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HP Finds Mobile Tax Apps Lacking On Security, Privacy


As the clock ticks toward midnight, putting an end to tax day 2014, Hewlett-Packard is warning consumers of mobile tax and finance apps that they may want to audit their own usage.

According to the HP Audit, more than 90 percent of the applications the company tested, including TurboTaxTaxACT and TaxSlayer, contained at least one potential privacy violation.

Those included accessing the phone’s address book, geo-location, storing sensitive data in clear-text, not setting cookie properties securely and insecurely transmitting data.

Another 50 percent of the applications use cryptographic methods that are known to have security weaknesses like md5 or SHA1. Other flaws included image caching from a Social Security number input screen, which could expose the information to malware installed on a device.

“The bottom line is that even with all the best intentions of providing fast tax filing assistance, mobile tax apps could put users at risk,” said Maria Bledsoe, Senior Manager of Product Marketing at HP. 

The data comes from a review of a sampling of mobile apps from the Forbes Global 2000 list of companies.

“Usually the mobile app interacts with a cloud service and typically you’d file your taxes on your PC,” Bledsoe said. “But all the software services for tax preparation have mobile app extensions so you can check on your refund, and get status updates on your account.”

Ultimately the applications are still accessing data from the account, and from a security standpoint, that mobile app is just as dangerous, said Bledsoe.

“A lot of companies are looking at mobile apps as a fancy user interface, and they’re putting their protection on the back-end behind their firewall,” she said. “But they’re not realizing yet that this is yet another attack vector and is an entry point for the hackers.”

Companies are responsible for the sensitive data they manage, but consumers need to be aware and actively control what information they give to application providers.

“We have the tendency these days of downloading any app under the sun because it’s cool and nice,” Bledsoe said. “This stuff is not just a fancy user interface. All your private data is sitting right there so you have to be pretty careful with what you’re putting on your phone… [For instance] if there’s no reason why this app has access to this address book, don’t let it.”

Photo via Flickr user Alan Cleaver

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Telefonica, Blackstone Launch Axonix, A Mobile Ad Exchange Built On Defunct MobClix Tech


Telefonica, the Spanish carrier with operations 24 countries and 323 million customers, is making its latest bid to expand its business beyond basic mobile and telephone services, by moving into ad tech. It’s teaming up with Blackstone to launch Axonix, a real-time bidding mobile ad exchange that has been built on technology from MobClix, whose assets were acquired by the private equity giant at the beginning of this year. Axonix, which will be based in London, is officially opening for business in May with its self-service mobile ad platform initially focused on the U.S., Latin American and European markets.

MobClix, you might recall, was a mobile ad company that had been acquired by mobile marketing firm Velti, apparently for over $50 million, back in 2010. Last year, when troubles started to hit Velti and it couldn’t make payments out to developers on the MobClix platform, and then reported huge losses of its own, Mobclix went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and Velti filed for Chapter 11 protection. MobClix’s assets were acquired by GSO Capital Partners, the credit division of Blackstone, in January, for an undisclosed sum. (Velti, meanwhile, has now relaunched under a new name, mGage.)

Fast forward to today, and it looks like Telefonica and Blackstone see some value in MobClix’s technology, under the right custodianship. Simon Birkenhead, Telefónica’s director of global advertising sales and previously an exec at Google, has been named CEO of Axonix. He will be taking on just one ex-employee from MobClix, Simon Bailey, who will become Axonix’s COO.

In an interview with TechCrunch, Birkenhead would not disclose how much money Telefonica or Blackstone are putting into the new Axonix venture, except to say that it will be well funded for the next two years. “There is sufficient investment from Telefonica and Blackstone, and it’s sufficiently stable and funded for the next two years,” he says. There will be money for “generous” hiring packages to woo ambitious talent from other firms, as well as potential acquisitions. He says the firm does not expect to look for outside funding from VCs.

Part of the acquisition of the MobClix assets included integrations with some 100 demand-side partners, but no debts. Those old debts “still sit with Blackstone,” Birkenhead says. It will be up to Axonix’s sales team — which will initially be Telefonica’s sales network — to convince the industry that MobClix’s technology is now being run within a more credible business.

“Our feeling was that MobClix had a great platform, one of the best on the market,” he says. “It was a great shame it went into bankruptcy through no fault of its own. Our intention is to take the tech but put it into a much more secure and stable company that we will be able to operate on a more sound financial footing for the next couple of years.”

The move comes at an interesting time for Telefonica, which earlier this year made the decision to shutter its standalone division called Telefonica Digital and re-integrate parts of that operation into the bigger organization.

Although Telefonica Digital has put millions of investment into backing startups, incubating more, and launching other efforts like this integration with Pinterest, the closure pointed to challenges for the carrier. In short, it seems like Telefonica ran out of patience to see how some of its ambitious “tech” ideas would eventually play out within a large and still-lumbering telco. Perhaps that’s part of the reason why it’s decided to develop Axonix as more of a standalone entity.

But the potential is strong for Telefonica: ZenithOptimedia estimates that in 2013, $13.4 billion was spent on mobile ads, or 13% of all Internet ad spend; and it forecasts that by 2016 mobile ad spend will grow to $45 billion, or 28% of Internet ad spend.

So who will be the customers on Axonix? Unsurprisingly, Telefonica will among them. The company currently uses DoubleClick for ads on its Terra broadband network, and has a “longstanding relationship” with Singtel-owned Amobee for its mobile business.

“It’s fair to say we will be evaluating the tech partners that Telefonica has, and seeing where it makes sense to use Axonix,” Birkenhead says. “Amobee is up for renewal this year, and so it’s an opportune time to look at this.”

But similarly, other potential customers could include partners of Telefonica’s, such as Firefox OS and Sprint.

“Telefonica has an existing partnership with Sprint announced last year for mobile advertising,” Birkenhead notes. “Sprint has a mobile ad business and uses its consumer data to enrich targeting, but it doesn’t have an in-house platform, so we will be engaging in discussions to see how it could use Axonix. It will be natural to engage with others like Firefox OS and Mozilla, where TEF already has a relationship where they don’t have in house technology.” That potential funnel, he says, also includes all operators “besides Singtel.”

Photo: Flickr

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Ellen Tries Out Google “Glasses”


Today is Google Glass day. For the first time, the company is letting anybody and everybody order a pair with no application process needed. Because before, if you wanted to give Google $1,500 for a face computer, you had to qualify.

Now that Google Glass is fair game, we’re probably going to see it a lot more. Take, for example, this episode of The Ellen Show, where Ellen Degeneres tries on her own very special pair of “Google Glasses.”

At the end of the day, the selfie queen doesn’t actually play around with the real thing, but instead pokes a little fun at Google with the knock-off Google Glass she purchased on Craigslist for $14.95. Hey, it’s a good deal!

She also calls them “Google Glasses” the entire time, which will inevitably happen as the product filters into the mainstream. If it makes it that far.

Google Glass is a polarizing product. While some feel great conviction that facial computing is the new frontier, an equally loud and large group of people feel that the whole concept is slightly ridiculous. The term Glasshole didn’t appear as if from thin air.

But it goes further than poking fun, as Google Glass wearers have actually been assaulted in the Bay Area, as the housing crisis continues to create conflict between the tech community and others.

Skip to the :55 mark to check out the “Google Glasses” bit.

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Online Invitations Startup Paperless Post Raises $25M From August Capital


Online (and offline) invitations startup Paperless Post has become a modern-day greeting card company, enabling users to create custom cards to their events and send them to friends. TechCrunch has exclusively confirmed that today the startup has closed a $25 million Series C led by August Capital, with participation from existing investors.

That comes on top of $12 million that it’s raised since bing founded in 2008, bringing the company’s total funding to $37.4 million. Previous investors include RRE Ventures, SV Angel, Tim Draper, Ram Shiram, and Mousse Partners.

Paperless Post launched in 2008 with a series of skeuomorphic online invitations that attempt to evoke the same emotions one might get from ripping open a real-life envelope and reading a real-life greeting card sent by real-life people.

With a healthy focus on design, the startup started out by providing a wide variety of virtual stationary and that online users could personalize and have delivered by email to their contacts. It also provided a way for those contacts to RSVP and for users to track who might (or might not) have opened the invitation, signed up, and decided to attend (or not).

While the company started out as a purely online way for users to send invitations and RSVP, it’s expanded to provide offline printing services as well. A year-and-a-half ago, it launched a premium stationary offering called PAPER that allows users to have custom invitations printed out and emailed to their contacts.

Today, the company enjoys over 45 million users, doubling its user base for the second year in a row, and has sent over 100 million custom invitations and cards since launching. The company currently has 70 full time employees in an office in downtown Manhattan.

Here’s what founder James Hirschfeld had to say about today’s raise:

Paperless Post lets you communicate beautifully, conveniently and privately about the social experiences you care about. Our goal is to become the the new protocol for valued social communication, regardless of the medium you choose. We’ve always been a very capital efficient company with strong organic growth. Adding this cash to our balance sheet will help us realize this vision faster for a greater number of people in the US and abroad.

The funding will go toward accelerating the development process of the company’s mobile and online tools.

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Viddsee BUZZ Launches To Help Independent Asian Films Go Viral


Viddsee, an online video platform that helps independent filmmakers throughout Asia distribute their work, has launched the beta version of Viddsee BUZZ, a new site that is meant to help content reach a wider audience on social networks. The site, which launched last year, also announced that Viddsee has hit five unique million viewers.

Viddsee currently serves artists from Hong Kong, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, and Thailand, while about 30% of its viewership comes from outside of Asia.

The site and its content partnerships with Yahoo, museums, and film festivals gives filmmakers a new distribution platform, but co-founder Derek Tan says there was still a significant gap in marketing to potential viewers.

Though Viddsee BUZZ’s concept resembles BuzzFeed, Upworthy, and other sites that rely on social networks, the startup wants to model its content after Variety, HuffPost, and Vice. Viddsee Buzz’s posts have attention-grabbing titles like “A PENIS BECOMES THE VICTIM IN A HILARIOUS MISADVENTURE!,” for a short film called “Potong Saga,” (screen grab above), but its articles focus on each piece’s themes and includes background information about its creators.

“Viddsee BUZZ works in bringing the essence of the films out closer to the audience on the Web. This might come in terms of research, context, and thoughts behind the film,” says Tan.

“The idea is to create a better context around the film, especially as audiences browse through a sea of content and potentially miss out on what is good.”

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Fon Launches Gramofon, A Router With Facebook And Spotify Built-In


Today, crowd-sourced Wifi network operator Fon launches its rumoured new product, the Gramofon. But unusually for a large tech company with healthy revenues, it’s launched the product with 30-day crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter at a discounted price, starting at $30.

This device offers simple Fon-like Wi-Fi sharing functionality after you log in via Facebook, an audio out to speakers (no internal speaker) and an in-built Spotify app. What is it? Well, it’s the rumored social music router they’ve been building and Martin Varsavsky, founder and CEO of Fon, thinks its going to be a game-changer both in the market and for the company, which also happens to be the world’s biggest wifi network.

He says they started by building prototypes out of open source hardware and open source software like the Raspberry Pi, with a small team in New York. They’ve now locked their first production run for 6,500 units, set to ship in July, but more are planned if this takes off.

Eventially the Gramofon will have an API so it can integrate any music service with Gramofon and can support as many different providers as possible. It comes with WahWah built in, this is a free radio service that works with Gramofon (the service will start in the USA, Spain and Brazil, and expand over time).

How does it work?

You connect your Gramofon to the sound system or speakers of your choice. Then connect it to the Internet via ethernet or on your current WiFi. Then you connect any Android or iOS phone to the Gramofon’s WiFi signal and plug in any speaker. Thus, yo can now stream Spotify or listen to the Gramofon free radio service powered by WahWah.

Unsurprisingly Gramofon uses the Qualcomm Atheros AR9341 chipset, following its $14 million investment round in Fon earlier this year.

The black square cube features two Ethernet ports, one for connecting to the network and one to connect a PC. Gramofon works over WiFi not Bluetooth, and allows several users at once. Built with the same core technology as the Fon WiFi routers, is also acts as a WiFi hotspot.

So here’s the scenario: When someone visits your house, they simply log-in to the Gramofon WiFi via their Facebook account, and then they can play Spotify through Gramofon using their smartphones as remotes. Any visitor could therefore ‘play the DJ’ and control the music.

People who pledge to buy a Gramofon via the kick-starter campaign will get Fon membership (meaning access to over 12 million Fon hotspots) in return for sharing their WiFi at home, as is the usual Fon deal.

If you’re early you’ll get it in white at $30, or for $40 in black. The remaining units will be offered for $50 and $60 respectively. Other “perks” include getting invited to Gramofon “listening parties around the world”, some of which may feature Varsavsky and celebrities (but you’ll pay around $1,000 for those).

“Our goal is to bring music back into the living room,” says Varsavsky. “We have been working on this for a year now— what started as a passion project is now a living, breathing, incredible product that will transform the music experience, making music social and enjoyed by all involved.”

But why use Kickstarter? Well, Fon COO Alex Puregger says, it’s because “crowdsourcing is a principle Fon was founded on”.

Clearly this will compete with other products like networked speakers from Sonos. But where Sonos must send music around a home with speakers connected to one WiFi Signal, the Gramofon plays music across multiple units so each additional router works as a repeater, thus boosting Wi-Fi coverage across a home.

So we have a router that also plays music that also supports a massive music service, and intends to support others. Not a bad combination if you were going to take on both Sonos and other home automation players like Nest and many others.

A crucial point of the Gramofon is to “cloud enable” your existing sound system. Given that it can connect to music speakers via 3.5mm audio or RCA output, you could say this is a sort of ‘Apple TV for your sound system’.

It means of course that those great speakers you have from an old Hi-Fi system don’t need to be replaced by Bluetooth or wireless speakers after all.

Could Spotify be Fon’s trojan horse into the home? Maybe. But a spokesperson poured cold water on my view that this might be a route into a home automation as they believe the music implementation is alluring enough as it is.

Given the Fon people call this their “most important product since the first Fonera” they are clearly hoping this will be a trojan horse at least for Fon’s WiF service itself.

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