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TikTok chief security officer says its servers are already separate from ByteDance

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TikTok’s chief security officer says in new court documents that the US Commerce Department has mischaracterized how the app stores and secures user data, as the company renews its motion for a preliminary injunction against the Trump administration’s looming ban.

Roland Cloutier, global chief security officer for TikTok, says in a new court filing, in advance of an upcoming hearing in the US District Court for the District of Columbia, that the Commerce Department made several incorrect assertions about the company’s data security policies and practices.

Cloutier says a September memo from the Commerce Department outlining specific concerns with the app is inaccurate in stating TikTok is not separate from the Chinese version of the app — called Douyin — or from parent company ByteDance’s systems, and that “functionality including storage, internal management, and algorithms is still partially shared across other ByteDance products.”

He says the software stack comprising TikTok is “entirely separate” from the Douyin software stack, meaning each app’s source code and user data are maintained separately.

The government also mischaracterized how TikTok stores US user data, Cloutier says. The commerce memo states that TikTok leases servers from Alibaba Cloud in Singapore and China Unicom Americas (CUA) in the US, which constitute “significant risks.”

Cloutier says CUA provides data center space — the building and electricity — for TikTok, but doesn’t provide servers. ByteDance owns and operates all servers that are stored within the CUA facility, Cloutier says, and the servers are locked within a cage in the facility.

When TikTok does lease server space from other companies, Cloutier adds, it does not mean that company has access to TikTok’s proprietary information. User data is encrypted in storage, and sharded, meaning it’s broken into several pieces across several servers, he said.

In addition, Cloutier says, obsolete source code with Chinese IP addresses has been eliminated from legacy versions of the TikTok app. He says a bug that accessed content from TikTok users’ clipboards also has been removed, along with an anti-spam program that accessed clipboard data.

And Cloutier says if asked, TikTok would not comply with a request for user data from the Chinese government, another of the commerce department’s concerns.

Back in August, President Donald Trump issued an order saying security concerns about TikTok and WeChat, both China-based apps, constituted a national emergency. He invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), which lets him ban transactions between US and foreign entities. The president then issued an order August 14th giving TikTok parent company ByteDance 90 days to either sell or spin off its TikTok business in the US. That order is set to go into effect on November 12th and would effectively halt the app’s operations.

On September 18th, the Commerce Department issued an order to block transactions with both ByteDance and WeChat, effective September 20th. But on September 19th, a tentative deal was announced to create a new company, TikTok Global, based in the US, that would process and store data for all US-based TikTok users. Oracle would become TikTok’s trusted security partner under the terms of the deal.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross then delayed the ban until September 27th, but US District Judge Carl Nichols issued a preliminary injunction September 27th blocking the ban.

A hearing on the Justice Department’s appeal of the injunction is set for November 4th.

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Duolingo’s bilingual true crime podcast will entertain you while you learn Spanish

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Language learning app Duolingo is debuting what it says is the world’s first bilingual true crime podcast designed for people learning Spanish. El Gran Robo Argentino (The Great Argentine Heist) tells the story of the 2006 robbery of a Banco Rio bank in Buenos Aires, where five men stole a fortune worth $20 million.

It’s quite the riveting drama; without giving too much away, the robbers became folk heroes in Argentina, and the heist was the subject of a movie — El Robo del Siglo— in Argentina earlier this year. For more, read Josh Dean’s great retelling of the tale in GQ (but obviously, spoiler alerts).

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The Duolingo podcast will be a serialized season of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast, which is geared toward Spanish learners and has 39 million unique downloads, the company said. The six-episode season includes interviews with real people who were part of the heist, including journalists, investigators, and even one of the bank robbers. The episodes will be narrated by podcast host and journalist Martina Castro.

Duolingo launched its Spanish podcast in 2017. El Gran Robo Argentino marks its ninth season, and its first presented in a serialized format. In addition to its Spanish-for-English-speakers podcast, Duolingo has a French podcast for English speakers and an English podcast for Spanish speakers.

For the Spanish podcast episodes, native speakers tell stories in easy-to-understand Spanish alongside English narration by Castro. The bilingual structure, which alternates between Spanish and English, lets English speakers follow along with the story without getting lost. Duolingo works with each storyteller, coaching them on speaking more slowly than they normally might, and the vocabulary in every episode is mapped out so it meets the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) — the international standard for measuring language proficiency — for a speaker of intermediate-level Spanish.

El Gran Robo Argentina launches today, wherever you get your podcasts.

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WoHo wants to make constructing buildings fast, flexible and green with reusable “components”

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Buildings are the bedrocks of civilization — places to live, places to work (well, normally, in a non-COVID-19 world) and places to play. Yet how we conceive buildings, architect them for their uses, and ultimately construct them on a site has changed remarkably little over the past few decades. Housing and building costs continue to rise, and there remains a slow linear process from conception to construction for most projects. Why can’t the whole process be more flexible and faster?

Well, a trio of engineers and architects out of MIT and Georgia Tech are exploring that exact question.

MIT’s former treasurer Israel Ruiz along with architects Anton Garcia-Abril of MIT and Debora Mesa of Georgia Tech have joined together on a startup called WoHo (short for “World Home”) that’s trying to rethink how to construct a modern building by creating more flexible “components” that can be connected together to create a structure.

WoHo’s Israel Ruiz, Debora Mesa, and Anton Garcia-Abril. Photo via WoHo.

By creating components that are usable in a wide variety of types of buildings and making them easy to construct in a factory, the goal of WoHo is to lower construction costs, maximize flexibility for architects, and deliver compelling spaces for end users, all while making projects greener in a climate unfriendly world.

The team’s ideas caught the attention of Katie Rae, CEO and managing director of The Engine, a special fund that spun out of MIT that is notable for its lengthy time horizons for VC investments. The fund is backing WoHo with $4.5 million in seed capital.

Ruiz spent the last decade overseeing MIT’s capital construction program, including the further buildout of Kendall Square, a neighborhood next to MIT that has become a major hub for biotech innovation. Through that process, he saw the challenges of construction, particularly for the kinds of unique spaces required for innovative companies. Over the years, he also built friendships with Garcia-Abril and Mesa, the duo behind Ensamble Studio, an architecture firm.

With WoHo, “it is the integration of the process from the design and concept in architecture all the way through the assembly and construction of that project,” Ruiz explained. “Our technology is suitable for low-to-high rise, but in particularly it provides the best outcomes for mid-to-high rise.”

So what exactly are these WoHo components? Think of them as well-designed and reusable blocks that can be plugged together in order to create a structure. These blocks are consistent and are designed to be easily manufactured and transported. One key innovation is around an improved reinforced cement that allows for better building quality at lower environmental cost.

Conception of a WoHo component under construction. Photo via WoHo

We have seen modular buildings before, typically apartment buildings where each apartment is a single block that can be plugged into a constructed structure (take for example this project in Sacramento). WoHo, though, wants to go further in having components that offer more flexibility and arrangements, and also act as the structure themselves. That gives architects far more flexibility.

It’s still early days, but the group has already gotten some traction in the market, inking a partnership with Swiss concrete and building materials company LafargeHolcim to bring their ideas to market. The company is building a demonstration project in Madrid, and targeting a second project in Boston for next year.

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E-bike subscription service Dance closes $17.7M Series A, led by HV Holtzbrinck Ventures

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Three months on since the former founders of SoundCloud launched their e-bike subscription service, Dance they are today announcing the close of a $17.7 million (€15 million) Series A funding round led by one of the larger European VCs, HV Holtzbrinck Ventures.

Founded by Eric Quidenus-Wahlforss (ex-Soundcloud), Alexander Ljung (ex-Soundcloud) and Christian Springub (ex-Jimdo), Dance has ambitions to offer its all-inclusive service subscription package into expanded markets across Europe and eventually the US. Dance is currently operating the invite-only pilot of its e-bike subscription in Berlin, with plans for a broader launch, expanded accessibility and availability and new cities next year. 

Rainer Märkle, general partner at HV Holtzbrinck Ventures said in a statement: “The mobility market is seeing a huge shift towards bikes, strongly fueled by the paradigm shift of vehicles going electric. Unfortunately, the majority of e-bikes on the market today have some combination of poor design, high upfront costs, and cumbersome maintenance. We analyzed the overall mobility market, evaluated all means of transport, and crunched the numbers on all types of business models for a few years before we found what we were looking for. Dance is by the far the most viable future of biking, bridging the gap between e-bike ownership and more ‘joyful’ accessibility to go places.”

E-bikes tend to be notoriously expensive to purchase and a hassle to repair. That said, startups like VanMoof and Cowboy have brought an Apple -esque business model to the market which is fast bringing the cost of full ownership down.

Most commuters are put off cycling the average 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) commute but e-bikes make this distance a breeze. Dance sits in that half-way house between owning an expensive bike and having to hunt down a rentable ebike or electric scooter close to your location.

Additionally, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought individual, socially distanced, transport into sharp relief. UK sales of e-bikes have boomed, seeing a 230% surge in demand over the summer. This has happened at the same time as EU governments have put in more than 2300km of bike lanes, with the UK alone pledging £250 million in investment.

Quidenus-Wahlforss said the startup has been “inundated with positive responses from around the world since we announced our invite-only pilot program.”

Dance’s subscription model includes a fully assembled e-bike delivered to a subscriber’s door within 24 hours. This comes with maintenance, theft replacement insurance, a dedicated smartphone app, concierge services, GPS location tracking and unlocking capabilities.

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