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iRobot’s CEO says the company never planned to sell Roomba home mapping data


This was not the conversation iRobot CEO Colin Angle expected to have this week. In the past few days, iRobot posted excellent Q2 earnings, thanks to brisk Prime Day Roomba sales, and acquired its largest European distributor in a $141 million deal. Yet the CEO and the company he founded were suddenly at the center of home privacy concerns over a report that he was looking to sell Roomba home mapping information to the highest bidder.

Angle and iRobot have been in damage control for a few days now. When we reached out earlier in the week, the executive answered noncommittally that “iRobot has not formed any plans to sell the data.” But a new statement issued to ZDNET earlier today gets more to the heart of the matter, stating that “iRobot will never [emphasis his] sell your data.”

It’s the kind of definitive statement the company should have issued immediately, rather than letting the story live for a few more days. For his part, Angle is adamant that he never said the company was planning to sell information to a third party. The original report, meanwhile, has been adjusted to clarify that maps could be shared “for free with customer consent.”

It’s understandable that the news raised red flags. Every new device and app we introduce into our lives represents another potential erosion of privacy — and those concerns are even more pronounced when it comes to bringing connected, data-collecting products into our homes. Of course, iRobot has been upfront with its plans to collect mapping info with Roomba — we’ve spoken to the company about the subject several times.

The company is also open about the fact that it’s been talking to other smart home vendors about its plans to use the Roomba’s mapping in order to create a clearer layout of users’ homes. “We’ve had initial conversations around rooms and spatial context, but it’s relatively early,” says Angle. “I don’t want to overstate the depth of the conversations that we’ve been having, but we’re certainly on a collision course with others in the home because there’s an increasingly recognized need for spatial context.”

In spite of the initial pushback, iRobot is planning to continue to push into the smart home space. Though maintaining trust with consumers as it does so will require continued transparency. “Our relationship with the customer and our vision for the smart home is based on developing a trusting relationship about what the data is going to be used for,” says Angle.

That means, in part, ensuring that all mapping is completely opt-in and that it will be equally simple to opt out if the user gets cold feet. It will also require that the company makes it perfectly clear what users are opting into, rather than stashing that information in the small print of a Terms and Conditions agreement — all of which the company tells us it plans to do moving forward. 



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Carwow, a UK startup that helps you buy a new car, raises $39M Series C


Carwow, a platform that helps you buy a new car, has closed $39 million in Series C funding. The round was led by new investor Vitruvian Partners, with existing investors Accel Partners and Balderton Capital also participating. At today’s exchange rate it brings total funding to approximately $62.6 million.

Founded in late 2010, Carwow originally launched as a car review aggregator before pivoting to become a site that claims to improve the experience of buying a new car. It allows consumers to compare offers online and buy directly from ‘trusted’ dealers that are registered with the platform, specifically avoiding the arduous but otherwise necessary requirement to haggle over price and in a way that potentially introduces a lot more transparency.

Specifically, through Carwow, you can research, select and configure new cars before receiving up-front, no-haggle offers
from U.K. franchised dealers. The idea is that you can then make an informed decision on the offers based on price,
location, dealer ratings and delivery time, before buying directly from the dealer.

On the supply side, the startup says that more than a third of U.K. new car dealers use Carwow as a route to reaching online-savvy buyers. This has seem more than £2 billion of new cars purchased through Carwow since it re-launched in 2013, and the company claims around 5 per cent of all consumer new car purchases in the UK this year have been facilitated by the site. Last year, Carwow, which employs 140 people at its head office in Holborn, central London, expanded beyond U.K. to enter the German market. The startup will use some of today’s new funding for further international expansion.

Meanwhile, new investor Vitruvian Partners is talking the popularity of Cawow with dealers, who, Vitruvian Partner Thomas Studd says, are drawn to Carwow’s highly qualified leads, noting that a third of all calls from Carwow users end in the sale of a car.

As I’ve noted before, once a customer has gone through the site’s funnel they not only have a much better idea of the car they want to purchase and any extras but their ‘intent’ to purchase is absolutely beyond doubt. In turn, Carwow charges dealers based on the volume of cars they sell through the site. Nice business if you can get it.



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Using eye smiles to predict the state of your whole face in VR


They say you can tell a real smile because it reaches the eyes. Of course, that just means we all have to learn to fake that kind of smile, too. But the subtle expressiveness of our eyeball area has a fringe benefit: VR researchers can use it to guess at what the rest of your face is doing.

Google Research just published a fun little project that attempts to track expressions solely by looking at your eyes inside the headset. Between the shape of the exposed eye, direction of gaze, eyebrows, wrinkles (for those of us expressive enough to have them) and so on, there’s actually quite a bit of information there.

Enough, anyway, that a deep learning system can figure out a few basic expressions and degrees thereof with decent accuracy. “Happiness” and “surprise” are there, but the data isn’t rich enough to detect “schadenfreude” or “mischief.”

The idea is that with minimal monitoring tools — eye tracking cameras inside headsets, which seem inevitable — you can get at least a bare-bones feel for what a user’s face is doing in real time.

They’ve put it all in a paper, of course, which you can read now or check out soon at SIGGRAPH.



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Gas pump card skimmer now phones home


In an unsurprising move by credit card thieves, police have found a new credit card skimmer that sends stolen data via SMS. By tearing apart cheap phones, crooks are able to send credit card information to their location instantly without having to access the skimmer physically or rely on an open Bluetooth connection.

Brian Krebs received images of the skimmer from an unnamed source. They were found at a gas station in the Northeast.

This skimmer connected to the internals of the pump and received power from the pump itself, meaning there was no need to worry about the battery failing. It’s unclear how this model worked but most likely it intercepts the credit card data as it’s being swiped. There’s still hope, however, because gas stations are trying to fight back.

“Many filling stations are upgrading their pumps to include more physical security — such as custom locks and security cameras. In addition, newer pumps can accommodate more secure chip-based payment cards that are already in use by all other G20 nations,” wrote Krebs.

He also recommends not using debit cards at all at gas stations and, obviously, protecting your PIN from prying eyes or cameras.



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N26 partners with Auxmoney to offer credit to more customers


Fintech startup N26 is trying to build the bank of the future. It is slowly but surely adding features to provide everything you’d expect from a bank. N26 already offers consumer credit loans in Germany if you’re a creditworthy employee.

And starting today, N26 users who are self-employed, freelancers, students and more can also request a loan thanks to Auxmoney.

If you’re not familiar with Auxmoney, the startup matches individual lenders with individual borrowers. It’s a credit marketplace like LendingClub, Younited Credit and more. It’s not for everyone, but if you’re an unusual borrower, Auxmoney can help you.

Now, if you go to the Credit tab in the N26 app, you’ll be asked how much money you want, the duration of the repayment and your current situation. Depending on your status, N26 will automatically suggests the best credit feature for you.

So if you’re a regular employee with a steady income, N26 will either give you money itself or match you with a third-party bank behind the scene. If you’re a freelancer, N26 will suggest lending money through Auxmoney.

Both products let you borrow between €1,000 and €25,000 at a duration of 1 to 5 years. It’s hard to tell you about interest rates as it’ll greatly vary depending on how much money you’re asking for and your situation.

This is a good addition as anyone can now open a credit line using N26’s app. You don’t need to open another bank account or sign up to a third-party — it’s a seamless integration.

Once again, this feature is limited to Germany. While it’s great to see that German customers can now invest, save and borrow money using N26, I hope that the startup is going to launch similar features in other markets as well. That’s how you build a truly European bank.



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When Snowden mattered | TechCrunch


Four years ago, the deep state was the enemy. Edward Snowden had just revealed its machinations. The head of the NSA was angrily catcalled during his Black Hat keynote. “We”–hackers, individualists, and/or everyone in tech who hopes we’re building a better future–readied for a battle against surveillance capitalism and the surveillance state. How hopelessly wrong we were.

Four years later, the deep state seems much more like the enemy of our enemy. The cultural and political battle which has actually arisen is one against — bizarrely, surreally — 19th-century style ethno-nationalism; against people who want to forcibly deport millions from their homes, people who want to oppress minorities of all kinds, and, not least, outright white nationalists. It seems that angry, scared, insecure men and women worldwide have responded to ever-increasing complexity and interconnectedness by resorting to the old-fashioned simplicities of racism, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate.

And, uh, I’m sorry to say this, but while I know that in our heart of hearts we all imagine ourselves as the true iconoclastic rebel heroes boldy and bravely standing up to The Man, courtesy of years of Hollywood … in this battle, the other side thinks of themselves in exactly the same way. There is no shortage of hackers / iconoclasts / individualists among the white supremacists. Consider Weev, once quasi-respected for his trolling skills, once a semi-hero/martyr in the hacker world for his (admittedly bullshit) conviction for the crime of incrementing a URL, now an outright neo-Nazi. Consider Curtis Yarvin. Consider former tech journalist Milo Yiannopolous.

“We,” or at least too many of us, are still operating with the same, wrong, mindset. That old battle against The (Surveillance) Man won’t help much if we lose this new battle first. Strong crypto is not an especially good defense against street police brutality, immigration bans, bans on military service, and ethnic cleansing in the form of mass deportations. This isn’t so much a battle against Authority as it is a battle of ideas. (So let’s keep in mind that it looks really really bad, in the arena of ideas, when “we” appear to be opposed to free speech — even when the speech in question is despicable.)

This new confrontation is still a very technical one. You only need to scan the headlines from the last year to realize that this is in large part a battle of hacks and leaks, ranging across the spectrum from personal to nation-state, and a battle of “information operations.” Check out this remarkable slide from this year’s Black Hat keynote, courtesy of Facebook CSO Alex Stamos:

So maybe we need to stop trying to adopt the Snowden-era mindset, that of cyberpunks sticking it to evil governments and corporations, to this age of Trump and Brexit. His battle is not today’s battle. Maybe we need to think a little less about crypto, 0-days, and surveillance, and a little more about epistemology, information ops, and winning hearts & minds. Most controversially of all, maybe we need to stop being so reflexively anti-government / anti-megacorp, and take a more nuanced view of massive organizations and their many tentacles and subdivisions. They might become tomorrow’s enemies of freedom, as ever more power accrues to them; but today’s enemies are an entirely different, and far more dangerous, popular movement.



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