Desperate for data on its competitors, Facebook has been secretly paying people to install a “Facebook Research” VPN that lets the company suck in all of a user’s phone and web activity, similar to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app that Apple banned in June and that was removed in August. Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research app and give it root access to network traffic in what may be a violation of Apple policy so the social network can decrypt and analyze their phone activity, a TechCrunch investigation confirms.
Facebook admitted to TechCrunch it was running the Research program to gather data on usage habits, and it has no plans to stop.
Since 2016, Facebook has been paying users ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month plus referral fees to sell their privacy by installing the iOS or Android “Facebook Research” app. Facebook even asked users to screenshot their Amazon order history page. The program is administered through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest to cloak Facebook’s involvement, and is referred to in some documentation as “Project Atlas” — a fitting name for Facebook’s effort to map new trends and rivals around the globe.
We asked Guardian Mobile Firewall’s security expert Will Strafach to dig into the Facebook Research app, and he told us that “If Facebook makes full use of the level of access they are given by asking users to install the Certificate, they will have the ability to continuously collect the following types of data: private messages in social media apps, chats from in instant messaging apps – including photos/videos sent to others, emails, web searches, web browsing activity, and even ongoing location information by tapping into the feeds of any location tracking apps you may have installed.” It’s unclear exactly what data Facebook is concerned with, but it gets nearly limitless access to a user’s device once they install the app.
The strategy shows how far Facebook is willing to go and how much it’s willing to pay to protect its dominance — even at the risk of breaking the rules of Apple’s iOS platform on which it depends. Apple could seek to block Facebook from continuing to distribute its Research app, or even revoke it permission to offer employee-only apps, and the situation could further chill relations between the tech giants. Apple’s Tim Cook has repeatedly criticized Facebook’s data collection practices. Facebook disobeying iOS policies to slurp up more information could become a new talking point. TechCrunch has spoken to Apple and it’s aware of the issue, but the company did not provide a statement before press time.
“The fairly technical sounding ‘install our Root Certificate’ step is appalling,” Strafach tells us. “This hands Facebook continuous access to the most sensitive data about you, and most users are going to be unable to reasonably consent to this regardless of any agreement they sign, because there is no good way to articulate just how much power is handed to Facebook when you do this.”
Facebook’s surveillance app
Facebook first got into the data-sniffing business when it acquired Onavo for around $120 million in 2014. The VPN app helped users track and minimize their mobile data plan usage, but also gave Facebook deep analytics about what other apps they were using. Internal documents acquired by Charlie Warzel and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News reveal that Facebook was able to leverage Onavo to learn that WhatsApp was sending more than twice as many messages per day as Facebook Messenger. Onavo allowed Facebook to spot WhatsApp’s meteoric rise and justify paying $19 billion to buy the chat startup in 2014. WhatsApp has since tripled its user base, demonstrating the power of Onavo’s foresight.
Over the years since, Onavo clued Facebook in to what apps to copy, features to build and flops to avoid. By 2018, Facebook was promoting the Onavo app in a Protect bookmark of the main Facebook app in hopes of scoring more users to snoop on. Facebook also launched the Onavo Bolt app that let you lock apps behind a passcode or fingerprint while it surveils you, but Facebook shut down the app the day it was discovered following privacy criticism. Onavo’s main app remains available on Google Play and has been installed more than 10 million times.
The backlash heated up after security expert Strafach detailed in March how Onavo Protect was reporting to Facebook when a user’s screen was on or off, and its Wi-Fi and cellular data usage in bytes even when the VPN was turned off. In June, Apple updated its developer policies to ban collecting data about usage of other apps or data that’s not necessary for an app to function. Apple proceeded to inform Facebook in August that Onavo Protect violated those data collection policies and that the social network needed to remove it from the App Store, which it did, Deepa Seetharaman of the WSJ reported.
But that didn’t stop Facebook’s data collection.
TechCrunch recently received a tip that despite Onavo Protect being banished by Apple, Facebook was paying users to sideload a similar VPN app under the Facebook Research moniker from outside of the App Store. We investigated, and learned Facebook was working with three app beta testing services to distribute the Facebook Research app: BetaBound, uTest and Applause. Facebook began distributing the Research VPN app in 2016. It has been referred to as Project Atlas since at least mid-2018, around when backlash to Onavo Protect magnified and Apple instituted its new rules that prohibited Onavo. [Update: Previously, a similar program was called Project Kodiak.] Facebook didn’t want to stop collecting data on people’s phone usage and so the Research program continued, in disregard for Apple banning Onavo Protect.
Ads (shown below) for the program run by uTest on Instagram and Snapchat sought teens 13-17 years old for a “paid social media research study.” The sign-up page for the Facebook Research program administered by Applause doesn’t mention Facebook, but seeks users “Age: 13-35 (parental consent required for ages 13-17).” If minors try to sign-up, they’re asked to get their parents’ permission with a form that reveal’s Facebook’s involvement and says “There are no known risks associated with the project, however you acknowledge that the inherent nature of the project involves the tracking of personal information via your child’s use of apps. You will be compensated by Applause for your child’s participation.” For kids short on cash, the payments could coerce them to sell their privacy to Facebook.
The Applause site explains what data could be collected by the Facebook Research app (emphasis mine):
“By installing the software, you’re giving our client permission to collect data from your phone that will help them understand how you browse the internet, and how you use the features in the apps you’ve installed . . . This means you’re letting our client collect information such as which apps are on your phone, how and when you use them, data about your activities and content within those apps, as well as how other people interact with you or your content within those apps. You are also letting our client collect information about your internet browsing activity (including the websites you visit and data that is exchanged between your device and those websites) and your use of other online services. There are some instances when our client will collect this information even where the app uses encryption, or from within secure browser sessions.”
Meanwhile, the BetaBound sign-up page with a URL ending in “Atlas” explains that “For $20 per month (via e-gift cards), you will install an app on your phone and let it run in the background.” It also offers $20 per friend you refer. That site also doesn’t initially mention Facebook, but the instruction manual for installing Facebook Research reveals the company’s involvement.
Facebook seems to have purposefully avoided TestFlight, Apple’s official beta testing system, which requires apps to be reviewed by Apple and is limited to 10,000 participants. Instead, the instruction manual reveals that users download the app from r.facebook-program.com and are told to install an Enterprise Developer Certificate and VPN and “Trust” Facebook with root access to the data their phone transmits. Apple requires that developers agree to only use this certificate system for distributing internal corporate apps to their own employees. Randomly recruiting testers and paying them a monthly fee appears to violate the spirit of that rule.
Once installed, users just had to keep the VPN running and sending data to Facebook to get paid. The Applause-administered program requested that users screenshot their Amazon orders page. This data could potentially help Facebook tie browsing habits and usage of other apps with purchase preferences and behavior. That information could be harnessed to pinpoint ad targeting and understand which types of users buy what.
TechCrunch commissioned Strafach to analyze the Facebook Research app and find out where it was sending data. He confirmed that data is routed to “vpn-sjc1.v.facebook-program.
“It is tricky to know what data Facebook is actually saving (without access to their servers). The only information that is knowable here is what access Facebook is capable of based on the code in the app. And it paints a very worrisome picture,” Strafach explains. “They might respond and claim to only actually retain/save very specific limited data, and that could be true, it really boils down to how much you trust Facebook’s word on it. The most charitable narrative of this situation would be that Facebook did not think too hard about the level of access they were granting to themselves . . . which is a startling level of carelessness in itself if that is the case.”
“Flagrant defiance of Apple’s rules”
In response to TechCrunch’s inquiry, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed it’s running the program to learn how people use their phones and other services. The spokesperson told us “Like many companies, we invite people to participate in research that helps us identify things we can be doing better. Since this research is aimed at helping Facebook understand how people use their mobile devices, we’ve provided extensive information about the type of data we collect and how they can participate. We don’t share this information with others and people can stop participating at any time.”
Facebook’s spokesperson claimed that the Facebook Research app was in line with Apple’s Enterprise Certificate program, but didn’t explain how in the face of evidence to the contrary. They said Facebook first launched its Research app program in 2016. They tried to liken the program to a focus group and said Nielsen and comScore run similar programs, yet neither of those ask people to install a VPN or provide root access to the network. The spokesperson confirmed the Facebook Research program does recruit teens but also other age groups from around the world. They claimed that Onavo and Facebook Research are separate programs, but admitted the same team supports both as an explanation for why their code was so similar.
However, Facebook claim that it doesn’t violate Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy is directly contradicted by the terms of that policy. Those include that developers “Distribute Provisioning Profiles only to Your Employees and only in conjunction with Your Internal Use Applications for the purpose of developing and testing”. The policy also states that “You may not use, distribute or otherwise make Your Internal Use Applications available to Your Customers” unless under direct supervision of employees or on company premises. Given Facebook’s customers are using the Enterprise Certificate-powered app without supervision, it appears Facebook is in violation.
Facebook disobeying Apple so directly could hurt their relationship. “The code in this iOS app strongly indicates that it is simply a poorly re-branded build of the banned Onavo app, now using an Enterprise Certificate owned by Facebook in direct violation of Apple’s rules, allowing Facebook to distribute this app without Apple review to as many users as they want,” Strafach tells us. ONV prefixes and mentions of graph.onavo.com, “onavoApp://” and “onavoProtect://” custom URL schemes litter the app. “This is an egregious violation on many fronts, and I hope that Apple will act expeditiously in revoking the signing certificate to render the app inoperable.”
Facebook is particularly interested in what teens do on their phones as the demographic has increasingly abandoned the social network in favor of Snapchat, YouTube and Facebook’s acquisition Instagram. Insights into how popular with teens is Chinese video music app TikTok and meme sharing led Facebook to launch a clone called Lasso and begin developing a meme-browsing feature called LOL, TechCrunch first reported. But Facebook’s desire for data about teens riles critics at a time when the company has been battered in the press. Analysts on tomorrow’s Facebook earnings call should inquire about what other ways the company has to collect competitive intelligence.
Last year when Tim Cook was asked what he’d do in Mark Zuckerberg’s position in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he said “I wouldn’t be in this situation . . . The truth is we could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer, if our customer was our product. We’ve elected not to do that.” Zuckerberg told Ezra Klein that he felt Cook’s comment was “extremely glib.”
Now it’s clear that even after Apple’s warnings and the removal of Onavo Protect, Facebook is still aggressively collecting data on its competitors via Apple’s iOS platform. “I have never seen such open and flagrant defiance of Apple’s rules by an App Store developer,” Strafach concluded. If Apple shuts the Research program down, Facebook will either have to invent new ways to surveil our behavior amidst a climate of privacy scrutiny, or be left in the dark.
Additional reporting by Zack Whittaker.
Paris-based VC firm Partech unveils Chapter54 accelerator to help European startups cross into Africa – TechCrunch
Partech Shaker, the innovation division of the Paris-based VC firm Partech, has launched an accelerator program christened Chapter54 to help European startups launch in African markets.
The accelerator will take in 10 technology startups annually over the next four years for the Chapter54 program, which will last up to eight months. Application for the inaugural cohort will open next month, and successful startups will begin the acceleration journey in April.
Chapter54 will be funded to a tune of $5.7 million (EUR 5 million) by the KfW Development Bank on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).
“Investors from all sectors are welcome – but they must have business experience, be registered in a European country and active in two European countries, and have a solid financial foundation and regular income,” said KfW.
Vincent Previ, the managing director of Chapter54 told TechCrunch that startups will be taken through several preparation stages including mentorship programs with founders running successful enterprises across the continent, and with c-suite tech or startup executives.
“We have a very good knowledge of the European tech ecosystem because we are one of the most prominent investors in European tech. We are now a major investor in African tech, and we have the capacity to run innovative projects through Partech Shaker… From KfW’s view, we were a good player to run this acceleration program,” said Previ.
Chapter54 will match mentors with startups based on their business models, conduct webinars with different speakers and review startups’ operation roadmaps “to check if what they have designed is consistent with the reality on the ground.”
Previ said that during these sessions, they will “check that the participating companies have the right level of knowledge of what it means to run a tech business in Africa, and have what it takes to hire tech people.”
“We are going to have a session where we will compare the gig economies in Europe and Africa, and another where we will help them do a B2C market sizing in Africa (which is not similar to Europe).”
“If you want to enter Africa, you have to do it properly, and as per legal requirements. You have to tweak the way you work. We are going to help them to reinvent the way they operate their businesses (to enter African markets).”
Chapter54 is targeting startups in growth stage with some sizable traction in the countries they operate in across Europe.
Partech has 15 investments in nine different countries across Africa including Wave; a U.S. and Senegal-based mobile money service provider, Tugende, a Ugandan mobility-tech company, and Trade Depot, a Nigeria and U.S.- based company that connects consumer goods brands to retailers.
Africa’s growing young and tech-savvy population, deepening internet penetration, developing digital infrastructure, and fast uptake of modern technologies by its people has made the continent the next growth frontier. KfW said it is supporting Chapter54 to promote growth and create jobs.
Ahead of a February event, Samsung teases Galaxy S/Note merger – TechCrunch
Last summer, Samsung announced that – for the first time in a decade – it wouldn’t be releasing a new Note. The future of the well-loved phablet was a big, open question, as the hardware giant acknowledged a shift in focus to foldables, a form factor it felt was finally ready for a truly mainstream push.
Further muddying the waters is the Galaxy S line – Samsung’s primary flagship, which has steadily been blurring the line separating itself from the Note. “Instead of unveiling a new Galaxy Note this time around,” the company’s president wrote at the time, “we will further broaden beloved Note features to more Samsung Galaxy devices.”
That’s meant a fairly steady increase in the S series’ screen sizes over the years, culminating with the addition of S-Pen functionality for the S21 Ultra last January. In August, the company also brought its proprietary stylus to the Galaxy Fold line leaving some wondering whether the Note was quietly being phased out.
Coming fresh off CES and staring down the face of MWC, we find ourselves entering Unpacked territory – the time of year when the company announces the latest additions to the S series. Roh is back with another somewhat vaguely worded post that celebrates the life of the Note’s life, pointing out how its 5.3-inch display caused a minor stir back in 2011. It seems quaint now, though it’s worth pointing out for those who weren’t at the IFA unveiling, that big screens meant much larger and thicker devices than they do now.
The post strongly suggests a proper merging of the two flagships to make more room for its foldables.
“With every fresh evolution of Samsung Galaxy devices, we have introduced features that redefine the entire mobile category,” the executive writes. “And we’re about to rewrite the rules of industry once again. At Unpacked in February 2022, we’ll introduce you to the most noteworthy S series [emphasis added by TC] device we’ve ever created. The next generation of Galaxy S is here, bringing together the greatest experiences of our Samsung Galaxy into one ultimate device.”
“Noteworthy” could mean a lot of things in this context. The most obvious seems to be an S22 Ultra becoming the S22 Note. Does that mean a proper stylus slot? Could we be seeing further S Pen integration across the lines? I’d say most likely not to that one, if only because the carefully worded post uses the singular “noteworthy device.” There are still some big questions in the lead up to the event – which may or may not be answered early, given the frequency of leaks surrounding these devices. Also on-tap for the line are improved night/low-light photos and a more sustainable design, which has become a priority for the company in recent years.
Samsung is once again betting that consumer excitement and brand loyalty will be enough to get users on-board, sight unseen as it gets set to open reservations for the new smartphone and an unnamed Galaxy tablet tomorrow.
a16z, Avenir and Google back South African mobile games publisher Carry1st in $20M round – TechCrunch
Carry1st, a South African publisher of social games and interactive content across Africa, has raised a $20 million Series A extension led by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z). This is a16z’s first investment in an Africa-headquartered company (the firm has previously invested in Branch and Zipline, companies with some of its operations in Africa but headquartered in the U.S).
Carry1st also received investments from Avenir and Google; it’s the latter’s second check from its Africa Investment Fund.
A couple of prominent individual investors, including Nas and the founders of Chipper Cash, Sky Mavis and Yield Guild Games, took part.
The round — which is an extension of the Series A Carry1st raised last May from Riot Games, Konvoy Ventures, Raine Ventures and TTV Capital — also saw the same investors double down on their investments in the company.
Andreessen Horowitz general partners David Haber and Jonathan Lai will join Carry1st’s board as observers.
Cordel Robbin-Coker, Lucy Hoffman and Tinotenda Mundangepfupfu founded Carry1st in 2018. The South Africa-based company, which currently has a team of 37 people across 18 countries, wants to use this additional capital to scale interactive content across Africa.
The company started as a game studio where it conceptualized, developed (from system designs to artwork and engineering), and launched mobile games. Over time, it switched to a hybrid model, adopting a publishing role and handling distribution, marketing and operations.
Carry1st co-founder and chief executive Robbin-Coker told TechCrunch that Carry1st has mainly focused on its publishing arm since it went hybrid.
The three-year-old company has signed publishing deals for seven games from six studios globally, including Tilting Point, publisher of Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob: Krusty Cook-Off, which Carry1st recently launched in Africa. Others include CrazyLabs and Sweden’s Raketspel, a studio with over 120 million downloads across its portfolio.
Carry1st said it provides a full-stack publishing solution, handling user acquisition, live operations, community management and monetization for its partners.
“We have a full-suite service that starts with distribution and partnerships. We help them create bespoke marketing materials from short-form advertising videos to statics, and we customize their content to resonate with individuals in different countries,” said Robbin-Coker.
“And then we operate the game and we also monetize. So we’ve built out our monetization engine to allow users to be able to pay for content that they want more easily across Africa.”
It also enhances monetization in the region through its embedded payments solutions, where customers can pay via a range of local payment options, including bank transfers, crypto and mobile money.
Shortly after closing its Series A round, Carry1st launched its online marketplace for virtual goods. On this marketplace, called Carry1st Shop, users of a Carry1st game can purchase virtual goods such as airtime, mobile data, entertainment vouchers, grocery store vouchers and gaming currency.
Games revenue has increased 90% month-on-month since the second half of last year, the company said. It’s not unexpected considering the astonishing growth of games in terms of quantity and revenue (gaming apps accounted for nearly 70% of all App Store revenue last year) on both Apple and Google stores since the pandemic.
The company’s online marketplace is noticing even faster growth, said Robbin-Coker, especially among users in South Africa and Nigeria.
Carry1st will use this funding to expand its content portfolio, grow its product and engineering teams, and obtain “tens of millions” of new users on the back of this revenue growth in its games and marketplace products.
In a statement, the company said it intends to acquire more users by expanding into game co-development with studios. It is also eyeing the possibility of developing infrastructure to support play-to-earn gaming in Africa, thus venturing into web3.
Cryptocurrency tokens such as SLP, AXS and MANA are used in play-to-earn games. They can be withdrawn to a crypto wallet and traded for another cryptocurrency like bitcoin or ultimately sold for fiat cash to be used in the real world. Carry1st wants to create on- and off-ramps (platforms that convert fiat into crypto and back) and accept crypto at point-of-sale in its marketplace.
“When we think about Carry1st, we want to be the leading consumer internet company in the region. And we think that the best kind of wedge would be able to do that is a combination of gaming and micropayments and online commerce,” the CEO said.
“These industries are being pretty significantly disrupted or augmented with web3 and crypto. And as more gaming content starts to integrate with NFTs and cryptocurrencies, we think there’s a really big opportunity to partner with those studios the same way we partner with free-to-play studios.”
Africa is the next major growth market for gaming globally. The rapid tech adoption from its 1.1 billion millennials and GenZs is a significant driver for this. Carry1st released a report last year with Newzoo showing that the number of games in sub-Saharan Africa will increase by 275% in the next decade. Gaming revenues are projected to see a 728% increase in the same period.
These stats present a much bigger addressable market than what Carry1st envisioned when it launched four years ago. And with the company’s converging at the intersection of gaming, fintech and web3, there is a broader set of opportunities (which we can see in other emerging markets) to go after in Africa. It’s one factor that piqued a16z’s interest in the company.
“We are delighted to be making our first investment in an Africa-headquartered company in Carry1st, a next-generation mobile games and fintech platform,” Haber said in a statement. “We see immense opportunity for the company to mirror outstanding successes we’ve seen in markets like India, China, and Southeast Asia. We couldn’t be more thrilled to partner with founders Cordel, Lucy, Tino, and the Carry1st team on their mission to build the Garena of Africa.”
Carry1st was seemingly intentional about the investors it brought into this round, especially as it looks to move deep in gaming, web3 and fintech across Africa.
As one of the largest crypto-centric funds, at over $3 billion, a16z brings unmatched expertise in gaming and web3. Google, via its products and phones, will help Carry1st deepen penetration and engagement in Africa. At the same time, Avenir continues to make a big push in African fintech following its big-sized check in Flutterwave.
As for the individual investors, Nas has been fairly prolific with his crypto investments, and Axie Infinity founders own the world’s biggest web3 gaming company.
“It’s a heavyweight group. We’re excited, and we think that their combination will be beneficial for us. Hopefully, it’s a sign that we’re on the right track and this helps drive strategic partnerships for us in the future,” said Robbin-Coker.
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