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Two security researchers have been crowned the top hackers in this year’s Pwn2Own hacking contest after developing and testing several high profile exploits, including an attack against an Amazon Echo.

Amat Cama and Richard Zhu, who make up Team Fluoroacetate, scored $ 60,000 in bug bounties for their integer overflow exploit against the latest Amazon Echo Show 5, an Alexa-powered smart display.

The researchers found that the device uses an older version of Chromium, Google’s open-source browser projects, which had been forked some time during its development. The bug allowed them to take “full control” of the device if connected to a malicious Wi-Fi hotspot, said Brian Gorenc, director of Trend Micro’s Zero Day Initiative, which put on the Pwn2Own contest.

The researchers tested their exploits in a radio-frequency shielding enclosure to prevent any outside interference.

“This patch gap was a common factor in many of the IoT devices compromised during the contest,” Gorenc told TechCrunch.

Amat Cama (left) and Richard Zhu (right), who make up Team Fluoroacetate. (Image: ZDI)

An integer overflow bug happens when a mathematical operation tries to create a number but has no space for it in its memory, causing the number to overflow outside of its allotted memory. That can have security implications for the device.

When reached, Amazon said it was “investigating this research and will be taking appropriate steps to protect our devices based on our investigation,” but did not say what measures it would take to fix the vulnerabilities — or when.

The Echo wasn’t the only internet-connected device at the show. Earlier this year the contest said hackers would have an opportunity to hack into a Facebook Portal, the social media giant’s video calling-enabled smart display. The hackers, however, could not exploit the Portal.


TechCrunch

Amazon has acquired Health Navigator, a startup that develops APIs for online health services. According to CNBC, which first reported the deal, Health Navigator will become part of Amazon Care, its pilot healthcare service program for employees.

This is the second health startup acquired by Amazon. The first was online pharmacy PillPack, purchased by the company in 2018 for slightly less than $ 1 billion. PillPack’s services have also been integrated into Amazon Care, which offers deliveries of prescriptions with remotely communicated treatment plans.

Health Navigator’s platform was created to be integrated into online health services, including telemedicine and medical call centers, to standardize the process of working with patients. Its platform includes natural language processing-based tools for documenting health complaints and care recommendations, and is integrated into apps with APIs.

The startup, founded in 2014 by physician David Thompson, has not made a public statement about the acquisition yet, but CNBC reports that the company telling customers that their contracts will not be renewed.


TechCrunch

Amazon Pay users in India can now use voice command with Alexa to pay their utility, internet, mobile, and satellite cable TV bills, the e-commerce giant said on Wednesday. This is the first time, the company said, it is pairing these functionalities with Amazon Pay in any market.

The e-commerce giant, which competes with Walmart’s Flipkart in India, said any Alexa-enabled device such as the Echo Dot smart speaker, the Fire TV Stick dongle, or headphones from third-party vendors will support the aforementioned feature in India.

To be sure, Amazon has long allowed users in many markets to purchase items using voice command with Alexa. But this is the first time the American company is letting users pay their electricity, water, cooking gas, broadband, and satellite TV bills with voice and Amazon Pay.

Amazon Pay is available in many markets, but the service has become especially popular in India, where the concept of parking money to a digital wallet skyrocketed in usage in late 2016 after the Indian government invalidated much of the paper bills in circulation in the country.

Without disclosing specific figures, Amazon said “3X more customers” compared to last year’s event used Amazon Pay service to pay during the recent six-day festive sales. It said a quarter of all digital transactions during the event was carried out on its Pay service.

To boost Amazon Pay engagements in India, the company has offered lofty cashback on Pay on a number of purchases over the years. Users can also enjoy hefty discount if they use Amazon Pay to pay for their food, tickets, and other things on select popular third-party services.

During the holiday season, the company said, “customers booked flight tickets worth 300 trips around the earth.”

Amazon Pay makes it much more convenient for users to pay their digital purchases especially those that are recurring in nature, said Puneesh Kumar, country manager of Alexa Experiences and Devices.

The company says users can engage with Pay through voice commands like “Alexa, what’s my balance,” which will reveal the amount they have available for purchase in their Amazon Pay wallet. Users can also initiate the process of topping money to their mobile wallet using a voice command. They can say something like, “Alexa, add Rs 1000 to my Amazon Pay balance,” which will send a link as a text on their phones to complete the transaction.


TechCrunch

Over 30 civil rights organizations have penned an open letter that calls on government officials to investigate Amazon Ring’s business practices and end the company’s numerous police partnerships. The letter follows a report by The Washington Post in August that detailed how over 400 police forces across the U.S. have partnered with Ring to gain access to homeowners’ camera footage.

These partnerships have already raised concerns with privacy advocates and civil liberties organizations, who claim the agreements turn neighbors into informants and subject innocent people to greater risk and surveillance.

Had the government itself installed a video network of this size and scope, it would have drawn greater scrutiny. But by quietly working with Ring behind the scenes, law enforcement gets to tap into a massive surveillance network without being directly involved in its creation.

The new letter from the civil rights groups demand that government officials put an end to these behind-the-scenes deals between Amazon and the police.

“With no oversight and accountability, Amazon’s technology creates a seamless and easily automated experience for police to request and access footage without a warrant, and then store it indefinitely,” the letter reads. “In the absence of clear civil liberties and rights-protective policies to govern the technologies and the use of their data, once collected, stored footage can be used by law enforcement to conduct facial recognition searches, target protesters exercising their First Amendment rights, teenagers for minor drug possession, or shared with other agencies like ICE or the FBI,” it says.

Additionally, the letter points out these police deals involve Amazon coaching cops on how to obtain surveillance footage without a warrant. It also notes that Ring allowed employees to share unencrypted customer videos with each other, including in offices based in Ukraine. And it raises concerns about Amazon’s potential plans to integrate facial recognition features into Ring cameras, based on patents it filed.

The groups also point to the map released by Amazon Ring, which now shows over 500 cities with Amazon-police partnerships across the U.S.

The groups’ letter is not the first to demand action.

Senator Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) also last month wrote to Amazon to get more information about Ring and its relationships with law enforcement agencies.

But unlike Sen. Markey’s investigative letter to Amazon’s Ring, today’s letter has specific demands for action. The groups are asking mayors and city council members to require their local police departments to cancel their Ring partnerships. The groups also want local government officials to pass new surveillance oversight ordinances that will ensure police departments can’t enter into any such partnerships in the future.

And they want Congress to investigate Ring’s dealings with police more closely.

The letter itself was published online and signed by the following organizations:

Fight for the Future, Media Justice, Color of Change, Secure Justice, Demand Progress, Defending Rights & Dissent, Muslim Justice League, X-Lab, Media Mobilizing Project, Restore The Fourth, Inc., Media Alliance, Youth Art & Self Empowerment Project, Center for Human Rights and Privacy, Oakland Privacy, Justice For Muslims Collective, The Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), Nation Digital Inclusion Alliance, Project On Government Oversight, OpenMedia, Council on American-Islamic Relations-SFBA, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club, MPower Change, Mijente, Access Humboldt, RAICES, National Immigration Law Center, The Tor Project, United Church of Christ, Office of Communication Inc., the Constitutional Alliance, RootsAction.org, CREDO Action, Presente.org, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and United We Dream.

According to Evan Greer, Deputy Director at Fight for the Future, the letter has not yet been mailed. But the plan, going forward, is to use it in local organizing when groups on the ground make deliveries to local officials in cities where the partnerships are live.

“Amazon has created the perfect end-run around our democratic process by entering into for-profit surveillance partnerships with local police departments. Police departments have easy access to surveillance networks without oversight or accountability,” said Greer. “Amazon Ring’s customers provide the company with the footage needed to build their privately owned, nationwide surveillance dragnet. We’re the ones who pay the cost – as they violate our privacy rights and civil liberties. Our elected officials are supposed to protect us, both from abusive policing practices and corporate overreach. These partnerships are a clear case of both,” Greer added.


TechCrunch

Users of Amazon’s voice assistant will soon be able to talk to Alexa in Hindi. Amazon announced today that it has added a Hindi voice model to its Alexa Skills Kit for developers. Alexa developers can also update their existing published skills in India for Hindi.

Amazon first revealed that it would add fluent Hindi to Alexa last month during its re: MARS machine learning and artificial intelligence conference. Before, Alexa was only able to understand a few Hinglish (a portmanteau of Hindi and English) commands. Rohit Prasad, vice president and head scientist for Alexa, told Indian news agency IANS that adding Hindi to Alexa posed a “contextual, cultural as well as content-related challenge” because of the wide variety of dialects, accents and slang used in India.

Along with English, Hindi is one of India’s official languages (Google Voice Assistant also offers Hindi support). According to Citi Research, Amazon holds about a 30 percent market share, about the same as its main competitor, Walmart-backed Flipkart.


TechCrunch

Amazon’s two-year-old Instagram competitor, Amazon Spark, is no more.

Hoping to capitalize on the social shopping trend and tap into the power of online influencers, Amazon in 2017 launched its own take on Instagram with a shoppable feed of stories and photos aimed at Prime members. The experiment known as Amazon Spark has now come to an end. However, the learnings from Spark and Amazon’s discovery tool Interesting Finds are being blended into a new social-inspired product, #FoundItOnAmazon.

Amazon Spark had been a fairly bland service, if truth be told. Unlike on Instagram, where people follow their friend, interests, brands like they like, and people they find engaging or inspiring, Spark was focused on the shopping and the sale. While it tried to mock the Instagram aesthetic at times with fashion inspiration images or highly posed travel photos, it lacked Instagram’s broader appeal. Your friends weren’t there and there weren’t any Instagram Stories, for example. Everything felt too transactional.

Amazon declined to comment on the apparent shutdown of Spark, but the service is gone from the website and app.

The URL amazon.com/spark, meanwhile, redirects to the new #FoundItOnAmazon site — a site which also greatly resembles another Amazon product discovery tool, Interesting Finds.

Interesting Finds has been around since 2016, offering consumers a way to browse an almost Pinterest-like board of products across a number of categories. It features curated “shops” focused on niche themes, like a “Daily Carry” shop for toteable items, a “Mid Century” shop filled with furniture and décor, a shop for “Star Wars” fans, one for someone who loves the color pink, and so on. Interesting Finds later added a layer of personalization with the introduction of a My Mix shop filled with recommendations tailored to your interactions and likes.

The Interesting Finds site had a modern, clean look-and-feel that made it a more pleasurable way to browse Amazon’s products. Products photos appeared on white backgrounds while the clutter of a traditional product detail page was removed.

We understand from people familiar with the products that Interesting Finds is not shutting down as Spark has. But the new #FoundItOnAmazon site will take inspiration from what worked with Interesting Finds and Spark to turn it into a new shopping discovery tool.

Interesting Finds covers a wide range of categories, but #FoundItOnAmazon will focus more directly on fashion and home décor. Similar to Interesting Finds, you can heart to favorites items and revisit them later.

The #FoundItOnAmazon site is very new and isn’t currently appearing for all Amazon customers at this time. If you have it, the amazon.com/spark URL will take you there.

Though Amazon won’t talk about why its Instagram experiment is ending, it’s not too hard to make some guesses. Beyond its lack of originality and transactional nature, Instagram itself has grown into a far more formidable competitor since Spark first launched.

Last fall, Instagram fully embraced its shoppable nature with the introduction of shopping features across its app that let people more easily discover products from Instagram photos. It also added a new shopping channel and in March, Instagram launched its own in-app checkout option to turn product inspiration into actual conversions. It was certainly a big move into Amazon territory. And while that led to headlines about Instagram as the future of shopping, it’s not going to upset Amazon’s overall dominance any time soon.

In addition to the shifting competitive landscape, Spark’s primary stakeholder, Amazon VP of Consumer Engagement Chee Chew departed at the beginning of 2019 for Twilio. While at Amazon, Chew was heavily invested in Spark’s success and product managers would even tie their own efforts to Spark in order to win his favor, sources said.

For example, Amazon’s notifications section had been changed to include updates from Spark. And Spark used to sit a swipe away from the main navigation menu on mobile.

Following Spark’s closure, Amazon’s navigation has once again been simplified. It’s now a clutter-free hamburger menu. Meanwhile, Amazon’s notifications section no longer includes Spark updates — only alerts about orders, shipments, and personalized recommendations.

In addition, it’s likely that Spark wasn’t well adopted. Just 10,000 Amazon customers used it during its first 24 hours, we heard. With Chew’s departure, Spark lost its driving force. No one needed to curry favor by paying it attention, which may have also helped contribute to its shuttering.

6/14/19, 10:20 PM ET: Updated with further context after publication.


TechCrunch

After announcing a year-long pilot of pop-up shops in the UK earlier this week to sell items from smaller marketplace merchants, Amazon has added another development to its brick-and-mortar efforts in the country. Starting today, the company is setting up physical kiosks, initially in train stations, to sell passers-by a rotating range of items at discounted prices.

The first of these will be in London, where Amazon is situating them in rail stations — Charing Cross, King’s Cross, Paddington, Liverpool Street and my local station London Bridge — and will start off by selling Boodles Mulberry Gin for £14.99 a bottle (a 40% discount on the normal price, Amazon notes).

The kiosks, Amazon says, are an extension of the company’s Treasure Truck concept, which sees a large vehicle doing the rounds across various towns — currently London, Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield, Leeds, York, Birmingham, Coventry, Portsmouth, Southampton, Nottingham, Leicester, Windsor, Maidenhead, Reading and Slough (for US readers: the original site of The Office) — offering a rotating selection of items at discounted prices. These have been operating in the UK for a couple of years now.

With Treasure Truck in the UK, you sign up for the service (by texting “truck” to 87377) and Amazon texts you to let you know when the truck is coming your way. Users can pre-order and pay for items to collect them from the truck. It looks like the same format will apply to the kiosks, which will also become pick-up points. To incentivise more signups, Amazon said that new users will get an additional introductory discount of £5 per bottle.

Kiosks are a practical adaptation of the Treasure Truck concept for Amazon: as with other cities in Europe, the locations Amazon visits in the UK have narrow streets sometimes clogged with traffic and generally not designed for speedy arrivals of giant vehicles, and the population is more dense.

Also, situating kiosks in rail stations to catch people during their commutes means more may buy knowing they are on their way home or to an office so will not have to carry items around all day.

“Kiosks are a natural extension of the exciting shopping experience of Amazon’s Treasure Truck. Whether you’re on the way to work or heading home for the day, Amazon customers and passersby will have a fun and convenient way to shop for an amazing deal, get their hands on a trending product or take part in a fun event. Kiosks will help turn an ordinary day into something a bit more special,” said Suruchi Saxena Bansal, Country Leader, Amazon Treasure Truck, in a statement.

More generally, Amazon has been slowly increasing the different channels that it uses to connect with potential customers beyond its basic website and mobile app.

This is because “omnichannel” is the order of the day in commerce: in markets that are especially competitive and mature, we’ve seen a big shift among retailers to cater to a wider variety of audiences and sell to them in whichever channel where they are spending time and discovering things.

That’s included selling on social media (Instagram for one is making a big push with this), through email (see: Mailchimp’s efforts here), and of course doing things the old-fashioned way, by selling in person (something that efforts from the likes of Square and PayPal have also helped to grow).

That in-person experience is something that Amazon — born in the virtual world of cyberspace — has been doubling down on for years to reach a wider set of shoppers.

Its efforts have included bookstores near college campuses, cashier-free Amazon Go stores, the whopping acquisition of Whole Foods, and — as of earlier this week — setting up pop-up shops.

The latter are particularly ironic, given that the Amazon name is regularly invoked when people discuss how brick-and-mortar shops — and in the UK, “high street” shopping precincts — have died a death.

A year ago, there was a rumor that Amazon was negotiating in the UK to acquire a selection of large retail locations that were being vacated by the bankrupt hardware and DIY chain Homebase.

These sprawling locations, situated often in town outskirts among other large stores with huge parking lots, are a far cry from little kiosks in crowded train stations. And indeed, the Homebase deal, if it was every really on the cards, never came to pass.

But the report and Amazon’s wider track record are sure signs that the commerce is only going to get more physical, not less. It’s not a question of “if”, but rather of how and when.


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