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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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India’s Uolo raises $22.5M to bring edtech to the masses • TechCrunch

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Uolo, an Indian edtech platform that works with private K-12 schools to offer online learning programs to middle and low-income families, has raised $22.5 million in a funding round led by UAE-headquartered VC fund Winter Capital.

The vast majority of edtech startups operate in a business-to-consumer model and spend on ads to reach the parents and guardians of the students.

Uolo says it is reducing that cost by operating in a business-to-business-to-consumer model, working with private schools to let them offer online learning programs to their students and levy the charges as part of the school fees. The startup’s programs are also designed in tandem with the curricula of the partnered schools, making it easier for students to double down on learning the same lessons.

The Gurugram-based startup develops and provides tailor-made learning programs in coding and English speaking. Students can access these programs on their parents’ smartphones.

“We take edtech to the masses of India. And when we do that, the idea is that you make it cheap enough, affordable enough for people to be able to take it for their children,” said Pallav Pandey, chief executive of Uolo, in an interview with TechCrunch.

He said that the startup is able to provide its offerings to students at much more affordable prices.

Schools tying up with Uolo get an ERP platform called the Uolo School Platform for free. It works as a unified platform where schools can access fee management, report card management and attendance management on a single dashboard.

The ERP platform functions as an entry gate for Uolo as it allows the startup to create an ecosystem once schools start using it. This encourages parents or guardians to use the app to receive communications directly from schools — instead of using typical communication channels such as WhatsApp groups.

“What we have been able to do is get schools and students on one end of the platform, so now we need to get digital learning to flow through us,” Pandey said.

Founded in September 2020 by Pandey and his brother Ankur, Uolo has partnered with more than 8,500 schools across India and currently reaches 3.7 million students.

The $22.5 million funding has come through an equity-debt mix Series A round, seeing participation from Uolo’s existing investors Blume Ventures and new Dubai-based fund Morphosis Venture Capital — alongside Winter Capital. Although exact details of the equity and debt percentage involved were not disclosed, Pandey told TechCrunch that the debt element was in the form of optionally convertible debentures that would convert into equity over time.

The startup, which employs about 350 individuals, plans to utilize the investment to widen its reach to 50,000 schools across India over the next four years and expand its learning programs with courses across STEAM subjects in the coming months. For the latter part, it is looking to partner with education companies as well as people and entities developing high-quality content.

“The first wave of edtech companies in India have proven consumer interest in online education. However, they lacked a cost-effective distribution. We believe that there will be a new generation of edtech companies capable of building organic, low-cost distribution, allowing students to study at $10 per year rather than $10 per hour. Our investment in Uolo is based on our confidence in this type of company,” said Anton Farlenkov, Managing Director of Winter Capital, in a prepared statement.

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Oh no, they added NFTs to Winamp • TechCrunch

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Winamp version 5.9.1 is here, rejoice! The venerable — nay, aged — but reliable media player has been receiving sporadic updates over the last couple decades, but little truly new functionality has appeared (and that’s just fine by us users). But this new version brings an unexpected and thankfully optional feature: NFT playback.

No, this doesn’t just read out the current valuation of your various square avatars; NFT-type tech has been applied to music as well, offering the capability of limited releases of digital tracks the way you might have a limited vinyl run. At least that’s the idea — I don’t think it’s quite caught on, and with the cryptocurrency world currently in disarray, it’s hard to blame anyone for declining to take part in a potentially risky ecosystem.

“Winamp was a key part of the first digital music innovation, when mp3s changed the way we listen and enjoy music. Now we’re supporting the leading edge of the next one, as more and more artists explore web3 and its potential,” said Winamp CEO Alexandre Saboundjian in a press release.

As you may recall, Winamp was purchased by Radionomy in 2014, and in 2018 a new effort was announced to revivify the brand. The idea, Saboundjian told me at the time, was to act as a unifying layer for all the music services out there, so whether you use Apple Music or Spotify or Tidal or all three, you can just open Winamp and select a track or playlist. It opens up in a different interface, though.

Image Credits: Winamp

That unified experience hasn’t exactly come to pass. In fact the redone app still counts an equalizer among its “coming soon” features. So it’s a little odd to hear that a functioning NFT layer arrived first:

Winamp’s latest version lets music fans link their Metamask wallet via Brave, Chrome, or Firefox to Winamp. It then connects their favorite music NFTs to their tried-and-true player. Winamp supports audio and video files distributed under both the ERC-721and ERC-1155 standards, and is launching this new feature for Ethereum and Polygon/Matic protocols.

To be clear, the fabled new unified player still seems to be a distant prospect. It’s the original, old-school player that’s getting the new feature, alongside a boatload of bug fixes and optimizations. The changes are listed, as they pretty much always have been, in a post on the Winamp forum, followed by ardent thanks from the community and obscure bug reports.

I for one am grateful that this piece of software is still actively maintained. I won’t be using the NFT function, but it’s just one of many things added in 5.9.1, and as soon as the rest of the Winamp users (there are dozens of us!) get around to testing it for me, I’ll go ahead and download it. After all, it really still whips the llama’s ass.

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6 extremely online books to gift your most internet-obsessed friends • TechCrunch

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I like the internet. There, I said it. I spend my entire day writing about the internet, and then in my leisure time, I read books about how the internet shapes our lives. I might have a work-life balance problem, but I can’t help it. I mean, music journalists still listen to music, right? Chefs still cook at home? So I can enjoy some critical thinking about the internet in my spare time, as a treat. After all, internet culture is just flat out culture at this point, and hey, who doesn’t consume culture?

Should I go outside and touch grass? Probably! But I can touch grass while reading a book, duh. Plus, I’m pretty sure that none of these books mention Elon Musk, so if that’s not a sell for you in this day in age, I don’t know what is.

This article contains links to affiliate partners where available. When you buy through these links, TechCrunch may earn an affiliate commission.

“README.txt” by Chelsea Manning

Image Credits: Macmillan

“The free internet at Barnes & Noble is… not fast,” begins Chelsea Manning’s memoir. In the midst of a snowstorm in early 2010, Manning sent over 700,000 classified and sensitive documents to WikiLeaks that she smuggled off of U.S. Army computers while serving as an intelligence analyst. Of course, this is a story we already know, since it’s been in and out of the news for the last twelve years: Manning’s leaks revealed the true nature of U.S. military action in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Manning’s book lets us hear her side of the story: how homophobia and abuse in her childhood home drove her to join the army in the first place; the pain she endured while serving in the army as a then-closeted transgender woman in the era of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell; and how she risked her life to share information that she believed the public desperately needed to access.

Manning’s life is far from ordinary — she’s a famous, highly controversial whistleblower who spent 7 years in prison and publicly transitioned while in custody. But the internet is a surprisingly ordinary through-line in her story (she even describes herself as “extremely online” in the book). Like so many queer people, Manning found solace and community on the internet, where anonymity helped her explore her identity when it wasn’t safe (or legal, in the case of the military at the time) to be herself IRL.

Price: $19 from Amazon

“Everything I Need I Get From You” by Kaitlyn Tiffany

Image Credits: Macmillan

I was never a One Direction stan, but as someone who simply existed on the internet in the early 2010s, I sure felt the influence of those five British boys. No one could escape One Direction at the height of their popularity, and as Kaitlyn Tiffany argues in “Everything I Need I Get From You,” this wasn’t just an era of silly girls screaming their heads off because Harry Styles is cute. As they forged community and manipulated chart numbers together, One Direction fans made it abundantly clear that nothing is more powerful than a highly-coordinated campaign of teenage fans with internet access. Remember when K Pop fans pranked a Tulsa Trump rally with thousands of false registrations? Or just weeks ago, when Taylor Swift fans directed politicians’ attention to the potential antitrust problems at Ticketmaster? Fan culture is ubiquitous on the internet and shapes how we use it — if you disagree, you’re not looking hard enough.

One Direction fandom wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. Tiffany writes about the sinister undercurrents of some fandom spaces, including the conspiracy theory of Larry Stylinson, which claims that Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson were secretly in love but barred by their management from going public. Proponents of this theory crossed… several lines, and Tiffany points out how the way they spread the theory — like convincing each other that the media is spreading fake news to cover up the truth of the affair — mirrors the way that more dire political conspiracies take root. Yikes.

Even if you were never a “directioner,” this book is a deeply engaging read. And, I’m sorry, but is there any song ever written that’s catchier than “What Makes You Beautiful”? You don’t know-oh-oh!

Price: $17 from Bookshop.org

“Monster Kids: How Pokémon Taught a Generation to Catch Them All” by Daniel Dockery

Image Credits: Running Press

I love Pokémon almost as much as I love the internet. So, naturally, I was delighted to get my hands on a copy of Daniel Dockery’s nonfiction book “Monster Kids,” which chronicles the phenomenon surrounding Pokémon (and by extension, the “monster collecting” genre of media).

While reading “Monster Kids,” I found myself live-texting my friends fun facts that I never knew about Pokémon. My personal favorite bit of trivia is that the Pokémon franchise was initially struggling to catch on in the West, so in an elaborate marketing stunt, Nintendo held an event in Topeka, Kansas called… ToPikachu. At the event, 700 Pikachu plushes were dropped from the air, but that wasn’t all — ten skydivers also descended from an aircraft, then hopped into Pikachu-branded cars and drove away, oozing with style.

This book is full of jaw-dropping anecdotes about the early days of the Pokémon franchise (come on… Topikachu!?), but Dockery unifies these stories to comprehensively explain how the exceptionally-mega-popular video game franchise got to where it is today. And where is it today? Still as mega-popular as ever, and with the same amount of glitches. You still can’t find a Mew under the truck, though.

Price: $16 from Amazon

“She Memes Well” by Quinta Brunson

Image Credits: Harper Collins

If you’re not watching “Abbott Elementary,” what are you doing? But before she was the star and showrunner of the ABC sitcom, Quinta Brunson was a meme.

Well, she was more than that. She was a writer and comedian trying to make it in a cut-throat LA industry. But she got her big break when she started posting a series of clips as “the girl who’s never been on a nice date,” playing a character who’s flattered by men doing the bare minimum. Remember “he got money?” That girl is now an Emmy winner.

“She Memes Well” is a series of comedic, yet emotional essays that chart Brunson’s rising star — she writes about her (good and less-good) experiences in the Philly public school system, failed relationships, learning to cook, you name it. Like “Abbott Elementary,” Brunson’s essays are laugh-out-loud funny, yet they also illuminate the systemic barriers that she had to face to become a Philly kid with an Emmy. Go Quinta, and go birds!

Price: $14 from Harper Collins

“How Sex Changed the Internet and the Internet Changed Sex” by Samantha Cole

Image Credits: Workman

We’re not kidding when we say that sex is what powers innovation on the internet. VICE writer Samantha Cole’s new nonfiction book is proof of that: do you know what a Playboy centerfold and the creation of the JPEG have in common?

I read a galley of Cole’s book while preparing to interview the CEO of OnlyFans at TechCrunch Disrupt. It was a good way to brush up on legal issues impacting sex on the internet, like Section 230 and SESTA/FOSTA — but more than anything, it was just a really interesting read that gave me a much deeper appreciation for the history of the internet and sex. I learned about the stories of internet pioneers like Jennifer Ringley, who’s regarded as either a conceptual artist or the first camgirl, depending on who you ask. Ringley wrote a script that took photos through a webcam in her college dorm and posted them online — this started in 1996, far before streaming live video would have been an option. Ringley didn’t censor private moments in her life, but it wasn’t necessarily a sexual project: just a person living her life. Yet after seven years of meticulously documenting her life, Ringley shut down JenniCam after PayPal updated its guidelines to prohibit nudity.

Ringley’s story is just one fascinating internet artifact retold in Cole’s book. As the title of the book suggests… turns out that sex changed the internet!

Price: $30 from Amazon

“Because Internet” by Gretchen McCulloch

Image Credits: Riverhead Books

As we watch Twitter fall apart in slow motion, I’m thinking of something I learned in “Because Internet”: linguistic researchers love Twitter! Think about it. How often have we had real-time access to data about how people from all around the world talk and type?

“Because Internet” is a geeky, nerdy academic book, but McCulloch writes in such an entertaining, approachable way that it makes me wish I had taken a linguistics class in college. Then again, your typical intro linguistics class probably doesn’t interrogate the language of memes and the punctuation of texts so seriously. But if you have a friend who is constantly inventing new forms of punctuation to denote sarcasm, this book is a must-gift.

Price: $16 from Bookshop.org

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