Buildots raises $16M to bring computer vision to construction management

Buildots, a Tel Aviv and London-based startup that is using computer vision to modernize the construction management industry, today announced that it has raised $16 million in total funding. This includes a $3 million seed round that was previously unreported and a $13 million Series A round, both led by TLV Partners. Other investors include Innogy Ventures, Tidhar Construction Group, Ziv Aviram (co-founder of Mobileye & OrCam), Magma Ventures head Zvika Limon, serial entrepreneurs Benny Schnaider and  Avigdor Willenz, as well as Tidhar chairman Gil Geva.

The idea behind Buildots is pretty straightforward. The team is using hardhat-mounted 360-degree cameras to allow project managers at construction sites to get an overview of the state of a project and whether it remains on schedule. The company’s software creates a digital twin of the construction site, using the architectural plans and schedule as its basis, and then uses computer vision to compare what the plans say to the reality that its tools are seeing. With this, Buildots can immediately detect when there’s a power outlet missing in a room or whether there’s a sink that still needs to be installed in a kitchen, for example.

“Buildots have been able to solve a challenge that for many seemed unconquerable, delivering huge potential for changing the way we complete our projects,” said Tidhar’s Geva in a statement. “The combination of an ambitious vision, great team and strong execution abilities quickly led us from being a customer to joining as an investor to take part in their journey.”

The company was co-founded in 2018 by Roy Danon, Aviv Leibovici and Yakir Sundry. Like so many Israeli startups, the founders met during their time in the Israeli Defense Forces, where they graduated from the Talpiot unit.

“At some point, like many of our friends, we had the urge to do something together — to build a company, to start something from scratch,” said Danon, the company’s CEO. “For us, we like getting our hands dirty. We saw most of our friends going into the most standard industries like cloud and cyber and storage and things that obviously people like us feel more comfortable in, but for some reason we had like a bug that said, ‘we want to do something that is a bit harder, that has a bigger impact on the world.’ ”

So the team started looking into how it could bring technology to traditional industries like agriculture, finance and medicine, but then settled upon construction thanks to a chance meeting with a construction company. For the first six months, the team mostly did research in both Israel and London to understand where it could provide value.

Danon argues that the construction industry is essentially a manufacturing industry, but with very outdated control and process management systems that still often relies on Excel to track progress.

Image Credits: Buildots

Construction sites obviously pose their own problems. There’s often no Wi-Fi, for example, so contractors generally still have to upload their videos manually to Buildots’ servers. They are also three dimensional, so the team had to develop systems to understand on what floor a video was taken, for example, and for large indoor spaces, GPS won’t work either.

The teams tells me that before the COVID-19 lockdowns, it was mostly focused on Israel and the U.K., but the pandemic actually accelerated its push into other geographies. It just started work on a large project in Poland and is scheduled to work on another one in Japan next month.

Because the construction industry is very project-driven, sales often start with getting one project manager on board. That project manager also usually owns the budget for the project, so they can often also sign the check, Danon noted. And once that works out, then the general contractor often wants to talk to the company about a larger enterprise deal.

As for the funding, the company’s Series A round came together just before the lockdowns started. The company managed to bring together an interesting mix of investors from both the construction and technology industries.

Now, the plan is to scale the company, which currently has 35 employees, and figure out even more ways to use the data the service collects and make it useful for its users. “We have a long journey to turn all the data we have into supporting all the workflows on a construction site,” said Danon. “There are so many more things to do and so many more roles to support.”

Image Credits: Buildots

Build products that improve the lives of inmates

Those of us who work in technology should always be asking ourselves, “Who we are really building for?” Do we design products to make ourselves more comfortable, or do we innovate to be the change in the world we want to see? One group perennially left out of tech conversations — moved out of sight and out of mind — is the 2.3 million people in the U.S. prison system. As tech becomes such a critical driver of progress in the world, we should be building products that improve inmates’ lives and help them reintegrate into society without the risk of relapse.

I recently stumbled across an essay I wrote following my work at the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, analyzing Norway’s humane prison systems and asking, “Could they work here?” These prisons are designed to replicate life outside their walls. They incorporate features like yoga classes and recording studios. They give inmates a chance to pursue higher education so that they can be meaningfully employed when they reenter the outside world. Anyone who has seen the documentary 13th knows that American prisons are very different. Why?

(Quick disclaimer: This is a fraught and emotional topic. It is hard to appreciate the complexity of incarceration and recidivism in a 1,000-word op-ed. I appreciate the input and forbearance of those with different perspectives.)

Writ-large, the corrections system has five goals:

  1. Punish offenders.
  2. Incapacitate them (keep them off the streets).
  3. Deter crime.
  4. Repay society.
  5. Rehabilitate people so that they don’t commit more crimes.

But sadly, per criminologist Bob Cameron, “Americans want their prisoners punished first and rehabilitated second.”

This is why Norway has a recidivism rate of 20% while the U.S. rate hovers at around 75%. That is staggering. Three out of every four former inmates is at-risk of committing a crime after leaving prison. This is a huge deadweight loss for society. How much lower could that rate be if we invested in prisoners’ potential? If we gave them the tools to seamlessly reenter the world? Is there a role for private, for-profit enterprises here, and if so, how could technology be used to help people exit the corrections system permanently?

What’s being done today

Most tech coverage just focuses on tools used to predict recidivism and keep past offenders, many of whom are trying to reform their lives, behind bars. But there are many startups building products to help them successfully move on.

New York-based APDS recently raised a $5 million Series B to provide tablets that inmates can use for learning purposes. The tablets are now in-use in 88 correctional facilities in 17 states. Inmates can use the software to learn English, get their GEDs or learn entrepreneurship. North Carolina startup Pokket helps inmates plan for life outside of prison in the six months leading up to their release date.

Mission: Launch is an organization that hosts demo days and hackathons for inmates. They teach financial literacy, entrepreneurship and community engagement. Hackathon participants so far have built an app to convert online messages from friends and family into written postcards for inmates (who are shut off from social media) and an app to help people leaving the corrections system to seal their records so that they can get hired again.

Maintaining connections with friends and loved ones outside of prison makes a significant difference when it comes to reentering society. Technology company Securus recently announced free messaging on its 290,000 tablets so that inmates can communicate with relatives without having to pay exorbitant fees. Prison Voicemail in the U.K. provides a cheap phone service that families can pay. In all cases when it comes to implementing technology to reduce recidivism, the financial burden should not fall on inmates, a captive population with limited agency and earning potential.

Prison Scholars, a nonprofit founded by a former inmate, teaches entrepreneurship to inmates and helps them create post-incarceration business plans. They estimate that inmates who receive education are 43% less likely to return to prison, an implied ROI of $18.36 to society for every dollar invested. Defy Ventures boasts of 82% employment for program graduates and a 7.2% recidivism rate. Other programs to teach digital literacy and coding, which make resources like textbooks and Wikipedia available offline, have found similar success.

There are many similar examples of tech and education directly lowering recidivism. But why stop here? What else could tech do to make an impact?

What we could still do

The U.S. spends $80 billion to keep inmates behind bars. This creates an enormous financial incentive for taxpayers to reduce recidivism. Two related questions need to be addressed: Can tech companies actually make money on products to improve the lives of those in the prison system? And should they?

To answer the first question — and at the risk of sounding crass — a very simplified business model could look like this: State governments pay companies somewhere between $0 and the cost of keeping an inmate in jail for one year (~$81,000) for each inmate who successfully uses an educational product to prep for leaving prison.

The payment could be split across multiple years, so that the longer someone is able to go without reoffending, the more the provider makes. If taxpayers paid tech providers just 50% of the cost to house an inmate for one year, the tech company would make a per-user LTV of over $40,000 (!). This kind of financial incentive could easily attract more talented entrepreneurs to the goal of improving the lives of people in the corrections system. (The opposite of the for-profit prison business model, which creates a perverse incentive to maintain a constant prison population.)

The question of whether it is morally permissible for for-profit tech companies to sell products built for this demographic is a more difficult one. While there is no right answer, there are guidelines that companies could follow:

  1. Don’t charge inmates or their families. Taxpayers have the largest financial incentive to reduce recidivism — and all the associated costs of the prison — so it is to state corrections budgets that tech companies should look for revenue opportunities.
  2. No Goodhart’s law or perverse incentives. Products have to be designed and sold based on principles, e.g., “help former inmates reintegrate into society and live full lives,” and not numeric targets, e.g., “keep former inmates from committing a felony within three years of leaving prison.” Numbers-based targets can always be gamed. Force companies to keep the end-goal in mind of giving people the tools to improve their lives.
  3. Collect user feedback. Award contracts only to the companies with high user affinity. Unlike standard consumers, inmates experience a principal/agent problem: The purchaser of the services (taxpayers) is not the user (the inmate). States should require tech providers to collect anonymous feedback from the users of their products, and only award contracts to those that get the highest ratings.
  4. Your product’s job-to-do does not end when the sentence does. If products built to reduce recidivism are truly successful, it means that the providers of those products will be slowly eliminating their own markets as prison populations go down. These products should be built not just to get people out of prison, but to help them build meaningful lives for the years after they leave.

There are so, so many great products yet to be built for this demographic. A LinkedIn or Craigslist Jobs equivalent populated by the employers who hire former inmates. Live-streamed religious services so that inmates can continue to participate in their community faith organizations. Nonvocational hobby education platforms. Limited versions of MasterClass or Udemy or Coursera . Closed-loop online games.

Lastly — and needless to say — tech doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to righting the wrongs of our corrections system. The reinstatement of voting rights, employment on-ramps and limits to background checks, the elimination of for-profit private prisons, adjustments to prison wages that tacitly amount to indentured servitude … the list of things we could improve is long. But tech can still play a critical role in improving the lives of fellow citizens in the corrections system.

Mohandas Gandhi quipped that “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Almost one-third of Americans have some criminal history. The U.S. accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population. Let’s stop ignoring this demographic and build tools that really make the world better for those who need it most.

Build products that improve the lives of inmates

Those of us who work in technology should always be asking ourselves, “Who we are really building for?” Do we design products to make ourselves more comfortable, or do we innovate to be the change in the world we want to see? One group perennially left out of tech conversations — moved out of sight and out of mind — is the 2.3 million people in the U.S. prison system. As tech becomes such a critical driver of progress in the world, we should be building products that improve inmates’ lives and help them reintegrate into society without the risk of relapse.

I recently stumbled across an essay I wrote following my work at the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, analyzing Norway’s humane prison systems and asking, “Could they work here?” These prisons are designed to replicate life outside their walls. They incorporate features like yoga classes and recording studios. They give inmates a chance to pursue higher education so that they can be meaningfully employed when they reenter the outside world. Anyone who has seen the documentary 13th knows that American prisons are very different. Why?

(Quick disclaimer: This is a fraught and emotional topic. It is hard to appreciate the complexity of incarceration and recidivism in a 1,000-word op-ed. I appreciate the input and forbearance of those with different perspectives.)

Writ-large, the corrections system has five goals:

  1. Punish offenders.
  2. Incapacitate them (keep them off the streets).
  3. Deter crime.
  4. Repay society.
  5. Rehabilitate people so that they don’t commit more crimes.

But sadly, per criminologist Bob Cameron, “Americans want their prisoners punished first and rehabilitated second.”

This is why Norway has a recidivism rate of 20% while the U.S. rate hovers at around 75%. That is staggering. Three out of every four former inmates is at-risk of committing a crime after leaving prison. This is a huge deadweight loss for society. How much lower could that rate be if we invested in prisoners’ potential? If we gave them the tools to seamlessly reenter the world? Is there a role for private, for-profit enterprises here, and if so, how could technology be used to help people exit the corrections system permanently?

What’s being done today

Most tech coverage just focuses on tools used to predict recidivism and keep past offenders, many of whom are trying to reform their lives, behind bars. But there are many startups building products to help them successfully move on.

New York-based APDS recently raised a $5 million Series B to provide tablets that inmates can use for learning purposes. The tablets are now in-use in 88 correctional facilities in 17 states. Inmates can use the software to learn English, get their GEDs or learn entrepreneurship. North Carolina startup Pokket helps inmates plan for life outside of prison in the six months leading up to their release date.

Mission: Launch is an organization that hosts demo days and hackathons for inmates. They teach financial literacy, entrepreneurship and community engagement. Hackathon participants so far have built an app to convert online messages from friends and family into written postcards for inmates (who are shut off from social media) and an app to help people leaving the corrections system to seal their records so that they can get hired again.

Maintaining connections with friends and loved ones outside of prison makes a significant difference when it comes to reentering society. Technology company Securus recently announced free messaging on its 290,000 tablets so that inmates can communicate with relatives without having to pay exorbitant fees. Prison Voicemail in the U.K. provides a cheap phone service that families can pay. In all cases when it comes to implementing technology to reduce recidivism, the financial burden should not fall on inmates, a captive population with limited agency and earning potential.

Prison Scholars, a nonprofit founded by a former inmate, teaches entrepreneurship to inmates and helps them create post-incarceration business plans. They estimate that inmates who receive education are 43% less likely to return to prison, an implied ROI of $18.36 to society for every dollar invested. Defy Ventures boasts of 82% employment for program graduates and a 7.2% recidivism rate. Other programs to teach digital literacy and coding, which make resources like textbooks and Wikipedia available offline, have found similar success.

There are many similar examples of tech and education directly lowering recidivism. But why stop here? What else could tech do to make an impact?

What we could still do

The U.S. spends $80 billion to keep inmates behind bars. This creates an enormous financial incentive for taxpayers to reduce recidivism. Two related questions need to be addressed: Can tech companies actually make money on products to improve the lives of those in the prison system? And should they?

To answer the first question — and at the risk of sounding crass — a very simplified business model could look like this: State governments pay companies somewhere between $0 and the cost of keeping an inmate in jail for one year (~$81,000) for each inmate who successfully uses an educational product to prep for leaving prison.

The payment could be split across multiple years, so that the longer someone is able to go without reoffending, the more the provider makes. If taxpayers paid tech providers just 50% of the cost to house an inmate for one year, the tech company would make a per-user LTV of over $40,000 (!). This kind of financial incentive could easily attract more talented entrepreneurs to the goal of improving the lives of people in the corrections system. (The opposite of the for-profit prison business model, which creates a perverse incentive to maintain a constant prison population.)

The question of whether it is morally permissible for for-profit tech companies to sell products built for this demographic is a more difficult one. While there is no right answer, there are guidelines that companies could follow:

  1. Don’t charge inmates or their families. Taxpayers have the largest financial incentive to reduce recidivism — and all the associated costs of the prison — so it is to state corrections budgets that tech companies should look for revenue opportunities.
  2. No Goodhart’s law or perverse incentives. Products have to be designed and sold based on principles, e.g., “help former inmates reintegrate into society and live full lives,” and not numeric targets, e.g., “keep former inmates from committing a felony within three years of leaving prison.” Numbers-based targets can always be gamed. Force companies to keep the end-goal in mind of giving people the tools to improve their lives.
  3. Collect user feedback. Award contracts only to the companies with high user affinity. Unlike standard consumers, inmates experience a principal/agent problem: The purchaser of the services (taxpayers) is not the user (the inmate). States should require tech providers to collect anonymous feedback from the users of their products, and only award contracts to those that get the highest ratings.
  4. Your product’s job-to-do does not end when the sentence does. If products built to reduce recidivism are truly successful, it means that the providers of those products will be slowly eliminating their own markets as prison populations go down. These products should be built not just to get people out of prison, but to help them build meaningful lives for the years after they leave.

There are so, so many great products yet to be built for this demographic. A LinkedIn or Craigslist Jobs equivalent populated by the employers who hire former inmates. Live-streamed religious services so that inmates can continue to participate in their community faith organizations. Nonvocational hobby education platforms. Limited versions of MasterClass or Udemy or Coursera . Closed-loop online games.

Lastly — and needless to say — tech doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface when it comes to righting the wrongs of our corrections system. The reinstatement of voting rights, employment on-ramps and limits to background checks, the elimination of for-profit private prisons, adjustments to prison wages that tacitly amount to indentured servitude … the list of things we could improve is long. But tech can still play a critical role in improving the lives of fellow citizens in the corrections system.

Mohandas Gandhi quipped that “The true measure of any society can be found in how it treats its most vulnerable members.” Almost one-third of Americans have some criminal history. The U.S. accounts for 25% of the world’s prison population. Let’s stop ignoring this demographic and build tools that really make the world better for those who need it most.

With Robinhood’s UK launch delayed, eToro to bring out UK debit card following acquisition

Investment app eToro is to launch a debit card, following its acquisition of Marq Millions Ltd, the UK based e-money business. Marq Millions will now trade as eToro Money and will be the issuer for eToro’s card. The acquisition was for an undisclosed amount, and the Marq Millions management team stays on.

The card will initially be available to eToro Club members in the UK, then Europe, and will later be extended to non-eToro users. eToro has over 14 million registered users and expects take-up of the card to be strong.

A spokesperson said the card could now provide instant ‘cash-out and cash-in’ functionality to customers, a feature which their user-base has been requesting for a while.

The debit cards won’t launch immediately but will launch first in the UK, followed by other markets. eToro Money has a Principal Membership with VISA and an EMI License permission from the Financial Conduct Authority . This means they are likely to hit the ground running, subject to approval from the FCA.

Commenting on the acquisition, co-founder and CEO of eToro, Yoni Assia, said in a statement: “The launch of a debit card is a natural next step for eToro as we broaden the range of services that we provide to our users… The debit card will provide instant cash-out and cash-in functionality, greatly improving the user experience. We expect to see a strong take-up of the card – initially from our client base.”

eToro allows customers to invest in stocks and commodities, as well as crypto assets like Bitcoin. It claims to have 14 million registered users, all of whom share their investment strategies, similar to a social network. It’s regulated in Europe by the Cyprus Securities and Exchange Commission, by the Financial Conduct Authority in the UK and by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission.

Mahmood Kamran, former COO of Marq Millions and now Managing Director of eToro Money, commented: “We are incredibly excited to become part of the eToro Group. The backing of this leading global fintech, will allow us to issue a debit card which we are confident will become a market leader globally.”

The context to this is that eToro is racing to build up it’s UK user-base ahead of a potential launch by competitor Robinhood . The US-based investment platform , which has made waves in the US, has had to delay its UK launch “indefinitely” after one of its customers killed himself in the US, with the consequent regulatory interest in its activities.

Robinhood previously said it had a waiting list of more than 250,000 people in the UK ahead of a launch planned for this year, showing that there will likely be strong demand for eToro’s services, given it now has a ‘head start’.

eToro has had over 256,000 new registrations in the UK since it launched zero commission stocks in May last year, (over 3 million globally), and says it can afford to offer zero commission as it is multi-asset and global.

Google is building a new private subsea cable between Europe and the U.S.

Google today announced its plans to build a new subsea cable with landing points in New York in the U.S. and Bude, UK and Bilbao, Spain in Europe. The new cable, named after the pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper, will join Google’s various other private subsea cables like Curie between the U.S. and South America, Dunant between the U.S. and France, and Equiano between Europe and Africa.

The new cable is scheduled to go online in 2022 and will be built by SubCom, which Google also contracted for work on its Dunant and Curie cables.

Image Credits: Google

Google plans to launch a new Google Cloud region in Madrid in the near future, so it’s maybe no surprise that it is also looking at how it can best connect the region to its global network. The new cable marks Google’s first cable to Spain and its first private subsea cable route to the UK.

The cable will feature 16 fiber pairs, which is a pretty standard number, but as the Google team stresses, it will be the first to use a new switching architecture the company developed in cooperation with SubCom. This new system is meant to provide increased reliability and to enable the company to better move traffic around outages.

Grace Hopper will be Google’s fourth wholly-owned cable. In addition to these private cables, the company is also a member of a number of consortiums that jointly operate cables around the world. In total, Google has now announced investments in 15 subsea cables, though it is also reportedly part of the upcoming Blue-Raman Cable that will run between India and Italy via Israel. The company has yet to confirm its participation in this project, though.

Google is building a new private subsea cable between Europe and the U.S.

Google today announced its plans to build a new subsea cable with landing points in New York in the U.S. and Bude, UK and Bilbao, Spain in Europe. The new cable, named after the pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper, will join Google’s various other private subsea cables like Curie between the U.S. and South America, Dunant between the U.S. and France, and Equiano between Europe and Africa.

The new cable is scheduled to go online in 2022 and will be built by SubCom, which Google also contracted for work on its Dunant and Curie cables.

Image Credits: Google

Google plans to launch a new Google Cloud region in Madrid in the near future, so it’s maybe no surprise that it is also looking at how it can best connect the region to its global network. The new cable marks Google’s first cable to Spain and its first private subsea cable route to the UK.

The cable will feature 16 fiber pairs, which is a pretty standard number, but as the Google team stresses, it will be the first to use a new switching architecture the company developed in cooperation with SubCom. This new system is meant to provide increased reliability and to enable the company to better move traffic around outages.

Grace Hopper will be Google’s fourth wholly-owned cable. In addition to these private cables, the company is also a member of a number of consortiums that jointly operate cables around the world. In total, Google has now announced investments in 15 subsea cables, though it is also reportedly part of the upcoming Blue-Raman Cable that will run between India and Italy via Israel. The company has yet to confirm its participation in this project, though.

Unmortgage founder’s new startup wants to make it free to sell your house

Having left his previous company under unceremonious circumstances, Rayhan Rafiq-Omar, who co-founded Unmortgage, is launching his next proptech venture.

Called Free.co.uk, the startup wants to eradicate listing fees when selling your house, as well as streamlining other parts of the house selling process. Instead of charging for a listing on Rightmove, it hopes to make money in commissions if you also let the company find you a suitable mortgage.

Prospective house buyers can also use Free.co.uk as a mortgage broker, with the free listings and accompanying user journey acting as a funnel for third party mortgage commissions.

“I’ve been thinking about this for three years now, but was running Unmortgage. So on leaving Unmortgage, I knew this is what was next,” Rafiq-Omar tells me. “Even thinking of selling your home is painful; there’s just so much friction. And the thought of spending all that money is debilitating”.

To remedy this, Free.co.uk removes “the BS and the fees,” according to its founder, and promises to enable you to get your home listed “in just 5 minutes, from your phone [and] for free”.

Targeting do-it-yourself house sellers, Free.co.uk has online real estate agencies, such as Purplebricks, in its sights rather than offline agencies that charge for and specialise in handholding for sellers that require it. Presuming there are enough of these types of sellers — likely those that have already gone through the house selling process at least once before — that feels like a quite smart strategy, essentially picking off the most profitable portion of an online estate agent’s customerbase.

Explains Rafiq-Omar: “We aren’t competing with high street agents – they exist to hold people’s hands, which many people feel they need to sell their home. [But] for those who know their home, it’s value and the local area better than any ‘local property expert,’ Free.co.uk gives them a new choice to be in control. Purplebricks is the main/only competition”.

Meanwhile, with the U.K. treasury announcing a stamp duty tax cut to help stipulate the housing market amidst the coronavirus crisis — saving buyers up to £15,000 — Free.co.uk has brought its launch forward by a month.

“We’ve worked really hard to put simple tech in the palm of your hand: listing a home, scheduling viewings, getting a mortgage. All of these are now so simple, you’ll wonder why no-one did this before,” adds the Free.co.uk founder.

Unmortgage founder’s new startup wants to make it free to sell your house

Having left his previous company under unceremonious circumstances, Rayhan Rafiq-Omar, who co-founded Unmortgage, is launching his next proptech venture.

Called Free.co.uk, the startup wants to eradicate listing fees when selling your house, as well as streamlining other parts of the house selling process. Instead of charging for a listing on Rightmove, it hopes to make money in commissions if you also let the company find you a suitable mortgage.

Prospective house buyers can also use Free.co.uk as a mortgage broker, with the free listings and accompanying user journey acting as a funnel for third party mortgage commissions.

“I’ve been thinking about this for three years now, but was running Unmortgage. So on leaving Unmortgage, I knew this is what was next,” Rafiq-Omar tells me. “Even thinking of selling your home is painful; there’s just so much friction. And the thought of spending all that money is debilitating”.

To remedy this, Free.co.uk removes “the BS and the fees,” according to its founder, and promises to enable you to get your home listed “in just 5 minutes, from your phone [and] for free”.

Targeting do-it-yourself house sellers, Free.co.uk has online real estate agencies, such as Purplebricks, in its sights rather than offline agencies that charge for and specialise in handholding for sellers that require it. Presuming there are enough of these types of sellers — likely those that have already gone through the house selling process at least once before — that feels like a quite smart strategy, essentially picking off the most profitable portion of an online estate agent’s customerbase.

Explains Rafiq-Omar: “We aren’t competing with high street agents – they exist to hold people’s hands, which many people feel they need to sell their home. [But] for those who know their home, it’s value and the local area better than any ‘local property expert,’ Free.co.uk gives them a new choice to be in control. Purplebricks is the main/only competition”.

Meanwhile, with the U.K. treasury announcing a stamp duty tax cut to help stipulate the housing market amidst the coronavirus crisis — saving buyers up to £15,000 — Free.co.uk has brought its launch forward by a month.

“We’ve worked really hard to put simple tech in the palm of your hand: listing a home, scheduling viewings, getting a mortgage. All of these are now so simple, you’ll wonder why no-one did this before,” adds the Free.co.uk founder.

UK gov’t asleep at the wheel on Russia cyber ops threat, report warns

The UK lacks a comprehensive and cohesive high level strategy to respond to the cyber threat posed by Russia and other hostile states using online disinformation and influence ops to target democratic institutions and values, a parliamentary committee has warned in a long-delayed report that’s finally been published today.

“The UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts,” the committee warns, calling for legislation to tackle the multi-pronged threat posed by hostile foreign influence operations in the digital era.

The report also urges the government to do the leg work of attributing state-backed cyber attacks — recommending a tactic of ‘naming and shaming’ perpetrators, while recognizing that UK agencies have, since the WannaCry attack, been more willing to publicly attribute a cyber attack to a state actor like Russia than they were in decades past. (Last week the government did just that in relation to COVID-19 vaccine R&D efforts — attacking Russia for targeting the work with custom malware, as UK ministers sought to get out ahead of the committee’s recommendations.)

“Russia’s cyber capability, when combined with its willingness to deploy it in a malicious capacity, is a matter of grave concern, and poses an immediate and urgent threat to our national security,” the committee warns.

On the threat posed to democracy by state-backed online disinformation and influence campaigns, the committee also points a finger of blame at social media giants for “failing to play their part”.

“It is the social media companies which hold the key and yet are failing to play their part,” the committee writes, urging the government to establish “a protocol” with platform giants to ensure they “take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously, and have clear timescales within which they commit to removing such material”.

“Government should ‘name and shame’ those which fail to act,” the committee adds, suggesting such a protocol could be “usefully expanded” to other areas where the government is seeking action from platforms giants.

Russia report

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) prepared the dossier for publication last year, after conducting a lengthy enquiry into Russian state influence in the UK — including examining how money from Russian oligarchs flows into the country, and especially into London, via wealthy ex-pats and their establishment links; as well as looking at Russia’s use of hostile cyber operations to attempt to influence UK elections.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson blocked publication ahead of last year’s general election — meaning it’s taken a full nine months for the report to make it into the public domain, despite then committee chair urging publication ahead of polling day. The UK’s next election, meanwhile, is not likely for some half a decade’s time. (Related: Johnson was able to capitalize on unregulated social media ads during his own election campaign last year, so, er… )

The DCMS committee, which was one of the bodies that submitted evidence to the ISC’s inquiry, has similarly been warning for years about the threats posed to democracy by online disinformation and political targeting — as have the national data watchdog and others. Yet successive Conservative-led governments have failed to act on urgent recommendations in this area.

Last year ministers set out a proposal to regulate a broad swathe of ‘online harms’, although the focus is not specifically on political disinformation — and draft legislation still hasn’t been laid before parliament.

“The clearest requirement for immediate action is for new legislation,” the ISC committee writes of the threat posed by Russia. “The Intelligence Community must be given the tools it needs and be put in the best possible position if it is to tackle this very capable adversary, and this means a new statutory framework to tackle espionage, the illicit financial dealings of the Russian elite and the ‘enablers’ who support this activity.”

The report labels foreign disinformation operations and online influence campaigns something of a “hot potato” no UK agency wants to handle. A key gap the report highlights is this lack of ministerial responsibility for combating the democratic threat posed by hostile foreign states, leveraging connectivity to spread propaganda or deploy malware.

“Protecting our democratic discourse and processes from hostile foreign interference is a central responsibility of Government, and should be a ministerial priority,” the committee writes, flagging both the lack of central, ministerial responsibility and a reluctance by the UK’s intelligence and security agencies to involve themselves in actively defending democratic processes.

“Whilst we understand the nervousness around any suggestion that the intelligence and security Agencies might be involved in democratic processes – certainly a fear that is writ large in other countries – that cannot apply when it comes to the protection of those processes. And without seeking in any way to imply that DCMS [the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] is not capable, or that the Electoral Commission is not a staunch defender of democracy, it is a question of scale and access. DCMS is a small Whitehall policy department and the Electoral Commission is an arm’s length body; neither is in the central position required to tackle a major hostile state threat to our democracy.”

Last July the government did announce what it called its Defending Democracy programme, which — per the ISC committee report — is intended to “co-ordinate work on protecting democratic discourse and processes from interference under the leadership of the Cabinet Office, with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Deputy National Security Adviser holding overall responsibility at ministerial and official level respectively”.

However the committee points out this structure is “still rather fragmented”, noting that at least ten separate teams are involved across government.

It also questions the level of priority being attached to the issue, writing that: “It seems to have been afforded a rather low priority: it was signed off by the National Security Council only in February 2019, almost three years after the EU referendum campaign and the US presidential election which brought these issues to the fore.”

“In the Committee’s view, a foreign power seeking to interfere in our democratic processes – whether it is successful or not – cannot be taken lightly; our democracy is intrinsic to our country’s success and well-being and any threat to it must be treated as a serious national security issue by those tasked with defending us,” it adds.

The lack of an overarching ministerial body invested with central responsibility to tackle online threats to democracy goes a long way to explaining the damp squib of a response around breaches of UK election law which relate to the Brexit vote — when social media platforms were used to funnel in dark money to fund digital ads aimed at influencing the outcome of what should have been a UK-only vote.

(A redacted footnote in the report touches on the £8M donation by Arron Banks to the Leave.EU campaign — “the biggest donor in British political history”; noting how the Electoral Commission, which had been investigating the source of the donation, referred the case to the National Crime Agency — “which investigated it ***” [redacting any committee commentary on what was or was not found by the NCA]; before adding: “In September 2019, the National Crime Agency announced that it had concluded the investigation, having found no evidence that any criminal offences had been committed under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 or company law by any of the individuals or organisations referred to it by the Electoral Commission.”)

“The regulation of political advertising falls outside this Committee’s remit,” the ISC report adds, under a brief section on ‘Political advertising on social media’. “We agree, however, with the DCMS Select Committee’s conclusion that the regulatory framework needs urgent review if it is to be fit for purpose in the age of widespread social media.

“In particular, we note and affirm the Select Committee’s recommendation that all online political adverts should include an imprint stating who is paying for it. We would add to that a requirement for social media companies to co-operate with MI5 where it is suspected that a hostile foreign state may be covertly running a campaign.”

On Brexit itself, and the heavily polarizing question of how much influence Russia was able to exert over the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, the committee suggests this would be “difficult” or even “impossible” to assess. But it emphasizes: “it is important to establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a UK democratic process, irrespective of whether it was successful or not.”

The report then goes on to query the lack of evidence of an attempt by the UK government or security agencies to do just that.

In one interesting — and heavily redacted paragraph — the committee notes it sought to ascertain whether UK intelligence agencies hold “secret intelligence” that might support or supplement open source studies that have pointed to attempts by Russia to influence the Brexit vote — but was sent only a very brief response.

Here the committee writes:

In response to our request for written evidence at the outset of the Inquiry, MI5 initially provided just six lines of text. It stated that ***, before referring to academic studies. This was noteworthy in terms of the way it was couched (***) and the reference to open source studies ***. The brevity was also, to us, again, indicative of the extreme caution amongst the intelligence and security Agencies at the thought that they might have any role in relation to the UK’s democratic processes, and particularly one as contentious as the EU referendum. We repeat that this attitude is illogical; this is about the protection of the process and mechanism from hostile state interference, which should fall to our intelligence and security Agencies.

The report also records a gap in the government’s response on this issue — with the committee being told of no active attempt by government to understand whether or not UK elections have been targeted by Russia.

“The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results,” it writes.

A later redacted paragraph indicates an assessment by the committee that the government failed to fully take into account open source material which had indicated attempts to influence Brexit (such as the studies of attempts to influence the referendum using Russia state mouthpieces RT and Sputnik; or via social media campaigns).

“Given that the Committee has previously been informed that open source material is now fully represented in the Government’s understanding of the threat picture, it was surprising to us that in this instance it was not,” the committee adds.

The committee also raises an eyebrow at the lack of any post-referendum analysis of Russian attempts to influence the vote by UK intelligence agencies — which it describes as in “stark contrast” to the US agency response following the revelations of Russian disops targeted at the 2016 US presidential election.

“Whilst the issues at stake in the EU referendum campaign are less clear-cut, it is nonetheless the Committee’s view that the UK Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum and that an unclassified summary of it be published,” it suggests.

In other recommendations related to Russia’s “offensive cyber” capabilities, the committee reiterates that there’s a need for “a common international approach” to tackling the threat.

“It is clear there is now a pressing requirement for the introduction of a doctrine, or set of protocols, to ensure that there is a common approach to Offensive Cyber. While the UN has agreed that international law, and in particular the UN Charter, applies in cyberspace, there is still a need for a greater global understanding of how this should work in practice,” it writes, noting that it made the same recommendation in its 2016-17 annual
report.

“It is imperative that there are now tangible developments in this area in light of the increasing threat from Russia (and others, including China, Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Achieving a consensus on this common approach will be a challenging process, but as a leading proponent of the Rules Based International Order it is essential that the UK helps to promote and shape Rules of Engagement, working
with our allies.”

The security-cleared committee notes that the public report is a redacted summary of a more detailed dossier it felt unable to publish on account of classified information and the risk of Russia being able to use it to glean too much intelligence on the level of UK intelligence of its activities. Hence opting for a more truncated (and redacted) document than it would usually publish — which again raises questions over why Johnson sought repeatedly to delay publication.

Plenty of sections of the report contain a string of asterisk at a crucial point, eliding strategic specifics (e.g. this paragraph on exactly how Russia is targeting critical UK infrastructure: “Russia has also undertaken cyber pre-positioning activity on other nations’ Critical National Infrastructure (CNI). The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has advised that there is *** Russian cyber intrusion into the UK’s CNI – particularly marked in the *** sectors.)”)

Most recently Number 10 sought to influence the election of the ISC committee chair by seeking to parachute a preferred candidate into the seat — which could have further delayed publication of the report. However the attempt at stacking the committee was thwarted when new chair, Conservative MP Julian Lewis, sided with opposition MPs to vote for himself. After which the newly elected committee voted unanimously to release the Russia report before the summer recess of parliament, avoiding another multi-month delay.

Another major chunk of the report, which tackles the topic of Russian expatriate oligarchs and their money; how they’ve been welcomed into UK society with “open arms”, enabling their illicit finance to be recycled through “the London ‘laundromat’, and to find its way inexorably into political party coffers, may explain the government’s reluctance for the report to be made public.

The committee’s commentary here makes particularly awkward reading for a political party with major Russian donors. And a prime minister with Russian oligarch friends

“It is widely recognised that the key to London’s appeal was the exploitation of the UK’s investor visa scheme, introduced in 1994, followed by the promotion of a light and limited touch to regulation, with London’s strong capital and housing markets offering sound investment opportunities,” the committee writes, further noting that Russian money was also invested in “extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process”.

“In brief, Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth,” it adds.

You can read the full report here.

UK gov’t asleep at the wheel on Russia cyber ops threat, report warns

The UK lacks a comprehensive and cohesive high level strategy to respond to the cyber threat posed by Russia and other hostile states using online disinformation and influence ops to target democratic institutions and values, a parliamentary committee has warned in a long-delayed report that’s finally been published today.

“The UK is clearly a target for Russia’s disinformation campaigns and political influence operations and must therefore equip itself to counter such efforts,” the committee warns, calling for legislation to tackle the multi-pronged threat posed by hostile foreign influence operations in the digital era.

The report also urges the government to do the leg work of attributing state-backed cyber attacks — recommending a tactic of ‘naming and shaming’ perpetrators, while recognizing that UK agencies have, since the WannaCry attack, been more willing to publicly attribute a cyber attack to a state actor like Russia than they were in decades past. (Last week the government did just that in relation to COVID-19 vaccine R&D efforts — attacking Russia for targeting the work with custom malware, as UK ministers sought to get out ahead of the committee’s recommendations.)

“Russia’s cyber capability, when combined with its willingness to deploy it in a malicious capacity, is a matter of grave concern, and poses an immediate and urgent threat to our national security,” the committee warns.

On the threat posed to democracy by state-backed online disinformation and influence campaigns, the committee also points a finger of blame at social media giants for “failing to play their part”.

“It is the social media companies which hold the key and yet are failing to play their part,” the committee writes, urging the government to establish “a protocol” with platform giants to ensure they “take covert hostile state use of their platforms seriously, and have clear timescales within which they commit to removing such material”.

“Government should ‘name and shame’ those which fail to act,” the committee adds, suggesting such a protocol could be “usefully expanded” to other areas where the government is seeking action from platforms giants.

Russia report

The Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) prepared the dossier for publication last year, after conducting a lengthy enquiry into Russian state influence in the UK — including examining how money from Russian oligarchs flows into the country, and especially into London, via wealthy ex-pats and their establishment links; as well as looking at Russia’s use of hostile cyber operations to attempt to influence UK elections.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson blocked publication ahead of last year’s general election — meaning it’s taken a full nine months for the report to make it into the public domain, despite then committee chair urging publication ahead of polling day. The UK’s next election, meanwhile, is not likely for some half a decade’s time. (Related: Johnson was able to capitalize on unregulated social media ads during his own election campaign last year, so, er… )

The DCMS committee, which was one of the bodies that submitted evidence to the ISC’s inquiry, has similarly been warning for years about the threats posed to democracy by online disinformation and political targeting — as have the national data watchdog and others. Yet successive Conservative-led governments have failed to act on urgent recommendations in this area.

Last year ministers set out a proposal to regulate a broad swathe of ‘online harms’, although the focus is not specifically on political disinformation — and draft legislation still hasn’t been laid before parliament.

“The clearest requirement for immediate action is for new legislation,” the ISC committee writes of the threat posed by Russia. “The Intelligence Community must be given the tools it needs and be put in the best possible position if it is to tackle this very capable adversary, and this means a new statutory framework to tackle espionage, the illicit financial dealings of the Russian elite and the ‘enablers’ who support this activity.”

The report labels foreign disinformation operations and online influence campaigns something of a “hot potato” no UK agency wants to handle. A key gap the report highlights is this lack of ministerial responsibility for combating the democratic threat posed by hostile foreign states, leveraging connectivity to spread propaganda or deploy malware.

“Protecting our democratic discourse and processes from hostile foreign interference is a central responsibility of Government, and should be a ministerial priority,” the committee writes, flagging both the lack of central, ministerial responsibility and a reluctance by the UK’s intelligence and security agencies to involve themselves in actively defending democratic processes.

“Whilst we understand the nervousness around any suggestion that the intelligence and security Agencies might be involved in democratic processes – certainly a fear that is writ large in other countries – that cannot apply when it comes to the protection of those processes. And without seeking in any way to imply that DCMS [the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] is not capable, or that the Electoral Commission is not a staunch defender of democracy, it is a question of scale and access. DCMS is a small Whitehall policy department and the Electoral Commission is an arm’s length body; neither is in the central position required to tackle a major hostile state threat to our democracy.”

Last July the government did announce what it called its Defending Democracy programme, which — per the ISC committee report — is intended to “co-ordinate work on protecting democratic discourse and processes from interference under the leadership of the Cabinet Office, with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Deputy National Security Adviser holding overall responsibility at ministerial and official level respectively”.

However the committee points out this structure is “still rather fragmented”, noting that at least ten separate teams are involved across government.

It also questions the level of priority being attached to the issue, writing that: “It seems to have been afforded a rather low priority: it was signed off by the National Security Council only in February 2019, almost three years after the EU referendum campaign and the US presidential election which brought these issues to the fore.”

“In the Committee’s view, a foreign power seeking to interfere in our democratic processes – whether it is successful or not – cannot be taken lightly; our democracy is intrinsic to our country’s success and well-being and any threat to it must be treated as a serious national security issue by those tasked with defending us,” it adds.

The lack of an overarching ministerial body invested with central responsibility to tackle online threats to democracy goes a long way to explaining the damp squib of a response around breaches of UK election law which relate to the Brexit vote — when social media platforms were used to funnel in dark money to fund digital ads aimed at influencing the outcome of what should have been a UK-only vote.

(A redacted footnote in the report touches on the £8M donation by Arron Banks to the Leave.EU campaign — “the biggest donor in British political history”; noting how the Electoral Commission, which had been investigating the source of the donation, referred the case to the National Crime Agency — “which investigated it ***” [redacting any committee commentary on what was or was not found by the NCA]; before adding: “In September 2019, the National Crime Agency announced that it had concluded the investigation, having found no evidence that any criminal offences had been committed under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 or company law by any of the individuals or organisations referred to it by the Electoral Commission.”)

“The regulation of political advertising falls outside this Committee’s remit,” the ISC report adds, under a brief section on ‘Political advertising on social media’. “We agree, however, with the DCMS Select Committee’s conclusion that the regulatory framework needs urgent review if it is to be fit for purpose in the age of widespread social media.

“In particular, we note and affirm the Select Committee’s recommendation that all online political adverts should include an imprint stating who is paying for it. We would add to that a requirement for social media companies to co-operate with MI5 where it is suspected that a hostile foreign state may be covertly running a campaign.”

On Brexit itself, and the heavily polarizing question of how much influence Russia was able to exert over the UK’s vote to leave the European Union, the committee suggests this would be “difficult” or even “impossible” to assess. But it emphasizes: “it is important to establish whether a hostile state took deliberate action with the aim of influencing a UK democratic process, irrespective of whether it was successful or not.”

The report then goes on to query the lack of evidence of an attempt by the UK government or security agencies to do just that.

In one interesting — and heavily redacted paragraph — the committee notes it sought to ascertain whether UK intelligence agencies hold “secret intelligence” that might support or supplement open source studies that have pointed to attempts by Russia to influence the Brexit vote — but was sent only a very brief response.

Here the committee writes:

In response to our request for written evidence at the outset of the Inquiry, MI5 initially provided just six lines of text. It stated that ***, before referring to academic studies. This was noteworthy in terms of the way it was couched (***) and the reference to open source studies ***. The brevity was also, to us, again, indicative of the extreme caution amongst the intelligence and security Agencies at the thought that they might have any role in relation to the UK’s democratic processes, and particularly one as contentious as the EU referendum. We repeat that this attitude is illogical; this is about the protection of the process and mechanism from hostile state interference, which should fall to our intelligence and security Agencies.

The report also records a gap in the government’s response on this issue — with the committee being told of no active attempt by government to understand whether or not UK elections have been targeted by Russia.

“The written evidence provided to us appeared to suggest that HMG had not seen or sought evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes or any activity that has had a material impact on an election, for example influencing results,” it writes.

A later redacted paragraph indicates an assessment by the committee that the government failed to fully take into account open source material which had indicated attempts to influence Brexit (such as the studies of attempts to influence the referendum using Russia state mouthpieces RT and Sputnik; or via social media campaigns).

“Given that the Committee has previously been informed that open source material is now fully represented in the Government’s understanding of the threat picture, it was surprising to us that in this instance it was not,” the committee adds.

The committee also raises an eyebrow at the lack of any post-referendum analysis of Russian attempts to influence the vote by UK intelligence agencies — which it describes as in “stark contrast” to the US agency response following the revelations of Russian disops targeted at the 2016 US presidential election.

“Whilst the issues at stake in the EU referendum campaign are less clear-cut, it is nonetheless the Committee’s view that the UK Intelligence Community should produce an analogous assessment of potential Russian interference in the EU referendum and that an unclassified summary of it be published,” it suggests.

In other recommendations related to Russia’s “offensive cyber” capabilities, the committee reiterates that there’s a need for “a common international approach” to tackling the threat.

“It is clear there is now a pressing requirement for the introduction of a doctrine, or set of protocols, to ensure that there is a common approach to Offensive Cyber. While the UN has agreed that international law, and in particular the UN Charter, applies in cyberspace, there is still a need for a greater global understanding of how this should work in practice,” it writes, noting that it made the same recommendation in its 2016-17 annual
report.

“It is imperative that there are now tangible developments in this area in light of the increasing threat from Russia (and others, including China, Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea). Achieving a consensus on this common approach will be a challenging process, but as a leading proponent of the Rules Based International Order it is essential that the UK helps to promote and shape Rules of Engagement, working
with our allies.”

The security-cleared committee notes that the public report is a redacted summary of a more detailed dossier it felt unable to publish on account of classified information and the risk of Russia being able to use it to glean too much intelligence on the level of UK intelligence of its activities. Hence opting for a more truncated (and redacted) document than it would usually publish — which again raises questions over why Johnson sought repeatedly to delay publication.

Plenty of sections of the report contain a string of asterisk at a crucial point, eliding strategic specifics (e.g. this paragraph on exactly how Russia is targeting critical UK infrastructure: “Russia has also undertaken cyber pre-positioning activity on other nations’ Critical National Infrastructure (CNI). The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) has advised that there is *** Russian cyber intrusion into the UK’s CNI – particularly marked in the *** sectors.)”)

Most recently Number 10 sought to influence the election of the ISC committee chair by seeking to parachute a preferred candidate into the seat — which could have further delayed publication of the report. However the attempt at stacking the committee was thwarted when new chair, Conservative MP Julian Lewis, sided with opposition MPs to vote for himself. After which the newly elected committee voted unanimously to release the Russia report before the summer recess of parliament, avoiding another multi-month delay.

Another major chunk of the report, which tackles the topic of Russian expatriate oligarchs and their money; how they’ve been welcomed into UK society with “open arms”, enabling their illicit finance to be recycled through “the London ‘laundromat’, and to find its way inexorably into political party coffers, may explain the government’s reluctance for the report to be made public.

The committee’s commentary here makes particularly awkward reading for a political party with major Russian donors. And a prime minister with Russian oligarch friends

“It is widely recognised that the key to London’s appeal was the exploitation of the UK’s investor visa scheme, introduced in 1994, followed by the promotion of a light and limited touch to regulation, with London’s strong capital and housing markets offering sound investment opportunities,” the committee writes, further noting that Russian money was also invested in “extending patronage and building influence across a wide sphere of the British establishment – PR firms, charities, political interests, academia and cultural institutions were all willing beneficiaries of Russian money, contributing to a ‘reputation laundering’ process”.

“In brief, Russian influence in the UK is ‘the new normal’, and there are a lot of Russians with very close links to Putin who are well integrated into the UK business and social scene, and accepted because of their wealth,” it adds.

You can read the full report here.