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ByteDance & TikTok have secretly built a deepfakes maker – TechCrunch

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TikTok parent company ByteDance has built technology to let you insert your face into videos starring someone else. TechCrunch has learned that ByteDance has developed an unreleased feature using life-like deepfakes technology that the app’s code refers to as Face Swap. Code in both TikTok and its Chinese sister app Douyin asks users to take a multi-angle biometric scan of their face, then choose from a selection of videos they want to add their face to and share.

With ByteDance’s new Face Swap feature, users scan themselves, pick a video and have their face overlaid on the body of someone in the clip

The deepfakes feature, if launched in Douyin and TikTok, could create a more controlled environment where face swapping technology plus a limited selection of source videos can be used for fun instead of spreading misinformation. It might also raise awareness of the technology so more people are aware that they shouldn’t believe everything they see online. But it’s also likely to heighten fears about what ByteDance could do with such sensitive biometric data — similar to what’s used to set up Face ID on iPhones.

Several other tech companies have recently tried to consumerize watered-down versions of deepfakes. The app Morphin lets you overlay a computerized rendering of your face on actors in GIFs. Snapchat offered a FaceSwap option for years that would switch the visages of two people in frame, or replace one on camera with one from your camera roll, and there are standalone apps that do that too, like Face Swap Live. Then last month, TechCrunch spotted Snapchat’s new Cameos for inserting a real selfie into video clips it provides, though the results aren’t meant to look confusingly realistic.

Most problematic has been Chinese deepfakes app Zao, which uses artificial intelligence to blend one person’s face into another’s body as they move and synchronize their expressions. Zao went viral in September despite privacy and security concerns about how users’ facial scans might be abused. Zao was previously blocked by China’s WeChat for presenting “security risks.” [Correction: While “Zao” is mentioned in the discovered code, it refers to the general concept rather than a partnership between ByteDance and Zao.]

But ByteDance could bring convincingly life-like deepfakes to TikTok and Douyin, two of the world’s most popular apps with over 1.5 billion downloads.

Zao in the Chinese iOS App Store

Zao in the Chinese iOS App Store

Hidden inside TikTok and Douyin

TechCrunch received a tip about the news from Israeli in-app market research startup Watchful.ai. The company had discovered code for the deepfakes feature in the latest version of TikTok and Douyin’s Android apps. Watchful.ai was able to activate the code in Douyin to generate screenshots of the feature, though it’s not currently available to the public.

First, users scan their face into TikTok. This also serves as an identity check to make sure you’re only submitting your own face so you can’t make unconsented deepfakes of anyone else using an existing photo or a single shot of their face. By asking you to blink, nod and open and close your mouth while in focus and proper lighting, Douyin can ensure you’re a live human and create a manipulable scan of your face that it can stretch and move to express different emotions or fill different scenes.

You’ll then be able to pick from videos ByteDance claims to have the rights to use, and it will replace with your own the face of whomever is in the clip. You can then share or download the deepfake video, though it will include an overlayed watermark the company claims will help distinguish the content as not being real. I received confidential access to videos made by Watchful using the feature, and the face swapping is quite seamless. The motion tracking, expressions and color blending all look very convincing.

Watchful also discovered unpublished updates to TikTok and Douyin’s terms of service that cover privacy and usage of the deepfakes feature. Inside the U.S. version of TikTok’s Android app, English text in the code explains the feature and some of its terms of use:

Your facial pattern will be used for this feature. Read the Drama Face Terms of Use and Privacy Policy for more details. Make sure you’ve read and agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy before continuing. 1. To make this feature secure for everyone, real identity verification is required to make sure users themselves are using this feature with their own faces. For this reason, uploaded photos can’t be used; 2. Your facial pattern will only be used to generate face-change videos that are only visible to you before you post it. To better protect your personal information, identity verification is required if you use this feature later. 3. This feature complies with Internet Personal Information Protection Regulations for Minors. Underage users won’t be able to access this feature. 4. All video elements related to this feature provided by Douyin have acquired copyright authorization.

ZHEJIANG, CHINA – OCTOBER 18 2019 Two U.S. senators have sent a letter to the U.S. national intelligence agency saying TikTok could pose a threat to U.S. national security and should be investigated. Visitors visit the booth of Douyin (Tiktok) at the 2019 Smart Expo in Hangzhou, east China’s Zhejiang province, Oct. 18, 2019.- PHOTOGRAPH BY Costfoto / Barcroft Media via Getty Images.

A longer terms of use and privacy policy was also found in Chinese within Douyin. Translated into English, some highlights from the text include:

  • “The ‘face-changing’ effect presented by this function is a fictional image generated by the superimposition of our photos based on your photos. In order to show that the original work has been modified and the video generated using this function is not a real video, we will mark the video generated using this function. Do not erase the mark in any way.”

  • “The information collected during the aforementioned detection process and using your photos to generate face-changing videos is only used for live detection and matching during face-changing. It will not be used for other purposes . . . And matches are deleted immediately and your facial features are not stored.”

  • “When you use this function, you can only use the materials provided by us, you cannot upload the materials yourself. The materials we provide have been authorized by the copyright owner”.

  • “According to the ‘Children’s Internet Personal Information Protection Regulations’ and the relevant provisions of laws and regulations, in order to protect the personal information of children / youths, this function restricts the use of minors”.

We reached out to TikTok and Douyin for comment regarding the deepfakes feature, when it might launch, how the privacy of biometric scans are protected and the age limit. However, TikTok declined to answer those questions. Instead, a spokesperson insisted that “after checking with the teams I can confirm this is definitely not a function in TikTok, nor do we have any intention of introducing it. I think what you may be looking at is something slated for Douyin – your email includes screenshots that would be from Douyin, and a privacy policy that mentions Douyin. That said, we don’t work on Douyin here at TikTok.” They later told TechCrunch that “The inactive code fragments are being removed to eliminate any confusion,” which implicitly confirms that Face Swap code was found in TikTok.

A Douyin spokesperson tells TechCrunch “Douyin follows the laws and regulations of the jurisdictions in which it operates, which is China.” They denied that the Face Swap terms of service appear in TikTok despite TechCrunch reviewing code from the app showing those terms of service and the feature’s functionality.

This is suspicious, and doesn’t explain why code for the deepfakes feature and special terms of service in English for the feature appear in TikTok, and not just Douyin, where the app can already be activated and a longer terms of service was spotted. TikTok’s U.S. entity has previously denied complying with censorship requests from the Chinese government in contradiction to sources who told The Washington Post that TikTok did censor some political and sexual content at China’s behest.

Consumerizing deepfakes

It’s possible that the deepfakes Face Swap feature never officially launches in China or the U.S. But it’s fully functional, even if unreleased, and demonstrates ByteDance’s willingness to embrace the controversial technology despite its reputation for misinformation and non-consensual pornography. At least it’s restricting the use of the feature by minors, only letting you face-swap yourself, and preventing users from uploading their own source videos. That avoids it being used to create dangerous misinformational videos like the slowed down one making House Speaker Nancy Pelosi seem drunk, or clips of people saying things as if they were President Trump.

“It’s very rare to see a major social networking app restrict a new, advanced feature to their users 18 and over only,” Watchful.ai co-founder and CEO Itay Kahana tells TechCrunch. “These deepfake apps might seem like fun on the surface, but they should not be allowed to become trojan horses, compromising IP rights and personal data, especially personal data from minors who are overwhelmingly the heaviest users of TikTok to date.”

TikTok has already been banned by the U.S. Navy and ByteDance’s acquisition and merger of Musical.ly into TikTok is under investigation by the Committee on Foreign Investment in The United States. Deepfake fears could further heighten scrutiny.

With the proper safeguards, though, face-changing technology could usher in a new era of user-generated content where the creator is always at the center of the action. It’s all part of a new trend of personalized media that could be big in 2020. Social media has evolved from selfies to Bitmoji to Animoji to Cameos, and now consumerized deepfakes. When there are infinite apps and videos and notifications to distract us, making us the star could be the best way to hold our attention.



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Chinese mobile games are gaining ground in the US – TechCrunch

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Over the past year, the coronavirus crisis has spurred app usage in the United States as people stay indoors to limit contact with others. Mobile games particularly have enjoyed a boom, and among them, games from Chinese studios are gaining popularity.

Games released on the U.S. App Store and Google Play Store raked in a total of $5.8 billion in revenue during the fourth quarter, jumping 34.3% from a year before and accounting for over a quarter of the world’s mobile gaming revenues, according to a new report from market research firm Sensor Tower.

In the quarter, Chinese titles contributed as much as 20% of the mobile gaming revenues in the U.S. That effectively made China the largest importer of mobile games in the U.S., thanks to a few blockbuster titles. Chinese publishers claimed 21 spots among the 100 top-grossing games in the period and collectively generated $780 million in revenues in the U.S., the world’s largest mobile gaming market, more than triple the amount from two years before.

Occupying the top rank are familiar Chinese titles such as the first-person shooter game Call of Duty, a collaboration between Tencent and Activision, as well as Tencent’s PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. But smaller Chinese studios are also quickly infiltrating the U.S. market.

Mihoyo, a little-known studio outside China, has been turning heads in the domestic gaming industry with its hit game Genshin Impact, a role-playing action game featuring anime-style characters. It was the sixth-most highest-grossing mobile game in the U.S. during Q4, racking up over $100 million in revenues in the period.

Most notable is that Mihoyo has been an independent studio since its inception in 2011. Unlike many gaming startups that covet fundings from industry titans like Tencent, Mihoyo has so far raised only a modest amount from its early days. It also stirred up controversy for skipping major distributors like Tencent and phone vendors Huawei and Xiaomi, releasing Genshin Impact on Bilibili, a popular video site amongst Chinese youngsters, and games downloading platform Taptap.

Magic Tavern, the developer behind the puzzle game Project Makeover, one of the most installed mobile games in the U.S. since late last year, is another lesser-known studio. Founded by a team of Tsinghua graduates with offices around the world, Magic Tavern is celebrated as one of the first studios with roots in China to have gained ground in the American casual gaming market. KKR-backed gaming company AppLovin is a strategic investor in Magic Tavern.

Other popular games in the U.S. also have links to China, if not directly owned by a Chinese company. Shortcut Run and Roof Nails are works from the French casual game maker Voodoo, which received a minority investment from Tencent last year. Tencent is also a strategic investor in Roblox, the gaming platform oriented to young gamers and slated for an IPO in the coming weeks.

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RecargaPay closes a $70 million Series C – TechCrunch

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RecargaPay, a Brazil-based fintech that allows users to top off their prepaid cell phones online, announced this morning that they’ve closed their $70 million Series C. The company, which operates solely in Brazil, was launched in 2010 by Miami-based serial entrepreneur Rodrigo Teijeiro, who is co-founder and CEO. 

Unlike in the U.S. where most people have a cell phone plan through a major carrier, in Brazil — a country where the minimum wage is currently $1,100 reals per month (roughly $202 USD) — many people must buy calling cards at local shops to add credit to their phones, which allows them to avoid a monthly recurring bill.

“Most people were using prepaid [phones] for control because they didn’t trust the telephone companies — they didn’t want roaming fees or fees for going over etc.,” said Teijeiro. Many of us can relate to the days when we’d come home from an international trip and have an astronomical phone bill because of roaming fees, but imagine if that were a monthly occurrence?

In 2014, Teijeiro and his co-founders — one of whom is his brother, Alvaro, the CTO — turned the RecargaPay website into an app.

“Before RecargaPay, if your cell phone ran out of credits and it was 10 p.m. and you needed to make a phone call, you’d have to go out and find a shop that sold the prepaid cards to add the credits to your phone — it was super inconvenient,” Teijeiro added. Cell phones caught on quickly in Brazil because it has traditionally been difficult to obtain a landline — an ordeal that often took several months to solidify.

RecargaPay originally had operations in various Latin American countries, such as Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru and Brazil, as well as in Spain and the U.S. But in 2016 the company decided to focus on the Brazilian market, because not only is it the biggest in LatAm, but it also has the highest penetration of credit cards. 

“The number one mistake investors make when investing in LatAm is that they think that LatAm is one whole market. But especially in fintech, all the regulations are very different. That’s why it’s hard to scale in LatAm,” he said.

The company makes money by charging a monthly fee of $19.99 reals. When a customer makes an online top-off on the app, they get 4% cash back because the cell phone carriers pay RecargaPay the equivalent amount, which it then passes on to the user.

The company, which is EBITDA positive according to Teijeiro, has raised just over $100 million in capital to date and plans to use the $70 million to “expand its financial services offerings to small businesses and consumers, including further development of its popular subscription program Prime+,” the company said in a statement.

Already, RecargaPay offers much more than the ability to top off your cell phone. Other features include the ability to buy gift cards, apply for and receive microloans, refill your public transportation cards and pay bills. Teijeiro explained that RecargaPay and Nubank, LatAm’s largest digital bank, are not direct competitors, but rather operate in the same ecosystem. A lot of Nubank customers who now have a credit card, thanks to the bank’s no-fee cards, can use RecargaPay to top off their cell phones, he added.

According to a 2020 report by TechnoBlog, a Brazilian media outlet, in 2010 about 83% of cell phones in Brazil were prepaid. Today, that number is smaller, but it’s still a whopping 49%. The change started in 2012 with the advent of smartphones in Brazil and the popularization of WhatsApp. While this may sound insane, previously, Brazilians could only call others who used their same cell phone carrier — if they called people in other networks they’d incur a hefty fee.

To get around this problem, Brazilians bought multiple cell phone chips from different carriers and they would have to top off these chips individually. You’d also have to remember which of your contacts used which carrier — mind-blowing, I know. So when WhatsApp launched, it eliminated that problem altogether, hence its massive penetration in the Brazilian market.

(l-r) Renato Camargo: country manager & CMO; Alvaro Teijeiro: co-founder & CTO; Gustavo Victorica: co-founder & COO; Rodrigo Teijeiro: founder & CEO; Diego Escobar: CFO. Image Credits: RecargaPay

RecargaPay’s Series C was co-led by Miami-based Fuel Ventures and Madrid-based IDC Ventures, with additional participation from LUN Partners, Experian Ventures and ATW Partners.

“RecargaPay is a pioneer in the payments sector as one of the first all-in-one platforms to serve such a wide array of everyday needs of Brazilians,” said Maggie Vo, Fuel Venture Capital managing general partner and chief investment officer. “We are thrilled to back a company that is actively improving the lives of so many people by giving them more control over their finances, all the while challenging the status quo of banking systems.”

“Often people think that RecargaPay is for the unbanked, but it’s actually for the unbanked and the banked,” Teijeiro added. “What we always had in mind was to build — in the long-term — a mobile money ecosystem. Our approach was to solve problems one-by-one, and now we have a vertically integrated payment platform that offers financial services.”

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BigCommerce customers can now sell on Walmart’s online marketplace – TechCrunch

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BigCommerce has partnered with Walmart to allow its customers to sell on the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer’s ecommerce marketplace, it announced this morning. Shares of Austin-based BigCommerce rose sharply in pre-market trading after the news, gaining around 10% before the bell.

Walmart, best-known for in-person shopping, has proven an ecommerce success story in recent years. For example, in its most recent quarter while Walmart as a whole grew 7.3%, its ecommerce sales advanced 69%.

BigCommerce has also reported strong growth in recent quarters, supported in part by partnerships similar to the one that it announced today. The ecommerce SaaS provider rolled out an integration with Wish last year, for example.

In a call concerning its earnings, which were announced before the Walmart news was announced, BigCommerce CEO Brent Bellm told TechCrunch that his company had been impressed with customer uptake of the Wish integration. Regarding the Walmart partnership, in a second interview Bellm told TechCrunch that it was overdue on the BigCommerce side; given the historical success of the Wish deal, it will be curious to dig into how many of the ecommerce platform’s customers opt to sell on Walmart, and how quickly they do so.

TechCrunch also spoke with Walmart exec Jeff Clementz about the arrangement. He stressed Walmart’s online customer monthly-actives — 120 million, per his company — and the breadth of their demand; BigCommerce customers selling on Walmart could expand its product diversity, helping the traditionally physical retailer possible continue its rapid growth.

The two companies are incentivizing adoption of the deal amongst BigCommerce customers by waiving certain fees for a month for retailers that sign up to sell on Walmart; Clementz described it as the first time that his company had offered a “new-seller discount.”

TechCrunch has had its eye on BigCommerce for some quarters now, thanks in part to its 2020 IPO. But the company is also interesting as its regular earnings results provide a lens into the world of ecommerce growth amongst independent digital retailers. Shopify, a chief BigCommerce rival, provides a similar view into the ecommerce world.

Shopify previously integrated with Walmart in the middle of 2020.

Looking ahead, it will be interesting to see if the Walmart partnership helps BigCommerce continue its improving revenue growth. The company is in a marketshare race with Shopify. But while BigCommerce’s rival has posted impressive growth from its integrated solutions, like its payments service, the Austin-based company stresses what it calls a more open model. Shopify charges many customers a percentage of their transaction volume for using a third-party payment solution over its own, for example, which Bellm described as a “tax” during an interview.

“Merchant Solutions” revenue at Shopify, which it generates “principally” from “payment processing fees from Shopify Payments,” grew 116% in 2020 to a little over $2 billion.

So with BigCommerce collecting a partnership with Walmart to match Shopify’s own, we’re seeing not merely two ecommerce platforms go toe-to-toe on providing their customers with as much market access as they can, but two different business philosophies compete. Akin to Microsoft Teams and Slack, it’s a competition to spectate.

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