Data Sheet—Some More Skepticism About Blockchains, Bitcoins, and What Not

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On the concluding morning of the Fortune Global Forum in Toronto Wednesday, Fortune’s Jeff John Roberts began a panel on blockchain technology by asking who in the audience was skeptical about blockchain. I raised my hand. Fortune’s Alan Murray, who was sitting next to me, guffawed: “You’re skeptical about everything!”

Guilty as charged. My (sunny) skepticism has served me fairly well so far.

Remarkably, two noted enthusiasts of blockchain technology—Accenture North American CEO Julie Sweet, and Christine Moy, J.P. Morgan Chase’s blockchain program lead—betrayed some skepticism in their comments too. Sweet, whose firm helps clients implement the technology, wisely cautioned corporations not to attempt a blockchain project until they have a good and well-understood reason for doing so. Moy noted that the finance industry assumed blockchain would be ideal for payments. But J.P. Morgan quickly learned that wasn’t the case. She made a good argument that the best applications for blockchain are ones no one has imagined yet.

The blockchain, by the way, is a digital way of tracking assets in a trusted fashion that came to fame with the rise of bitcoin. Yet despite listening intently to this panel the reason for needing it continues to elude me.

Changing gears, it was good spending time in Canada this week, often viewing the United States through the prism of our trusted neighbor that is as befuddled by what is going on in the U.S. as many of us in the U.S. are. Canadians feel they got a good deal in what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the “new NAFTA.” They’re proud to be the one G7 country with trade deals with every other G7 country. And they’re aware they may need to look at their overall approach to regulation, given the changes in the United States.

I’m an unabashed fan of Canada, an impressive liberal democracy with a thriving economy and with people who believe in being courteous to each other. Indeed, all the clichéd talk about how polite Canadians are got a bit tired this week. (I know the Canadians are tired of it.) I’ve always thought of Americans—for clarity, that’s shorthand for citizens of the United States of America—as polite. I’m as frustrated as the rest of the world, including Canada, must be at how impolite and discourteous my country has become.


I was heartbroken to read the obituary of Cindy Lobel, the cultural historian and wife of journalist Peter Kafka. I didn’t know Cindy, but I do know Peter. He’s one of the best in our business. And he’s a good guy, too. I honor Cindy’s blessed memory, and I’m hoping Peter and their two young sons take comfort in her well-lived life, which ended far, far too soon.


Last week, Aaron promised you he’d delve into all the filings for the government’s upcoming 5G airwave license auction and report back. After going through more than 100 bidding applications, he’s back with the tale of a Penn State IT guy, a former mailman, and few other interesting figures who will vie with Verizon, AT&T, and other big carriers to buy the spectrum rights.


Keeping the lawyers busy. Two weeks after sending a cease-and-desist letter, eBay sued Amazon, accusing its rival of illegally poaching sellers. EBay says Amazon employees used the auction site’s messaging service to contact top sellers seeking to convince them to switch platforms. Amazon said it was investigating the situation. Separately, Amazon's $100 million Alexa Fund invested an undisclosed amount in SevenRooms, a restaurant and hotel software developer.

Less essential. Android creator Andy Rubin's smartphone startup Essential laid off about 30% of its staff, Bloomberg reports. The company's original product didn't sell well, and Rubin canceled a follow-up in May to concentrate on developing other kinds of smart devices.

Passing the cup. After hearing from interested investors, Uber may spin off a minority stake in its self-driving car unit, Advanced Technologies Group, the Financial Times reported. Such a plan would follow General Motors' decision to take outside investment from SoftBank and Honda in its self-driving car effort, Cruise, while retaining majority control. Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi has previously rejected calls from some current investors to divest the ATG unit entirely.

A difficult situation. Speaking of SoftBank, the tech conglomerate run by Japanese billionaire Masayoshi Son may have to delay a second huge investment fund, as scandal swirls around top funder Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi. SoftBank is “anxiously looking at what is happening” and “there is no certainty” about a sequel to its $100 billion Vision Fund, which is almost half Saudi money, COO Marcelo Claure said on Wednesday.

I don't remember taking that picture. Starting on Wednesday, Apple extended to its U.S. customers the ability to download all personal data the company has collected, matching the feature made available to European customers back in May under the EU's General Data Protection Regulation. The downloadable data set includes everything from stored photos and documents to app purchase and usage history, Apple says.

I'm not sure how well this works in real life, but it looks so damn cool. Upstart drone maker Skydio introduced an app for the Apple watch to control the flight of its AI-powered R1 drone. The app includes simplified flying controls and even uses the watch's digital crown control to rotate the drone. The Verge got to test the new app and found it "a pretty flawless experience."

Good point. We brought news of Apple's revised bagel emoji yesterday, but some people used the light-hearted news to make a more important point. Artist Ace Ratcliffe pointed out on Twitter: "we have revamped the bagel emoji but still don’t have disabled human emojis, even though disabled humans make up 20% of the population. almost 60 MILLION people."


With all the privacy and data controversies swirling around Facebook, Google, and other big tech companies, has the time come for consumers to leave the cloud? That's the pitch of hardware startup Privacy Labs, which offers its $500 Helm Personal Server (plus $100/year for services) as an alternative. Currently, the paperback book-sized device can handle email, contacts, and calendar listings. But Privacy Labs plans to add file storage, password management, and virtual private networking among other features. Bloomberg's Alistair Barr profiles the company and its even headier aspirations:

Longer term, Privacy Labs wants Helm to be a private digital-identity hub for everything people do online. Instead of Google and Facebook Inc. storing all your information in their data centers and selling ads based on it, consumers would control the data and internet companies would have to ask for access, according to Chief Executive Officer Giri Sreenivas.

“We want to help people break through the way the internet works today and not engage with Google and other big tech companies,” he said...Sreenivas sees the iPhone as Helm’s only major rival. Apple Inc. has been putting more data and computing processes on the device, and it increasingly stresses privacy benefits. Still, iPhones continue to rely on cloud-based services like iCloud and the devices regularly ping data centers run by internet giants like Google, he said.


How the West Coast's New Earthquake System 'Shakealert' Will Warn You of the Next 'Big One' By Lucas Laursen

How Alphabet's Sidewalk Labs Plans to Transform Toronto's Waterfront—And Deal With Critics By Erika Fry

Death of Facebook Exec's Brother Puts Police Treatment of Black Men Under Microscope Again By Natasha Bach

Why a City in China Wants to Launch an Artificial Moon Into Space By Don Reisinger

Hackers Can Use Your Household Appliances to Trigger Large-Scale Power Outages By Erin Corbett

Facebook Hopes Election 'War Room' Can Repel a Flood of Election Interference By Jonathan Vanian

3D-Printed Guns Aren’t as Threatening as You Think By Avi Reichental


The international award for brilliant design given annually by the James Dyson Foundation is on tap and the group released its list of 20 finalists for 2018. The list includes a fork made from potato peels, a prefabricated ants nest, and a line of furniture that can fold up into boats in case of a flooding emergency. Check out the whole list here and stay tuned. The winner will be announced on November 15.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.

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