Factmata gets backed by eyeo, maker of Adblock Plus, and takes over its Trusted News app

“Fake news” — news content that either misleads people with half-truths, or outright lies — has become a permanent fixture of the internet. Now, as tech and media platforms continue to search for the best way to fight it, Factmata — a London startup backed by Biz Stone, Craig Newmark, Mark Cuban, Mark Pincus, and more to build a platform to detect when false information is shared online — is announcing a new investor and partnership that will see it expanding its scope.

The company is picking up an investment from eyeo, the company behind Adblock Plus, and as part of it, Factmata is taking on the running of Trusted News, the Chrome extension that eyeo launched last year to give a nudge to those browsing content on the web to indicate whether a story is legit or shit.

Dhruv Ghulati, the CEO of Factmata — who co-founded the company with Sebastian Riedel, and Andreas Vlachos (Riedel’s other fake-news-fighting startup, Bloomsbury AI, was acquired by Facebook last year) — said that the financial terms of the deal were not being disclosed. He added that “eyeo invested both cash and the asset” and that “it’s a significant amount that strategically helps us accelerate development.” He points out that Factmata has yet to raise money from any VCs.

Trusted News today — an example of how it looks is in the screenshot above — has “tens of thousands” of users, Ghulati said, and the aim will be to continue developing and taking those numbers to the next level, hundreds of thousands of users by changing up the product. The plan will be to build extensions for other browsers — “You can imagine a number of platforms across browsers (eg Brave) search engines (eg Mozilla), hosting companies (eg Cloudflare) could be interested but we haven’t engaged in discussions yet,” he said — as well as to expand what Trusted News itself provides.

“The goal… is to make it a lot more interactive where users can get involved in the process of rating articles,” he said. “We found that young people especially surprisingly really want to get involved in debating how an article is written with others and engaging in rating systems, rather than just being handed a rating to trust.”

Ghulati said that eyeo’s decision to hand off running Trusted News to Factmata was a case of horses for courses.

“They are giving it to us in return for a stake because we are the best placed and most focused natural language understanding company to make use of it, and progress it forward fast,” he said. “For Factmata, we partner with a company that has proven ability to generate large, engaged community growth.”

“Just as eyeo and Adblock Plus are protecting users from harmful, annoying ads, the partnership between Factmata and Trusted News gets us one step closer to a safer, more transparent internet. Content that is harmful gets flagged automatically, giving users more control over what kind of content they trust and want to read,” said Till Faida, CEO & Co-Founder, eyeo, in a statement.

Factmata has already started thinking about how it can put some of its own technology into the product, for example by adding in the eight detection algorithms that it has built (detailed in the screenshot above that include clickbait, hate speech, racism, etc.). Ghulati added that it will be swapping out the way that Trusted News looks up information. Up to now, it’s been using a tool from MetaCert to power the app, a database of information that’s used to provide a steer on bias.

“We will replace MetaCert and make the system work at the content level rather than a list lookup, using machine learning,” he said, also noting that Factmata plans to add other signals “beyond just if the content is politically hyperpartisan or hate speech, and more things like if it is opinionated, one-sided, and or could be deemed controversial. “We won’t deploy anything into the app until it reaches 90% accuracy,” Ghulati said. “Hopefully from there, humans get it more accurate, per a public testing set we will make available for all signals.”

Ghulati himself is a machine learning specialist and while we haven’t heard a lot from Factmata in the last year, part of that is likely because building a platform from scratch to detect a problem that seems to have endless tentacles (like the web itself) can be a challenge (just as Facebook, which is heavily resourced and still seems to let things slip through).

He said that the eight algorithms it’s built “work well” — which more specifically he said are rating at more than 90 percent accuracy on Factmata’s evaluation sets on US English language news articles. It’s been meanwhile refining the algorithms on short form content using YouTube video transcripts, Tweets, Blog posts, and a move into adding more languages, starting with French.

“The results are promising on the expanded types of content because we have been developing proprietary techniques to allow the models to generalise across domains,” he said.

Factmata has also been working with ad exchanges — as we noted back when Factmata first raised $1 million, this was one of the big frontiers it wanted to tackle, since ad networks are so often used to disseminate false information. It’s now completed case studies with 14 major ad exchanges, SSPs and DSPs and found that up to 4.92 percent of a sample of pages served in some ad exchanges contain high levels of hate speech or hyperpartisan language, “despite them thinking they were clean and them using a number of sophisticated tools with bigger teams than us.”

“This for us showed us there is a lot of this type of language out there that is being inadvertently funded by brands,” he noted.

It’s also been gathering more training data to help classify content, working with people who are “experts in the fields of hate speech or journalistic bias.” He said that Factmata has “proven our hypothesis of using ‘expert driven AI’ makes sense for classifying things that are inherently subjective.” But that is in conjunction with humans: using experts leads to inter-annotator agreement rates above 68 percent, whereas using non experts the agreement of what is or is not a claim or what is or is not bias is lower than 50 percent.

“The eyeo deal along with other commercial partnerships we’re working on are a sign: though the system is not 100 percent accurate yet, within a year of building and testing our tech is ready to start commercialisation,” Ghulati added.

Unless you want your payment card data skimmed, avoid these commerce sites

Unless you want your payment card data skimmed, avoid these commerce sites

Enlarge (credit: Mighty Travels / Flickr)

found 105 websites that executed card-skimming JavaScript hosted on the malicious domain magento-analytics[.]com. While the domain returns a 403 error to browsers that try to visit it, a host of magento-analytics[.]com URLs host code that’s designed to extract the name, number, expiration date, and CVV of payment cards that are used to make purchases. The e-commerce sites are infected when the attackers add links that cause the malicious JavaScript to be executed.

One of the infected sites identified by Netlab 360 is ilybean[.]com, an Orlando, Florida, business that sells baby beanies. As the screenshot below shows, the site executes JavaScript hosted at magento-analytics[.]com.

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A mysterious hacker gang is on a supply-chain hacking spree

Stylized photo of desktop computer.

Enlarge (credit: Lino Mirgeler/picture alliance via Getty Images)

software supply-chain attack represents one of the most insidious forms of hacking. By breaking into a developer’s network and hiding malicious code within apps and software updates that users trust, supply-chain hijackers can smuggle their malware onto hundreds of thousands—or millions—of computers in a single operation, without the slightest sign of foul play. Now what appears to be a single group of hackers has managed that trick repeatedly, going on a devastating supply-chain hacking spree—and the hackers have become more advanced and stealthy as they go.

Over the past three years, supply-chain attacks that exploited the software distribution channels of at least six different companies have now all been tied to a single group of likely Chinese-speaking hackers. The group is known as Barium, or sometimes ShadowHammer, ShadowPad, or Wicked Panda, depending on which security firm you ask. More than perhaps any other known hacker team, Barium appears to use supply-chain attacks as its core tool. Its attacks all follow a similar pattern: seed out infections to a massive collection of victims, then sort through them to find espionage targets.

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A glitch is breaking all Firefox extensions

Did you just open Firefox only to find all of your extensions disabled and/or otherwise not working?

You’re not alone, and it’s nothing you did.

Reports are pouring in of a glitch that has spontaneously disabled effectively all Firefox extensions.

Each extension is now being listed as a “legacy” extension, alongside a warning that it “could not be verified for use in Firefox and has been disabled”.

A ticket submitted to Mozilla’s Bugzilla bug tracker first hit at around 5:40 PM Pacific, and suggests the sudden failure is due to a code signing certificate built into the browser that expired just after 5 PM (or midnight on May 4th in UTC time).

Because the glitch stems from an underlying certificate, re-installing extensions won’t work — if you try, you’ll likely just be met with a different error message. Getting extensions back for everyone is going to require Mozilla to issue a patch.

In a post on the company’s forum, Mozilla Add-ons Community Manager Caitlin Neiman writes:

At about 6:10 PST we received a report that a certificate issue for Firefox is causing add-ons to stop working and add-on installs to fail.

Our team is actively working on a fix. We will update as soon as we have more information.

Meanwhile, on Twitter:

Update, March 4th 11 AM Pacific: In a blog post, Mozilla says the issue has now been fixed in the standard desktop version of its browser, though some versions (like Firefox for Android) will need a separate update. The patch for the desktop version should apply automatically within a few hours. The company writes:

The fix will be automatically applied in the background within the next few hours. No active steps need to be taken to make add-ons work again. In particular, please do not delete and/or re-install any add-ons as an attempt to fix the issue. Deleting an add-on removes any data associated with it, where disabling and re-enabling does not.

Pornhub wants to buy Tumblr and restore site to former porn-filled glory

A Verizon logo displayed along with stock prices at the New York Stock Exchange.

Enlarge / A monitor seen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2018. (credit: Getty Images | Bloomberg)

Less than two years after buying Tumblr as part of its Yahoo acquisition, Verizon is reportedly trying to sell the blogging platform. Pornhub has also announced that it wants to buy Tumblr and end the site’s Verizon-imposed porn ban.

“Verizon Communications Inc. is seeking a buyer for blogging website Tumblr, according to people familiar with the matter, as it tries to steady a media business that has struggled to meet revenue targets,” The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday.

Pornhub quickly announced its interest after the news broke, although it isn’t clear whether the two companies have talked. Verizon banned all adult content from Tumblr in December 2018, and Pornhub wants to restore the site to its former porn-filled glory.

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Asto, the bookkeeping app from Santander, adds invoice financing for freelancers and SMEs

Asto, the Santander owned “upstart” developing financial tools for freelancers and SMEs, is adding invoice financing to its bookkeeping app.

The new offering, which potentially opens up so-called “micro-financing” to a much broader business market, comes hot on the heels of Santander Group acquiring Albert, an invoicing and expenses app for freelancers and micro-businesses. Albert’s functionality has now been integrated into Asto, with Albert co-founder Ivo Weevers becoming Asto’s Chief Product and Design Officer.

In a call, Weevers described Asto’s mission as wanting to create a “full-stack of financial services for self-employed people [and other micro businesses]. Financial services for SMEs is a “huge, fast-growing market,” he says, adding that Asto is innovating on the bookkeeping side, [while] other players on the market are working on the bank account side”.

“A lot of people are struggling with trying to understand and get access to finances that might help them in growing their business or overcoming certain periods of their business where extra cash would be really handy,” he tells me.

“What we’re doing now is providing a comprehensive solution where we help people with their daily tasks around bookkeeping and understanding where they are financially, but also connecting dots seamlessly with a financial solution. This is what this new micro-financing solution is all about”.

In a demo I’m given of the new invoice financing feature, it all feels relatively painless. After signing up to Asto and applying for the micro-finance option, you’re given an estimated pot of credit from which to drawn down on per invoice financed.

Invoices can be issued simply within the mobile app (or uploaded to it), which in itself is quite a time saver. Anyone who freelances knows that writing invoices and tracking them is a pain. Even more so is waiting to be paid.

Next to each invoice is a finance button. Clicking on it initiates the micro loan, with clear signposting on how much you’ll need to pay back and when. The timeframe is based on the payment terms of your issued invoice with a bit of extra leeway if needed.

“Micro-financing used to be accessible only for the larger SMEs, people with financial knowledge and have the time to go into a branch and talk to an account manager and wait for a few weeks to get a decision,” explains Weevers.

“One of the innovate steps we are trying to do here is we are making this option available for the smaller end of the SME market, which is by far the biggest and by far the most unserved. By doing it on mobile, which is their favourite device, and also doing it in a matter of minutes rather than having to wait for weeks,” he adds.

Meanwhile, I’m told that the credit itself is provided by Asto via owner Santander. Noteworthy, the invoice financing feature doesn’t for the time being use transaction data pulled in from bank accounts you have linked to the app. Instead, Asto is using a range of other data points and info you provide when first applying for the micro-financing option.

WorldCover raises $6M round for emerging markets climate insurance

WorldCover, a New York and Africa-based climate insurance provider to smallholder farmers, has raised a $6 million Series A round led by MS&AD Ventures.

Y-Combinator, Western Technology Investment, and EchoVC also participated in the round.

WorldCover’s platform uses satellite imagery, on-ground sensors, mobile phones, and data analytics to create insurance options for farmers whose crops yields are affected adversely by weather events—primarily lack of rain.

The startup currently operates in Ghana, Uganda, and Kenya . With the new funding WorldCover aims to expand its insurance offerings to more emerging market countries.

“We’re looking at India, Mexico, Brazil, Indonesia. India could be first on an 18 month timeline for a launch,” WorldCover co-founder and chief executive Chris Sheehan said in an interview.

The company has served over 30,000 farmers across its Africa operations. Smallholder farmers as those earning all or nearly all of their income from agriculture, farming on 10 to 20 acres of land, and earning around $500 to $5000, according to Sheehan.

Farmer’s connect to WorldCover by creating an account on its USSD mobile app. From there they can input their region, crop type, determine how much insurance they would like to buy and use mobile money to purchase a plan. WorldCover works with payments providers such as M-Pesa in Kenya and MTN Mobile Money in Ghana.

The service works on a sliding scale, where a customer can receive anywhere from 5x to 15x the amount of premium they have paid.  If there is an adverse weather event, namely lack of rain, the farmer can file claim via mobile phone. WorldCover then uses its data-analytics metrics to assess it, and if approved, the farmer will receive an insurance payment via mobile-money.

Common crops farmed by WorldCover clients include maize, rice, and peanuts. It looks to add coffee, cocoa, and cashews to its coverage list.

For the moment, WorldCover only insures for events such as rainfall risk, but in the future it will look to include other weather events, such as tropical storms, in its insurance programs and platform data-analytics.

The startup’s founder clarified that WorldCover’s model does not assess or provide insurance payouts specifically for climate change, though it does directly connect to the company’s business.

“We insure for adverse weather events that we believe climate change factors are exacerbating,” Sheehan explained. WorldCover also resells the risk of its policy-holders to global reinsurers, such as Swiss Re and Nephila.

On the potential market size for WordCover’s business, he highlights a 2018 Lloyd’s study that identified $163 billion of assets at risk, including agriculture, in emerging markets from negative, climate change related events.

“That’s what WorldCover wants to go after…These are the kind of micro-systemic risks we think we can model and then create a micro product for a smallholder farmer that they can understand and will give them protection,” he said.

With the round, the startup will look to possibilities to update its platform to offer farming advice to smallholder farmers, in addition to insurance coverage.

WorldCover investor and EchoVC founder Eghosa Omoigui believes the startup’s insurance offerings can actually help farmers improve yield. “Weather-risk drives a lot of decisions with these farmers on what to plant, when to plant, and how much to plant,” he said. “With the crop insurance option, the farmer says, ‘Instead of one hector, I can now plant two or three, because I’m covered.”

Insurance technologyis another sector in Africa’s tech landscape filling up with venture-backed startups. Other insurance startups focusing on agriculture include Accion Venture Lab backed Pula and South Africa based Mobbisurance.

With its new round and plans for global expansion, WorldCover joins a growing list of startups that have developed business models in Africa before raising rounds toward entering new markets abroad.

In 2018, Nigerian payment startup Paga announced plans to move into Asia and Latin America after raising $10 million. In 2019, South African tech-transit startup FlexClub partnered with Uber Mexico after a seed-raise. And Lagos based fintech startup TeamAPT announced in Q1 it was looking to expand globally after a $5 million Series A round.

 

 

Department of Justice opens investigation into failed carbon-capture plant

Cranes stand at the construction site for Southern Co.'s Kemper County power plant near Meridian, Miss., on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014.

Enlarge / Cranes stand at the construction site for Southern Co.’s Kemper County power plant near Meridian, Miss., on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. (credit: Gary Tramontina/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Southern’s most recent financial statement (PDF).

The Mississippi-based facility had received $387 million in federal grants to build a state-of-the-art coal gasification and carbon-capture power plant (otherwise known as an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle, or IGCC, plant). But in 2017, Southern’s subsidiary, Mississippi Power, decided to scrap the cutting-edge tech and only use the power plant to burn cheaper natural gas, in a major blow to the proponents of carbon capture.

Bad timing

Kemper was a complicated project. It was located near a lignite coal mine, which was intended to serve Kemper exclusively. Lignite is a low-grade coal compared to the anthracite and bituminous coal that’s found in Wyoming and Montana, so Kemper planned to synthetically transform the plentiful local coal to gas. The plant would then burn the syngas in a turbine, strip the carbon dioxide (CO2) from the power plant’s flue, and send that CO2 through a pipeline to an oilfield where it would be used for enhanced oil recovery. (That is, CO2 is forced down into an oil well to increase the pressure of the well so more oil can be recovered.)

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Google unveils auto-delete for location, Web activity, and app usage data

A large Google sign seen on a window of Google's headquarters.

Enlarge / Mountain View, Calif.—May 21, 2018: Exterior view of a Googleplex building, the corporate headquarters of Google and parent company Alphabet. (credit: Getty Images | zphotos)

Google will soon let users automatically delete location history and other private data in rolling intervals of either three months or 18 months.

“Choose a time limit for how long you want your activity data to be saved—3- or 18-months—and any data older than that will be automatically deleted from your account on an ongoing basis,” Google announced yesterday. “These controls are coming first to Location History and Web & App Activity and will roll out in the coming weeks.”

Google location history saves locations reported from mobile devices that are logged into your Google account, while saved Web and app activity includes “searches and other things you do on Google products and services, like Maps; your location, language, IP address, referrer, and whether you use a browser or an app; Ads you click, or things you buy on an advertiser’s site; [and] Information on your device like recent apps or contact names you searched for.”

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Nigerian startup Tizeti launches WifiCall.ng IP voice call service

Nigeria based startup Tizeti, an internet service provider, today launched WifiCall.ng—an internet voice-calling platform for individuals and businesses.

WifiCall is a VoIP—or Voice over Internet Protocol—subscription service that allows unlimited calls to any phone number, even if that number isn’t registered on WifiCall’s network.

Tizeti will offer the product in Nigeria for now, with plans to open it up to phone numbers outside Africa’s most populous nation and largest economy in 2020.

WifiCall was influenced by popularity of WiFi enabled voice services such WhatsApp, in Africa, and the continent’s improving digital and mobile profile.

With its new VoIP product, Tizeti looks to contend with the likes of Skype, WhatsApp, and major telcos.

“On the low end we’re competing with the mobile providers. WifiCall gives you a real number and it’s cheaper. But we’re also offering enterprise options you would not get with a mobile connection or even WhatsApp,” Tizeti co-founder and CEO Kendall Ananyi told TechCrunch.

In addition to individual users, businesses and startups can use WifiCall for internal communications or open it up to developers to customize APIs for white-label, customer applications.

WifiCall is available online or for download for free under the “Basic” package. The entry level commercial “Business Unlimited Pro” package—that offers up to 10 users, call recording, and call analytics—goes for ₦15,000, or around $35 a month. 

Nigerian trucking logistic startup Kobo360 is already is a client. Ananyi sees prospective market segments for WifiCall as startups, educational institutions, hotels, gated communities, and “regular users anywhere they have tower coverage,” he said.

That last group ties into Tizeti’s core business, which is building solar powered towers that offer WiFi service packages and hotspots in and around Lagos and Ogun State, Nigeria. Since its launch from Y Combinator’s  winter 2017 batch, the company has installed over 12,000 public WiFi hotspots in Nigeria with 500,000 users. The startup packages internet services drawing on partnerships with West African broadband provider MainOne and Facebook’s Express Wi-Fi

Tizeti raised a $3 million Series A round in 2018, led by 4DX Ventures, and has $5.1 million in investment from firms including Golden Palm Investments, YC, and Social Investments.

Expanding its internet service to more countries in Africa, Tizeti raises $3 million

4DX Ventures co-founder Walter Baddoo sees Tizeti’s voice calling as a strategic extension of its connectivity business (noting WifiCall can be used with any IP).

“The core of the company’s mission is to bring down the cost of connectivity on the continent by leveraging mobile internet and data networks, WifiCall is a step in that direction” Baddoo told TechCrunch. “Africa is going to leapfrog a lot of the traditional call infrastructure…and WiFi calling…is giving individuals, small-businesses, and large businesses one-stop for much cheaper data-service alongside voice.”

Though Sub-Saharan Africa still stands last in most global rankings for smartphone adoption (33 percent) and internet penetration (35 percent), the continent continues to register among the fastest growth in the world for both.

Mobile providers in Nigeria—such as MTN and Glo—are shifting customers from buying anonymous data-bundles to registered sim cards and subscription services. WiFi voice services are also commonly used across the continent for calls. Per We Are Social’s 2018 Digital Report, WhatsApp is the most downloaded messenger app across Africa.

On its internet service business, Tizeti has already expanded to Ghana with a consumer facing brand, Wifi-Africa, and looks to offer WifiCall there as soon as it gains regulatory approval—something in process, according to CEO Kendall Ananyi.

The startup is building an LTE network, to compliment its IP network, and plans to expand further into Nigeria with 5G offerings in the near future, according to Ananyi.

Tizeti also plans to open up its WifiCall product to phone numbers outside of Nigeria starting in 2020.  “The way Africa skipped landlines and went straight to mobile, this is us saying the next level for our voice communications is to move toward voice IP networks,” Ananyi said.