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Broken promises: How Singapore lost trust on contact tracing privacy

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For Singaporeans, the covid-19 pandemic has been closely intertwined with technology: two technologies, to be specific. The first is the QR code, whose little black-and-white squares have been ubiquitous all over the country as part of the SafeEntry contact tracing system rolled out in April and May. 

Under SafeEntry, anyone entering a public venue—restaurants, stores, malls—must scan a code and register with a name, ID or passport number, and phone number. If somebody tests positive for covid-19, contact tracers use it to track down those who got close enough to be potentially infected.

There’s also TraceTogether, an app that launched in March 2020. It uses Bluetooth to ping close contacts; if two users are in proximity, their devices trade anonymized and encrypted user IDs that can be decrypted by the Ministry of Health should one person test positive for covid-19. 

For those who can’t or don’t want to use a smartphone app, the government also offers TraceTogether tokens, small digital fobs that serve the same purpose. And while TraceTogether is currently voluntary, the government has announced that it is going to merge the two systems, which would make it mandatory to either download the app or collect a token.

When the two systems were launched, there wasn’t much space for the public to discuss apprehensions: they were seen as necessary to fight the pandemic, and the Singaporean government acted in typical top-down fashion. It did seek to assuage fears, however, by repeatedly assuring Singaporeans that the data collected with such technology would be used only for contact tracing during the pandemic. 

And that’s where things went wrong.

Private data being used by police

Earlier this month, it emerged that the government’s claim was false. The Ministry of Home Affairs confirmed that data could actually be accessed by the police for criminal investigations; the day after this admission, a minister revealed that such data had, in fact, already been used in a murder investigation. It rapidly became clear that despite what ministers had previously said, Singaporean law meant it had been possible for law enforcement to use TraceTogether data all along.

These revelations triggered public anger and criticism, not necessarily because Singaporeans are particularly privacy conscious—in fact, state surveillance is largely normalized in the country—but because people felt they’d been subjected to a bait-and-switch. Many people had reservations about TraceTogether when it was first launched, and only began using it in large numbers after the government indicated that it would soon become mandatory. (According to the cochair of the task force on covid-19, nearly 80% of Singapore’s residents have adopted TraceTogether.)

The government has since announced that it will introduce new legislation to limit law enforcement’s use of contact tracing data to probes into seven specific categories of offense, including terrorism, murder, kidnapping, and the most serious drug trafficking cases. (The MIT Technology Review Covid Tracing Tracker, which monitors the policies around exposure notification apps worldwide, is being updated to reflect this shift.)

“We acknowledge our error in not stating that data from TraceTogether is not exempt from the Criminal Procedure Code,” said the Smart Nation and Digital Governance Office in its statement. The new law, it said, “will specify that personal data collected through digital contact tracing solutions … can only be used for the specific purpose of contact tracing, except where there is a clear and pressing need to use that data for criminal investigation of serious offences.”

Not in the original spirit

There is no timeline yet as to when the proposed legislation will be brought before parliament, and details are scant. 

“In Singapore, where laws grant sweeping executive and legislative powers to state actors, I think any commitment to accountability and restraint is welcome,” says digital rights activist Lee Yi Ting. “But it remains to be seen if the bill will make substantive commitment to these proposed limitations. For example, if state actors flout these regulations, what investigative bodies will come into play, and what consequences will state actors be held to?” 

Some doubt how useful such data can really be to police investigations and are concerned that even the proposed limits still formally expand its use beyond contact tracing.

“We like to reiterate that extending police powers to [TraceTogether] data is not aligned to the original spirit of what the dataset was intended for,” said the opposition Progress Singapore Party in a statement. “Covid tracing data must solely and strictly be used for fighting the pandemic and nothing else.” 

Trust is on the line

The confusion could not come at a more difficult time. Concerns that governments could abuse contact tracing systems have been raised around the world. Many of these worries have been misplaced, especially in countries that use Google and Apple’s exposure notification technology, which does not allow centralized collection by local authorities. The Singapore government had previously rejected Apple and Google’s system, saying that it would be “less effective” in the Singaporean context. 

But while digital systems could speed up contact tracing and aid in the fight against the virus—one that could be more vital over time, not less—most countries have struggled with adoption. One major issue: trust.

Lee worries that even if legislation is enough to placate many Singaporeans, the implications outside the country could be serious. Singapore’s early move to build digital contact tracing put it in a global leadership position, and TraceTogether’s underlying systems have been used by other nations—though there is no suggestion that the same legislative mistakes were made elsewhere. 

Still, “Singaporeans do care about the extent to which the state intrudes into their private lives,” says Lee. And, she adds, the country is setting an international precedent “for repressive governments to likewise normalize the use of contact tracing data for the purposes they define.”

This story is part of the Pandemic Technology Project, supported by the Rockefeller Foundation.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Dutch startup QphoX raises €2M to connect Quantum computers with a Quantum modem

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When eventually they become a working reality, Quantum computers won’t be of much value if they simply sit there on their own. Just like the internet, the value is in the network. But right now there’s scant technology to link these powerful devices together.

That’s where QphoX comes in. Thus Dutch startup has raised €2 million to connect Quantum computers with a ‘Quantum modem’.

The funding round was led by Quantonation, Speedinvest, and High-Tech Gründerfonds, with participation from TU Delft.

QphoX aims to develop the Quantum Modem it created at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) into a commercial product. This networks separate processors together, allowing quantum computers to scale beyond 10’s or 100’s of qubits. Look out for the Singularity folks…

Simon Gröblacher, CEO and co-founder of QphoX told me: “It is the exact same thing as a classical modem except for quantum computers, so it kind of converts electrical and microwave signals to optical signals coherently, so you don’t do any of the quantum information in the process. It then converts it back so you can really have two quantum computers talk to one another.

I noted that there’s more than one type of quantum computer. He countered “We are in principle agnostic to what kind of quantum computer it is. All we do at the moment is we focus on the microwave part, so we can work with superconducting qubits, topological qubits etc. We can convert microwaves to optical signals and they can talk to each other. Currently, the only competitors I know are all the in the academic world. So this is we’re the first company to actually starts building a real product.”

Rick Hao, Principal with Speedinvest’s Deep Tech team, added: “ We want to invest in seed-stage deep technology startups that shape the future and QphoX is well-positioned to make a major impact. Over the next couple of years, there will be rapid progress in quantum computers. Quantum Modem, the product developed by QphoX, enables the development of quantum computers that demonstrate quantum advantage by combining separate quantum processors.”

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UK fashion portal Lyst raises $85M in a ‘pre-IPO’ round, reportedly at a $500M valuation

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E-commerce continues to be a huge focus for investors watching consumer behavior and spending patterns in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the latest development, UK startup Lyst, a portal for high fashion brands and stores to sell directly to users, has picked up $85 million, in what the startup is describing as a ‘pre-IPO’ round.

The news comes as the company says that it has now grown to 150 million users browsing and buying from a catalog of 8 million products from 17,000 brands and retailers.

List said that gross merchandise value in 2020 was over $500 million, with new user numbers growing 1100% growth in new users. GMV has definitely been accelerating. Lyst has been around since 2010 and said today that lifetime GMV is more than $2 billion.

“Lyst is rapidly becoming a fashion category leader, which hundreds of millions of fashion lovers rely on to decide what to buy. While our app and website already enjoy very large audiences in the USA & Europe, fashion e-commerce remains under-penetrated in general, with huge growth potential globally. We’re excited to use this raise from top-tier investors to continue personalising the fashion shopping experience to each of our millions of customers, while helping our partner brands thrive,” said Chris Morton, Lyst’s CEO and founder, in a statement.

We have contacted the company to ask about the timing and location for a public listing and while it has not commented, we understand that London or New York would be the most obvious locations for a listing, which is not likely to be for another year or even three.

For now, Lyst has disclosed that investors in this latest injection include funds managed by Fidelity International, Novator Capital, Giano Capital and C4 Ventures, as well as a mix of financial and strategic previous backers Draper Esprit, 14W, Accel, Balderton Capital, Venrex and LVMH. Carmen Busquets — a strategic advisor to the company who co-founded Net-a-Porter, one of Lyst’s competitors in the space — also increased her investment in the company with this round, the company said.

Lyst is not disclosing its valuation but PitchBook notes that with this round, it is $500 million post-money. (We’ve also asked the company to confirm whether this is an accurate figure.) Sky News, where the funding news was leaked last night, did not have a valuation figure.

For some further comparison and context, though, Farfetch, another competitor in the same space as Lyst, listed publicly some years ago and currently has a market cap of $14.4 billion. And more generally, there is a lot to play for here online, not just against other pure-play fashion portals, but also standalone retailers, marketplaces like Amazon, and increasingly social media apps like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat, which are all looking at how they can better capitalize on how their platforms are already being used quite aggressively and widely for social commerce.

Social media sites would be an ironic but perhaps very unsurprising competitor for Lyst, which started life as a pioneer in the concept, creating a way for people to follow influential high fashion brands and influencers on its platform — who were not actually called “influencers” at the time, but curators and bloggers (the more things change, eh?) — and get alerts when items would be posted by them for sale.

People might have originally been very skeptical about how well high fahion (read: expensive, sometimes esoteric) might play over screens, but over time Lyst and the others in the same proved it all out in spades, raising successive rounds over time to back up its premise. Balenciaga, Balmain, Bottega Veneta, Burberry, Fendi, Gucci, Moncler, Off-White, Prada, Saint Laurent and Valentino are among the brands that appear on Lyst today.

Over the years, more variations and competitors have presented themselves, but the salient fact remains that high fashion has a huge target audience delivered in the right way, and that is something that investors, brands, influencers, and these marketplaces themselves have all doubled down on in the pandemic.

It’s been a time when people who have not found themselves outright struggling financially (and there are lot of those, unfortunately), have instead found themselves with more disposable income since they went out and travelled significantly less than before. Fashion and buying goods for ourselves has become a form of escapism, and for those who get a lift out of the tree falling in the forest and being there to hear the sound, we can still put on the outfits, snap ourselves for our Stories, and exposure will still be ours.

“Lyst has made huge progress over the past year with its industry leading app for the fast- growing online luxury fashion market – a trend which looks set to continue as consumers retain their newfound digital habits, and demand for fashion rises further post-pandemic. In recent years we have seen other high-growth fashion tech businesses taking the next step, and we believe Lyst is well positioned to capitalise on this market momentum. Draper Esprit has backed Lyst since Series A and we believe this latest round sets the business up for an exciting next phase,” said Nicola McClafferty, a partner, Draper Esprit, in a statement.

Lyst also announced a few appointments to firm up its executive bench in the lead-up to its next steps as a company. Mateo Rando previously at Spotify, is joining as chief product officer to focus largely on Lyst’s popular mobile app. And Emma McFerran, formerly general counsel and chief people officer, is stepping up as COO and a new board member.

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Holidu books $45M after growing its vacation rentals business ~50% YoY during COVID-19

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Vacation rental startup Holidu has tucked $45 million in Series D funding into its suitcase — bringing its total raised since being founded back in 2014 to more than $120M.

The latest funding round is led by 83North with participation from existing investors Prime Ventures, EQT ventures, Coparion, Senovo, Kees Koolen, Lios Ventures and Chris Hitchen. Also participating, with both equity and debt, is Claret Capital (formerly Harbert European Growth Capital).

The financing will be ploughed into product development; doubling the size of the tech team; and on building out partnerships to keep expanding supply, Holidu said.

While the global pandemic clearly hasn’t been kind to much of the travel industry, the Munich-headquartered startup has been able to benefit from coronavirus-induced shifts in traveller behavior.

People who may have booked city breaks or hotels pre-COVID-19 are turning to private holiday accommodation in greater numbers than before — so they can feel safer about going on holiday and perhaps enjoy more space and fresh air than they’ve had at home during coronavirus lockdowns.

Having flexible cancelation options is also now clearly front of mind for travellers — and Holidu credits moving quickly to build in flexible cancellation and payment solutions with helping fuel its growth during the pandemic.

Holidu’s meta search engine compares listings on sites like Airbnb, Booking.com, HomeAway and Vrbo and provides holidaymakers with tools to zoom in on relevant rentals — offering granular filters for property amenities; property type; and distances to the beach/lake etc.

It can also be used to search only for listings with a free cancelation policy.

“We see that many travellers have chosen vacation rentals in rural destinations over hotels or cities,” confirms CEO and co-founder Johannes Siebers. “In spite of this shift in preference, the overall European vacation rental market declined in 2020 due to the strong travel restrictions in many months. Holidu managed to grow against this trend by responding very quickly to the increased demand for domestic lodging and for flexible cancellation options.”

The startup saw year-over-year growth of circa 50% in 2020 — and greater than 2x growth in its contribution margin, per Siebers.

“[That] enabled us to become profitable with our search business,” he adds. “Revenues for 2021 are still difficult to forecast due to the uncertain pandemic and political outlook but we expect a significantly higher growth rate compared to 2020.”

Holidu is active in 21 countries with its search engine — which now combines more than 15M vacation rental offers from over a thousand travel sites and property managers. In July 2020 alone, it said that more than 27M travellers used the product.

Its search engine business has a mixed business model, with Holidu taking a commission per click with a minority of its partners and earning a commission for each booking generated with the majority.

In another strand of its business, under the Bookiply brand, it works directly with property owners to help them maximize bookings via a software-and-service solution — offering to take the digital management strain in exchange for a cut of (successful) bookings.

Back in 2019 it was managing 5,000 properties via Bookiply. Now Siebers says it’s “on track” to grow to more than 10,000 properties by the end of this year.

Bookiply has become the largest supplier of vacation rentals in what it described as “important leisure destinations” such as the Balearic Islands, Canary Islands and Sardinia (which are all very popular holiday destinations with German travellers).

Part of the Series D funding will go on opening more Bookiply offices across Europe so it can grow its service offering for regional vacation rental owners.

The division aims to reach property owners whose properties are not yet online, as well as optimizing digital listings that aren’t doing as well as they might, so having physical service locations is a strategy to help with onboarding owners who may be newbies to digital listing.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, Laurel Bowden, partner at 83North said: “Vacation rentals are a very competitive market and Holidu’s growth throughout the pandemic has been highly impressive. We are attracted by their strong operating efficiency and proven ability to grow market by market.”

Last year Holidu was among scores of startups in the travel, accommodation and jobs sectors that signed a letter to the European Commission urging antitrust action against Google.

The coalition accused the tech giant of unfairly leveraging its dominant position in search in order to elbow into other markets via tactics like self-preferencing, warning EU lawmakers that homegrown businesses were at risk without swift enforcement to rein in abusive behaviors.

Although in Holidu’s case it’s managed to grow despite the pandemic — and despite Google.

Asked how much of an ongoing concern Google’s behavior is for the growth of its business, Siebers told TechCrunch: “Given its size and market position, we believe Google carries a special responsibility in the search market. Furthermore, we believe in merit based competition to drive innovation and provide users with the best products. We have joined the letter to the EC as in our view, Google does not fully live up to its responsibilities in all areas of its product.

“The way Google displays specialized search products in many travel verticals does, in our view, not comply with the principle of fair, merit based competition. It gives Google’s own product eyeballs which no other player could attract in the same way.”

“We have not yet seen noticeable changes in Google’s search box integration but we are confident that Google will eventually provide a level playing field. Even if this would take some time and is important, we are not overly worried as we have a very diversified business. Among others, with Bookiply we have a strongly growing offering towards homeowners which is independent of Google’s activities in the market,” he added.

Since the coalition wrote the letter the Commission has unveiled a legislative proposal to apply ex ante regulations to so called ‘gatekeeper’ platforms — a designation that looks highly likely to apply to Google, although the Digital Markets Act (DMA) is still a long way off becoming pan-EU law.

Siebers said Holidu supports this plan for a set of ‘dos and don’ts’ that the most powerful platforms must abide by.

“We are supportive of the commission’s proposal and believe not only the act itself but also enforcement will drive innovation and better products for customers,” he added. “Enabling free and fair competition is a core deliverable for a regulator in a market place and we have high expectations towards the EU in this regard. If we achieve this, I am certain we will  see an  increase in innovation, investments and activities in areas which are currently impacted by gatekeeper’s activities.”

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