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May 24, 2019
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Ford to offer hybrid and electric options in redesigned 2020 Escape SUV

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Ford today is taking the wraps off the latest generation of the Escape . It’s a major re-work inside and out with new sheetmetal and powertrain options. The 2020 Escape is sportier, loaded with technology, and with hybrid and electric options, clearly built for the future.

The Escape has been Ford’s most affordable SUV since its debut in 2000. Smaller than the stalwart Explorer and more traditional than the Edge or Flex, Ford has always positioned the Escape as an easy and accessible sport utility vehicle. The upcoming version carries on that tradition while offering buyers new options.

The 2020 Escape comes in several variants. The base model sports a 1.5L EcoBoost engine or buyers can step up to a 2.0L EcoBoost. Ford is also offering the Escape in a traditional hybrid configuration and, for the first time, a plug-in hybrid setup. But buyers will have to wait for the plug-in version. This trim level will hit dealers next spring while the rest of the line will be available this fall.

Pricing hasn’t been released yet. The current Escape retails between $25k and $30k.

The driving range is competitive. Ford says the front-rear drive Escape equipped with the standard hybrid has an EPA-estimated range of 550 miles. The plug-in hybrid is expected to get 30 miles of range while just on electric while its 11 gallon fuel tank ensures it can still travel over 400 miles before needing a pitstop.

This is the second Escape generation offered in a hybrid setup but the first with a plug-in variant. Ford sold 114,000 hybrid Escapes between 2004 and 2012, but dropped the option for the current model line that debuted in 2012.

Ford has lofty ambitions for hybrid models. In 2018 the automaker stated it was going all-in on hybrid SUVs while stepping back from traditional cars. By 2020, Ford aims to have high-performance SUVs in market, including five with hybrid powertrains and one fully battery electric model. This includes the 2020 Ford Explorer Hybrid that should hit dealers this summer, and two entirely new off-road SUVs, including a new Bronco, and a small SUV that has yet to be named. There’s also that “performance battery electric utility” that will make up part of its overall SUV lineup, which is set for a 2020 release and will spearhead a plan to release six electric vehicle models by 2022. To help support this effort, the automaker/a> to add more production capacity at a second U.S. factory for its next-generation battery-electric vehicle program.

The Escape is available in either front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive configurations. At this time, though, the plug-in hybrid will only be offered with front-wheel drive while models equipped with the 250 HP 2.0L EcoBoost will only come paired with all-wheel drive.

Ford says the new Escape has best-in-class second-row legroom with a sliding backseat. While it steals a bit storage, this feature should make the backseat a bit more comfortable for passengers. Sadly, this option is only available in models feature gas engines. In the hybrid models, the battery pack lives under the rear seat, which prevents the seat from sliding — even still, by placing the battery under the seat, it doesn’t consume valuable storage space in the rear of the vehicle.

Ford made sure the Escape is equipped with a good assortment of standard and optional driver assist features. The standard suite includes Ford’s so-called Co-Pilot360 which includes automatic emergency breaking, rear view camera, andblind spot monitoring system. Other systems are options: parking assist, heads-up display, and adaptive cruise control.

An 8-inch touch screen is standard on SE models and features Ford’s Sync 3 system.

The outgoing Escape was in a need for an overhaul. Compared to its most direct competitors, car reviews often state the current Ford Edge falls short. Most reviews point to options like the Honda CR-V, Toyota RAV-4 and Mazda CX-5, stating they give drivers roomier cabins and offer lively powertrains. Ford released the third generation Escape in 2012 and updated the exterior in 2017 as sales were starting to falter.

Ford has big plans for its SUVs. In early 2018 it announced it was canceling production of all of its sedans leaving the Mustang as the only traditional car it sold in North America. The auto maker would instead turn to crossovers and SUVs to take the place of the Fusion, Taurus, Fiesta and Focus. Sales of traditional cars have been declining for years and Ford clearly felt it needed to embrace the latest trend by offering what most buyers want.

The 2020 Ford Escape is a notable leap forward for Ford’s smallest SUV. With the new hybrid options and larger interior, it should resonate well with shoppers looking for an eco-friendly people mover.

Skymind raises $11.5M to bring deep learning to more enterprises

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Skymind, a Y Combinator-incubated AI platform that aims to make deep learning more accessible to enterprises, today announced that it has raised an $11.5 million Series A round led by TransLink Capital, with participation from ServiceNow, Sumitomo’s Presidio Ventures, UpHonest Capital and GovTech Fund. Early investors Y Combinator, Tencent, Mandra Capital, Hemi Ventures, and GMO Ventures, also joined the round/ With this, the company has now raised a total of $17.9 million in funding.

The inclusion of TransLink Capital gives a hint as to how the company is planning to use the funding. One of TransLink’s specialties is helping entrepreneurs develop customers in Asia. Skymind believes that it has a major opportunity in that market, so having TransLink lead this round makes a lot of sense. Skymind also plans to use the round to build out its team in North America and fuel customer acquisition there.

“TransLink is the perfect lead for this round, because they know how to make connections between North America and Asia,” Skymind CEO Chris Nicholson told me. “That’s where the most growth is globally, and there are a lot of potential synergies. We’re also really excited to have strategic investors like ServiceNow and Sumitomo’s Presidio Ventures backing us for the first time. We’re already collaborating with ServiceNow, and Skymind software will be part of some powerful new technologies they roll out.”

It’s no secret that enterprises know that they have to adapt AI in some form but are struggling with figuring out how to do so. Skymind’s tools, including its core SKIL framework, allow data scientists to create workflows that take them from ingesting the data to cleaning it up, training their models and putting them into production. The promise here is that Skymind’s tools eliminate the gap that often exists between the data scientists and IT.

“The two big opportunities with AI are better customer experiences and more efficiency, and both are based on making smarter decisions about data, which is what AI does,” said Nicholson. “The main types of data that matter to enterprises are text and time series data (think web logs or payments). So we see a lot of demand for natural-language processing and for predictions around streams of data, like logs.”

Current Skymind customers include the likes of ServiceNow and telco company Orange, while some of its technology partners that integrate its services into their portfolio include Cisco and SoftBank .

It’s worth noting that Skymind is also the company behind Deeplearning4j, one of the most popular open-source AI tools for Java. The company is also a major contributor to the Python-based Keras deep learning framework.

CXA, a health-focused digital insurance startup, raises $25M

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CXA Group, a Singapore-based startup that helps make insurance more accessible and affordable, has raised $25 million for expansion in Asia and later into Europe and North America.

The startup takes a unique route to insurance. Rather than going to consumers directly, it taps corporations to offer their employees health flexible options. That’s to say that instead of rigid plans that force employees to use a certain gym or particular healthcare, a collection over 1,000 programs and options can be tailored to let employees pick what’s relevant or appealing to them. The ultimate goal is to bring value to employees to keep them healthier and lower the overall premiums for their employers.

“Our purpose is to empower personalized choices for better living for employees,” CXA founder and CEO Rosaline Koo told TechCrunch in an interview. “We use data and tech to recommend better choices.”

The company is primarily focused on China, Hong Kong and Southeast Asia where it claims to works with 600 enterprises including Fortune 500 firms. The company has over 200 staff, and it has acquired two traditional insurance brokerages in China to help grow its footprint, gain requisite licenses and its logistics in areas such as health checkups.

We last wrote about CXA in 2017 when it raised a $25 million Series B, and this new Series C round takes it to $58 million from investors to date. Existing backers include B Capital, the BCG-backed fund from Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, EDBI — the investment arm of the Singapore Economic Development Board — and early Go-Jek backer Openspace Ventures, and they are joined by a glut of big-name backers in this round.

Those new investors include a lot of corporates. There’s HSBC, Singtel Innov8 (of Singaporean telco Singtel), Telkom Indonesia MDI Ventures (of Indonesia telco Telkom), Sumitomo Corporation Equity Asia (Japanese trading firm) Muang Thai Fuchsia Ventures (Thailand-based insurance firm), Humanica (Thailand-based HR firm) and PE firm Heritas Venture Fund.

“There are additional insurance companies and strategic partners that we aren’t listing,” said Koo.

Rosaline Koo is founder and CEO of CXA Group

That’s a very deliberate selection of large corporates which is part of a new strategy to widen CXA audience.

The company had initially gone after massive firms — it claims to reach a collective 400,000 employees — but now the goal is to reach SMEs and non-Fortune 500 enterprises. To do that, it is using the reach and connections of larger service companies to reach their customers.

“We believe that banks and telcos can cross-sell insurance and banking services,” said Koo, who grew up in LA and counts benefits broker Mercer on her resume. “With demographic and work life event data, plus health data, we’re able to target the right banking and insurance services.

“We can help move them away from spamming,” she added. “Because we will have the right data to really target the right offering to the right person at the right time. No firm wants an agent sitting in their canteen bothering their staff, now it’s all digital and we’re moving insurance and banking into a new paradigm.”

The ultimate goal is to combat a health problem that Koo believes is only getting worse in the Asia Pacific region.

“Chronic disease comes here 10 years before anywhere else,” she said, citing an Emory research paper which concluded that chronic diseases in Asia are “rising at a rate that exceeds global increases.”

“There’s such a crying need for solutions, but companies can’t force the brokers to lower costs as employees are getting sick… double-digit increases are normal, but we think this approach can help drop them. We want to start changing the cost of healthcare in Asia, where it is an epidemic, using data and personalization at scale in a way to help the community,” Koo added.

Talking to Koo makes it very clear that she is focused on growing CXA’s reach in Asia this year, but further down the line, there are ambitions to expand to other parts of the world. Europe and North America, she said, may come in 2020.

Captain Marvel rakes in $455 million in worldwide weekend haul

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Captain Marvel, the latest superhero film from Disney’s Marvel franchise, is bringing home the bacon — to the tune of a $455 million box office total for the weekend.

The movie, Marvel’s first to be headlined exclusively by a female superhero, is off to the second largest global opening of any superhero movie behind Avengers: Infinity War and the sixth best global box officer premiere of all time.

The film’s success shows (again) that when under-represented demographics get their due in solid entertainment outings, audiences will respond by opening their wallets and shelling out the cash.

Marvel’s highest grossing movie to date for the U.S. box office is Black Panther, which raked in a whopping $700 million in movie theaters across North America.

Captain Marvel’s soaring numbers come despite mixed reviews from critics (like our own Anthony Ha) who called it “a fine but underwhelming debut for Brie Larson’s superhero.”

With the new release Marvel seems to also be consistently reducing the gender gap among audiences for superhero movies. Captain Marvel ranks alongside Black Panther and Ant-Man and the Wasp for having the smallest gender divide among audiences for films in the Marvel Comics Universe franchise, with a weekend crowd that was 55% male and 45% female, as Box Office Mojo reports.

The results also could mean good things for the Disney+ streaming service, which is counting on the Marvel and LucasFilm franchises to power subscriptions (take my money already).

Plans are in the works for a series starring Tom Hiddleston as Loki (the complicated villain/anti-hero from the Thor and Avengers movies) and Marvel executives have teased that characters from the now-defunct Netflix/Marvel deal for characters based on The Defenders team (Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist — and tangentially The Punisher) may appear in some form in the Marvel Cinematic Universe down the road.

Captain Marvel, meanwhile is set to become the first movie to stream exclusively on the Disney+ service.

Tufts expelled a student for grade hacking. She claims innocence

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As she sat in the airport with a one-way ticket in her hand, Tiffany Filler wondered how she would pick up the pieces of her life, with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt and nothing to show for it.

A day earlier, she was expelled from Tufts University veterinary school. As a Canadian, her visa was no longer valid and she was told by the school to leave the U.S. “as soon as possible.” That night, her plane departed the U.S. for her native Toronto, leaving any prospect of her becoming a veterinarian behind.

Filler, 24, was accused of an elaborate months-long scheme involving stealing and using university logins to break into the student records system, view answers, and alter her own and other students’ grades.

The case Tufts presented seems compelling, if not entirely believable.

There’s just one problem: In almost every instance that the school accused Filler of hacking, she was elsewhere with proof of her whereabouts or an eyewitness account and without the laptop she’s accused of using. She has alibis: fellow students who testified to her whereabouts; photos with metadata putting her miles away at the time of the alleged hacks; and a sleep tracker that showed she was asleep during others.

Tufts is either right or it expelled an innocent student on shoddy evidence four months before she was set to graduate.

– – –

Guilty until proven innocent

Tiffany Filler always wanted to be a vet.

Ever since she was a teenager, she set her sights on her future career. With almost four years under her belt at Tufts, which is regarded as one of the best schools for veterinary medicine in North America, she could have written her ticket to any practice. Her friends hold her in high regard, telling me that she is honest and hardworking. She kept her head down, earning cumulative grade point averages of 3.9 for her masters and 3.5 for her doctorate.

For a time, she was even featured on the homepage of Tufts’ vet school. She was a model final-year student.

Tufts didn’t see it that way.

Filler was called into a meeting on the main campus on August 22 where the university told her of an investigation. She had “no idea” about the specifics of the hacking allegations, she told me on a phone call, until October 18 when she was pulled out of her shift, still in her bloodied medical scrubs, to face the accusations from the ethics and grievance committee.

For three hours, she faced eight senior academics, including one who is said to be a victim of her alleged hacks. The allegations read like a court docket, but Filler said she went in knowing nothing that she could use to defend herself.

Tufts said she stole a librarian’s password to assign a mysteriously created user account, “Scott Shaw,” with a higher level of system and network access. Filler allegedly used it to look up faculty accounts and reset passwords by swapping out the email address to one she’s accused of controlling, or in some cases obtaining passwords and bypassing the school’s two-factor authentication system by exploiting a loophole that simply didn’t require a second security check, which the school has since fixed.

Tufts accused Filler of using this extensive system access to systematically log in as “Scott Shaw” to obtain answers for tests, taking the tests under her own account, said to be traced from either her computer — based off a unique identifier, known as a MAC address — and the network she allegedly used, either the campus’s wireless network or her off-campus residence. When her grades went up, sometimes other students’ grades went down, the school said.

In other cases, she’s alleged to have broken into the accounts of several assessors in order to alter existing grades or post entirely new ones.

Tiffany Filler, left, with her mother in a 2017 photo at Tufts University.

The bulk of the evidence came from Tufts’ IT department, which said each incident was “well supported” from log files and database records. The evidence pointed to her computer over a period of several months, the department told the committee.

“I thought due process was going to be followed,” said Filler, in a call. “I thought it was innocent until proven guilty until I was told ‘you’re guilty unless you can prove it.’”

Like any private university, Tufts can discipline — even expel — a student for almost any reason.

“Universities can operate like shadow criminal justice systems — without any of the protections or powers of a criminal court,” said Samantha Harris, vice president of policy research at FIRE, a rights group for America’s colleges and universities. “They’re without any of the due process protections for someone accused of something serious, and without any of the powers like subpoenas that you’d need to gather all of the technical evidence.”

Students face an uphill battle in defense of any charges of wrongdoing. As was the case with Filler, many students aren’t given time to prepare for hearings, have no right to an attorney, and are not given any or all of the evidence. Some of the broader charges, such as professional misconduct or ethical violations, are even harder to fight. Grade hacking is one such example — and one of the most serious offenses in academia. Where students have been expelled, many have also faced prosecution and the prospect of serving time in prison on federal computer hacking charges.

Harris reviewed documents we provided outlining the university’s allegations and Filler’s appeal.

“It’s troubling when I read her appeal,” said Harris. “It looks as though [the school has] a lot of information in their sole possession that she might try to use to prove her innocent, and she wasn’t given access to that evidence.”

Access to the university’s evidence, she said, was “critical” to due process protections that students should be given, especially when facing suspension or expulsion.

A month later, the committee served a unanimous vote that Filler was the hacker and recommended her expulsion.

– – –

A RAT in the room

What few facts Filler and Tufts could agree on is that there almost certainly was a hacker. They just disagreed on who the hacker was.

Struggling for answers and convinced her MacBook Air — the source of the alleged hacks — was itself compromised, she paid for someone through freelance marketplace Fiverr to scan her computer. Within minutes, several malicious files were found, chief among which were two remote access trojans — or RATs — commonly used by jilted or jealous lovers to spy on their exes’ webcams and remotely control their computers over the internet. The scan found two: Coldroot and CrossRAT. The former is easily deployed, and the other is highly advanced malware, said to be linked to the Lebanese government.

Evidence of a RAT might suggest someone had remote control of her computer without her knowledge. But existence of both on the same machine, experts say, is unlikely if not entirely implausible.

Thomas Reed, director of Mac and Mobile at Malwarebytes, the same software used to scan Filler’s computer, confirmed the detections but said there was no conclusive evidence to show the malware was functional.

“The Coldroot infection was just the app and was missing the launch daemon that would have been key to keeping it running,” said Reed.

Even if it were functional, how could the hacker have framed her? Could Filler have paid someone to hack her grades? If she paid someone to hack her grades, why implicate her — and potentially the hacker — by using her computer? Filler said she was not cautious about her own cybersecurity — insofar that she pinned her password to a corkboard in her room. Could this have been a stitch-up? Was someone in her house trying to frame her?

The landlord told me a staff resident at Tufts veterinary school, who has since left the house, “has bad feelings” and “anger” toward Filler. The former housemate may have motive but no discernible means. We reached out to the former housemate for comment but did not hear back, and therefore are not naming the person.

Filler took her computer to an Apple Store, claiming the “mouse was acting on its own and the green light for the camera started turning on,” she said. The support staff backed up her files but wiped her computer, along with any evidence of malicious software beyond a handful of screenshots she took as part of the dossier of evidence she submitted in her appeal.

It didn’t convince the grievance committee of possible malicious interference.

“Feedback from [IT] indicated that these issues with her computer were in no way related to the alleged allegations,” said Angie Warner, the committee’s acting chair, in an email we’ve seen, recommending Filler’s expulsion. Citing an unnamed IT staffer, the department claimed with “high degree of certainty” that it was “highly unlikely” that the grade changes were “performed by malicious software or persons without detailed and extensive hacking ability.”

Unable to prove who was behind the remote access malware — or even if it was active — she turned back to fighting her defense.

– – –

‘Why wait?’

It took more than a month before Filler would get the specific times of the alleged hacks, revealing down to the second when each breach happened

Filler thought she could convince the committee that she wasn’t the hacker, but later learned that the timings “did not factor” into the deliberations of the grievance committee, wrote Tufts’ veterinary school dean Joyce Knoll in an email dated December 21.

But Filler said she could in all but a handful of cases provide evidence showing that she was not at her computer.

In one of the first allegations of hacking, Filler was in a packed lecture room, with her laptop open, surrounded by her fellow vet school colleagues both besides and behind her. We spoke to several students who knew Filler — none wanted to be named for fear of retribution from Tufts — who wrote letters to testify in Filler’s defense.

All of the students we spoke to said they were never approached by Tufts to confirm or scrutinize their accounts. Two other classmates who saw Filler’s computer screen during the lecture told me they saw nothing suspicious — only her email or the lecture slides.

Another time Filler is accused of hacking, she was on rounds with other doctors, residents and students to discuss patients in their care. One student said Filler was “with the entire rotation group and the residents, without any access to a computer” for two hours.

For another accusation, Filler was out for dinner in a neighboring town. “She did not have her laptop with her,” said one of the fellow student who was with Filler at dinner. The other students sent letters to Tufts in her defense. Tufts said on that occasion, her computer — eight miles away from the restaurant — was allegedly used to access another staff member’s login and tried to bypass the two-factor authentication, using an iPhone 5S, a model Filler doesn’t own. Filler has an iPhone 6. (We asked an IT systems administrator at another company about Duo audit logs: They said if a device not enrolled with Duo tried to enter a valid username and password but couldn’t get past the two-factor prompt, the administrator would only see the device’s software version and not see the device type. A Duo spokesperson confirmed that the system does not collect device names.)

Filler, who wears a Xiaomi fitness and sleep tracker, said the tracker’s records showed she was asleep in most, but not all of the times she’s accused of hacking. She allowed TechCrunch to access the data in her cloud-stored account, which confirmed her accounts.

The list of accusations included a flurry of activity from her computer at her residence, Tufts said took place between 1am and 2am on June 27, 2018 — during which her fitness tracker shows she was asleep — and from 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. on June 28, 2018.

But Filler was 70 miles away visiting the Mark Twain House in neighboring Hartford, Connecticut. She took two photos of her visit — one of her in the house, and another of her standing outside.

We asked Jake Williams, a former NSA hacker who founded cybersecurity and digital forensics firm Rendition Infosec, to examine the metadata embedded in the photos. The photos, taken from her iPhone, contained a matching date and time for the alleged hack, as well as a set of coordinates putting her at the Mark Twain House.

While photo metadata can be modified, Williams said the signs he expected to see for metadata modification weren’t there. “There is no evidence that these were modified,” he said.

Yet none of it was good enough to keep her enrolled at Tufts. In a letter on January 16 affirming her expulsion, Knoll rejected the evidence.

“Date stamps are easy to edit,” said Knoll. “In fact, the photos you shared with me clearly include an ‘edit’ button in the upper corner for this exact purpose,” she wrote, referring to the iPhone software’s native photo editing feature. “Why wait until after you’d been informed that you were going to be expelled to show me months’ old photos?” she said.

“My decision is final,” said her letter. Filler was expelled.

Filler’s final expulsion letter. (Image: supplied)

– – –

The little things

Filler is back home in Toronto. As her class is preparing to graduate without her in May, Tufts has already emailed her to begin reclaiming her loans.

News of Filler’s expulsion was not unexpected given the drawn-out length of the investigation, but many were stunned by the result, according to the students we spoke to. From the time of the initial investigation, many believed Filler would not escape the trap of “guilty until proven innocent.”

“I do not believe Tiffany received fair treatment,” said one student. “As a private institution, it seems like we have few protections [or] ways of recourse. If they could do this to Tiffany, they could do it to any of us.”

TechCrunch sent Tufts a list of 19 questions prior to publication — including if the university hired qualified forensics specialists to investigate, and if law enforcement was contacted and whether the school plans to press criminal charges for the alleged hacking.

“Due to student privacy concerns, we are not able to discuss disciplinary matters involving any current or former student of Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University,” said Tara Pettinato, a Tufts spokesperson. “We take seriously our responsibility to ensure our students’ privacy, to maintain the highest standards of academic integrity, and to adhere to our policies and processes, which are designed to be fair and equitable to all students.”

We asked if the university would answer our questions if Filler waived her right to privacy. The spokesperson said the school “is obligated to follow federal law and its own standards and practices relating to privacy,” and would not discuss disciplinary matters involving any current or former student.

The spokesperson declined to comment further.

But even the little things don’t add up.

Tufts never said how it obtained her IP address. Her landlord told me Tufts never asked for it, let alone confirmed it was accurate. Courts have thrown out cases that rely on them as evidence when others share the same network. MAC addresses can identify devices but can be easily spoofed. Filler owns an iPhone 6, not an iPhone 5S, as claimed by Tufts. And her computer name was different to what Tufts said.

And how did she allegedly get access to the “Scott Shaw” password in the first place?

Warner, the committee chair, said in a letter that the school “does not know” how the initial librarian’s account was compromised, and that it was “irrelevant” if Filler even created the “Scott Shaw” account.

Many accounts were breached as part of this apparent elaborate scheme to alter grades, but there is no evidence Tufts hired any forensics experts to investigate. Did the IT department investigate with an inherent confirmation bias to try to find evidence that connected Filler’s account with the suspicious activity, or were the allegations constructed after Filler was identified as a suspect? And why did the university take months from the first alleged hack to move to protect user accounts with two-factor authentication, and not sooner?

“The data they are looking at doesn’t support the conclusions they’ve drawn,” said Williams, following his analysis of the case. “It’s entirely possible that the data they’re relying on — is far from normal or necessary burdens of evidence that you would use for an adverse action like this.

“They did DIY forensics,” he continued. “And they opened themselves up to legal exposure by doing the investigation themselves.”

Not every story has a clear ending. This is one of them. As much as you would want answers reading this far into the story, we do, too.

But we know two things for certain. First, Tufts expelled a student months before she was set to graduate based on a broken system of academic-led, non-technical committees forced to rely on weak evidence from IT technicians who had discernible qualifications in digital forensics. And second, it doesn’t have to say why.

Or as one student said: “We got her side of the story, and Tufts was not transparent.”

Extra Crunch members — join our conference call on Tuesday, March 12 at 11AM PST / 2PM EST with host Zack Whittaker. He’ll discuss the story’s developments and take your questions. Not a member yet? Learn more about Extra Crunch and try it free.

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