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WhatsApp has an encrypted child porn problem – TechCrunch

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WhatsApp chat groups are being used to spread illegal child pornography, cloaked by the app’s end-to-end encryption. Without the necessary number of human moderators, the disturbing content is slipping by WhatsApp’s automated systems. A report from two Israeli NGOs reviewed by TechCrunch details how third-party apps for discovering WhatsApp groups include “Adult” sections that offer invite links to join rings of users trading images of child exploitation. TechCrunch has reviewed materials showing many of these groups are currently active.

TechCrunch’s investigation shows that Facebook could do more to police WhatsApp and remove this kind of content. Even without technical solutions that would require a weakening of encryption, WhatsApp’s moderators should have been able to find these groups and put a stop to them. Groups with names like “child porn only no adv” and “child porn xvideos” found on the group discovery app “Group Links For Whats” by Lisa Studio don’t even attempt to hide their nature. And a screenshot provided by anti-exploitation startup AntiToxin reveals active WhatsApp groups with names like “Children 💋👙👙” or “videos cp” — a known abbreviation for ‘child pornography’.

A screenshot from today of active child exploitation groups on WhatsApp. Phone numbers and photos redacted. Provided by AntiToxin.

Better manual investigation of these group discovery apps and WhatsApp itself should have immediately led these groups to be deleted and their members banned. While Facebook doubled its moderation staff from 10,000 to 20,000 in 2018 to crack down on election interference, bullying and other policy violations, that staff does not moderate WhatsApp content. With just 300 employees, WhatsApp runs semi-independently, and the company confirms it handles its own moderation efforts. That’s proving inadequate for policing a 1.5 billion-user community.

The findings from the NGOs Screen Savers and Netivei Reshe were written about today by Financial Times, but TechCrunch is publishing the full report, their translated letter to Facebook, translated emails with Facebook, their police report, plus the names of child pornography groups on WhatsApp and group discovery apps listed above. A startup called AntiToxin Technologies that researches the topic has backed up the report, providing the screenshot above and saying it’s identified more than 1,300 videos and photographs of minors involved in sexual acts on WhatsApp groups. Given that Tumblr’s app was recently temporarily removed from the Apple App Store for allegedly harboring child pornography, we’ve asked Apple if it will temporarily suspend WhatsApp, but have not heard back. 

Uncovering a nightmare

In July 2018, the NGOs became aware of the issue after a man reported to one of their hotlines that he’d seen hardcore pornography on WhatsApp. In October, they spent 20 days cataloging more than 10 of the child pornography groups, their content and the apps that allow people to find them.

The NGOs began contacting Facebook’s head of Policy, Jordana Cutler, starting September 4th. They requested a meeting four times to discuss their findings. Cutler asked for email evidence but did not agree to a meeting, instead following Israeli law enforcement’s guidance to instruct researchers to contact the authorities. The NGO reported their findings to Israeli police but declined to provide Facebook with their research. WhatsApp only received their report and the screenshot of active child pornography groups today from TechCrunch.

Listings from a group discovery app of child exploitation groups on WhatsApp. URLs and photos have been redacted.

WhatsApp tells me it’s now investigating the groups visible from the research we provided. A Facebook spokesperson tells TechCrunch, “Keeping people safe on Facebook is fundamental to the work of our teams around the world. We offered to work together with police in Israel to launch an investigation to stop this abuse.” A statement from the Israeli Police’s head of the Child Online Protection Bureau, Meir Hayoun, notes that: “In past meetings with Jordana, I instructed her to always tell anyone who wanted to report any pedophile content to contact the Israeli police to report a complaint.”

A WhatsApp spokesperson tells me that while legal adult pornography is allowed on WhatsApp, it banned 130,000 accounts in a recent 10-day period for violating its policies against child exploitation. In a statement, WhatsApp wrote that:

WhatsApp has a zero-tolerance policy around child sexual abuse. We deploy our most advanced technology, including artificial intelligence, to scan profile photos and images in reported content, and actively ban accounts suspected of sharing this vile content. We also respond to law enforcement requests around the world and immediately report abuse to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Sadly, because both app stores and communications services are being misused to spread abusive content, technology companies must work together to stop it.

But it’s that over-reliance on technology and subsequent under-staffing that seems to have allowed the problem to fester. AntiToxin’s CEO Zohar Levkovitz tells me, “Can it be argued that Facebook has unwittingly growth-hacked pedophilia? Yes. As parents and tech executives we cannot remain complacent to that.”

Automated moderation doesn’t cut it

WhatsApp introduced an invite link feature for groups in late 2016, making it much easier to discover and join groups without knowing any members. Competitors like Telegram had benefited as engagement in their public group chats rose. WhatsApp likely saw group invite links as an opportunity for growth, but didn’t allocate enough resources to monitor groups of strangers assembling around different topics. Apps sprung up to allow people to browse different groups by category. Some usage of these apps is legitimate, as people seek communities to discuss sports or entertainment. But many of these apps now feature “Adult” sections that can include invite links to both legal pornography-sharing groups as well as illegal child exploitation content.

A WhatsApp spokesperson tells me that it scans all unencrypted information on its network — basically anything outside of chat threads themselves — including user profile photos, group profile photos and group information. It seeks to match content against the PhotoDNA banks of indexed child pornography that many tech companies use to identify previously reported inappropriate imagery. If it finds a match, that account, or that group and all of its members, receive a lifetime ban from WhatsApp.

A WhatsApp group discovery app’s listings of child exploitation groups on WhatsApp

If imagery doesn’t match the database but is suspected of showing child exploitation, it’s manually reviewed. If found to be illegal, WhatsApp bans the accounts and/or groups, prevents it from being uploaded in the future and reports the content and accounts to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The one example group reported to WhatsApp by Financial Times was already flagged for human review by its automated system, and was then banned along with all 256 members.

To discourage abuse, WhatsApp says it limits groups to 256 members and purposefully does not provide a search function for people or groups within its app. It does not encourage the publication of group invite links and the vast majority of groups have six or fewer members. It’s already working with Google and Apple to enforce its terms of service against apps like the child exploitation group discovery apps that abuse WhatsApp. Those kind of groups already can’t be found in Apple’s App Store, but remain available on Google Play. We’ve contacted Google Play to ask how it addresses illegal content discovery apps and whether Group Links For Whats by Lisa Studio will remain available, and will update if we hear back. [Update 3pm PT: Google has not provided a comment but the Group Links For Whats app by Lisa Studio has been removed from Google Play. That’s a step in the right direction.]

But the larger question is that if WhatsApp was already aware of these group discovery apps, why wasn’t it using them to track down and ban groups that violate its policies. A spokesperson claimed that group names with “CP” or other indicators of child exploitation are some of the signals it uses to hunt these groups, and that names in group discovery apps don’t necessarily correlate to the group names on WhatsApp. But TechCrunch then provided a screenshot showing active groups within WhatsApp as of this morning, with names like “Children 💋👙👙” or “videos cp”. That shows that WhatsApp’s automated systems and lean staff are not enough to prevent the spread of illegal imagery.

The situation also raises questions about the trade-offs of encryption as some governments like Australia seek to prevent its usage by messaging apps. The technology can protect free speech, improve the safety of political dissidents and prevent censorship by both governments and tech platforms. However, it also can make detecting crime more difficult, exacerbating the harm caused to victims.

WhatsApp’s spokesperson tells me that it stands behind strong end-to-end encryption that protects conversations with loved ones, doctors and more. They said there are plenty of good reasons for end-to-end encryption and it will continue to support it. Changing that in any way, even to aid catching those that exploit children, would require a significant change to the privacy guarantees it’s given users. They suggested that on-device scanning for illegal content would have to be implemented by phone makers to prevent its spread without hampering encryption.

But for now, WhatsApp needs more human moderators willing to use proactive and unscalable manual investigation to address its child pornography problem. With Facebook earning billions in profit per quarter and staffing up its own moderation ranks, there’s no reason WhatsApp’s supposed autonomy should prevent it from applying adequate resources to the issue. WhatsApp sought to grow through big public groups, but failed to implement the necessary precautions to ensure they didn’t become havens for child exploitation. Tech companies like WhatsApp need to stop assuming cheap and efficient technological solutions are sufficient. If they want to make money off huge user bases, they must be willing to pay to protect and police them.

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Bumble files to go public – TechCrunch

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The dating and networking service Bumble has filed to go public.

The company, launched by a former co-founder of the IAC-owned Tinder, plans to list its share on the Nasdaq stock exchange, using the ticker symbol “BMBL.” Bumble’s planned IPO was first reported in December.

Bumble CEO Whitney Wolfe Herd was on the founding team at Tinder before starting Bumble. She filed suit against Tinder for sexual harassment and discrimination, which was at least somewhat inspirational in her quest to build a dating app that put women in the driver’s seat.

In 2019, Wolfe Herd took the helm of MagicLab, renamed to Bumble Group, in a $3 billion deal with Blackstone, replacing Badoo founder and CEO Andrey Andreev following a harassment scandal at the firm.

The company is targeting the public markets at a particularly heady time for new offerings, with investors embracing venture-backed IPOs throughout late 2020 and the start of 2021. Previously privately held companies like Airbnb, Affirm, and others have seen their fortunes soar on the back of prices that public investors are willing to pay, perhaps inducing more IPO filings than the market might have otherwise seen.

You can read its IPO filing here. TechCrunch will have its usual tear-down of the document later today, but we have pulled some top-line numbers for you to kick off your own research.

But before we do, the company’s board makeup, namely that it is over 70% women is already drawing plaudits. Now, into its numbers.

Inside Bumble’s IPO filing

Let’s consider Bumble from three perspectives: Usage, financial results, and ownership.

On the usage front, Bumble is popular, as you would imagine a dating would have to be to reach the scale required to go public. The company claims 42 million monthly active users (MAUs) as of Q3 2020 — many companies will try to get public on the strength of their third-quarter results from 2020, as it takes time to close Q4 and the full calendar year.

Those 42 million MAUs translated into 2.4 million total paying users through the first nine months of 2020; the percent, then, of paying users to MAUs is not 2.4 million divided by 42, but a smaller fraction.

Turning to the numbers, recall that Bumble sold a majority of itself a few years back. We bring that up as Bumble’s financial results are complicated thanks to its ownership structure.

After the IPO, Bumble Inc. will “be a holding company, and its sole material asset will be a controlling equity interest in Bumble Holdings,” per the S-1 filing. So, how is Bumble Holdings doing?

Medium? Doing the sums ourselves as the company’s S- 1 is fraught with accounting nuances, in the first nine months of 2019, Bumble managed the following:

  • Revenues of $362.6 million
  • Net income of $68.6 million

And then, combining two columns to provide a similar set of results for the same period of 2020, Bumble recorded:

  • Revenues of $416.6 million
  • Net income of -$116.7 million

For those following along, we’re using the “Net (loss) earnings” line, for profitability, and not the “Net (loss) earnings attributable to owners / shareholders” as that would require even more explanation and we’re keeping it simple in this first look.

While Bumble saw modest growth in 2020 through Q3 and a sharp swing to losses on a GAAP basis, the company’s adjusted profitability grew over the same time period. The company’s adjusted EBITDA, a very non-GAAP metric, expanded from $80.0 million in the first three quarters of 2019 to $108.3 million in the same period of 2020.

While we are generally willing to allow quickly-growing companies some leniency when it comes to adjusted metrics, the gap between Bumble’s GAAP losses and its EBITDA results is a stress-test of our compassion. Bumble also swung from free cash flow positivity during the first nine months of 2019 to the first quarters of 2020.

If you extrapolate Bumble’s Q1, Q2, and Q3 revenue to a full-year number, the company could manage $555.5 million in 2020 revenues. Even at a modest software-ish multiple, the company would be worth more than the $3 billion figure that we discussed before.

However, its sharp unprofitability in 2020 could damper its eventual valuation. More as we dig more deeply into the filing.

Finally, on the ownership question the company’s filing is surprisingly denuded of data. Its principal shareholder section looks like this:

When we know more, we’ll share more. Until then, happy S-1 reading.

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Samsung unveils Galaxy S21 line – TechCrunch

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Samsung lowers prices with its latest Galaxy S phones, Google completes its Fitbit acquisition and Beyond Meat is coming to Taco Bell. This is your Daily Crunch for January 14, 2021.

The big story: Samsung unveils Galaxy S21 line

Samsung’s new line of phones includes the S21, S21+ and S21 Ultra, priced at $799, $999 and $1,119 respectively, an across-the-board price cut of $200. Brian Heater writes that the Ultra, in particular, “has one very important trick up its sleeve” — namely compatibility with the S Pen.

All three phones are available for pre-order now and start shipping on January 29.

In addition, Samsung announced the Galaxy Buds Pro, which cost $199 and come with a stated five hours of battery life. And it’s launching a Bluetooth locator, dubbed the Galaxy SmartTag.

The tech giants

Google’s Fitbit acquisition is official — This follows regulatory scrutiny on both sides of the pond.

Amazon’s Ring Neighbors app exposed users’ precise locations and home addresses — The bug made it possible to retrieve the location data on users who posted to the app.

Beyond Meat shares soar after inking deal with Taco Bell on new menu items — Taco Bell announced that it would work with Beyond Meat to come up with new menu items due to be tested in the next year.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Medium acquires social book reading app Glose — Glose has been building iOS, Android and web apps that let you buy, download and read books on your devices.

Tiger Global is raising a new $3.75B venture fund, one year after closing its last — Despite being named Tiger Private Investment Partners XIV, this is actually the firm’s thirteenth fund.

Carbyne raises $25M for a next-generation platform to improve emergency 911 responses — The Israeli startup aims to help emergency services get more complete information about callers, and to provide additional telemedicine services.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

Five consumer hardware VCs share their 2021 investment strategies — Investors are generally bullish on at-home fitness startups.

Poshmark prices IPO above range as public markets continue to YOLO startups — This is the late-2020, early-2021 IPO market in action.

Twelve ‘flexible VCs’ who operate where equity meets revenue share — Founders seeking non-dilutive funding: start here.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

Tech and health companies including Microsoft and Salesforce team up on digital COVID-19 vaccination records — The so-called “Vaccination Credential Initiative” includes a range of big-name companies from both the healthcare and tech industries.

2020 was one of the warmest years in history and indicates mounting risks of climate change — 2020 either edged out or came in just behind 2016 as the warmest year in recorded history, according to data from U.S. government agencies.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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Medium acquires social book reading app Glose – TechCrunch

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Medium is acquiring Paris-based startup Glose for an undisclosed amount. Glose has been building iOS, Android and web apps that let you buy, download and read books on your devices.

The company has turned reading into a multiplayer experience as you can build a bookshelf, share notes with your followers and start conversations in the margins. Sure, there are social platforms that let you talk about books, such as Goodreads. But Glose’s differentiating point is that the social features are intrinsically linked with the reading features — those aren’t two separate platforms. There are also some gamification features that help you stay motivated as you read difficult books — you get streak rewards for instance.

In many ways, Glose’s one-tap highlighting and commenting features are reminiscent of Medium’s features on this front. You can highlight text in any reading app on your phone or tablet but you can’t do much with it.

More recently, Glose has launched a separate service called Glose Education. As the name suggests, that version is tailored for universities and high schools. Teachers can hand out assignments and you can read a book as a group.

Over 1 million people have used Glose and 25 universities have signed up to Glose Education, including Stanford and Columbia University.

But Glose isn’t just a software play. The company has also put together a comprehensive book store. The company has partnered with 20,000 publishers so that you can buy ebooks directly from the app.

And if you are studying Virginia Wolf this semester, Glose also provides hundreds of thousands of public domain books for free. Glose also supports audio books.

This is by far the most interesting part as Medium now plans to expand beyond articles and blogs. While Glose is sticking around for now, Medium also plans to integrate ebooks and audio books to its service.

It’s a smart move as many prolific bloggers are also book writers. Right now, they write a blog post on Medium and link to a third-party site if you want to buy their books. Having the ability to host everything written by an author is a better experience for both content creators and readers.

“We’re impressed not only by Glose’s reading products and technology, but also by their experience in partnering with book authors and publishers,” Medium CEO Ev Williams said in a statement. “Books are a means of exploring an idea, a way to go deeper. The vast majority of the world’s ideas are stored in books and journals, yet are hardly searchable nor shareable. With Glose, we want to improve that experience within Medium’s large network of engaged readers and writers. We look forward to working with the Glose team on partnering with publishers to help authors reach more readers.”

The Glose team will remain in Paris, which means that Medium is opening its first office outside of the U.S. Glose will continue to honor its partnerships with authors, publishers, schools and institutions.

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