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Google & Facebook fed ad dollars to child porn discovery apps – TechCrunch

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Google has scrambled to remove third-party apps that led users to child porn sharing groups on WhatsApp in the wake of TechCrunch’s report about the problem last week. We contacted Google with the name of one of these apps and evidence that it and others offered links to WhatsApp groups for sharing child exploitation imagery. Following publication of our article, Google removed from the Google Play store that app and at least five like it. Several of these apps had more than 100,000 downloads, and they’re still functional on devices that already downloaded them.

A screenshot from earlier this month of now-banned child exploitation groups on WhatsApp . Phone numbers and photos redacted

WhatsApp failed to adequately police its platform, confirming to TechCrunch that it’s only moderated by its own 300 employees and not Facebook’s 20,000 dedicated security and moderation staffers. It’s clear that scalable and efficient artificial intelligence systems are not up to the task of protecting the 1.5 billion-user WhatsApp community, and companies like Facebook must invest more in unscalable human investigators.

But now, new research provided exclusively to TechCrunch by anti-harassment algorithm startup AntiToxin shows that these removed apps that hosted links to child porn sharing rings on WhatsApp were supported with ads run by Google and Facebook’s ad networks. AntiToxin found six of these apps ran Google AdMob, one ran Google Firebase, two ran Facebook Audience Network and one ran StartApp. These ad networks earned a cut of brands’ marketing spend while allowing the apps to monetize and sustain their operations by hosting ads for Amazon, Microsoft, Motorola, Sprint, Sprite, Western Union, Dyson, DJI, Gett, Yandex Music, Q Link Wireless, Tik Tok and more.

The situation reveals that tech giants aren’t just failing to spot offensive content in their own apps, but also in third-party apps that host their ads and that earn them money. While these apps like “Group Links For Whats” by Lisa Studio let people discover benign links to WhatsApp groups for sharing legal content and discussing topics like business or sports, TechCrunch found they also hosted links with titles such as “child porn only no adv” and “child porn xvideos” that led to WhatsApp groups with names like “Children 💋👙👙” or “videos cp” — a known abbreviation for “child pornography.”

In a video provided by AntiToxin seen below, the app “Group Links For Whats by Lisa Studio” that ran Google AdMob is shown displaying an interstitial ad for Q Link Wireless before providing WhatsApp group search results for “child.” A group described as “Child nude FBI POLICE” is surfaced, and when the invite link is clicked, it opens within WhatsApp to a group used for sharing child exploitation imagery. (No illegal imagery is shown in this video or article. TechCrunch has omitted the end of the video that showed a URL for an illegal group and the phone numbers of its members.)

Another video shows the app “Group Link For whatsapp by Video Status Zone” that ran Google AdMob and Facebook Audience Network displaying a link to a WhatsApp group described as “only cp video.” When tapped, the app first surfaces an interstitial ad for Amazon Photos before revealing a button for opening the group within WhatsApp. These videos show how alarmingly easy it was for people to find illegal content sharing groups on WhatsApp, even without WhatsApp’s help.

Zero tolerance doesn’t mean zero illegal content

In response, a Google spokesperson tells me that these group discovery apps violated its content policies and it’s continuing to look for more like them to ban. When they’re identified and removed from Google Play, it also suspends their access to its ad networks. However, it refused to disclose how much money these apps earned and whether it would refund the advertisers. The company provided this statement:

Google has a zero tolerance approach to child sexual abuse material and we’ve invested in technology, teams and partnerships with groups like the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, to tackle this issue for more than two decades. If we identify an app promoting this kind of material that our systems haven’t already blocked, we report it to the relevant authorities and remove it from our platform. These policies apply to apps listed in the Play store as well as apps that use Google’s advertising services.

App Developer Ad Network Estimated Installs   Last Day Ranked
Unlimited Whats Groups Without Limit Group links   Jack Rehan Google AdMob 200,000 12/18/2018
Unlimited Group Links for Whatsapp NirmalaAppzTech Google AdMob 127,000 12/18/2018
Group Invite For Whatsapp Villainsbrain Google Firebase 126,000 12/18/2018
Public Group for WhatsApp Bit-Build Google AdMob, Facebook Audience Network   86,000 12/18/2018
Group links for Whats – Find Friends for Whats Lisa Studio Google AdMob 54,000 12/19/2018
Unlimited Group Links for Whatsapp 2019 Natalie Pack Google AdMob 3,000 12/20/2018
Group Link For whatsapp Video Status Zone   Google AdMob, Facebook Audience Network 97,000 11/13/2018
Group Links For Whatsapp – Free Joining Developers.pk StartAppSDK 29,000 12/5/2018

Facebook, meanwhile, blamed Google Play, saying the apps’ eligibility for its Facebook Audience Network ads was tied to their availability on Google Play and that the apps were removed from FAN when booted from the Android app store. The company was more forthcoming, telling TechCrunch it will refund advertisers whose promotions appeared on these abhorrent apps. It’s also pulling Audience Network from all apps that let users discover WhatsApp Groups.

A Facebook spokesperson tells TechCrunch that “Audience Network monetization eligibility is closely tied to app store (in this case Google) review. We removed [Public Group for WhatsApp by Bit-Build] when Google did – it is not currently monetizing on Audience Network. Our policies are on our website and out of abundance of caution we’re ensuring Audience Network does not support any group invite link apps. This app earned very little revenue (less than $500), which we are refunding to all impacted advertisers.” WhatsApp has already banned all the illegal groups TechCrunch reported on last week.

Facebook also provided this statement about WhatsApp’s stance on illegal imagery sharing groups and third-party apps for finding them:

WhatsApp does not provide a search function for people or groups – nor does WhatsApp encourage publication of invite links to private groups. WhatsApp regularly engages with Google and Apple to enforce their terms of service on apps that attempt to encourage abuse on WhatsApp. Following the reports earlier this week, WhatsApp asked Google to remove all known group link sharing apps. When apps are removed from Google Play store, they are also removed from Audience Network.

An app with links for discovering illegal WhatsApp Groups runs an ad for Amazon Photos

Israeli NGOs Netivei Reshet and Screen Savers worked with AntiToxin to provide a report published by TechCrunch about the wide extent of child exploitation imagery they found on WhatsApp. Facebook and WhatsApp are still waiting on the groups to work with Israeli police to provide their full research so WhatsApp can delete illegal groups they discovered and terminate user accounts that joined them.

AntiToxin develops technologies for protecting online network harassment, bullying, shaming, predatory behavior and sexually explicit activity. It was co-founded by Zohar Levkovitz, who sold Amobee to SingTel for $400 million, and Ron Porat, who was the CEO of ad-blocker Shine. [Disclosure: The company also employs Roi Carthy, who contributed to TechCrunch from 2007 to 2012.] “Online toxicity is at unprecedented levels, at unprecedented scale, with unprecedented risks for children, which is why completely new thinking has to be applied to technology solutions that help parents keep their children safe,” Levkovitz tells me. The company is pushing Apple to remove WhatsApp from the App Store until the problems are fixed, citing how Apple temporarily suspended Tumblr due to child pornography.

Ad networks must be monitored

Encryption has proven an impediment to WhatsApp preventing the spread of child exploitation imagery. WhatsApp can’t see what is shared inside of group chats. Instead, it has to rely on the few pieces of public and unencrypted data, such as group names and profile photos plus their members’ profile photos, looking for suspicious names or illegal images. The company matches those images to a PhotoDNA database of known child exploitation photos to administer bans, and has human moderators investigate if seemingly illegal images aren’t already on file. It then reports its findings to law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Strong encryption is important for protecting privacy and political dissent, but also thwarts some detection of illegal content and thereby necessitates more manual moderation.

With just 300 total employees and only a subset working on security or content moderation, WhatsApp seems understaffed to manage such a large user base. It’s tried to depend on AI to safeguard its community. However, that technology can’t yet perform the nuanced investigations necessary to combat exploitation. WhatsApp runs semi-independently of Facebook, but could hire more moderators to investigate group discovery apps that lead to child pornography if Facebook allocated more resources to its acquisition.

WhatsApp group discovery apps featured Adult sections that contained links to child exploitation imagery groupsGoogle and Facebook, with their vast headcounts and profit margins, are neglecting to properly police who hosts their ad networks. The companies have sought to earn extra revenue by powering ads on other apps, yet failed to assume the necessary responsibility to ensure those apps aren’t facilitating crimes. Stricter examinations of in-app content should be administered before an app is accepted to app stores or ad networks, and periodically once they’re running. And when automated systems can’t be deployed, as can be the case with policing third-party apps, human staffers should be assigned despite the cost.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that social networks and ad networks that profit off other people’s content can’t be low-maintenance cash cows. Companies should invest ample money and labor into safeguarding any property they run or monetize, even if it makes the opportunities less lucrative. The strip-mining of the internet without regard for consequences must end.

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Google consolidates its Chrome and Android password managers – TechCrunch

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Google today announced an update to its password manager that will finally introduce a consistent look-and-feel across the service’s Chrome and Android implementations. Users will soon see a new unified user experience that will automatically group multiple passwords for the same sites or apps together, as well as a new shortcut on the Android home screen to get access to these passwords.

In addition to this, Google is also now adding a new password-related feature to Chrome on iOS, which can now generate strong passwords for you (once you set Chrome as an autofill provider).

Image Credits: Google

Meanwhile, on Android, Google’s password check can now also flag weak and re-used passwords and help you to automatically change them, while Chrome users across platforms will now see compromised password warnings.

With this release today, Google will now also finally let you manually add passwords to its passwords manager (“due to popular demand,” Google says) and the company is bringing Touch-to-Login to Chrome on Android to log you in to supported sites with a single tap.

Image Credits: Google

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TaskHuman lands $20M to expand its virtual coaching platform – TechCrunch

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TaskHuman, a professional development platform focused on coaching, today announced that it raised $20 million in Series B funding led by Madrona with participation from Impact Venture Capital, RingCentral Ventures, Sure Ventures, USVP, Gaingels, PeopleTech Angels, Propel(x) and Zoom Ventures. The latest infusion brings the company’s total raised to $35 million, which CEO Ravi Swaminathan said is being put toward product development, marketing and sales efforts.

Swaminathan and Daniel Mazzella co-founded TaskHuman in 2017, with the goal of connecting users with specialists on topics related to their personal and professional lives. Swaminathan was previously a program and logistics manager at Dell and VP of software solutions at SanDisk, while Mazzella was a system admin at Stamps.com. The two met at Wizr, a startup developing AI systems to analyze security camera footage.

“When it comes to learning and personal development, no amount of generic articles or watching pre-recorded videos [can replace] a real person with experience in a given area. Creating TaskHuman was our response to solve this challenge,” Swaminathan told TechCrunch in an email Q&A. “We started by offering foundational needs, including health and wellness, physical fitness, mental, spiritual, emotional wellbeing, and more. Since then, we’ve continued to expand and support the entire needs of an individual for personal and professional growth, like financial wellbeing, sales and leadership coaching, pet training, travel planning, and more.”

TaskHuman users connect with experts over live video chats. The company claims to have a network of over 1,000 “coaches” across nearly 50 countries, each specializing in distinctive areas. An AI-powered search feature lets users search for topics and coaches in natural language (e.g., “I want to lose weight”), while a recommendation engine attempts to personalize the browsing experience by suggesting, for example, similar coaches based on past sessions.

“TaskHuman has a direct relationship with each coach, and we pay them according to the terms of our relationship for their coaching contributions. They are all contractors globally,” Swaminathan said, when asked about the coaching payment structure.

Users can buy access to the TaskHuman network with “TaskHuman minutes,” which can be applied to a chat session with any specialist or topic, Swaminathan says. Alternatively, companies can subscribe to TaskHuman to offer unlimited access to their employees as well as in-app content and group sessions.

Image Credits: TaskHuman

Swaminathan makes the case that the enterprise in particular stands to benefit from TaskHuman’s platform. It’s true that corporate training programs tend to be a mixed bag, with only 25% of respondents to a McKinsey survey saying that their company’s training improved their job performance. According to another survey, 75% of managers were dissatisfied with their company’s learning and development function in 2019.

“At the board and C-suite level, many companies view insufficient attention to employee well-being as a threat to productivity and, conversely, a strong commitment to each worker’s physical, mental, and spiritual prosperity as a competitive advantage for recruiting and retaining talent in a time of labor shortages and the ‘Great Resignation,’” Swaminathan said. “From case studies, we have found return on investment in four main areas: preventing burnout, reducing employee attrition, improving employee engagement and recruitment, and reducing medical cost claims.”

Competition in the crowded e-learning field spans BetterUp, CoachHub and Torch. Swaminathan argues that his company’s offering is broader in scope, however, and offers superior access to specialists because it doesn’t require scheduling sessions in advance.

“We have found that the pandemic really allowed people to go beyond their comfort zones and embrace video technologies like TaskHuman, Zoom, RingCentral, and others,” Swaminathan said. “We feel a need to accelerate our mission during these difficult times to help people in both their personal and professional lives, and we feel an urgency to combat the current mental health crisis and Great Resignation culture by fulfilling the dire craving for 1:1, personalized engagement for personal and professional growth.”

Certainly, TaskHuman has benefited from the pandemic, which spurred coaches of all types to move online. According to a 2021 survey by the International Coaching Federation, 83% of coaches increased their use of audio-video platforms for coaching during the health crisis while 82% saw a decrease for in-person sessions.

TaskHuman says that its customers include Zoom, Dr. Scholl’s, RingCentral and public and government institutions like Purdue University, Oakland Housing Authority and Job Corps centers run by the U.S. Department of Labor. While Swaminathan declined to disclose financials, he said that annual recurring revenue has grown by more than 5 times year over year.

“Our company is laser-focused on global expansion and scaling its network of coaches,” Swaminathan said. “We will be continually adding to the set of human experience and expertise that are available on the platform and expanding support for providers in even more languages and countries around the world.”

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European Union keeps mobile roaming fees at bay for another decade – TechCrunch

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Five years ago, the European Union passed rules which largely ended mobile roaming fees for citizens traveling with their devices across borders within the bloc. Today lawmakers are reupping the regulation that lets EU citizens “roam like at home” for a full decade, meaning European consumers can keep avoiding most extra fees when travelling within another of the 27 EU Member States (or the EEA) until at least 2032.

The updated regulation also brings some new additions — including a focus on quality of service, with a requirement that consumers have access to the same services abroad in the EU as at home when the same networks and technologies are available on the network in the visited Member State.

This means, for example, that a roaming customer who can use 5G services at home should also have 5G roaming services — where they are available — in the visited Member State.

The quality of service provision does not mean a guarantee of getting the same mobile network speed when roaming, since network speeds can vary, but the Commission says the new rules “aim to ensure that when similar quality or speeds are available in the visited network, the domestic operator should ensure the same quality of the roaming service”.

Operators are also required to inform their customers of the quality of services they can expect while roaming by stating this in the roaming contract and publishing information on their website.

The Commission argues that quality of service will be increasingly important as 5G rollouts expand and mobile network technology continues to evolve (its PR includes the phrase “future 6G” — alongside talk of the EU “investing in developing and using innovative digital solutions”).

“As concerns 5G services, it will become more and more important for consumers travelling abroad to know if they could be affected by limitations in available network quality when using certain applications and services,” it suggests. “The new roaming rules aim to enable innovation and business development, ensuring the widest use of innovative services and minimising the risk that citizens would not be able to use certain applications requiring the latest network technology, such as 5G, when crossing internal EU borders.”

The EU’s executive also frames the updated roaming regulation as a boon to digital innovation by reducing the risk of usage disruption since consumers can continuously use their apps and services as they travel across borders in the EU.

The Commission’s PR makes no mention of contrasting recent developments in the UK — which ceased to be an EU Member on January 31 2020, following the 2016 ‘Brexit’ referendum vote to leave the bloc — and where, since the EU roaming regulation ceased to apply, most of the big carriers have quietly announced they will be reintroducing roaming charges for their UK subscribers travelling in the EU.

But UK mobile users are unlikely to have missed the fact that Brexit has meant a return of roaming fees when they want to travel in Europe.

Some Brits may therefore detect a faint trace of trolling in this statement from Thierry Breton, the EU’s commissioner for the internal market, commenting on the extension of fee-free roaming inside the EU, who said: “Remember when we had to switch off mobile data when travelling in Europe — to avoid ending up with a massive roaming bill? Well this is history. And we intend to keep it this way for at least the next 10 years. Better speed, more transparency: We keep improving EU citizens’ lives.”

Transparency

Another focus for the EU’s updated regulation is around increasing transparency about the types of services that can still bring additional costs when roaming, such as calling customer service numbers, helpdesks or insurance companies — to help travellers in the bloc avoid related ‘bill shocks’.

The Commission says consumers who are roaming should receive an SMS about “potential increased charges” from using such services.

“The SMS should include a link to a dedicated webpage providing additional information on the types of services and, if available, about the relevant phone numbering ranges,” it notes, suggesting operators may also include information about the types of services that may be subject to higher charges in roaming in their contracts with the consumers.

The updated rules are also intended to improve information provision about and access to emergency communications across the EU — such as via the single European emergency number, 112.

“Dialing the emergency numbers and transmitting information on the location of the caller while roaming should be seamless and for free. Likewise, citizens who cannot place a call to 112 should be able to access emergency services free of charge through alternative means when roaming, for example through real time text or a smartphone application,” says the Commission.

“The new roaming rules also reinforce access to emergency services, through calls and alternative means of communications in case of cross border use. It will also ensure that the transmission of caller location will be seamless and free of charge while using roaming services.”

The EU is continuing to regulate wholesale caps — controlling the maximum prices a visited operator may charge for the use of its network by another operator in order to provide roaming services — with the Commission describing this as “an essential element for the sustainability of ‘roam like at home’ for operators”. Its review of the roaming market concluded that wholesale caps should be further reduced.

“The co-legislators agreed on a gradual reduction of the wholesale caps from 2022 onwards,” it notes. “These caps reflect decreasing operators’ wholesale costs of providing roaming services, provide sufficient investment incentives and maximise sustainability for EU operators.”

The Commission expects these wholesale cost reductions to lead to benefits for consumers — such as more generous data allowances while roaming and less likelihood of consumers having to pay surcharges for data usage that exceeds contract allowances.

Operators will still be able to apply a ‘fair use’ policy — meaning that if a person moves to live in another EU country it will be better for them to move to a local contract, as permanent roaming is no longer considered ‘fair use’.

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