Facebook collected device data on 187,000 users using banned snooping app

Facebook obtained personal and sensitive device data on about 187,000 users of its now-defunct Research app, which Apple banned earlier this year after the app violated its rules.

The social media giant said in a letter to lawmakers — which TechCrunch obtained — that it collected data on 31,000 users in the U.S., including 4,300 teenagers. The rest of the collected data came from users in India.

Earlier this year, a TechCrunch investigation found both Facebook and Google were abusing their Apple-issued enterprise developer certificates, designed to only allow employees to run iPhone and iPad apps used only inside the company. The investigation found the companies were building and providing apps for consumers outside Apple’s App Store, in violation of Apple’s rules. The apps paid users in return for collecting data on how participants used their devices and understand app habits by gaining access to all of the network data in and out of their device.

Apple banned the apps by revoking Facebook’s enterprise developer certificate — and later Google’s enterprise certificate. In doing so, the revocation knocked both companies’ fleet of internal iPhone or iPad app offline that relied on the same certificates.

But in response to lawmakers’ questions, Apple said it didn’t know how many devices installed Facebook’s rule-violating app.

“We know that the provisioning profile for the Facebook Research app was created on April 19, 2017, but this does not necessarily correlate to the date that Facebook distributed the provisioning profile to end users,” said Timothy Powderly, Apple’s director of federal affairs, in his letter.

Facebook said the app dated back to 2016.

TechCrunch also obtained the letters sent by Apple and Google to lawmakers in early March, but were never made public.

These “research” apps relied on willing participants to download the app from outside the app store and use the Apple-issued developer certificates to install the apps. Then, the apps would install a root network certificate, allowing the app to collect all the data out of the device — like web browsing histories, encrypted messages, and mobile app activity — potentially also including data from their friends — for competitive analysis.

A response by Facebook about the number of users involved in Project Atlas. (Image: TechCrunch)

In Facebook’s case, the research app — dubbed Project Atlas — was a repackaged version of its Onavo VPN app, which Facebook was forced to remove from Apple’s App Store last year for gathering too much device data.

Just this week, Facebook relaunched its research app as Study, only available on Google Play and for users who have been approved through Facebook’s research partner, Applause. Facebook said it would be more transparent about how it collects user data.

Facebook’s vice-president of public policy Kevin Martin defended the company’s use of enterprise certificates, saying it “was a relatively well-known industry practice.” When asked, a Facebook spokesperson didn’t quantify this further. Later, TechCrunch found dozens of apps that used enterprise certificates to evade the app store.

Facebook previously said it “specifically ignores information shared via financial or health apps.” In its letter to lawmakers, Facebook stuck to its guns, saying its data collection was focused on “analytics,” but confirmed “in some isolated circumstances the app received some limited non-targeted content.”

“We did not review all of the data to determine whether it contained health or financial data,” said a Facebook spokesperson. “We have deleted all user-level market insights data that was collected from the Facebook Research app, which would include any health or financial data that may have existed.”

But Facebook didn’t say what kind of data, only that the app didn’t decrypt “the vast majority” of data sent by a device.

Facebook describing the type of data it collected — including “limited, non-targeted content.” (Image: TechCrunch)

Google’s letter, penned by public policy vice-president Karan Bhatia, did not provide a number of devices or users, saying only that its app was a “small scale” program. When reached, a Google spokesperson did not comment by our deadline.

Google also said it found “no other apps that were distributed to consumer end users,” but confirmed several other apps used by the company’s partners and contractors, which no longer rely on enterprise certificates.

Google explaining which of its apps were improperly using Apple-issued enterprise certificates. (Image: TechCrunch)

Apple told TechCrunch that both Facebook and Google “are in compliance” with its rules as of the time of publication. At its annual developer conference last week, the company said it now “reserves the right to review and approve or reject any internal use application.”

Facebook’s willingness to collect this data from teenagers — despite constant scrutiny from press and regulators — demonstrates how valuable the company sees market research on its competitors. With its restarted paid research program but with greater transparency, the company continues to leverage its data collection to keep ahead of its rivals.

Facebook and Google came off worse in the enterprise app abuse scandal, but critics said in revoking enterprise certificates Apple retains too much control over what content customers have on their devices.

The Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission are said to be examining the big four tech giants — Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google-owner Alphabet — for potentially falling foul of U.S. antitrust laws.


Source: https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/12/facebook-project-atlas-research-apple-banned/

Facebook’s Blood Donations feature arrives in US, will alert donors in times of need

Facebook today is expanding its set of features focused on blood donations. The company since 2017 has been working with blood donation centers worldwide who have been able to use the platform to reach potential donors and then reach out to them in times of need. Now, Facebook is bringing its Blood Donations feature to the U.S.

At launch, Facebook is partnering with leading blood donation organizations across the U.S., including America’s Blood Centers, the American Red Cross, Inova, New York Blood Center, Rock River Valley Blood Center, Stanford Blood Center, Versiti, and Vitalant.

It’s also first launching Blood Donations in select urban markets ahead of a nationwide rollout. To start, the feature will arrive in Chicago, New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the company says.

The U.S. Blood Donations feature is similar to the one already available elsewhere in the world — including Bangladesh, Brazil, India, and Pakistan.

To access the Blood Donations feature, U.S. Facebook users in the supported markets can sign up by visiting its page from the “About” section of their Facebook profile. Here, they’ll give Facebook permission to notify them when nearby blood banks need their help. When the blood banks are running low on supply, they can also turn to Facebook to alert the nearby donors through the platform.

People will see and respond to these blood donation requests and opportunities on the Blood Donations destination on Facebook. They can also use tools on this page to inspire their friends to donate, too.

Since its 2017 launch, the Blood Donations feature has performed well. Over 35 million people signed up in the handful of worldwide markets where it was first available. In India and Brazil, blood donation centers said that 20% of people said Facebook influenced their decision to donate — a statistic based on in-person surveys conducted at the blood banks.

“Through our partnership with Facebook, individuals will be able to conveniently find and connect with their local blood center to help meet the ongoing need for a diverse pool of blood donors in the US and share their experiences and the importance of blood donation,” said Kate Fry, chief executive officer at America’s Blood Centers, in a statement about today’s launch. “By encouraging blood donation as a way of life, each of us can assure that the more than 30,000 pints of blood used daily throughout the country is available.”

The launch is timed just ahead of World Blood Donor Day on June 14. Founded by the World Health Organization, the day is meant to raise awareness of the regular need for blood donations. Facebook says it will host blood donations in some of its own offices on this day, and will run awareness campaigns in Brazil and India. It’s also partnering with Missing Types for a campaign with the American Red Cross and Vitalant to help draw attention to the need for blood donors, it says.

“We are grateful to Facebook for supporting the Missing Types campaign, which underscores the critical need for blood donors,” said Cliff Numark, senior vice president, American Red Cross. “This campaign comes at exactly the right time, as busy summer schedules make it extremely challenging to sign up sufficient blood donors. And Facebook’s new blood donation feature makes it even easier to make a lifesaving donation,” he added.


Source: https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/12/facebooks-blood-donations-feature-arrives-in-u-s-will-alert-donors-in-times-of-need/

Facebook’s Blood Donations feature arrives in U.S., will alert donors in times of need

Facebook today is expanding its set of features focused on blood donations. The company since 2017 has been working with blood donation centers worldwide who have been able to use the platform to reach potential donors and then reach out to them in times of need. Now, Facebook is bringing its Blood Donations feature to the U.S.

At launch, Facebook is partnering with leading blood donation organizations across the U.S., including America’s Blood Centers, the American Red Cross, Inova, New York Blood Center, Rock River Valley Blood Center, Stanford Blood Center, Versiti, and Vitalant.

It’s also first launching Blood Donations in select urban markets ahead of a nationwide rollout. To start, the feature will arrive in Chicago, New York City, the San Francisco Bay Area, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., the company says.

The U.S. Blood Donations feature is similar to the one already available elsewhere in the world — including Bangladesh, Brazil, India, and Pakistan.

To access the Blood Donations feature, U.S. Facebook users in the supported markets can sign up by visiting its page from the “About” section of their Facebook profile. Here, they’ll give Facebook permission to notify them when nearby blood banks need their help. When the blood banks are running low on supply, they can also turn to Facebook to alert the nearby donors through the platform.

People will see and respond to these blood donation requests and opportunities on the Blood Donations destination on Facebook. They can also use tools on this page to inspire their friends to donate, too.

Since its 2017 launch, the Blood Donations feature has performed well. Over 35 million people signed up in the handful of worldwide markets where it was first available. In India and Brazil, blood donation centers said that 20% of people said Facebook influenced their decision to donate — a statistic based on in-person surveys conducted at the blood banks.

“Through our partnership with Facebook, individuals will be able to conveniently find and connect with their local blood center to help meet the ongoing need for a diverse pool of blood donors in the US and share their experiences and the importance of blood donation,” said Kate Fry, chief executive officer at America’s Blood Centers, in a statement about today’s launch. “By encouraging blood donation as a way of life, each of us can assure that the more than 30,000 pints of blood used daily throughout the country is available.”

The launch is timed just ahead of World Blood Donor Day on June 14. Founded by the World Health Organization, the day is meant to raise awareness of the regular need for blood donations. Facebook says it will host blood donations in some of its own offices on this day, and will run awareness campaigns in Brazil and India. It’s also partnering with Missing Types for a campaign with the American Red Cross and Vitalant to help draw attention to the need for blood donors, it says.

“We are grateful to Facebook for supporting the Missing Types campaign, which underscores the critical need for blood donors,” said Cliff Numark, senior vice president, American Red Cross. “This campaign comes at exactly the right time, as busy summer schedules make it extremely challenging to sign up sufficient blood donors. And Facebook’s new blood donation feature makes it even easier to make a lifesaving donation,” he added.


Source: https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/12/facebooks-blood-donations-feature-arrives-in-u-s-will-alert-donors-in-times-of-need/

Fortnite maker Epic acquires social video app Houseparty

What does a gaming company do after raising $1.25 billion? Acquisitions seem like a pretty good place to start. Epic Games — of Unreal Engine and the ridiculously successful Fortnite phenomenon — has has just picked up Houseparty. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

The social video app announced the news via blog post this morning. The deal seems like a natural fit for Epic. Social has been a an integral piece of Fortnite’s success as a multiplayer battle Royale title.

Founded in 2015, Houseparty is a social network that delivers video chat across a number of different platforms, including iOS, Android and macOS. Like Fortnite, the offering tends to skew younger. Specifically, the app caters toward teen users, providing a more private and safer space than other, broader platforms.

“Houseparty brings people together, creating positive social interactions in real time,” Epic CEO Tim Sweeney said in a Media post announcing the news. “By teaming up, we can build even more fun, shared experiences than what could be achieved alone.”

For Houseparty, the acquisition appears to mean the app will continue to operate relatively unchanged for the time being. In an FAQ, the company noted that the app largely staying the same as of today. Things like friendships and streaks will remain untouched by the company and Epic and Houseparty accounts will stay separate. How such integration looks going forward remains to be seen, of course.

“Joining Epic is a great step forward in achieving our mission of bringing empathy to online communication,” Houseparty CEO Sima Sistani said of the news. “We have a common vision to make human interaction easier and more enjoyable, and always with respect for user privacy.”

With some massive investments on its side, it seems more acquisitions are likely in the cards for the gaming company. In January it purchased Serbia-based computer design startup 3Latera.


Source: https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/12/fortnite-maker-epic-acquires-social-video-app-houseparty/

WhatsApp is finally going after outside firms that are abusing its platform

WhatsApp has so far relied on past dealings with bad players within its platform to ramp up its efforts to curtail spam and other automated behavior. The Facebook -owned giant has now announced an additional step it plans to take beginning later this year to improve the health of its messaging service: going after those whose mischievous activities can’t be traced within its platform.

The messaging platform, used by more than 1.5 billion users, confirmed on Tuesday that starting December 7 it will start considering signals off its platform to pursue legal actions against those who are abusing its system. The company will also go after individuals who — or firms that — falsely claim to have found ways to cause havoc on the service.

The move comes as WhatsApp grapples with challenges such as spam behavior to push agendas or spread of false information on its messaging service in some markets. “This serves as notice that we will take legal action against companies for which we only have off-platform evidence of abuse if that abuse continues beyond December 7, 2019, or if those companies are linked to on-platform evidence of abuse before that date,” it said in an FAQ post on its site.

A WhatsApp spokesperson confirmed the change to TechCrunch, adding, “WhatsApp was designed for private messaging, so we’ve taken action globally to prevent bulk messaging and enforce limits on how WhatsApp accounts that misuse WhatsApp can be used. We’ve also stepped up our ability to identify abuse, which helps us ban 2 million accounts globally per month.”

Earlier this year, WhatsApp said (PDF) it had built a machine learning system to detect and weed out users who engage in inappropriate behavior such as sending bulk messages or creating multiple accounts with intention to harm the service. The platform said it was able to assess the past dealings with problematics behaviors to ban 20% of bad accounts at the time of registration itself.

But the platform is still grappling to contain abusive behavior, a Reuters report claimed last month. The news agency reported about tools that were readily being sold in India for under $15 that claimed to bypass some of the restrictions that WhatsApp introduced in recent months.

TechCrunch understands that with today’s changes, WhatsApp is going after those same set of bad players. It has already started to send cease and desist letters to marketing companies that claim to abuse WhatsApp in recent months, a person familiar with the matter said.


Source: https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/11/whatsapp-legal-actions-off-platform/

Dropbox relaunches as an enterprise collaboration workspace & portal

Dropbox is evolving from a file storage system to an enterprise software portal and collaboration workspace. Today it launches this new version of Dropbox that lets you launch apps with shortcuts for Slack and G Suite, search across all your files inside your other enterprise tools, and communicate and comment on your team’s work. The new Dropbox launches today for all of its 13 million business users across  400,000 teams.

The launch includes deep integrations with Slack so you can comment on files from within Dropbox, and Zoom so you can video chat without leaving the workspace. Web and enterprise app shortcuts relieve you from keeping all your other tools constantly open in other tabs. And Dropbox is launching a new desktop app for all users.

CEO Drew Houston described how people spend 60% of our office time on work about work like organization and communication instead of actually working — a marketing angle frequently used by task management startup Asana. He pointed out that it’s easier to find info from the public than our own company’s knowledge that’s scattered across our computers and the cloud. The “Finder” on our computers hasn’t evolved to embrace a post-download era. Now Dropbox wants to be both your file tree, your finder, and your desktop in the cloud.


Source: https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/11/dropbox-search/

Dropbox relaunches as an enterprise collaboration workspace

Dropbox is evolving from a file storage system to an enterprise software portal and collaboration workspace. Today the company launches a new version of Dropbox that allows you to launch apps with shortcuts fo G Suite and more plus use built-in Slack message-sending and Zoom video calls. It lets you search across all your files on your device and inside your other enterprise tools, and communicate and comment on your team’s work. Dropbox is also becoming a task manager, with the ability to add notes and tag co-workers in to-do lists attached to files.

The new Dropbox launches today for all of its 13 million business users across  400,000 teams, and users can opt-in here for early access. “The way we work is broken” CEO Drew Houston said to cue up the company’s mission statement: “to design a more enlightened way of working.”

Dropbox seems to have realized that file storage by itself is a dying business. With storage prices dropping and any app being able to add their own storage system, it needed to move up the enterprise stack and become portal that opens and organizes your other tools. Becoming the enterprise coordination layer is a smart strategy, and one that it seems Slack was happy to partner into rather than building itself.

As part of the update, Dropbox is launching a new desktop app for all users so it wont have to live inside your Mac or Windows file system. When you click a file, you can see a preview and presence data about who has viewed it, who is currently, and who has access. An Activity Feed per file shows comments and actions from co-workers so you don’t have to collaborate in a separate Google Doc or Slack channel. The new desktop app will be available as an opt-in early access program before becoming the default.

The launch includes deep integrations with Slack so you can comment on files from within Dropbox, and Zoom so you can video chat without leaving the workspace. Web and enterprise app shortcuts relieve you from keeping all your other tools constantly open in other tabs. Dropbox’s revamped search tool lets you crawl across both your computer’s file system and all your cloud storage across other productivity apps.

CEO Drew Houston described how people spend 60% of our office time on work about work like organization and communication instead of actually working — a marketing angle frequently used by task management startup Asana that Dropbox is now competiting with more directly. He pointed out that it’s easier to find info from the public than our own company’s knowledge that’s scattered across our computers and the cloud. The “Finder” on our computers hasn’t evolved to embrace a post-download era.

Now Dropbox wants to be both your file tree, your finder, and your desktop for the cloud. It will take some savvy onboarding and persistence to retrain teams to see Dropbox as their workspace instead of their computer’s desktop or their browser. But if it can become the identity and collaboration layer that connects the fragmented enterprise software, it could outlive file storage and stay relevant as new office tools emerge.


Source: https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/11/dropbox-search/

Animal Crossing for Switch gets delayed

Fans had few expectations rolling into Nintendo’s E3 Direct that were more pronounced than hopes for more details on Animal Crossing for Switch.

We got some insight into the title’s storyline, but the bigs news is that the originally announced 2019 release timeframe is getting pushed back. Now, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, as it’s being called, will be released March 20, 2020.

“To ensure that this game is the best it can be, we must ask you to wait a little bit longer than we thought,” Nintendo executive Yoshiaki Koizumi said during the company’s presentation.

In terms of game details, it looks like you begin the game being flown to a deserted island courtesy of character Tom Nook’s “Nook Inc. Deserted Island Getaway Package.” From there, it seems that a lot of the gameplay should be pretty familiar, chatting with animals, getting them out of jams, customizing things, feeding Tom Nook’s perverted brand of capitalism etc. etc.

The gameplay seems to incorporate many of the evolutions the series has seen in the past few games, including Nintendo’s mobile title. You can craft furniture and really change the outdoor environments. It looks like there’s some significant updates to multiplayer as some of the footage multiple human characters onscreen, there still seems to be a good deal we don’t know.

The delay is disappointing news, especially after Nintendo’s announcement that Metroid Prime 4 had to restart development. It’s of course positive to keep the quality of titles high, but it seems Nintendo is having some issues keeping their core IP on track for the original estimated release dates.


Source: https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/11/animal-crossing-for-switch-gets-delayed/

Mobile games now account for 33% of installs, 10% of time, and 74% of consumer spend

Mobile gaming continues to hold its own, accounting for 10% of the time users spend in apps — a percentage that has remained steady over the years, even though our time in apps overall has grown by 50% over the past two years. In addition, games are continuing to grow their share of consumer spend, notes App Annie in a new research report out this week, timed with E3.

Thanks to growth in hyper-casual and cross-platform gaming in particular, mobile games are on track to reach 60% market share in consumer spend in 2019.

The new report looks at how much time users spend gaming versus using other apps, monetization, and regional highlights within the gaming market, among other things.

Despite accounting for a sizable portion of users’ time, games don’t lead the other categories, App Annie says.

Instead, social and communications apps account for half (50%) of the time users spent globally in apps in 2018, followed by video players and editors at 15%, then games at 10%.

In the U.S., users generally have 8 games installed per device and globally, we play an average of 2 to 5 games per month.

The number of total hours spent games continues to grow roughly 10% year-over-year, as well, thanks to existing gamers increasing their time in games and from a broadening user base including a large number of mobile app newcomers from emerging markets.

This has also contributed to a widening age range for gamers.

Today, the majority of time spent in gaming is by those aged 25 and up. In many cases, these players may not even classify themselves as “gamers,” App Annie noted.

While games may not lead the categories in terms of time spent, they do account for a large number of mobile downloads and the majority of consumer spending on mobile.

One-third of all worldwide downloads are games across iOS, Google Play, and third-party app stores.

Last year, 1.6+ million games launched on Google Play and 1.1+ million arrived on iOS.

On Android, 74 cents of every dollar is spent on games with 95% of those purchases coming as in-app purchases not paid downloads. App Annie didn’t have figures for iOS.

Google Play is known for having more downloads than iOS, but continues to trail on consumer spend. In 2018, Google Play grabbed a 72% share of worldwide downloads, compared with 28% on iOS. Meanwhile, Google Play only saw 36% of consumer spend versus 64% on iOS.

One particular type of gaming jumped out in the new report: racing games.

Consumer spend in this subcategory of gaming grew 7.9 times as fast as the overall mobile gaming market. Adventure games did well, too, growing roughly 5 times the rate of games in general. Music games and board games were also popular.

Of course, gaming expands beyond mobile. But it’s surprising to see how large a share of the broader market can be attributed to mobile gaming.

According to App Annie, mobile gaming is larger than all other channels including home game consoles, handheld consoles, and computers (Mac and PC). It’s also 20% larger than all these other categories combined — a shift from only a few years ago, attributed to the growth in the mobile consumer base, which allows mobile gaming to reach more people.

Cross-platform gaming is a key gaming trend today, thanks to titles like PUBG and Fortnite in particular, which were among the most downloaded games across several markets last year.

Meanwhile, hyper-casual games are appealing to those who don’t think of themselves as gamers, which has helped to broaden the market further.

App Annie is predicting the next big surge will come from AR gaming, with Harry Potter: Wizards Unite expected to bring Pokémon Go-like frenzy back to AR, bringing the new title $100 million in its first 30 days. The game is currently in beta testing in select markets, with plans for a 2019 release.

In terms of regions, China’s impact on gaming tends to be outsized, but its growth last year was limited due to the game license regulations. This forced publishers to look outside the country for growth — particularly in markets like North America and Japan, App Annie said.

Meanwhile, India, Brazil, Russia and Indonesia lead the emerging markets with regard to game
downloads, but established markets of the U.S. and China remain strong players in terms of sheer numbers.

With the continued steady growth in consumer spend and the stable time spent in games, App Annie states the monetization potential for games is growing. In 2018, there were 1900 games that made more than $5 million, up from 1200 in 2106. In addition, consumer spend in many key markets is still growing too — like the 105% growth in two years in China, for example, and the 45% growth in the U.S.

The full report delves into other regions as well as game publishers’ user acquisition strategies. It’s available download here.


Source: https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/11/mobile-games-now-account-for-33-of-installs-10-of-time-and-74-of-consumer-spend/

Here’s Mary Meeker’s 2019 internet trends report

The Internet Trends Report — everyone’s favorite slide deck — is back. Bond Capital founder and former Kleiner Perkins general partner Mary Meeker made her presentation on stage at Vox/Recode’s Code Conference in Scottsdale, Arizona on Tuesday.

Meeker first crafted a report of this kind, which highlights the most important statistics and technology trends on the internet, in 1995.

This morning, Meeker highlighted slowed growth in ecommerce sales, increased internet ad spending, data growth, as well as the rise of freemium subscription business models, telemedicine, photo-sharing, interactive gaming, the on-demand economy and more.

“If it feels like we’re all drinking from a data firehose, it’s because we are,” Meeker told the audience.

The “Queen of the internet” made references to Slack, Stripe, Spotify, Dropbox, Discord, Twitch, Zoom, Stitch Fix, Instagram, and Bond portfolio company Canva as she reviewed her slides.

It’s been a busy past year for the former Morgan Stanley analyst, who since releasing the 2018 internet trends report last May, exited Kleiner Perkins and raised more than $1 billion for her debut growth fund, Bond.

We’ll be back later with a full analysis of this year’s report. For now, here’s a look at all 333 slides. You can view the full internet trends report archive here.

Mary Meeker raises $1.25B for Bond, her debut growth fund


Source: https://techcrunch.com/2019/06/11/internet-trends-report-2019/