Data Dive

The Unexplained Edition: Bitcoin, Apple And The Gap

On Dec. 5, 1872, 145 years ago tomorrow, the Mary Celeste was discovered drifting aimlessly off the coast of the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean. It was drifting aimlessly because despite being an American merchant craft filled with denatured alcohol and other goods bound for sale in Europe, it had no crew.

It had a crew when it left the U.S., of course – just not when the boat was found. Nor was any member of the crew ever seen or heard from again. But the ship had not been robbed and the cargo was all there, as were the captain’s belongings, nor was it damaged in any way.

No one has ever fully explained what happened to the crew, though there are a variety of theories. The most common (normal) explanation is that fumes from the denatured alcohol on board caused the entire crew to abandon ship, and then something happened that destroyed the lifeboats.

Other more fantastic theories involve a giant squid attack and alien abduction.

Last week’s news did not quite have anything that lives up to that level of mysteriousness – because a ghost ship is fairly hard to outperform. But there were certainly some head-scratchers to ponder: What on Earth is going on with bitcoin, does Face ID actually work and what did they sell at The Gap on Black Friday being a few of our personal favorites.

Bitcoin: Bubbles And Billionaires

America can rest easy – and call off that fundraiser: The Winklevoss twins are billionaires at last (on paper). In 2013, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss bought 1 percent of all currently mined bitcoin for a price of $11 million.

That $11 billion bet has increased by around 10,000 percent since, according to The Telegraph –  and made the twins, whose previous claim to fame was a very public fight with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over who created the social network, the first billionaires made by the power of bitcoin. Much of their bitcoin investments have been funded with the $55 million settlement they reached with Zuckerberg over Facebook.

The twins have described bitcoin as “better than gold.”

And for the last several weeks and months, that has appeared a fairly prescient statement. As of the time this piece was written on Sunday, the price of bitcoin was pushing $12,000 ($11,751). The ongoing battle over bitcoin is the biggest bubble the world has ever seen, or the future of Money, exchanges, investing or … (fill in the blank, depending on the writer).

What’s next for bitcoin? As always, opinions are sharply divided.

Among enthusiasts, there is an increased call that bitcoin reaching $100,000 is an achievable reality in the near term. The cryptocurrency’s continued strength and mainstream appeal, goes the argument, will continue pulling investors out of older school hedge investments, like gold, and into the digital revolution.

The more skeptical predict that people who are now frantically buying up bitcoin are likely to find themselves holding sacks of “fool’s gold” in the near term, particularly due to bitcoin’s volatile and unregulated nature.

But while the price future of bitcoin remains up in the air, bitcoin cheerleaders and jeerleaders alike are watching the calendar for Dec. 18, when three different self-certified bitcoin derivative products will launch.

Optimists point out that bitcoin futures, combined with the price gains of late, will pave the way toward establishing the digital currency as a legitimate asset class. That, they believe, will be the final piece of the puzzle necessary to allow the launch of bitcoin exchange-traded funds.

Pessimists point out that a bitcoin futures market also gives investors the ability to do something they have been able to do: short bitcoin. That, they note, may start putting some sharp price pressure on bitcoin and its family of products.

We’ll keep you posted.

Face ID Fails … Again

Oops, they did it again.

According to reports this week, Vietnamese hackers using the magic of masks and 3D printing have successfully hacked an iPhone X again, and this time they have presented more evidence of their success.

Bkav, a Vietnamese cybersecurity firm, posted a video of a researcher resetting the facial recognition enrollment using his own face, and then using a mask to unlock it a few seconds later.

The mask was made with a 3D printer; the eyes were created with a regular 2D printer. The total cost of equipment used was about $150. The researchers called their mask the artificial twin, since it was similar to the mask it used when it first hacked Face ID.

“About two weeks ago, we recommended that only very important people, such as national leaders, large corporation leaders, billionaires, etc., should be cautious when using Face ID,” said Bkav’s VP of cybersecurity, Ngo Tuan Anh, in the report. “However, with this research result, we have to raise the severity level to every casual [user]: Face ID is not secure enough to be used in business transactions.”

Bkav told media that they had not yet told Apple about their updated Face ID hack technique, since they had not heard back from Apple about the first time they used a mask to hack the system.

How applicable this attack is to the real world, is, however, a bit of a mystery. To use it effectively, one needs a full scan of a person’s face to create the mask and then make sure the mask looks at the phone at a very specific angle to work. Generally speaking, it is a level of precision that would be difficult for a casual thief to undertake.

And a lot of work just to hack one person’s phone. It does not appear to be scalable as a method of engaging in cybercrime.

But, as security and encryption expert and professor Alan Woodward from the University of Surrey in the U.K. noted, the door being open at all is a problem.

“What the experiment does show is that a static mask can fool the Apple technology that is supposed to ensure that only a living face is recognized. Once that is possible, it then becomes theoretically possible to produce a static mask to open the device,” noted Woodward.

Gap’s Black Friday Rebound

Gap Inc. headlines over the last year or two have developed something of a dark, recurring theme: Sales are down, foot traffic is falling and stores are closing. Discounting has drawn consumers, but the margins are murder. For a brief time, it looked possible that Gap was going to give up the ghost on physical retail and decamp entirely to a digital shore in Amazon’s marketplace.

But every Christmas has a miracle, and this year it might just be Gap’s turn.

“You know, Gap, Old Navy? There were lines out the door,” SunTrust analyst Pamela Quintiliano wrote of the Black Friday weekend result, which showed stronger mall results than were expected.

Results that were strong enough to see The Wall Street Journal dub the long-suffering Gap Inc. brands the “winner” over Black Friday’s shopping weekend. While mall and department store shopping in general was more robust than analysts were expecting, the Gap and Old Navy were particularly big shockers.

“Traffic and conversion appeared solid on Black Friday, despite sales continuing to be dispersed throughout the entire weekend and an ongoing migration of Black Friday shopping online,” wrote Jefferies analyst Randal Konik. “Old Navy and Gap both offered a 50 percent off storewide sale, essentially flat to last year, which seemed successful in driving traffic and conversion. We believe [the] holiday is off to a strong start at the Gap and reiterate our buy rating.”

Quintiliano also noted Black Friday sale offerings were essentially identical to last year’s, but response was bigger – which also bodes well for the retail chain, as it shows the brand doesn’t have to cut deeper to attract consumer appeal.

Moreover, she said that while Old Navy has looked strong all year, even the namesake Gap brand was looking pretty robust all of a sudden.

So, what was the Gap’s Christmas magic?

Christmas-themed pajama pants.

Apparently, the round of annual articles on Jólabókaflóð – the Icelandic tradition of giving people chocolate, books and pajamas for Christmas so they can eat chocolate and read in bed for the entire holiday – inspired some people.

Or maybe it was the $15 sales price.

In either case, we learned many interesting things this week. Bitcoin is the bubble that doesn’t ever seem to quite burst, Apple’s coolest new feature may also be its most hackable (but not its most scalable) and the secret to physical retail may be to create a unique user experience – and discounting flannel pants with tiny skiing Santas stitched into them.

Now if we could just figure out what happened to the crew of the Mary Celeste.

Have a great week.

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