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GOOGLE HOME HUB SAYS NO TO SMART-HOME CAMERAS IN YOUR BEDROOM

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The new Google Home Hub sports a 7-inch touchscreen, a fabric-encased full-range speaker, a light sensor and two far-field microphones. But even more interesting is a hardware feature it doesn’t have.

The $149 device has no camera, so you can’t use it for video calls or taking photos.

While that omission at first blush may not seem like a big deal, it raises a handful of thorny questions about how many cameras and microphones people want to have in their connected homes and how much they trust giant tech companies to protect their data and privacy in their most intimate spaces.

The Home Hub, which Google introduced at its Made By Google product launch event Tuesday in Manhattan, is a mashup of a smart speaker and a tablet that’s often called a smart display. It uses the voice-powered Google Assistant to let you play YouTube videos, check your home security camera feeds and control connected smart-home devices like lights.

The device will go up against a growing list of competing smart displays, including the Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo Show and Echo Spot, the new Facebook Portal, and the Google Assistant-powered JBL Link View and Lenovo Smart Display. All five of those devices include cameras for video chats.

The Hub comes out at time when tech companies are facing greater scrutiny for how they manage users’ data and how much of that information they keep. Just this week, Google shut down its unpopular Google+ social network after the company was forced to disclose a bug that put users’ data at risk. Earlier this year, Facebook sustained a torrent of criticism after the data of millions of people landed in the hands of consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which exploited the information for targeted election ads.

Simultaneously, many of these same companies are asking consumers to add more and more cameras, mics and sensors to control their homes.

So far, smart-home customers haven’t raised persistent concerns about these devices tracking them, instead focusing more on the convenience they can offer. But that dynamic has the potential to quickly change if there’s ever a major breach related to the audio, video and shopping data these electronics can track.

When the Hub comes out on Oct. 22, consumers will get to decide whether they want to make the Hub a bigger success than its many rival camera-toting smart displays. Whether they side more with the privacy of having no camera or the convenience of video features may signal what direction smart home technology will go in the future.

“It’s kind of less is more,” said GlobalData analyst Avi Greengart, who attended the Google event. “They’re omitting a piece of hardware that costs money and does raise some privacy implications.”

Google’s view on going camera-free

While Amazon in particular has pushed full-force into offering smart speakers with cameras, including those marketed for the bedroom, Google took a decidedly different approach with the Hub.

“For us, in general, it’s not about one product or another, just the word camera — hey, put a camera in your bedroom,” Mark Spates, Google’s product lead for smart speakers, said at Tuesday’s event. “It’s a comfort thing. For us, we wanted to make sure that you could use this anywhere in the home.”

Google wanted to give customers that option after finding that people put the Google Home Mini — its most popular smart speaker — in hallways, washrooms, bedrooms and everywhere else in their homes, he said. Looking to build on the Mini’s success and avoid limiting where the Hub can go, he said, Google opted to leave out a camera.

Diya Jolly, Google’s vice president of product management, added that the company saw an opportunity to offer a different kind of smart display, after several competing devices already offered a camera. She said Google was willing to explore adding a camera to a later version, but “we wanted to see how consumers reacted and how they liked” the new Hub.

“We wanted to give users a choice of not having a camera,” she said. “There are many other devices out there that have a camera, but none that doesn’t have a camera.”

amazon-echo-spot
A marketing picture from Amazon of the Echo Spot as a bedroom nightstand clock.Amazon

In stark contrast with the Hub, competing smart displays are heavily promoting their video capabilities. The new Facebook Portal was created especially for Facebook Messenger video calls, and Amazon’s Echo Show and Spot have been marketed for their video call functions. Amazon even included a “drop in” feature that lets people connect automatically with a Show or Spot if they’ve been approved to do so by the device’s owner.

Amazon also created another product called the Echo Look that’s marketed for your bedroom or closet. It uses a camera to take pictures of your outfit choices to give you AI-powered fashion advice. The Spot, too, is marketed as a replacement for your bedroom nightstand clock.

Privacy in focus

In a nod to privacy concerns, Facebook, JBL and Lenovo offer physical privacy shutters for their smart displays’ cameras. Amazon doesn’t, instead offering a button to disable the mic and camera on the Show and Spot.

“Customers have made millions of video calls this year alone, and they tell us that they love the ability to drop in from room to room within their homes or take a photo on our devices, which is why we believe the camera is important,” an Amazon spokeswoman said.

“We also built these devices with privacy in mind from the beginning,” she added, mentioning that when you press the microphone/camera off button, it cuts off power to both pieces of hardware. Also, a red light on the device is used to reinforce the fact that the mic and camera are off. “We will continue to learn from our customers and adapt our products to best meet their needs.”

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Say hi to the Facebook Portal.James Martin/CNET

Following Facebook’s privacy blunders, the company took pains to emphasize the Portal’s privacy features, including the ability to turn off the mic and camera with one tap and the use of a passcode to unlock the screen.

Both Amazon and Facebook said they don’t record, store or listen to your calls through Facebook’s Portal or Amazon’s Alexa-powered devices.

JBL and Lenovo didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.

By leaving out a camera Google avoids the privacy concerns raised by Amazon’s rival products and prevents a potentially messy video breach from ever happening. Amazon faced criticism for the Look, with one writer for Forbes suggesting its camera may someday be able to identify skin cancer or depression. Amazon strongly denied these claims.

“Amazon is trying something completely different,” Greengart said. “I don’t think it hurts Google to omit it, and for people that do want a camera, there are those options from Amazon and Google’s partners.”

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BING AND YAHOO ARE SUGGESTING OFFENSIVE SEARCHES

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Bing and Yahoo, which is powered by Bing, are both suggesting offensive content within their search features. How-To Geek spotted that Bing’s image search is serving up suggestions for related topics that contain racist terms, the sexualization of minors, and otherwise offensive content. The Verge then found that this problem extends to Yahoo: its homepage search box includes an autocomplete feature that populates racist phrases, and the results often prioritize the company’s Yahoo Answers posts that contain offensive material.

On Bing, the suggestions, called smart suggestion bubbles, appear in a line above the results after conducting an image search. Per How-To Geek’s screencaps, an example search for “Jews” on Bing Images gave smart suggestion bubbles like “dirty Jews,” and “evil Jews.” Clicking through one of those suggested searches recommended additional racist search terms.

Bing’s SafeSearch option is enabled by default, but it failed to block these offensive results. Turning SafeSearch off can deliver other offensive suggestions. Searching images on Bing for “black people are” with SafeSearch off returns suggested follow-up searches of “are stupid,” “are retarded,” and “monkeys.”

In some cases, the top images that are returned are also offensive. According to How-To Geek, the problem is prevalent in Bing’s video search as well. The Verge was able to replicate some of the results, but not all. The problem also extends to searches around other ethnicities.

How-To Geek says that Bing also recommended terms that sexualize minors. When searching for “gril,” Bing then suggested a search for “cute girl young 16.” Clicking through suggested searches for “little girl modeling provocatively,” “cute girls young 13,” and “cute girl young 10.”

These autocomplete suggestions don’t appear when making a regular search through bing.com. However, Bing also powers Yahoo’s search, and the same offensive suggestions that appear in Bing Images show up on Yahoo’s main page.

Additionally, since Yahoo appears to prioritize the community-driven question-and-answer website Yahoo Answers in its search results, the top result for an offensive search can come from an untrustworthy source. Upon searching the first auto-suggested phrase for “black people ar,” The Verge found that the top result is a Yahoo Answers page titled “Are Black People Born Stupid” that contains numerous racist comments. Yahoo then suggests a follow-up search, saying, “Also try: black people are stupid and violent.”

Other search engines like Google have had their brushes with inadvertently promoting offensive content. In 2016, Google addressed the very same issue of autocomplete suggesting “are Jews evil.” That same year, the company faced backlash when the top result for the query “did the Holocaust happen?” came from a white supremacist website. In response, Google changed its Search Quality Rater Guidelines in 2017 in order to tamp down on the spread of offensive or inaccurate search results. A few months later, Google came under fire again for highlighting an offensive meme in the search results for query “gender fluid.”

Google has outlined its policy on inappropriate content for autocomplete, along with a way to report violations. While Bing isn’t as forthcoming, a blog post from Bing in 2013 specifically states that its search auto-suggest tries to remove offensive content. “In addition to processing suggestions,” it says, “we are also running parallel algorithms that filter spam, detect adult or offensive content, check for spelling errors and classify the type of search you are attempting across categories.”

Last year, Bing added fact-checking labels to search results, and Microsoft (which owns and operates Bing) announced new AI features for Bing that are meant to, among other things, better recognize the content of images. The Verge has reached out to Microsoft for comment.

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ASTRONAUTS MAKE EMERGENCY LANDING AFTER RUSSIAN SOYUZ LAUNCH EXPERIENCES FAILURE

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A NASA astronaut and Russian cosmonaut had to make an emergency landing on Earth this morning, after the Russian Soyuz rocket carrying them into orbit experienced a failure during launch. The two crew members — astronaut Nick Hague and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin — safely landed on the ground in Kazakhstan less than an hour after liftoff and are in “good condition,” according to NASA.

The crew took off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 4:40AM ET. A few minutes after launch, Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos said that there was a problem with the booster during the flight. The failure prompted the crew to make a ballistic reentry, when the Soyuz capsule enters Earth’s atmosphere at a steeper angle than normal. Rescue teams have reached the landing site and the crew is out of the Soyuz capsule.

Ballistic reentries can be intense for astronauts, because they experience higher G forces. With a normal Soyuz landing, crews riding in the vehicle usually pull around 4 Gs. That can double for ballistic reentries. In 2008, a Soyuz experienced a malfunction during landing, prompting a ballistic reentry that reached up to 8 Gs. “I saw 8.2 G’s on the meter and it was pretty, pretty dramatic,” former NASA astronaut Pegg Whitson, who was on the flight, said in a statement, according to Wired. “Gravity’s not really my friend right now and 8 G’s was especially not my friend. But it didn’t last too long.”

Roscosmos has announced that it is forming a state commission to investigate the failure. The Russian state corporation says it is already studying the data from the launch. However, Roscosmos said it would not hold a press conference today.

The failure could have significant repercussions for NASA’s human spaceflight program moving forward. It’s unlikely that Russia will launch a crewed Soyuz mission until it has figured out what exactly went wrong during this flight. However, the Soyuz is NASA’s only means of getting astronauts to the International Space Station at the moment. Two private US companies — SpaceX and Boeing — are developing vehicles to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the ISS as part of the Commercial Crew Program. However, the first crewed flights of that program are not slated to occur until summer next year at the earliest.

Developing…

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UBER’S NEXT CONQUEST: YOUR DATA

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After replacing Travis Kalanick in August 2017, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi is shifting the company’s focus. Though the company has always sought to become a world-class transportation platform, it has recently begun to describe itself as “Amazon for transportation” — an ambition which indicates the company is making a monopolistic data play.

Amazon has always been an inspiration for Uber’s leadership, but the form of that inspiration has shifted over the course of the company’s growth. Kalanick wanted to emulate Amazon’s strategy of pursuing market share and growth at the expense of profits — or, more accurately, with massive losses before using scale to reduce the marginal cost of expansion to turn a profit. Unfortunately for Kalanick, that strategy didn’t translate to Uber’s ride-hailing business.

Scale economies work for companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon because the digital nature of their operations allows growth at little marginal cost in many aspects of their businesses. This is why many of these digital companies have so few employees compared to traditional auto companies. However, as transportation expert Hubert Horan explained: “Drivers, vehicles and fuel account for 85% of urban car service costs,” making scale economies very difficult for Uber’s ride-hailing service to achieve even as it outsources the ownership and maintenance of vehicles to its drivers.

Uber’s leadership is inspired by Amazon’s platform and the power and dominance that has come with it.

Uber’s margin improvements have typically come from cutting driver pay, not scale economies, and Kalanick’s plan to reach profitability relied on further reducing the share of revenue going to drivers. In the last few years that Kalanick served as CEO, the company became focused not just on developing autonomous vehicles, but on winning the self-driving race. We now know that autonomous vehicles will not be able to replace drivers nearly to the degree Kalanick had hoped, nor on the accelerated timeline he was relying on. This necessitates a new plan for the company’s future.

We don’t know whether Kalanick was in the process of formulating a new strategy, but over the past few months Khosrowshahi’s vision has become increasingly clear. He wants to make Uber into the “Amazon for transportation.” This time, instead of taking the wrong lessons from Amazon on scale economies, Uber’s leadership is inspired by Amazon’s platform and the power and dominance that has come with it.

From Ride-Hailing to Transportation Platform

Though Uber’s ride-hailing service has always been the center of its business, Khosrowshahi’s plan shifts the focus to its app — or, rather, its platform. He’s no longer just talking about the ride-hailing business, but about existing food delivery and freight services along with it, new scooters and bike offerings from Lime, car rentals from Getaround, public transit ticketing through Masabi, and the prospect of flying cars. Basically, the more services available, the more people the platform can serve.

Uber’s approach to autonomous vehicles has also shifted. Rather than trying to win the race to develop self-driving tech, Khosrowshahi has said his ultimate goal is to have “access” to the technology. He opened the door for Google’s Waymo and GM’s Cruise to offer their autonomous vehicle services on Uber’s platform, and Ford AV CEO Sherif Marakby recently told the Vergecast that they’d be open to offering their autonomous service on the platform as well.

Khosrowshahi predicts the traditional ride-hailing service to be only 50 percent of its future business, as scooters and bikes cannibalize the short trips currently made in vehicles. It’s hard to imagine Kalanick making a similar statement, but that doesn’t mean Khosrowshahi’s ultimate goal is any less inspired by monopolistic ideals.

Uber Wants to Control Urban Transportation Data

Uber is a private company with plans to go public in 2019. It has yet to turn a profit. Khosrowshahi has encouraged investors to commit for the long haul, as his plans to diversifying the company’s transportation options will not deliver short-term profits. At the same time, his value proposition to investors has changed: Now, they have access to Amazon-like power exerted on urban transportation networks.

In his book on these new digital monopolies, Platform Capitalism, Nick Srnicek identifies the importance of network effects in increasing a platform’s value. For platforms, data is raw material that can “be extracted, refined, and used in a variety of ways. The more data one has, the more uses one can make of them.”

Uber will not only use data on its own services, but data from every third-party service offered through its platform.

Uber already has a large, global user base (and dataset). The expansion of transportation options on its platform — both its own and those of other companies — adds value for existing users while attracting new ones interested in getting around by anything other than a car. New modes of transport and a growing user base will produce more data, showing the company where more people are going and how additional transport modes are used. Uber will not only use data on its own services, but data from every third-party service offered through its platform. All of this data feeds a flywheel that will improve Uber’s service exponentially over time.

In a recent interview with TechCrunch, Khosrowshahi was asked why he was allowing other services onto Uber’s platform. He likened it to Amazon offering branded products while letting other businesses sell their products through the Amazon marketplace. He left out how Amazon uses its sales data to see which third-party products are selling well and make cheaper versions of its own, undercutting the original product and leaving its seller with no means of challenging Amazon. Will Uber eventually do the same to Lime’s scooters or Getaround’s car rentals? It’s not impossible to imagine.

Cities Need to Act Now

City governments around the globe have struggled to effectively regulate ride-hailing apps, but there’s been some recent progress. In August, New York City passed new regulations limiting the number of ride-hailing vehicles, at least for a 12-month period as it further studies the issue. It will also ensure that drivers are paid the minimum wage of $15 per hour with a bit extra to cover vehicle costs.

Another regulatory bright spot: bikes and scooters. Having learned their lesson from letting ride-hailing companies evade regulation, city governments were quick to develop policies for new micromobility services. Mayors make it known that they, not tech companies, had ultimate authority over what happened on city streets.

As Uber sets out to capture a significant chunk of urban transportation data with its new Amazon-inspired platform model, city governments need to make clear that data from activities occurring on the street is not proprietary information. This data belongs to the people as represented by their government. Uber should not have a better idea of how different transportation data modes are operating than governments themselves.

Under Khosrowshahi’s leadership, Uber’s tone has undoubtedly changed — probably for the better. Bikes and scooters will likely capture a significant portion of the ride-hailing service’s current users. However, Uber’s push to become the world’s dominant transportation platform is cause for concern. City officials must establish their right to transportation data. At the very least, they should build publicly owned alternatives that serve the interests of residents — not multinational companies.

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