Facebook has changed its story after initially trying to downplay how it targeted teens with its Research program that a TechCrunch investigation revealed was paying them gift cards to monitor all their mobile app usage and browser traffic. “Less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens” a Facebook spokesperson told TechCrunch and many other news outlets in a damage control effort 7 hours after we published our report on January 29th. At the time, Facebook claimed that it had removed its Research app from iOS. The next morning we learned that wasn’t true, as Apple had already forcibly blocked the Facebook Research app for violating its Enterprise Certificate program that supposed to reserved for companies distributing internal apps to employees.
It turns out that wasn’t the only time Facebook deceived the public in its response regarding the Research VPN scandal. TechCrunch has obtained Facebook’s unpublished February 21st response to questions about the Research program in a letter from Senator Mark Warner, who wrote to CEO Mark Zuckerberg that “Facebook’s apparent lack of full transparency with users – particularly in the context of ‘research’ efforts – has been a source of frustration for me.”
In the response from Facebook’s VP of US public policy Kevin Martin, the company admits that (emphasis ours) “At the time we ended the Facebook Research App on Apple’s iOS platform, less than 5 percent of the people sharing data with us through this program were teens. Analysis shows that number is about 18 percent when you look at the complete lifetime of the program, and also add people who had become inactive and uninstalled the app.” So 18 percent of research testers were teens. It was only less than 5 percent when Facebook got caught. Given users age 13 to 35 were eligible for Facebook’s Research program, 13 to 18 year olds made of 22 percent of the age range. That means Facebook clearly wasn’t trying to minimize teen involvement, nor were they just a tiny fraction of users.
Warner asked Facebook “Do you think any use reasonable understood Facebook was using this data for commercial purposes includingto track competitors?” Facebook response indicates it never told Research users anything about tracking “competitors”, and instead dances around the question. Facebook says the registration process told users the data would help the company “understand how people use mobile apps,” “improve . . . services,” and “introduce new features for millions of people around the world.”
Facebook had also told reporters on January 29th regarding teens’ participation, “All of them with signed parental consent forms.” Yet in its response to Senator Warner, Facebook admitted that “Potential participants were required to confirm that they were over 18 or provide other evidence of parental consent, though the vendors did not require a signed parental consent form for teen users.” In some cases, underage users merely had to check a box to claim they had parental consent, and there was no verification of users’ ages or that their parents actually approved.
So to quickly recap:
- TechCrunch reports on January 29th that Facebook is paying teens and adults up to $20 in gift cards per month to install a Research VPN with Root network access to spy on all their mobile app activity, web browsing, and even encrypted communications.
- TechCrunch informs Facebook and Apple that Facebook’s Research app violates Apple’s Enterprise Certificate rules.
- That night, Facebook claims it shut down the Research app on iOS but didn’t violate Apple’s policy, and tells reporters only 5 percent of Research users were teens and they all had signed parental consent forms.
- The next morning, Apple tells TechCrunch that it forcibly shut down Facebook Research on iOS for violating the Enterprise Certificate rules, and invalidates Facebook’s Certificate thereby breaking its internal iOS apps for 30 hours, including its Workplace chat and task management apps as well as its shuttle schedule and lunch menu
- TechCrunch reports Google’s Screenwise Meter market research app was also breaking Apple’s Enterprise Certificate rules, but it quickly apologies and shuts down the app on iOS though it still has its internal iOS apps invalidated for 6 hours.
- Senator Warner issues a letter demanding answers about Facebook Research from Mark Zuckerberg, while Senators Blumenthal and Markey also issue sternly worded reprimands of Facebook.
- Facebook’s VP of production engineering and security Pedro Canahuati publishes an internal memo disputing our reporting by saying the program was never secret, but its points are swiftly dismantled by TechCrunch after we reveal that legal action was threatened if a Research user spoke publicly about the app.
- TechCrunch reports that Apple failed to block dozens of hardcore pornography and real-money gambling apps abusing Enterprise Certificate program to sidestep the App Store’s rules, and Apple shuts them down.
- Facebook tells TechCrunch on February 21st that it’s ceased recruiting users for its Research program on Android where it was still running, and that it will shut down its similar Onavo market research spyware VPN on Android after Apple banned it last year.
- That same day, Facebook issues this response to Senator Warner that shows its initial response to reporters wasn’t accurate.
The contradictions between Facebook’s initial response to reporters and what it told Warner, who has the power to pursue regulation of the the tech giant, shows Facebook willingness to move fast and play loose with the truth when it’s less accountable. It’s no wonder the company never shared the response with TechCrunch or posted a blog post or press release about it.
Facebook’s attempt to minimize the issue in the wake of backlash exemplifies the trend of of the social network’s “reactionary” PR strategy that employees described to BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac. The company often views its scandals as communications errors rather than actual product screwups or as signals of deep-seeded problems with Facebook’s respect for privacy. Facebook needs to learn to take its lumps, change course, and do better rather than constantly trying to challenge details of negative press about it, especially before it has all the necessary information. Until then, the never-ending news cycle of Facebook’s self-made disasters will continue.
Below is Facebook’s full response to Senator Warner’s inquiry, and following that is Warner’s original letter to Mark Zuckerberg.
Additional reporting by Krystal Hu
Proxyclick visitor management system adapts to COVID as employee check-in platform – TechCrunch
Proxyclick began life by providing an easy way to manage visitors in your building with an iPad-based check-in system. As the pandemic has taken hold, however, customer requirements have changed, and Proxyclick is changing with them. Today the company announced Proxyclick Flow, a new system designed to check in employees during the time of COVID.
“Basically when COVID hit our customers told us that actually our employees are the new visitors. So what you used to ask your visitors, you are now asking your employees — the usual probing question, but also when are you coming and so forth. So we evolved the offering into a wider platform,” Proxyclick co-founder and CEO Gregory Blondeau explained.
That means instead of managing a steady flow of visitors — although it can still do that — the company is focusing on the needs of customers who want to open their offices on a limited basis during the pandemic, based on local regulations. To help adapt the platform for this purpose, the company developed the Proovr smartphone app, which employees can use to check in prior to going to the office, complete a health checklist, see who else will be in the office and make sure the building isn’t over capacity.
When the employee arrives at the office, they get a temperature check, and then can use the QR code issued by the Proovr app to enter the building via Proxyclick’s check-in system or whatever system they have in place. Beyond the mobile app, the company has designed the system to work with a number of adjacent building management and security systems so that customers can use it in conjunction with existing tooling.
They also beefed up the workflow engine that companies can adapt based on their own unique entrance and exit requirements. The COVID workflow is simply one of those workflows, but Blondeau recognizes not everyone will want to use the exact one they have provided out of the box, so they designed a flexible system.
“So the challenge was technical on one side to integrate all the systems, and afterwards to group workflows on the employee’s smartphone, so that each organization can define its own workflow and present it on the smartphone,” Blondeau said.
Once in the building, the systems registers your presence and the information remains on the system for two weeks for contact tracing purposes should there be an exposure to COVID. You check out when you leave the building, but if you forget, it automatically checks you out at midnight.
The company was founded in 2010 and has raised $19.6 million. The most recent raise was a $18.5 million Series B in January.
Lime touts a 2020 turnaround and 2021 profitability – TechCrunch
Micromobility company Lime says it has moved beyond the financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching a milestone that seemed unthinkable earlier this year.
In short, the company is now largely profitable.
Lime said it was both operating cash flow positive and free cash flow positive in the third quarter — a first — and is on pace to be full-year profitable, excluding certain costs (EBIT), in 2021.
During the WSJ Future of Everything event Thursday, Lime CEO Wayne Ting painted a far rosier picture of the company’s future than one might have expected.
There was a time when Bird and Lime, competing domestic scooter rental companies, were raising capital at a torrid pace, fighting for market share, regulatory breathing room and sidewalk real estate. Then, the pandemic hit and the companies had to take shelter.
Lime underwent a round of layoffs in April, taking on capital from Uber the next month in a down-round that brought its valuation under the $1 billion mark. As it announced in a blog post that TechCrunch reviewed before publication, it paused most of its operations for a month during the early COVID-19 days.
“It was certainly a very, very tough decision for us earlier this year and I know we weren’t the only company during COVID,” Ting said during the event. “I think it’s been in so many ways helpful to us to realize how hard these choices can be. We’re going to be growing headcount again. We’re going to do so in a careful way so that we’re not going have to make hard choices like the ones we made earlier this year.”
Now things are better, Lime says. Much better. Indeed, the company claims that it is the “first new mobility company to reach cash-flow positive for a full quarter.”
Cash flow positivity, in general, is an important threshold for a startup to reach as it implies that the company can largely self-fund from that point forward, limiting its dependency on external cash for survival.
Lime also claims that it “reached EBIT positive at the company level over the summer.” The specifics of the phrase “EBIT positive” are important. Was the company employing strict EBIT on its math and not discounting share-based compensation, or was it measuring using adjusted EBIT as many startups do, removing the cost of share-based compensation that shows up in GAAP results? According to the company the number did exclude share-based compensation, making the news slightly smaller.
Perhaps the most bullish data point from Lime is that it expects to be full-year profitable in 2021. TechCrunch asked for specifics because again how one measures profitability matters. It turns out, Lime is basing this projection on EBIT, as opposed to more traditional net income. For a startup this is not a surprising decision, but before we declare Lime fully “profitable,” we’ll want some more GAAP metrics.
Still, it appears that Lime is not going to die, and is, importantly, putting capital into developing new products. The company provided the first example of that new product pipeline on Thursday with the launch of the Gen4 scooter in Paris. It also teased a so-called “third and fourth mode” in the first quarter of 2021 as well as the addition of a swappable battery.
The scooter company wouldn’t give TechCrunch much information about what these third and fourth modes will be. The first two modes are bikes and scooters, which leaves skateboards, cars, flying cars and boats?
Lime did give TechCrunch a little bit of clarification, stating that “move beyond,” means the company will be operating an additional mode, accessed through the Lime app, in line with its goal to serve any trips under five miles. These modes will build on the Lime Platform play, but this will be operated by Lime rather than a partner.
Lime has long discussed reaching profitability. Perhaps because it and its competitor Bird were infamous for their losses during their early unicorn period.
By November of 2019, Lime was talking about reaching EBIT positivity in 2020. But the start of 2020 was not kind on the company, with 100 of its staff losing their jobs and 12 markets getting dropped. At the time TechCrunch wrote that “Lime is hoping to achieve profitability this year by laying off about 14% of its workforce and ceasing operations in 12 markets,” with the company itself writing at the time that “financial independence [was its] goal for 2020, and [that it was] confident that Lime will be the first next-generation mobility company to reach profitability.”
Depending on how you measure profitability, that could be true.
Things didn’t get easier for Lime later in the year. Its competitor Bird underwent layoffs, and Lime cut more staff in April. At the time, Lime said that it was focused on coming “back stronger than ever when this is over.”
The company is certainly in better shape than it was in April and May. So, how did Lime come back from the brink? In its own estimation, the company took time during its pause to “drill down on getting the business right, narrowing [its] focus and strengthening [its] fundamentals.” That might sound like corporate babble, but by taking a nearly full stop in its operating business, Lime could probably see a bit more clearly what was working and what was not. And with some cuts to what wasn’t, it could set up a future in which its operations were leaner, and more unit-economically positive.
And, now, here we are asking niggling questions about just what sort of profit Lime is really making. Instead of, you know, who might buy its leftover office furniture. It’s a nice turnaround.
Verizon partners with Apple to launch 5G Fleet Swap – TechCrunch
Apple and Verizon today announced a new partnership that will make it easier for their business partners to go all-in on 5G. Fleet Swap, as the program is called, allows businesses to trade in their entire fleet of smartphones — no matter whether they are currently a Verizon customer or not — and move to the iPhone 12 with no upfront cost and either zero cost (for the iPhone 12 mini) or a low monthly cost.
(Disclaimer: Verizon is TechCrunch’s corporate parent. The company has zero input into our editorial decisions.)
In addition, Verizon also today announced its first two major indoor 5G ultra wideband services for its enterprise customers. General Motors and Honeywell are the first customers here, with General Motors enabling the technology at its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, the company’s all-electric vehicle plant. To some degree, this goes to show how carriers are positioning 5G ultra wideband as more of an enterprise feature than the lower-bandwidth versions of 5G.
“I think about how 5G [ultra wide band] is really filling a need for capacity and for capability. It’s built for industrial commercial use cases. It’s built on millimeter wave spectrum and it’s really built for enterprise,” Verizon Business CEO Tami Erwin told me.
It’s important to note that these two projects are not private 5G networks. Verizon is also in that business and plans to launch those more broadly in the future.
“No matter where you are on your digital transformation journey, the ability to put the power of 5G Ultra Wideband in all of your employees’ hands right now with a powerful iPhone 12 model, the best smartphone for business, is not just an investment for growth, it’s what will set a business’s future trajectory as technology continues to advance,” Erwin said in today’s announcement.
As for 5G Fleet Swap, the idea here is obviously to get more businesses on Verizon’s 5G network and, for Apple, to quickly get more iPhone 12s into the enterprise. Apple clearly believes that 5G can provide some benefits to enterprises — and maybe more so than to consumers — thanks to its low latency for AR applications, for example.
“The iPhone 12 lineup is the best for business, with an all-new design, advanced 5G experience, industry-leading security and A14 Bionic, the fastest chip ever in a smartphone,” said Susan Prescott, Apple’s vice president of Markets, Apps and Services. “Paired with Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband going indoors and 5G Fleet Swap, an all-new device offer for enterprise, it’s now easier than ever for businesses to build transformational mobile apps that take advantage of the powerful iPhone 12 lineup and 5G.”
In addition, the company is highlighting the iPhone’s secure enclave as a major security benefit for enterprises. And while other handset manufacturers launch devices that are specifically meant to be rugged, Apple argues that its devices are already rugged enough by design and that there’s a big third-party ecosystem to ruggedize its devices.
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