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Europe is working on a common framework for ‘vaccine passports’

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The European Union is preparing the ground for vaccine passports. A common approach for mutual recognition of vaccination documentation is of the “utmost importance”, the Commission said today, adding that it wants “an appropriate trust framework” to be agreed upon by the end of January — “to allow Member States’ certificates to be rapidly useable in health systems across the EU and beyond”.

“Vaccination certificates allow for a clear record of each individual’s vaccination history, to ensure the right medical follow-up as well as the monitoring of possible adverse effects,” it writes, adding that: “A common EU approach to trusted, reliable and verifiable certificates would allow people to use their records in other Member States. Though it is premature to envisage the use of vaccine certificates for other purposes than health protection, an EU approach may facilitate other cross-border applications of such certificates in the future.”

It’s not clear what form (or forms) these pan-EU coronavirus vaccine certificates will take as yet — but presumably there will be both paper-based and digital formats, to ensure accessibility.

Nor is it clear exactly how EU citizens’ identity and medical data will be protected as checks on vaccination status take place. Or, indeed, who the trusted entities storing and managing sensitive health data will be. All that detail is to come — and may well vary by Member State, depending on how immunity certification verification systems get implemented.

Last week a number of tech companies, including Microsoft, Oracle and Salesforce, announced involvement in a separate, cross-industry effort to establish a universal standard for vaccination status that they said would build on existing standards, such as the SMART Health Cards specification which adheres to HL7 FHIR (Fast Healthcare Interoperability Resources).

That tech-backed effort is pushing for an “encrypted digital copy of [a person’s] immunization credentials to store in a digital wallet of their choice,” with a backup available as a printed QR code that includes W3C-standards verifiable credentials for those not wanting or able to use a smartphone. The PR also talked about a “privacy-preserving health status verification” solution that is at least in part “blockchain-enabled.”

Nothing so specific is being proposed for the common EU approach as yet. And it looks clear that a number of vaccine credential standards will be put forward globally — as a potential universal standard. (The Commission is touting its forthcoming framework on that front too.)

Whatever is devised in the EU must ensure compliance with the region’s data protection framework (which bakes in requirements for security and privacy by design and default when processing people’s information). So it could offer better privacy protection than a private sector-led effort, for example.

The EU’s eHealth Network — a body which includes representatives from relevant Member States’ authorities who are supported by a wider European Joint Action body, called eHAction — will be responsible for defining the minimum dataset needed for vaccination certificates used at the EU level, per the Commission.

It says this must include “a unique identifier and an appropriate trust framework ensuring privacy and security”.

Expect relevant stakeholders such as Europe’s Data Protection Supervisor and Data Protection Board to weigh in with expert advice, as happened last year with coronavirus contacts tracing apps.

“The Commission will continue to work with Member States on vaccination certificates which can be recognised and used in health systems across the EU in full compliance with EU data protection law — and scaled up globally through the certification systems of the World Health Organisation,” EU lawmakers add, saying the forthcoming framework will be presented in the WHO “as a possible universal standard”.

Commenting in the challenges ahead for developing privacy-safe vaccination verification, Lukasz Olejnik, a Europe-based independent cybersecurity and privacy researcher and consultant, told TechCrunch: “It is tricky to follow privacy by design for this particular [use-case]. It is unclear if anyone will be interested in identifying possible innovative privacy-preserving frameworks such as anonymous cryptographic credentials.

“In the end perhaps we will end up with some approach using verifiable credentials, but establishing trust will remain a challenge. What will be the source of trust? Is it possible to prove a particular status without the need to disclose the user identity? These are the core questions.”

“I hope this proposal will be public and transparent,” he added of the EU framework.

It’s worth emphasizing that all this effort is a bit ‘cart before the horse’ at this stage — being as it’s still not confirmed whether any of the currently available COVID-19 vaccinations, which have been developed primarily to protect the recipient from serious illness, also prevent transmission of the disease or not.

Nonetheless, systems for verifying proof of immunization status are fast being spun up — ushering in the possibility of ‘vaccine passport’ checks for travellers within the EU down the road, for example. It’s also not hard to envisage businesses requesting COVID-19 vaccination certification before granting access to a physical facility or service, in a bid to reassure customers they can spend money safety — i.e. once such documentation exists and can be verified in a standardized way.

Standardized frameworks for vaccination credentials could certainly have very broad implications for personal freedoms in the near future, as well as wide ramifications for privacy — depending on how these systems are architected, managed and operated.

Europe’s privacy and security research community mobilized heavily last year as the pandemic triggered early proposals to develop coronavirus contacts tracing apps — contributing to a push for exposure notification apps to be decentralized to ensure privacy of individuals’ social graph. However efforts toward establishing vaccination certification systems don’t appear to have generated the same level of academic engagement as yet.

In an analysis of the implications of immunity certificates, published last month, Privacy International warned that any systems that require proof of vaccination for entry or a service would be unfair “until everyone has access to an effective vaccine” — a bar that remains far off indeed.

European countries, which are among the global leaders on COVID-19 vaccination rollouts, have still only immunized tiny minorities of their national populations so far. (Even as the Commission today urged Member States to set targets to vaccinate a minimum of 80% of health and social care professionals and people over 80 by March 2021; and at least 70% of the total adult population by summer — targets which look like fantastical wishful thinking right now.)

“Governments must find alternatives to delivering vaccination schemes which do not perpetuate and reinforce exclusionary and discriminatory practices,” the rights group further urged, also warning that COVID-19 immunity should not be used as a justification for expanding or instating digital identity schemes.

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

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Proptech startup States Title, now Doma, going public via SPAC in $3B deal

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Real estate tech startup Doma, formerly known as States Title, announced Tuesday it will go public through a merger with SPAC Capitol Investment Corp. V in a deal valued at $3 billion, including debt.

SPACs, often called blank-check companies, are increasingly common. They exist as publicly traded entities in search of a private company to combine with, taking the private entity public without the hassle of an IPO.

When it floats later this year, Doma will trade on the New York Stock Exchange under the ticker symbol DOMA. The transaction is expected to provide up to $645 million in cash proceeds, including a fully committed PIPE of $300 million and up to $345 million of cash held in the trust account of Capitol Investment Corp. V. 

CEO Max Simkoff founded San Francisco-based Doma in September 2016 with the aim of creating a technology-driven solution for “closing mortgages instantly.” While it initially was founded to instantly underwrite title insurance, the company has expanded that same approach to handle “every aspect” of closing and escrow.

Doma has developed patented machine learning technology that it says reduces title processing time from five days to “as little as one minute” and cuts down the entire mortgage closing process “from a 50+ day ordeal to less than a week.” The startup has facilitated over 800,000 real estate closings for lenders such as Chase, Homepoint, Sierra Pacific Mortgage and others.

The name change is designed to more accurately reflect its intention to expand “well beyond” title into areas such as appraisals and home warranties.

Its goal with going public is to be able to “continue to invest in growth, market expansion and new products.”

Anchoring the PIPE include funds and accounts managed by BlackRock, Fidelity Management & Research Company LLC, SB Management (a subsidiary of SoftBank Group), Gores, Hedosophia, and Wells Capital. Existing Doma shareholder Lennar has also committed to the PIPE and Spencer Rascoff, co-founder and former CEO of Zillow Group, has committed a personal investment to the PIPE.

Up to approximately $510 million of cash proceeds are expected to be retained by Doma, and existing Doma shareholders will own no less than approximately 80 percent of the equity of the new combined company, subject to redemptions by the public stockholders of Capitol and payment of transaction expenses.

In mid-February, Doma announced it had closed on $150 million in debt financing from HSCM Bermuda, which had previously invested in the company. And last May, it announced a massive $123 million Series C round of funding at a valuation of $623 million.

Doma joins the growing number of proptech companies going the public route. On Monday, Compass, the real-estate brokerage startup backed by roughly $1.6 billion in venture funding, filed its S-1

In 2020, Social Capital Hedosophia II, the blank-check company associated with investor Chamath Palihapitiya, announced that it would merge with Opendoor, taking the private real estate startup public in the process.

Porch.com also went public in a SPAC deal in December. And, SoftBank-backed View, a Silicon Valley-based smart window company, will complete a recent SPAC merger to be publicly listed on the NASDAQ stock exchange on March 8. The company is expected to debut trading with a market value of $1.6 billion.

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Fluid Truck, the Zipcar of commercial trucks, raises $63M to take on rental giants

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Fluid Truck has built an app-based platform that aims to take away the pain and cost of owning or leasing commercial vehicles, all while grabbing market share from established companies like Penske, Ryder and U-Haul. 

Now, it has the capital to help it get there. The Denver-based company said Tuesday it raised $63 million in a Series A funding round to expand its truck-sharing platform, which helps mid-mile and last-mile delivery companies remotely manage an on-demand rental fleet via web or mobile app. Private equity firm Bison Capital led the round, with participation from Ingka Investments (part of Ingka Group, the main Ikea retailer), Sumitomo Corporation of Americas and Fluid Vehicle Owners.  

The investment, its first external round, comes after rapid growth at the four-year-old company. Founder and CEO James Eberhard told TechCrunch that revenue increased 100x in the last two years. That type of growth sounds promising, but the company did not provide a baseline, so it’s hard to judge scale. 

With e-commerce expected to continue to rise at a global 9.5% compound annual growth rate from 2020 to 2025, the demand for accessible trucks for hire might see correlative growth. It’s no surprise that e-commerce is one of the industries Fluid Truck has targeted. 

Fluid Truck, which operates in 25 U.S. markets, operates like the car-sharing company Zipcar, with a commercial bent. Businesses such as moving and e-commerce delivery companies can use the platform to rent trucks. Fluid Truck’s pitch to businesses extends beyond the “you don’t need to buy or lease” argument. The platform also allows delivery companies to dispense with having a manager on staff who would manage, maintain and eventually sell the fleet. 

Businesses eager to outsource the purchasing and managing of their trucks can find fleets for hire in industrial parks and retail areas within Fluid’s service network. 

“You can hop on our platform, rent a truck and be in it in a matter of minutes, which really allows businesses to scale up and scale down,” said Eberhard. “We’re watching our user behavior go from a place where they used to own every vehicle they needed at a time to a place where they’re now grabbing spare capacity off Fluid.”

Eberhard hopes to see that type of supplementary use morph into an end state where companies don’t own a single truck and run solely on Fluid Truck’s platform. 

Fluid Truck argues that its tech stack, which is designed to smooth out the booking and renting process, gives it a competitive edge in a market dominated by the likes of U-Haul, Ryder and or other small depots. Eberhard said the process of going to a depot and waiting in line is slow and sloppy, whereas Fluid Truck’s app makes renting a van as easy as calling an Uber.

“We take all those complexities away and allow people to have a virtual fleet,” Eberhard told TechCrunch.

Fluid Truck’s fleet is made up of thousands — and soon to be tens of thousands — of cargo vans, pickup trucks, large box trucks and various other vehicles. The company also claims to have the largest medium-duty EV rental fleet in the United States, which it continues to expand as it works with OEMs to increase fleet capacity. Electric vehicles still make up less than 1% of its total portfolio due to the slower adoption of EVs on the commercial side. 

Eberhard wants Fluid to be a dominant force in the trucking industry. But Fluid Truck is not the only truck sharing app on the streets. Competitors GoShare and Bungii have similar offerings.

This sizable round could provide an advantage as it tries to become the household name in digital truck sharing. Perhaps, as importantly, the company has the attention and investment of Ikea. 

“This is another step in enabling Ikea retail to provide last mile delivery services to our customers, continue to improve on our customer promise, while also reducing our environmental footprint,” Krister Mattsson, managing director of Ingka Investments said in a statement, a comment that suggests a future partnership with Fluid Truck. 

With this latest capital round, Fluid’s goal is to (you guessed it) scale outwards, with a focus on expanding the team, adding dozens more markets in the U.S. and preparing to take Fluid into the EU and Canada. 

Fluid Truck will also be investing back into its own tech stack, which includes an internal proprietary telematics platform to predict and automate servicing and maintenance of the company’s fleet. 

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Twitter Spaces arrives on Android ahead of Clubhouse

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Twitter announced today it’s opening up its live audio chat rooms, known as Twitter Spaces, to users on Android. Previously, the experience was only open to select users on iOS following the product’s private beta launch in late December 2020. The company says that Android users will only be able to join and talk in Spaces for the time being, but won’t yet be able to start their own.

That added functionality is expected to ship “soon,” Twitter says, without offering an exact timeframe.

The company has been working quickly to iterate on Twitter Spaces in the months since its beta debut, and has been fairly transparent about its roadmap.

Last month, the team developing Twitter Spaces hosted a Space where users were invited to offer feedback, ask questions, and learn about what Twitter had in the works for the product in both the near-term and further down the road. During this live chat, Twitter confirmed that Spaces would arrive on Android in March.

It also promised a fix to how it displays listeners, which has since rolled out.

Other Spaces features are being shared in public as they’re designed and prototyped, including things like titles and descriptions, scheduling options, support for co-hosts and moderators, guest lists, and more. Twitter has also updated the preview card that appears in the timeline and relabeled its “captions” feature to be more accurate, from an accessibility standpoint.

The time frame of some of its new developments  — like Android and scheduling options — were being promised in a matter of weeks, not months.

This fast pace has now led Twitter to beat its rival Clubhouse — the app currently leading the “social audio” market — to offer support for Android. Today, Clubhouse remains iOS-only in addition to being invite-only.

It’s also indicative of the resources Twitter is putting into this new product, which was first announced publicly just in November. Clearly, Twitter believes social audio is a market it needs to win.

The company also sees the broader potential for Spaces as being a key part of a larger creator platform now in the works. During its Investor Day last week, Twitter spoke of tying together its new products like Spaces, Newsletters along with a “Super Follow” paid subscription, for example.

It’s now also testing a Twitter “Shopping Card” that would allow users to tweets posts that link directly to product pages via a “Shop” button — a feature that would seem to fall under this new creator focus, as well.

Some Twitter users on Android had already found their way to Spaces before today’s announcement by way of the Twitter beta app on Google Play.

But now, a separate beta app won’t be required — when live Spaces are available, they’ll appear at the top of the Twitter timeline for Android users to join.

 

 

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