The UpStream

Uber lays off another 435 employees in an attempt to save money

posted Saturday Sep 14, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Uber lays off another 435 employees in an attempt to save money

This has been a rough year for ride-sharing platform Uber. The company has seen increasing losses every quarter, and there seems to be no slowing it down. In just the second quarter of 2019, the company reported a loss of $5 billion, or roughly the entire GDP of Barbados. A large portion of that loss is related to the company's IPO, but the company is still losing about $1 billion per quarter without those one-time losses.

Trying to stem the ebbing tide, the company laid off around 400 marketing employees in July. This week, however, the company announced a second round of layoffs, resulting in the loss of 435 engineering and product-related employees. This second round represents about 8% of the company's engineering and product team, and the two rounds together represent about 3% of the company's total workforce. In the company's email to employees, they stated,

Previously, to meet the demands of a hyper-growth startup, we hired rapidly and in a decentralized way. While this worked for Uber in the past, now that we have over 27,000 full-time employees in cities around the world, we need to shift how we design our organizations.

It is not unusual for "unicorns" to fall victim to this mentality. When you go from having no money to having more than you can comprehend, laziness and chaos reign supreme. Hiring becomes a casual affair, and you end up with more employees than you need in offices that are too spread out to effectively accomplish goals.

Unfortunately for Uber, their profit margins could be about to take a big hit, as California has passed a new law that could drive the company out of business, or at least out of the state. The state has passed a new law extending employment benefits to independent contractors.

FTC fines YouTube for illegally collecting data about children

posted Saturday Sep 7, 2019 by Scott Ertz

FTC fines YouTube for illegally collecting data about children

In April of 2018, a group of more than 20 privacy groups filed a complaint with the FTC, claiming that YouTube had repeatedly and knowingly violated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (Coppa). The allegations involved knowing that users under the age of 13 have regularly used YouTube to access video content, and YouTube had collected viewing history in order to make recommendations, as well as serve targeted advertisements, all without parental consent.

Since the complaint was initially filed, the FTC has begun a more universal investigation into online companies and child privacy. This included a fine against TikTok for requiring users to enter information that legally they could not collect from children. This week, the original complaint was addressed, with YouTube being fined $170 million for the violations. The fine comes as a partnership between the FTC and the state of New York. $34 million will go to the state, while the rest will go to the FTC.

In addition to the fine, YouTube has agreed to make changes to their operating procedures. Videos being uploaded to the service will need to be marked as safe for children. This will be an opt-in self-identification by the content creators, meaning that by default content will not be marked as child safe. The company will also begin getting parental consent before collecting data, which they were always legally required to do, and will not use any data collected previously, with or without consent.

This move is another indication that the FTC is worried about child safety online, as well as showing that they don't hold Silicon Valley in any special regard. If you violate laws or regulations, you will be held accountable, no matter how big you may be. FTC Chairman Joe Simons and Commissioner Christine Wilson said in a statement,

This settlement achieves a significant victory for the millions of parents whose children watch child-directed content on YouTube. It also sends a strong message to children's content providers and to platforms.

It's an important time for a penalty like this, as more companies have begun targeting online content at children. Services like Snapchat have adult users, but they're definitely popular with younger users. No longer will the claim that you have to be 13 to sign up be a valid argument in child protection cases.

Facebook adds to privacy concerns with public phone number database

posted Saturday Sep 7, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Facebook adds to privacy concerns with public phone number database

It wouldn't be a week on the internet if Facebook hadn't created a scenario in which consumer and governmental trust in their handling of data weren't called into question. This week's example of bad decision making comes in the form of a database of user phone numbers, made available via an unsecured cloud database. To make matters worse, this was not the only version of this database made available, as Facebook had already taken down a similar database of phone numbers.

The database was not created or uploaded by Facebook but was generated using Facebook's platform. Using a former feature which allowed Facebook users to find their friends based on phone numbers, someone was able to download a ton of data and, against the Facebook terms of service, store that data off-platform. However, as the company learned during the Cambridge Analytica scandal, nefarious actors simply don't follow the rules, no matter what the scenario. In other words, if the data is made available, people will take advantage of it and use it for their gains. Instagram also had a similar issue recently, showing just how little the company learns from its mistakes.

The scope of this data leak, however, makes the size and scope of Cambridge Analytica and Instagram look insignificant. The database represents the phone numbers of 419 million users, while Cambridge Analytica only affected 87 million users. That represents a 400%, or 5x, increase in the number of users affected by the leak. To add insult to injury, most of the phone numbers are either directly linked to usernames, full names, gender, and country, or can easily be linked using the identifiers present. If you've been annoyed by telemarketers calling your cell phone lately, expect it to only get worse with this leak. You're not going to escape those "extended warranty" calls any time soon.

Nintendo adds 20 Super NES games to their Switch Online Offering

posted Saturday Sep 7, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Nintendo adds 20 Super NES games to their Switch Online Offering

When Switch Online first launched, Nintendo added free games to the subscription. Knowing their customer base better than any of the gaming companies, they decided to reach into their back catalog and offer games from the original NES console. However, we discovered recently that they planned to make games from other consoles available, particularly the Super NES. During this week's Nintendo Direct presentation, the company announced the first titles that would be coming from the Super NES, and it is quite a collection.

There are not just a few games coming from the second console - there are 20 titles. The list includes popular titles such as Super Mario Kart, Super Mario World, and Yoshi's Island. Like the current NES batch of games, Nintendo has added features to the classic games, such as the rewind feature, which allows you to go back in time a few seconds and undo a mistake.

To make the SNES experience even more classic, the company has announced a new controller peripheral: an SNES controller that connects via USB-C. This is in addition to the existing NES controller that is already offered as a companion for the other classic titles. You will need to be a Switch Online subscriber to purchase the controller, though it is not yet available (despite the games already dropping).

It is important to note that this big game drop is different from the way Nintendo has treated NES titles in the past. NES titles have been added to the service in a small drip, with new games being added to the collection every month. With SNES titles, however, don't expect the same behavior. In fact, this game dump could be the only SNES titles we get for a while. The Japanese version of the Nintendo site said that SNES titles will arrive irregularly, in Japan and globally.

Google discloses iOS bug, Apple claims Google is exaggerating issue

posted Saturday Sep 7, 2019 by Scott Ertz

Google discloses iOS bug, Apple claims Google is exaggerating issue

Google's Project Zero is a security team within the company that identifies and discloses security issues in products produced by the company and other high profile products from other companies. The original concept of Project Zero was very dangerous, but the company amended their ways. Today, Project Zero works with the developers of the products in which they find the exploits to determine how and when the exploit should be disclosed.

Their most recent high profile disclosure was in Apple's mobile operating system: iOS. The details of the exploit are not important, though they are available from Project Zero. The important part is that the exploit has existed for years in the platform, starting in version 10 and existing until just recently. The problem revolves around the ability for a website to exploit the operating system and the user's privacy. Google's public report says that they discovered websites in the wild taking advantage of the exploit earlier in the year. They also informed Apple of the issue and worked with them to determine a disclosure timeline.

Apple, however, takes issue with almost every aspect of the report. According to the company's statement,

Google's post, issued six months after iOS patches were released, creates the false impression of "mass exploitation" to "monitor the private activities of entire populations in real time," stoking fear among all iPhone users that their devices had been compromised. This was never the case.

Second, all evidence indicates that these website attacks were only operational for a brief period, roughly two months, not "two years" as Google implies. We fixed the vulnerabilities in question in February - working extremely quickly to resolve the issue just 10 days after we learned about it. When Google approached us, we were already in the process of fixing the exploited bugs.

This statement itself is a mischaracterization of what Google said. Either Apple didn't understand the report, or they are trying to hide something. Google said that the exploit existed for 2 years (iOS 10 through iOS 12) not that websites were operating for the 2 years. Google said that they discovered websites taking advantage of the exploit earlier this year. Since the statement, it was revealed that the websites in question were likely run by the Chinese government, and target the Uyghur Muslim community, a group that the Chinese government has been intent on eliminating in their country. With Apple's dedication to the Chinese market, in an attempt to shore up its flailing sales, Apple might be trying to save face with the Chinese government.

AT&T's former DirecTV Now raises prices, exceeding hardline cable

posted Friday Aug 23, 2019 by Scott Ertz

AT&T's former DirecTV Now raises prices, exceeding hardline cable

Since AT&T purchased DirecTV, they have continued to have one problem after another. The DoJ has reconsidered their position on the purchase, while investors have called the company out. The investor lawsuit surrounds the accuracy of the number of people leaving the company's streaming service. Investors claim that far more customers have jumped ship than AT&T have claimed.

Now, with pressure mounting, the company has made a surprising new change to the service: increasing prices. DirecTV hopes that the remaining DirecTV Now customers, which are now AT&T TV Now customers, will be willing to pay significantly more for their service, theoretically filling in some of the holes drilled by former customers. This is far from the first price increase for the service. It started at $35 per month for 60 channels, with prices now starting at $50 per month for 45 channels. While the base plans still exist. AT&T TV Now is offering packages as high as $135 per month for 125+ channels.

This new price point is in the range of traditional cable companies, like AT&T's own U-Verse. In fact, $135 for 125+ channels is more expensive than U-Verse. The company's traditional hardline cable service offers 190+ channels, plus internet access, for $109 per month. So, what is the benefit of subscribing to this service, whose entire purpose is to attract those who don't want to pay the higher prices required to maintain the cable infrastructure? To the best of our knowledge, nothing.

This move is similar to a restaurant in trouble, where they raise their prices and lower their ingredient quality. It helps for a little while, but customers get tired of the change and leave, so they do it again, trying to stop the financial bleeding by creating a new wound somewhere else. While this might help in the very short term, the end result is an increase in subscribers for Hulu with Live TV, Sling TV, YouTube TV, and PlayStation Vue.

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