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Reliance Jio partners with Facebook to launch literacy program for first time internet users in India

Posted by | Akash Ambani, Asia, Education, Facebook, india, Mobile, Mukesh Ambani, reliance jio, TC, WhatsApp | No Comments

Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man, has enabled tens of millions of people — if not more — to come online for the first time with his disruptive telecom network. He has changed how many Indians, once thrifty about each megabyte they spent browsing the internet, consume mobile data today.

But many of these first-time internet users are increasingly struggling with grasping the nuances of the internet — often ending up trusting everything they see online and, in extreme cases, causing major chaos in the nation. Ambani now wants to help these people understand the ins and outs of the digital world.

His telecom network Reliance Jio announced today a literacy program called “Digital Udaan” for first-time internet users in India. The two-and-a-half-year-old telecom network, which has amassed more than 300 million subscribers, said it has partnered with Facebook to create “the largest ever digital literacy program” that will offer audio-visual training in 10 regional languages.

As part of the Digital Udaan program, Reliance Jio will hold training sessions to help its users learn about internet safety, and how they should engage with popular services and its devices. The operator said it will hold these sessions each Saturday and also provide training videos and information brochures to users.

Reliance Jio said Facebook helped it build and curate modules that are relevant for people in cities and small towns in India. In the first phase of the program, Jio will conduct these training sessions in about 200 different locations across 13 states. It will then expand to more than 7,000 locations, where “millions of JioPhone users and other first-time internet users” live.

“Facebook is an ally in this mission, and we are delighted to partner with Jio in attracting new Internet users and creating mechanisms for them to unleash the power of that access,” Ajit Mohan, VP and MD of Facebook India, said in a statement. Facebook and WhatsApp count India, where they reach about 350 million users, as their largest and fastest growing market. There are more than 500 million internet users in India.

Akash Ambani, director of Reliance Jio, said he hopes to “help eradicate barriers of information asymmetry and provide accessibility in real time. It is a program for inclusive information, education and entertainment, where no Indian will be left out of this digital drive. Jio envisions to take this to every town and village of India, achieving 100% digital literacy in the country.”

Reliance Jio, through its free voice calls and low-data prices, has significantly helped accelerate the growth of India’s internet and smartphone ecosystem. The platform has brought the nation, now the world’s second largest internet and smartphone market, to a point that many thought would have taken more than five years to reach.

But this growth has also accompanied new sets of challenges. WhatsApp, which is the most popular app in India, continues to grapple with the spread of false information in the nation, for instance. Other social media services are facing similar challenges as well. Last year, WhatsApp began to air TV commercials in India to help users become more cautious about the messages they share on its service. It also partnered with Reliance Jio to pay for teams of performers to travel across India to hold roadshows to help people better understand the rampant rise of fake news.

Prabhakar Kumar, co-ordinator of CMS Medialab, an organization that monitors media trends in India, told TechCrunch in an earlier interview that the level of literacy among the users who are coming onboard now is much lower than those who came online before them.

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Anti-spam service Truecaller adds free voice calling feature

Posted by | Android, Apps, Asia, Facebook, Mobile, Mukesh Ambani, reliance jio, Truecaller, WhatsApp | No Comments

Truecaller, an app best known for helping users screen calls from strangers and spammers, is adding yet another feature to its service as it bolsters its super app status. The Stockholm-based firm said today that its app can now be used to place free VoIP-powered voice calls.

The company told TechCrunch on Tuesday that it has started to roll out the free voice calling feature to its Android users. It expects the rollout to reach all Android users in the coming days. The feature, which currently only supports calls between two users, will arrive on its iOS app soon.

In emerging markets such as India, where 100 million of Truecaller’s 140 million users live, free voice calls has been a long-sought after feature. Until late 2016, voice calls were fairly expensive in India, with telecom operators counting revenue from traditional calls as their biggest profit generator.

But in last two and a half years, things have changed dramatically for hundreds of millions of people in India after Reliance Jio, a telecom operator owned by India’s richest man Mukesh Ambani, launched its network with free voice calls and low-priced data services. Reliance Jio has already amassed over 300 million users to become one of the top three telcos in the nation.

Yet, the quality of network still leaves much to be desired in India as traditional calls drop abruptly and run into quality issues more often than one would like. Truecaller said that its voice calls rely on data services — mobile data and Wi-Fi — and claimed that they can work swiftly even on patchy network.

The addition of voice calling functionality comes as Truecaller aggressively looks to expand its business. The service, which offers both ad-support free tier and subscription bundle, has added messaging, mobile payments, and call recording features in recent years. Earlier this year, it also added a crediting option, allowing users in India to borrow a few hundred dollars.

A representative with the company said Truecaller began exploring the free voice calling feature a few months ago. It began testing the new functionality with alpha and beta test group users four weeks ago. It now plans to introduce group voice calling support soon, the company said.

With the new feature, Truecaller now competes even more closely with WhatsApp . The Facebook-owned app has become ubiquitous in India with more than three-quarters of India’s smartphone base using the app. WhatsApp added voice calling feature to its app in 2015. Last year, Facebook said users around the world were spending 2 billion minutes per day on WhatsApp video and audio calls.

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Every secure messaging app needs a self-destruct button

Posted by | Apps, encryption, end-to-end encryption, Government, Mobile, privacy, secure messaging, Security, signal, TC, Telegram, WhatsApp | No Comments

The growing presence of encrypted communications apps makes a lot of communities safer and stronger. But the possibility of physical device seizure and government coercion is growing as well, which is why every such app should have some kind of self-destruct mode to protect its user and their contacts.

End to end encryption like that you see in Signal and (if you opt into it) WhatsApp is great at preventing governments and other malicious actors from accessing your messages while they are in transit. But as with nearly all cybersecurity matters, physical access to either device or user or both changes things considerably.

For example, take this Hong Kong citizen who was forced to unlock their phone and reveal their followers and other messaging data to police. It’s one thing to do this with a court order to see if, say, a person was secretly cyberstalking someone in violation of a restraining order. It’s quite another to use as a dragnet for political dissidents.

@telegram @durov an HK citizen who runs a Telegram channel detained by the police was forced to unlock his phone and reveal his channel followers. Could you please add an option such that channel subscribers cannot be seen under extreme circumstances? Much appreciate. https://t.co/tj4UQztuZ2

— Lo Sinofobo (@tnzqo7f9) June 12, 2019

This particular protestor ran a Telegram channel that had a number of followers. But it could just as easily be a Slack room for organizing a protest, or a Facebook group, or anything else. For groups under threat from oppressive government regimes it could be a disaster if the contents or contacts from any of these were revealed to the police.

Just as you should be able to choose exactly what you say to police, you should be able to choose how much your phone can say as well. Secure messaging apps should be the vanguard of this capability.

There are already some dedicated “panic button” type apps, and Apple has thoughtfully developed an “emergency mode” (activated by hitting the power button five times quickly) that locks the phone to biometrics and will wipe it if it is not unlocked within a certain period of time. That’s effective against “Apple pickers” trying to steal a phone or during border or police stops where you don’t want to show ownership by unlocking the phone with your face.

Those are useful and we need more like them — but secure messaging apps are a special case. So what should they do?

The best-case scenario, where you have all the time in the world and internet access, isn’t really an important one. You can always delete your account and data voluntarily. What needs work is deleting your account under pressure.

The next best-case scenario is that you have perhaps a few seconds or at most a minute to delete or otherwise protect your account. Signal is very good about this: The deletion option is front and center in the options screen, and you don’t have to input any data. WhatsApp and Telegram require you to put in your phone number, which is not ideal — fail to do this correctly and your data is retained.

Signal, left, lets you get on with it. You’ll need to enter your number in WhatsApp (right) and Telegram.

Obviously it’s also important that these apps don’t let users accidentally and irreversibly delete their account. But perhaps there’s a middle road whereby you can temporarily lock it for a preset time period, after which it deletes itself if not unlocked manually. Telegram does have self-destructing accounts, but the shortest time you can delete after is a month.

What really needs improvement is emergency deletion when your phone is no longer in your control. This could be a case of device seizure by police, or perhaps being forced to unlock the phone after you have been arrested. Whatever the case, there need to be options for a user to delete their account outside the ordinary means.

Here are a couple options that could work:

  • Trusted remote deletion: Selected contacts are given the ability via a one-time code or other method to wipe each other’s accounts or chats remotely, no questions asked and no notification created. This would let, for instance, a friend who knows you’ve been arrested remotely remove any sensitive data from your device.
  • Self-destruct timer: Like Telegram’s feature, but better. If you’re going to a protest, or have been “randomly” selected for additional screening or questioning, you can just tell the app to delete itself after a certain duration (as little as a minute perhaps) or at a certain time of the day. Deactivate any time you like, or stall for the five required minutes for it to trigger.
  • Poison PIN: In addition to a normal unlock PIN, users can set a poison PIN that when entered has a variety of user-selectable effects. Delete certain apps, clear contacts, send prewritten messages, unlock or temporarily hard-lock the device, etc.
  • Customizable panic button: Apple’s emergency mode is great, but it would be nice to be able to attach conditions like the poison PIN’s. Sometimes all someone can do is smash that button.

Obviously these open new avenues for calamity and abuse as well, which is why they will need to be explained carefully and perhaps initially hidden in “advanced options” and the like. But overall I think we’ll be safer with them available.

Eventually these roles may be filled by dedicated apps or by the developers of the operating systems on which they run, but it makes sense for the most security-forward app class out there to be the first in the field.

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WhatsApp exploit let attackers install government-grade spyware on phones

Posted by | Apps, Facebook, Hack, Mobile, NSO Group, Security, WhatsApp | No Comments

WhatsApp just fixed a vulnerability that allowed malicious actors to remotely install spyware on affected phones, and an unknown number reportedly did so with a commercial-grade snooping package usually sold to nation-states.

The vulnerability (documented here) was discovered by the Facebook-owned WhatsApp in early May, the company confirmed to TechCrunch. It apparently leveraged a bug in the audio call feature of the app to allow the caller to allow the installation of spyware on the device being called, whether the call was answered or not.

The spyware in question that was detected as having been installed was Israel-based NSO Group’s Pegasus, which is usually (ostensibly) licensed to governments looking to infect targets of investigations and gain access to various aspects of their devices.

This is, as you can imagine, an extremely severe security hole, and it is difficult to fix the window during which it was open, or how many people were affected by it. Without knowing exactly what the exploit was and what data WhatsApp keeps regarding that type of activity, we can only speculate.

The company said that it suspects a relatively small number of users were targeted, since it would be nontrivial to deploy, limiting it to advanced and highly motivated actors.

Once alerted to the issue’s existence, the company said it took less than 10 days to make the required changes to its infrastructure that would render the attack inoperable. After that, an update went out to the client that further secured against the exploit.

“WhatsApp encourages people to upgrade to the latest version of our app, as well as keep their mobile operating system up to date, to protect against potential targeted exploits designed to compromise information stored on mobile devices,” the company said in a statement.

So what about NSO Group? Is this attack their work as well? The company told the Financial Times, which first reported the attack, that it was investigating the issue. But it noted that it is careful not to involve itself with the actual applications of its software — it vets its customers and investigates abuse, it said, but it has nothing to do with how its code is used or against whom.

WhatsApp did not name NSO in its remarks, but its suspicions seem clear:

“This attack has all the hallmarks of a private company known to work with governments to deliver spyware that reportedly takes over the functions of mobile phone operating systems.”

Naturally when a security-focused app like WhatsApp finds that a private company has, potentially at least, been secretly selling a known and dangerous exploit of its protocols, there’s a certain amount of enmity. But it’s all part of the 0-day game, an arms race to protect against or breach the latest security measures. WhatsApp notified the Department of Justice and “a number of human rights organisations” of the issue.

You should, as WhatsApp suggests, always keep your apps up to date for situations like this, although in this case the problem was able to be fixed in the backend before clients could be patched.

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Takeaways from F8 and Facebook’s next phase

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, artificial intelligence, augmented reality, conference call, data privacy, data security, dating, Developer, eCommerce, Enterprise, Entertainment, events, Extra Crunch Conference Call, Facebook, Facebook Dating, facebook groups, Facebook Marketplace, facebook messenger, Facebook Watch, Gadgets, Gaming, hardware, investment opportunities, marketplace, Media, Oculus, Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, privacy, Security, Social, Startups, TC, transcript, Venture Capital, Virtual reality, WhatsApp | No Comments

Extra Crunch offers members the opportunity to tune into conference calls led and moderated by the TechCrunch writers you read every day. This week, TechCrunch’s Josh Constine and Frederic Lardinois discuss major announcements that came out of Facebook’s F8 conference and dig into how Facebook is trying to redefine itself for the future.

Though touted as a developer-focused conference, Facebook spent much of F8 discussing privacy upgrades, how the company is improving its social impact, and a series of new initiatives on the consumer and enterprise side. Josh and Frederic discuss which announcements seem to make the most strategic sense, and which may create attractive (or unattractive) opportunities for new startups and investment.

“This F8 was aspirational for Facebook. Instead of being about what Facebook is, and accelerating the growth of it, this F8 was about Facebook, and what Facebook wants to be in the future.

That’s not the newsfeed, that’s not pages, that’s not profiles. That’s marketplace, that’s Watch, that’s Groups. With that change, Facebook is finally going to start to decouple itself from the products that have dragged down its brand over the last few years through a series of nonstop scandals.”

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Josh and Frederic dive deeper into Facebook’s plans around its redesign, Messenger, Dating, Marketplace, WhatsApp, VR, smart home hardware and more. The two also dig into the biggest news, or lack thereof, on the developer side, including Facebook’s Ax and BoTorch initiatives.

For access to the full transcription and the call audio, and for the opportunity to participate in future conference calls, become a member of Extra Crunch. Learn more and try it for free. 

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Developers can now verify mobile app users over WhatsApp instead of SMS

Posted by | Android, Apps, authentication, Facebook, iOS, Mobile, Security, SMS, Social, social media, social network, text messaging, verification, WhatsApp | No Comments

Facebook today released a new SDK that allows mobile app developers to integrate WhatsApp verification into Account Kit for iOS and Android. This will allow developers to build apps where users can opt to receive their verification codes through the WhatsApp app installed on their phone instead of through SMS.

Today, many apps give users the ability to sign up using only a phone number — a now popular alternative to Facebook Login, thanks to the social network’s numerous privacy scandals that led to fewer people choosing to use Facebook with third-party apps.

Plus, using phone numbers to sign up is common with a younger generation of users who don’t have Facebook accounts — and sometimes barely use email, except for joining apps and services.

When using a phone number to sign in, it’s common for the app to confirm the user by sending a verification code over SMS to the number provided. The user then enters that code to create their account. This process can also be used when logging in, as part of a multi-factor verification system where a user’s account information is combined with this extra step for added security.

While this process is straightforward and easy enough to follow, SMS is not everyone’s preferred messaging platform. That’s particularly true in emerging markets like India, where 200 million people are on WhatsApp, for example. In addition, those without an unlimited messaging plan are careful not to overuse texting when it can be avoided.

That’s where the WhatsApp SDK comes in. Once integrated into an iOS or Android app, developers can offer to send users their verification code over WhatsApp instead of text messaging. They can even choose to disable SMS verification, notes Facebook.

This is all a part of WhatsApp’s Account Kit, which is a larger set of developer tools designed to allow people to quickly register and log in to apps or websites using only a phone number and email, no password required.

This WhatsApp verification codes option has been available on WhatsApp’s web SDK since late 2018, but hadn’t been available with mobile apps until today.

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You might hate it, but Facebook Stories now has 500M users

Posted by | Advertising Tech, Apps, Facebook, Facebook ads, Facebook Earnings, Facebook Earnings Q1 2019, Facebook Stories, Facebook Stories Ads, instagram, Instagram Stories, Mobile, Social, TC, WhatsApp, WhatsApp Status | No Comments

You might think it’s redundant with Instagram Stories, or just don’t want to see high school friends’ boring lives, but ephemeral Snapchat-style Stories now have 500 million daily users across Facebook and Messenger. WhatsApp’s Stories feature Status has 500 million dailies too, and Instagram hit that milestone three months ago. That’s impressive, because it means one-third of Facebook’s 1.56 billion daily users are posting or watching Stories each day, up from zero when Facebook launched the feature two years ago.

For reference, Stories inventor Snapchat has just 190 million total daily users.

Facebook Stories

CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the new stats on today’s Facebook Q1 2019 earnings call, which showed it’s user growth rate had increased but it had to save $3 billion for a potential FTC fine over privacy practices.

Facebook isn’t just using Stories to keep people engaged, but to squeeze more cash out of them. Today COO Sheryl Sandberg announced that 3 million advertisers have now bought Stories ads across Facebook’s family of apps. I’d expect Facebook to launch a Stories Ad Network soon so other apps can show Facebook’s vertical video ads and get a cut of the revenue.

Facebook’s aggressive move to clone Snapchat Stories not just in Instagram but everywhere might have pissed users off at first, but many of them have come around. If you give people a place to put their face at the top of their friends’ phones, they’ll fill it. And if someone dangles a window into the lives of people you know and people you wish you did, you’ll open that window regularly.

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The consumer version of BBM is shutting down on May 31

Posted by | Android, apple-app-store, BBM, BlackBerry, computing, emtek, encryption, Google Play Store, imessage, Instant Messaging, messaging apps, Messenger, microsoft windows, Mobile, operating systems, private, research-in-motion, smartphone, smartphones, SMS, technology, WhatsApp, Windows Live Messenger | No Comments

It might be time to move on from BBM. The consumer version of the BlackBerry Messenger will shut down on May 31. Emtek, the Indonesia-based company that partnered with BlackBerry in 2016, just announced the closure. It’s important to note, BBM will still exist and BlackBerry today revealed a plan to open its enterprise-version of BBM to general consumers.

Starting today, BBM Enterprise will be available through the Google Play Store and eventually from the Apple App Store. The service will be free for one year and after that, $2.49 for six months of service. This version of the software, like the consumer version, still features group chats, voice and video calls and the ability to edit and retract messages.

As explained by BlackBerry, BBMe features end-to-end encryption:

BBMe can be downloaded on any device that uses Android, iOS, Windows or MAC operating systems. The sender and recipient each have unique public/private encryption and signing keys. These keys are generated on the device by a FIPS 140-2 certified cryptographic library and are not controlled by BlackBerry. Each message uses a new symmetric key for message encryption. Additionally, TLS encryption between the device and BlackBerry’s infrastructure protects BBMe messages from eavesdropping or manipulation.

BBM is one of the oldest smartphone messaging services. Research in Motion, BlackBerry’s original name, released the messenger in 2005. It quickly became a selling point for BlackBerry devices. BBM wasn’t perfect and occasionally crashed, but it was a robust, feature-filled messaging app when most of the world was still using SMS. Eventually, with the downfall of RIM and eventually BlackBerry, BBM fell behind iMessage, WhatsApp and other independent messaging platforms. Emtek’s partnership with BlackBerry was supposed to bring the service into the current age, but some say the consumer version ended up bloated with games, channels and ads. BlackBerry’s BBMe lacks a lot of those extra features, so consumers might find it a better platform for communicating.

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CleverTap lands $26M for its mobile-focused customer marketing service

Posted by | Accel, Asia, clevertap, Facebook, Fandango, funding, Fundings & Exits, go-jek, india, Media, Mobile, rakuten, Sequoia, Sequoia India, Singapore, Southeast Asia, tiger global, United States, Viber, WhatsApp | No Comments

CleverTap, an India-based startup that lets companies track and improve engagement with users across the web, has pulled in $26 million in new funding thanks to a round led by Sequoia India.

Existing investor Accel and new backer Tiger Global also took part in the deal, which values CleverTap at $150-$160 million, the startup disclosed. The deal takes CleverTap to around $40 million from investors to date.

Founded in 2015 and based in Mumbai, CleverTap competes with a range of customer experience services, including Oracle Cloud. Its service covers a range of touchpoints with consumers, including email, in-app activity, push notifications, Facebook, WhatsApp (for business) and Viber. Its service helps companies map out how their users are engaging across those vectors, and develop “re-engagement” programs to help reactive dormant users or increase engagement among others.

The company says its SDK is installed in more than 8,000 apps and its customers include Southeast Asia-based startups Go-Jek and Zilingo, Hotstar in India and U.S.-based Fandango . With a considerable customer base in Asia, CleverTap puts a particular focus on mobile because many of these markets are all about personal devices.

“Asia is mobile-first and massively growing,” CleverTap CEO and co-founder Sunil Thomas told TechCrunch in an interview. “A lot of engagement in this [part of the] world is timely… we were sort of born physically on the east side of the world, so we got to scale with all these diverse set of devices.”

That stands to benefit CleverTap as it seeks to grow market share outside of Asia, and in markets like the U.S. and Europe where mobile is — right now — just one part of the marketing and customer engagement process. The company believes that engagement by mobile has a long way to develop there.

“Engagement [in the West] is still email-heavy and not really timely,” Thomas said. “Whereas the East thinks of it as ‘Hey, let’s be proactive… instead of a user coming in to hunt for information, can I provide it when I think he or she will need it?’ ”

Of course, mobile push and in-app notifications can be easily abused.

Most people will know of an app on their phone that falls into that category. So, how does a company know what is too much or what isn’t enough?

“As long as you use push or in-app as an extension of your brand, then I think it’s extremely useful,” explained Thomas. “After all, this is a really competitive world; it isn’t just your app out there — if you can make your brand count when this person isn’t in your app, that’ll help you.”

More broadly, Thomas argued that CleverTap brings data to the table which, ultimately, “changes the whole context in real time.” So a customer can really look holistically at their online presence and figure out what is working, and with which users. In real terms, when used to acquire new users online, he said he believes that CleverTap typically doubles registration conversions and triples the buying rate.

“The cost of acquisition to first purchase is what we really effect,” said Thomas. “It’s that moment you get a new person into your house.”

CleverTap has an office in Sunnyvale and it has just landed in Singapore. Now it plans to add a location in Indonesia before the end of the year. Those expansions are centered around business development, with some customer support, since tech and other teams are in India. Already, according to Thomas, the company is looking to grow in Europe while it is weighing the potential to enter Latin America in a move that could include a local partnership.

The CleverTap CEO is also considering raising more money toward the end of the year, when he believes that the company can push its valuation as high as $400 million.

“That’s very doable based on revenue growth,” he said. “We think that the revenue will demand that valuation.”

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Snap is channeling Asia’s messaging giants with its move into gaming

Posted by | alibaba, Apps, Asia, Australia, Bitmoji, Canada, China, computing, e-commerce, epic games, Evan Spiegel, Facebook, food, France, game developers, Gaming, instagram, Instant Messaging, Japan, josh constine, Kakao, Los Angeles, messaging apps, Messenger, nhn japan, Nintendo, operating systems, player, Snap, Snapchat, Social, social media, social network, Software, Southeast Asia, Startups, Tencent, United Kingdom, United States, WeChat, WhatsApp | No Comments

Snap is taking a leaf out of the Asian messaging app playbook as its social messaging service enters a new era.

The company unveiled a series of new strategies that are aimed at breathing fresh life into the service that has been ruthlessly cloned by Facebook across Instagram, WhatsApp and even its primary social network. The result? Snap has consistently lost users since going public in 2017. It managed to stop the rot with a flat Q4, but resting on its laurels isn’t going to bring back the good times.

Snap has taken a three-pronged approach: extending its stories feature (and ads) into third-party apps and building out its camera play with an AR platform, but it is the launch of social games that is the most intriguing. The other moves are logical, and they fall in line with existing Snap strategies, but games is an entirely new category for the company.

It isn’t hard to see where Snap found inspiration for social games — Asian messaging companies have long twinned games and chat — but the U.S. company is applying its own twist to the genre.

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