Categories
CNN-Technology

Ransomware took down the Colonial Pipeline. You could be at risk too

By Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN Business

Ransomware attacks draw headlines when they take down major operations: hospitals, cities and most recently, a US fuel pipeline. Not only do cybercriminals scam businesses demanding large sums of money or they’ll wreak havoc on their computer systems, this week’s gas shortages showed how it can also have broader impacts.

But ransomware against individuals — specifically, anyone who uses the internet — can also be very damaging. Hackers can lock computers and threaten to delete or expose sensitive information and photos in exchange for money.

The concept predates the widespread adoption of the internet. In the late 1980s, the inventor of ransomware attacked the attendees of the World Health Organization’s international AIDS conference with infected floppy disks, asking for $189 to decrypt files on their computers. Nearly three decades later, the US Justice Department recently said 2020 was “the worst year to date for ransomware attacks.” Security experts believe attacks against both corporations and individuals will only continue to grow because they’re easy enough to execute and people are paying.

Here’s what to do if you’ve fallen victim and how to protect yourself.

How it happens

Criminal organizations behind ransomware attacks don’t care if the victim is an individual or a business — they just want to get paid. Ransomware is often obtained through social engineering — an act of someone stealing personal data by using information gleaned from their social media account — phishing emails or getting someone to click on a link on a website. It’s especially prevalent on pornography and pirate websites that promise free viewing. Ransomware kits are also sold on the dark web, a part of the internet not detected by search engines where cybercriminals often sell and buy illicit materials.

Older computers running operating systems that are no longer supported by the manufacturer, such as Microsoft’s Windows 7, and don’t offer security updates are more susceptible, as well.

Once the ransomware has been clicked, a hacker can gain access to that computer and demand a ransom to relinquish control. Because the system locks as soon as it’s infected, it’s not possible to negotiate with the criminal. Many times, hackers will urge people to pay with cryptocurrency, such as bitcoin, which can be received anonymously and is harder to trace.

The biggest motivating factor behind these incidents is money, and sometimes a criminal will use fear tactics, such as threatening to publicly expose sensitive photos, to entice people to pay. “When criminals attack individual users, they often ask for small amounts of money, as they know most individuals can’t or won’t pay thousands of dollars to get their data back,” said Randall Magiera, cybersecurity expert and professor of information technology at Tulane University.

What to do if you’ve fallen victim

The FBI’s general guidance is that victims should not pay a ransom. “The FBI does not support paying a ransom in response to a ransomware attack,” according to the FBI website. “Paying a ransom doesn’t guarantee you or your organization will get any data back. It also encourages perpetrators to target more victims and offers an incentive for others to get involved in this type of illegal activity.”

If a hacker gets a credit card number and goes on a shopping spree, a bank can often reverse the charges, but the use of cryptocurrency makes funds nearly impossible to get back. Some common malware infections can be reversed with existing cybersecurity tools but many cannot.

“Ransomware groups evolve their tactics generally when they see that cybersecurity tools can counter them,” said Michela Menting, research director at ABI Research. Some security researchers have tools to decrypt ransomware, but they’re not always reliable because many ransomware versions exist.

People who are hit with ransomware should treat their computer as though it’s compromised even after it’s been unlocked. “This is because you do not know what changes the ransomware made to the system when it was infected,” Magiera said.

He suggested erasing the computer’s hard drive and reinstalling the entire operating system rather than selecting the option that restores files.

Even though it’s hard to track down the criminals and prosecute them, anyone targeted should report the crime to police officials, according to Menting. “The greater the number of incidents reported, the more visibility this provides to law enforcement, which eventually leads to bigger budget allocation for fighting it,” she said.

Be proactive

People can do a few things to protect themselves from ransomware, starting with being mindful about what they’re clicking on in email and on websites. Individuals should also consider backing up important files, so even if they fall victim to ransomware their files wouldn’t be lost.

Menting said because some ransomware groups threaten to publish the data online to either shame or reveal personally identifiable information, people can use basic tools to encrypt sensitive files, so that even “if a ransomware gang gets hold of it and publishes it, they cannot read it.”

People can also invest in an antivirus program to monitor for and filter out malicious software.

“Cybersecurity solutions can help to weed out some of the more generic and common attacks, but individuals need to be prepared in case some are not caught by the filters,” Menting said. “No security solution is 100% effective. A combination of tools and techniques will provide the best safeguards.”

Categories
CNN-Technology

This AI tool writes real estate descriptions without ever stepping inside a home

By Rachel Metz, CNN Business

“L O V E L Y Oakland!” the house description began. It went on to give a slew of details about the 1,484 square-foot home — light-filled, charming, Mediterranean-style, with a yard that “boasts lush front landscaping” — and finished by describing the “cozy fireplace” and “rustic-chic” pressed tin ceiling in the living room.

It looked like any number of the property descriptions you might see online in today’s red-hot US housing market. Typically, they’re written by humans. This one, however, was composed by artificial intelligence.

A Canadian startup called Listing AI is using cutting-edge AI to quickly churn out computer-generated descriptions that, like the one above, can be surprisingly compelling. All users need to do is give it some details about the home, and the AI does the rest.

The results still need work: The real-life Oakland, California, home that fits with the above description (which my family is currently selling) actually has a pressed tin ceiling in the dining room, rather than the living room, for instance. The descriptions Listing AI created for me are not nearly as specific or well-written as the one crafted by our (human) realtor. And I had to provide the website with a lot of information about different rooms and features of the house and the outdoor landscaping — a process that felt a bit like real-estate Mad Libs — before the website was able to come up with several different descriptions.

But the general coherence of the descriptions that Listing AI proposed within seconds of my submission provides yet another sign that AI is getting better at a task that was traditionally seen as uniquely human — and shows how people may be able to work with the technology, rather than fearing it may replace us.

It probably won’t do all the work of writing a house description for you, but according to Listing AI co-founder Mustafa Al-Hayali, that’s not the point. He hopes it will complete about 80% to 90% of the work for coming up with a home description, which may be completed by a realtor or a copy writer.

“I don’t believe it’s meant to replace a person when it comes to completing a task, but it’s supposed to make their job a whole lot easier,” Al-Hayali told CNN Business. “It can generate ideas you can use.”

There is a basement, but it’s not finished

Al-Hayali, whose day job is senior software developer at Canada-based e-commerce platform Shopify, said he and his co-founder (Corey Pollock, a Shopify senior product manager), came up with the idea for Listing AI after both became new homeowners in Toronto. As they each navigated that process, he said, they noticed property descriptions that were inaccurate or even copied from a previous time the property was up for sale. Al-Hayali bought his condo in March 2020 — just before Covid forced many people to start relying on virtual visits and other ways of learning about properties remotely, which made thorough descriptions that much more important.

They built the website over the past month or so and launched it publicly this week. Listing AI asks that a user provide all manner of data about the house, then software polishes it so that it can be better used by AI.

After that, the information is processed by GPT-3, an AI model from nonprofit research company OpenAI. GPT-3 was trained on text from billions of webpages so that it would be adept at responding to written prompts by generating everything from news articles to recipes to poetry. (Real estate descriptions are among the hundreds of applications developers have envisioned for the model, with varying levels of success.)

Users can sign up for a free trial that lets you generate several listings. If you want to generate unlimited descriptions it currently costs $9 per month or $84 per year (the website states these are launch prices; the regular prices will be $12 per month or $105 per year).

There were obvious errors and weird AI decisions in the listings the website composed for me, ranging from false statements (the house does not have a “finished basement”, though it does have a basement) to final sentences (“The living room”) that just trailed off. Listing AI also offers more social-media friendly versions of its home descriptions, which didn’t appear that much different to me but each came with a made-up asking price for the home (they ranged from about $600,000 to $2.4 million).

However, the overall tenor and style — and the fact that GPT-3 has no knowledge of the actual look or floor plan of the house — were surprisingly reflective of reality.

“This Mediterranean style house is perfect for you!” exclaimed one listing the website generated. It ended with a call to action: “Come and take a look today!”

Human touch

After experimenting with Listing AI, I asked the realtor representing my family in the sale of my mother-in-law’s home, Scott Ward, what he thinks of this kind of tool. Ward, a realtor with Red Oak Realty in Oakland, had a few issues with Listing AI’s word choices — he’d never describe the Oakland house as “rustic-chic” he said, and he hates the word “boasts” in property descriptions.

But he agreed that there are plenty of poorly written home descriptions out there, and that automating the process could help some people. For example, it could be useful if people are not familiar with this kind of writing process or they’re selling a number of similar homes, such as tract housing.

Still, he said the assumption that AI, rather than a person, can be used to present a home to prospective buyers worries him.

“I think parts of this business can be certainly automated but there’s too much human touch still,” he said. “And I think that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified Corey Pollock’s job title at Shopify. He is a senior product manager there.

Categories
CNN-Technology

Apple parts ways with newly hired ex-Facebook employee after workers cite ‘misogynistic’ writing

By Rachel Metz and Sara O’Brien, CNN Business

Apple parted ways with a new employee this week after thousands of workers petitioned the company to investigate how it hired the man, who had previously published an autobiography they said contains misogynistic statements.

Antonio García Martínez, formerly a product manager for ad targeting at Facebook as well as the author of the 2016 autobiography “Chaos Monkeys: Obscene Fortune and Random Failure in Silicon Valley,” joined Apple’s ads team in April, according to his LinkedIn profile.

García Martínez’s book chronicles his life in the San Francisco Bay Area’s tech scene from 2010 to 2014. He began his career as a quantitative strategist for Goldman Sachs before leaving for Silicon Valley, where he eventually started an ad-tech startup, AdGrok, which he later sold to Twitter. He worked as a product manager at Facebook between 2011 and 2013. In addition to his book, García Martínez has written for publications including Wired.

On Monday, Business Insider noted García Martínez’s new position, citing his LinkedIn profile. By Tuesday evening, some Apple employees began circulating an internal “letter of concern,” citing several of García Martínez’s passages in “Chaos Monkeys” as problematic. The employees argued, in a letter viewed by CNN Business, that the passages are in direct opposition to Apple’s commitment to inclusion.

To illustrate their point, the letter — which was first reported on by tech news site The Verge on Wednesday after it accumulated more than 2,000 employees’ signatures — included excerpts from his writing.

“Most women in the Bay Area are soft and weak, cosseted and naive despite their claims of worldliness, and generally full of s**t,” read a sentence in one passage from “Chaos Monkeys.” It continued, “They have their self-regarding entitlement feminism, and ceaselessly vaunt their independence, but the reality is, come the epidemic plague or foreign invasion, they’d become precisely the sort of useless baggage you’d trade for a box of shotgun shells or a jerry can of diesel.”

Another book excerpt cited in the letter detailed startup funding, and included this sentence: “To make an analogy, a capped note is like having to seduce five women one after the other, while an equity round is having to convince five women to do a sixsome with you.”

“We are profoundly distraught by what this hire means for Apple’s commitment to its inclusion goals, as well as its real and immediate impact on those working near Mr. García Martínez. It calls into question parts of our system of inclusion at Apple, including hiring panels, background checks, and our process to ensure our existing culture of inclusion is strong enough to withstand individuals who don’t share our inclusive values,” read the letter.

It also demanded the company investigate how García Martínez’s “published views on women and people of color were missed or ignored” in the hiring process and come up with a “clear plan of action to prevent this from happening again.”

“Given Mr. García Martínez’s history of publishing overtly racist and sexist remarks about his former colleagues, we are concerned that his presence at Apple will contribute to an unsafe working environment for our colleagues who are at risk of public harassment and private bullying,” the letter also said.

García Martínez did not respond to a request for comment from CNN Business sent Thursday, though he did appear to view a direct message sent to his verified Twitter profile.

On Friday, in a series of tweets, he wrote that Apple recruited him for the position, and that the company was “well aware” of his writing beforehand. He wrote that his references “were questioned extensively” about “Chaos Monkeys” and his “real professional persona (rather than literary one).”

García Martínez tweeted, “I did not ‘part ways’ with Apple. I was fired by Apple in a snap decision.”

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding García Martínez’s tweets. This article will be updated with any response.

While employees at tech companies like Google and Facebook have on occasion in recent years been publicly vocal about issues pertaining to internal culture, this episode has been a rare display of dissent among Apple’s workforce spilling into view. Numerous Apple employees took to Twitter on Wednesday to communicate openly about it, underscoring how important some felt it was for the company to address the situation.

“The reason I took to this letter as opposed to some other method is while I do trust in Apple’s culture and my leadership to do the right thing this was still starkly contradictory to that trust and those feelings,” Cher, an Apple engineer who asked that her last name be withheld for privacy reasons, told CNN Business.

By Wednesday night, Apple confirmed to CNN Business that García Martínez no longer works at Apple.

“At Apple, we have always strived to create an inclusive, welcoming workplace where everyone is respected and accepted. Behavior that demeans or discriminates against people for who they are has no place here,” an Apple spokesman said.

CNN Business (then known as CNN Money) reviewed “Chaos Monkeys” in June 2016, saying at the time that it reads as if it’s four years worth of “Medium posts from a scorned man.”

Categories
CNN-Technology

Alibaba’s sales surge but cloud growth slows

By Laura He and Paul R. La Monica

Alibaba has reported earnings for the first time since China imposed a record fine on the tech giant — and the numbers were not as awful as some feared.

Alibaba posted a loss of about $1.2 billion in the first quarter, mainly due to the $2.8 billion fine imposed on it by Beijing earlier this year. Excluding that, net income was up 18%, to $4 billion.

Revenue grew at a healthy 64% clip from a year ago, to $28.6 billion. That topped analysts’ forecasts and is another sign of the rebounding Chinese economy following last year’s Covid-19 induced slump. Alibaba also said that it expected revenue for its next fiscal year would grow about 30% from fiscal 2021.

Still, shares of Alibaba, which are down more than 10% this year and 35% below their 52-week high, fell about 6% Thursday. Revenue in its cloud business grew at a slower pace than recent quarters.

Co-founded by legendary entrepreneur Jack Ma, Alibaba is one of China’s most prominent and successful private businesses. But the company’s shares have struggled since Beijing began tightening the screws on the country’s tech champions late last year.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has described the regulatory crackdown on the internet sector as one of the country’s top priorities for 2021 and is aimed at “maintaining social stability.”

Alibaba has been a particularly notable target. The fine was reached after antitrust regulators concluded that the online shopping giant had been behaving like a monopoly, and was equivalent to 4% of Alibaba’s sales in China in 2019.

Alibaba said when the fine was announced that it had accepted the penalty with “sincerity and will ensure our compliance with determination.”

Alibaba cloud momentum slows

It appears that the tougher regulatory environment had no major impact on Alibaba’s core businesses though.

The company said Thursday that it finished the quarter with 925 million mobile active users, up 23 million from the end of December.

“Our overall business delivered strong growth on a healthy foundation,” said Alibaba chairman and CEO Daniel Zhang in a statement.

“We remain very excited about the growth of China’s consumption economy, which is benefiting from the acceleration of digitalization in all aspects of life and work,” he added.

Cloud revenue rose 37% from a year ago, an impressive growth rate but a slowdown from previous quarters.

Alibaba said in its earnings release that this was due to a sales decline from a top customer with a big presence outside of China that decided to stop using its services. Alibaba did not name the customer.

The global cloud business is incredibly competitive. Alibaba not only has to contend with Chinese rival Tencent. It is also going up against the likes of Amazon, Microsoft and Google owner Alphabet when trying to win cloud contracts.

Categories
CNN-Technology

Chips are in short supply. Manufacturers are spending big to prevent a repeat

By Diksha Madhok, CNN Business

As the world grapples with a shortage of semiconductors, South Korea’s chipmakers are spending huge amounts of money to shore up their production in the decade ahead.

Samsung and SK Hynix on Thursday announced plans to expand their investments in semiconductors through 2030 by allocating tens billions of dollars of new money to the sector.

Samsung said that it will spend another 38 trillion Korean won ($34 billion) on production logic chips, the brains that power computers. That brings its total spend on the business to 171 trillion won ($151 billion) over the period, including commitments announced in 2019.

The chipmaker also announced that it has begun construction of a new production line in Pyeongtaek — one of the world’s largest hubs for semiconductor production — which it expects to complete in 2022.

SK Hynix, meanwhile, announced its own plans to boost chip production, adding that it is considering doubling its foundry capacity.

The announcement Thursday from co-CEO and Vice Chairman Park Jung-ho at a government event “demonstrated his strong will that SK Hynix will devote to stabilize the global semiconductor supply amid the global chip shortage,” the company said in a statement. It declined to confirm exactly how much money it is investing, since “there is no detailed investment plan for the time being.”

The two South Korean companies are world leaders in the production of memory chips, but the government has been pushing its manufacturers to invest in making more advanced chips. Samsung aims to become “the world leader in logic chips by 2030,” the company said in its statement Thursday.

“The expansion of the company’s foundry business will help fuel entire new industries built on next-generation technologies like AI, 5G and autonomous driving,” it added.

These investments come at a time when global chipmaking giants are racing to expand chip fabrication capacity to meet strong demand and avert a worldwide chip shortage which has hampered industries ranging from autos to video games. Several factors are driving the crunch, from the coronavirus pandemic to US government sanctions on Chinese technology companies and extreme weather.

Other major semiconductor companies are also investing heavily in the sector. In April, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, the world’s largest contract chipmaker, revealed plans to pour $100 billion into advanced chips over the next three years to keep up with rising demand. Just a week before that, Intel unveiled a plan to invest $20 billion in two new US chipmaking facilities.

Categories
CNN-Technology

Bitcoin plunges 12% after Elon Musk tweets that Tesla will not accept it as payment

By Rishi Iyengar, CNN Business

The price of bitcoin has nosedived after Tesla CEO Elon Musk said his company was suspending plans to accept the cryptocurrency as payment for electric vehicles.

Bitcoin was down 12% as of 6:50 a.m. ET on Thursday — bringing the coin’s price down to about $49,300, according to cryptocurrency news website Coindesk. Other digital currencies followed bitcoin lower, with ethereum losing 14% and dogecoin shedding nearly 20%.

Musk cited bitcoin’s high environmental cost as reason for the move, after months of being bullish on it.

“We are concerned about rapidly increasing use of fossil fuels for Bitcoin mining and transactions, especially coal, which has the worst emissions of any fuel,” Musk said in a note posted on Twitter Wednesday. “Cryptocurrency is a good idea on many levels and we believe it has a promising future, but this cannot come at great cost to the environment.”

Tesla did not immediately respond to questions regarding the move, including how many vehicles have been purchased with bitcoin and whether Musk was previously unaware of its environmental impact.

The environmental cost of mining — or creating — digital currencies has been well-documented for years, with the debate around them reignited in recent months as cryptocurrency-based tokens known as NFTs exploded in popularity.

Tesla and Musk have appeared fairly bullish on bitcoin for at least a few months, with the company disclosing in February that it had invested $1.5 billion in bitcoin and floating the ability to buy its cars using the cryptocurrency. Musk tweeted in late March that people “can now buy a Tesla with Bitcoin.”

Musk, who has in the past expressed skepticism about cryptocurrencies, said in an interview on social app Clubhouse earlier this year that he thinks bitcoin is on the verge of “getting broad acceptance by conventional finance people.” He said he should have bought the digital currency eight years ago.

On Wednesday, Musk said Tesla still plans to use bitcoin after the currency finds cleaner energy sources.

“Tesla will not be selling any Bitcoin and we intend to use it for transactions as soon as mining transitions to more sustainable energy,” he said. “We are also looking at other cryptocurrencies that use <1% of Bitcoin's energy/transaction."

Bitcoin isn’t the only cryptocurrency Musk has touted in recent weeks. He has also repeatedly hyped the canine-themed dogecoin, tweeting about it to his 54 million followers and even sending its price crashing when he played a character on “Saturday Night Live” who called the currency a “hustle.”

Musk’s last tweet before his Wednesday bitcoin about-face was a poll asking followers if they wanted “Tesla to accept Doge.”

Categories
CNN-Technology

Colonial Pipeline posted a cyber security manager job weeks before the attack

By Chris Isidore, CNN Business

It might seem a bit late to fill the job, but Colonial Pipeline had been looking for a cyber security manager weeks before the ransomware attack. Too bad it didn’t find one.

The company last week suffered one of the highest profile ransomware attacks ever, which shut down a vital artery used to get gasoline and jet fuel from the nation’s Gulf Coast refineries to East Coast distribution points.

A posting on the company’s careers web site for the cyber security manager job said the position has been open for more than 30 days.

A statement from Colonial Wednesday said that “the cybersecurity position was not created as a result of the recent ransomware attack.” The company added that it has “several positions open as part of our longer-term growth strategy around talent, as we are constantly recruiting top-tier talent across all functional areas of our business. The position to support cyber security would be an example of that. This is a role that we have been looking to add in an effort to continue building our current cyber security team.”

The job’s responsibilities include “managing a team of cyber security certified subject matter experts and specialists,” as well as leading “the development of the enterprise strategy for cybersecurity.” The posting further states that the selected candidate, “will oversee the development of standards and processes for cyber security; lead the recovery from security incidents; and guide forensics of incidents.”

The company is looking for “someone who has an understanding of emerging security threats in order to design security policies and procedures to mitigate threats where possible,” the posting said.

Job requirements include a bachelor’s degree in computer science, information security, or a related field. Colonial also is looking for someone with “ideally 5+ years of technical experience in the information security field and in addition, ideally 5+ years of practical experience in an incident response role,” said the posting. But it would prefer the job candidate have a masters degree and at least eight years of experience.

The posting was not only on the company’s web site — which itself was offline during part of the day Tuesday. It also was listed on numerous outside job search sites such as Indeed.com, ZipRecruiter and Glassdoor for more than 30 days, as well as some other sites where it appeared to be a new listing as of this week.

Colonial is expected to announce its plans Wednesday for restarting the pipeline, though the process could take several days.

The outage has caused a spike in fuel prices and consumption as motorists across the region topped off their tanks. There has also been widespread gas shortages and commercial jets have had to make extra stops for fuel.

Categories
CNN-Technology

Bird pioneered scooter sharing. Now it’s going public

By Matt McFarland, CNN Business

Bird, the startup that pioneered shared electric scooters, plans to go public as soon as this summer.

Bird will merge with a special purpose acquisition company, Switchback II Corporation, valuing the startup at $2.3 billion. After the merger, the company will have up to an additional $428 million in cash to fund operations and growth.

The companies announced the deal Wednesday and said it will require Switchback shareholder approval and have to meet other closing conditions, which the companies described as customary in a news release.

Special purpose acquisition companies (SPACs) have become increasingly popular in the last year as they offer a quicker way for startups to go public than the traditional initial public offering process. US-listed SPACs raised more money in the first three months of 2021 than in all of 2020.

Bird first launched electric stand-up scooters that could be rented through an app in Santa Monica, California, in September 2017. The scooters proved both popular and controversial, as the company quickly expanded around the United States and globally in 2018.

Founder Travis VanderZanden, a former Uber and Lyft executive, described his product as “Rideshare 2.0.” The traditional ridehail industry has been criticized for increasing traffic congestion and pollution in urban areas.

Scooter-sharing’s popularity motivated cities to build bike lanes and consider how to welcome greener car alternatives in congested urban cores. However, Bird and its competitors were criticized as unsafe and for their scooters cluttering sidewalks, as they rapidly expanded in a fashion that was sometimes disorganized and didn’t always have the blessing of local governments.

But this year Bird was selected as part of New York City’s scooter program, which will begin in the East Bronx this summer and include the construction of new bike lanes. Many in the industry believe the city will be the best US market given its size and density.

Bird said it has expanded to more than 200 cities worldwide and given more than 95 million rides. Bird also has begun selling its scooters direct to customers, as well as through Target.com.

But Bird, like most transportation companies, struggled during the Covid-19 pandemic as ridership dropped. Bird laid off hundreds of its employees in March 2020 over a Zoom call that CEO Travis VanderZanden later described as “not ideal.”

Its US sales in the first three months of 2021 still trailed its performance in the first three months of 2019, according to data from Second Measure, a company that analyzes consumer purchase data.

While Bird pioneered scooter sharing, it has faced stiff competition from fellow startups like Lime, which has said it’s given more than 200 million rides, more than twice Bird’s figure, and has close ties with Uber. Lyft operates its own scooter-sharing services, but has scaled back. Ford operates scooter-sharing company Spin.

The scooter industry struggled with profitability questions even before the pandemic. Bird and other scooter companies originally used consumer grade hardware that wasn’t designed for the wear and tear of being left outside during inclement weather and ridden by a half-dozen different people on some days. In some cases the scooters lasted only for a few weeks or months. Vandalism and theft has also been a challenge, as scooters generally aren’t locked to anything.

This story has been updated to clarify the funding Bird will receive from the merger.

Categories
CNN-Technology

Reality show ‘Unicorn Hunters’ is looking for the next $1 billion company

By Samantha Murphy Kelly, CNN Business

A new reality TV show called “Unicorn Hunters” borrows the pitch-for-fame-and-fortune concept popularized by “Shark Tank” but adds an unusual twist: It’s not just the judges throwing money at the businesses. Viewers at home can invest, too.

The new streaming series — which debuted Monday on its website, YouTube, LinkedIn and Facebook Video — features late-stage businesses seeking investments ahead of going public.

Representatives from the companies step inside what the show calls the “Circle of Money,” a ring with seven rotating judges, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, former US Treasurer Rosa Gumataotao Rios, singer Lance Bass and a handful of other business people. Panelists critique the companies by weighing their risk factors and likelihood of becoming the next tech “unicorn,” a term for a private company valued at $1 billion or more.

At the end of each episode, viewers are invited to invest in the featured company by registering at UnicornHunters.com. For some companies, the minimum viewer investment is set at $100; others start at $1,000. The maximum amount varies and is determined by each company. Pre-IPO investment opportunities are typically available to venture capital funds, Wall Street banks and large institutional investors.

“We thought there was inequity on the investor side, the average person around the world side — the middle-class worker, the housewife, the grad student; all of these people who never had access to the opportunity to create wealth through the investment ecosystem — and then on the company side,” said Moe Vela, the show’s co-creator and co-producer, and former director of administration to Joe Biden during the Obama administration. Vela, who is also a “Circle of Money” panelist, is the chief transparency offer of TransparentBusiness, which owns a majority stake in the show. (Two of TransparentBusiness’ top executives, who are also husband and wife, are judges on the show.)

“If we learned anything from Reddit and Robinhood, it’s that people right now are raising their hand saying, ‘Why can’t I have access and participate? Why does it have to be just a few stuffy guys in suits?'” Vela said.

But questions remain. In the series’ pilot, panelists consider a company that offers a UV light product that its founder says helps kill pathogens. But in the end, unlike on “Shark Tank,” there’s no clarity on how much money the panelists who are investing will put into the company. A spokesperson told CNN Business “the breakdown of the investment amounts is private.”

The lack of clarity isn’t helped by the number of people on the panel, though some, like Wozniak, manage to shine through. (For any person who knows anything about Wozniak, it may be impossible to get over — in a good way — the image of him sitting behind a tablet with a Microsoft logo on it.)

The show may not have a network home, but it does have a professional look and feel, and a reality TV veteran — Craig Plestis, who’s involved in shows including “The Masked Singer” — as executive producer. It all came together quickly.

“After I asked Lance to join, he took 20 minutes to call me back and said, ‘I’m in,'” Vela said. After identifying potential unicorns over the course of a few months, they filmed the entire first season in a week — a process that would typically take far longer on a cable network. (Getting the name, which sometimes has a very different connotation, approved would have likely taken as long.)

Bass, known for being a member of boy band NSYNC and a restaurant entrepreneur, is newer to the investing world. Still, his resume includes backing Cameo, the platform that connects fans with celebrities and touts a $1 billion valuation. He is also part of NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers’ venture capitalist group, Rx3 Ventures, which has invested in startups including Hydrow, hims and Super Coffee.

“I’ve always been interested in business ever since we had a huge fight with our old manager, Lou Pearlman, and I realized, ‘Oh wait, this is a business. You have to treat it like one,'” Bass said of his days in NSYNC. “Since then, I was always looking at every contract, signing every check. I was kind of the one in the group that did all the business side of it.”

Bass said he wanted to join “Unicorn Hunters” in part because it shows how anyone can become an investor.

“It’s pretty intimidating sitting next to these industry giants, including the co-founder of Apple to my right and directly across from me is the woman whose signature is on all my money in my wallet right now,” Bass told CNN Business. “But they made me feel so comfortable to be in the ‘Circle of Money’ and I received the best master class on investment ever.”

Panelists also spend a good bit of time reminding viewers there are risks involved with investing, such as a financial loss. “We’re trying to give people information and knowledge so that they can make educated and more intellectual decisions,” Vela said.

The team behind the show said it is currently exploring opportunities for syndication in several markets, including the US, and is in discussions with a variety of distribution partners and platforms.

It added that the show currently plans to start filming its second season in August.

This story has been updated to add information about the maximum amount a viewer can invest.

Categories
CNN-Technology

US agrees to lift Trump-era ban on China’s Xiaomi

By Diksha Madhok, CNN Business

The US government will no longer blacklist Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi, lifting a short and contentious ban on Americans investing in the company that was introduced by the Trump administration.

The US Department of Defense and Xiaomi reached an agreement to set aside the ban on Tuesday, according to a US court filing. The “parties have agreed upon a path forward that would resolve this litigation without the need for contested briefing,” the filing said.

Xiaomi, the world’s third largest smartphone maker, did not comment on the development, but sent CNN Business a copy of the court document.

Days before President Joe Biden took office in January, the Department of Defense added Xiaomi to a list of companies it claimed were linked to the Chinese military. Businesses on the list are subject to harsh restrictions, including the American investment ban.

Before the ban could take effect, a federal judge granted a temporary reprieve to the Chinese company by ruling that Washington lacked “substantial evidence” to support its claim that Xiaomi is owned or controlled by China’s military.

Tuesday’s agreement marks a rare deescalation in increasingly tense US-China relations.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying said she wasn’t aware of the agreement, but added that she hoped “the United States will correct the mistakes of the previous administration and provide a fair, just and non-discriminatory business environment for the normal operation of Chinese companies.”

Shares of Xiaomi jumped more than 6% in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

According to the court filing, the parties are still negotiating the details of the settlement and expect to finalize a joint proposal by May 20.

— Michelle Toh and CNN’s Beijing bureau contributed reporting.