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Sim Shagaya’s uLesson African edtech startup raises $3.1M

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Nigerian founder Sim Shagaya is back with a new startup —  uLesson — that has raised a $3.1 million seed round led by TLcom Capital.

The venture is integrating mobile platforms, SD cards, culture-specific curriculum and a network of tutors to bridge educational gaps for secondary school students in Nigeria and broader Africa.

Founded in 2019 by Shagaya — who also founded Nigerian e-commerce startup Konga and ad venture E-Motion — uLesson is headquartered in Lagos with a production studio in Jos.

The startup has been in development phase and plans to go to market in February 2020 in Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra Leone, and Gambia — Shagaya told TechCrunch on a call.

“We’re targeting Anglophone West Africa…for a market of effectively 300 million people,” he said.

On product demand, Shagaya notes the priority placed on education across West African households vs. structural deficiencies — such as student teacher ratios as high as 70:1 in countries such as Nigeria.

“We have this massive gap…We’re adding more babies in this country nominally than all of Western Europe…Even if the [Nigerian] government was super efficient, it couldn’t catch up with the educational needs of the young people that are coming up,” Shagaya said.

To address this, uLesson will offer an app-based home education kit for students with an up-front yearly subscription price of around $70 and the option to pay as you go. The startup’s product pack will contain a dongle, SD card, and a set of headphones to connect to Android devices.

Curriculum on the uLesson program will include practice tests and tailored content around math, physics, chemistry, and biology. The venture has already created 3000 animated videos for core subjects, according to Shagaya.

To leverage high android mobile penetration in Africa — and minimize data-streaming costs — uLesson content and performance assessment will come via a combination of streaming and SD cards.

Parents and students can connect online temporarily to update the app and sync curriculum and results, while operating off-line for the bulk of lessons.

Shagaya likened the use of SD cards to the old Netflix model of sending and returning DVD’s by mail, prior to faster and more affordable internet service in the U.S.

The uLesson program will also package a human component. The startup plans to deploy a network of counselors in major distribution areas to instruct on how to use app and follow lesson plans.

uLesson is to be a supplement to secondary school education and a more affordable and effective alternative to private tutors, explained Shagaya.

After taking uLesson to market in Africa’s most populous nation — Nigeria — and other countries in the region, Shagaya and team plan to adapt the product for a future East Africa launch.

In both Nigeria and Kenya uLesson will face competition from existing ventures. Edtech in Africa doesn’t have as many companies (or as much VC funding) as leading startup sectors fintech and e-commerce, but there are a number of players.

Source: Briter Bridges

Nigeria has online edu startups, such as Tuteria. Feature phone based student learning company Eneza Education has scaled in Kenya and expanded to Ghana.

uLesson could count having Shagaya as CEO as one of its advantages in the edtech space. The venture marks the founder’s return to the startup scene after a hiatus. Shagaya earned a Harvard MBA and worked for Google before repatriating to Nigeria to found several digital companies.

His best known venture, Konga, went head to head with online retailer Jumia in pioneering e-commerce for Nigeria and Africa. Konga was sold in a distressed acquisition in 2018.

Shagaya successfully exited his digital advertising venture E-Motion this year, after it was purchased by Loatsad Promedia.

The Nigerian tech entrepreneur confirmed he’s redirected some of that windfall into uLesson’s $3.1 million seed-round.  As part of TLcom’s lead on the investment, partners Omobola Johnson and Ido Sum will join uLesson’s board, Sum confirmed to TechCrunch.

For his part, Sim Shagaya underscores the for-profit status of his new startup, while noting it carries greater meaning for him than past commercial endeavors.

“If you drill down to it all, all our problems in Africa are tied this problem of education…If we do this right, our impact will be huge. For me this is probably the most important work I’ll do,” he said.

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Demand for fee to use password app LastPass sparks backlash

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Enlarge (credit: Leon Neal | Getty Images)

A popular app that promised to eliminate the burden of remembering passwords has sparked a backlash by demanding, weeks after it was acquired by two private equity firms, that users pay up or face restrictions on access to their online accounts.

LastPass has encouraged millions of people to replace weak passwords on retail websites, internet banks and other online services. Instead, the software handles authentication automatically using long, complex passwords that are impossible to guess—or remember.

Two investment firms, Elliott Management and Francisco Partners, acquired the service as part of their $4.3 billion buyout of internet software group LogMeIn in September last year.

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Tens of thousands of US organizations hit in ongoing Microsoft Exchange hack

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Tens of thousands of US-based organizations are running Microsoft Exchange servers that have been backdoored by threat actors who are stealing administrator passwords and exploiting critical vulnerabilities in the email and calendaring application, it was widely reported. Microsoft issued emergency patches on Tuesday, but they do nothing to disinfect systems that are already compromised.

KrebsOnSecurity was the first to report the mass hack. Citing multiple unnamed people, reporter Brian Krebs put the number of compromised US organizations at at least 30,000. Worldwide, Krebs said there were at least 100,000 hacked organizations. Other news outlets, also citing unnamed sources, quickly followed with posts reporting the hack had hit tens of thousands of organizations in the US.

Assume compromise

“This is the real deal,” Chris Krebs, the former head of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, said on Twitter, referring to the attacks on on-premisis Exchange, which is also known as Outlook Web Access. “If your organization runs an OWA server exposed to the internet, assume compromise between 02/26-03/03.” His comments accompanied a Tweet on Thursday from Jake Sullivan, the White House national security advisor to President Biden.

Hafnium has company

Microsoft on Tuesday said on-premises Exchange servers were being hacked in “limited targeted attacks” by a China-based hacking group the software maker is calling Hafnium. Following Friday’s post from Brian Krebs, Microsoft updated its post to say that it was seeing “increased use of these vulnerabilities in attacks targeting unpatched systems by multiple malicious actors beyond HAFNIUM.”

Katie Nickels, director of intelligence at security firm Red Canary, told Ars that her team has found Exchange servers that were compromised by hackers using tactics, techniques, and procedures that are distinctly different than those used by the Hafnium group Microsoft named. She said Red Canary has counted five “clusters that look differently from each other, [though] telling if the people behind those are different or not is really challenging and unclear right now.”

On Twitter, Red Canary said that some of the compromised Exchange servers the company has tracked ran malware that fellow security firm Carbon Black analyzed in 2019. The malware was part of an attack that installed cryptomining software called DLTminer. It’s unlikely Hafnium would install a payload like that.

Microsoft said that Hafnium is a skilled hacking group from China that focuses primarily on stealing data from US-based infectious disease researchers, law firms, higher-education institutions, defense contractors, policy think tanks, and nongovernmental organizations. The group, Microsoft said, was hacking servers by either exploiting the recently fixed zeroday vulnerabilities or by using compromised administrator credentials.

It’s not clear what percentage of infected servers are the work of Hafnium. Microsoft on Tuesday warned that the ease of exploiting the vulnerabilities made it likely other hack groups would soon join Hafnium. If ransomware groups aren’t yet among the clusters compromising servers, it’s almost inevitable that they soon will be.

Backdooring servers

Brian Krebs and others reported that tens of thousands of Exchange servers had been compromised with a webshell, which hackers install once they’ve gained access to a server. The software allows attackers to enter administrative commands through a terminal Window that’s accessed through a web browser.

Researchers have been careful to note that simply installing the patches Microsoft issued in Tuesday’s emergency release would do nothing to disinfect servers that have already been backdoored. The webshells and any other malicious software that have been installed will persist until it is actively removed, ideally by completely rebuilding the server.

People who administer Exchange servers in their networks should drop whatever they’re doing right now and carefully inspect their machines for signs of compromise. Microsoft has listed indicators of compromise here. Admins can also use this script from Microsoft to test if their environments are affected.

This week’s escalation of Exchange server hacks comes three months after security professionals uncovered the hack of at least nine federal agencies and about 100 companies. The primary vector for infections was through software updates from network tools maker SolarWinds. The mass hack was one of—if not the—the worst computer intrusions in US history. It’s possible the Exchange Server will soon claim that distinction.

There’s still much that remains unknown. For now, people would do well to follow Chris Krebs’ advice to assume on-premises servers are compromised and act accordingly.

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China’s and Russia’s spying spree will take years to unpack

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First it was SolarWinds, a reportedly Russian hacking campaign that stretches back almost a year and has felled at least nine US government agencies and countless private companies. Now it’s Hafnium, a Chinese group that’s been attacking a vulnerability in Microsoft Exchange Server to sneak into victims’ email inboxes and beyond. The collective toll of these espionage sprees is still being uncovered. It may never be fully known.

Countries spy on each other, everywhere, all the time. They always have. But the extent and sophistication of Russia’s and China’s latest efforts still manage to shock. And the near-term fallout of both underscores just how tricky it can be to take the full measure of a campaign even after you’ve sniffed it out.

By now you’re probably familiar with the basics of the SolarWinds attack: Likely Russian hackers broke into the IT management firm’s networks and altered versions of its Orion network monitoring tool, exposing as many as 18,000 organizations. The actual number of SolarWinds victims is assumed to be much smaller, although security analysts have pegged itin at least the low hundreds so far. And as SolarWinds CEO Sudhakar Ramakrishna has eagerly pointed out to anyone who will listen, his was not the only software supply chain company that the Russians hacked in this campaign, implying a much broader ecosystem of victims than anyone has yet accounted for.

“It’s become clear that there’s much more to learn about this incident, its causes, its scope, its scale, and where we go from here,” said Senate Intelligence Committee chair Mark Warner (D-Virginia) at a hearing related to the SolarWinds hack last week. Brandon Wales, acting director of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Agency, estimated in an interview with MIT Technology Review this week that it could take up to 18 months for US government systems alone to recover from the hacking spree, to say nothing of the private sector.

That lack of clarity goes double for the Chinese hacking campaign that Microsoft disclosed Tuesday. First spotted by security firm Volexity, a nation-state group that Microsoft calls Hafnium has been using multiple zero-day exploits—which attack previously unknown vulnerabilities in software—to break into Exchange Servers, which manage email clients including Outlook. There, they could surreptitiously read through the email accounts of high-value targets.

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