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Morrison government’s updated Covidsafe app unlikely to improve results, experts say | Coronavirus

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Technology experts have criticised the federal government for not using Apple and Google’s contact-tracing system in an overhaul of the Covidsafe app it announced on Monday, with one cryptographer saying they would be “astounded” if the upgrade performs as well as the framework being used in other countries.

Experts have also criticised the government for not engaging with the tech community before announcing the app’s central change – which largely focuses on using a new Bluetooth protocol – given the app’s poor track record since its release.

On Monday, health minister Greg Hunt and government services minister Stuart Robert announced the Covidsafe app will incorporate a Bluetooth protocol called Herald to improve performance and help better identify potential close contacts of positive Covid-19 cases.

The government made the code for the update publicly available on Github on Monday to allow feedback to be provided before it is released for Apple and Google devices.

However Dr Vanessa Teague, a cryptography academic at the Australian National University, accused the government of “dumping” the central change on the tech community “without engaging on a fact-based discussion about what the options are”.

Teague said that while previously Covidsafe appeared to struggle detecting and recording some interactions, especially between different phone operating systems when the app was running in the background, the government’s update does not use an Apple and Google API which moves Bluetooth communication between devices to the operating system layer.

“I don’t know whether this will improve interaction detection, it might do so a bit, but I’d be astounded if it improved recording of interactions as much as the Apple and Google option,” she said.

Teague, who is also chief executive of independent research group Thinking Cybersecurity, said it is “getting harder and harder to continue with the argument” for Australia to not adopt the Apple and Google model that has been taken up in the British, Swiss and other governments’ apps.

Teague said it was still unclear what had been causing the problems with Australia’s Covidsafe app, and while the Herald Bluetooth protocol could improve some device to device issues, there may also be server problems.

Teague noted the existing Covidsafe app framework might continue to appeal to the government because the Apple and Google approach doesn’t build a central database of close contacts of confirmed cases.

Jim Mussared, a researcher who alerted the government’s Digital Transformation Agency to flaws he discovered in the Covidsafe app earlier in the year when the code was released online, said there wasn’t “conclusive” evidence the Herald changes would be more effective than using the Apple and Google system.

“Australia is continuing to do their own thing when so many other countries have seen the light and gone with the Apple-Google system,” he said.

Mussared said while the new Herald protocol appears to be better designed, the app “still has this approach of trying to fight against the phone’s operating system”.

“The approach is not designed to work in the first place, with our sophisticated way of tricking the operating system to do things you want. It’s especially frustrating as Apple and Google have given us a way of solving this problem.”

Mussared said the government-released code on Monday didn’t have accompanying documentation explaining the changes, and that “just publishing code and saying ‘have at it’ is not how you get feedback form the tech community”.

Dr Alwen Tiu, an associate professor at ANU’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, said while the Herald protocol appeared to improve the information recorded about Bluetooth signal strength – a measure of distance between users – he “absolutely” supports using the Apple-Google framework.

In announcing the upgrade, Robert said the code would also be made available internationally so other countries could use it.

Federal officials last month told Senate estimates the app had identified just 17 people not picked up through manual contact tracing.

Labor’s health spokesman, Chris Bowen, said the app had delivered “bugger all” over the past six months.

“After months of arrogantly telling us the CovidSafe app was working just fine, and rejecting all suggestions for improvements, now the Morrison government is starting again,” he said.

With Australian Associated Press


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Walmart partners with The Trade Desk for ads business

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A shopper who refused to wear a mask is seen leaving a Walmart store in Bradford, Pennsylvania, U.S. July 20, 2020.

Brendan McDermid | Reuters

Walmart is renaming its ads business “Walmart Connect,” and announcing a number of strategic moves, including a new offering through ad tech company The Trade Desk

The moves are meant to help Walmart in its attempts to grow the segment by more than ten times in the next five years, the company told CNBC, and could help Walmart take on competitor Amazon. Walmart Media Group boasts about its “massive scale” and “massive reach” to advertisers, saying 160 million customers visit its stores or its website every month.

But it’s still a small part of the company’s revenue base. In its 2020 annual report, the company said Walmart Media Group along with “fuel and financial services and related products” make up less than 1% of its annual net sales, which amounted to $524 billion.

By way of comparison, in the third quarter, Amazon’s “Other” business segment, which “primarily includes sales of advertising services,” accounted for $5.4 billion in revenue, nearly 6% of the company’s total. It’s consistently growing more than 40% on an annualized basis.

Though Walmart’s ads business is smaller than its tech competitors, the segment has gotten a supercharge during the pandemic with so many consumers buying groceries and other items online. 

What Walmart Connect will include

To broaden its reach, Walmart is partnering with The Trade Desk, which has technology that helps brands and agencies reach targeted audiences across media formats and devices.

The companies are building what’s known as a “demand-side platform” (DSP) that will use Walmart shopper data to place targeted ads across the web, not just on Walmart’s own sites. AdExchanger reported last year that Walmart Media Group was running a bake-off between Xandr and The Trade Desk to choose a partner for off-site advertising. 

“We’re pretty confident that we’re going to be able to grow this business to become one of the top 10 advertising platforms in the U.S. over the next few years,” Walmart Chief Customer Officer Janey Whiteside said in an interview. She said the physical footprint is a major differentiator. “If somebody sees an ad online and later buys that [item] in the store a day, a week, later, we can connect that together … which historically, advertisers haven’t been able to get.”

Until now, Walmart has operated a display advertising network, which lets advertisers reach Walmart customers on- and off-site, but those off-site offerings have only been available through its managed service. The DSP, other hand, will let advertisers buy directly. The company said when the DSP launches, advertisers will have access to all inventory that The Trade Desk offers, including connected TV, video, audio, mobile and display. 

Walmart is also growing its business on its own digital properties, including Walmart.com and its app. There, it uses techniques like search and display advertising to put advertiser messages “right next to where customers are making purchasing decisions.” The company says last fiscal year it saw this segment double in revenue and in the number of advertisers using it. 

Lastly, Walmart said it will allow advertisers to buy placement on in-store TV walls and self-checkout screens, covering more than 170,000 digital screens in more than 4,500 stores. The company said these can be delivered with date, time and geographic specificity. Whiteside said this could take the form of contextual ads that are appropriate for the weather or that would make sense for a particular hyperlocal region.

“We know enough about what cereals you’ve looked at, what cereals you’ve bought, whether you’ve ever been interested in oatmeal or not to be able to place an oatmeal ad at the checkout counter, or even at the checkout screen for you,” she said.

The company also wants sell advertisements in its events, like the drive-in movie events it hosted last year, or drive-thru Halloween trick-or-treating. 

“Think about the highly contextual, relevant opportunities for advertisers to be part of that, whether it’s through ads on-site, sampling, all the things that we can do,” Whiteside said. 

–CNBC’s Melissa Repko contributed reporting.

Nominations are open for the 2021 CNBC Disruptor 50, a list of private start-ups using breakthrough technology to become the next generation of great public companies. Submit by Friday, Feb. 12, at 3 pm EST.


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Tesla Semi production on hold until company can make its own batteries

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Tesla CEO Elon Musk shows off the Tesla Semi as he unveils the company’s new electric semi truck during a presentation in Hawthorne, California, U.S., November 16, 2017.

Alexandria Sage | Reuters

Tesla CEO Elon Musk said during the company’s earnings call that volume production of its class 8 truck, the Tesla Semi, is on hold until Tesla can make a high volume of its own 4680 battery cells.

The cells, which Tesla designed and showed off to shareholders at a battery day presentation in September 2020, are large, tab-less lithium-ion cells that the company is making at its pilot battery factory in Fremont, California. The company said in a Q4 earnings update that it will deliver its first Semi by the end of 2021.

“Prototypes are easy, scaling production is very hard,” the CEO lamented.

When Tesla first unveiled its Semi trucks in 2017, Musk said they would be delivered to customers in 2019. In April last year, the company said it would delay Semi production until this year.

Tesla has taken scores of reservations from big name customers for the Semi. Anheuser-Busch, DHL Group, PepsiCo, Pride Group and Walmart put money down for the class 8, battery electric Tesla trucks.

Tesla has also used Semi prototypes in a marketing stunt to deliver cars to customers. It recently posted job listings for employees to work on Semi truck production lines at its battery plant outside of Reno, Nevada.

Musk said of the Semi, specifically:

“The main reason we’ve not accelerated new products is — like for example Tesla Semi — is that we simply don’t have enough cells for it. If we were to make the Semi like right now, which we could easily go into production with the Semi, but we would not have enough cells for it right now. We will have enough cells for Semi when we are producing the Tesla 4680 in volume.”

“Basically we do not see any issues with creating a compelling long-range truck with batteries apart from cell supply,” Musk said.

Tesla President of Automotive Jerome Guillen said on the call that Tesla’s Semi uses the same parts included in the company’s sedans and SUVs today to enable driver assistance features, which Tesla markets as its Autopilot and Full Self Driving options. “I’m looking forward to having some additional ones on the road very soon,” he said.

According to the CEO, the Semi would require five times the number of lithium ion battery cells that a car would use today, but the company could not sell it for five times what it can sell a car. That’s why, Musk said, “It kinda would not make sense for us to do the Semi, but it will absolutely make sense for us to do it as soon as we can address the cell production constraint. The same would go for a van.”

Vans and other light-duty trucks are expected to be in high demand in the U.S. in coming years. One reason is President Biden’s Buy America plan, through which he aims to replace the federal government’s fleet of internal combustion engine vehicles with cleaner, quieter electrics.

According to the most recently available data from the General Services Agency, the federal fleet includes more than 400,000 trucks, a category that encompasses light duty pickups and vans. Tesla competitors including GM, Daimler, Rivian and others are developing, and in some cases already selling, battery electric vans.

“I think Tesla’s definitely going to make an electric van at some point,” Musk said. “The thing to bear in mind is that there is fundamentally a constraint on battery cell output. If you’re not involved in manufacturing, it’s really hard to appreciate just how hard it is to scale production. It’s the hardest thing in the world!”


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Comcast (CMCSA) Q4 2020 earnings

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NBCUniversal kicks off it’s new Peacock streaming service.

Todd Williamson | Peacock | NBCUniversal | Getty Images

Comcast is set to report fiscal fourth-quarter earnings before-the-bell on Thursday.

Here are the key numbers Wall Street is expecting:

  • Earnings per share: 48 cents expected, according to Refinitiv survey of analysts.
  • Revenue: $26.78 billion expected, according to Refinitiv.
  • High-speed internet customers: 490,000 net adds expected, according to FactSet

Investors expect to learn more about the status of NBCUniversal’s new streaming service, Peacock. The service, which offers free and paid options, had nearly 22 million sign-ups when Comcast last reported earnings in October. Ahead of its launch, the company had a goal of reaching 30 million to 35 million active Peacock accounts by 2024.

Peacock is still fairly new to the streaming wars, but the company has managed to wrangle exclusive content to its platform. The company earlier this week announced it reached an exclusive agreement to stream wrestling matches from the WWE Network in the U.S., putting an end to WWE Network’s independent streaming platform in the States.

The latest streaming numbers come as the company’s filmed entertainment sector has suffered during the coronavirus pandemic, due to delays in production and theater closures following stay-at-home mandates.

Comcast’s theme park business, which is part of its NBCUniversal division, is also likely to take a continued hit due to closures and lowered capacity. California has kept its theme parks closed, while the company’s Florida, Japan and Singapore parks have been able to reopen with guidelines in place.

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, the parent company of CNBC.

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