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NASA and partners Boeing and the United Launch Alliance (ULA) are gearing up for a crucial milestone moment on Friday: The ‘Orbital Flight Test’ (OFT) of the Boeing Starliner CST-100 Crew Capsule. The capsule, a spacecraft designed to carry astronauts on board from U.S. soil for the first time since the end of the Space Shuttle program, will be launched on an Atlas V rocket provided by ULA – without anyone on board this time, but in a mission that is one of the last key steps before astronauts take their first ride.

What’s happening

On Friday, pending weather and everything else cooperates, ULA’s Atlas V rocket will carry the Boeing Starliner CST-100 crew capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). This launch will be essentially a full run-through of the forthcoming Crew Flight Test (CFT), the first flight of the Boeing crewed spacecraft with actual astronauts on board.

While this is one key component before that CFT mission takes place, it’s not the only one remaining: Starliner must still undergo three remaining reliability tests for its parachute system, on top of the data gained about this crucial component of the overall launcher, before the spacecraft is certified for regular service transporting astronauts to and from the ISS in a non-testing capacity.

During the mission, the Starliner will ascend atop the Atlas V rocket to a heigh of 98 nautical miles, at which point it’ll separate from the rocket and continue under its own power for the remainder of the trip to orbit, where it’ll rendez-vous with the ISS for docking. Astronauts on board the ISS will assist with docking using the station’s robotic arm, and then unload around 600 lbs of equipment and supplies that’s being carried aboard the crew capsule as a secondary mission, before the capsule undocks and returns to Earth.

When and where it’s going down

The launch is scheduled for Friday morning, December 20th at 6:36 AM EST (3:36 AM PST). It’ll launch from Space Launch Complex 41 (SLC-41) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, and currently weather conditions are looking 80% favorable based on current forecasts, which means that as it stands there’s a good chance weather will be within acceptable limits for take-off.

The launch window is instantaneous, meaning that it only open for that specific time and if anything prevents the launch from happening, there are backup dates potentially available either December 21 and 23 – as well as options on either Christmas Day or a few days following. After launch, the Starliner will dock with the station on the morning of December 21, and then spend around a week at the ISS, before undocking on December 28 for its return trip. The journey back is as important as the trip to the ISS in terms of proving out the spacecraft’s proper functioning.

What happens after that

Should everything go to plan, Boeing’s Starliner CST-100 will be much closer to its ultimate goal of transporting people to space. As mentioned above, the parachute system still requires some additional testing for certification purposes, but the crewed CFT test launch should happen sometime in “early 2020” according to Boeing provided everything meets their strict requirements in terms of safety and other readiness standards.

On Wednesday, ULA rolled out its mobile launch platform and the Atlas V rocket to the launchpad in preparation for Friday’s mission. The teams will now conduct pre-launch preparations leading up to Friday, a process it already conducted in dress rehearsal mode covering everything right up to the actual ignition two weeks ago.

We’ll have live coverage of the launch right here on TechCrunch as it happens, and a summary of how the launch went immediately following, so check back Friday for updates.


TechCrunch

Volkswagen revealed Tuesday evening a new concept vehicle called the ID Space Vizzion, and despite the crazy Frank Zappaesque name, this one might actually make it into production in Europe and North America.

The ID Space Vizzion is the seventh concept that VW has introduced since 2016 that uses its MEB platform, a flexible modular system — really a matrix of common parts — for producing electric vehicles that VW says make it more efficient and cost-effective.

The first vehicles to use this MEB platform will be under the ID brand, although this platform can and will be used for electric vehicles under other VW Group brands such as Skoda and Seat. The ID.3 is the first model in its new all-electric ID brand and the beginning of the automaker’s ambitious plan to sell 1 million EVs annually by 2025. A production version of the ID. 3 was unveiled in September.

The ID Space Vizzion is equipped with a rear-mounted 275-horsepower motor and a 82 kilowatt-hour battery pack with a range of up to 300 miles under the EU’s WLTP cycle. A second motor can be added to give it all-wheel drive capability and a total output of 355 horsepower.

This concept will likely be described in a number of ways — and during the event at the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles it was — but this is a wagon through and through.

What the ID. Space Vizzion will ultimately look like is unclear although much of the shape and overall stance shown Tuesday evening. But Scott Keogh, CEO of Volkswagen of America, did say in his closing remarks that something like the concept shown tonight will come to the U.S.


TechCrunch

U.S. security experts are conceding that China has won the race to develop and deploy the 5G telecommunications infrastructure seen as underpinning the next generation of technological advancement and warn that the country and its allies must develop a response — and quickly.

The challenge we have in the development of the 5G network, at least in the early stage, is the dominance of the Huawei firm,” said Tom Ridge, the former US Secretary of Homeland Security and governor of Pennsylvania on a conference call organized recently by Global Cyber Policy Watch. “To embed that technology into a critical piece of infrastructure which is telecom is a huge national security risk.” 

Already some $ 500 million is being allocated to the development of end-to-end encryption software and other technologies through the latest budget for the U.S. Department of Defense, but these officials warn that the money is too little and potentially too late, unless more drastic moves are made.

(You can also hear more about this at TechCrunch Disrupt in SF next week, where we’ll be interviewing startup founders and investors who build businesses by working with governments.)

The problems posed by China’s dominance in this critical component of new telecommunications technologies cut across public and private sector security concerns. They range from intellectual property theft to theft of state secrets and could curtail the ways the U.S. government shares critical intelligence information with its allies, along with opening up the U.S. to direct foreign espionage by the Chinese government, Ridge and other security experts warned.


TechCrunch

A Federal judge appointed by President George W. Bush has ruled that the “terrorist watchlist” database compiled by Federal agencies and used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Homeland Security violates the rights of American citizens who are on it.

The ruling, first reported by The New York Times, raises questions about the constitutionality of the practice, which was initiated in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

The Terrorist Screening Database is used both domestically and internationally by law enforcement and other federal agencies and inclusion on the database can have negative consequences — including limiting the ability of citizens whose names are on the list to travel.

The U.S. government has identified more than 1 million people as “known or suspected terrorists” and included them on the watchlist, according to reporting from the Associated Press.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Anthony Trenga is the culmination of several years of hearings on the complaint, brought to court by roughly two dozen Muslim U.S. citizens with the support of Muslim civil-rights group, the Council on American Islamic Relations.

The methodology the government used to add names to the watch list was shrouded in secrecy and citizens placed on the list often had no way of knowing how or why they were on it. Indeed, much of the plaintiffs lawsuit hinged on the over-broad and error-prone ways in which the list was updated and maintained.

“The vagueness of the standard for inclusion in the TSDB, coupled with the lack of any meaningful restraint on what constitutes grounds for placement on the Watchlist, constitutes, in essence, the absence of any ascertainable standard for inclusion and exclusion, which is precisely what offends the Due Process Clause,” wrote Judge Trenga.

In court, lawyers for the FBI contended that any difficulties the 21 Muslim plaintiffs suffered were outweighed by the government’s need to combat terrorist threats.

Judge Trenga disagreed. Especially concerning for the judge were the potential risks to an individual’s reputation as a result of their inclusion on the watchlist. That’s because the list isn’t just distributed to federal law enforcement agencies, but also finds its way into the hands of over 18,000 state, local,  county, city,  university and college, and tribal and federal law enforcement agencies and another 533 private entities. The judge was concerned that mistaken inclusion on the watchlist could have negative implications in interactions with local law enforcement and potential employers or local government services.

“Every step of this case revealed new layers of government secrets, including that the government shares the watchlist with private companies and more than sixty foreign countries,” said CAIR Senior Litigation Attorney Gadeir Abbas. “CAIR will continue its fight until the full scope of the government’s shadowy watchlist activities is disclosed to the American public.”

Federal agencies have consistently expanded the number of names on the watchlist over the years. As of June 2017, 1.16 million people were included on the watchlist, according to government documents filed in the lawsuit and cited by the AP — with roughly 4,600 of those names belonging to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. In 2013, that number was 680,000, according to the AP.

“The fundamental principle of due process is notice and the opportunity to be heard,” said CAIR Trial Attorney Justin Sadowsky. “Today’s opinion provides that due process guarantee to all Americans affected by the watchlist.”


TechCrunch

Trump said in July that some U.S. suppliers would be allowed to sell to Huawei while it remains blacklisted, but so far no vendors have been allowed to do so. Reuters reports that more than 130 applications have been submitted by companies that want to do business with Huawei, but the U.S. Commerce Department has not approved any of them yet.

Huawei has served as a bargaining chip in the U.S.-China trade war, which escalated again last week when Trump said he would adds tariffs to $ 550 billion worth of Chinese imports, after China said it would impose duties of $ 75 billions on U.S. goods. Trump’s mixed signals during this weekend’s G7 summit also created confusion on Wall Street.

When both presidents met at the G20 Summit in June, Donald Trump told Chinese leader Xi Jinping that he would allow some American companies to sell to Huawei, even though it remains on the Commerce Department’s Entity List. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross said the Commerce Department would begin accepting applications again, requiring companies to prove that the tech they sell to Huawei would not pose a national security risk.

But one of the reasons no licenses have been granted yet is because the Commerce Department is unclear about what it is supposed to do. Former Commerce department official William Reinsch told Reuters that “nobody in the executive branch knows what [Trump] wants and they’re all afraid to make a decision without knowing that.”

In addition to providing telecom equipment, Huawei is an important customer for many U.S. tech firms, including Qualcomm, Intel and Micron. Out of the $ 70 billion in parts it bought last year, $ 11 billion of that went to U.S. suppliers. The U.S. claims Huawei is a national security risk, a charge the company has repeatedly denied.


TechCrunch

The groups behind a push to get the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate YouTube’s alleged violation of children’s privacy law, COPPA, have today submitted a new letter to the FTC that lays out the appropriate sanctions the groups want the FTC to now take. The letter comes shortly after news broke that the FTC was in the final stages of its probe into YouTube’s business practices regarding this matter.

They’re joined in pressing the FTC to act by COPPA co-author, Senator Ed Markey, who penned a letter of his own, which was also submitted today.

The groups’ formal complaint with the FTC was filed back in April 2018. The coalition, which then included 20 child advocacy, consumer and privacy groups, had claimed YouTube doesn’t get parental consent before collecting the data from children under the age of 13 — as is required by the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also known as COPPA.

The organizations said, effectively, that YouTube was hiding behind its terms of service which claims that YouTube is “not intended for children under 13.”

This simply isn’t true, as any YouTube user knows. YouTube is filled with videos that explicitly cater to children, from cartoons to nursery rhymes to toy ads — the latter which often come about by way of undisclosed sponsorships between toy makers and YouTube stars. The video creators will excitedly unbox or demo toys they received for free or were paid to feature, and kids just eat it all up.

In addition, YouTube curates much of its kid-friendly content into a separate YouTube Kids app that’s designed for the under-13 crowd — even preschoolers.

Meanwhile, YouTube treats children’s content like any other. That means targeted advertising and commercial data collection are taking place, the groups’ complaint states. YouTube’s algorithms also recommend videos and autoplay its suggestions — a practice that led to kids being exposed to inappropriate content in the past.

Today, two of the leading groups behind the original complaint — the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) and Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) — are asking the FTC to impose the maximum civil penalties on YouTube because, as they’ve said:

Google had actual knowledge of both the large number of child-directed channels on YouTube and the large numbers of children using YouTube. Yet, Google collected personal information from nearly 25 million children in the U.S over a period of years, and used this data to engage in very sophisticated digital marketing techniques. Google’s wrongdoing allowed it to profit in two different ways: Google has not only made a vast amount of money by using children’s personal information as part of its ad networks to target advertising, but has also profited from advertising revenues from ads on its YouTube channels that are watched by children.

The groups are asking the FTC to impose a 20-year consent degree on YouTube.

They want the FTC to order YouTube to destroy all data from children under 13, including any inferences drawn from the data, that’s in Google’s possession. YouTube should also stop collecting data from anyone under 13, including anyone viewing a channel or video directed at children. Kids’ ages also need to be identified so they can be prevented from accessing YouTube.

Meanwhile, the groups suggest that all the channels in the Parenting and Family lineup, plus any other channels or video directed at children, be removed from YouTube and placed into a separate platform for children. (e.g. the YouTube Kids app).

This is something YouTube is already considering, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal last week.

This separate kids platform would have a variety restrictions, including no commercial data collection; no links out to other sites or online services; no targeted marketing; no product or brand integration; no influencer marketing; and even no recommendations or autoplay.

The removal of autoplaying videos and recommendations, in particular, would be a radical change to how YouTube operates, but one that could protect kids from inappropriate content that slips in. It’s also a change that some employees inside YouTube itself were vying for, according to The WSJ’s report. 

The groups also urge the FTC to require Google to fund educational campaigns around the true nature of Google’s data-driven marketing systems, admit publicly that it violated the law, and submit to annual audits to ensure its ongoing compliance. They want Google to commit $ 100 million to establish a fund that supports the production of noncommercial, high-quality and diverse content for kids.

Finally, the groups are asking that Google faces the maximum possible civil penalties —  $ 42,530 per violation, which could be counted as either per child or per day. This monetary relief needs to be severe, the groups argue, so Google and YouTube will be deterred from ever violating COPPA in the future.

While this laundry list of suggestions is more like a wish list of what the ideal resolution would look like, it doesn’t mean that the FTC will follow through on all these suggestions.

However, it seems likely that the Commission would at least require YouTube to delete the improperly collected data and isolate the kids’ YouTube experience in some way. After all, that’s precisely what it just did with Tik Tok (previously Musical.ly) which earlier this year paid a record $ 5.7 million fine for its own COPPA violations. It also had to implement an age gate where under-13 kids were restricted from publishing content.

The advocacy groups aren’t the only ones making suggestions to the FTC.

Senator Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also sent the FTC a letter today about YouTube’s violations of COPPA — a piece of legislation that he co-authored.

In his letter, he urges the FTC take a similar set of actions, saying:

“I am concerned that YouTube has failed to comply with COPPA. I therefore, urge the Commission to use all necessary resources to investigate YouTube, demand that YouTube pay all monetary penalties it owes as a result of any legal violations, and instruct YouTube to institute policy changes that put children’s well-being first.”

His suggestions are similar to those being pushed by the advocacy groups. They include demands for YouTube to delete the children’s data and cease data collection on those under 13; implement an age gate on YouTube to come into compliance with COPPA; prohibit targeted and influencer marketing; offer detailed explanations of what data is collected if for “internal purposes;” undergo a yearly audit; provide documentation of compliance upon request; and establish a fund for noncommercial content.

He also wants Google to sponsor a consumer education campaign warning parents that no one under 13 should use YouTube and want Google to be prohibited from launching any new child-directed product until it’s been reviewed by an independent panel of experts.

The FTC’s policy doesn’t allow it to confirm or deny nonpublic investigations. YouTube hasn’t yet commented on the letters.


TechCrunch

On Sunday, China released a comprehensive white paper to formalize its positions on trade negotiations with the U.S. The set of statements come as the trade war escalates and Beijing threatens to hit back with a retaliatory blacklist of U.S. firms. Here are some key takeaways from the press conference announcing the white paper:

U.S. ‘responsible’ for stalled trade talks

The “U.S. government bears responsibility” for setbacks in trade talks, chided the paper, adding that the U.S. has imposed additional tariffs on Chinese goods that impede economic cooperation between the two countries and globally.

While it’s “common” for both sides to propose “adjustments to the text and language” in ongoing negotiations, the U.S. administration “kept changing its demands” in the “previous more than ten rounds of negotiations,” the paper alleged.

On the other hand, reports of China backtracking on previous trade deals are mere “mudslinging,” Wang Shouwen, the Chinese vice minister of commerce and deputy China international trade representative, said as he led the Sunday presser.

China ready to fight if forced to

China does not want a trade war with the U.S, but it’s not afraid of one and will fight one if necessary, said the white paper.

Beijing’s position on trade talks has never changed — that cooperation serves the interests of both countries and conflict can only hurt both — according to the paper. CNBC’s Eunice Yoon pointed out that Beijing’s latest stance repeats previous statements made back in September.

Deals must be equal

Difference and frictions remain on the economic and trade fronts between the two countries, but China is willing to work with the U.S. to reach a “mutually beneficial and win-win agreement,” stated the paper. However, cooperation has to be based on principles and must not compromise China’s core interests.

“Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” Wang said.

He said one needs not “overinterpret” China’s soon-to-come entity list, adding that it mainly targets foreign companies that run against market rules and violate the spirit of contracts, cut off supplies to Chinese firms for uncommercial reasons, damage the legitimate rights of Chinese companies, or threaten China’s national security and public interests.

China respects IP rights

The paper also touched on issues that are at the center of the prolonged U.S.-China trade dispute, including China’s dealings with intellectual property rights. U.S. allegations of China over IP theft are “an unfounded fabrication,” said the white paper, adding that China has made great efforts in recent years to protect and enforce IP rights.

Wang claimed that China pays the U.S. a significant sum to license IP rights every year. Of the $ 35.6 billion it shelled out for IP fees in 2018, nearly a quarter went to the U.S.

Investments are mutually beneficial

The white paper claimed that bilateral investments between the two countries are mutually beneficial rather than undermining for U.S. interests when taken account of “trade in goods and services as well as two-way investment.”

The Chinese government also pushed back at claims that it exerts influence on businesses’ overseas investments.

“The government is not involved in companies’ business activities and does not ask them to make specific investments or acquisitions,” said Wang. “Even if we make such requests, companies won’t obey.”

In response to China’s probe into FedEx over Huawei packages that went stray, Wang assured that “foreign businesses are welcome to operate legally in China, but when they break rules, they have to cooperate with regulatory investigations. That’s indisputable.”

The Shenzhen-based smartphone and telecom giant has been hit hard by during the trade negotiations as the Trump administration orders U.S. businesses to sever ties with the Chinese firm.


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