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FTC settlement with Ever orders data and AIs deleted after facial recognition pivot

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The maker of a defunct cloud photo storage app that pivoted to selling facial recognition services has been ordered to delete user data and any algorithms trained on it, under the terms of an FTC settlement.

The regulator investigated complaints the Ever app — which gained earlier notoriety for using dark patterns to spam users’ contacts — had applied facial recognition to users’ photographs without properly informing them what it was doing with their selfies.

Under the proposed settlement, Ever must delete photos and videos of users who deactivated their accounts and also delete all face embeddings (i.e. data related to facial features which can be used for facial recognition purposes) that it derived from photos of users who did not give express consent to such a use.

Moreover, it must delete any facial recognition models or algorithms developed with users’ photos or videos.

This full suite of deletion requirements — not just data but anything derived from it and trained off of it — is causing great excitement in legal and tech policy circles, with experts suggesting it could have implications for  other facial recognition software trained on data that wasn’t lawfully processed.

Or, to put it another way, tech giants that surreptitiously harvest data to train AIs could find their algorithms in hot water with the US regulator.

The quick background here is that the Ever app shut down last August, claiming it had been squeezed out of the market by increased competition from tech giants like Apple and Google.

However the move followed an investigation by NBC News — which in 2019 reported that app maker Everalbum had pivoted to selling facial recognition services to private companies, law enforcement and the military (using the brand name Paravision) — apparently repurposing people’s family snaps to train face reading AIs.

NBC reported Ever had only added a “brief reference” to the new use in its privacy policy after journalists contacted it to ask questions about the pivot in April of that year.

In a press release yesterday, reported earlier by The Verge, the FTC announced the proposed settlement with Ever received unanimous backing from commissioners.

One commissioner, Rohit Chopra, issued a standalone statement in which he warns that current gen facial recognition technology is “fundamentally flawed and reinforces harmful biases”, saying he supports “efforts to enact moratoria or otherwise severely restrict its use”.

“Until such time, it is critical that the FTC meaningfully enforce existing law to deprive wrongdoers of technologies they build through unlawful collection of Americans’ facial images and likenesses,” he adds.

Chopra’s statement highlights the fact that commissioners have previously voted to allow data protection law violators to retain algorithms and technologies that “derive much of their value from ill-gotten data”, as he puts it — flagging an earlier settlement with Google and YouTube under which the tech giant was allowed to retain algorithms and other technologies “enhanced by illegally obtained data on children”.

And he dubs the Ever decision “an important course correction”.

Ever has not been fined under the settlement — something Chopra describes as “unfortunate” (saying it’s related to commissioners “not having restated this precedent into a rule under Section 18 of the FTC Act”).

He also highlights the fact that Ever avoided processing the facial data of a subset of users in States which have laws against facial recognition and the processing of biometric data — citing that as an example of “why it’s important to maintain States’ authority to protect personal data”. (NB: Ever also avoided processing EU users’ biometric data; another region with data protection laws.)

“With the tsunami of data being collected on individuals, we need all hands on deck to keep these companies in check,” he goes on. “State and local governments have rightfully taken steps to enact bans, moratoria, and other restrictions on the use of these technologies. While special interests are actively lobbying for federal legislation to delete state data protection laws, it will be important for Congress to resist these efforts. Broad federal preemption would severely undercut this multifront approach and leave more consumers less protected.

“It will be critical for the Commission, the states, and regulators around the globe to pursue additional enforcement actions to hold accountable providers of facial recognition technology who make false accuracy claims and engage in unfair, discriminatory conduct.”

Paravision has been contacted for comment on the FTC settlement.

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Virgin Orbit will launch first Dutch defense satellite in mission that will demo rapid response capabilities

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Virgin Orbit isn’t slowing down after joining the exclusive club of small launch companies that have made it to orbit – the company just announced that it’s flying a payload on behalf of customer the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNAF). This is the first ever satellite being put up by the Dutch Ministry of Defense, and it’s a small satellite that will act as a test platform for a number of different communications experiments.

The satellite is called ‘BRIK-II’ – not because it’s the second of its kind, but rather because it’s named after Brik, the first airplane ever owned and operated by the RNAF. This mission is one of Virgin Orbit’s first commercial operations after its successful test demonstration, and will fly sometime later this year. It’s also being planned as a rideshare mission, with other payloads expected to join – likely from the U.S. Department of Defense, which is working with Virgin Orbit’s dedicated U.S. defense industry subsidiary VOX Space on planning what they’ll be adding to the mission load out.

This upcoming mission is actually a key demonstration of a number of Virgin Orbit’s unique advantages in the launch market. For one, it’ll show how the U.S. DOD and its ally defense agencies can work together in the space domain when launching small communications satellites. Virgin Orbit is also going to use the mission as an opportunity to show off its “late-load integration” capabilities – effectively, how it can add a payload to its LauncherOne rocket just prior to launch.

For this particular flight, there’s no real reason to do a late-load integration, since there’s plenty of lead time, but part of Virgin’s appeal is being able to nimbly add satellites to its rocket just before the carrier jet that flies it to its take-off altitude leaves the runway. Demonstrating that will go a long way to help illustrate how it differentiates its services from others in the launch market including Rocket Lab and SpaceX.

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As it hits $100 million run rate, The Pill Club adds former Uber exec Liz Meyerdirk as CEO

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Liz Meyerdirk made a name for herself at Uber as the Senior Director & Global Head of Business Development for the company’s Uber Eats business and she’s now turning her attention to women’s health as the new chief executive of The Pill Club.

The move comes at a perilous time for the remote delivery of women’s healthcare as the Supreme Court has taken steps to limit the provision of sexual healthcare to women in recent months.

“Women’s health care has never been more tested than right now,” Meyerdirk noted in a blog post announcing her new role. “COVID-19 has upended access to care; dozens of states have—and continue—to try and limit women’s choice; and last year, the Supreme Court voted to uphold the rollback of the ACA contraceptive mandate decision, a stunning move that could end up impacting as many as 126,000 women who previously received covered contraception through employer-based health insurance.”

A seasoned corporate executive, Meyerdirk is hoping to navigate The Pill Club through these treacherous times. “These events have shown that reliable, safe, and affordable access to women’s health and birth control is
just one more vulnerability in our health care system,” Meyerdirk wrote.

Liz Meyerdirk, chief executive of The Pill Club: Image Credit: The Pill Club

As it faces an uncertain legal environment on some fronts, the company couldn’t be in a better position financially.

The Pill Club, which is profitable and now has a $100 million run rate, is now ready for its closeup with Meyerdirk at the helm.

The company has managed to make its mark in the crowded world of online prescriptions and refill fulfillment by focusing specifically on women’s health and ensuring that those services are available to as many potential patients as possible.

“We’re now serving hundreds of thousands of women nationwide with 20% on Medicaid,” says Meyerdirk. “We prescribe in 43 states and the District of Columbia.”

For Meyerdirk, the background she had in logistics and fulfillment from her time at Uber Eats made the transition to the pill prescription and delivery service natural.

“There is a heavy logistics element to it,” said Meyerdirk.

As Meyerdirk takes the reins of the company, she said there’s a few areas that The Pill Club will expand into beyond its focus on birth control and contraception. “There are areas that our customers are asking for,” Meyerdirk said.

These areas include, initially, dermatology. Last year the company launched a delivery service for contraceptives and women’s hygiene products like pads and tampons.

As it continues to expand its product suite, it’s also growing its executive staff. The company not only added Meyerdirk, but also David Hsu as chief financial officer and Jeremy Downs as senior vice president of growth. Hsu joins the company from Honey, where led the $4 billion acquisition negotiations with PayPal, and Downs comes from Uber Eats, where he spent five years leading growth.

“We need sustained, long-term access to women’s health care, not just a bridge while the pandemic persists; and we need coverage for essential health services like birth control and prenatal care, regardless of whether or not you’re insured,” Meyerdirk wrote. “Reproductive care has and continues to be an essential part of our business, but there are countless opportunities to serve women in all of their life stages from puberty to menopause.”

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BlackCart raises $8.8M Series A for its try-before-you-buy platform for online merchants

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A startup called BlackCart is tackling one of the key challenges with online shopping: an inability to try on or test out the merchandise before making a purchase. That company, which has now closed on $8.8 million in Series A funding, has built a try-before-you-buy platform that integrates with e-commerce storefronts, allowing customers to ship items to their home for free and only pay if they choose to keep the item after a “try on” period has lapsed.

The new round of financing was led by Origin Ventures and Hyde Park Ventures Partners, and saw participation from Struck Capital, Citi Ventures, 500 Startups, and several other angel investors including Christian Sullivan of Republic Labs, Dean Bakes of M3 Ventures, Greg Rudin of Menlo Ventures, Jordan Nathan of Caraway Cookware, and First National Bank CFO Nick Pirollo, among others.

Image Credits: BlackCart

BlackCart founder Donny Ouyang had previously founded online tutoring marketplace Rayku before joining a seed stage VC fund, Caravan Ventures. But he was inspired to return to entrepreneurship, he says, after experiencing a personal problem with trying to order shoes online.

Realizing the opportunity for a “try before you buy” type of service, Ouyang first built BlackCart in 2017 as a business-to-consumer (B2C) platform that worked by way of a Chrome extension with some 50 different online merchants, largely in apparel.

This MVP of sorts proved there was consumer demand for something like this in online shopping shopping.

Ouyang credits the earlier version of BlackCart with helping the team to understand what sort of products work best for this service.

“I think, in general, for try-before-you-buy, anything that’s moderate to higher price points, lower frequency of purchase, where the customer makes a considered purchase decision — those perform really well,” he says.

Two years later, Ouyang took BlackCart to 500 Startups in San Francisco, where he then pivoted the business to a B2B offering it is today.

Image Credits: BlackCart

The startup now provides a try-before-you-buy platform that integrates with online storefronts, including those from Shopify, Magento, WooCommerce, Big Commerce, SalesForce Commerce Cloud, WordPress, and even custom storefronts. The system is designed to be turnkey for online retailers and takes around 48 hours to set up on Shopify around a week on Magento, for example.

BlackCart has also developed its own proprietary technology around fraud detection, payments, returns, and the overall user experience, which includes a button for retailers’ websites.

Because the online shoppers aren’t paying upfront for the merchandise they’re being shipped, BlackCart has to rely on an expanded array of behavioral signals and data in order to make a determination about whether the customer represents a fraud risk. As one example, if the customer had read a lot of helpdesk articles about fraud before placing their order, that could be flagged as a negative signal.

BlackCart also verifies the user’s phone number at checkout and matches it to telco and government data sets to see if their historical addresses match their shipping and billing addresses.

Image Credits: BlackCart

After the customer receives the item, they are able to keep it for a period of time (as designated by the retailer) before being charged. BlackCart covers any fraud as part of its value proposition to retailers.

BlackCart makes money by way of a rev share model, where it charges retailers a percentage of the sales where the customers have kept the products. This amount can vary based on a number of factors, like the fraud multiplier, average order value, the type of product and others. At the low end, it’s around 4% and around 10% on the high-end, Ouyang says.

The company has also expanded beyond home try-on to include try-before-you-buy for electronics, jewelry, home goods, and more. It can even ship out makeup samples for home try-on, as another option.

Once integrated on a website, BlackCart claims its merchants typically see conversion increases of 24%, average order values climb by 51%, and bottom-line sales growth of 27%.

To date, the platform been adopted by over 50 medium-to-large retailers as well as e-commerce startups, like luxury sneaker brand Koio, clothing startup Dia&Co, online mattress startup Helix Sleep, cookware startup Caraway, among others. It’s also under NDA now with a top 50 retailer it can’t yet name publicly, and has contracts signed with 13 others who are waiting to be onboarded.

Soon, BlackCart aims to offer a self-serve onboarding process, Ouyang notes.

“This would be later, end of Q2 or early Q3,” he says. “But I think for us, it will still be probably 80% self-serve, and then larger enterprises will want to be handheld.”

With the additional funding, BlackCart aims to shift to paying the merchant immediately for the items at checkout, then reconciling afterwards in order to be more efficient. This has been one of merchants’ biggest feature requests, as well.

Image Credits: BlackCart; team photo

The funding will also allow BlackCart to expand its remotely distributed 10-person team to around 50 by year-end, including engineers, product specialists, customer support staff, and sales.

More broadly, it aims to quickly capitalize on the growth in the e-commerce market, driven by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[We want to] take advantage of the favorable macroeconomic situation to scale as quickly as possible,” Ouyang explains. “We’re hoping to get to around $250 million in transactions through our platform by the end of 2021. And this would be driven by both engineering and sales hires, and just pushing it up,” he says.

Longer-term, Ouyang envisions adding more consumer-facing features to BlackCart’s platform, like on-demand returns where a courier comes to the house to pick up your return, for example.

“Our firm is excited to partner with BlackCart as it makes try-before-you-buy the standard in online shopping,” said Prashant Shukla of Origin Ventures, who now sits on BlackCart’s board, as result of the new financing. “Its underwriting technology provides merchants with peace of mind, and its best-in-class consumer experience delivers significant sales and conversion lifts. Digital Native generations expect to be able to shop online exactly as they would in a retail store, and BlackCart is the only company providing this experience,” he adds.

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