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Facebook will shut down its spyware VPN app Onavo – TechCrunch

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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.

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Meta plans hiring freeze, NASA shoots an asteroid, and Elon’s texts about Twitter are made public • TechCrunch

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Hi all! Welcome back to Week in Review, the newsletter where we quickly sum up some of the most read TechCrunch stories from the past seven days. The goal? Even when you’re swamped, a quick skim of WiR on Saturday morning should give you a pretty good understanding of what happened in tech this week.

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most read

  • Elon’s texts: As part of the ongoing Musk vs. Twitter trial, a big ol’ trove of Twitter-related texts between Elon and various key figures/executives/celebrities has been made public. Amanda and Taylor look at some of the most interesting bits, with appearances from people like Gayle King, Joe Rogan, and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey (or, as he seems to be named in Elon’s contacts, “jack jack”.)
  • Instagram bans PornHub’s account: “After a weeks-long suspension,” writes Amanda, “Pornhub’s account has been permanently removed from Instagram.” Why? PH says they don’t know, as they insist everything they put on Instagram was totally “PG” while calling for “full transparency and clear explanations.”
  • Interpol issues a red notice for Terra’s founder: “Interpol has issued a red notice for Do Kwon,” write Manish and Kate, “requesting law enforcement agencies worldwide to search for and arrest the Terraform Labs founder whose blockchain startup collapsed earlier this year.”
  • Google Maps’ new features: A bunch of new stuff is coming to Google Maps, and Aisha has the roundup. There’s a new view style meant to help you “immerse” yourself in a city before you visit, a “Neighborhood vibe” feature that aims to capture an area’s highlights, and augmented reality features that use the view from your camera to show exactly where ATMs and coffee shops are.
  • Meta’s hiring freeze: The era of explosive hiring at Meta/Facebook is over, it seems. The company will freeze hiring and “restructure some groups” internally, Zuckerberg reportedly announced during an internal all-hands this week.
  • Hacker hits Fast Company, sends awful push notifications: If you got a particularly vulgar push notification from Fast Company by way of Apple News this week, it’s because a hacker managed to breach the outlet’s content management system. The hacker also apparently published a (now pulled) post on Fast Company outlining how they got in.
  • NASA hits an asteroid: If we needed to hit an asteroid from millions of miles away — to, say, change its course and steer it away from Earth — could we do it? NASA proved they could do just that this week, smashing a purpose-built spacecraft into an asteroid at 14,700 mph. The asteroid in question was never believed to be a threat to Earth, but these are the kinds of things you want tested before they’re necessary.
  • Microsoft confirms Exchange vulnerabilities: “Microsoft has confirmed two unpatched Exchange Server zero-day vulnerabilities are being exploited by cybercriminals in real-world attacks,” writes Carly. Even worse? There’s no patch yet, though MSFT says one has been put on an “accelerated timeline” and offers temporary mitigation measures in the meantime.

audio roundup

Didn’t have time to tune in to all of TechCrunch’s podcasts this week? Here’s what you might’ve missed:

  • Evernote and mmhmm co-founder Phil Libin joined us on Found to share what he’s learned about remote work and why he’ll “never go to work in the metaverse.”
  • The Chain Reaction crew went deep on why crypto exchange FTX bid billions on a bankrupt company’s assets.
  • Amanda joined Darrell on the TechCrunch Podcast to explore whether Tumblr was reversing its controversial porn ban (spoiler: no), and Devin hopped on to talk all about NASA’s wild anti-asteroid test mission.

techcrunch+

What hides behind the TechCrunch+ paywall? Lots of really great stuff! It’s where we get to step away from the unrelenting news cycle and go a bit deeper on the stuff you tell us you like most. The most-read TC+ stuff this week?

  • Is Silicon Valley really losing its crown?: A provocative question, one asked all the more after COVID flipped the switch on widespread remote work pretty much overnight. Alex dives into the investor data to see where the money is going, and whether or not that’s changed.
  • Investors hit the brakes on productivity software: It’s an Alex Wilhelm double feature this week! After a few quarters of consistent investment growth, it seems investor interest in productivity tools might be waning. Why? Alex looks at why/how investment in the vertical has shifted.
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ByteDance’s Pico debuts its Quest rival, but challenges remain • TechCrunch

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When ByteDance bought the Chinese VR headset maker Pico a year ago, the message it sent was clear: it was betting that the immersive device would be where future generations spend most of their time consuming digital content. It’s a marriage reminiscent of Meta’s acquisition of Oculus back in 2014, except the world is now in a different place with technological advances that make VR headsets cheaper, less laggy, and more comfortable to wear.

The TikTok parent has long aimed to compete in a market dominated by Oculus’s VR devices for consumers. When Meta launched Quest 2 in 2020, ByteDance worked on a confidential internal project to develop AR glasses, The Information reported. Pico’s product launch this week is a further indication of its ambition to challenge Quest, which has enjoyed roughly two-thirds of the global AR and VR market for the past two years.

The Pico 4, which starts at €429 (around $420 thanks to a strong dollar) for 128GB and ships to Europe, Japan, and South Korea aside from China, has received applause in the VR community. It weighs only 295 grams without the straps and can function as a standalone device but also be tethered to PCs for more advanced VR experiences. It uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 processor as Quest 2 does. 

“It’s inexpensive and good quality, with specs that can match Quest 2,” says Gavin Newton-Tanzer, host of mixed reality conference AWE Asia.

“Was impressed with the weight, comfort, LCD display, pancake lenses, color AR passthrough, and controllers. All it needs now are serious triple-A VR exclusives to distinguish itself from Meta to get gamers interested,” writes a VR content creator.

Merely “matching” Quest 2 specs doesn’t sound good enough given the latter came out two years ago and became an instant hit. Pico not only has a lot of catch-up to do on the technological front but also in terms of content and branding.

“Oculus’s content ecosystem is more established, providing a better understanding of what consumers want,” says Newton-Tanzer. Popular rhythm game Beat Saber, for instance, had generated $100 million in revenue on Oculus Quest by October 2021.

Pico is facing a chicken-or-egg problem, the XR expert suggests. Its user base across product lines isn’t currently large enough that top-tier creators would be devoted to making games, videos, and other VR content exclusively for its platform. It reportedly sold 500,000 units last year, half of its target. In contrast, Quest 2 shipped 10 million units in the space of October 2020 and November 2021. But without premium content, Pico will have a hard time attracting users in a meaningful way.

The good news is Pico has established a strong foothold in China and doesn’t face much competition in the home market. Oculus doesn’t have an official presence in China, meaning users have to go through the hassle of ordering an overseas version, getting the Oculus app from a foreign app store, and accessing its global app ecosystem through a virtual private network as Meta’s servers are blocked in China.

The technological bifurcation could allow Pico time to test and learn in the home market before launching into the West at full steam. Expansion in the U.S. is already set in motion as ByteDance began building a team for Pico on the West Coast, according to Protocol, with a focus to attract talent in content, marketing, and R&D.

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YouTube TV users can now subscribe to standalone networks without a base plan • TechCrunch

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YouTube TV launched a new option that allows subscribers to purchase add-ons without subscribing to the full channel offering in the service’s Base plan. With this new à la carte plan, subscribers can access more than 20 add-on channels, from Showtime and HBO Max to NBA League Pass, MLB.TV, and Starz among others.

This confirms reports that the company was looking to launch a YouTube channel store and join many other services that aggregate streaming subscriptions. Sling TV, Roku, Amazon Prime Video and Apple TV offer standalone options.

So, rather than spending $64.99 a month for the YouTube TV Base Plan that provides over 85 channels, consumers can now choose a more flexible option that allows them to mix and match from select entertainment networks, live sports and more, all within one app.

Customers can add or remove a network at any time they want as well as manage billing from the YouTube TV interface. To switch to the add-on only plan, users can go to “Settings” and select “Membership” then “Manage” to cancel the base plan. Choose “Update memberships” to add individual networks to the membership.

Like the base plan, subscribers with the à la carte plan still get access to an Unlimited DVR, three simultaneous streams and six household accounts.

Here is the full list of channels that subscribers can select from.

  • HBO Max
  • Showtime
  • Starz
  • MLB.TV
  • NBA League Pass
  • Cinemax
  • Epix
  • Hallmark Movies Now
  • Acorn
  • CuriosityStream
  • Outside TV Features
  • ALLBLK
  • Shudder
  • Sundance Now
  • IFC Films Unlimited
  • Dove Channel
  • CONtv
  • Docurama
  • Law & Crime
  • VSIN

 

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