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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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Android’s winter update adds new features to Gboard, Maps, Books, Nearby Share and more – TechCrunch

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Google announced this morning Android phones will receive an update this winter that will bring some half-dozen new features to devices, including improvements to apps like Gboard, Google Play Books, Voice Access, Google Maps, Android Auto, and Nearby Share. The release is the latest in a series of update bundles that now allow Android devices to receive new features outside of the usual annual update cycle.

The bundles may not deliver Android’s latest flagship features, but they offer steady improvements on a more frequent basis.

One of the more fun bits in the winter update will include a change to “Emoji Kitchen,” the feature in the Gboard keyboard app that lets users combine their favorite emoji to create new ones that can be shared as customized stickers. To date, users have remixed emoji over 3 billion times since the feature launched earlier this year, Google says. Now, the option is being expanded. Instead of offering hundreds of design combinations, it will offer over 14,000. You’ll also be able to tap two emoji to see suggested combinations or double tap on one emoji to see other suggestions.

Image Credits: Google

This updated feature had been live in the Gboard beta app, but will now roll out to Android 6.0 and above devices in the weeks ahead.

Another update will expand audiobook availability on Google Play Books. Now, Google will auto-generate narrations for books that don’t offer an audio version. The company says it worked with publishers in the U.S. and U.K. to add these auto-narrated books to Google Play Books. The feature is in beta but will roll out to all publishers in early 2021.

An accessibility feature that lets people use and navigate their phone with voice commands, Voice Access, will also be improved. The feature will soon leverage machine learning to understand interface labels on devices. This will allow users to refer to things like the “back” and “more” buttons, and many others by name when they are speaking.

The new version of Voice Access, now in beta, will be available to all devices worldwide running Android 6.0 or higher.

An update for Google Maps will add a new feature to one of people’s most-used apps.

In a new (perhaps Waze-inspired) “Go Tab,” users will be able to more quickly navigate to frequently visited places — like a school or grocery store, for example — with a tap. The app will allow users to see directions, live traffic trends, disruptions on the route, and gives an accurate ETA, without having to type in the actual address. Favorite places — or in the case of public transit users, specific routes — can be pinned in the Go Tab for easy access. Transit users will be able to see things like accurate departure and arrival times, alerts from the local transit agency, and an up-to-date ETA.

Image Credits: Google

One potentially helpful use case for this new feature would be to pin both a transit route and driving route to the same destination, then compare their respective ETAs to pick the faster option.

This feature is coming to both Google Maps on Android as well as iOS in the weeks ahead.

Android Auto will expand to more countries over the next few months. Google initially said it would reach 36 countries, but then updated the announcement language as the timing of the rollout was pushed back. The company now isn’t saying how many countries will gain access in the months to follow or which ones, so you’ll need stay tuned for news on that front.

Image Credits: Google

The final change is to Nearby Share, the proximity-based sharing feature that lets users share things like links, files, photos and and more even when they don’t have a cellular or Wi-Fi connection available. The feature, which is largely designed with emerging markets in mind, will now allow users to share apps from Google Play with people around them, too.

To do so, you’ll access a new “Share Apps” menu in “Manage Apps & Games” in the Google Play app. This feature will roll out in the weeks ahead.

Some of these features will begin rolling out today, so you may receive them earlier than a timeframe of several “weeks,” but the progress of each update will vary.

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iPhones can now automatically recognize and label buttons and UI features for blind users – TechCrunch

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Apple has always gone out of its way to build features for users with disabilities, and Voiceover on iOS is an invaluable tool for anyone with a vision impairment — assuming every element of the interface has been manually labeled. But the company just unveiled a brand new feature that uses machine learning to identify and label every button, slider, and tab automatically.

Screen Recognition, available now in iOS 14, is a computer vision system that has been trained on thousands of images of apps in use, learning what a button looks like, what icons mean, and so on. Such systems are very flexible — depending on the data you give them, they can become expert at spotting cats, facial expressions, or as in this case the different parts of a user interface.

The result is that in any app now, users can invoke the feature and a fraction of a second later every item on screen will be labeled. And by “every,” they mean every — after all, screen readers need to be aware of every thing that a sighted user would see and be able to interact with, from images (which iOS has been able to create one-sentence summaries of for some time) to common icons (home, back) and context-specific ones like “…” menus that appear just about everywhere.

The idea is not to make manual labeling obsolete — developers know best how to label their own apps, but updates, changing standards, and challenging situations (in-game interfaces, for instance) can lead to things not being as accessible as they could be.

I chatted with Chris Fleizach from Apple’s iOS accessibility engineering team, and Jeff Bigham from the AI/ML accessibility team, about the origin of this extremely helpful new feature. (It’s described in a paper due to be presented next year.)

“We looked for areas where we can make inroads on accessibility, like image descriptions,” said Fleizach. “In iOS 13 we labeled icons automatically – Screen Recognition takes it another step forward. We can look at the pixels on screen and identify the hierarchy of objects you can interact with, and all of this happens on device within tenths of a second.”

The idea is not a new one, exactly; Bigham mentioned a screen reader, Outspoken, which years ago attempted to use pixel-level data to identify UI elements. But while that system needed precise matches, the fuzzy logic of machine learning systems and the speed of iPhones’ built-in AI accelerators means that Screen Recognition is much more flexible and powerful.

It wouldn’t have been possibly just a couple years ago — the state of machine learning and the lack of a dedicated unit for executing it meant that something like this would have been extremely taxing on the system, taking much longer and probably draining the battery all the while.

But once this kind of system seemed possible, the team got to work prototyping it with the help of their dedicated accessibility staff and testing community.

“VoiceOver has been the standard bearer for vision accessibility for so long. If you look at the steps in development for Screen Recognition, it was grounded in collaboration across teams — Accessibility throughout, our partners in data collection and annotation, AI/ML, and, of course, design. We did this to make sure that our machine learning development continued to push toward an excellent user experience,” said Bigham.

It was done by taking thousands of screenshots of popular apps and games, then manually labeling them as one of several standard UI elements. This labeled data was fed to the machine learning system, which soon became proficient at picking out those same elements on its own.

It’s not as simple as it sounds — as humans, we’ve gotten quite good at understanding the intention of a particular graphic or bit of text, and so often we can navigate even abstract or creatively designed interfaces. It’s not nearly as clear to a machine learning model, and the team had to work with it to create a complex set of rules and hierarchies that ensure the resulting screen reader interpretation makes sense.

The new capability should help make millions of apps more accessible, or just accessible at all, to users with vision impairments. You can turn it on by going to Accessibility settings, then VoiceOver, then VoiceOver Recognition, where you can turn on and off image, screen, and text recognition.

It would not be trivial to bring Screen Recognition over to other platforms, like the Mac, so don’t get your hopes up for that just yet. But the principle is sound, though the model itself is not generalizable to desktop apps, which are very different from mobile ones. Perhaps others will take on that task; the prospect of AI-driven accessibility features is only just beginning to be realized.

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VSCO acquires mobile app Trash to expand into AI-powered video editing – TechCrunch

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VSCO, the popular photo and video editing app, today announced it has acquired AI-powered video editing app Trash, as the company pushes further into the video market. The deal will see Trash’s technology integrated into the VSCO app in the months ahead, with the goal of making it easier for users to creatively edit their videos.

Trash, which was co-founded by Hannah Donovan and Genevieve Patterson, cleverly uses artificial intelligence technology to analyze multiple video clips and identify the most interesting shots. It then stitches your clips together automatically to create a final product. In May, Trash added a feature called Styles that let users pick the type of video they wanted to make — like a recap, a narrative, a music video or something more artsy.

After Trash creates its AI-powered edit, users can opt to further tweak the footage using buttons on the screen that let them change the order of the clips, change filters, adjust the speed or swap the background music.

Image Credits: Trash

With the integration of Trash’s technology, VSCO envisions a way to make video editing even more approachable for newcomers, while still giving advanced users tools to dig in and do more edits, if they choose. As VSCO co-founder and CEO Joel Flory explains, it helps users get from that “point zero of staring at their Camera Roll…to actually putting something together as fast as possible.”

“Trash gets you to the starting point, but then you can dive into it and tweak [your video] to really make it your own,” he says.

The first feature to launch from the acquisition will be support for multi-clip video editing, expected in a few months. Over time, VSCO expects to roll out more of Trash’s technologies to its user base. As users make their video edits, they may also be able to save their collection of tweaks as “recipes,” like VSCO currently supports for photos.

“Trash brings to VSCO a deep level of personalization, machine learning and computer vision capabilities for mobile that we believe can power all aspects of creation on VSCO, both now and for future investments in creativity,” says Flory.

The acquisition is the latest in a series of moves VSCO has made to expand its video capabilities.

At the end of 2019, VSCO picked up video technology startup Rylo. A few months later, it had leveraged the investment to debut Montage, a set of tools that allowed users to tell longer video stories using scenes, where they could also stack and layer videos, photos, colors and shapes to create a collage-like final product. The company also made a change to its app earlier this year to allow users to publish their videos to the main VSCO feed, which had previously only supported photos.

More recently, VSCO has added new video effects, like slowing down, speeding up or reversing clips and new video capture modes.

As with its other video features, the new technology integrations from Trash will be subscriber-only features.

Today, VSCO’s subscription plan costs $19.99 per year, and provides users with access to the app’s video editing capabilities. Currently, more than 2 million of VSCO’s 100 million+ registered users are paid subscribers. And, as a result of the cost-cutting measures and layoffs VSCO announced earlier this year, the company has now turned things around to become EBITDA positive in the second half of 2020. The company says it’s on the path to profitability, and additional video features like those from Trash will help.

Image Credits: Trash

VSCO’s newer focus on video isn’t just about supporting VSCO’s business model, however, it’s also about positioning the company for the future. While the app grew popular during the Instagram era, today’s younger users are more often posting videos to TikTok instead. According to Apple, TikTok was the No. 2 most downloaded free app of the year — ahead of Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat.

Though VSCO doesn’t necessarily envision itself as only a TikTok video prep tool, it does have to consider that growing market. Similar to TikTok, VSCO’s user base consists of a younger, Gen Z demographic; 75% of VSCO’s user base is under 25, for example, and 55% of its subscribers are also under 25. Combined, its user base creates more than 8 million photos and videos per day, VSCO says.

As a result of the acquisition, Trash’s standalone app will shut down on December 18.

Donovan will join VSCO as Director of Product and Patterson as Sr. Staff Software Engineer, Machine Learning. Other Trash team members, including Karina Bernacki, Chihyu Chang and Drew Olbrich, will join as Chief of Staff, Engineering Manager and Sr. Software Engineer for iOS, respectively.

“We both believe in the power of creativity to have a healthy and positive impact on people’s lives,” said Donovan, in Trash’s announcement. “Additionally, we have similar audiences of Gen Z casual creators; and are focused on giving people ways to express themselves and share their version of the world while feeling seen, safe, and supported,” she said.

Trash had raised a total of $3.3 million — a combination of venture capital and $500,000 in grants — from BBG, Betaworks, Precursor and Dream Machine, as well as the National Science Foundation. (Multiple TechCrunch connections here: BBG is backed by our owner Verizon Media, while Dream Machine is the fund created by former TechCrunch editor Alexia Bonatsos.)

“Han and Gen and the Trash team have always paid attention to the needs of creators first and foremost. My hope is that the VSCO and Trash partnership will turn all of us into creators, and turn the gigabytes of latent videos on our phones from trash to treasures,” said Bonatsos, in a statement about the deal.

Flory declined to speak to the deal price, but characterized the acquisition as a “win-win for both the Trash team and for VSCO.”

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