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Mercedes-Benz car owners have said that the app they used to remotely locate, unlock and start their cars was displaying other people’s account and vehicle information.

TechCrunch spoke to two customers who said the Mercedes-Benz’ connected car app was pulling in information from other accounts and not their own, allowing them to see other car owners’ names, recent activity, phone numbers, and more.

The apparent security lapse happened late-Friday before the app went offline “due to site maintenance” a few hours later.

It’s not uncommon for modern vehicles these days to come with an accompanying phone app. These apps connect to your car and let you remotely locate them, lock or unlock them, and start or stop the engine. But as cars become internet-connected and hooked up to apps, security flaws have allowed researchers to remotely hijack or track vehicles.

One Seattle-based car owner told TechCrunch that their app pulled in information from several other accounts. He said that both he and a friend, who are both Mercedes owners, had the same car belonging to another customer, in their respective apps but every other account detail was different.

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Screenshots of the Mercedes-Benz app showing another person’s vehicle, and exposed data belonging to another car owner. (Image: supplied)

The car owners we spoke to said they were able to see the car’s recent activity, including the locations of where it had recently been, but they were unable to track the real-time location using the app’s feature.

When he contacted Mercedes-Benz, a customer service representative told him to “delete the app” until it was fixed, he said.

The other car owner we spoke to said he opened the app and found it also pulled in someone else’s profile.

“I got in contact with the person who owns the car that was showing up,” he told TechCrunch. “I could see the car was in Los Angeles, where he had been, and he was in fact there,” he added.

He said that he wasn’t sure if the app has exposed his private information to another customer.

“Pretty bad fuck up in my opinion,” he said.

The first customer reported that the “lock and unlock” and the engine “start and stop” features did not work on his app, somewhat limiting the impact of the security lapse. The other customer said they did not attempt to test either feature.

It’s not clear how the security lapse happened or how widespread the problem was. A spokesperson for Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.

According to Google Play’s rankings, more than 100,000 customers have installed the app.

A similar security lapse hit Credit Karma’s mobile app in August. The credit monitoring company admitted that users were inadvertently shown other users’ account information, including details about credit card accounts and balances. But despite disclosing other people’s information, the company denied a data breach.


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

Reddit users can now share their favorite content from the site to Snapchat, thanks to a new integration that allows sharing of text, link, and image-based posts on iOS from Reddit’s “Safe for Work” communities. The move makes Snapchat the first platform partner that Reddit is testing content sharing integration with, the company says, and it hopes the result will be an influx of younger users to the site.

Unlike many social media platforms, Reddit has tended to skew a little older when it comes to its user demographics. According to Pew Research Center, just 22% of U.S. adults aged 18 to 29 used the site, compared with 34% of those 30 to 49 and 25% of those 50 to 64. And 19% were aged 65 and up, Pew found. While that particular study was performed a few years ago, a 2019 study continues to show Reddit as one of the lesser-used online platforms among all U.S. adults, Pew found.

And with a growing advertising business that’s set to cross $ 100 million in revenues this year, Reddit needs to even out its user demographics and increase its overall usage to be competitive.

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To use the new sharing feature, Reddit users who have Snapchat installed on their iOS device will be able to tap the “Share” icon on a posts in the Reddit iOS app, then select the Snapchat option.

You can then choose to send the post to a few friends or post it to your story so all your friends can see it. The content will appear in Snaps and Snap Stories as a new sticker designed specifically for this integration that includes the Reddit logo and source information.

If the viewer also has the Reddit app installed, they can swipe up on the Snap to visit the post. If they don’t have the app installed, they’ll be directed to the App Store to download it.

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“Reddit empowers discovery and discussion that many Snapchatters love. With this integration, Snapchatters will be able to share interesting posts they find, adding new context and conversation-starters to their Snaps,” said Ben Schwerin, VP of Partnerships at Snap Inc., in a statement about the launch. “As shared Snaps drive engagement back to Reddit — this helps advance the power of community and connection across both platforms,” he added.

Because Reddit tends to host a wide range of content — some of which may violate Snapchat’s terms of use —  the new integration is only being enabled on Reddit’s “Safe for Work” subreddit communities, which are those that don’t host adult content. The communities must also be in good standing, Reddit says.

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“Snapchat is the first platform partner with whom we’re testing a content sharing integration, and we’re excited to see how the feature will shape the sharing habits and experiences among our users,” said Vaibhav Sahgal, Reddit’s Head of Growth Product, in a statement. “We hope the integration empowers redditors to share Reddit content more frequently, while simultaneously exposing new users to the unique content only found on Reddit.”

The launch follows Reddit’s $ 300 million funding round led by China’s Tencent earlier this year, that valued the site at $ 3 billion. This puts Reddit in competition with Facebook and Google for internet ad dollars — a challenge considering its userbase has historically skewed older and male, and users are often anonymous.

The company says the sharing feature will roll out to Android users soon. 

 


TechCrunch

The boom in popularity for podcasting has given a new voice to the world of spoken word content that had been largely left for dead with the decline of broadcast radio. Now riding the wave of that growth, a startup called Descript that’s building tools to make the art of creating podcasts — or any other content that involves working with audio — a little easier with audio transcription and editing tools, has a trio of news announcements: funding, an acquisition, and the launch of a new tool that brings some of the magic of natural language processing and AI to the medium by letting people create audio of their own voices based on text that they type.

Descript, the latest startup from Groupon founder Andrew Mason, created as a spinoff of his audio-guide business Detour (which got acquired by Bose last year), is today announcing $ 15 million in funding, a Series A for expanding the business (including hiring more  people) that’s coming from Andreessen Horowitz (it also funded the startup’s seed round in 2017) and Redpoint.

Along with that, the company has acquired a small Canadian startup, Lyrebird — which had, like Descript, also built audio editing tools. Together, the two are rolling out a new feature for Descript called Overdub: people will now be able to create “templates” of their voices that they can in turn use to create audio based on words that they type, part of a bigger production suite that will also let users edit multiple voices on multiple tracks. The audio can be standalone, or the audio track for a video.

(The video transcription works a little differently: when you add in words, or take them out, the video makes jumps to account for the changes in timing.)

Overdub is the latest addition to a product that lets users create instant transcriptions of audio text that can then be cut and potentially augmented with music other audio using drag-and-drop tools that take away the need for podcasters to learn sound engineering and editing software. The non-technical emphasis of the product has given Descript a following among podcasters and others that use transcription software as part of their audio production suites. The product is priced in a freemium format: no charge for up to four hours of voice content, and $ 10 per month after that.

In the age of market-defining, election-winning fake news aided and abetted by technology, you’d be forgiven for wondering if Overdub might not be a highway to Deep Fake City, where you could use the technology to create any manner of “statements” by famous voices.

Mason tells me that the company has built a way to keep that from being able to happen.

The demo on the company’s home page is created with a special proprietary voice just for illustrative purposes, but to actually activate the editing and augmenting feature for a piece of their own audio, users have to first record a number of statements that repeated-back, based on text created on the fly and in real time. These audio clips are then used to shape your digital voice profile.

This means that you can’t, for example, feed audio of Donald Trump into the system to create a version of the President saying that he is awfully sorry for suggesting that building walls between the US and Mexico was a good idea, and that this would not, in fact, make America Great Again. (Too bad.)

But if you subscribe to the idea that tech advances in NLP and AI overall are something of a Pandora’s Box, the cat’s already out of the bag, and even if Descript doesn’t allow for it, someone else will likely hack this kind of technology for more nefarious ends. The answer, Mason says, is to keep talking about this and making sure people understand the potentials and pitfalls.

“People have already have created the ability to make deep fakes,” Mason said. “We should expect that not everybody is going to follow the same constrants that we have followed. But part of our role is to create awareness of the possibilities. Your voice is your identity, and you need to own that voice. It’s an issue of privacy, basically.”

The developments underscore the new opportunity that has opened up in tapping some of the developments in artificial intelligence to address what is a growing market. On one hand, it’s a big market: based just on ad revenues alone, podcasting is expected to bring in some $ 679 million this year, and $ 1 billion by 2021, according to the IAB — one reason why companies like Spotify and Apple are betting big on it as a complement to their music streaming businesses.

On the other, the area of production tools for podcasters is a very crowded market, with a number of startups and others putting out a lot of tools that all work quite well in identifying what people are saying and transcribing it accurately.

On the front of transcription and the area where Descript is working, rivals include the likes of Trint, Wreally and Otter, among many others. Decript itself doesn’t even create its basic NLP software; it uses Google’s, since basic NLP is now an area that has essentially become “commoditized,” said Mason in an interview.

That makes creating new features, tapping into AI and other advances, all the more essential, as we look to see if one tool emerges as a clear leader in this particular area of SaaS.

“In live multiuser collaboration, there is still no other tool out there that has done what we have done with large uncompressed audio files. That is no small feat, and it has taken time to get it right,” said Mason. “I have seen this transition manifest from documents to spreadsheets to product design. No one would have thought of something like product design to be huge space but just by taking these tools for collaboration and successfully porting them to the cloud, companies like Figma have emerged. And that’s how we got involved here.”


TechCrunch

The UK’s Information Commissioner is starting off the week with a GDPR bang: this morning, it announced that it has fined British Airways and its parent International Airlines Group (IAG) £183.39 million ($ 230 million) in connection with a data breach that took place last year that affected a whopping 500,000 customers browsing and booking tickets online. In an investigation, the ICO said that it found “that a variety of information was compromised by poor security arrangements at [BA], including log in, payment card, and travel booking details as well name and address information.”

The fine — 1.5% of BA’s total revenues for the year that ended December 31, 2018 — is the highest-ever that the ICO has levelled at a company over a data breach (previous “record holder” Facebook was fined a mere £500,000 last year by comparison).

And it is significant for another reason: it shows that data breaches can be not just just a public relations liability, destroying consumer trust in the organization, but a financial liability, too. IAG is currently seeing volatile trading in London, with shares down 1.5% at the moment.

In a statement to the market, the two leaders of IAG defended the company and said that its own investigations found that no evidence of fraudulent activity was found on accounts linked to the theft (although as you may know, data from breaches may not always be used in the place where it’s been stolen).

“We are surprised and disappointed in this initial finding from the ICO,” said Alex Cruz, British Airways chairman and chief executive. “British Airways responded quickly to a criminal act to steal customers’ data. We have found no evidence of fraud/fraudulent activity on accounts linked to the theft. We apologise to our customers for any inconvenience this event caused.”

Willie Walsh, International Airlines Group chief executive, added in his own comment that “British Airways will be making representations to the ICO in relation to the proposed fine. We intend to take all appropriate steps to defend the airline’s position vigorously, including making any necessary appeals.”

The degree to which companies are going to be held accountable for these kinds of breaches is going to be a lot more transparent going forward: the ICO’s announcement is part of a new directive to disclose the details of its fines and investigations to the public.

“People’s personal data is just that – personal,” said Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham in a statement. “When an organisation fails to protect it from loss, damage or theft it is more than an inconvenience. That’s why the law is clear – when you are entrusted with personal data you must look after it. Those that don’t will face scrutiny from my office to check they have taken appropriate steps to protect fundamental privacy rights.”

The ICO said in a statement this morning that the fine is related to infringements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect last year prior to the breach. More specifically, the incident involved malware on BA.com that diverted user traffic to a fraudulent site, where customer details were subsequently harvested by the malicious hackers.

BA notified the ICO of the incident in September, but the breach was believed to have first started in June. Since then, the ICO said that British Airways “has cooperated with the ICO investigation and has made improvements to its security arrangements since these events came to light.” But it should be pointed out that even before this breach, there were other examples of the company treating data protection lightly. (Now, it seems BA has learned its lesson the hard way.)

From the statement issued by IAG today, it sounds like BA will choose to try to appeal the fine and overall ruling.

While there are a lot of question marks over how the UK will interface with the rest of Europe over regulatory cases such as this one after it leaves the EU, for now it’s working in concert with the bigger group.

The ICO says it has been “lead supervisory authority on behalf of other EU Member State data protection authorities” in this case, liaising with other regulators in the process. This also means that these authorities where its residents were also affected by the breach will also have a chance to provide input on the ruling before it is completely final.


TechCrunch

Low code and no code are the latest industry buzzwords, but if vendors can truly abstract away the complexity of difficult tasks like building machine learning models, it could help mainstream technologies that are currently out of reach of most business users. That’s precisely what Microsoft is aiming to do with its latest Power BI platform announcements today.

The company tried to bring that low code simplicity to building applications last year when it announced PowerApps. Now it believes by combining PowerApps with Microsoft Flow and its new AI Builder tool, it can allow folks building apps with PowerApps to add a layer of intelligence very quickly.

It starts with having access to data sources, and the Data Connector tool gives users access to over 250 data connectors. That includes Salesforce, Oracle and Adobe, as well as of course Microsoft services like Office 365 and Dynamics 365. Richard Riley, senior director for Power Platform marketing, says this is the foundation for pulling data into AI Builder.

“AI Builder is all about making it just as easy in a low code, no code way to go bring artificial intelligence and machine learning into your Power Apps, into Microsoft Flow, into the Common Data Service, into your data connectors, and so on,” Riley told TechCrunch.

Screenshot: Microsoft

Charles Lamanna, general manager at Microsoft says that Microsoft can do all the analysis and heavy lifting required to build a data model for you, removing a huge barrier to entry for business users. “The basic idea is that you can select any field in the Common Data Service and just say, ‘I want to predict this field.’  Then we’ll actually go look at historical records for that same table or entity to go predict [the results],” he explained. This could be used to predict if a customer will sign up for a credit card, if a customer is likely to churn, or if a loan would be approved, and so forth.

While Microsoft admits this won’t be something everyone uses, they do see a kind of power user who might have been previously unable to approach this level of sophistication on their own, building apps and adding layers of intelligence without a heck of a lot of coding. If it works as advertised it will bring a level of simplicity to tasks that were previously well out of reach of business users without requiring a data scientist.


TechCrunch

The rising popularity of omni-channel commerce — selling to customers wherever they happen to be spending time online — has spawned an army of shopping tools and platforms that are giving legacy retail websites and marketplaces a run for their money. Now, one of the faster growing of these is announcing an impressive round of funding to stay on trend and continue building its business.

Depop, a London startup that has built an app for individuals to post and sell (and mainly resell) items to groups of followers by way of its own and third-party social feeds, has closed a Series C round of $ 62 million led by General Atlantic. Previous investors HV Holtzbrinck Ventures, Balderton Capital, Creandum, Octopus Ventures, TempoCap and Sebastian Siemiatkowski, founder and CEO of Swedish payments company Klarna all also participated.

The funding will be used in a couple of areas. First, to continue building out the startup’s technology — building in more recommendation and image detection algorithms is one focus.

And second, to expand in the US, which CEO Maria Raga said is on its way to being Depop’s biggest market, with 5 million users currently and projections of that going to 15 million in the next three years.

That’s despite strong competition from other peer-to-peer selling platforms like Vinted, Poshmark, and social platforms that have been doubling down on commerce, like Instagram and Pinterest, but on the other hand the opportunity is big: a recent report from ThredUp, another second-hand clothes sales platform, estimated that the total resale market is expected to more than double in value to $ 51 billion from $ 24 billion in the next five years, accounting for 10% of the retail market.

Prior to this, Depop had raised just under $ 40 million. It’s not disclosing its valuation except to say it’s a definitely upround. “I’m extremely happy,” Raga said when I asked her about it this week.

The rise of the bedroom entrepreneur

The funding comes on the heels of strong growth and strong focus for the startup.

If “social shopping”, “selling to groups of followers”, and the “use of social feeds” (or my headline…) didn’t already give it away, Depop is primarily aimed at millennial and Gen Z consumers. The company said that about 90% of its active users are under the age of 26, and in its home market of the UK it’s seen huge traction with one-third of all 16-24 year-olds registered on Depop.

Its rise has dovetailed with some big changes that the fashion industry has undergone, said Raga. “Our mission is to redefine the fashion industry in the same way that Spotify did with music, or Airbnb did with travel accommodation,” she said.

“The fashion world hasn’t really taken notice” of how things have evolved at the consumer end, she continued, citing concerns with sustainability (and specifically the waste in the fashion industry), how trends are set today (no longer dictated by brands but by individuals), and how anything can be sold by anyone, from anywhere, not just from a store in the mall, or by way of a well-known brand name website. “You can now start a fashion business from your bedroom,” she added.

For this generation of bedroom entrepreneurs, social apps are not a choice, but simply the basis and source of all their online engagement. Depop notes that the average daily user opens the app “several times per day” both to browse things, check up on those that they follow, to message contacts and comment on items, and of course to buy and sell. On average, Depop users collectively follow and message each other 85 million times each month.

This rapid uptake and strong usage of the service has driven it to 13 million users, revenue growth of 100% year-on-year for the past few years, and gross merchandise value of more than $ 500 million since launch. (Depop takes a 10% cut, which would work out to total revenues of about $ 50 million for the period.)

When we first wrote about Depop back in 2015 (and even prior to that), the startup and app were primarily aiming to provide a way for users to quickly snap pictures of their own clothes and other already-used items to post them for sale, one of a wave of flea-market-inspired apps that were emerging at that time. (It also had an older age group of users, extending into the mid-thirties.)

Fast forward a few years, and Depop’s growth has been boosted by an altogether different trend: the emergence of people who go to great efforts to buy limited editions of collectable, or just currently very hot, items, and then resell them to other enthusiasts. The products might be lightly used, but more commonly never used, and might include limited edition sneakers, expensive t-shirts released in “drops” by brands themselves, or items from one-off capsule collections.

It may have started as a way of decluttering by shifting unused items of your own, but it’s become a more serious endeavor for some. Raga notes that Depop’s top sellers are known to clear $ 100,000 annually. “It’s a real business for them,” she said.

And Depop still sells other kinds of goods, too. These pressed-flower phone cases, for example, have seen a huge amount of traction on Twitter as well as in the app itself in the last week:

Alongside its own app and content shared from there to other social platforms, Depop extends the omnichannel approach with a selection of physical stores, too, to showcase selected items.

The startup has up to now taken a very light-touch approach to the many complexities that can come with running an e-commerce business — a luxury that’s come to it partly because its sellers and buyers are all individuals, mostly younger individuals, and, leaning on the social aspect, the expectation that people will generally self-police and do right by each other, or less risk getting publicly called out and lose business as a result.

I think that as it continues to grow, some of that informality might need to shift, or at least be complemented with more structure.

In the area of shipping, buyers generally do not seem to expect the same kind of shipping tracking or delivery professionals appearing at their doors. Sellers handle all the shipping themselves, which sometimes means that if the buyer and seller are in the same city, an in-person delivery of an item is not completely unheard of. Raga notes that in the US the company has now at least introduced pre-paid envelopes to help with returns (not so in the UK).

Payments come by way of PayPal, with no other alternatives at the momen. Depop’s 10% cut on transactions is in addition to PayPal’s fees. But having the Klarna founder as a backer could pave the way for other payment methods coming soon.

One area where Depop is trying to get more focused is in how its activities line up with state laws and regulations.

For example, it currently already proactively looks for and takes down posts offering counterfeit or other illicit goods on the platform, but also relies on people or brands reporting these. (Part of the tech investment into image detection will be to help improve the more automated algorithms, to speed up the rate at which illicit items are removed.)

Then there is the issue of tax. If top sellers are clearing $ 100,000 annually, there are taxes that will need to be paid. Raga said that right now this is handed off to sellers to manage themselves. Depop does send alerts to sellers but it’s still up to the sellers themselves to organise sales tax and other fees of that kind.

“We are very close to our top sellers,” Raga said. “We’re in contact on a daily basis and we inform of what they have to do. But if they don’t, it’s their responsibility.”

While there is a lot more development to come, the core of the product, the approach Depop is taking, and its success so far have been the winning combination to bring on this investment.

“Technology continues to transform the retail landscape around the world and we are incredibly excited to be investing in Depop as it looks to capture the huge opportunity ahead of it,” said Melis Kahya, General Atlantic Head of Consumer for EMEA, in a statement. “In a short space of time the team has developed a truly differentiated platform and globally relevant offering for the next generation of fashion entrepreneurs and consumers. The organic growth generated in recent years is a testament to the impact they are having and we look forward to working with the team to further accelerate the business.”


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