Facebook will end its unpaid market research programs and proactively take its Onavo VPN app off the Google Play store in the wake of backlash following TechCrunch’s investigation about Onavo code being used in a Facebook Research app the sucked up data about teens. The Onavo Protect app will eventually shut down, and will immediately cease pulling in data from users for market research though it will continue operating as a Virtual Private Network in the short-term to allow users to find a replacement.
Facebook has also ceased to recruit new users for the Facebook Research app that still runs on Android but was forced off of iOS by Apple after we reported on how it violated Apple’s Enterprise Certificate program for employee-only apps. Existing Facebook Research app studies will continue to run, though.
With the suspicions about tech giants and looming regulation leading to more intense scrutiny of privacy practices, Facebook has decided that giving users a utility like a VPN in exchange for quietly examining their app usage and mobile browsing data isn’t a wise strategy. Instead, it will focus on paid programs where users explicitly understand what privacy they’re giving up for direct financial compensation.
Onavo billed itself as a way to “limit apps from using background data and “use a secure VPN network for your personal info” but also noted it would collect the “Time you spend using apps, mobile and Wi-Fi data you use per app, the websites you visit, and your country, device and network type” A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the change and provided this statement: “Market research helps companies build better products for people. We are shifting our focus to reward-based market research which means we’re going to end the Onavo program.”
Facebok acquired Onavo in 2013 for a reported $200 million to use its VPN app the gather data about what people were doing on their phones. That data revealed WhatsApp was sending over twice as many messages per day as Messenger, BuzzFeed’s Ryan Mac and Charlie Warzel reported, convincing Facebook to pay a steep sum of $19 billion to buy WhatsApp. Facebook went on to frame Onavo as a way for users to reduce their data usage, block dangerous websites, keep their traffic safe from snooping — while Facebook itself was analyzing that traffic. The insights helped it discover new trends in mobile usage, keep an eye on competitors, and figure out what features or apps to copy. Cloning became core to Facebook’s product strategy over the past years, with Instagram’s version of Snapchat Stories growing larger than the original.
But last year, privacy concerns led Apple to push Facebook to remove the Onavo VPN app from the App Store, though it continued running on Google Play. But Facebook quietly repurposed Onavo code for use in its Facebook Research app that TechCrunch found was paying users in the U.S. and India ages 13 to 35 up to $20 in gift cards per month to give it VPN and root network access to spy on all their mobile data.
Facebook ran the program in secret, obscured by intermediary beta testing services like Betabound and Applause. It only informed users it recruited with ads on Instagram, Snapchat and elsewhere that they were joining a Facebook Research program after they’d begun signup and signed non-disclosure agreements. A Facebook spokesperson claimed in a statement that “there was nothing ‘secret’ about this”, yet it had threatened legal action if users publicly discussed the Research program.
But the biggest problem for Facebook ended up being that its Research app abused Apple’s Enterprise Certificate program meant for employee-only apps to distribute the app outside the company. That led Apple to ban the Research app from iOS and invalidate Facebook’s certificate. This shut down Facebook’s internal iOS collaboration tools, pre-launch test versions of its popular apps, and even its lunch menu and shuttle schedule to break for 30 hours, causing chaos at the company’s offices.
To preempt any more scandals around Onavo and the Facebook Research app and avoid Google stepping in to forcibly block the apps, Facebook is now taking Onavo off the Play Store and stopping recruitment of Research testers. That’s a surprising voluntary move that perhaps shows Facebook is finally getting in tune with the public perception of its shady actions. The company has repeatedly misread how users would react to its product launches and privacy invasions, leading to near constant gaffes and an unending news cycle chronicling its blunders.
Without Onavo, Facebook loses a powerful method of market research, and its future initiatives here will come at a higher price. Facebook has run tons of focus groups, surveys, and other user feedback programs over the past decade to learn where it could improve or what innovations it could co-opt. But given how cloning plus acquisitions like WhatsApp and Instagram have been vital to Facebook’s success, it’s likely worth paying out more gift cards and more tightly monitoring its research practices. Otherwise Facebook could miss the next big thing that might disrupt it.
Hopefully Facebook will be less clandestine with its future market research programs. It should be upfront about its involvement, make certain that users understand what data they’re giving up, stop researching teens or at the very least verify the consent of their parents, and avoid slurping up sensitive information or data about a user’s unwitting friends. For a company that depends on people to trust it with their content, it has a long way to go win back our confidence.
Apple’s App Privacy Report launches into beta to show you what your apps are up to – TechCrunch
Apple has now launched a beta version of its “App Privacy Report,” a new feature that aims to provide iOS users with details about how often their everyday apps are requesting access to sensitive information, and where that information is being shared. The feature was first introduced at Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference in June, amid other privacy-focused improvements, including tools to block tracking pixels in emails, a private VPN, and more. Apple explained at the time the new report would include details about an app’s access to user data and sensors, including the user’s location, photos, contacts, and more, as well as a list of domains that the app contacts.
Though announced as a part of the iOS 15 update, the App Privacy Report was not available when the new version of iOS rolled out earlier this fall. It’s still not accessible to the general public but has entered into a wider beta test with the release of the iOS 15.2 and iPadOS 15.2 betas.
The new report goes beyond the potentially fallible App Privacy labels, which detail what sort of sensitive data an app collects and how it’s used. Developers may not always fill out their labels accurately — either by mistake or with a desire to mislead end users — and Apple’s App Review team may not always catch those ommissions.
Instead, the new App Privacy Report works to collect information about how apps are behaving more directly.
When enabled by users in their device’s Privacy Settings, the App Privacy Report will create a list of their apps’ activity over the past seven days. You can then tap on any app to see further details about when the app last accessed sensitive data or one of the device’s sensors — like the microphone or location, for example. This information is available in a list where each access is logged with a timestamp.
In another section, “App Network Activity,” users will be able to see a list of domains apps have communicated with over the past seven days. This list could include domains used by the app itself to provide its functionality, but will also reveal those from third-party trackers and analytics providers the app works with for analytics and advertising purposes, for example.
The “Website Network Activity” offers a similar list, but focuses on websites that contacted domains, some of which may have been provided by an app. You can also view the most contacted domains and drill down into individual domains to see which trackers and analytics they may be using as well as which apps have been contacting them, and when.
Ahead of the beta launch, Apple made a feature called “Record App Activity” available, which allowed developers to preview what users would see when the App Privacy Report became available. This option produced a JSON file where they could confirm their app was behaving as expected. Already, this feature produced some interesting findings. For instance, Chinese super app WeChat was found to be scanning users’ phones for new photos every few hours.
While the App Privacy Report will put into users’ hands a treasure trove of data, it could present complications for developers who may have to now explain to users that some of these data requests are not truly privacy violations — they’re about providing the promised app functionality. A weather app, for example, may need to pull a users’ location on a regular basis if the user has requested push notifications about changing weather patterns, like storm updates, to help them prepare for travel.
When presenting the app to developers, Apple said the report would give them an opportunity to “build trust” with users by providing transparency about what their app is doing. The company also suggested it could give the developers themselves better insight into the SDKs they’ve chosen to install, to ensure their behavior aligns with what the developer wants and expects.
Apple has not said when the new feature may exit beta, but it’s possible it will ship when iOS 15.2 becomes publicly available.
Bolt to expand EV option in South Africa – TechCrunch
Estonian on-demand transport firm Bolt is set to roll out electric taxi options in South Africa four months after introducing e-bike food delivery services in the country.
Bolt’s plan follows the introduction of a ‘green category’ – which lets riders hail an electric or a hybrid vehicle. This comes as the company expands its services to environmentally friendly modes of transport.
“We are looking to roll out a green taxi category in South Africa in the next few months, and plan to roll out green categories in other African markets,” said Bolt’s regional director for Africa and Middle East, Paddy Partridge.
The company already offers a green option in Kenya, where it also runs e-bike food delivery. It also plans to launch e-mobility options for food delivery in its other markets across East Africa, including Uganda and Tanzania.
Founded in 2013 by Markus Villig, the tech firm, which has operations in 45 countries – including seven in Africa – runs a gamut of services comprising ride-hailing, car, scooter and bike rentals, food delivery, and recently grocery delivery, fashioning itself as a transport and deliveries company.
“In East Africa we see a lot of potential on the motorbike side, and especially for delivery. We plan to invest more in this direction as it also serves to eliminate the challenges associated with constantly fluctuating fuel prices, currently the most significant operating cost for our couriers,” said Partridge.
Opportunities for electric mobility are said to be huge, but a majority of countries lack the necessary infrastructure to support their adoption, says a UNEP report.
A lack of recharging infrastructure, low grid power connectivity, and generally expensive e-vehicles remain hindrances to the adoption of electric transportation options in many African countries.
A transition to electric power would offer countries in sub-Saharan Africa a range of gains, including affordable transport and a reduction in emissions, with fossil-fuel vehicles contributing 12% of the region’s total emissions, according to the SSA Nature Sustainability report.
Bolt is planning arrangements with banking institutions in its markets in Africa to help its drivers access credit for purchasing electric vehicles, exploring other options away from its current scheme with leasing companies.
“The purchase cost and import duties are often high, thereby deterring ownership. We are exploring a number of vehicle financing partnerships in Kenya and South Africa for electric cars and bikes, which would help make it easier for drivers to get access to, and eventually own, electric vehicles,” he said.
The company’s plan to expand its offering across the continent comes in the wake of growing competition from companies such as Uber, which is currently testing a carpooling service in Nairobi, with plans to roll it out in Ghana and Nigeria.
Bolt recently launched the food delivery service in Nigeria, and also expanded its reach in South Africa by rolling out the service in Johannesburg after introducing it in Cape Town last year.
This comes in the wake of the company’s recent $696 million (€600M) funding round that the tech firm said will go into growing the new grocery delivery service, Bolt Market, as well as in expanding its other transport and delivery services.
Sequoia Capital, Tekne Capital, and Ghisallo, G Squared, D1 Capital, and Naya Capital are some of the investors that participated in the funding round that increased its valuation to €4 billion. The new funding came after the International Finance Corporation injected $24 million (€20) into the business at the beginning of the year.
Among the services it is looking to grow is Bolt Drive, the car rental service launched early this year to offer different choices including compact, mid-size, electric, premium, SUV, and van. The service is currently available in Estonia’s capital Tallin with plans to roll it out in other Europe and Africa markets. Bolt Drive adds to the micro-mobility options – scooters and e-bikes – that the company introduced in line with its goal of availing to the masses, more budget environmentally friendly transport solutions. The e-mobility service is available in over 100 cities across Europe.
“We continue to scale up our operations for the benefit of our customers. Our core business is to provide reliable, safe and affordable transportation services to everyone and we are excited to make travel easier and quicker in many cities across the continent,” said Partridge.
Google announces Android 12L, a feature drop for large-screen devices – TechCrunch
Google today announced a preview of Android 12L, which sounds like a new version of Android, but Google calls it “a special feature drop that makes Android 12 even better on large screens.”
The idea here is to provide users on tablets, foldables and Chrome OS laptops — anything with a screen above 600 dp — with an improved user interface.
The developer preview of Android 12L is now available for developers who want to give it a try, as well as a new Android 12L emulator and support for it in Android Studio.
But 12L is also for phones, Google says, confusing no one. Since you won’t really see most of the new features there, though, the focus right now is on other devices, with beta enrollments for Pixel devices launching later in the preview.
Since Google calls it a ‘feature drop’ and ‘feature update’ in its announcement today, we’re not looking at a full fork of Android for these devices the way Apple split up iOS and iPadOS. Instead, it’s an update for large-screen devices that introduces additional multitasking tools and an optimized user interface. By default, Android 12L should also make apps look better on these devices, too.
Specifically, this means Google refined how notifications, quick settings, lock screen, overview and the home screen look on large screens. System apps on Android 12L have also been optimized, too.
What’s probably most interesting here is the new multitasking features, with a new taskbar that is a bit reminiscent of iPadOS. Android already supported split-screen mode on tablets, but Google notes that it’s now more discoverable. You simply drag and drop an icon from the taskbar onto the screen to invoke it. This also means every app on Android is now enabled to support split-screen mode (something that developer previously had to opt-in to).
Google plans to release 12L early next year, “in time for the next wave of Android 12 tablets and foldable.” We should probably expect to hear a lot about Android tablets and foldable at MWC then.
In addition to Android 12L, Google also today announced new features in OS and Play for developers to better support these devices. These include updates to its Material Design guidance for large-screen devices, but also updates to Jetpack Compose to make it easier to build for these machines and to ensure that apps can more easily adapt to various screen orientations and sizes. Android Studio is also getting a resizable emulator to help developers test their apps on a wider variety of screen sizes and a new visual linting tool to surface UI warnings and suggestions when the layout has issues.
As for Google Play, the company will now check apps against its large screen app quality guidelines and its search rankings will take the results of this into account. “For apps that are not optimized for large screens, we’ll start warning large screen users with a notice on the app’s Play Store listing page,” Google says.
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