Apps

Google starts pulling unvetted Android apps that access call logs and SMS messages

Posted by | Android, Apps, computing, Google, Google Play, google search, Mobile, privacy, product management, Security, smartphones, SMS | No Comments

Google is removing apps from Google Play that request permission to access call logs and SMS text message data but haven’t been manually vetted by Google staff.

The search and mobile giant said it is part of a move to cut down on apps that have access to sensitive calling and texting data.

Google said in October that Android apps will no longer be allowed to use the legacy permissions as part of a wider push for developers to use newer, more secure and privacy minded APIs. Many apps request access to call logs and texting data to verify two-factor authentication codes, for social sharing, or to replace the phone dialer. But Google acknowledged that this level of access can and has been abused by developers who misuse the permissions to gather sensitive data — or mishandle it altogether.

“Our new policy is designed to ensure that apps asking for these permissions need full and ongoing access to the sensitive data in order to accomplish the app’s primary use case, and that users will understand why this data would be required for the app to function,” wrote Paul Bankhead, Google’s director of product management for Google Play.

Any developer wanting to retain the ability to ask a user’s permission for calling and texting data has to fill out a permissions declaration.

Google will review the app and why it needs to retain access, and will weigh in several considerations, including why the developer is requesting access, the user benefit of the feature that’s requesting access and the risks associated with having access to call and texting data.

Bankhead conceded that under the new policy, some use cases will “no longer be allowed,” rendering some apps obsolete.

So far, tens of thousands of developers have already submitted new versions of their apps either removing the need to access call and texting permissions, Google said, or have submitted a permissions declaration.

Developers with a submitted declaration have until March 9 to receive approval or remove the permissions. In the meantime, Google has a full list of permitted use cases for the call log and text message permissions, as well as alternatives.

The last two years alone has seen several high-profile cases of Android apps or other services leaking or exposing call and text data. In late 2017, popular Android keyboard ai.type exposed a massive database of 31 million users, including 374 million phone numbers.

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Dolby quietly preps augmented audio recorder app “234″

Posted by | Apps, audio, Audio Recording, augmented audio, dolby, Entertainment, Media, Mobile, Social, soundcloud, TC | No Comments

Dolby is secretly building a mobile music production app it hopes will seduce SoundCloud rappers and other musicians. Codenamed “234” and formerly tested under the name Dolby Live, the free app measures background noise before you record and then nullifies it. Users can also buy “packs” of audio effects to augment their sounds with EQs settings like “Amped, Bright, Lyric, Thump, Deep, or Natural”. Recordings can then be exported, shared to Dolby’s own audio social network, or uploaded directly to SoundCloud through a built-in integration.

You could call it VSCO or Instagram for SoundCloud.

234 is Dolby Labs’ first big entrance into the world of social apps that could give it more face time with consumers than its core business of integrating audio technology into devices by other manufacturers. Using 234 to convince musicians that Dolby is an expert at audio quality could get them buying more of those speakers and headphones. And by selling audio effect packs, the app could earn the company money directly while making the world of mobile music sound better.

Dolby has been covertly testing Dolby Live/234 since at least June. A source tipped us off to the app and while the company hasn’t formally announced it, there is a website for signing up to test Dolby 234. Dolby PR refused to comment on the forthcoming app. But 234’s sign-up site advertises it saying “How can music recorded on a phone sound so good? Dolby 234 automatically cleans up the sound, gives it tone and space, and finds the ideal loudness. it’s like having your own producer in your phone.”

Those with access to the Dolby 234 app can quickly record audio or audio/video clips with optional background noise cancelling. Free sound editing tools including trimming, loudness boost, and bass and treble controls. Users can get a seven-day free trial of the Dolby’s “Essentials” pack of EQ presets like ‘Bright’ before having to pay, though the pack was free in the beta version so we’re not sure how much it will cost. The “Tracks” tab lets you edit or share any of the clips you’ve recorded.

Overall, the app is polished and intuitive with a lively feel thanks to the Instagram logo-style purple/orange gradient color scheme. The audio effects have a powerful impact on the sound without being gimmicky or overbearing. There’s plenty of room for additional features, though, like multi-tracking, a metronome, or built-in drum beats.

For musicians posting mobile clips to Instagram or other social apps, 234 could make them sound way better without much work. There’s also a huge opportunity for Dolby to court podcasters and other non-music audio creators. I’d love a way to turn effects on and off mid-recording so I could add the feeling of an intimate whisper or echoey ampitheater to emphasize certain words or phrases.

Given how different 234 is from Dolby’s traditional back-end sound processing technologies, it’s done a solid job with design and the app could still get more bells and whistles before an official launch. It’s a creative move for the brand and one that recognizes the seismic shifts facing audio production and distribution. As always-in earbuds like Apple’s AirPods and voice interfaces like Alexa proliferate, short-form audio content will become more accessible and popular. Dolby could spare the world from having to suffer through amazing creators muffled by crappy recordings.

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Twitter bug revealed some Android users’ private tweets

Posted by | Android, Apps, bug, data, private data, public, Security, Social, TC, tweets, Twitter | No Comments

Twitter accidentally revealed some users’ “protected” (aka, private) tweets, the company disclosed this afternoon. The “Protect your Tweets” setting typically allows people to use Twitter in a non-public fashion. These users get to approve who can follow them and who can view their content. For some Android users over a period of several years, that may not have been the case — their tweets were actually made public as a result of this bug.

The company says that the issue impacted Twitter for Android users who made certain account changes while the “Protect your Tweets” option was turned on.

For example, if the user had changed their account email address, the “Protect your Tweets” setting was disabled.

We’ve become aware of and fixed an issue where the “Protect your Tweets” setting was disabled on Twitter for Android. Those affected have been alerted and we’ve turned the setting back on for them. More here: https://t.co/0qM5B1S393

— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) January 17, 2019

Twitter tells TechCrunch that’s just one example of an account change that could have prompted the issue. We asked for other examples, but the company declined to share any specifics.

What’s fairly shocking is how long this issue has been happening.

Twitter says that users may have been impacted by the problem if they made these account changes between November 3, 2014, and January 14, 2019 — the day the bug was fixed. 

The company has now informed those who were affected by the issue, and has re-enabled the “Protect your Tweets” setting if it had been disabled on those accounts. But Twitter says it’s making a public announcement because it “can’t confirm every account that may have been impacted.” (!!!)

The company explains to us it was only able to notify those people where it was able to confirm the account was impacted, but says it doesn’t have a complete list of impacted accounts. For that reason, it’s unable to offer an estimate of how many Twitter for Android users were affected in total.

This is a sizable mistake on Twitter’s part, as it essentially made available to the public content that users had explicitly indicated they wanted private. It’s unclear at this time if the issue will result in a GDPR violation and fine as a result.

The one bright spot is that some of the impacted users may have noticed their account had become public because they would have received alerts — like notifications that people were following them without their direct consent. That could have prompted the user to re-enable the “protect tweets” setting on their own. But they may have chalked up the issue to user error or a small glitch, not realizing it was a system-wide bug.

“We recognize and appreciate the trust you place in us, and are committed to earning that trust every day,” wrote Twitter in a statement. “We’re very sorry this happened and we’re conducting a full review to help prevent this from happening again.”

The company says it believes the issue is now fully resolved.

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Spotify launches Car View on Android to make using its app less dangerous behind the wheel

Posted by | Android, android apps, Apps, distracted driving, Driving, Media, Mobile, Music, Spotify, streaming | No Comments

Spotify is making it easier to use its streaming app in the car, when the phone is connected to the vehicle over Bluetooth. The company today confirmed the launch of a new feature called “Car View,” which is a simplified version of the service’s Now Playing screen that includes larger fonts, bigger buttons, and no distractions from album art. In Car View, you’re only shown the track title and artist, so you can read the screen with just a glance.

The site 9to5Google was the first to spot the feature’s appearance in Spotify’s settings. However, some users have had the option for weeks in what had appeared to be a slow rollout or possibly a test, pre-launch.

Spotify this morning formally announced the launch of Car View in a post to its Community Forums.

The company says the feature is currently available only on Android devices, and only when the device is connected over Bluetooth.

When the phone connects, Car View is automatically enabled when your music or podcast starts playing.

Above: Car View in action; credit: 9to5Google

Spotify already offers several in-car experiences through integrations with other apps like Google Maps, Waze, as well as through Android Auto, and has experimented with other auto-focused features in the past. However, using the music app while behind the wheel has been very distracting and difficult.

I’ve personally found Spotify so dangerous to navigate while in the car, that I just won’t use it unless I set it up to stream before I drive. Or, in some cases, I’ll hand the phone to a passenger to control instead.

Given the difficulty with Spotify in the car, Car View’s lack of support for those who use the app over an AUX cable is a little disappointing.There’s no good reason why users should not be allowed to manually enable Car View from the Settings, if they choose. After all, it’s just a change to the user interface of a single view – and it’s been built!

Of course, manually toggling Car View on might not feel as seamless as the Bluetooth experience, but a feature like this could prevent accidents caused by people fiddling with their phone in the car. Hopefully, Spotify will make Car View more broadly accessible in time.

According to Spotify, once Car View is enabled, you can access your Library, tap to Browse, or use Search. While listening, you can use the seek bar to skip to another part of the song.

In the case that a passenger is controlling the music on your phone, they can temporarily disable Car View by way of the three dots menu. And if, for some reason, you don’t want to use Car View, the feature can be disabled in the Settings. (But keep it on, OK?)

Spotify also noted Car View supports landscape view, and will arrive on iOS in the future. It didn’t offer a time frame.

Car View officially launched on Android this week, and is now rolling out globally to all users.

 

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Squad is the new screensharing chat app everyone will copy

Posted by | Apps, Mobile, Screensharing, Social, Squad, Startups, TC | No Comments

Squad could be the next teen sensation because it makes it easy to do nothing… together. Spending time with friends in the modern age often means just being on your phones next to each other, occasionally showing off something funny you found. Squad lets you do this even while apart, and that way of punctuating video chat might make it the teen girl “third place” like Fortnite is for adolescent boys.

With Squad, you fire up a video chat with up to six people, but at any time you can screenshare what you’re seeing on your phone instead of showing your face. You can browse memes together, trash talk about DMs or private profiles, brainstorm a status update, co-work on a project or get consensus on your Tinder swipe. It’s deceptively simple, but remarkably alluring. And it couldn’t have happened until now.

How Squad screensharing looks

Squad takes advantage of Apple’s ReplayKit for screensharing. While it was announced in 2015, it wasn’t until June 2018’s iOS 12 that ReplayKit became stable and easy enough to be built into a consumer app for teens. Meanwhile, plus-size screens and speedy LTE and upcoming 5G networks make screensharing watchable. And with Instagram aging and Snapchat shrinking, there’s demand for a more intimately connected social network.

Squad only launched its app last week, but droves of Facebook and Snap employees have signed up to spy on and likely copy the startup, co-founder and CEO Esther Crawford tells me. Screensharing would fit well in group video chat startup Houseparty too. To fuel its head start, Squad has the $2.2 million it raised before it pivoted away from Molly, the team’s previous App where people can make FAQs about themselves. That cash came from betaworks, Y Combinator, BBG Ventures, Basis Set Ventures, Jesse Draper, Gary Vaynerchuk, Niv Dror, and [Disclosure: former TechCrunch editor] Alexia Bonatsos’ Dream Machine. Next, Squad wants to let people tune in to screenshares via URL to unlock a new era of Live broadcasting, and equip other apps with the capability through a Squad SDK.

“People under 24 do video chat way different than people 25 and above” says Crawford. Adding screensharing is “an excuse for hanging out.”

Serious ideas are preludes to toys

Screensharing has long been common in enterprise communication apps like Webex, Zoom and Slack. I even called a collaborative browsing and desktop screensharing app my favorite project from Facebook’s 2011 college hackathon. But we don’t just use our screens for work any more. Teens and young adults live on the digital plane, navigating complex webs of friendships, entertainment and academia through their phones. Squad makes those experiences social — including the “social” networks we often scroll through in isolation. Charles and Ray Eames said “Toys are preludes to serious ideas,” but this time, it is happening in reverse.

Squad co-founders from left: Ethan Sutin, Esther Crawford

“The idea came from a combination of things — a pain we were experiencing as a team,” Crawford recalls. My development team is constantly sending each other screenshots and screen recordings. It seemed ridiculous that I can’t just show you what’s on my screen. It was a business use case internally.” But then came the wisdom of a 13-year-old. “My daughter over the summer was bugging me. ‘Why can’t I just show what’s on my screen with my friends?’ I said I think it’s not technically possible.” That’s when Crawford discovered advances in ReplayKit meant it suddenly was possible.

Crawford had already seen this cycle of tool to toy before, as she was an early YouTuber. Back in the mid-2000s, people thought of YouTube as a place to host videos about eBay listings, professional presentations or dating profile supplements. “They couldn’t imagine that if you let people just reliably and easily upload video content, there’d be all these creative enterprises.”

Use cases for Squad

After stints in product marketing at Coach.com and Stride Labs, she built Estherbot — a chatbot version of herself that let people learn about her. Indeed, 50,000 people ended up trying it, convincing her people needed new ways to reveal themselves to friends. She met Ethan Sutin through the project and together they co-founded FAQ app Molly before it fizzled out and was shut down. “Molly wasn’t working; it had high initial engagement sessions, but then they would drop off. Maybe it’s not the right time for the augmented version of you,” noted Crawford.

Crawford and Sutin pivoted Molly into Squad to keep exploring new formats for vulnerability. “What excited Ethan and I was this mission to help people feel less lonely.”

Alone, together

Squad recommends apps to screenshare

Squad worked, thanks to a slick way to activate screensharing. The app launches to the selfie camera similar to Snapchat, but with a + button for inviting friends to a video call. Tap the screenshare button at the bottom, select Squad and start the broadcast. To guide users toward the best screensharing experiences, a menu of apps emerges encouraging users to open Instagram, TikTok, Bumble, their camera roll and others.

People can bounce back and forth between screensharing and video chat, and tap a friend’s window to view it full-screen. And when they want another friend to see what they’re seeing, Squad goes viral. One concern is that Squad breaks privacy controls. You could have friends show you someone’s Instagram profile you’re blocked by or aren’t allowed to see. But the same goes for hanging out in person, and this is one reason Squad doesn’t let you download videos of your chats and is considering screenshot warnings.

What’s so special about Squad is that it lacks the intensity of traditional video chat, where you constantly feel pressured to perform. You can fire up a chat room, and then go back to phoning as you please with your screen displayed instead of your blank face (though the Android version in beta offers picture-in-picture so you can show your mug and the screen).

“There’s no picture-in-picture on iOS, but younger users don’t even really care. I can point it at the bed and you can tell me when there’s something to look at,” Crawford tells me. A few people, alone in their houses, video chatting without looking at each other, still feel a sense of togetherness.

The future of Squad could grant that feeling to a massive audience of a celebrity or influencer. The startup is working on shareable URLs that creators could post on other social networks like Twitter or Facebook that their fans could click to watch. Tagging along as Kylie Jenner or Ninja play around on their phone could bring people closer to their heroes while serving as a massive growth opportunity for Squad. Similarly, colonizing other apps with an SDK for screensharing could allow Squad to recruit their users.

Squad makes starting a screenshare easy

The startup will face stiff technical challenges. Lag or low video quality destroy the feeling of delight it delivers, Crawford admits, so the team is focused on making sure the app works well even in rural areas like middle America where many early users live. But the real test will be whether it can build a new social graph upon the screensharing idea if already popular apps build competing features. Gaming tools like Discord and Twitch already offer web screensharing, and I suggested Facebook should bring the feature to Messenger when in late-2017 it launched in its Workplace office collaboration app.

Helping a friend choose when to swipe right on Tinder via Squad

In June I wrote that Instagram and Snapchat would try to steal the voice-activated visual effects at the center of an app called Panda. Snapchat started testing those just two months later. Instagram’s whole Stories feature was cloned from Snapchat, and it also cribbed Q&A Stories from Polly. Overshadowed, Panda and Polly have faded from the spotlight. With Facebook and Snap already sniffing around Squad, it’s quite possible they’ll try to copy it. Squad will have to hope first-mover advantage and focus can defeat a screensharing feature bolted on to apps with hundreds of millions or even billions of users.

But regardless of who delivers this next phase of sharing, it’s coming. “Everyone knows that the content flooding our feeds is a filtered version of reality. The real and interesting stuff goes down in DMs because people are more authentic when they’re 1:1 or in small group conversations,” Crawford wrote.

Perhaps there’s no better antidote to the poison of social media success theater that revealing that beyond the Instagram highlights, we’re often just playing around on our phones. Squad might not be glamorous, but it’s authentic and a lot more fun.

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Tinder is testing the ability to share Spotify music clips in chat

Posted by | Apps, Media, Mobile, Music, Social, Spotify, Tinder | No Comments

Tinder has already developed a fairly robust chat platform within its dating app, with support for sharing things like Bitmoji and GIFs, and the ability to “like” messages by tapping a heart icon. Now, the company is testing a new integration — sharing music via Spotify. Tinder confirmed with TechCrunch it’s trying out a new way to connect users, by allowing them to share music within their chats.

The test is currently taking place across global markets, and Spotify is the only music service involved.

The new feature was first spotted by the blog MSPoweruser, which speculated the addition could be an experiment on Tinder’s part, ahead of a public launch. That does seem to be the case, as it turns out.

According to screenshots the site posted, a green music icon has been swapped in for the Bitmoji icon. Clicking this allows you to enter a query into a search box and see matching results displayed above. You’re not able to share the full song, however — only a 30-second clip.

Above: Tinder music test with Spotify; credits: MSPoweruser

Tinder, like its rival Bumble, has offered integration with Spotify’s streaming music service since 2016.

Both apps allow users to connect their Spotify accounts in order to showcase their top artists on their profile. As Tinder explained at the time of launch, music can be a powerful signal in terms of attraction, and plays an important role in terms of getting to know a new connection, as well.

The company even launched its own profile on Spotify, with playlists focused on dating, love and romance as a part of its collaboration with the music service.

The Spotify integration has paid off for Tinder in terms of user engagement within its app, the company tells us.

“Users love connecting over shared tastes in music,” a Tinder spokesperson explained. “In fact, users who update their ‘Anthem’ are most likely to start a conversation via Feed. With this in mind, we’re testing the ability to share music with a match while chatting on Tinder,” they added.

The “Anthem” is a feature that lets you pick a favorite song or one that’s representative of your tastes or personality. This is then highlighted in a special section on your Tinder profile.

Tinder did not offer any details as to when it expects the test to wrap or when it would launch music sharing more broadly.

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Instagram caught selling ads to follower-buying services it banned

Posted by | Apps, eCommerce, Facebook, instagram, Mobile, Policy, Social, spam, TC | No Comments

Instagram has been earning money from businesses flooding its social network with spam notifications. Instagram hypocritically continues to sell ad space to services that charge clients for fake followers or that automatically follow/unfollow other people to get them to follow the client back. This is despite Instagram reiterating a ban on these businesses in November and threatening the accounts of people who employ them.

A TechCrunch investigation initially found 17 services selling fake followers or automated notification spam for luring in followers that were openly advertising on Instagram despite blatantly violating the network’s policies. This demonstrates Instagram’s failure to adequately police its app and ad platform. That neglect led to users being distracted by notifications for follows and Likes generated by bots or fake accounts. Instagram raked in revenue from these services while they diluted the quality of Instagram notifications and wasted people’s time.

In response to our investigation, Instagram tells me it’s removed all ads as well as disabled all the Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts of the services we reported were violating its policies. Pages and accounts that themselves weren’t in violation but whose ads have been banned from advertising on Facebook and Instagram. However, a day later TechCrunch still found ads from two of these services on Instagram, and discovered five more companies paying to promote policy-violating follower-growth services.

This raises a big question about whether Instagram properly protects its community from spammers. Why would it take a journalist’s investigation to remove these ads and businesses that brazenly broke Instagram’s rules when the company is supposed to have technical and human moderation systems in place? The Facebook-owned app’s quest to “move fast” to grow its user base and business seems to have raced beyond what its watchdogs could safeguard.

Hunting spammers

I began this investigation a month ago after being pestered with Instagram Stories ads by a service called GramGorilla. The slicked-back hipster salesmen boasted how many followers he gained with the service and that I could pay to do the same. The ads linked to the website of a division of Krends Marketing, where for $46 to $126 per month, it promised to score me 1,000 to 2,500 Instagram followers.

Some apps like this sell followers directly, though these are typically fake accounts. They might boost your follower count (unless they’re detected and terminated) but won’t actually engage with your content or help your business, and end up dragging down your metrics so Instagram shows your posts to fewer people. But I discovered that GramGorilla/Krends and the majority of apps selling Instagram audience growth do something even worse.

You give these scammy businesses your Instagram username and password, plus some relevant topics or demographics, and they automatically follow and unfollow, like and comment on strangers’ Instagram profiles. The goal is to generate notifications those strangers will see in hopes that they’ll get curious or want to reciprocate and so therefore follow you back. By triggering enough of this notification spam, they trick enough strangers to follow you to justify the monthly subscription fee.

That pissed me off. Facebook, Instagram and other social networks send enough real notifications as is, growth hacking their way to more engagement, ad views and daily user counts. But at least they have to weigh the risk of annoying you so much that you turn off notifications all together. Services that sell followers don’t care if they pollute Instagram and ruin your experience as long as they make money. They’re classic villains in the “tragedy of the commons” of our attention.

This led me to start cataloging these spam company ads, and I was startled by how many different ones I saw. Soon, Instagram’s ad targeting and retargeting algorithms were backfiring, purposefully feeding me ads for similar companies that also violated Instagram’s policies.

The 17 services selling followers or spam that I originally indexed were Krends Marketing / GramGorilla, SocialUpgrade, MagicSocial, EZ-Grow, Xplod Social, Macurex, GoGrowthly, Instashop / IG Shops, TrendBee, JW Social Media Marketing, YR Charisma, Instagrocery, Social Sensational, SocialFuse, We Grow Social, IG Wildfire and Gramflare. TrendBee and Gramflare were found to still be running Instagram ads after the platform said they’ve been banned from doing so. Upon further investigation after Instagram’s supposed crackdown, I discovered five more services sell prohibited growth services: FireSocial, InstaMason/IWentMissing, NexStore2019, InstaGrow and Servantify.

Knowingly poisoning the well

I wanted to find out if these companies were aware that they violate Instagram’s policies and how they justify generating spam. Most hide their contact info and merely provide a customer support email, but eventually I was able to get on the phone with some of the founders.

What we’re doing is obviously against their terms of service,” said GoGrowthly’s co-founder who refused to provide their name. “We’re going in and piggybacking off their free platform and not giving them any of the revenue. Instagram doesn’t like us at all. We utilize private proxies depending on clients’ geographic location. That’s sort of our trick to reduce any sort of liability,” so clients’ accounts don’t get shut down, they said. “It’s a careful line that we tread with Instagram. Similar to SEO companies and Google, Google wants the best results for customers and customers want the best results for them. There’s a delicate dance,” said Macurex founder Gun Hudson.

EZ-Grow’s co-founder Elon refused to give his last name on the record, but told me “[Clients] always need something new. At first it was follows and likes. Now we even watch Stories for them. Every new feature that Instagram has we take advantage of it to make more visibility for our clients.” He says EZ-Grow spends $500 per day on Instagram ads, which are its core strategy for finding new customers. SocialFuse founder Aleksandr [last name redacted] says his company spends a couple hundred dollars per day on Instagram and Facebook ads, and was worried when Instagram reiterated its ban on his kind of service in November, but says, “We thought that we were definitely going to get shut down but nothing has changed on our end.”

Several of the founders tried to defend their notification spam services by saying that at least they weren’t selling fake followers. Lacking any self-awareness, Macurex’s Hudson said, “If it’s done the wrong way it can ruin the user experience. There are all sorts of marketers who will market in untasteful or spammy ways. Instagram needs to keep a check on that.” GoGrowthly’s founder actually told me, “We’re actually doing good for the community by generating those targeted interactions.” WeGrowSocial’s co-founder Brandon also refused to give his last name, but was willing to rat out his competitor SocialSensational for selling followers.

Only EZ-Grow’s Elon seemed to have a moment of clarity. “Because the targeting goes to the right people… and it’s something they would like, it’s not spam,” he said before his epiphany. “People can also look at it as spam, maybe.”

Instagram finally shuts down the spammers

In response to our findings, an Instagram spokesperson provided this lengthy statement confirming it’s shut down the ads and accounts of the violators we discovered, claiming that it works hard to fight spam, and admitting it needs to do better:

Nobody likes receiving spammy follows, likes and comments. It’s really important to us that the interactions people have on Instagram are genuine, and we’re working hard to keep the community free from spammy behavior. Services that offer to boost an account’s popularity via inauthentic likes, comments and followers, as well as ads that promote these services, aren’t allowed on Instagram. We’ve taken action on the services raised in this article, including removing violating ads, disabling Pages and accounts, and stopping Pages from placing further ads. We have various systems in place that help us catch and remove these types of ads before anyone sees them, but given the number of ads uploaded to our platform every day, there are times when some still manage to slip through. We know we have more to do in this area and we’re committed to improving.

Instagram tells me it uses machine learning tools to identify accounts that pay third-party apps to boost their popularity and claims to remove inauthentic engagement before it reaches the recipient of the notifications. By nullifying the results of these services, Instagram believes users will have less incentive to use them. It uses automated systems to evaluate the images, captions and landing pages of all its ads before they run, and sends some to human moderators. It claims this lets it catch most policy-violating ads, and that users can report those it misses.

But these ads and their associated accounts were filled with terms like “get followers,” “boost your Instagram followers,” “real followers,” “grow your engagement,” “get verified,” “engagement automation” and other terms tightly linked to policy-violating services. That casts doubt on just how hard Instagram was working on this problem. It may have simply relied on cheap and scalable technical approaches to catching services with spam bots or fake accounts instead of properly screening ads or employing sufficient numbers of human moderators to police the network.

That misplaced dependence on AI and other tech solutions appears to be a trend in the industry. When I recently reported that child sexual abuse imagery was easy to find on WhatsApp and Microsoft Bing, both seemed to be understaffing the human moderation team that could have hunted down this illegal content with common sense where complex algorithms failed. As with Instagram, these products have highly profitable parent companies that can afford to pour more dollars in policy enforcement.

Kicking these services off Instagram is an important step, but the company must be more proactive. Social networks and self-serve ad networks have been treated as efficient cash cows for too long. The profits from these products should be reinvested in policing them. Otherwise, crooks will happily fleece users for our money and attention.

To learn more about the future of Instagram, check out this article’s author Josh Constine’s SXSW 2019 keynote with Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger — their first talk together since leaving the company.

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Pandora launches a personalized voice assistant on iOS and Android

Posted by | Apps, Media, Mobile, Music, Pandora, personalization, streaming, streaming service, voice, voice assistant | No Comments

Pandora today announced the launch of its own, in-app voice assistant that you can call up at any time by saying “Hey Pandora,” followed by a request to play the music or podcasts you want to hear. The feature will allow you to not only control music playback with commands to play a specific artist, album, radio or playlist, but will also be capable of delivering results customized to you when responding to vague commands or those related to activity or mood. For example, you’ll get personalized results for requests like “play something new,” “play more like this,” “play music for relaxing,” “play workout music,” “play something I like” and others.

The company reports strong adoption of its service on voice-activated speakers, like Amazon Echo devices, where now millions of listeners launch Pandora music by speaking — a trend that inspired the move to launch in-app voice control.

“Voice is just an expected new way that you engage with any app,” notes Pandora Chief Product Officer Chris Phillips. “On the mobile app, we’re doing more than just your typical request against the catalog… asking: ‘hey, Pandora,’ to search and play or pause or skip,” he says. “What we’re doing that we think is pretty special is we’re taking that voice utterance of what someone asks for, and we’re applying our personalized recommendations to the response,” Phillips explains.

That means when you ask Pandora to play you something new, the app will return a selection that won’t resemble everyone else’s music, but will rather be informed by your own listening habits and personal tastes.

The way that result is returned may also vary — for some, it could be a playlist, for others an album and for others, it could be just a new song, a personalized soundtrack or a radio station.

“Play something new” isn’t the only command that will yield a personalized response, Pandora says. It will also return personalized results for commands related to your mood or activity — like workout music, something to relax to, music for cooking and more.

For podcasts, it can dig up episodes with a specific guest, play shows by title, or even deliver show recommendations, among other things.

Voice commands can be used in lieu of pressing buttons, too, in order to do things like add songs to a playlist or giving a song you like a thumbs up, for instance.

The new feature, called “Voice Mode,” taps into Pandora’s machine learning and data science capabilities, which is an active battleground between music services.

Spotify, for example, is well known for its deep personalization with its Discover Weekly and other custom playlists, like its Daily Mixes. But its own “voice mode” option is only available for its Premium users, according to a FAQ on the company’s website.

Pandora, meanwhile, is planning to roll out Voice Mode to all users — both free and paid.

For free users, the feature will work in conjunction with an existing ad product that allows users to opt in to watch a video in order to gain temporary access to Pandora’s on-demand service.

While this option is not live at launch, the plan is to allow any user to use the “Hey Pandora” command, then redirect free users with a request to play music on demand to instead play the opt-in ad first.

Pandora Voice Mode will launch today, January 15, to a percentage of the iOS and Android user base — around a million listeners. The company will track the speed, accuracy and performance of its results before rolling it out more broadly over the next couple of months.

Users with a Google Home device can also cast from their Pandora app to their smart speaker, and a similar feature will arrive on Alexa devices soon, the company believes.

Pandora works with Siri Shortcuts, too. That means you can now use voice to launch the app itself, then play a personalized selection of music without having to touch your phone at all.

Voice Mode will be available in the Pandora app via the search bar next to the magnifying glass.

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VLC prepares to add AirPlay support as it crosses 3 billion downloads

Posted by | Android, apple tv, Apps, CES 2019, chromecast, internet television, Nintendo, roku, Software, venturebeat, VLC, webcams | No Comments

VLC, the hugely popular media playing service, is filling one of its gaps with the addition of AirPlay support as it has just crossed an incredible three billion users.

The new feature was revealed by Jean-Baptiste Kempf, one of the service’s lead developers, in an interview with Variety at CES and it will give users a chance to beam content from their Android or iOS device to an Apple TV. The addition, which is due in the upcoming version 4 of VLC, is the biggest new feature since the service added Chromecast support last summer.

But that’s not all that the dozen or so people on the VLC development team are working on.

In addition, Variety reports that VLC is preparing to enable native support for VR content. Instead of SDKs, the team has reversed engineered popular hardware to offer features that will include the option to watch 2D content in a cinema-style environment. There also are plans to bring the service to more platforms, with VentureBeat reporting that the VLC team is eyeing PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch and Roku devices.

VLC, which is managed by nonprofit parent VideonLAN, racked up its three billionth download at CES, where it celebrated with the live ticker pictured above. The service reached one billion downloads back in May 2012, which represents incredible growth for a venture that began life as a project from École Centrale Paris students in 1996.

VLC. The hero of our time. https://t.co/B4Qqq4DvLa

— Zack Whittaker (@zackwhittaker) January 11, 2019

CES 2019 coverage - TechCrunch

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Daily Crunch: How the government shutdown is damaging cybersecurity and future IPOs

Posted by | Apps, Enterprise, Finance, Fundings & Exits, Gadgets, Government, hardware, payments, Policy, Startups, Venture Capital | No Comments

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here:

1. How Trump’s government shutdown is harming cyber and national security
The government has been shut down for nearly three weeks, and there’s no end in sight. While most of the core government departments — State, Treasury, Justice and Defense — are still operational, others like Homeland Security, which takes the bulk of the government’s cybersecurity responsibilities, are suffering the most.

2. With SEC workers offline, the government shutdown could screw IPO-ready companies
The SEC has been shut down since December 27 and only has 285 of its 4,436 employees on the clock for emergency situations. While tech’s most buzz-worthy unicorns like Uber and Lyft won’t suffer too much from the shutdown, smaller businesses, particularly those in need of an infusion of capital to continue operating, will bear the brunt of any IPO delays.

3. The state of seed 

In 2018, seed activity as a percentage of all deals shrank from 31 percent to 25 percent — a decade low — while the share and size of late-stage deals swelled to record highs.

4. Banking startup N26 raises $300 million at $2.7 billion valuation

N26 is building a retail bank from scratch. The company prides itself on the speed and simplicity of setting up an account and managing assets. In the past year, N26’s valuation has exploded as its user base has tripled, with nearly a third of customers paying for a premium account.

5. E-scooter startup Bird is raising another $300M 

Bird is reportedly nearing a deal to extend its Series C round with a $300 million infusion led by Fidelity. The funding, however, comes at a time when scooter companies are losing steam and struggling to prove that its product is the clear solution to last-mile transportation.

6. AWS gives open source the middle finger 

It’s no secret that AWS has long been accused of taking the best open-source projects and re-using and re-branding them without always giving back to those communities.

7. The Galaxy S10 is coming on February 20 

Looks like Samsung is giving Mobile World Congress the cold shoulder and has decided to announce its latest flagship phone a week earlier in San Francisco.

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