The Download: Carriers pledge to stop selling location data

This is The Download, a weekday recap of the top technology headlines.

All four major US carriers pledge to stop selling customers’ location data to brokers

AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint announced today that they will end its practice of selling real-time user location data to third-party brokers.

Verizon started the train this morning, stating in a letter to US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) that it will cancel its aggregation agreements with LocationSmart and Zumigo in “careful steps” to not disrupt “beneficial services being provided using customer location data” like fraud protection and call routing services.

“Verizon will work with the aggregators to ensure a smooth transition for these beneficial services to alternative arrangements so as to minimize the harm caused to customers and end users. In the interim, Verizon will not authorize any new uses of location information by either LocationSmart or Zumigo or the sharing of location information with any new customers of these existing aggregators.”

Karen Zacharia; Verizon chief privacy officer, in a letter to Sen. Wyden

AT&T quickly followed with a statement.

“Our top priority is to protect our customers’ information, and, to that end, we will be ending our work with aggregators for these services as soon as practical in a way that preserves important, potential lifesaving services like emergency roadside assistance.”

AT&T, in a statement

The company’s executive vice president of federal relations Timothy McKone followed up in a letter to Wyden, saying that AT&T “never authorized” the use of its customer data from Securus Technologies, a company that mainly monitors phone calls to inmates in jails and prisons nationwide and sells real-time location data to law enforcement agencies.

“We are actively investigating the extent to which Securus may have obtained unauthorized access to AT&T customer location data, and we are pressing Securus to provide greater cooperation than they have to this point.”

Timothy McKone; AT&T executive vice president of federal relations, to Sen. Wyden

Late this afternoon, we received word of statements from Sprint and T-Mobile respectively that announced the end of their contracts.

“Protecting our customers’ privacy and security is a top security at Sprint. Based on our current internal review, Sprint is beginning the process of terminating its current contracts with data aggregators to whom we provide location data. This will take some time in order to unwind services to consumers, such as roadside assistance and fraud prevention services. Sprint previously suspended all data sharing with LocationSmart on May 25, 2018. We are taking this further step to ensure that any instances of unauthorized location data sharing for purposes not approved by Sprint can be identified and prevented if location data is shared inappropriately by a participating company.”

A Sprint spokesperson

T-Mobile said that they didn’t approve Securus’ use of customer location information and “quickly shut down any transmission of our customers’ location data to Securus.”

“T-Mobile takes the privacy and security of our customers’ data very seriously and we do not tolerate any misuse of our customers’ data. We, therefore, were troubled to read the allegations in your letter and subsequent press coverage regarding Securus’ alleged misuse of customer location information without customer consent. The use described in your letter was never approved by T-Mobile and we quickly shut down any transmission of our customers’ location data to Securus. We have also reviewed the program more broadly and, while we believe the program has appropriate controls already in place, we are working with our location aggregators and will be taking additional steps to help ensure that an incident like this one does not happen in the future.”

Anthony Russo; T-Mobile vice president of federal legislative affairs, in a letter to Sen. Wyden

This comes after Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) revealed that one of the companies that purchased the real-time location-tracking data from carriers wasn’t verifying if its users had legal permission to track cellphone users through its service.

In a letter to carriers and the Federal Communications Commission, Sen. Wyden said that Securus wasn’t actually verifying if those documents were legitimate.

According to Wyden’s letter to the FCC, Securus didn’t “conduct any review of surveillance requests.”

According to the New York Times, a Missouri sheriff was charged with illegally tracking 11 times without court orders using Securus. While all four major carriers have now cut off access to Securus, only Verizon has said it will stop selling data to geolocation aggregators who can then turn around and sell that data to someone else. According to Verizon, 75 companies obtained data from the two companies it sells location data directly to: LocationSmart and Zumigo.

Wyden praised Verizon in a statement to the Associated Press made before AT&T’s announcement:

“Verizon did the responsible thing and promptly announced it was cutting these companies off. In contrast, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint seem content to keep selling their customers’ private information to these shady middle men, Americans’ privacy be damned.”

Ron Wyden; US Senator (D-OR), to the Associated Press

Facebook launches game-show platform that lets creators add quizzes, polls, more to live and on-demand video


Facebook has announced a new set of interactive and on-demand video features that let creators add quizzes, polls, challenges, and gamification so players can be eliminated from a game for a wrong answer.

Gameshow launch partners include Fresno’s What’s In The Box, where viewers guess what’s inside, and BuzzFeed News’ Outside Your Bubble, where contestants have to guess what their opponents are thinking. Facebook is also testing the ability of awarding price money with INSIDER’s Confetti, where viewers answer trivia questions and can see friends’ responses, with winners splitting the cash.

“Video is evolving away from just passive consumption to more interactive two-way formats. We think creators will want to reward people. If this is something that works with Insider and Confetti, we may consider rolling out payments tools.”

Fidji Simo; Facebook VP of video product, to TechCrunch

Facebook won’t be taking a share of the prize money in this test, and is forgoing its cut of the $4.99/month subscription option that lets fans pay for exclusive content.

The new interactive video features will be available to all publishers and creators, alongside the global launch of the Android version of Facebook’s Creator app for web celebrities. The tools range from offering basic in-video polls to creating a full trivia gameshow. Creators can write out their trivia questions and designate correct answers, according to Simo, as well as “write down the logic of the game.”

While polls will work for Live and on-demand videos, gamification that impacts the outcome of the broadcast is only for Live. Brent Rivera and That Chick Angel are two of the creators that will be testing the features in the coming weeks.

Google Podcasts launches on Android with personalized recommendations, listening progress auto-sync

Google Podcasts

Google is launching a new standalone podcast for Android. Called Google Podcasts, the app will use the company’s recommendation algorithms to connect people with shows they might enjoy based on their listening habits. Despite podcasts previously being available through Google Play Music and third-party apps, Google expects that the app will bring the form to hundreds of millions of new listeners around the world.

“There’s still tons of room for growth when it comes to podcast listening.”

Zack Reneau-Weeden, Google Podcasts product manager

According to Reneau-Wedeen, creating a native first-party Android app for Podcasts could “as much as double” the worldwide listenership of podcasts overall.

Google Podcasts will look familiar to users of other podcast apps. It lets you search for new shows, download them, and play them at your leisure. Over two million podcasts will be available on the app on launch day, according to Google, including “all of the ones you’ve heard of.”

Once you open the app, you’re greeted by the “For you” section that shows you new episodes of shows that you’ve subscribed to, episodes you’ve been listening to but haven’t finished, and a list of your downloaded episodes. Scroll down to see top and trending podcasts, both in general and by category. However, you lose some granular controls like customizing the skip buttons or create playlists of podcasts to listen to.

The Podcasts app is integrated with Google Assistant, meaning you can search for and play podcasts wherever you have Assistant enabled. The company will sync your place in a podcast across products, so you can pick up where you left off at home on Google Home after listening on the go with the Android app.

Over the coming months, Google plans to add a suite of features powered by artificial intelligence. One feature will add closed captioning to podcasts, so you can read along as you listen and skip ahead to see what’s coming up later in a show. Eventually, you’ll be able to read real-time transcriptions in the language of your choice, opening podcasts hosted by people that don’t share your native tongue.

Google also wants to increase the diversity of podcast creators. According to the company’s research, only a quarter of podcast hosts are female and even fewer are people of color. To rectify this, Google has formed an independent advisory board that will consider ways to promote podcast production outside of the metropolitan areas that currently dominate the field.

Creators won’t be paid by Google to create podcasts, but the company said that it’ll likely explore ways of giving podcasts from underrepresented groups extra promotion. It’s also exploring ways to make recording equipment more accessible to those that can’t afford it.

If you currently listen to podcasts on Google Play Music, nothing changes for now. However, Google is clearly doubling down on this standalone app.

The Android app can be downloaded here, and there are no plans for an iOS app.

Facebook testing autoplay video ads in Messenger

Facebook Messenger

Facebook has begun to sell video ads inside Messenger, where some users will start seeing autoplay video ads in their inbox right next to their messages.

Head of Messenger’s ad business Stefanos Loukakos says that Facebook will monitor user behavior to see how they respond to the ads.

“Top priority for us is user experience. So, we don’t know yet [if these will work]. However, signs until now, when we tested basic ads, didn’t show any changes with how people used the platform or how many messages they send.

“Video might be a bit different, but we don’t believe so.”

Stefanos Loukakos, Facebook Messenger ad business head

Amazon is rolling out Alexa for Hospitality for hotels that help order room service, request housekeeping, & more


Amazon has introduced Alexa for Hospitality, a special edition of the company’s voice assistant that will be distributed on an invitation basis to hotels, vacation rental spaces, and other locations starting today.

The Alexa experience will be customized and tailored to each individual hospitality location, so guests will be able to do things like order room service, request a housekeeping visit, or adjust room controls (thermostat, blinds, lights, etc.) using an Echo in their room. They can also ask location-specific questions such as when the hotel pool closes or where the fitness center is.

Marriott International plans to integrate the system at select Marriott Hotels, Westin Hotels & Resorts, St. Regis Hotels & Resorts, Aloft Hotels, and Autograph Collection Hotels starting this summer.

Alexa command recordings are deleted daily, and hotels don’t have access to voice recordings of Alexa interactions or the ability to review the assistant’s responses to users.

Hotels can use Alexa for Hospitality to “measure engagement through analytics” or “customize the deployment” by choosing custom skills to their Echo devices. Amazon’s example of the latter is Marriott offering TED Talks on its Echo devices.

According to Amazon, users will soon be able to temporarily link their own account with Echos that are running Alexa for Hospitality so you’ll have access to your music subscription from Amazon Music or Spotify or Audible audiobooks. The Amazon account is automatically disconnected when a guest checks out.

Over 500K residents have access to Amazon’s Hub package delivery lockers as more roll out nationwide

Amazon Hub

Amazon has released some updated figures on its Hub delivery lockers for apartments.

The program launched last July and places a large metal locker unit in an apartment complex’s common area where people can pick up their packages 24 hours a day.

According to Amazon, over 500,000 residents nationwide now have access to Hub, with thousands more getting access each month. It said that some of the biggest names in real estate have signed up to use Hub, including AvalonBay, Fairfield Residential, Pinnacle, J.P. Morgan Asset Management, WinnResidential, and Equity Residential.

Oppo announces Find X with 6.4-inch display, front and rear cameras housed in slide-up section above display

Oppo Find X.jpg

Oppo’s latest attempt at squeezing as much screen as possible is the Find X, which fits a 6.4-inch display into a phone that you can still hold in one hand. The company claims that the Find X has a screen to body ratio of 93.8 percent without utilizing a notch.

The camera system is the most interesting aspect of the Find X’s hardware, which is completely hidden when the phone is off or the camera app is closed. When the Find X is turned on and the camera app is opened, the entire top section of the phone motorizes up and reveals a 25-megapixel front-facing camera, 3D facial scanning system, along with a 16-megapixel and 20-megapixel dual rear camera system. Close the camera app and the entire assembly motors back into the phone’s chassis. According to Oppo, the camera can open in half a second.

Otherwise, the Find X looks very similar to a Samsung Galaxy S9 Plus with its curved sides and rounded corners. Its display is an OLED panel with 1080p resolution, and both the front and back of the phone feature curved glass.

The Find X doesn’t have any sort of fingerprint sensor, instead using a 3D facial scanner in the pop-up camera assembly for biometric authentication. Turning the phone on and swiping up on the lock screen will cause the top of the phone to motor up, authenticate your face, and unlock the phone.

Spec-wise, the Find X stacks up well with other high-end Android phones in mid-2018 with the Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 processor, 8GB of RAM, and offers up to 256GB of storage. It has a 3,730mAh battery with Oppo’s VOOC fast wired charging that’s like OnePlus’ Dash Charge technology. The Find X is a dual-SIM phone that’s also globally compatible.

Global LTE compatibility is important because this will be Oppo’s first phone sold in North America and Europe. Specific pricing and carrier information is coming soon for North America and Europe.

In terms of software, the Find X is running Android 8.1 Oreo with Oppo’s Color OS customizations. Color OS takes some inspiration from iOS and Samsung’s Android skin.

The Find X is available now in China starting today, costing less than other comparably equipped Android smartphones.

Yahoo updates Yahoo Mail for mobile web, releases Android Go app

Yahoo Mail mobile web

Yahoo has announced two new versions of Yahoo Mail, optimized for mobile web and an Android Go app.

It comes at a time when Yahoo Mail has stagnated in its growth, with the company now having 227.8 million monthly active users with 26 billion emails sent daily. That’s about two million more than it had a year ago. It’s also miniscule compared to Gmail, which reported 1.4 billion users in April.

Specifically, for the mobile web service, Yahoo’s hoping to ease people into using Yahoo Mail more regularly.

“We’ve heard loud and clear from users that they’ve not always ready to make the big leap to downloading an app that takes up any storage space on their phone. People with high-capacity phones may want to save that space for photos or videos, while others with entry-level smartphones may just have limited space from the get-go. Further, some folks share devices or borrow a family member’s to access their email. This is all especially true in developing markets.”

Joshua Johnson, Yahoo Mail senior director of product management

Meanwhile on Android Go, Yahoo Mail will take up only about 10 megabytes of space to install, and is optimized to reduce RAM usage if your device is below 50MB.

Peek raises $23M Series B, partners with Google in push to digitize travel activities

Peek app

Peek, a San Francisco-based startup that aims to digitize the travel activities industry, has pulled a $23 million Series B funding round and a partnership with Google to help expand its visibility.

The company aims to make booking activities as seamless and straightforward as a flight or restaurant.

Peek’s partnership with Google will see its inventory added to Google Search, Google Maps, and Google Trips.

Peek claims to offer 10,000 experiences in the US and Mexico, along with tourist hotspots like Paris and London. It has 500,000 reviews and ratings, each of which is verified since users can only leave them if they’ve boked, paid for, and completed their activity.

“Part of this round is allowing ourselves to go out and reach more businesses.”

Ruzwana Bashir, Peek co-founder

Anchor brings suite of mobile podcasting tools to iPad

Anchor for iPad

Podcast creation platform Anchor is bringing its suite of mobile podcasting tools to the iPad. Like its iPhone counterpart, the iPad version lets you record, edit, and distribute your podcast everywhere, including to iTunes and Google Play Music. The app’s designed with touch-based editing in mind, specifically taking advantage of iPad features like drag-and-drop and multitasking.

The app lets you opt to use a standalone microphone that you plug into your iPad’s Lightning port either natively or with a Lightning-to-USB adapter.

You can also upload or drag and drop audio files from other apps into Anchor’s episode builder. For example, you could pull in music from GarageBand, add a voice memo, or import other audio files saved in a cloud storage site like Dropbox.

The app also supports multitasking, so you can keep notes open as you record.

As mentioned, you can directly edit the audio files on the iPad with touch-based controls. These controls let you trim the beginning and end of your podcast, so you can cut out false starts or other chatter. You can also split audio clips to insert transitions, voice messages, music, or other audio.

The clips can then be moved around or deleted as you put your podcast together.

Waymo, Uber, Ford, others form Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity to explore self-driving cars’ impact on human jobs

Third generation Bolt EV self-driving test vehicle
Third generation Bolt EV self-driving test vehicle

The companies working to expedite the growth of self-driving cars have joined forces to form a new group that will study the “human impact” of autonomous vehicles.

The Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity (PTIO) lists many of the companies involved in this industry as members. This includes legacy automakers like Ford, Toyota, and Daimler; tech giants like Waymo, Uber, and Lyft; and logistics providers like FedEx and the American Trucking Association. The group is being formed as a 501(c)(6), which lets it accept donations like a nonprofit and lobby government like a chamber of commerce.

“Concern for the safety of workers and the public is paramount to PTIO, and safe deployment of [autonomous vehicle] technology is fundamental to securing better job opportunities for workers, so we plan to engage with a variety of concerned stakeholders already having conversations and planning for this transition to an autonomous vehicle future.”

Maureen Westphal; Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity executive director, in an email to The Verge

According to the United States’ Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 3.8 million people operate motor vehicles for their livelihood. That includes America’s 1.7 million truck drivers, which are employed in the most common profession for 29 US states. When autonomous vehicle saturation peaks, a report released last year from Goldman Sachs Economics Research claims that US drivers could see job losses at a rate of 25,000 a hour.

In the group’s first six months, the PTIO will “begin to develop a well-rounded and data-based understanding of the impact and implications of autonomous vehicles on the future of work, solicit the expertise, concerns, and aspirations of a variety of interested parties, and begin to foster awareness of existing and near-term career opportunities for workers during the transition to a new autonomous vehicle-enabled economy.”

This isn’t the only group invested in the autonomous driving space. In 2016, Ford, Google, Uber, Lyft, and Volvo formed the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, a lobbying group with the goal of advocating for autonomous driving.

“While the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets is doing very important work on issues related to autonomous vehicle safety and implementation, the Partnership for Transportation Innovation and Opportunity believes that while society prepares for the practical impact of autonomous vehicles, we must also focus our efforts on the human impact as it relates to Americans’ careers and jobs.”

Maureen Westphal

These companies have a vested interest in selling autonomous driving technology to a skeptical public, so the question should be raised of what level of independence will the group have from the financial motivations of its corporate backers.

“Part of PTIO’s mission is to promote debate on these issues. Our hope is that in doing so we will bring consensus around some proactive policies and initiatives that help ensure everyone benefits from these technological innovations. At the same time, we realize by promoting debate we may generate conversations that are uncomfortable for some stakeholders, including our members.”

Maureen Westphal

Musk memo alleges employee sabotaged Tesla

Tesla Model X

Tesla CEO Elon Musk sent a memo to his entire company saying that an employee was caught conducting “damaging sabotage to our operations,” according to CNBC, which obtained the email. The employee allegedly made “direct code changes” to Tesla’s manufacturing system and sent “large amounts of highly sensitive” data to third parties.

The employee has already been questioned by Tesla, and Musk says they’re continuing to investigate whether he/she was working with others. In the email, Musk questions whether “Wall Street short-sellers,” “oil & gas companies,” or “the multitude of big gas/diesel car company competitors” may have been involved.

“If they’re willing to cheat so much about emissions, maybe they’re willing to cheat in other ways?”

Elon Musk; Tesla CEO, in a memo to employees

According to Musk, the employee claims to have acted because he didn’t get a promotion.

“In light of these actions, not promoting him was definitely the right move.”

Elon Musk

Later, a second memo was sent from Musk alerting the entire company to a “small fire” on a production line, according to CNBC. There were no injuries, according to the email, but production was stopped for several hours.

“Could just be a random event, but as [former Intel CEO] Andy Grove said, ‘Only the paranoid survive.’ Please be on the alert for anything that’s not in the best interests of our company.”

Elon Musk

Employees were asked to be “extremely vigilant” over the next few weeks as Model 3 production ramps up.

“This is when outside forces have the strongest motivation to stop us.”

Elon Musk

In other news…




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