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When AI Can’t Replace a Worker, It Watches Them Instead

When AI Can’t Replace a Worker, It Watches Them Instead

Workers on Denso lines equipped with Drishti’s technology now get a personal feed of their own data. Monitors on each workstation display how a worker is doing, says Raja Shembekar, a Denso vice president. If the worker completes their assembly step on time, they see a smiley face—if not, a frowny one.

Whether AI that digitizes manual labor makes workers frowny or smiley will come down to how employers choose to use it.

Denso originated as part of Toyota, which still owns a stake in the company, and like its parent uses the kaizen philosophy of manufacturing, which encourages workers at all levels to participate in improving how a plant operates. That could lead employees to let workers engage with data and insights from AI overseers in ways that improve their jobs as well as productivity, says Susan Helper, an economics professor at Case Western Reserve University who studies manufacturing.

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However US plants, even those applying kaizen, don’t have a good track record of allowing workers to have much influence compared with parts of the world with stronger worker protections and culture. “In Japan and most other countries, there would be some collective way the workers could say ‘This is too fast,’” Helper says. “In the US plants there often isn’t.” Denso’s US plants are not unionized, but Shembekar, the vice president, says the company has a good relationship with all its workers.

The difficulty of balancing workplace data collection with employee trust convinced New York startup StrongArm to limit the uses of its own worker-tracking technology, a motion sensor worn on the torso. The device logs how a person bends and twists, data that software converts into a safety score intended to reduce injuries in workers whose jobs involve lifting or moving objects. Toyota tested the technology at a plant in Princeton, Indiana, late last year.

Preventing injuries is valuable to employers, but data from StrongArm’s sensors could conceivably also measure productivity. Although that might increase the technology’s value in the eyes of some customers, cofounder and CTO Mike Kim says his company decided it would undermine workers’ trust in the devices. StrongArm’s contracts state that if a customer uses the data in a punitive way, the company can terminate the deal immediately. “We do not capture or care about productivity at all,” Kim says. “It kills the initiative because you don’t get the buy-in.”

Algorithms can watch and digitize workers’ every move, but squishy things like feelings still matter.

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A ‘stalkerware’ app leaked phone data from thousands of victims

A ‘stalkerware’ app leaked phone data from thousands of victims

A spyware app designed to “monitor everything” on a victim’s phone has been secretly installed on thousands of phones.

The app, KidsGuard, claims it can “access all the information” on a target device, including its real-time location, text messages, browser history, access to its photos, videos and app activities, and recordings of phone calls.

But a misconfigured server meant the app was also spilling out the secretly uploaded contents of victims’ devices to the internet.

These consumer-grade spyware apps — also known as “stalkerware” — have come under increased scrutiny in recent years for allowing and normalizing surveillance, often secretly and without obtaining permission from their victims. Although many of these apps are marketed toward parents to monitor their child’s activities, many have repurposed the apps to spy on their spouses. That’s prompted privacy groups and security firms to work together to help better identify stalkerware.

KidsGuard is no different. Its maker, ClevGuard, pitches the spyware app as a “stealthy” way to keep children safe, but also can be used to “catch a cheating spouse or monitor employees.”

But the security lapse offers a rare insight into how pervasive and intrusive these stalkerware apps can be.

ClevGuard’s website, which makes the KidsGuard phone spyware (Image: TechCrunch)

TechCrunch obtained a copy of the Android app from Till Kottmann, a developer who reverse-engineers apps to understand how they work.

Kottmann found that the app was exfiltrating the contents of victims’ phones to an Alibaba cloud storage bucket — which was named to suggest that the bucket only stored data collected from Android devices. It’s believed the bucket was inadvertently set to public, a common mistake made — often caused by human error — nor was it protected with a password.

Using a burner Android device with the microphone sealed and the cameras covered, TechCrunch installed the app and used a network traffic analysis tool to understand what data was going in and out of the device — and was able to confirm Kottmann’s findings.

The app, which has to be bought and downloaded from ClevGuard directly, can be installed in a couple of minutes. (ClevGuard claims it also supports iPhones by asking for iCloud credentials to access the contents of iCloud backups, which is against Apple’s policies.) The app has to be installed by a person with physical access to a victim’s phone, but the app does not require rooting or jailbreaking. The Android app also requires that certain in-built security features are disabled, such as allowing non-Google approved apps to be installed and disabling Google Play Protect, which helps to prevent malicious apps from running.

Once installed, ClevGuard says its app works in “stealth” and isn’t visible to the victim. It does that by masquerading itself as an Android “system update” app, which looks near-indistinguishable from legitimate system services.

And because there’s no app icon, it’s difficult for a victim to know their device has been compromised.

KidsGuard is designed to look like an Android app (Image: TechCrunch)

Because we only had the Android app and not a paid subscription to the service, we were limited in how much we could test. Through our testing, TechCrunch found that the app silently and near-continually siphons off content from a victim’s phone, including what’s stored in their photos and video apps, and recordings of the victim’s phone calls.

The app also gives whomever install the app access to who the victim is talking to and when on a variety of apps, such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Viber and Facebook Messenger, and the app also boasts the ability to monitor a victim’s activities on dating apps like Tinder. The app secretly takes screenshots of a victim’s conversations in apps like Snapchat and Signal to capture the messages before they are set to disappear.

The spyware app maker can also record and monitor the precise location of a device, and access their browsing history.

Although the app says it can access a victim’s contacts, the uploaded data stored in the exposed bucket did not include contact lists or easily identifiable information on the victim, making it difficult for TechCrunch to notify victims in bulk.

But one victim we spoke to said she found out just a few days earlier that spyware had been installed on her phone.

“It was my husband,” said the victim. The two had been separated, she said, but he was able to access her private messages by secretly installing the spyware on her phone. “I gave him the choice to show me how he was doing it or I was getting a divorce, so he finally showed me last night,” she said.

ClevGuard shut down the exposed cloud storage bucket after we contacted the company. We also contacted Alibaba, which also alerted the company of the exposure.

“This is evidence that not only are spouseware and stalkerware companies morally bankrupt, they are also often failing to protect their stolen user data once they have it,” said Cooper Quintin, senior staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who also examined the app.

“The fact that this also includes the data of young children is both alarming and sickening,” said Quintin. “This one tiny company had around 3,000 infections worldwide, which lays bare the massive scope of the spouseware and stalkerware industry.”

It’s the latest in a long stream of spyware companies that have either had data breaches or exposed systems. Vice tech news site Motherboard has reported on many, including mSpy, Mobistealth and Flexispy. The Federal Trade Commission also launched legal action against one spyware app maker, Retina-X, which had two data breaches involving sensitive victim data.

If you think you are a victim of KidsGuard, this is how you can identify and remove the malware.

Got a tip? You can send tips securely over Signal and WhatsApp to +1 646-755–8849.

Autonomous yard trucking startup Outrider comes out of stealth with $53 million in funding

Autonomous yard trucking startup Outrider comes out of stealth with $53 million in funding

The 400,000 distribution yards located in the U.S. are critical hubs for the supply chain. Now one startup is aiming to make the yard truck — the centerpiece of the distribution yard — more efficient, safer and cleaner, with an autonomous system.

Outrider, a Golden, Colo. startup previously known as Azevtec, came out of stealth Wednesday to announce that it has raised $53 million in seed and Series A funding rounds led by NEA and 8VC. Outrider is also backed by Koch Disruptive Technologies, Fraser McCombs Capital, warehousing giant Prologis, Schematic Ventures, Loup Ventures and Goose Society of Texas.

Outrider CEO Andrew Smith said distribution yards are ideal environments to deploy autonomous technology because they’re well-defined areas that are also complex, often chaotic and with many manual tasks.

“This is why a systems approach is necessary to automate every major task in the yard,” Smith said.

Outrider has developed a system that includes an electric yard truck equipped with a full stack self-driving system with overlapping suite of sensor technology such as radar, lidar and cameras. The system automates the manual aspect of yard operations, including moving trailers around the yard as well as to and from loading docks. The system can also hitch and unhitch trailers, connect and disconnect trailer brake lines, and monitor trailer locations.

The company has two pilot programs with Georgia-Pacific and four Fortune 200 companies in designated sections of their distribution yards. Over time, Outrider will move from operating in specific areas of these yards to taking over the entire yards for these enterprise customers, according to Smith.

“Because we’re getting people out of these yard environments, where there’s 80,000 pound vehicles, we’re delivering increased efficiency,” Smith told TechCrunch in a recent interview. That efficiency is not just in moving the trailers around the yard, Smith added. It also helps move the Class 8 semi trailers used for hauling freight long distances through the system and back on the road quickly.

“We can actually reduce the amount of time the over-the-road guys are stuck sitting at a yard trying to do a pickup or drop-off,” Smith said.

Smith sees a big opportunity to demonstrate the responsible deployment of autonomy as well as clean up yards filled with diesel-powered yard trucks.

“If there was ever a location for near-term automation and electrification of the supply chain, it’s here,” he said. “Our customers and suppliers understand there’s a big opportunity for these autonomy systems to accelerate the deployment of 50,000 plus electric trucks in the market because they are a superior platform for automation.”

Deliver Us, Lord, From the Startup Life

Deliver Us, Lord, From the Startup Life

If that sort of talk sounds a little elevated for a product that is, as Reynolds also acknowledges, basically “a focus group on your phone,” or if you’re not used to metaphors that compare salvation to a software update, welcome to the worlds of both Christian and startup evangelism—worlds that, as recent trends in the American Midwest demonstrate, are increasingly intertwined.

Over the past decade or so, the amount of venture capital flowing into the Midwest has expanded from a trickle into a fairly substantial, multibillion-dollar tributary—enough for thousands of tech startups to sprout up in the old-line cities of the Rust Belt.

The story of this transformation, as told from the coasts, tends to be one of down-and-out heartland cities hustling to remake themselves in the image of Silicon Valley, often with the help of missionary venture capitalists like AOL cofounder Steve Case and Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance, who unveiled a $150 million investment fund called Rise of the Rest in 2017. And there’s some truth to that account. But as the demographics of tech have become incrementally more Midwestern, those regional outposts have also set about remaking the industry in their own likeness—particularly where matters of faith are concerned.

The Bay Area, which devours about 45 percent of all US venture funding, is one of the least religious parts of the country. Although this March will mark the 26th annual Silicon Valley Prayer Breakfast (recently renamed Silicon Valley Connect), Big Tech is still considered, almost axiomatically, allergic to expressions of faith. At a recent conference in Nashville, one software developer said, “I’m afraid that when people hear I’m a Christian, they’re going to start questioning my competency as a developer.” A 2018 episode of the comedy series Silicon Valley spoofed the travails of an LGBTQ dating app founder who was terrified of being outed—as a believer.

For some Christians, accordingly, the industry’s shift toward the heartland has been liberating. Jason Henrichs, the founder of several Midwestern finance and tech organizations, has worked in tech on both coasts, including a stint in Boston. “When my wife and I moved back to the Midwest, it was so much easier to be a Christian than in all those other places,” he says. In Chicago, he goes on, “if you were to casually mention you’re going to church, there’s no set of assumptions that you’re a Trump supporter, a gun toter, out protesting on weekends.” (Though in fact, he corrected himself, he and his wife would be out protesting that weekend—against gun violence, at the March for Our Lives.)

The heartland’s tech boom has sparked the emergence of a loose faith-and-tech movement, one that has grown in pockets around the world but is based indisputably in the American Midwest. The region has hosted an explosion of conferences and meetups, yoking together a host of different goals: evangelical techies devising projects intended to spread the faith (Bible “chat bots” and savvy Google ad campaigns to connect desperate searchers with local pastors); Christians driven by the social gospel discussing how to create technological solutions to problems like suicide and sex trafficking; religious thinkers pondering the ethical implications of rapid technological change.

But perhaps the most interesting part of the Midwestern convergence of faith and technology, the most salient for believers and nonbelievers alike, is the way people there have begun to question the culture of tech entrepreneurship—and try to make it more humane. “Being an entrepreneur, you go through some very dark moments,” says Kristi Zuhlke, the 37-year-old cofounder of KnowledgeHound, a Chicago-based data visualization startup. “Raising funding is very lonely. You’re basically convincing everyone that your idea is amazing while they constantly shoot you down.” It’s the sort of thing that can make people question their faith, she continued, “or, if you don’t have a faith, you start to clamor for hope that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

Cincinnati, which has become one of the Midwest’s leading tech cities, has also become a hub for people trying to find some relief from the loneliness at the heart of an industry that prizes unending drive and competition. That they had a place to connect was thanks in part to Chad Reynolds. Not long after returning from South Carolina, Reynolds banded together with a group of entrepreneur friends—including Tim Brunk, cofounder of a personal style app called Cladwell, and Tim Metzner, cofounder of a software startup called Differential—to start an organization that would eventually be called Ocean, named after Reynolds’ dark night of the soul. They were, in large part, responding to a hunger among their fellow entrepreneurs to redefine what it means to be successful in tech. But in an area of the country that increasingly sees tech as its salvation, that can be easier said than done.

Crossroads, the congregation that helped usher Reynolds toward his conversation with God, has in recent years become a major emblem of the fusion in sensibilities between tech and evangelical Christianity. Today it is a 52,000-member megachurch, with 13 campuses, a presence in six prisons, a streaming app called Crossroads Anywhere, and ambitions to expand nationally. Its lead pastor, Brian Tome, likes to say that Crossroads is “more like a startup than a church.” In 2017 it was named the fastest-growing congregation in the country, and also the nation’s fourth largest.

The story of Crossroads’ rise runs pretty neatly in tandem with that of Cincinnati, which 20 years ago was an urban cautionary tale. Although the city is home to the headquarters of eight Fortune 500 companies, including Procter & Gamble, Macy’s, and Kroger, by the 1990s it had also become synonymous with stereotypes of urban blight. Decades of white flight left central city neighborhoods like Over-the-Rhine—named for the long-departed Germans who first settled there—roughly 75 percent black and overwhelmingly poor. Businesses were boarded up, and crime reached the point that one author compared Over-the-Rhine to The Wire‘s fictional Hamsterdam, a designated area where police agreed not to interfere with nonviolent lawbreakers. A late-’90s attempt at gentrification and renewal that rebranded the neighborhood as the Digital Rhine fizzled with the dotcom bust, and after a 2001 police shooting of an unarmed black teenager sparked days of civil unrest, one conservative magazine declared the neighborhood “ground zero in inner-city decline.” Landlords abandoned the downtown’s Italianate housing stock, fleeing one of the largest historic districts in the country.

The US Hits Huawei With New Charges of Trade Secret Theft

The US Hits Huawei With New Charges of Trade Secret Theft

Competitors have long accused Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei of corporate espionage. Now the company is facing US federal charges over what prosecutors call a decades-long conspiracy to steal trade secrets.

On Thursday, the Department of Justice filed a 16 count indictment against Huawei that included charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). The indictment alleges that as long ago as 2000, Huawei stole trade secrets from at least six US companies. The companies aren’t named, but previous lawsuits by Cisco and Motorola against the Chinese company are mirrored in the indictment.

The new filing incorporates charges from an earlier indictment, released last year, alleging that Huawei misled banking partners about violations of US sanctions against Iran and that the company stole trade secrets from T-Mobile. Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, the daughter of the company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, was arrested in Canada on those charges in late 2018. She is still in Canada under house arrest while fighting extradition to the US. The new indictment alleges that in addition to Iran, Huawei sold equipment to North Korea.

Huawei didn’t respond to a request for comment, but told The Wall Street Journal that the indictment “is part of the Justice Department’s attempt to irrevocably damage Huawei’s reputation and its business for reasons related to competition rather than law enforcement.”

As for the RICO charge, “the ‘racketeering enterprise’ that the government charged today is nothing more than a contrived repackaging of a handful of civil allegations that are almost 20 years old,” the company said.

By using the RICO act, the DOJ is alleging that Huawei didn’t just commit one or more crimes but essentially operated an ongoing criminal enterprise, says Joshua Rich, partner and general counsel at the Chicago-based intellectual property law firm McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff.

The previous indictment already posed a significant threat to Huawei. If convicted of defrauding banks to conceal its dealings with Iran, Huawei could be excluded from the US financial system, which would make it much harder for the company to do business around the world. The RICO charges give prosecutors yet another way to block Huawei from US banks if it isn’t convicted on the fraud charges. “It’s not just an escalation but a doubling down,” says Jacob S. Frenkel, a former federal prosecutor who’s now a government investigations and securities enforcement attorney for Dickinson Wright.

Frenkel says Huawei will most likely try to negotiate a plea deal to avoid the most extreme consequences. The new charges will give the US government more leverage in those negotiations.

The indictment follows the signing last month of a “phase one” trade deal with China. President Trump had previously floated the possibility of intervening in the case against Meng as part of trade negotiations with China.

Complaints about Huawei’s alleged theft of intellectual property are hardly new. Cisco sued Huawei in 2003 over claims that the Chinese company had not only copied source code from Cisco products but also copied text from user manuals. The companies settled out of court. So did Motorola, which sued Huawei in 2010 alleging that the Chinese company had knowingly received Motorola trade secrets.

Previous allegations against Huawei came from a former employee of the defunct Canadian telecommunications equipment company Nortel. Brian Shields, former Nortel senior adviser for systems security, told the CBC in 2012 that hackers working for Huawei had stolen passwords from Nortel executives, giving Huawei access to the company’s trade secrets, in an operation dating back at least to 2000. (These allegations aren’t a part of the indictment.)