Kindred’s robots help retailers handle fulfillment centers — and take on Amazon

Kindred’s robots help retailers handle fulfillment centers — and take on Amazon

Since taking the reins as chief executive of Kindred at the beginning of the year, Jim Liefer has been focused on commercializing his company’s autonomous robots. But unlike forward-projecting use-cases for robots that may (or may not) one day take over for human beings in a wide swath of functions, Kindred’s current robots are purpose-built for the floor of retail fulfillment centers. That puts Kindred in the middle of an interesting business question: Given rising consumer expectations associated with online ordering, can anyone match or beat Amazon when it comes to speed, accuracy and efficiency?

With a background in operations at Walmart and One Kings Lane, Liefer asserts that his company’s core IP represents a significant advancement in retail operations. That’s because while industrial robots have worked well on manufacturing floors, robots have historically underperformed in e-commerce fulfillment centers, which require systems to handle objects of various shapes and sizes. Kindred’s approach is also notable because of its low-risk model that doesn’t require customers to make major capital investments. Instead of paying for the robot hardware, clients such as Gap pay based on the robots being able to successfully pick and sort items in a warehouse.

In the interview below, Liefer was eager to elaborate on his company’s core product, SORT. He was also happy to address the labor and throughput challenges facing Kindred’s clients as they look to thrive this holiday season. Finally, he offered his candid perspective on the ongoing debate over AI and jobs.

Gregg Schoenberg: Jim, it’s good to see you. I was interested in talking with you because Kindred is focused on the unsexy, but very important part of robot and AI technology that deals with e-commerce and gives insight into how our economy is changing. And by unsexy, I mean that your robots don’t do parkour.

Jim Liefer: Thanks, Gregg.  I’ll start out by saying that sexy is in the eye of the beholder. If you came from retail operations companies like Walmart, sexy would be not having to re-engineer or re-architect my building every year to handle the next peak.

GS: Fair enough. So where has that “sexy” journey taken the company today?

JL: We’ve evolved from a research and engineering company into a customer-focused organization. Today, there are four primary components that Kindred is working on: vision capability, grasping/manipulation capability, ability to identify what’s being held onto and then placing an item somewhere.

GS: And today, your solution is being applied to retail fulfillment centers?

JL: Yes, in retail fulfillment distribution centers, but not the consumer-facing side of retail. Still, there is a tremendous amount of automation in these centers. There are sorters and power conveyance, and there are forklifts running around. But we saw gaps in those in-between moments, the need to take individual pieces from automation A to automation B. That’s where Kindred now can fill those gaps, and it’s a big market.

GS: Do you make robots or do you make cobots?

JL: We’re absolutely collaborating with the humans, but we’re not letting them get that close to the robot. We’re letting the humans do what they do best, like higher-level thinking and dealing with more ambiguity than the robot can handle.

GS: But your solution is designed with the intent that there are going to be people that interact with it?

JL: For some period of time to come, I believe that is going to be true. That’s the design of what we have now. The reason I say it that way is that even today, the aspects of how product arrives at our solution varies, and some day, there might be another mobile robot that serves our robot, that brings the product to us.

Product

GS: At the core of the solution is your autograsp technology, right?

JL: The autonomous grasp algorithm is the core of our AI technology, which is combined with vision and grasping capabilities.

GS: I’m guessing that even though that grasp technology looks simple, it’s actually a big feat of both software and hardware innovation.

JL: Yes, absolutely. The grasping technology is a combination of AI that can understand the ambiguity that it’s dealing with. But there’s also the the physical side of it. Not only do you have to be able to get to a grasp-point, but you also have to grip it correctly.

Some day, there might be another mobile robot that serves our robot, that brings the product to us.

GS: What’s the inherent challenge with getting the gripping correct?

JL: It needs to be precise enough to pick up the item you want. It also has to have enough torque to be able to hold onto the item when you’re moving it.  

GS: Why is that so critical?

JL: Because you have to move at a speed that’s equivalent to a human or better in order to not lose it.

GS: What’s the installation process associated with putting a system into a facility?

JL: We literally roll them off the truck, roll them into place, plug them into 110 power and a data port, and maybe do some final provisioning of software. All in, it takes us anywhere from five to eight hours to set up a robot. So it’s definitely plug and play.

Business Model

GS: I know you don’t actually sell the solution to a customer. Can you walk me through your model?

JL: In the days when I was in a Walmart facility and I wanted to implement a new solution, I would go out to a service provider and they would tell me how many millions of dollars to plunk down. I would pay for it and then someone would come in and build it, and then they would go away and I would try to operate it.

GS: How antiquated.

JL: In our world today, they tell us their throughput need and how many products they are trying to serve with robots. We then deploy the number of robots to the customer. We have an agreement that says you need 10 robots or whatever the number is, and we deploy robots that will serve X amount of products.

GS: How does the money flow work?

JL: It’s a robots-as-a-service model, where every time we successfully grasp and stow a product or item, they pay us something.

It takes us anywhere from five to eight hours to set up a robot. So it’s definitely plug and play.

GS: A commission of sorts.

JL A commission, right. So it’s not a purchase and walk away. And there are several reasons why we think that’s compelling for the customer. One, because it’s not a capital expenditure play for them; it doesn’t have to be multiple weeks, months or even years to get onto the capital budget. It’s an operating expense play.

GS: That sounds like a key consideration.

JL: Think of it this way. When an operating expense comes into play, in many cases, a director-level person of a fulfillment center can make the choice: Am I going to hire a human to do the job, or I can hire a robot to do that job?  The other is that because we’re providing a service to the customer, we’re right there alongside them. It’s not as though we gave them something and said figure it out.

GS: Aren’t you making it very easy for clients to keep the robots around? Because it’s not costing them to have the robots sit on the fulfillment center floor.

JL: Well, okay, good question. In our model, we still have a minimum for the customer,  because we’re paying down the robot. We don’t want to have a robot sitting there idle.

GS: In that case, what’s the break-even on how long the robot needs to be on site with the client?

JL: It’s somewhere between a year and a year and half to get the payback to cover the cost of building the robot.

The Kindred.AI sorting robot in the lab.

GS: Does the counterparty risk become a factor? Because these machines are obviously expensive.

JL: Yes, that comes into play. At the same time, the robots themselves are quite… I want to say the word mobile. It’s relatively low-pain for us to roll them out and roll them to another customer facility that’s probably nearby. Of course, we don’t want to do that, but it’s possible to do it.

Amazon

GS: Of course not. But you’ve spent many years at Walmart, and you’re obviously very aware of the existential threat that Amazon poses to just about everybody that isn’t Amazon. Does Kindred aspire to help others thrive in a retail economy that is increasingly dominated by Amazon?

JL: Yes. It levels the playing field, because if our customer, the retailer, is able to have better throughput, get the products into the hands of the customer faster, then they have the ability to hold onto their customers. If they don’t do it, then those customers are going to go somewhere else.

Am I going to hire a human to do the job, or I can hire a robot to do that job?

GS: Looking to the future, do you want to go deeper within the apparel channel, or do you see other retail applications for your grasping technology?

JL: To recap, we figured out a very difficult problem, which is how to handle clothing in a polybag with a label on it. What seems like the most logical and reasonable place to go is to smaller items and maybe toy items or jewelry.

GS: But it has to be in a bag?

JL: It doesn’t have to be in a bag. In testing, we can pick up a pen or a pencil. We can pick up an iPhone and even general merchandise-related items like baby wipes or rubber balls.

Technology

GS: Let’s dive into your technology a little deeper. Is your tech based on reinforcement learning or deep reinforcement learning?

JL: Actually, both. The way that we’re operating the current SORT robot is that there are multiple AI algorithms that are running in concert together. So there’s the autonomous grasp algorithm, there’s a grasp verification algorithm, there’s a stow algorithm; there are multiple algorithms that are running to maintain that speed and accuracy. Then, there’s our team in the Toronto office—

GS: —That’s the team working on deploying more reinforcement learning?

JL: Yes, the reinforcement learning which would replace some of the deep learning algorithms that we have in place today.

GS: I read up on Rich Sutton, who, based on my research, is a big deal in reinforcement learning—

JL: —Yes. He’s a big deal and is a mentor to several of our people.

It’s relatively low-pain for us to roll them out and roll them to another customer facility that’s probably nearby.

GS: Sutton describes reinforcement learning as a learning system that wants something. Can you describe in lay terms how this is central to Kindred’s technology and how it is different than deep Learning?

JL: Here’s how I think of reinforcement learning versus deep Learning. Reinforcement learning is allowing the algorithm to determine all of the possible outcomes and all of the possible permutations. Think about something in a space where you want you to go from point A to point B. In reinforcement learning, that robot will achieve the goal by doing something called body babbling, which looks like it’s jittering around, looking at all the different possible solutions.

GS: So it takes longer to train a reinforcement algo?

JL: Yes, because in deep Learning, you are going to give it some sort of structure within parameters, because you sort of know what you want it to do. Then you look at body babbling, which is a much cleaner solution because the algorithm knows how to deal with all these variables because it’s explored every permutation.

GS: I saw that Kindred released a research paper last month. My top-line takeaway is that while reinforcement learning has made progress, it’s tough to train robots.

JL: I view it this way: In the last two years that I’ve been here at Kindred, I’ve seen things on a daily basis that I didn’t think were possible the week before or the month before. That’s a blanket statement, though, which is one of the reasons why I think people are anxious about AI and automation.

AI Anxiety

GS: So let’s talk about AI anxiety. Yesterday, I was on Bush Street and I watched this Cafe X robot serve coffee. Meanwhile, across the street, you’ve got this Blue Bottle that’s teeming with people, keeping its staff quite busy. Is that the future you see? Where workers are in demand, even in an era of well functioning robots that can grasp stuff?

JL: I  think back to Tower Records in San Francisco in the 90s. It used to be packed. I mean, that’s where I spent every weekend. You never thought that would end, perhaps like some people at the Blue Bottle today. But there’s that flip point.

GS: I appreciate that honest comment.

JL: To me, I just think it’s inevitable, and I don’t think it’s bad. But I believe that we will embrace it, just as we embrace technology in our phones, because it will improve our lives in many ways and it will also make our lives more complicated.

GS: We’ve discussed previously, too, this idea that in the fulfillment centers where the Kindred robots are operating, there’s a labor shortage.

JL: Yes, there’s no employee there to do the job.

We can pick up an iPhone and even general merchandise-related items like baby wipes or rubber balls.

GS: And that’s because fulfillment centers are in locations that are often—

JL: —They’re clustered. They’re fighting for the same resources. Big Amazon has come in, they’re paying those workers more, so they’re siphoning all those workers away.

GS: What about temporary workers around the holidays?

JL: We said earlier that the robots are collaborative, working alongside and collaborating with the humans. Absolutely, there are places for the temporary workers to come in, and I want those humans to be fulfilled. In terms of helping our customer, it’s so painful to get even a temporary worker, give them a job that’s very mundane, have them leave and then have to hire another temporary worker.

GS: But Kindred is giving jobs to people with gamer skills, too, right?

JL: Yes, on the tele-operation side. About 85 percent of the time, our algorithm can do everything on its own. But 15 percent of the time, we have a human in the loop who steps in and assists the robot for about a second and half, and then steps back out.

GS: When you’re recruiting for these people, are you recruiting in the typical places that tech companies look?

JL: These people have a wide variety of backgrounds and skill sets. They might be gamer types, but some of them have marketing degrees and some of them have engineering backgrounds. There’s also a pool of generalists, those jack-of-all-trades kind of people.

GS: But they need to have pretty good dexterity, right?

JL: I don’t think it’s highly required. A lot of it is just point and click.

GS: Well, on that non-techy note, Jim, thanks so much for your time.

JL: Thanks very much, Gregg.

This interview has been edited for content, length and clarity.

Androidユーザー50万人がGoogle Playからマルウェアをダウンロード

Androidユーザー50万人がGoogle Playからマルウェアをダウンロード

50万人以上のAndroidユーザーが、ドライブゲームを装ったマルウェアをダウンロードした——Googleの専用アプリストアでの出来事だ。

ESETのセキュリティー研究者Lukas Stefankoは、13本のゲームアプリ——同じ開発者による——の詳細をツイートした。その時アプリはまだGoogle Playでダウンロード可能だった。うち2本はアプリストアの人気ランキングに入っていたため、いっそう目立っていた、と彼は言った。

Googleが削除するまでに計58万回以上インストールされた。

ダウンロードした人はトラックか車のドライブゲームを期待していた。代わりに手にしたのは開くたびにクラッシュするバグだらけのアプリだった。

実際には、そのアプリは別のドメイン(イスタンブールのアプリ開発者が登録)からデータをダウンロードし、裏でマルウェアをインストールしながらアプリのアイコンを消していた。悪意のアプリが正確に何をするのかはわかっていない。VirusTotalにアップロードされたサンプルを見る限り、このマルウェアが何をするかはマルウェアスキャナーの間でも一致していない。はっきりしているのは、マルウェアに持続性があることだ——Android携帯またはタブレットをスタートさせるたびにアプリは立ち上がり、ネットワークに「フルアクセス」できるため、マルウェア作者はそれを利用して秘密を盗み出す。

本誌はイスタンブール拠点のドメイン所有者Mert Ozekに接触を試みているが、今のところメールへの返信はない。

またしてもこれはGoogleによる恥ずかしいセキュリティー欠陥だ。Googleはアプリとモバイルのセキュリティー対策でAppleに遅れを取っていることで長年批判されている。Appleは壁に囲まれた庭にどのアプリを入れるかに関してはるかに限定的で選り好みが強いと言われている。

GoogleはAndroidのセキュリティーを強化すべく、セキュリティー機能を改善し、きめ細かなアプリ許可制御を導入した。しかし、その後もGoogle Playアプリストアでは詐欺や悪意あるアプリとの戦いが続いており、Androidユーザーにとって最大の脅威の一つとなっている。Googleは昨年だけで70万以上の悪質アプリをアプリストアから削除し、悪意あるアプリがそもそもストアに入り込むのを防ぐために、バックエンドの改善を試みた。

しかし、それでもまだ十分ではないことが明らかだ。

Google広報は本誌の問い合わせに対してすぐにはコメントしなかった。

[原文へ]

(翻訳:Nob Takahashi / facebook

Zuckerberg won’t step down as Facebook chairman

Zuckerberg won’t step down as Facebook chairman

In a short but amply-hyped interview with CNN, Facebook’s founder and chief executive again responded to criticism over the company’s most recent crisis.

The interview, excerpted from a longer Q&A for a CNN series called “Human Code,” hit most of the main questions that critics have raised about Facebook’s failings and Zuckerberg’s unilateral control over the company.

While we didn’t learn much new, we do know the company’s latest posture about a few leadership issues, the first of which being if Sheryl Sandberg remains secure in her position as COO.

“Sheryl is a really important part of this company… She’s been an important partner with me for 10 years,” Zuckerberg told CNN. “I’m really proud of the work we’ve done together and I hope that we work together for decades to come.”

That answers that, for now anyway.

The second big leadership issue: Will Zuckerberg retain all of the control he currently exercises as the chairman of Facebook’s board? Last week during a press call, Zuckerberg told reporters that he won’t be stepping down in that capacity and “[he doesn’t] think that that specific proposal is the right way to go.” Still, that was early days for this particular self-made internal crisis.

When asked again today if he plans to step down as chairman in the midst of his company’s latest crisis, Zuckerberg answered firmly enough to put that question to rest for now.

“That’s not the plan… I’m not currently thinking that that makes sense,” Zuckerberg told CNN.

The scandal over Facebook’s relationship with a GOP crisis communications group known for its opposition research is far from the first time critics have called for Zuckerberg to relinquish some of his power at the company. Due to the nature of its shareholding structure, he commands the majority of voting power within the company he founded. With no mechanism through which he could be deposed, Zuckerberg again makes it clear that he is one and the same with the company he founded — and that he won’t be going anywhere or yielding any of his control any time soon.

Internal Facebook memo sees Elliot Schrage take responsibility for hiring Definers

Internal Facebook memo sees Elliot Schrage take responsibility for hiring Definers

TechCrunch has obtained an internal memo published by Facebook’s outgoing head of public policy Elliot Schrage in which he blames himself for hiring PR firm Definers. He admits to having the company push negative narratives about competitors, but says Facebook did not ask or pay Definers to publish fake news. COO Sheryl Sandberg left a comment on the memo, saying it was never Facebook’s intention to play into anti-semitic theories about George Soros.

The memo includes a Q&A regarding points raised by a New York Times article detailing how Definers worked to spread negative publicity about Google and other tech giants to make Facebook look better, and that the firm’s employees also published biased articles bashing Facebook’s competitors and critics through a news site called NTK Network that’s affiliated with Definers.

In the memo, Schrage justifies the use of opposition research, and chastizes Facebook employees for allowing internal finger pointing surrounding its troubled past two years to become public. He also notes that his replacement, Facebook’s new head of global policy and former UK deputy Prime Minster Nick Clegg will be reviewing its work with all political consultants, which could turn up more skeletons.

Facebook’s former head of policy and comms Elliot Schrage (left)

Schrage announced in June that he’d be stepping down in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but would stay on to help find a replacement. Many have asked who, if anyone, would be fired for putting Facebook in cahoots with Definers. As TechCrunch previously reported, Schrage was atop the chain of command here. Given his extensive experience in public policy, was likely well aware of the nature of Definers’ work. Schrage taking the blame provides a convenient solution to the issue, as he’s already on his way out.

“Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team. That’s me. Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy” Schrage writes. “I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decision to expand their mandate . . . I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here.” This explanation serves to protect Zuckerberg and Sandberg from additional blame, even as Sandberg strives to show she’s not passing the buck by noting “I want to be clear that I oversee our Comms team and take full responsibility for their work and the PR firms who work with us.”

Schrage’s defense of his bosses provides additional cover for Zuckerberg’s comments from a CNN interview that ran tonight in which he said he won’t step down as Facebook’s chairman and hopes to continue working alongside Sandberg for decades to come. The memo could have been aimed at quieting internal unrest about Facebook’s chief lobbyist Joel Kaplan. His ties to the GOP, support for Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and involvement with Facebook’s latest PR troubles had led some employees to question his employment. Now Facebook has someone else to take the heat.

Schrage is effectively jumping on the grenade here.

The memo and comment can be found below:

Internal Facebook Memo By Elliot Schrage

Many of you have raised questions about our relationship with the Definers consulting firm. We’ve been looking into this and though it is close to a holiday for many of you I wanted to share an update on what we’ve learned and where things stand:

Why did we hire Definers?

We hired Definers in 2017 as part of our efforts to diversify our DC advisors after the election. Like many companies, we needed to broaden our outreach. We also faced growing pressure from competitors in tech, telcos and media companies that want government to regulate us.

This pressure became particularly acute in September 2017 after we released details of Russian interference on our service. We hired firms associated with both Republicans and Democrats — Definers was one of the Republican-affiliated firms.

What did we ask them to do and what did they do?

While we’re continuing to review our relationship with Definers, we know the following: We asked Definers to do what public relations firms typically do to support a company — sending us press clippings, conducting research, writing messaging documents, and reaching out to reporters.

Some of this work is being characterized as opposition research, but I believe it would be irresponsible and unprofessional for us not to understand the backgrounds and potential conflicts of interest of our critics. This work can be used internally to inform our messaging and where appropriate it can be shared with reporters. This work is also useful to help respond to unfair claims where Facebook has been singled out for criticism, and to positively distinguish us from competitors.

As the pressure on Facebook built throughout the year, the Communications team used Definers more and more. At Sheryl’s request, we’re going through all the work they did, but we have learned that as the engagement expanded, more people worked with them on more projects and the relationship was less centrally managed.

Did we ask them to do work on George Soros?

Yes. In January 2018, investor and philanthropist George Soros attacked Facebook in a speech at Davos, calling us a “menace to society.” We had not heard such criticism from him before and wanted to determine if he had any financial motivation. Definers researched this using public information.

Later, when the “Freedom from Facebook” campaign emerged as a so-called grassroots coalition, the team asked Definers to help understand the groups behind them. They learned that George Soros was funding several of the coalition members. They prepared documents and distributed these to the press to show that this was not simply a spontaneous grassroots movement.

Did we ask them to do work on our competitors?

Yes. As I indicated above, Definers helped us respond to unfair claims where Facebook was been [sic] singled out for criticism. They also helped positively distinguish us from competitors.

Did we ask them to distribute or create fake news?

No.

Who knew about this work, and who signed off on it?

Responsibility for these decisions rests with leadership of the Communications team. That’s me. Mark and Sheryl relied on me to manage this without controversy.

I knew and approved of the decision to hire Definers and similar firms. I should have known of the decision to expand their mandate. Over the past decade, I built a management system that relies on the teams to escalate issues if they are uncomfortable about any project, the value it will provide or the risks that it creates. That system failed here and I’m sorry I let you all down. I regret my own failure here.

Why have we stopped working with them?

Mark has asked us to reevaluate how we work with communications consultants. It’s not about Definers. It is about us, not them.

Mark has made clear that because Facebook is a mission driven company, he wants to hold us to a higher standard. He is uncomfortable relying on any outside firm to make decisions about how to make our case about our mission, policies, competitors and critics until he can become comfortable with our management, oversight and escalation.

Where are we now?

Many people across the company feel uncomfortable finding out about this work. Many people on the Communications team feel under attack from the press and even from their colleagues. I’m deeply disappointed that so much internal discussion and finger pointing has become public. This is a serious threat to our culture and ability to work together in difficult times.

Our culture has long been to move fast and take risks. Many times we have moved too quickly and we always learn and keep trying to do our best. This will be no exception.

What happens next?

Our legal team continues to review our work with Definers to understand what happened. Mark and Sheryl have also asked Nick Clegg to review all our work with communications consultants and propose principles and management processes to guide the team’s work going forward. We all want to ensure that we, our advisors and consultants better reflect Facebook’s values and culture.

Comment On The Memo From Sheryl Sandberg

Thank you for sharing this, Elliot.


I want to be clear that I oversee our Comms team and take full responsibility for their work and the PR firms who work with us. I truly believe we have a world class Comms team and I want to acknowledge the enormous pressure the team has faced over the past year.

When I read the story in New York Times last week, I didn’t remember a firm called Definers. I asked our team to look into the work Definers did for us and to double-check whether anything had crossed my desk. Some of their work was incorporated into materials presented to me and I received a small number of emails where Definers was referenced.

I also want to emphasize that it was never anyone’s intention to play into an anti-Semitic narrative against Mr. Soros or anyone else. Being Jewish is a core part of who I am and our company stands firmly against hate. The idea that our work has been interpreted as anti-Semitic is abhorrent to me — and deeply personal.

I know this has been a distraction at a time when you’re all working hard to close out the year — and I am sorry. As I said at the All Hands, I believe so deeply in the work we do and feel so grateful to all of you for doing so much every day. Thanksgiving seems like the right time to say a big thank you once again.

Additional reporting by Taylor Hatmaker

Autodesk agrees to buy PlanGrid for $875 million

Autodesk agrees to buy PlanGrid for $875 million

Autodesk announced plans to acquire PlanGrid for $875 million today. The San Francisco startup helped move blueprints from paper to the iPad when it launched in 2011.

This digitization of construction fits with Autodesk’s vision of digitizing design in general, and CEO Andrew Anagnost certainly recognized the transformational potential of the company he was buying. “There is a huge opportunity to streamline all aspects of construction through digitization and automation. The acquisition of PlanGrid will accelerate our efforts to improve construction workflows for every stakeholder in the construction process,” he said in a statement.

The company, which is a 2012 graduate of Y Combinator, raised just $69 million, so this appears to be a healthy exit for the them. PlanGrid took what was a paper-intensive task and shifted it to digital, taking a world of hand-written mark-ups and sticky notes onto the fledgling iPad.

In an interview with CEO and co-founder Tracy Young in 2015 at TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco, she said the industry was ripe for change. “The heart of construction is just a lot of construction blueprints information. It’s all tracked on paper right now and they’re constantly, constantly changing,” Young said at the time.

Those manual changes often resulted in errors she said, and that was costly for the contractors. As an engineer working for a construction company, who was at one time responsible for making the paper copies, she recognized that the process could be improved by moving it into the digital realm.

PlanGrid CEO Tracy Young onstage at TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco in 2015

Her idea, which was kind of radical in 2011 when she started the company, was to move all that paper to the cloud and display it on an iPad. It’s important to remember that the enterprise was not rushing to the cloud in 2011, and most people considered the iPad at the time to be a consumer device, so what she and her co-founders were attempting was a true kind of industry transformation.

Young sees joining Autodesk as a way to continue building on that early vision. “PlanGrid has excelled at building beautiful, simple field collaboration software, while Autodesk has focused on connecting design to construction. Together, we can drive greater productivity and predictability on the jobsite,” she said in a statement.

PlanGrid currently has 400 employees, 12,000 customers and 120,000 paid users, and has been used on over a million construction projects worldwide, according to data provided by the companies. They believe that under Autodesk’s umbrella and combined with their existing product set, they can provide a complete construction solution and grow the business faster than PlanGrid could have on its own — pretty much the standard argument in an acquisition like this.

PlanGrid was efficient with the money it took. In fact the last raise was $40 million almost exactly three years ago. The deal is expected to close at the end of January pending the normal regulatory approval process.

11 moments from the International Space Station’s first 20 years

11 moments from the International Space Station’s first 20 years

It was November 20, 1998, when an unprecedented international coalition of astronomers, engineers and rocket scientists saw years of collaboration come to fruition with the launch of the International Space Station’s first component. Since then, the largest spacecraft ever built has hosted innumerable astronauts, experiments and other craft. Here are a few notable moments in the history of this inspiring and decades-spanning mission.

1984: Reagan proposes the ISS — without Russia

The space station was originally going to be a U.S. effort, but soon became a collaboration with Canada, Japan and Europe, excluding the then-USSR. American-Russian relations were strained then, as you may remember, and although many in the space industry itself would have preferred working together, the political climate did not permit it. Nevertheless, initial work began.

1993: Clinton adds Russia to the bill

The collapse of the Soviet Union and subsequent rejuvenation of international relations led President Bush to bring them into the program in a limited fashion, as a supplier and as a guest on a shuttle mission. The next year, however, President Clinton one-upped him with the announcement that Russia would be a full partner. This was both a practical and political decision: Russian involvement would save billions, but it also helped bring Russia on board with other issues, like ICBM de-proliferation efforts. At any rate, designs were finally beginning to be built.

1998: The first components, Zarya and Unity, launch to orbit

Endeavour approaches Zarya when the latter was the only component in place.

Though persona non grata at first, Russia had the privilege of launching the first core component of the ISS on November 20, 1998, the anniversary we are celebrating today. The Zarya Functional Cargo Block is still up there, still being used, forming the gateway to the Russian side of the station.

One month later, Space Shuttle Endeavour took off from Launch Complex 39A (we’ve been there) carrying Unity Node 1. This too is up there now, attached since that day to Zarya.

2000: The first of many long-term occupants arrive

From left: Shepherd, Gidzenko and Krikalev, aboard the station.

Almost exactly a year after Zarya went up, the first astronauts took up residence on the ISS — the first of 230 people so far to call the orbiting structure home. Bill Shepherd was NASA’s first representative, flying with cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalev; they would stay for about 141 days.

2003: Columbia disaster delays expansion

The fatal breakup of Space Shuttle Columbia on reentry following its 28th mission was tragedy enough that other shuttle missions were scrubbed for over two years. As these were the primary means of the U.S. adding to and maintaining the ISS, this responsibility passed to Roscosmos until shuttle launches resumed in 2005; crewed launches wouldn’t resume until mid-2006.

2007: Kibo goes up

Numerous modules have been added to the ISS over the years, but Japan’s Kibo is the largest. It took multiple missions to deliver all the pieces, and was only made possible by earlier missions that had expanded the solar power capacity of the station. Kibo contains a ton of reconfigurable space accessible from the pressurized interior, and has been popular for both private and public experiments that must be conducted in space.

2010: Enter the Cupola

If Kibo is the largest component, the Cupola is likely the most famous. The giant 7-window bubble looks like something out of science fiction (specifically, the front end of the Millennium Falcon) and is the location for the station’s most striking photography, both inside and out.

2014: Beautiful timelapses

With the Cupola in place, capturing imagery of the Earth from this amazing view became easier — especially with the increasingly high-quality digital cameras brought aboard by talented astronaut-photographers like Alexander Gerst and Don Pettit. The many, many photos taken out of this aperture have been formed into innumerable beautiful timelapses and desktop backgrounds, as well as witnessing incredible phenomena like aurora and lightning storms from a new and valuable perspective. It’s hard to pick just one, but Don Pettit’s “The World Outside My Window” above is a fabulous example, and Gerst’s 4K compilation is another.

2015: Gennady Padalka sets time in space record

During his fifth flight to space, Gennady Padalka set a world record for most time in space: When he returned to Earth he had logged a total of 878 days and change. That’s well ahead of the competition, which is almost exclusively Russian — though NASA’s Peggy Whitson is right up there with 666 days over three missions.

2016: Chinese station calling ISS, please pick up

It’s hardly crowded in space, but it can get lonely up there. So it’s nice that those who have the honor to fly reach out to each other. In this case China’s taikonaut Jing Haipeng recorded a heartwarming video message from the Chinese Tiangong-2 space station greeting the incoming ISS crew and praising the community of global cooperation that makes all this possible.

2018: Soyuz accident threatens long-term occupation

A crewed mission to the ISS with astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin encountered a serious fault during launch, fortunately resulting in no injuries or fatalities but shaking up the space community. The Soyuz rocket and capsule had more than proven themselves over the years but no risks could be taken with human life, and future missions were delayed. It was possible that for the first time since it was first entered, the ISS would be empty as its crew left with no replacements on the way.

Fortunately the investigation has concluded and a new mission is planned for early December, which will prevent such an historic absence.

2019? First commercial crew mission and beyond

Russia has borne sole responsibility for all crewed launches for years; the U.S. has been planning to separate itself from this dependence by fostering a new generation of crew-capable capsules that can meet and exceed the safety and reliability of the Soyuz system. SpaceX and Boeing both plan 2019 flights for their respective Crew Dragon and Starliner capsules — though slipping dates and new regulatory attention may delay those further.

The ISS has a bright future despite its remarkable 20 years of continuous operation. It’s funded more or less through 2025, but there’s talk of new space stations from Russia and China both, while the U.S. eyes lunar orbit for its next big endeavor. It’s hard to imagine space now without an ISS full of people in it, however, and falling launch costs may mean that its life can be extended even further and for less cost. Here’s hoping the ISS has another two decades in front of it.

Our 3 favorite startups from Morgan Stanley’s 2nd Multicultural Innovation Lab Demo Day

Our 3 favorite startups from Morgan Stanley’s 2nd Multicultural Innovation Lab Demo Day

The Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation LabMorgan Stanley’s in-house accelerator focused on companies founded by multicultural and female entrepreneurs, hosted its second Annual Showcase and Demo Day. The event also featured companies from accelerators HearstLab, Newark Venture Partner Labs and PS27 Ventures. (Note: I was formerly employed by Morgan Stanley and have no financial ties.)

The showcase represented the culmination of the program’s second year, which followed an initial five-company class that has already seen two acquisitions. Through the six-month program, Morgan Stanley provides early-stage companies with a wide range of benefits, including an equity investment from Morgan Stanley, office space at Morgan Stanley headquarters, access to Morgan Stanley’s extensive network and others. Applications are now open for its third cohort of companies, with the application window closing on January 4th, 2019.

The 16 presenting startups, all led by a female or multicultural founder, offered solutions to structural inefficiencies across a wide array of categories, including fintech, developer tools and health. Though all of the companies offered impressive presentations and strong value propositions, here are three of the companies that stood out to us.

Hatch Apps

In hopes of democratizing software and app development, Hatch Apps provides a platform that allows users and companies to build iOS, Android and web applications without any code through pre-built templates and custom plug-and-play functions. In essence, Hatch Apps provides a solution for application building similar to what Squarespace or Wix provide for websites.

In the modern economy, every company is in one way or another a tech or tech-enabled company. Now the demand for strong engineers has made the fight for talent increasingly competitive and has made engineering quite costly, even when only needed for simple tasks. 

For an implementation and subscription fee, Hatch Apps allows companies with less sophisticated engineering DNA to reduce entering costs by launching native apps on their own, across platforms and often on faster timelines than those seen through third-party developers. Once an app is launched, Hatch Apps provides customers with detailed analytics and allows them to send targeted push notifications, export data and make in-app changes that can automatically go live in app stores.

The company initially took a bootstrapping approach to financing and raised funds by selling a 2016 election-themed “Cards Against Humanity”-style game created on the platform. Since then, Hatch Apps has already received funding from the Y Combinator Fellowship, Morgan Stanley and a number of other investors.

FreeWill

While estate planning is a topic many don’t like to think about, it’s a critical issue for managing cross-generational wealth. But will drafting can often be very complex, time-consuming and costly, requiring hours of legal consultation and coordination between various parties.

Founded by two former classmates at Stanford Business School, FreeWill looks to simplify the estate-planning process by providing a free online platform that automates will drafting, in a similar function to what TurboTax does for taxes. Using FreeWill, users can quickly set allocations for their estate and select personal recipients, charitable donations, executor specifications and other ancillary requests. The platform then creates a finalized legal document that is legally valid in all 50 states, to which users can also quickly make changes and replace without incurring expensive legal costs.

FreeWill is able to provide the platform to consumers for free due to the proceeds it receives from its nonprofit customers, who pay to be featured on the platform as a partner organization. FreeWill offers a compelling value proposition for partnering companies. By acting as a channel to funnel user donations to listed organizations, FreeWill has been able to drive a 600 percent increase in charitable giving to partner organizations on average. FreeWill also provides partner organizations with backing analytics that allow nonprofits to track bequests and donors through monthly reports. 

FreeWill currently boasts an impressive roster of 75 paying nonprofit partners that include American Red Cross, Amnesty International and many others. In the long-run it hopes to be the go-to solution for financial and legal end-of-life planning for investment advisors, life insurance and employee benefits providers.

Shoobs

Shoobs is looking to be the go-to platform for local “urban” events, which the company defined as events centered on local nightlife, comedy and concerts in the hip-hop, R&B and reggae genres to name a few. But unlike the genre-agnostic, transaction-focused event management platforms that can make the space seem pretty crowded, Shoobs focused on providing genre-specific even discovery. Shoobs matches urban event goers with artists of their choice and related smaller-scale events that can be harder to discover, acting as a form of curation, quality control and discovery.

For event organizers, Shoobs helps provide digital ticketing and promotion services, with event recommendation capabilities that target the most promising potential customers. Through its offering to event organizers, Shoobs is able to monetize its services through ticket sale commission, advertising and brand partnerships.

Since its initial launch in London, Shoobs notes it has become one of the top urban events platforms in the city, with an extensive base of recurring registered users and event organizers. After previously working with AEG for its London launch, Shoobs is looking to expand stateside with the help of organizers like Live Nation. Shoobs joins a long list of promising Y Combinator alumni companies with YC also acting as one of Shoobs’ initial investors.

Other presenting companies included:

Morgan Stanley Multicultural Innovation Lab

  • BeautyLynk “is an on-demand hair and makeup service provider, specializing in customizable services for women.”
  • Broadway Roulette “is an events marketplace that pairs consumers with surprise cultural events, beginning with Broadway theater.”
  • CariClub “is an enterprise software platform to connect young professionals with nonprofit opportunities.”
  • COI Energy Services “is an integrated platform for electric utilities and business users to optimize and manage energy usage.”
  • CoSign “is an API and application that allows anyone to create, distribute and monetize visual content.”
  • Goalsetter “is a goals-based gifting, savings and investing platform designed for children.”
  • myLAB Box “offers customizable at-home health-test kits and relevant telemedicine consultations / prescription services.”

HearstLab

  • Priori “is a global legal marketplace changing the way in-house teams find, hire and manage outside counsel.”
  • TRENCH “is an online fashion marketplace that makes use of the unworn items in every woman’s closet.”

Newark Venture Partners Labs

  • Floss Bar “is a new type of preventive brand for oral health care. The company offers high-quality, routine dental care across flexible locations at thoughtful prices.”
  • Upsider “is a software solution allowing recruiters to leverage AI technology to identify a comprehensive set of candidates who align with their business and role requirements, resulting in a more strategic understanding of the best possible talent for the job.”

PS27 Ventures

  • BlueWave Technologies “is a cleantech company and the creators of the BlueWave™ Cleaning System — a water-free, detergent-free and chemical-free plasma device that cleans items that are extremely hard or impossible to clean with a washer and dryer.”
  • OnPay Solutions “focuses exclusively on business-to-business payments. They create payment software and offer payment web services to enhance efficiency and productivity for Accounts Payable and Accounts Receivable.”

Five years and one pivot later, Trueface emerges with a promise for better facial recognition tech

Five years and one pivot later, Trueface emerges with a promise for better facial recognition tech

Shaun Moore and Nezare Chafni didn’t initially intend to develop a new standalone facial recognition technology, when they first got started developing the technology that would become their new company, Trueface.ai.

When the two serial entrepreneurs were planning their next act five years ago, they wanted to ride the wave of smart home technologies with the development of a new smart doorbell — called Chui.

That doorbell would be equipped with facial recognition software as a service. The company raised $500,000 in angel funding and opened a manufacturing facility in Medellin, Colombia.

What the two entrepreneurs discovered was that most existing facial recognition tools lacked the ability to identify spoof or presentation attacks, which rendered the tech unfeasible for the access control functions they were trying to develop.

So Moore and Chafni set out to develop better software for facial recognition.

“In 2014 we focused our engineering efforts on deploying face recognition on the edge in highly constrained environments that could identify hack or spoof attempts,” Moore, the chief executive of Trueface.ai said in an email. “This technology is the core of what has become Trueface.”

With the upgrades to the product, Chui began tackling the commercial access control market, and while customers loved the software, they wanted to use their own hardware for the product, according to Moore.

So the two entrepreneurs shuttered the factory in 2017 and began focusing on selling the facial recognition product on its own. Thus Trueface was born.

It’s actually the third company that the two founders have worked on together. Friends since their days studying business at Southern Methodist University, Moore and Chafni previously worked on a content management startup, before moving on to Chui’s smart doorbell.

The company spun Trueface out of Chui in June 2017 and raised seed capital from investors including Scout Ventures with Harvard Business Angels and GSV Labs. That $1.5 million round has powered the company’s development since (including the integration with IFTT earlier this year to prove that its system worked).

But over the past few years, as damning stories around the risks associated with potentially bad training data being applied to facial recognition technologies continued to appear, the company set itself another task — aligning its training data with the real world.

To that end the company has partnered with a global non-profit which is collecting facial images from Africa, Asia and Southeast Asia to create a more robust portfolio of images to train its recognition software.

“Like many facial recognition companies, we acknowledge the implicit bias in publicly available training data that can result in misidentification of certain ethnicities,” the company’s chief executive has written. “We think that is unacceptable, and have pioneered methods to collect a multiplicity of anonymized face data from around the world in order to balance our training models. For example, we partnered with non-profits in Africa and Southeast Asia to ensure our training data is diverse and inclusive, resulting in reduced bias and more accurate face recognition – for all.

The company has also established three principles by which its technology will be applied. The first is an explicit commitment to reduce bias in training data; the second, an agreement with its customers that in any case that goes to court, human decision making is privileged over any data from its software; and finally, an explicit focus on data security to prevent breaches and data transparency so that customers discloes what information they’re collecting.

“When implemented responsibly, people will demand this technology for its daily benefits and utility, not fear it,” writes Moore.

How a small French privacy ruling could remake adtech for good

How a small French privacy ruling could remake adtech for good

A ruling in late October against a little-known French adtech firm that popped up on the national data watchdog’s website earlier this month is causing ripples of excitement to run through privacy watchers in Europe who believe it signals the beginning of the end for creepy online ads.

The excitement is palpable.

Impressively so, given the dry CNIL decision against mobile “demand side platform” Vectaury was only published in the regulator’s native dense French legalese.

Here is the bombshell though: Consent through the @IABEurope framework is inherently invalid. Not because of a technical detail. Not because of an implementation aspect that could be fixed. No.

You cannot pass consent to another controller through a contractual relationship. BOOM pic.twitter.com/xMlNHJTKwl

— Robin Berjon (@robinberjon) November 16, 2018

Digital advertising trade press AdExchanger picked up on the decision yesterday.

Here’s the killer paragraph from CNIL’s ruling — translated into “rough English” by my TC colleague Romain Dillet:

The requirement based on the article 7 above-mentioned isn’t fulfilled with a contractual clause that guarantees validly collected initial consent. The company VECTAURY should be able to show, for all data that it is processing, the validity of the expressed consent.

In plainer English, this is being interpreted by data experts as the regulator stating that consent to processing personal data cannot be gained through a framework arrangement which bundles a number of uses behind a single “I agree” button that, when clicked, passes consent to partners via a contractual relationship.

CNIL’s decision suggests that bundling consent to partner processing in a contract is not, in and of itself, valid consent under the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) framework.

Consent under this regime must be specific, informed and freely given. It says as much in the text of GDPR.

But now, on top of that, the CNIL’s ruling suggests a data controller has to be able to demonstrate the validity of the consent — so cannot simply tuck consent inside a contractual “carpet-bag” that gets passed around to everyone else in their chain as soon as the user clicks “I agree.”

This is important, because many widely used digital advertising consent frameworks rolled out to websites in Europe this year — in claimed compliance with GDPR — are using a contractual route to obtain consent, and bundling partner processing behind often hideously labyrinthine consent flows.

The experience for web users in the EU right now is not great. But it could be leading to a much better internet down the road.

Where’s the consent for partner processing?

Even on a surface level the current crop of confusing consent mazes look problematic.

But the CNIL ruling suggests there are deeper and more structural problems lurking and embedded within. And as regulators dig in and start to unpick adtech contradictions it could force a change of mindset across the entire ecosystem.

As ever, when talking about consent and online ads the overarching point to remember is that no consumer given a genuine full disclosure about what’s being done with their personal data in the name of behavioral advertising would freely consent to personal details being hawked and traded across the web just so a bunch of third parties can bag a profit share.

This is why, despite GDPR being in force (since May 25), there are still so many tortuously confusing “consent flows” in play.

The longstanding online T&Cs trick of obfuscating and socially engineering consent remains an unfortunately standard playbook. But, less than six months into GDPR we’re still very much in a “phoney war” phase. More regulatory rulings are needed to lay down the rules by actually enforcing the law.

And CNIL’s recent activity suggests more to come.

In the Vectaury case, the mobile ad firm used a template framework for its consent flow that had been created by industry trade association and standards body, IAB Europe.

It did make some of its own choices, using its own wording on an initial consent screen and pre-ticking the purposes (another big GDPR no-no). But the bundling of data purposes behind a single opt in/out button is the core IAB Europe design. So CNIL’s ruling suggests there could be trouble ahead for other users of the template.

IAB Europe’s CEO, Townsend Feehan, told us it’s working on a statement reaction to the CNIL decision, but suggested Vectaury fell foul of the regulator because it may not have implemented the “Transparency & Consent Framework-compliant” consent management platform (CMP) framework — as it’s tortuously known — correctly.

So either “the ‘CMP’ that they implemented did not align to our Policies, or choices they could have made in the implementation of their CMP that would have facilitated compliance with the GDPR were not made,” she suggested to us via email.

Though that sidesteps the contractual crux point that’s really exciting privacy advocates — and making them point to the CNIL as having slammed the first of many unbolted doors.

The French watchdog has made a handful of other decisions in recent months, also involving geolocation-harvesting adtech firms, and also for processing data without consent.

So regulatory activity on the GDPR+adtech front has been ticking up.

Its decision to publish these rulings suggests it has wider concerns about the scale and privacy risks of current programmatic ad practices in the mobile space than can be attached to any single player.

So the suggestion is that just publishing the rulings looks intended to put the industry on notice…

The decision also notes that the @CNIL is openly using this to inform not just the company in question but whole ecosystem, including adtech of course but also app makers who embed ads and marketers who use them. You’re all on notice!

— Robin Berjon (@robinberjon) November 16, 2018

Meanwhile, adtech giant Google has also made itself unpopular with publisher “partners” over its approach to GDPR by forcing them to collect consent on its behalf. And in May a group of European and international publishers complained that Google was imposing unfair terms on them.

The CNIL decision could sharpen that complaint too — raising questions over whether audits of publishers that Google said it would carry out will be enough for the arrangement to pass regulatory muster.

This rules the @IABEurope out as an option, but more than that: @Google forced publishers to collect consent on its behalf for advertising profiling. They have said that they will audit that publishers do it right — but will auditing be enough?

— Robin Berjon (@robinberjon) November 16, 2018

For a demand-side platform like Vectaury, which was acting on behalf of more than 32,000 partner mobile apps with user eyeballs to trade for ad cash, achieving GDPR compliance would mean either asking users for genuine consent and/or having a very large number of contracts on which it’s doing actual due diligence.

Yet Google is orders of magnitude more massive, of course.

The Vectaury file gives us a fascinating little glimpse into adtech “business as usual.” Business which also wasn’t, in the regulator’s view, legal.

The firm was harvesting a bunch of personal data (including people’s location and device IDs) on its partners’ mobile users via an SDK embedded in their apps, and receiving bids for these users’ eyeballs via another standard piece of the programmatic advertising pipe — ad exchanges and supply side platforms — which also get passed personal data so they can broadcast it widely via the online ad world’s real-time bidding (RTB) system. That’s to solicit potential advertisers’ bids for the attention of the individual app user… The wider the personal data gets spread, the more potential ad bids.

That scale is how programmatic works. It also looks horrible from a GDPR “privacy by design and default” standpoint.

The sprawling process of programmatic explains the very long list of “partners” nested non-transparently behind the average publisher’s online consent flow. The industry, as it is shaped now, literally trades on personal data.

So if the consent rug it’s been squatting on for years suddenly gets ripped out from underneath it, there would need to be radical reshaping of ad-targeting practices to avoid trampling on EU citizens’ fundamental right.

GDPR’s really big change was supersized fines. So ignoring the law would get very expensive.

Oh hai real-time bidding!

In Vectaury’s case, CNIL discovered the company was holding the personal data of a staggering 67.6 million people when it conducted an on-site inspection of the company in April 2018.

That already sounds like A LOT of data for a small mobile adtech player. Yet it might actually have been a tiny fraction of the personal data the company was routinely handling — given that Vectaury’s own website claims 70 percent of collected data is not stored.

In the decision there was no fine, but CNIL ordered the firm to delete all data it had not already deleted (having judged collection illegal given consent was not valid); and to stop processing data without consent.

But given the personal-data-based hinge of current-gen programmatic adtech, that essentially looks like an order to go out of business. (Or at least out of that business.)

And now we come to another interesting GDPR adtech complaint that’s not yet been ruled on by the two DPAs in question (Ireland and the U.K.) — but which looks even more compelling in light of the CNIL Vectaury decision because it picks at the adtech scab even more daringly.

Filed last month with the Irish Data Protection Commission and the U.K.’s ICO, this adtech complaint — the work of three individuals, Johnny Ryan of private web browser Brave; Jim Killock, exec director of digital and civil rights group, the Open Rights Group; and University College London data protection researcher, Michael Veale — targets the RTB system itself.

Here’s how Ryan, Killock and Veale summarized the complaint when they announced it last month:

Every time a person visits a website and is shown a “behavioural” ad on a website, intimate personal data that describes each visitor, and what they are watching online, is broadcast to tens or hundreds of companies. Advertising technology companies broadcast these data widely in order to solicit potential advertisers’ bids for the attention of the specific individual visiting the website.

A data breach occurs because this broadcast, known as an “bid request” in the online industry, fails to protect these intimate data against unauthorized access. Under the GDPR this is unlawful.

The GDPR, Article 5, paragraph 1, point f, requires that personal data be “processed in a manner that ensures appropriate security of the personal data, including protection against unauthorised or unlawful processing and against accidental loss.” If you can not protect data in this way, then the GDPR says you can not process the data.

Ryan tells TechCrunch that the crux of the complaint is not related to the legal basis of the data sharing but rather focuses on the processing itself — arguing “that it itself is not adequately secure… that they’re aren’t adequate controls.”

Though he says there’s a consent element too, and so sees the CNIL ruling bolstering the RTB complaint. (On that keep in mind that CNIL judged Vectaury should not have been holding the RTB data of 67.6M people because it did not have valid consent.)

“We do pick up on the issue of consent in the complaint. And this particular CNIL decision has a bearing on both of those issues,” he argues. “It demonstrates in a concrete example that involved investigators going into physical premises and checking the machines — it demonstrates that even one small company was receiving tens of millions of people’s personal data in this illegal way.

“So the breach is very real. And it demonstrates that it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the consent is meaningless in any case.”

Reaching for a handy visual explainer, he continues: “If I leave a briefcase full of personal data in the middle of Charing Cross station at 11am and it’s really busy, that’s a breach. That would have been a breach back in the 1970s. If my business model is to drive up to Charing Cross station with a dump-truck and dump briefcases onto the street at 11am in the full knowledge that my business partners will all scramble around and try and grab them — and then to turn up at 11.01am and do the same thing. And then 11.02am. And every microsecond in between. That’s still a fucking data breach!

“It doesn’t matter if you think you’ve consent or anything else. You have to [comply with GDPR Article 5, paragraph 1, point f] in order to even be able to ask for a legal basis. There are plenty of other problems but that’s the biggest one that we highlighted. That’s our reason for saying this is a breach.”

“Now what CNIL has said is this company, Vectaury, was processing personal data that it did not lawfully have — and it got them through RTB,” he adds, spelling the point out. “So back to the GDPR — GDPR is saying you can’t process data in a way that doesn’t ensure protection against unauthorized or unlawful processing.”

In other words, RTB as a funnel for processing personal data looks to be on inherently shaky ground because it’s inherently putting all this personal data out there and at risk…

What’s bad for data brokers…

In another loop back, Ryan says the regulators have been in touch since their RTB complaint was filed to invite them to submit more information.

He says the CNIL Vectaury decision will be incorporated into further submissions, predicting: “This is going to be bounced around multiple regulators.”

The trio is keen to generate extra bounce by working with NGOs to enlist other individuals to file similar complaints in other EU Member States — to make the action a pan-European push, just like programmatic advertising itself.

“We now have the opportunity to connect our complaint with the excellent work that Privacy International has done, showing where these data end up, and with the excellent work that CNIL has done showing exactly how this actually applies. And this decision from CNIL takes, essentially my report that went with our complaint and shows exactly how that applies in the real world,” he continues.

“I was writing in the abstract — CNIL has now made a decision that is very much not in the abstract, it’s in the real world affecting millions of people… This will be a European-wide complaint.”

But what does programmatic advertising that doesn’t entail trading on people’s grubbily obtained personal data actually look like? If there were no personal data in bid requests Ryan believes quite a few things would happen. Such as, for e.g. the demise of clickbait.

“There would be no way to take your TechCrunch audience and buy it cheaper on some shitty website. There would be no more of that arbitrage stuff. Clickbait would die! All that nasty stuff would go away,” he suggests.

(And, well, full disclosure: We are TechCrunch — so we can confirm that does sound really great to us!)

He also reckons ad values would go up. Which would also be good news for publishers. (“Because the only place you could buy the TechCrunch audience would be on TechCrunch — that’s a really big deal!”)

He even suggests ad fraud might shrink because the incentives would shift. Or at least they could so long as the “worthy” publishers that are able to survive in the new ad world order don’t end up being complicit with bot fraud anyway.

As it stands, publishers are being screwed between the twin plates of the dominant adtech platforms (Google and Facebook), where they are having to give up a majority of their ad revenue — leaving the media industry with a shrinking slice of ad revenues (that can be as lean as ~30 percent).

That then has a knock on impact on funding newsrooms and quality journalism. And, well, on the wider web too — given all the weird incentives that operate in today’s big tech social media platform-dominated internet.

While a privacy-sucking programmatic monster is something only shadowy background data brokers that lack any meaningful relationships with the people whose data they’re feeding the beast could truly love.

And, well, Google and Facebook.

Ryan’s view is that the reason an adtech duopoly exists boils down to the “audience leakage” being enabled by RTB. Leakage which, in his view, also isn’t compliant with EU privacy laws.

He reckons the fix for this problem is equally simple: Keep doing RTB but without any personal data.

A real-time ad bidding system that’s been stripped of personal data does not mean no targeted ads. It could still support ad targeting based on real-time factors such as an approximate location (say to a city region) and/or generic and aggregated data.

Crucially it would not use unique identifiers that enable linking ad bids to a individual’s entire digital footprint and bid request history — as is the case now. Which essentially translates into: RIP privacy rights.

Ryan argues that RTB without personal data would still offer plenty of “value” to advertisers — who could still reach people based on general locations and via real-time interests. (It’s a model that sounds much like what privacy search engine DuckDuckGo is doing, and also been growing.)

The really big problem, though, is turning the behavioral ad tanker around. Given that the ecosystem is embedded, even as the duopoly milks it.

That’s also why Ryan is so hopeful now, though, having parsed the CNIL decision.

His reading is regulators will play a decisive role in pushing the ad industry’s trigger — and force through much-needed change in their targeting behavior.

“Unless the entire industry moves together, no one can be the first to remove personal data from bid requests but if the regulators step in in a big way… and say you’re all going to go out of business if you keep putting personal data into bid requests then everyone will come together — like the music industry was forced to eventually, under Steve Jobs,” he argues. “Everyone can together decide on a new short term disadvantageous but long term highly advantageous change.”

Of course such a radical reshaping is not going to happen overnight. Regulatory triggers tend to be slow motion unfoldings at the best of times. You also have to factor in the inexorable legal challenges.

But look closely and you’ll see both momentum massing behind privacy — and regulatory writing on the wall.

“Are we going to see programmatic forced to be non-personal and therefore better for every single citizen of the world (except, say, if they work for a data broker),” adds Ryan, posing his own concluding question. “Will that massive change, which will help society and the web… will that change happen before Christmas? No. But it’s worth working on. And it’s going to take some time.

“It could be two years from now that we have the finality. But a finality there will be. Detroit was only able to fight against regulation for so long. It does come.”

Who’d have though “taking back control” could ever sound so good?

Apple’s holiday ad is an animated short film

Apple’s holiday ad is an animated short film

Apple always has an interesting ad for the holiday season. This time, it’s a cute little animated short film. It feels like a hybrid between a Pixar movie and a Wes Anderson creation.

Named “Share Your Gifts,” the ad focuses on a dreamy teenager who spends a lot of time on her MacBook. She regularly prints something she has created. We never know for sure if it’s a text, a drawing, some lyrics, etc.

But every time she looks at her creations, she dismisses them and puts them in a green box. Sheets of paper pile up in the box and the girl can’t even close it anymore.

During a cold winter night, her dog accidentally opens the window. The sheets of paper fly out the window. She ends up chasing her creations so that nobody sees them.

Eventually, she realizes that sharing feels great and overcomes her fears. It’s a feel-good story that rings true with many creative people, even in the age of Instagram.

Compared to previous years, the soundtrack might not sound familiar. That’s because it’s an original song from sixteen-year-old singer Billie Eilish. Like many young musicians, Eilish started writing music on a Mac in her bedroom. And this song was also written with her sibling Finneas O’Connell in her parent’s home.

Interestingly, there’s no iPhone, no iPad, no Apple Watch. This year, it’s all about the Mac. Apple wants to make sure that everybody knows the Mac is an important product for the company. At least that’s what Tim Cook said on stage during its fall event.