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After a spate of device hacks, Google beefs up Nest security protections

Google has added its line of Nest smart home devices to its Advanced Protection Program, a security offering that adds stronger account protections for high-risk users like politicians and journalists.

The program, launched in 2017, allows anyone who signs up access to a range of additional account security features, like limiting third-party access to account data, anti-malware protections, and allowing the use of physical security keys to help thwart some of the most advanced cyberattacks.

Google said that adding Nest to the program was a “top request” from users.

Smart home devices are increasingly a target for hackers largely because many internet-connected devices lack basic security protections and are easy to hack, prompting an effort by states and governments to help device makers improve their security. A successful hack can allow hackers to snoop in on smart home cameras, or ensnare the device into a massive collection of vulnerable devices — a botnet — that can be used to knock websites offline with large amounts of junk traffic.

Although Nest devices are more secure than most, its users are not immune from hackers.

Earlier this year Google began requiring that Nest users must enable two-factor authentication after a spate of reported automated attacks targeting Nest cameras. Google said its systems had not been breached, but warned that hackers were using passwords stolen in other breaches to target Nest users.

Other devices makers, like Amazon-owned Ring, were also targeted by hackers using reused passwords.

While two-factor authentication virtually eliminates these kinds of so-called credential stuffing attacks, Google said its new security improvements will add “yet another layer of protection” to users’ Nest devices.

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Echo Looks will cease functioning in July, as Amazon discontinues the camera

Introduced in mid-2017, the Look was one of the more obscure — and, honestly, kind of bizarre — entries in the Echo line. It was a small camera designed to take videos and selfies of its owner, using machine learning to help choose outfits.

No surprise, really, that it never caught fire. And now, three years after its introduction, it’s dead. First noted by Voicebot.ai, Amazon sent a letter to customers noting that the camera has been discontinued — what’s more, service is going to completely shuttered in July.

Amazon confirmed the end of what seems to have amounted to an experiment and exercise in training a machine learning algorithm. The company tells TechCrunch,

When we introduced Echo Look three years ago, our goal was to train Alexa to become a style assistant as a novel way to apply AI and machine learning to fashion. With the help of our customers we evolved the service, enabling Alexa to give outfit advice and offer style recommendations. We’ve since moved Style by Alexa features into the Amazon Shopping app and to Alexa-enabled devices making them even more convenient and available to more Amazon customers. For that reason, we have decided it’s time to wind down Echo Look. Beginning July 24, 2020, both Echo Look and its app will no longer function. Customers will still be able to enjoy style advice from Alexa through the Amazon Shopping app and other Alexa-enabled devices. We look forward to continuing to support our customers and their style needs with Alexa.

Not a surprise, perhaps. But a bummer for those who spent the $200 on the product. For the looks of it, though, I don’t think the Look exactly caught the world on fire. It’s currently listed as the 51st best seller on Amazon’s list of Echo products. Honestly, there’s a decent chance this is the first time you’re hearing about it. Again, not surprising for what was always destined to be a niche addition to the Echo line.

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Rivian’s Amazon electric delivery van still on track as factory reopens

Rivian, the electric vehicle company backed by Amazon, Cox Automotive and Ford, has resumed work at its factory in Normal, Ill. following a temporary shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Construction on the factory, which will eventually produce its R1T and R1S electric vehicles for consumers as well as 100,000 delivery vans for Amazon, has restarted with employees returning in phases. Despite the shutdown and gradual restart, the timeline for the Amazon delivery vans is still on track, according to a statement from Amazon released Thursday.

In September, Amazon announced it had ordered 100,000 electric delivery vehicles from Rivian as part of its commitment to The Climate Pledge to become net zero carbon by 2040. Vans will begin delivering to customers in 2021, as previously planned. About 10,000 of electric vehicles will be on the road as early as 2022 and all 100,000 vehicles on the road by 2030, Amazon said in a statement Thursday.

Rivian has pushed the start of production on the R1T and R1S to 2021. The company had initially planned to start production and begin deliveries of the electric pickup truck and SUV in late 2020. That timeline has been adjusted. Rivian had always planned to deliver the R1T truck first, followed by the R1S.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the company to adjust its timeline due to supply constraints. However, Rivian is now working on bringing the production and delivery timeline of the R1T and R1S closer together.

For now, the company is focused on work inside and outside the factory. About 335 Rivian employees were on site before COVID hit. Today, about 116 are on site with plans to gradually bring back the remaining employees. Rivian did not furlough any employees and continues to pay all workers their wages.

About 109 contractors are also back at the factory working on the interior. Another 120 to 140 contractors are working outside to expand the factory from 2.6 million to 3 million square feet.

The company has implemented new safety practices under a 4-phase plan, according to Rivian CEO RJ Scaringe. Temperature checks are carried out and workers are supplied with protective clothing and equipment.

The vehicle engineering and design teams have also developed digital methods to make sure that program timing remains on track, according to Scaringe.

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JioMart, the e-commerce venture from India’s richest man, launches in additional cities

The rationale behind the deluge of dollars flooding into billionaire Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Jio Platforms is beginning to become more clear as his e-commerce venture JioMart starts rolling out to more people across India.

An e-commerce venture between the nation’s top telecom operator Jio Platforms and top retail chain Jio Retail, JioMart just launched its new website and started accepting orders in dozens of metro, tier 1 and tier 2 cities including Delhi, Chennai, Kolkata, Bangalore, Pune, Bokaro, Bathinda, Ahmedabad, Gurgaon, and Dehradun.

Before the expansion on Saturday, the service was available in three suburbs of Mumbai. The service now includes perishables such as fruits and vegetables, and dairy items in addition to staples and other grocery products as it makes its pitch to Indian households across the country.

Ambani’s Reliance Jio Platforms, which has raised more than $10 billion in the last month by selling a roughly 17% stake, has amassed over 388 million subscribers, more than any other telecom operator in the country.

The money comes as Ambani’s various companies begin entering a market already teeming with fierce competitors like Amazon, Walmart’s Flipkart, BigBasket, MilkBasket, and Grofers.

Earlier this week the American e-commerce giant entered India’s food delivery market to challenge the duopoly of Prosus Ventures-backed Swiggy and Ant Financial-backed Zomato. Amazon is making a massive hiring push in India, and is looking to hire close to 50,000 seasonal workers to keep up with the growing demand on its platform.

Meanwhile, Ambani’s Reliance Retail, founded in 2006, remains the largest retailer in India by revenue. It serves more than 3.5 million customers each week through its nearly 10,000 physical stores in more than 6,500 cities and towns.

JioMart may have Amazon and Flipkart in its sights, but in its current form, however, the company is going to be more of a headache for Grofers and BigBasket, the top grocery delivery startups in India.

Reliance Industries, the most valued firm in India and parent entity of Jio Platforms and Reliance Retail, plans to expand JioMart to more than a thousand districts in a year and also widen its catalog to include electronics and office supplies among a variety of other categories, a person familiar with the matter told TechCrunch. A Reliance Jio spokesperson declined to comment.

The expansion to more cities comes a month after JioMart launched its WhatsApp business account, enabling people to easily track their order and invoice on Facebook -owned service.

Facebook announced it would invest $5.7 billion in India’s Reliance Jio Platforms last month and pledged to work with the Indian firm to help small businesses across the country. JioMart’s WhatsApp account currently does not support the expanded regions.

Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man and the chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, first unveiled his plan to launch an e-commerce platform last year. In a speech then, Ambani invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s work and said India needed to fight another fresh battle.

A handful of firms have attempted — and failed — to launch their e-commerce websites over the years in India, where more than 95% of sales still occur through brick and mortar stores. But Ambani is uniquely positioned to fight the duopoly of Amazon and Walmart’s Flipkart — thanks in part to the more than $10 billion in investment dollars the company recently raised from KKR, FacebookSilver LakeVista Equity Partners, and General Atlantic. In addition to scaling JioMart, the fresh capital should also help Ambani repay some of Reliance Industries’ $21 billion debt.

“We have to collectively launch a new movement against data colonization. For India to succeed in this data-driven revolution, we will have to migrate the control and ownership of Indian data back to India — in other words, Indian wealth back to every Indian,” Ambani said at an event attended by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi .

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An eighth Amazon warehouse employee has died from COVID-19

An eighth Amazon employee has died of COVID-19. The news comes as the company is under scrutiny for failing to be more transparent about the wider number of infections among its warehouse workers.

A spokesperson confirmed the reports of the death, telling TechCrunch, “We are saddened by the loss of an associate who had worked at our site in Randall, Ohio. “Her family and loved ones are in our thoughts, and we are supporting her fellow colleagues.”

According to the company, the worker in North Randall, a village outside of Cleveland, was sent home from work on April 30. She received a positive test a little over a week later, on May 8. Amazon says it notified fellow employees of the death and has provided counseling to colleagues.

The overall number of Amazon workers who have tested positive for the virus remains a mystery. The company stands by its decision not to disclose such information. “We don’t think that number is super valuable,” it has said previously. In a statement provided to TechCrunch, it added: 

Our rates of infection are at or below the rates of the communities where we operate. We see that in our quarantine rates as well. Quarantine rates are a critical part to understanding what’s happening in the workplace – it shows that our hard work around social distancing is paying off. Unlike others who hide beyond HIPAA, we alert every person at the site anytime there is a confirmed diagnosis. This alert to employees is a direct text message noting when the person with the confirmed diagnosis was last in the building.

The lack of transparency is one of a number of sources of criticism surrounding Amazon’s COVID-19 response.

While the company has repeatedly maintained that it has done all it can to protect the employees in its fulfillment centers, potential exposure to the virus among warehouse workers is difficult to avoid, even with the proper PPE. Earlier this month, a letter from 13 state attorneys general demanded that Amazon disclose the number of workers who have been impacted by the virus.

“We have requested but not received information on how many of the Companies’ workers have been infected with COVID-19, and how many have died from it,” the letter reads. “Please provide a state-by-state breakdown for each Company with this information.”

Earlier this week, The New York Times noted one particularly hard hit warehouse in northeastern Pennsylvania, where more than 100 workers have apparently tested positive for the virus. The exact figure is unknown, as Amazon will not disclose it. Yesterday, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel noted that at least 30 workers at the nearby Kenosha warehouse have tested positive for the virus.

As more housebound Americans rely on Amazon for deliveries, workers have largely fallen under the “essential services” guidelines issued by many states. In mid-May, the company extended its $2 an hour “hazard pay bonuses” through the end of the month. Amazon confirmed that it will return to standard salaries, come June, stating: 

To thank employees and help meet increased demand, we’ve paid our team and partners nearly $800 million extra since COVID-19 started while continuing to offer full benefits from day one of employment. With demand stabilized, next month we’ll return to our industry-leading starting wage of $15 an hour.

The company has been subject to additional scrutiny over the firing of several employees that have raised public concerns over its treatment of workers during the crisis. While Amazon has repeatedly denied the firings were retaliation, the reports were enough to warrant another letter, this time from a number of high-profile senators, including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

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Where to shop online that isn’t Amazon, Target or Walmart

As shutdown orders extend indefinitely, online shopping has become a lifeline for people forced to avoid the outside world. Often times opting to shop with a mega corporation like Amazon, Walmart or Target is the path of least resistance, but there are plenty of reasons to patronize an alternative.

There are the ethical questions currently swirling around things like worker safety, as COVID-19 takes a toll on the often low-paid essential workers who keep these businesses running. It’s also arguably now more important than ever to support small and local businesses, and more and more brick and mortars announce that they simply won’t be able to rebound after the disastrous economic effects of the shutdown.

Not every company listed below is a small business (Chewy, for example, is owned by pet supply giant PetSmart), but the below list compiled by our editorial team should offer a good variety to help you mix up your online shopping.

Groceries/Household

In this rear view, an unrecognizable woman stands with a shopping cart in front of a shelf full of food in the bread aisle of a grocery store.

Thrive Market: Organic and non-GMO brands of food, home and beauty products, including healthy food, clean beauty and bath products, safe supplements and non-toxic home cleaner.

Great for: Stocking up on healthier grocery items for the pantry and other household needs. 

Grove Collaborative: Eco-friendly home essentials, including cleaners, personal care, bath, baby/kid and pet products.

Great for: Stocking up on concentrated cleaners that reduce plastic waste and save trips to the store. 

Boxed: Online wholesale shopping on groceries, household products and health supplies.

Great for: An online alternative to Costco and Sam’s Club for items you like to buy in bulk. (T.P. is often out-of-stock though!) 

Pet Supplies

A pet cat asleep on the doormat in a conservatory.

Chewy: Online pet store offering food, toys, litter and other pet needs, including both over-the-counter medicine and prescriptions.

Great for: High-quality foods and treats and skipping the vet for prescription refills.

The Farmer’s Dog: All-natural dog food delivery subscription service. Food is proportioned for your dog and delivered to your door.

Great for: Fresh food delivery and those who want a “set it and forget it” option for buying dog food.

Beauty/Baby Supplies

Image Credits: Vladmir Godnik / Getty Images

The Honest Company: Ethical baby and beauty supply company.

Great for: Diapers, baby needs and cruelty-free beauty, bath and body products. 

Ulta: Beauty supply superstore offering ship-to-home and curbside pickup.

Great for: Makeup for your Zoom meetings; skincare products for all that indoor air you’re now living in. 

Sephora: Online beauty store offering direct shipping.

Great for: Makeup, skincare and self-care items, as well as gift sets for someone who needs a boost.

Glossier: Online beauty brand that’s skin-first, makeup second.

Great for: Skincare, body and makeup.

Books & Entertainment

Image Credits: Andersen Ross/Blend Images

Bookshop.org: This newly launched offering is designed specifically to support independent bookstores in a post-Amazon age. You can browse a wealth of titles and designate the specific store you want to support and they’ll get all the profits. With so many bookstores struggling to stay afloat well before the COVID pandemic, this could be Bookshop’s moment.

Great for: Supporting independent bookstores while shopping online. 

Powell’s: For book lovers, few things beat stepping foot inside this Portland mecca. Until things open back up, online shopping is the next best thing.

Great for: Used books galore. 

Amoeba Records: For psychical music releases, going straight to the label is often your best bet. Record stores are a great option, too. California’s Amoeba is one of the greatest small music chains in the world, but it’s among those with an uncertain post-COVID future, having recently announced the expected closure of its Hollywood location.

Great for: New and used vinyl, CDs and books. 

Forbidden Planet: This Manhattan mainstay has become a go-to for mainstream and indie comics lovers alike. The store is one of countless currently struggling to stay afloat during the COVID crisis. They’ve started a GoFundMe, but better yet, go order some comics.

Great for: Comics, from superhero to super indie. 

Trident Bookstore: This gem of a Boston bookstore survived a fire and finals season, so you know it’s a special one. Its selling books all over the United States right now (and if you’re in Boston, it’ll add in brunch too).

Great for: Well-known titles as well as undercover ones. Also, pro tip: You can purchase a “creative add-on” in your package like a surprise puzzle or a bundle of greeting cards, depending on availability. 

Athletic

Los Angeles Apparel: This site is selling three-pack face masks in a variety of colors, and all purchases help fund their ability to donate masks to essential services and provide living wages.

Great for: A comfortable cotton mask that also does good. 

Donkaka.com: Fashionable face masks sold direct to consumer with free shipping.

Great for: Stylist, reusable comfort. 

Tiny pleasures and knick-knacks

Participants play a Magic: The Gathering card game during a weekly tournament at the Uncommons hobby shop in New York, U.S., on Thursday, June 27, 2019. In the battle for gaming dominance, Hasbro Inc. has what it hopes is an ace up its sleeve in a deck of playing cards that hit the market 26 years ago. Photographer: Mark Abramson/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Little Market: This nonprofit sells fair-trade goods made by people in need, from individuals with disabilities to women transitioning out of homelessness.

Great for: Candles, tote bags, soaps and sugar scrubs. 

Uncommon Goods: Unique gifts, decor, games and more

Great for: Unusual items to break your quarantine boredom, especially kids’ crafts and toys for parents whose children have now tired of every toy in the house.  

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Original Content podcast: ‘Upload’ is a cheerful show about a nightmarish future

“Upload” feels like a slight, funny show — until you realize that without the jokes, the story would be unwatchably bleak.

The Amazon Prime Video series (created by Greg Daniels of “The Office,” “Parks & Recreation” and the upcoming “Space Force”) takes place in a near future where people can upload digital copies of themselves before they die.

The experience is marketed as a virtual retirement community, but it quickly becomes clear that being trapped in an afterlife run by a for-profit tech company has plenty of pitfalls. That’s doubly true for the show’s protagonist Nathan (played by Robbie Amell), who finds his entire existence controlled by his still-living girlfriend.

As we explain on the latest episode of the Original Content podcast, we enjoyed the show’s humor and the richness of its worldbuilding. If we had a complaint, it was that the murder mystery plot was fairly perfunctory.

You can listen to our review in the player below, subscribe using Apple Podcasts or find us in your podcast player of choice. If you like the show, please let us know by leaving a review on Apple. You can also send us feedback directly. (Or suggest shows and movies for us to review!)

If you’d like to skip ahead, here’s how the episode breaks down.
0:00 Intro
0:20 “Upload” review (mild spoilers)
30:11 “Upload” spoiler discussion

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Nine senators — including Warren and Sanders — pen open letter to Amazon about worker firings

A group of nine Senators led by Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren penned an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos this week, seeking more information about recent employee firings. The statement cites the terminations of four employees who were vocally critical of the company’s policies pertaining to both COVID-19 and climate change.

Cosigned by Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, Ed Markey, Richard Blumenthal and Tammy Baldwin, the letter notes:

Given the clear public history of these four workers’ advocacy on behalf of health and safety conditions for workers in Amazon warehouses preceding their terminations, and Amazon’s vague public statements regarding violations of “internal policies,” we are seeking additional information to understand exactly what those internal policies are.

It poses nine questions, asking Bezos and Amazon to respond by May 20. The senators single out the firings of Christian Smalls, Bashir Mohamed, Maren Costa and Emily Cunningham, all of whom have been publicly critical of the company’s handling of COVID-19. A number of the above have stated publicly that they believe their terminations were directly linked to the whistleblowing — something Amazon has strongly denied.

“We support every employee’s right to criticize their employer’s working conditions,” the company said in a statement offered to TechCrunch at the time, “but that does not come with blanket immunity against any and all internal policies. We terminated these employees for repeatedly violating internal policies.”

Amazon lost another employee when VP Tim Bray publicly left the company on May 1, and workers across the country were striking over working conditions.

“[R]emaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised,” Bray wrote. “So I resigned. The victims weren’t abstract entities but real people; here are some of their names: Courtney Bowden, Gerald Bryson, Maren Costa, Emily Cunningham, Bashir Mohammed, and Chris Smalls. I’m sure it’s a coincidence that every one of them is a person of color, a woman, or both. Right?”

The letter echoes Bray’s concerns about inequality at the company, asking, “Do Amazon tech workers, Amazon warehouse workers, and Amazon executives have the same discipline and termination policies?”

This isn’t the first time the senators have pushed back against Amazon. Sanders helped lead the push for a $15 minimum wage at the company, while Warren noted her desire to break up the company (along with Google and Facebook) during her 2020 presidential bid.

For its part, Amazon has been very conscious of the messaging around its coronavirus response in recent weeks. It played a prominent role in both Bezos’s annual shareholder letter and the company’s earnings report. Earlier this week, another warehouse employee died after testing positive for the virus. As of mid-April, workers in at least 74 Amazon warehouses had tested positive.

We’ve reached out to the company for comment on the letter.

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How will digital media survive the ad crash?

Bustle Digital Group’s Jason Wagenheim discusses his company’s hard choices

When I first met Bustle Digital Group’s Jason Wagenheim, it was right as New York City was beginning to go into lockdown. The BDG offices were empty thanks to the company’s newly instituted work-from-home policy, but it still seemed reasonable to meet in-person to learn more about BDG’s broader vision.

At the time, Wagenheim — a former Fusion and Condé Nast executive who joined BDG as chief revenue officer before becoming president in February — acknowledged that we were entering a period of uncertainty, but he sounded a note of cautious optimism for the year ahead.

Since then, of course, things have been pretty rough for the digital media industry (along with the rest of the world), with a rapid reduction in ad spending leading to layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts. BDG (which owns properties like Elite Daily, Input, Inverse, Nylon and Bustle itself) had to make its share of cuts, laying off two dozen employees, including the entire staff of The Outline.

And indeed, when I checked back in with Wagenheim, he told me that he’s anticipating a 35% decline in ad revenue for this quarter. And where he’d once hoped BDG would reach $120 or $125 million in ad revenue this year, he’s now trying to figure out “what does our company look like at $75 or $90 million?”

At the same time, he insisted that executives were determined not to completely dismantle the businesses they’d built, and to be prepared whenever advertising does come back.

We also discussed how Wagenheim handled the layoffs, how the company is reinventing its events sponsorship business and the trends he’s seeing in the ad spending that remains. You can read an edited and condensed version of our conversation below.

TechCrunch: We should probably just start with the elephant in the room, which is that you guys had to make some cuts recently. You were hardly the only ones, but do you want to talk about the thought process behind them?

Jason Wagenheim: Yeah, we ended up having to say goodbye to about 7% of our team, and we had salary reductions to the tune of 18% company-wide for those that made over $70,000. And then we had 30% pay cuts for executives.

You’ve read about all this, I’m sure. It was a really, really hard decision. We spent two weeks in planning, dozens of spreadsheets, negotiating with our investors on a plan that would keep the company moving forward, but [had to] be very sober to the reality of what was happening around us. But also most importantly for us, for our executive team, we weren’t about to disassemble the company that we spent the last 12 to 18 months building.

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A worker at Amazon’s New York City fulfillment center is dead from COVID-19

Earlier this week, Amazon informed staff members at its Staten Island fulfillment center that a worker had died from COVID-19. The news was first noted by The Verge. The employee began to exhibit symptoms in early April, before being placed on quarantine April 11. He never returned to the site.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of an associate at our site in Staten Island, NY,” a spokesperson told TechCrunch. “His family and loved ones are in our thoughts, and we are supporting his fellow colleagues.”

Amazon says it doesn’t believe any of the individual cases at the Staten Island facility are directly linked. It notes that the employee was not contact-traced to any others in the warehouse.

Classified as an essential service, Amazon never shut down operations amid local stay at home orders. Last month, the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post reported in mid-April that workers in at least 74 of Amazon’s warehouse and fulfillment centers have tested positive for the virus. In late-March, an employee at the company’s facility in Hawthorne, Calif. died from the virus a few days after exhibiting symptoms.

The company has been criticized for failing to provide proper protection against the spread of the virus, as workers push to get packages out to house-bound consumers. It’s an accusation Amazon has flatly denied, both in statements and in Jeff Bezos’s shareholder letter, which laid out safeguards and plans to build a testing facility exclusively for Amazon employees.

The company began offering guidelines after a Staten Island worker tested positive in mid-March. It’s not clear how many workers have tested positive for or died from the virus. 

The company was one of several prominent retailers targeted in last Friday’s May Day protests, while earlier this week, VP Tim Bray left the company out of protest over the firings of multiple whistleblowers.

JFK8, the massive Staten Island facility that serves as a hub for New York City, has been a focal point for multiple Amazon protests during the pandemic.

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