Elon Musk says Tesla vehicles will soon get a ‘Sentry Mode’

Tesla owners may soon have a way to see (and record) damage that happens to their vehicles when they’re unattended.

Tesla will roll out “Tesla Sentry Mode” for all cars with Enhanced Autopilot, CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet Tuesday. Musk didn’t provide anymore information about when this feature might be available and how it might work.

TechCrunch has reached out to Tesla for more details.

The name suggests that this feature would stand guard, so to speak by either keeping the dash cam on while parked or having it automatically turn on if the car is hit or being tampered with. It could operate similar to aftermarket product Owl security camera; although, again, details are scant except that “regulators just approved.”

In October, Tesla released version 9.0 of its software, which featured a number of updates including a new UI on the center display and the ability to the use the built-in forward-facing cameras as a dash cam. The dash cam feature is available only in Tesla vehicles built after August 2017.

The dash cam feature currently lets owners record and store video footage captured by their car’s forward-facing camera onto a USB flash drive. Owners first must configure a USB flash drive in Windows or MS-DOS file architecture and add a base-level folder in the flash drive called TeslaCam. The configured USB flash drive can then be inserted into either one of the USB ports in the front row of the vehicle. When properly configured, the Dash cam icon pops up on the status bar with a red dot indicating that it is recording.

Owners can tap the icon to save a 10-minute video clip or press and hold to pause recording. Recordings that aren’t downloaded are automatically deleted.

Viacom buys the free video streaming service Pluto.tv for $340 million

Viacom is bucking the trend of launching new premium subscription-based entertainment offerings with its bid to acquire Pluto TV for $340 million in cash.

It’s a way to distribute the company’s once mighty-with-millennial properties like Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, MTV and BET to an audience that doesn’t pay for cable and boost the audience and reach for its recent acquisitions Awesomeness and Whosay.

Launched in 2013, Pluto TV has built a catalog of titles by licensing movies and television shows from studios as well as content from YouTube and other short-form digital media distributors. The company now offers more than 100 channels from 130 content partners that it distributes to roughly 12 million monthly active users — 7.5 million who access it through connected televisions.

“Today marks an important step forward in Viacom’s evolution, as we work to move both our company and the industry forward. Pluto TV’s unique and market-leading product, combined with Viacom’s brands, content, advanced advertising capabilities and global scale, creates a great opportunity for consumers, partners and Viacom,” said Bob Bakish, Viacom president and chief executive, in a statement. “As the video marketplace continues to segment, we see an opportunity to support the ecosystem in creating products at a broad range of price points, including free. To that end, we see significant white space in the ad-supported streaming market and are excited to work with the talented Pluto TV team, and a broad range of Viacom partners, to accelerate its growth in the U.S. and all over the world.”

Pluto Tv will operate as an independent subsidiary of Viacom and its chief executive and co-founder, Tom Ryan, will continue to serve as CEO of the independent entity.

“Since our launch less than five years ago, and particularly over the past year, Pluto TV has enjoyed explosive growth and become the category leader in free streaming television,” said Pluto TV CEO and co-founder Tom Ryan. “Viacom’s portfolio of global, iconic brands and IP, advanced advertising leadership and international reach will enable Pluto TV to grow even faster and become a major force in streaming TV worldwide. Viacom is the perfect partner to help us accomplish our mission of entertaining the planet.”

The deal is also a win for Pluto TV’s venture capital investors. Since its founding, Pluto TV had raised $51.8 million from investors, including USVP, ProSiebenSat.1 Media, Scripps Networks Interactive, Sky, United Talent Agency, Luminari Capital, Chicago Ventures, Pritzker Group and others.

Rocket Lab snags DARPA launch contract for first 2019 mission

Launch startup Rocket Lab is following the success of its first couple commercial launches by adding a prestigious (and deep-pocketed) new client: DARPA. The New Zealand-based company will send an experimental satellite called R3D2 into low Earth orbit sometime in late February if all goes well.

DARPA is of course the Defense Department’s research wing, and it probably has whole file folders filled with experiments it would like to send up to orbit but has deferred because of cost or timing restrictions. Rocket Lab’s whole business model is to make launches cheap and frequent so neither of those apply, and DARPA seems willing to give it a shot.

“The Department of Defense has prioritized rapid acquisition of small satellite and launch capabilities. By relying on commercial acquisition practices, DARPA streamlined the R3D2 mission from conception through launch services acquisition,” explained DARPA’s Fred Kennedy, director of the Tactical Technology Office, in a news release.

“The ability to rapidly space-qualify new technology and deploy space-based assets with confidence on short notice is a service that didn’t exist for dedicated small satellites until now,” said Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck in his company’s corresponding release.

Apparently it’s nicknamed “Wallaby,” perhaps because it keeps things in a pouch.

The satellite itself is actually more of a short-term science experiment. It’s a “membrane antenna,” a thin layer of Kapton folded up into a tiny space that, upon reaching orbit, will unfurl to its full 7-foot diameter. The larger surface area may make for better signal reception and transmission, and packing into a smaller area of course makes more room for other components. (R3D2 stands for Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration, by the way.)

The whole thing weighs 150 kilograms, or about 330 pounds; that doesn’t leave a lot of space for ride sharing, so DARPA is paying for the whole Electron rocket. The plan is to launch in late February from Rocket Lab’s facility in New Zealand on the Māhia Peninsula. The exact date will only become clear once weather and other variables for that period are determined.

Fingers crossed for Rocket Lab on this one. It’s already done launches for private companies and for NASA; adding DARPA to the Rolodex would be a big coup for a company looking to build up its profile.

Police license plate readers are still exposed on the internet

Smile! You’re on camera. At least, your license plate is.

You might have heard of automatic license plate recognition — known as ALPR (or ANPR in the U.K. for number plates). These cameras are dotted across the U.S., and are controlled mostly by police departments and government agencies to track license plates — and people — from place to place. In doing so, they can reveal where you live, where you go and who you see. Considered a massive invasion of privacy by many and legally questionable by some, there are tens of thousands of ALPR readers across the U.S. collectively reading and recording thousand of license plates — and locations — every minute, the ACLU says, becoming one of the new and emerging forms of mass surveillance in the U.S.

But some cameras are connected to the internet, and are easily identifiable. Worse, some are leaking sensitive data about vehicles and their drivers — and many have weak security protections that make them easily accessible.

Security researchers have been warning for years that ALPR devices are exposed and all too often accessible from the internet. The Electronic Frontier Foundation found in 2015 dozens of exposed devices in its own investigation not long after Boston’s entire ALPR network was found exposed, thanks to a server security lapse.

But in the three years past, little has changed.

In the course of a week, TechCrunch found more than 150 ALPR devices from several manufacturers connected to and searchable on the internet. Many ALPR cameras were entirely exposed or would have been easily accessible with little effort. Of the ALPR cameras we identified, the majority had a default password documented in its support guides. (We didn’t use any of the passwords, as that would be unlawful.)

“It doesn’t surprise us to hear that the problems are still ongoing,” said Dave Maass, a senior investigative researcher at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “What we tend to find is that law enforcement will get sold this technology and see it as a one-time investment, but don’t invest in cybersecurity to protect the information or the devices themselves.”

Darius Freamon, a security researcher, was one of the first to find police ALPR cameras in 2014 on Shodan, a search engine for exposed databases and devices.

Freamon found one then-popular model of ALPR cameras, the P372, a license plate reader built and released by PIPS Technology in 2004. Back then, its default password wasn’t a major hazard. But today, a dozen devices are still viewable on Shodan. Although the web interfaces are locked down in most cases, many of these devices allow unauthenticated access through its telnet port — allowing to run commands on the device without a password at all, giving access to each device’s database of collected license plates.

We also found more than a dozen ALPR cameras in use by police in California, given away by their hidden Wi-Fi network name but still cached by Shodan. Two ALPR servers by Texas-based firm MissionALPR were found online at the time of writing.  And, we also found more than 80 separate Genetec-built AutoVu SharpV devices — including two previously discovered license plate readers “as-a-service” device each in Washington and California. (Genetec said that only its setup process has a default password, and users are required to change the password on setup.)

And, many of the ALPR cameras found independently years ago are still online. The list goes on and on.

It’s not just police using ALPR services. Private companies, like large campuses and universities, also invest heavily in ALPR, but are unaware of the risks associated with storing massive amounts of data.

“In California, you’re responsible under state law to maintain reasonable security practices to protect against unauthorized access,” said Maass. “If it turns out that somebody is harmed because they put a license plate reader up and it didn’t have basic security like password protections, that person can be on the hook for punitive damages.”

We asked several ALPR device makers, including PIPS and MissionALPR, if they still produce devices with default passwords and if they offer advice to their customers with legacy equipment, but besides Genetec, no other ALPR device manufacturer responded to our questions prior to publication.

“Genetec has no access to the user-defined passwords and the only way to access the camera in case of a lost password is to do a factory reset,” said a spokesperson.

While many ALPR cameras — like the devices built and sold by PIPS and Genetec — are hardware-based, many cheaper or homebrew systems rely on an internet-connected webcam and cheap or free license plate recognition software, like OpenALPR, that runs separately on top. OpenALPR doesn’t have a default password (though many are still searchable online), but it is open source, making it free to download and cheap to operate.

But it means that now any camera can be an ALPR camera.

Case in point: When police in the city of Orinda, near San Francisco, began installing non-ALPR motion-activated cameras by Reconyx, investigative reporters at NBC’s Bay Area team were able to obtain with a single public records request more than five million photos in a three-month period from the city’s 13 cameras. A local resident then used free ALPR software to turn the images into a searchable database of license plates.

There’s a fine line between using technology to fight crime and creepily surveilling your neighbors. But device makers can — and will soon have to — do more to protect their devices from hacking — or simply leaking data.

Starting next year, California law will ban internet-connected devices manufactured or sold in the state if they contain a weak or default password that isn’t unique to each device. Not only does that protect against hacking, it prevents easy hijacking from powerful, network crippling botnets.

Until then, assume that if it’s connected to the internet, it’s not as secure as it could be.

Netflix joins the Motion Picture Association of America

Hollywood’s highest-profile lobbying group, the Motion Picture Association of America, has announced the addition of a new member: Netflix.

The trade group’s membership includes the major Hollywood studios, including Disney, Paramount, Sony, Fox, Universal and Warner Bros. Netflix is the first Internet streaming service to join.

To regular moviegoers, the MPAA is probably best-known (to the extent it’s known at all) for its occasionally mystifying ratings system, but the group actively lobbies for the studios on a range of issues.

The news underlines the ways in which Netflix is increasingly becoming a part of the Hollywood establishment — or at least, finds its interests aligned with that establishment. (The company recently departed another trade group, the Internet Association.) This comes just a few hours after Netflix scored a record 15 Oscar nominations, including its first for Best Picture.

In fact, Politico (which first broke the news) notes that Netflix and Amazon have already been pushing alongside MPAA members for anti-piracy measures, as part of the the Alliance for Creativity and Entertainment.

One Netflix practice that remains controversial is its resistance to windowing — in other words, giving its films an exclusive theatrical release before making them available for streaming. While the company has softened its stance somewhat, allowing “Roma” and other titles to have a brief period of theatrical exclusivity, this wasn’t enough for the major theater chains, which refused to show the films. However, the MPAA mostly stays out of those discussions.

“On behalf of the MPAA and its member companies, I am delighted to welcome Netflix as a partner,” said MPAA Chairman and CEO Charles Rivkin in a statement. “All of our members are committed to pushing the film and television industry forward, in both how we tell stories and how we reach audiences. Adding Netflix will allow us to even more effectively advocate for the global community of creative storytellers, and I look forward to seeing what we can all achieve together.”

Video game revenue tops $43 billion in 2018, an 18% jump from 2017

Video game revenue in 2018 reached a new peak of $43.8 billion, up 18 percent from the previous years, surpassing the projected total global box office for the film industry, according to new data released by the Entertainment Software Association and The NPD Group.

Preliminary indicators for global box office revenues published at the end of last year indicated that revenue from ticket sales at box offices around the world would hit $41.7 billion, according to comScore data reported by Deadline Hollywood.

The $43.8 billion tally also surpasses numbers for streaming services, which are estimated to rake in somewhere around $28.8 billion for the year, according to a report in Multichannel News.

Video games and related content have become the new source of entertainment for a generation — and it’s something that has new media moguls like Netflix chief executive Reed Hastings concerned. In the company’s most recent shareholder letter, Netflix said that Fortnite was more of a threat to its business than TimeWarner’s HBO.

“We compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO,” the company’s shareholder letter stated. “When YouTube went down globally for a few minutes in October, our viewing and signups spiked for that time…There are thousands of competitors in this highly fragmented market vying to entertain consumers and low barriers to entry for those with great experiences.”

“The impressive economic growth of the industry announced today parallels the growth of the industry in mainstream American culture,” said acting ESA president and CEO Stanley Pierre-Louis, in a statement. “Across the nation, we count people of all backgrounds and stages of life among our most passionate video game players and fans. Interactive entertainment stands today as the most influential form of entertainment in America.”

Gains came from across the spectrum of the gaming industry. Console and personal computing, mobile gaming, all saw significant growth, according to Mat Piscatella, a video games industry analyst for The NPD Group.

According to the report, hardware and peripherals and software revenue increased from physical and digital sales, in-game purchases and subscriptions.

U.S. Video Game Industry Revenue 2018 2017 Growth Percentage
Hardware, including peripherals $7.5 billion $6.5 billion 15%
Software, including in-game purchases and subscriptions  

$35.8 billion


$30.4 billion

Total: $43.3 billion $36.9 billion 18%

Source: The NPD Group, Sensor Tower