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Divesting from one facial recognition startup, Microsoft ends outside investments in the tech

Microsoft is pulling out of an investment in an Israeli facial recognition technology developer as part of a broader policy shift to halt any minority investments in facial recognition startups, the company announced late last week.

The decision to withdraw its investment from AnyVision, an Israeli company developing facial recognition software, came as a result of an investigation into reports that AnyVision’s technology was being used by the Israeli government to surveil residents in the West Bank.

The investigation, conducted by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and his team at Covington & Burling, confirmed that AnyVision’s technology was used to monitor border crossings between the West Bank and Israel, but did not “power a mass surveillance program in the West Bank.”

Microsoft’s venture capital arm, M12 Ventures, backed AnyVision as part of the company’s $74 million financing round which closed in June 2019. Investors who continue to back the company include DFJ Growth and OG Technology Partners, LightSpeed Venture Partners, Robert Bosch GmbH, Qualcomm Ventures, and Eldridge Industries.

Microsoft first staked out its position on how the company would approach facial recognition technologies in 2018, when President Brad Smith issued a statement calling on government to come up with clear regulations around facial recognition in the U.S.

Smith’s calls for more regulation and oversight became more strident by the end of the year, when Microsoft issued a statement on its approach to facial recognition.

Smith wrote:

We and other tech companies need to start creating safeguards to address facial recognition technology. We believe this technology can serve our customers in important and broad ways, and increasingly we’re not just encouraged, but inspired by many of the facial recognition applications our customers are deploying. But more than with many other technologies, this technology needs to be developed and used carefully. After substantial discussion and review, we have decided to adopt six principles to manage these issues at Microsoft. We are sharing these principles now, with a commitment and plans to implement them by the end of the first quarter in 2019.

The principles that Microsoft laid out included privileging: fairness, transparency, accountability, non-discrimination, notice and consent, and lawful surveillance.

Critics took the company to task for its investment in AnyVision, saying that the decision to back a company working with the Israeli government on wide-scale surveillance ran counter to the principles it had set out for itself.

Now, after determining that controlling how facial recognition technologies are deployed by its minority investments is too difficult, the company is suspending its outside investments in the technology.

“For Microsoft, the audit process reinforced the challenges of being a minority investor in a company that sells sensitive technology, since such investments do not generally allow for the level of oversight or control that Microsoft exercises over the use of its own technology,” the company wrote in a statement on its M12 Ventures website. “Microsoft’s focus has shifted to commercial relationships that afford Microsoft greater oversight and control over the use of sensitive technologies.”

 

 

Israel passes emergency law to use mobile data for COVID-19 contact tracing

Israel has passed an emergency law to use mobile phone data for tracking people infected with COVID-19 including to identify and quarantine others they have come into contact with and may have infected.

The BBC reports that the emergency law was passed during an overnight sitting of the cabinet, bypassing parliamentary approval.

Israel also said it will step up testing substantially as part of its respond to the pandemic crisis.

In a statement posted to Facebook, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wrote: “We will dramatically increase the ability to locate and quarantine those who have been infected. Today, we started using digital technology to locate people who have been in contact with those stricken by the Corona. We will inform these people that they must go into quarantine for 14 days. These are expected to be large – even very large – numbers and we will announce this in the coming days. Going into quarantine will not be a recommendation but a requirement and we will enforce it without compromise. This is a critical step in slowing the spread of the epidemic.”

“I have instructed the Health Ministry to significantly increase the number of tests to 3,000 a day at least,” he added. “It is very likely that we will reach a higher figure, even up to 5,000 a day. To the best of my knowledge, relative to population, this is the highest number of tests in the world, even higher than South Korea. In South Korea, there are around 15,000 tests a day for a population five or six times larger than ours.”

On Monday an Israeli parliamentary subcommittee on intelligence and secret services discussed a government request to authorize Israel’s Shin Bet security service to assist in a national campaign to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus — but declined to vote on the request, arguing more time is needed to assess it.

Civil liberties campaigners have warned the move to monitor citizens’ movements sets a dangerous precedent.

According to WHO data, Israel had 200 confirmed cases of the coronavirus as of yesterday morning. Today the country’s health ministry reported cases had risen to 427.

Details of exactly how the tracking will work have not been released — but, per the BBC, the location data of people’s mobile devices will be collected from telcos by Israel’s domestic security agency and shared with health officials.

It also reports the health ministry will be involved in monitoring the location of infected people to ensure they are complying with quarantine rules — saying it can also send text messages to people who have come into contact with someone with COVID-19 to instruct them to self isolate.

In recent days Netanyahu has expressed frustration that Israel citizens have not been paying enough mind to calls to combat the spread of the virus via voluntary social distancing.

“This is not child’s play. This is not a vacation. This is a matter of life and death,” he wrote on Facebook. “There are many among you who still do not understand the magnitude of the danger. I see the crowds on the beaches, people having fun. They think this is a vacation.”

“According to the instructions that we issued yesterday, I ask you not leave your homes and stay inside as much as possible. At the moment, I say this as a recommendation. It is still not a directive but that can change,” he added.

Since the Israeli government’s intent behind the emergency mobile tracking powers is to combat the spread of COVID-19 by enabling state agencies to identify people whose movements need to be restricted to avoid them passing the virus to others, it seems likely law enforcement agencies will also be involved in enacting the measures.

That will mean citizens’ smartphones being not just a tool of mass surveillance but also a conduit for targeted containment — raising questions about the impact such intrusive measures might have on people’s willingness to carry mobile devices everywhere they go, even during a pandemic.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal reported that the US government is considering similar location-tracking technology measures in a bid to check the spread of COVID-19 — with discussions ongoing between tech giants, startups and White House officials on measures that could be taken to monitor the disease.

Last week the UK government also held a meeting with tech companies to ask for their help in combating the coronavirus. Per Wired some tech firms offered to share data with the state to help with contact tracing — although, at the time, the government was not pursuing a strategy of mass restrictions on public movement. It has since shifted position.

Maniv Mobility General Partner Olaf Sakkers is coming to TC Sessions: Mobility

In case you haven’t heard, TC Sessions: Mobility is back for second year. This one-day event, which will be held May 14 in San Jose, promises to feature some of best and brightest engineers, policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs and innovators, all of whom are vying to be a part of this new age of transportation.

Attendees of TC Sessions: Mobility can expect interviews with founders, investors and inventors, demos of the latest tech, breakout sessions, dozens of startup exhibits and opportunities to network and recruit.

We have announced several speakers for the event, including Klaus Zellmer, the president and CEO of Porsche Cars North America, Waymo’s  href=”https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/08/tc-sessions-mobility-2020-boris-sofman-of-waymo-and-nancy-sun-of-ike/”>Boris Sofman, Ike Robotics co-founder and chief engineer Nancy Sun, Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan and Shin-pei Tsay, director of policy, cities and transportation at Uber.

And now we have another star to add to our TC Sessions: Mobility list. TechCrunch is excited to announce that Olaf Sakkers, general partner at Maniv Mobility will be joining us on stage this year. Sakkers is a founding partner at Maniv Mobility, a global fund investing in mobility.

Maniv started out with a focus on transportation and mobility-related startups in Israel, with a few in investments in the U.S. It expanded its mission to the global stage, a move buoyed by a $100 million fund that it closed last July with backing from 12 corporations, including the venture arms of Aptiv, BMW, Hyundai, Lear Corp., LG Electronics, the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance, Shell and Valeo.

Maniv’s portfolio includes vehicle security company Owlcam, peer-to-peer car-sharing company Turo, teleoperations startup Phantom Auto, autonomous vehicle-focused chipmaker Hailo, shared electric moped company Revel, Spain-based car subscription startup Bipi and in-vehicle software management firm Aurora Labs.

Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.

And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

If you’re an early-stage, mobility startup, make sure you grab an exhibitor package to get your startup in front of today’s leading mobility leaders. Packages come with 4 tickets each and are just $2000. Book yours here.