API access to build for this area is not yet public. (The feature is expected to launch in an update to iOS 16).

In the meantime, Selig decided to add what he calls “Pixel Pals” to the Apollo app — a sort of Tamagotchi-styled friend that lives on the top of the area that will become the Dynamic Island. A few different animals are available, as well, to move and climb around atop this currently unused space.

Image Credits: Apollo

The updated Apollo app also includes new app icons and a long list of other smaller bug fixes and improvements, based on user feedback, though the Lock Screen widgets are the flagship feature in this release that make it worth the download.

Apollo’s app brings Reddit to your iOS 16 Lock Screen by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

Google cancels half the projects at its internal R&D group Area 120

Google CEO Sundar Pichai, speaking at the Code Conference last week, suggested the tech company needed to become 20% more efficient — a comment some in the industry took to mean headcount reductions could soon be on the table. Now, it seems that prediction may be coming true. TechCrunch has learned and Google confirmed the company is slashing projects at its in-house R&D division known as Area 120.

The company on Tuesday informed staff of a “reduction in force” which will see the incubator halved in size, as half the teams working on new product innovations heard their projects were being canceled. Previously, there were 14 projects housed in Area 120, and this has been cut down to just seven. Employees whose projects will not continue were told they’ll need to find a new job within Google by the end of January 2023, or they’ll be terminated. It’s not clear that everyone will be able to do so.

According to Area 120 lead Elias Roman, the division aims to sharpen its focus to only AI-first projects, as opposed to its earlier mandate to fuel product incubation across all of Google.

TechCrunch learned of the changes from a source with knowledge of the matter. Google confirmed the changes in a statement.

“Area 120 is an in-house incubator for experimental new products. The group regularly starts and stops projects with an eye toward pursuing the most promising opportunities,” a Google spokesperson said. “We’ve recently shared that Area 120 will be shifting its focus to projects that build on Google’s deep investment in AI and have the potential to solve important user problems. As a result, Area 120 is winding down several projects to make way for new work. Impacted team members will receive dedicated support as they explore new projects and opportunities at Google.”

Over the years, the division has launched a number of successful products, including the HTML5 gaming platform GameSnacks, now integrated with Google Chrome; an AirTable rival called Tables which exited to Google Cloud; an A.I.-powered conversational ads platform AdLingo, which also exited to Cloud; video platforms Tangi and Shoploop, which exited to Google Search and Shopping, respectively; the web-based travel app Touring Bird, which exited to Commerce; and a technical interview platform Byteboard, a rare external spinout.

One of the projects now being cut with the changes is Qaya, a service offering web storefronts for digital creators, launched late last year. Similar to “link in bio” solutions available today like Linktree or Beacons, Qaya additionally integrated with Google Search and Google Shopping. It could also be linked with a YouTube Merch Shelf, to promote the creator’s products and services.

The other six projects being canceled weren’t yet launched, but included a financial accounting project for Google Sheets, another shopping-related product, analytics for AR/VR, and, unfortunately, three climate-related projects. These latter projects had focused on EV car charging maps with routing, carbon accounting for I.T., and carbon measurement of forests.

The changes follow last year’s reorg of the Area 120 team, which saw the group moved into a new “Google Labs” division led by veteran Googler Clay Bavor. The incubator was then grouped alongside other forward-looking efforts at Google, like its virtual and augmented reality developments and its cutting-edge holographic videoconferencing project known as Project Starline. We understand Google Labs and Starline are not impacted for the time being.

Pichai announced in July that Google would slow its hiring and sharpen its focus, but the company had said larger layoffs were not planned — it would still hire in engineering, technical and other critical roles. However, as part of its renewed emphasis on productivity, the company acknowledges it may need to restructure teams, deprecate products or even, at times, eliminate roles.

As for the Area 120 team members whose projects have now been discontinued, Google’s recruiters will work to help them find new roles, though placement is not a given in situations like these.

Google has north of 170,000 full-time employees. Area 120 had over 170 employees at the beginning of the year but is now under 100.

Editor’s Note: The article was updated moments after publication with Google’s comment. 

Google cancels half the projects at its internal R&D group Area 120 by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

Google Photos redesigns its Memories feature with vertical swiping, more video, and other creative tools

As consumer social apps shift their focus to video for social expression and adopt more creative tools, like those for collage-making, Google Photos’ often more utilitarian app will now do the same. The company today announced an upgrade to Google Photos and its app for mobile devices that will better highlight users’ videos, create visual effects with photos set to music, introduce its own collage editor, and more.

The additions are a part of a larger upgrade to Google Photos’ Memories feature, first introduced in 2019.

A combination of something like Stories and Facebook’s Memories, Google Photos Memories similarly helps users look back at their older photos, organized into collections at the top of the app’s main screen — where Stories are often found in social apps. Last year, Google Photos upgraded Memories using machine learning technology to identify patterns across your photos, and added other types of Memories, like those that highlighted things like events and holidays.

Now, Google is rolling out another redesign to Memories, which introduces more video into the experience.

The service will automatically select and trim the best snippets from your longer videos using machine learning as part of this enhancement, Google says.

The changes come at a time when tech companies are seeing increased use of video among users. Meta earlier this year said Reels was making up 20% of time users spent on Instagram and video overall makes up 50% of the time users spent on Facebook, for example. Google Photos is seeing a similar trend. The company tells TechCrunch video uploads grew 4 times faster than photo uploads over the past two years, which is why it’s chosen to invest in more video tools.

The updated version of Google Photos will also do more with music, including by adding music to more Memories and setting multiple still photos to music in its “Cinematic Photos” visual effect feature. Launched in 2020, Cinematic Photos leverages machine learning to create 3D versions of your photos by predicting the image’s depth, then animating a smooth panning effect. It later expanded this effect to include stitched-together photos it called Cinematic Moments, which also give an illusion of a more 3D-like image.

Another new set of features in today’s update is focused on enhancing creativity and social sharing.

This includes a new feature called Styles, which automatically adds graphic art to your Memories by placing them on colorful backgrounds, for instance. Artists Shantell Martin and Lisa Congdon contributed to this feature at launch.

And as demand for Pinterest’s new collage maker Shuffles heats up, Google Photos is jumping on this trend with its own collage editor that will let users select a design, pick out and edit photos, then rearrange their layout using drag-and-drop controls.

Image Credits: Google

Photo Memories can also now be shared with friends and family, starting on Android with iOS and web to come.

A smaller, but interesting addition — and one not noted by Google’s official announcement — involves how you navigate through Memories following the update.

While you can still tap left or right to move between the photos within a given Memory — as you would with most Stories — when you move through Memories, you’ll now swipe up and down.

This user interface design choice, of course, is a nod to TikTok, whose vertical video feed has infiltrated so many top consumer apps.

And with Memories becoming more video-heavy with this update, it’s possible that some users’ retrospectives will now feel more like personal, private TikToks rather than static Stories going forward.

The updates are rolling out today to Google Photos and its mobile app.

Google Photos redesigns its Memories feature with vertical swiping, more video, and other creative tools by Sarah Perez originally published on TechCrunch

What we learned when Twitter whistleblower Mudge testified to Congress

A ticking bomb of security vulnerabilities. Covering up security failures. Duping regulators and misleading lawmakers.

These are just some of the allegations when Twitter’s ex-security lead turned whistleblower, Peiter Zatko, testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, less than a month after the release of his explosive whistleblower complaint filed with federal regulators. Zatko, better known as Mudge, made his first comments since the public release of his complaint.

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

These are the key takeaways from Mudge’s testimony to lawmakers and what we learned from Tuesday’s hearing.

FBI warned Twitter it had a Chinese spy on staff

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in his opening remarks that the FBI warned Twitter that it may have a Chinese spy on its payroll.

A redacted version of Mudge’s whistleblower complaint released last month said that Twitter received specific information from the U.S. government that “one or more particular company employees were working on behalf of another particular foreign intelligence agency.” The nationality of the foreign intelligence agents were not disclosed at the time.

But Mudge told the panel that the spy was an agent of China’s Ministry of State Security, or MSS, the country’s main intelligence agency. He added that because Twitter engineers — about 4,000 employees — have broad access to company data, a foreign agent hired as an engineer would have access to personal user information and potentially other sensitive company information, such as Twitter’s plans to censor information in a certain region or concede to demands of a government request. But because Twitter did not closely monitor or log employees’ access, according to his complaint, Mudge said it was “very difficult” to identify what specific data was taken by Twitter employees as foreign agents.

The Chinese spy wasn’t the only agent of a foreign government on Twitter’s payroll. Mudge said in his complaint that the Indian government “succeeded in placing agents on the company payroll” who were granted “direct unsupervised access to the company’s systems and user data.” In August, a former Twitter employee was found guilty of spying for the Saudi government and handing over user data of suspected dissidents.

Thousands of attempts to hack into Twitter weekly

A common theme in Mudge’s complaint is that Twitter did not have the visibility to know what data engineers had access to, or what user data or company information they were accessing. But one system that tracked logins for Twitter engineers found that it was registering “thousands” of failed attempts to log in to Twitter’s systems each week, Mudge told members of Congress.

Mudge said in his complaint that the company saw as many as 3,000 failed attempts each day, describing it as a “huge red flag.” Mudge said then-Twitter chief technology officer Parag Agrawal — now chief executive — did not assign anyone to diagnose or fix the issue, the complaint added.

“This fundamental lack of logging inside Twitter is a remnant of being so far behind on their infrastructure, the engineering, and the engineers not being given the ability to put things in place to modernize,” Mudge testified.

What Twitter knows about its users, and why spies want it

Given the focus of Twitter’s apparent lax access controls to users’ information, lawmakers asked Mudge what specific kind of data that Twitter collects from its users. Mudge said Twitter does not fully understand the scale of what data it collects.

He said among the data Twitter collects includes: a user’s phone number, the current and past IP addresses that the user is connecting from, current and past email addresses, the person’s approximate location based on IP addresses, and information about the person’s device or browser they are accessing Twitter from, such as the make and model, and user’s language.

Mudge said it was possible that engineers had access to this information and would be an attractive target for foreign intelligence agencies. One of the reasons he cited was that it would be helpful for governments to target particular groups and keep tabs on what Twitter knows about their agents or information operations.

Mudge also warned that Twitter user information could be used for harassment or targeting individuals as part of influence operations in the real-world, such as a family member or a colleague, and used as leverage to influence people close to them without their awareness. “It might be used with other data collection,” Mudge told lawmakers, citing previous breaches, including massive thefts of health data and U.S. government personnel files, such as the breach of 22 million records from the U.S. Office of Personnel Management in 2012. Mudge told lawmakers that his own OPM file was stolen in the breach from when he worked for the federal government.

U.S. government agencies let companies ‘grade their own homework’

Mudge’s complaint and subsequent testimony lands just months after Twitter paid $150 million in a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission for violating its 2011 privacy agreement, after the company used email and phone data for securing their accounts but then used that same information for targeted advertising.

Mudge told lawmakers that while government agencies have a responsibility to enforce the law and that they have the right intent, he accused the FTC of being a “little over its head” by allowing companies to “grade their own homework.” In response to a question by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Mudge referenced the 2011 privacy agreement and asked, “How [has Twitter] been passing this?”

Speaking of the regulators and their enforcement powers, Mudge told lawmakers: “What I have seen, the tools in the toolbelt are not working.”

What we learned when Twitter whistleblower Mudge testified to Congress by Zack Whittaker originally published on TechCrunch

Apple releases iOS and macOS fixes to patch a new zero-day under attack

Apple has released another round of security updates to address vulnerabilities in iOS and macOS, including a new zero-day flaw that is being actively exploited by attackers.

The zero-day flaw, tracked as CVE-2022-32917, allows a malicious app to run arbitrary code on an affected device with kernel privileges, Apple said in a security advisory on Monday, which means full access to the device and its data. Apple warned that it is aware that this flaw “may have been actively exploited,” believed to be the eighth zero-day vulnerability fixed by Apple since the start of the year.

Apple says it fixed the bug in updates for iOS 15.7 and iPadOS 15.7, macOS Monterey 12.6 and macOS Big Sur 11.7.

Apple hasn’t revealed any further information about CVE-2022-32917 or how it is being exploited by cybercriminals. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

Apple this week back-ported a patch for another exploited zero-day, tracked as CVE-2022-32894, to Macs running macOS Big Sur 11.7. This comes weeks after the company patched the same vulnerability — described by Apple as a remotely exploitable WebKit zero-day that could allow attackers to execute arbitrary code on unpatched devices — in older iPhones and iPads.

In addition to these fixes, Apple released a number of other security updates on Monday, including a Safari flaw that could lead to address bar spoofing, an issue in Maps that could enable an attacker to read sensitive location information, and a Contacts vulnerability that may enable apps to bypass privacy preferences.

The security fixes were released alongside iOS 16, which brings with it a number of security and privacy enhancements, including support for Apple Passkeys and Lockdown Mode.

Apple releases iOS and macOS fixes to patch a new zero-day under attack by Carly Page originally published on TechCrunch