‘Magic: The Gathering’ game maker exposed 452,000 players’ account data

The maker of Magic: The Gathering has confirmed that a security lapse exposed the data on hundreds of thousands of game players.

The game’s developer, the Washington-based Wizards of the Coast, left a database backup file in a public Amazon Web Services storage bucket. The database file contained user account information for the game’s online arena. But there was no password on the storage bucket, allowing anyone to access the files inside.

The bucket is not believed to have been exposed for long — since around early-September — but it was long enough for U.K. cybersecurity firm Fidus Information Security to find the database.

A review of the database file showed there were 452,634 players’ information, including about 470 email addresses associated with Wizards’ staff. The database included player names and usernames, email addresses, and the date and time of the account’s creation. The database also had user passwords, which were hashed and salted, making it difficult but not impossible to unscramble.

None of the data was encrypted. The accounts date back to at least 2012, according to our review of the data.

A formatted version of the database backup file, redacted, containing 452,000 user records. (Image: TechCrunch)

Fidus reached out to Wizards of the Coast but did not hear back. It was only after TechCrunch reached out that the game maker pulled the storage bucket offline.

Bruce Dugan, a spokesperson for the game developer, told TechCrunch in a statement: “We learned that a database file from a decommissioned website had inadvertently been made accessible outside the company.”

“We removed the database file from our server and commenced an investigation to determine the scope of the incident,” he said. “We believe that this was an isolated incident and we have no reason to believe that any malicious use has been made of the data,” but the spokesperson did not provide any evidence for this claim.

“However, in an abundance of caution, we are notifying players whose information was contained in the database and requiring them to reset their passwords on our current system,” he said.

Harriet Lester, Fidus’ director of research and development, said it was “surprising in this day and age that misconfigurations and lack of basic security hygiene still exist on this scale, especially when referring to such large companies with a userbase of over 450,000 accounts.”

“Our research team work continuously, looking for misconfigurations such as this to alert companies as soon as possible to avoid the data falling into the wrong hands. It’s our small way of helping make the internet a safer place,” she told TechCrunch.

The game maker said it informed the U.K. data protection authorities about the exposure, in line with breach notification rules under Europe’s GDPR regulations. The U.K.’s Information Commissioner’s Office did not immediately return an email to confirm the disclosure.

Companies can be fined up to 4% of their annual turnover for GDPR violations.


Source: Tech Crunch

This Week in Apps: Apple’s vaping app ban, Disney+ gets installed, apps gear up for Black Friday

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support, and the money that flows through it all. What are developers talking about? What do app publishers and marketers need to know? How are politics impacting the App Store and app businesses? And which apps are everyone using?

As mid-November rolls around, we’re looking at a few big stories, including Apple’s decision to ban an entire category of apps due to health concerns, the launch of Disney+ from an app perspective, what Black Friday will mean for e-commerce apps, and more.

Fast Facts

With Disney+’s huge launch (10+ million users!) on everyone’s minds, it’s time to think about what these streaming newcomers mean for the overall landscape and the app stores. In this case, it seems that Disney+’s user base was highly mobile. The company itself announced more than 10 million users, while data on the Disney+ app’s first few days indicates it now has over 10 million downloads. It seems like consumers definitely want to take their new streaming service with them everywhere they go.

  • In 2020, App Annie forecasts consumers will spend more than 674 billion hours in the Entertainment and Video Player and Editor categories worldwide on Android phones, up from an expected 558 billion hours in 2019. Thanks to Disney+, Apple TV+ and soon, HBO Max, Peacock and Quibi, to making the landscape both richer and more complicated.
  • On its launch day, Disney+ hit #1 by iPhone Overall downloads at 8 AM in the U.S. and at 11 AM in Canada — an indication of the ability that strong IP has can really excite consumers to come out in droves. (Unfortunately, that led to some launch day glitches, too.)
  • Apptopia estimated Disney+ was downloaded 3.2 million times in its first 24 hours. The firm also estimated users collectively spent 1.3 million hours watching Disney+ on day one — ahead of Amazon Prime Video, but well behind Netflix.

  • Sensor Tower waited to collect a little more data instead. It found that the Disney+ app was installed approximately 9.6 million times in all available markets (the U.S., Canada, and the Netherlands), since its U.S. launch on Tuesday, Nov. 12. For comparison’s sake, HBO Now’s U.S. launch only saw 180,000 installs in its first three days — or 2% of the Disney+ total. Combined with the test period installs in the Netherlands, the app has now been installed over 10 million times.
  • The hype around Disney+ has had a halo effect. Hulu and ESPN, which were offered in a bundle with Disney+, also grew as a result of the Disney+ launch. Sensor Tower found combined users of the apps in the U.S. and Canada were up 30% in the past week over the week prior.

Headlines

Apple removed all vaping apps from the App Store, citing CDC health concerns

The CDC says 42 people have died due to vaping product use and thousands more cases of lung injuries have been reported from 49 states. Now, Apple has made the controversial decision to remove all 181 vaping-related apps from its App Store — including those with news and information about vaping and even vaping-related games, Axios reported this week.

Some say Apple is helping to protect kids and teens by limiting their exposure to e-cigarette and vaping products, which are being used to addict a younger generation to nicotine and cause serious disease. Others argue that Apple is over-reaching. After all, many of the lung illnesses involve people who were vaping illegally obtained THC, studies indicated.

This isn’t the first time Apple has banned a category of apps because of what appear to be moral concerns. The company in the past had booted apps that promoted weed or depicted gun violence, for example. In the case of vaping apps, Apple cited the public health crisis and youth epidemic as contributing factors, telling Axios that:

We take great care to curate the App Store as a trusted place for customers, particularly youth, to download apps. We’re constantly evaluating apps, and consulting the latest evidence, to determine risks to users’ health and well-being. Recently, experts ranging from the CDC to the American Heart Association have attributed a variety of lung injuries and fatalities to e-cigarette and vaping products, going so far as to call the spread of these devices a public health crisis and a youth epidemic. We agree, and we’ve updated our App Store Review Guidelines to reflect that apps encouraging or facilitating the use of these products are not permitted. As of today, these apps are no longer available to download.

Existing users will still be able to use their apps, but new users will not be able to download the banned apps going forward.

Minecraft Earth arrives 

Minecraft Earth launched early last week across 9 countries on both Android and iOS and now it’s come to the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and several other markets. Some expect the app will rival the success of the AR breakout hit, Pokémon Go, which was thought at the time to be the precursor to a new wave of massive AR gaming titles. But in reality, that didn’t happen. The highly anticipated follow-up from Niantic, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite didn’t come close to competing with its predecessor, generating $12 million in its first month, compared with Pokémon Go’s first-month earnings of $300 million. With Minecraft Earth now sitting at No. 2 (c’mon, you can’t unseat Disney+) on the U.S. App Store, it seems there’s potential for another AR kingpin.

App Annie releases a user acquisition playbook

A top name in App Store intelligence, App Annie this week released a new how-to handbook focused on user acquisition strategies on mobile. Sure the free download is just a bit of lead gen for App Annie, but the guide promises to fill you in on all you need to know to be successful in acquiring mobile users. The playbook’s arrival follows App Annie’s acquisition of adtech insights firm Libring this fall, as it expands to cover more aspects of running an app business. Just as important as rankings and downloads are the very real costs associated with running an app business — including the cost of acquiring users.


Source: Tech Crunch

The House and Senate finally agree on something: Robocalls

In these times of political strife, it’s nice that despite our differences we can still band together as a nation in the face of a catastrophe that affects us all equally. I speak, of course, of robocalls, and it seems that the House and Senate have put their differences aside for the present in order to collaborate on a law combating this scourge.

Despite a great deal of FCC bluster, a few high-profile fines and some talk from telecoms about their plans to implement new anti-robocall standards, half the country’s phones are still blowing up regularly with recordings and scammers on the other side.

If regulators find it difficult to act, ultimately what’s needed is legislation, and lawmakers — who no doubt are receiving the calls themselves, which might have given the task a special urgency.

As often happens in Congress, two competing versions of the bill emerged to address this issue, and both passed in their respective chambers earlier this year. Now the leaders of the committees involved have announced an “agreement in principle” that will hopefully allow them to pass a unified version of the bill.

The “Pallone-Thune TRACED Act” owes its name to its primary sponsors — Rep. Pallone (D-NJ) and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) — and the earlier and superior acronym from the House act, Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence.

“Our agreement will require telephone carriers to verify calls and allow robocalls to be blocked in a consistent and transparent way, all at no extra charge to consumers. The agreement also gives the FCC and law enforcement the ability to quickly go after scammers,” said Rep. Pallone in a statement accompanying the news.

The bill text is expected to be finalized in a matter of days, and it will hopefully make it onto the legislative calendar in a hurry.

Meanwhile, the FCC has been waiting patiently for telecoms to implement SHAKEN/STIR, an anti-spoofing measure they can implement on their networks, repeatedly warning that it will eventually take action if they don’t. A resolution in June made clear that robocalls from outside the country are legal to block, but didn’t say anything about potential fees. Fortunately the act mentioned above does make sure consumers don’t get dinged for the service.


Source: Tech Crunch

Those crappy pre-installed Android apps can be full of security holes

If you’ve ever bought an Android phone, there’s a good chance you booted it up to find it pre-loaded with junk you definitely didn’t ask for.

These pre-installed apps can be clunky, annoying to remove, rarely updated… and, it turns out, full of security holes.

Security firm Kryptowire built a tool to automatically scan a large number of Android devices for signs of security shortcomings and, in a study funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, ran it on phones from 29 different vendors. Now, the majority of these vendors are ones most people have never heard of — but a few big names like Asus, Samsung and Sony make appearances.

Kryptowire says they found vulnerabilities of all different varieties, from apps that can be forced to install other apps, to tools that can be tricked into recording audio, to those that can silently mess with your system settings. Some of the vulnerabilities can only be triggered by other apps that come pre-installed (thus limiting the attack vector to those along the supply chain); others, meanwhile, can seemingly be triggered by any app the user might install down the road.

Kryptowire has a full list of observed vulnerabilities here, broken down by type and manufacturer. The firm says it found 146 vulnerabilities in all.

As Wired points out, Google is well aware of this potential attack route. In 2018 it launched a program called the Build Test Suite (or BTS) that all partner OEMs must pass. BTS scans a device’s firmware for any known security issues hiding amongst its pre-installed apps, flagging these bad apps as Potentially Harmful Applications (or PHAs). As Google puts it in its 2018 Android security report:

OEMs submit their new or updated build images to BTS. BTS then runs a series of tests that look for security issues on the system image. One of these security tests scans for pre-installed PHAs included in the system image. If we find a PHA on the build, we work with the OEM partner to remediate and remove the PHA from the build before it can be offered to users.

During its first calendar year, BTS prevented 242 builds with PHAs from entering the ecosystem.

Anytime BTS detects an issue we work with our OEM partners to remediate and understand how the application was included in the build. This teamwork has allowed us to identify and mitigate systemic threats to the ecosystem.

Alas, one automated system can’t catch everything — and when an issue does sneak by, there’s no certainty that a patch or fix will ever arrive (especially on lower-end devices, where long-term support tends to be limited).

We reached out to Google for comment on the report, but have yet to hear back.

Update — Google’s response:

We appreciate the work of the research community who collaborate with us to responsibly fix and disclose issues such as these.


Source: Tech Crunch

Facebook’s Libra code chugs along ignoring regulatory deadlock

“5 months and growing strong” the Libra Association announced today in a post about its technical infrastructure that completely omits the fierce regulatory backlash to its cryptocurrency.

Forty wallets, tools and block explorers plus 1,700 GitHub commits have how now been built on its blockchain testnet that’s seen 51,000 mock transactions in the past two months. Libra nodes that process transactions are now being run by Coinbase, Uber, BisonTrails, Iliad, Xapo, Anchorage and Facebook’s Calibra. Six more nodes are being established, plus there are 8 more getting set up from members who lack technical teams, meaning all 21 members have nodes running or in the works.

But the update on the Libra backend doesn’t explain how the association plans to get all the way to its goal of 100 members and nodes by next year when it originally projected a launch. And it gives no nod to the fact that even if Libra is technically ready to deploy its mainnet in 2020, government regulators in the U.S. and around the world still won’t necessarily let it launch.

Facebook itself seems to be hedging its bets on fintech in the face of pushback against Libra. This week it began the launch of Facebook Pay, which will let users pay friends, merchants and charities with a single payment method across Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram.

Facebook Pay could help the company drive more purchases on its platform, get more insights into transactions and lead merchants to spend more on ads to lure in sales facilitated by quicker payments. That’s most of what Facebook was trying to get out of Libra in the first place, beyond better financial inclusion.

Last month’s congressional testimony from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was less contentious than Libra board member David Marcus’ appearances on Capitol Hill in July. Yet few of lawmakers’ core concerns about how Libra could facilitate money laundering, endanger users’ assets and give Facebook even more power amidst ongoing anti-trust investigations were assuaged.

This set of announcements from the Libra Core summit of technical members was an opportunity for the project to show how it was focused on addressing fraud, security and decentralization of power. Instead, the Libra Association took the easy route of focusing on what the Facebook-led development team knows best: writing code, not fixing policy. TechCrunch provided questions to the Libra Association and some members, but the promised answers were not returned before press time.

[Update: In response to our article and criticisms about the lack of acknowledgement of regulatory issues, a Libra spokesperson provided the following statement.]

Today’s Libra Core Summit was the first step towards a collaborative development plan for Libra Core and Move. The summit was designed to educate and support members in areas include running a Libra node, building a Libra wallet, scaling the Libra network and interoperability between Libra wallet. There are many facets of the Libra project that are working in tandem. The Libra Association executive leadership team is continuing the critical work to listen to, engage and collaborate with regulators around the world.

For those organizations without a technical team to implement a node, the Libra Association is working on a strategy to support deployment in 2020, when the Libra Core feature set is complete” the Association’s Michael Engle writes. “The Libra Association intends to deploy 100 nodes on the mainnet, representing a mix of on-premises and cloud-hosted infrastructure.” It feels a bit like Libra is plugging its ears.

Having proper documentation, setting up CLAs to ease GitHub contributions, standardizing the Move code language, a Bug Bounty program and a public technical roadmap are a good start. But until the Association can answers Congress’ questions directly, they’re likely to refuse Libra approval, which Zuckerberg said the project won’t launch without.


Source: Tech Crunch

Three of Apple and Google’s former star chip designers launch NUVIA with $53M in series A funding

Silicon is apparently the new gold these days, or so VCs hope.

What was once a no-go zone for venture investors, who feared the long development lead times and high technical risk required for new entrants in the semiconductor field, has now turned into one of the hottest investment areas for enterprise and data VCs. Startups like Graphcore have reached unicorn status (after its $200 million series D a year ago) while Groq closed $52M from the likes of Chamath Palihapitiya of Social Capital fame and Cerebras raised $112 million in investment from Benchmark and others while announcing that it had produced the first trillion transistor chip (and who I profiled a bit this summer).

Today, we have another entrant with another great technical team at the helm, this time with a Santa Clara, CA-based startup called NUVIA. The company announced this morning that it has raised a $53 million series A venture round co-led by Capricorn Investment Group, Dell Technologies Capital, Mayfield, and WRVI Capital, with participation from Nepenthe LLC.

Despite only getting started earlier this year, the company currently has roughly 60 employees, 30 more at various stages of accepted offers, and the company may even crack 100 employees before the end of the year.

What’s happening here is a combination of trends in the compute industry. There has been an explosion in data and by extension, the data centers required to store all of that information, just as we have exponentially expanded our appetite for complex machine learning algorithms to crunch through all of those bits. Unfortunately, the growth in computation power is not keeping pace with our demands as Moore’s Law slows. Companies like Intel are hitting the limits of physics and our current know-how to continue to improve computational densities, opening the ground for new entrants and new approaches to the field.

Finding and building a dream team with a “chip” on their shoulder

There are two halves to the NUVIA story. First is the story of the company’s founders, which include John Bruno, Manu Gulati, and Gerard Williams III, who will be CEO. The three overlapped for a number of years at Apple, where they brought their diverse chip skillsets together to lead a variety of initiatives including Apple’s A-series of chips that power the iPhone and iPad. According to a press statement from the company, the founders have worked on a combined 20 chips across their careers and have received more than 100 patents for their work in silicon.

Gulati joined Apple in 2009 as a micro architect (or SoC architect) after a career at Broadcom, and a few months later, Williams joined the team as well. Gulati explained to me in an interview that, “So my job was kind of putting the chip together; his job was delivering the most important piece of IT that went into it, which is the CPU.” A few years later in around 2012, Bruno was poached from AMD and brought to Apple as well.

Gulati said that when Bruno joined, it was expected he would be a “silicon person” but his role quickly broadened to think more strategically about what the chipset of the iPhone and iPad should deliver to end users. “He really got into this realm of system-level stuff and competitive analysis and how do we stack up against other people and what’s happening in the industry,” he said. “So three very different technical backgrounds, but all three of us are very, very hands-on and, you know, just engineers at heart.”

Gulati would take an opportunity at Google in 2017 aimed broadly around the company’s mobile hardware, and he eventually pulled over Bruno from Apple to join him. The two eventually left Google earlier this year in a report first covered by The Information in May. For his part, Williams stayed at Apple for nearly a decade before leaving earlier this year in March.

The company is being stealthy about exactly what it is working on, which is typical in the silicon space because it can take years to design, manufacture, and get a product into market. That said, what’s interesting is that while the troika of founders all have a background in mobile chipsets, they are indeed focused on the data center broadly conceived (i.e. cloud computing), and specifically reading between the lines, to finding more energy-efficient ways that can combat the rising climate cost of machine learning workflows and computation-intensive processing.

Gulati told me that “for us, energy efficiency is kind of built into the way we think.”

The company’s CMO did tell me that the startup is building “a custom clean sheet designed from the ground up” and isn’t encumbered by legacy designs. In other words, the company isn’t building on top of ARM or other existing chip architectures.

Building an investor syndicate that’s willing to “chip” in

Outside of the founders, the other half of this NUVIA story is the collective of investors sitting around the table, all of whom not only have deep technical backgrounds, but also deep pockets who can handle the technical risk that comes with new silicon startups.

Capricorn specifically invested out of what it calls its Technology Impact Fund, which focuses on funding startups that use technology to make a positive impact on the world. Its portfolio according to a statement includes Tesla, Planet Labs, and Helion Energy.

Meanwhile, DTC is the venture wing of Dell Technologies and its associated companies, and brings a deep background in enterprise and data centers, particularly from the group’s server business like Dell EMC. Scott Darling, who leads DTC, is joining NUVIA’s board, although the company is not disclosing the board composition at this time. Navin Chaddha, an electrical engineer by training who leads Mayfield, has invested in companies like HashiCorp, Akamai, and SolarCity. Finally, WRVI has a long background in enterprise and semiconductor companies.

I chatted a bit with Darling of DTC about what he saw in this particular team and their vision for the data center. In addition to liking each founder individually, Darling felt the team as a whole was just very strong. “What’s most impressive is that if you look at them collectively, they have a skillset and breadth that’s also stunning,” he said.

He confirmed that the company is broadly working on data center products, but said the company is going to lie low on its specific strategy during product development. “No point in being specific, it just engenders immune reactions from other players so we’re just going to be a little quiet for a while,” he said.

He apologized for “sounding incredibly cryptic” but said that the investment thesis from his perspective for the product was that “the data center market is going to be receptive to technology evolutions that have occurred in places outside of the data center that’s going to allow us to deliver great products to the data center.”

Interpolating that statement a bit with the mobile chip backgrounds of the founders at Google and Apple, it seems evident that the extreme energy-to-performance constraints of mobile might find some use in the data center, particularly given the heightened concerns about power consumption and climate change among data center owners.

DTC has been a frequent investor in next-generation silicon, including joining the series A investment of Graphcore back in 2016. I asked Darling whether the firm was investing aggressively in the space or sort of taking a wait-and-see attitude, and he explained that the firm tries to keep a consistent volume of investments at the silicon level. “My philosophy on that is, it’s kind of an inverted pyramid. No, I’m not gonna do a ton of silicon plays. If you look at it, I’ve got five or six. I think of them as the foundations on which a bunch of other stuff gets built on top,” he explained. He noted that each investment in the space is “expensive” given the work required to design and field a product, and so these investments have to be carefully made with the intention of supporting the companies for the long haul.

That explanation was echoed by Gulati when I asked how he and his co-founders came to closing on this investor syndicate. Given the reputations of the three, they would have had easy access to any VC in the Valley. He said about the final investors:

They understood that putting something together like this is not going to be easy and it’s not for everybody … I think everybody understands that there’s an opportunity here. Actually capitalizing upon it and then building a team and executing on it is not something that just anybody could possibly take on. And similarly, it is not something that every investor could just possibly take on in my opinion. They themselves need to have a vision on their side and not just believe our story. And they need to strategically be willing to help and put in the money and be there for the long haul.

It may be a long haul, but Gulati noted that “on a day-to-day basis, it’s really awesome to have mostly friends you work with.” With perhaps 100 employees by the end of the year and tens of millions of dollars already in the bank, they have their war chest and their army ready to go. Now comes the fun (and hard) part as we learn how the chips fall.


Source: Tech Crunch

Twitter makes its political ad ban official

The ban on political ads announced by Twitter two weeks ago has come into effect, and the rules are surprisingly simple — perhaps too simple. No political content as they define it may be promoted; Candidates, parties, governments or officials, PACs, and certain political nonprofit groups are banned from promoting content altogether.

The idea intended to be made manifest in these policies is that “political message reach should be earned, not bought,” as the company puts it. It’s hard to argue with that (but Facebook will anyway). The new rules apply globally and to all ad types.

It’s important to make clear at the outset that Twitter is not banning political content, it is banning the paid promotion of that content. Every topic is fair game and every person or organization on Twitter can pursue their cause as before — they just can’t pay to get their message in front of more eyeballs.

In its briefly stated rules, the company explains what it means by “political content”:

We define political content as content that references a candidate, political party, elected or appointed government official, election, referendum, ballot measure, legislation, regulation, directive, or judicial outcome.

Also banned are:

Ads that contain references to political content, including appeals for votes, solicitations of financial support, and advocacy for or against any of the above-listed types of political content.

That seems pretty straightforward. Banning political ads is controversial to begin with, but unclear or complicated definitions would really make things difficult.

A blanket ban on many politically-motivated organizations will also help clear the decks. Political action committees, or PACs, and their deep-pocketed cousins the SuperPACs, are banned from advertising at all. That makes sense, since what content would they be promoting other than attempts to influence the political process? 501(c)4 nonprofit organizations, not as publicly notorious as PACs but huge spenders on political causes, are also banned.

There are of course exemptions, both for news organizations that want to promote coverage of political issues, and “cause-based” content deemed non-political.

The first exemption is pretty natural — although many news organizations do have a political outlook or ideological bent, it’s a far cry from the practice of donating millions directly to candidates or parties. But not just any site can take advantage — you’ll have to have 200,000 monthly unique visitors, make your own content with your own people, and not be primarily focused on a single issue.

The “cause-based” exemption may be where Twitter takes the most heat. As Twitter’s policy states, it will allow “ads that educate, raise awareness, and/or call for people to take action in connection with civic engagement, economic growth, environmental stewardship, or social equity causes.”

These come with some restrictions: They can only be targeted to the state, province, or region level — no zip codes, so hyper-local influence is out. And politically-charged interests may not be targeted, so you can’t send your cause-based ads just to “socialists,” for example. And they can’t reference or be run on behalf of any of the banned entities above.

But it’s the play in the definition that may come back to bite Twitter. What exactly constitutes “civic engagement” and “social equity causes”? Perhaps these concepts were only vaguely defined by design to be accommodating rather than prescriptive, but if you leave an inch for interpretation, you’d better believe bad actors are going to take a mile.

Clearly this is meant to allow promotion of content like voter registration drives, disaster relief work, and so on. But it’s more than possible someone will try to qualify, say, an anti-immigrant rally as “public conversation around important topics.”

I asked Twitter whether additional guidance on the cause-based content rules would be forthcoming, but a representative simply pointed me to the very language I quoted.

That said, policy lead at Twitter Vijaya Gadde said that the company will attempt to be transparent with its decisions on individual issues and clear about changes to the rules going forward.

“This is new territory,” she tweeted. “As with every policy we put into practice, it will evolve and we’ll be listening to your feedback.”

And no doubt they shall receive it — in abundance.


Source: Tech Crunch

You’ve heard of CRISPR, now meet its newer, savvier cousin CRISPR Prime

CRISPR, the revolutionary ability to snip out and alter genes with scissor-like precision, has exploded in popularity over the last few years and is generally seen as the standalone wizard of modern gene-editing. However, it’s not a perfect system, sometimes cutting at the wrong place, not working as intended and leaving scientists scratching their heads. Well, now there’s a new, more exacting upgrade to CRISPR called Prime, with the ability to, in theory, snip out more than 90 percent of all genetic diseases.

Just what is this new method and how does it work? We turned to IEEE fellow,  biomedical researcher and dean of graduate education at Tuft University’s school of engineering Karen Panetta for an explanation.

How does CRISPR Prime editing work?

CRISPR is a powerful genome editor. It utilizes an enzyme called Cas9 that uses an RNA molecule as a guide to navigate to its target DNA. It then edits or modifies the DNA, which can deactivate genes or insert a desired sequence to achieve a behavior. Currently, we are most familiar with the application of genetically modified crops that are resistant to disease.

However, its most promising application is to genetically modify cells to overcome genetic defects or its potential to conquer diseases like cancer.

Some applications of genome editing technology include:

  • Genetically modified mosquitos that can’t carry malaria.
  • In humans, “turning on” a gene that can create fetal type behaving cells that can overcome sickle-cell anemia.

Of course, as with every technology, CRISPR isn’t perfect. It works by cutting the double-stranded DNA at precise locations in the genome. When the cell’s natural repair process takes over, it can cause damage or, in the case where the modified DNA is inserted at the cut site, it can create unwanted off-target mutations.

Some genetic disorders are known to mutate specific DNA bases, so having the ability to edit these bases would be enormously beneficial in terms of overcoming many genetic disorders. However, CRISPR is not well suited for intentionally introducing specific DNA bases, the As, Cs, Ts, and Gs that make up the double helix.

Prime editing was intended to overcome this disadvantage, as well as other limitations of CRISPR.

Prime editing can do multi-letter base-editing, which could tackle fatal genetic disorders such as Tay-Sachs, which is caused by a mutation of four DNA letters.

It’s also more precise. I view this as analogous to the precision lasers brought to surgery versus using a hand-held scalpel. It minimized damage, so the healing process was more efficient.

Prime editing can insert, modify or delete individual DNA letters; it can also insert a sequence of multiple letters into a genome with minimal damage to DNA strands.

How effective might Prime editing be?

Imagine being able to prevent cancer and/or hereditary diseases, like breast cancer, from ever occurring by editing out the genes that are makers for cancer. Cancer treatments are usually long, debilitating processes that physically and emotionally drain patients. It also devastates patients’ loved ones who must endure watching helpless on the sidelines as the patient battles to survive.

“Editing out” genetic disorders and/or hereditary diseases to prevent them from ever coming to fruition could also have an enormous impact on reducing the costs of healthcare, effectively helping redefine methods of medical treatment.

It could change lives so that long-term disability care for diseases like Alzheimer’s and special needs education costs could be significantly reduced or never needed.

How did the scientific community get to this point – where did CRISPR/prime editing “come from?”

Scientists recognized CRISPR’s ability to prevent bacteria from infecting more cells and the natural repair mechanism that it initiates after damage occurs, thus having the capacity to halt bacterial infections via genome editing. Essentially, it showed adaptive immunity capabilities.

When might we see CRISPR Prime editing “out in the wild?”

It’s already out there! It has been used for treating sickle-cell anemia and in human embryos to prevent HIV infections from being transmitted to offspring of HIV parents.

So, what’s next?

IEEE Engineers, like myself, are always seeking to take the fundamental science and expand it beyond the petri dish to benefit humanity.

In the short term, I think that Prime editing will help generate the type of fetal like cells that are needed to help patients recover and heal as well as developing new vaccines against deadly diseases. It will also allow researchers new lower cost alternatives and access to Alzheimer’s like cells without obtaining them post-mortem.

Also, AI and deep learning is modeled after human neural networks, so the process of genome editing could potentially help inform and influence new computer algorithms for self-diagnosis and repair, which will become an important aspect of future autonomous systems.


Source: Tech Crunch

Hulu increases price for live TV by $10, to $55 per month

Hulu just sent an email to subscribers of its Hulu + Live TV plan announcing that the price of the basic live TV plan will increase from $44.99 per month to $54.99 per month.

This is Hulu + Live TV’s second price hike this year, with a $5 increase in January, followed by this twice-as-large increase, which is supposed to take effect on December 18.

In the email, Hulu says this increase “allows us to continue delivering the best live and on-demand TV experience for you.” However, as a the price keeps going up, the price advantage that a “skinny bundle” of TV channels offers over plain old cable starts to shrink.

The streaming service launched its live TV package at the beginning of 2018, and it supposedly past 1 million subscribers before the year was done.

Hulu’s ownership has also been changing, with Disney becoming a majority shareholder following its acquisition of Fox, and then taking full operational control of the company earlier this year. Hulu is part of Disney’s broader streaming strategy, which saw the company launching its own Disney+ service earlier this week and offering Disney+, ESPN+ and Hulu (without live TV) together in a $12.99 bundle.


Source: Tech Crunch

More layoffs at pivoting London ed tech startup pi-top

London ed tech startup pi-top has gone through another round of layoffs, TechCrunch has learned.

Pi-top confirmed that eight jobs have been cut in the London office, saying the job losses resulted from “restructuring our business to focus on the U.S. education market.”

In August we broke the news that the STEM hardware-focused company had cut 12 staff after losing out on a major contract; pi-top told us then that its headcount had been reduced from 72 to 60.

The latest cuts suggest the workforce has been reduced to around 50 — although we have also heard that company headcount is now considerably lower than that.

One source told us that 12 jobs have gone in the London office this week, as well as additional cuts in the China office, where the company’s hardware team is based — but pi-top denied there have been any changes to its China team.

Pi-top said in August that the layoffs were related to implementing a new strategy.

Commenting on the latest cuts, it told us: “We have made changes within the company that reflect our business focus on the U.S. education market and our increasingly important SaaS learning platform.”

“The core of our business remains unchanged and we are happy with progress and the fantastic feedback we have received on pitop 4 from our school partners,” pi-top added.

Additionally, we have heard that a further eight roles at the U.K. office have been informed to staff as at risk of redundancy. Affected jobs at risk include roles in product, marketing, creative services, customer support and finance.

We also understand that a number of employees have left the company of their own accord in recent months, following an earlier round of layoffs.

Pi-top did not provide comment on jobs at risk of redundancy, but told us that it has hired three new staff “to accelerate the SaaS side of our education offering and will be increasing our numbers in the U.S. to service our growth in the region.”

We understand that the latest round of cuts have been communicated to staff as a cost-reduction exercise and also linked to implementing a new strategy. Staff have also been told that the business focus has shifted to the U.S schools market.

As we reported earlier this year, pi-top appointed a new executive chairman of its board who has a strong U.S. focus: Stanley Buchesky served in the Trump administration as an interim CFO for the U.S. Department of Education under Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. He is also the founder of a U.S. ed tech seed fund.

Sources familiar with pi-top say the company is seeking to pivot away from making proprietary ed tech hardware to focus on a SaaS learning platform for teaching STEM, called pi-top Further.

At the start of this year it crowdfunded a fourth-gen STEM device, the pi-top 4, with an estimated shipping date of this month. The crowdfunder attracted 521 backers, pledging close to $200,000 to fund the project.

In the pi-top 4 Kickstarter pitch the device is slated as being supported by a software platform called Further — which is described as a “free social making platform” that “teaches you how to use all the pi-top components through completing challenges and contributing projects to the community,” as well as offering social sharing features.

The plan now is for pi-top to monetize that software platform by charging subscription fees for elements of the service — with the ultimate goal of SaaS revenues making up the bulk of its business as hardware sales are de-emphasized. (Hardware is hard; and pi-top’s current STEM learning flagship has faced some challenges with reliability, as we reported in August.)

We understand that the strategic change to Further — from free to a subscription service — was communicated to staff internally in September.

Asked about progress on the pi-top 4, the company told us the device began shipping to backers this week. 

“We are pleased to announce the release of pi-top 4 and pi-top Further, our new learning and robotics coding platform,” it said. “This new product suite provides educators the ability to teach coding, robotics and AI with step-by-step curriculum and an integrated coding window that powers the projects students build. With pi-top, teachers can effectively use Project Based Learning and students can learn by doing and apply what they learn to the real world.”

Last month pi-top announced it had taken in $4 million in additional investment to fund the planned pivot to SaaS — and “bridge towards profitability,” as it put it today.

“The changes you see are a fast growing start-up shifting from revenue focus to a right-sized profit generating company,” it also told us.


Source: Tech Crunch