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WhatsApp Spam Controls Being Bypassed by Software Tool During India Elections

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WhatsApp clones and software tools that cost as little as $14 (roughly Rs. 1,000) are helping Indian digital marketers and political activists bypass anti-spam restrictions set up by the world’s most popular messaging app, Reuters has found.

The activities highlight the challenges WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, faces in preventing abuse in India, its biggest market with more than 200 million users.

With fervent campaigning in India’s staggered general election, which concludes on May 19, the demand for such tools has surged, according to digital companies and sources in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its main rival, the Congress party.

After false messages on WhatsApp last year sparked mob lynchings in India, the company restricted forwarding of a message to only five users. The software tools appear to overcome those restrictions, allowing users to reach thousands of people at once.

Divya Spandana, the social media chief of the Congress, and the BJP’s IT head, Amit Malviya, did not respond requests for comment.

Rohitash Repswal, who owns a digital marketing business in a cramped, residential neighbourhood of New Delhi, said he ran a Rs. 1,000 ($14) piece of software round-the-clock in recent months to send up to 100,000 WhatsApp messages a day for two BJP members.

“Whatever WhatsApp does, there’s a workaround,” Repswal said during an interview at his small, two-bedroom house.

Reuters found WhatsApp was misused in at least three ways in India for political campaigning: free clone apps available online were used by some BJP and Congress workers to manually forward messages on a mass basis; software tools which allow users to automate delivery of WhatsApp messages; and some firms offering political workers the chance to go onto a website and send bulk WhatsApp messages from anonymous numbers.

Rohitash Repswal shows a software tool that appears to automate the process of sending messages to WhatsApp users

 

At least three software tools were available on Amazon.com’s India website. When purchased by a Reuters reporter, they arrived as compact discs tucked inside thin cardboard casings, with no company branding.

WhatsApp declined a Reuters request to allow testing such tools for reporting this story.

“We are continuing to step up our enforcement against imposter WhatsApp services and take legal action by sending cease and desist letters to hundreds of bulk messaging service providers to help curb abuse,” a spokeswoman said. “We do not want them to operate on our platform and we work to ban them”. 

WhatsApp clones
Modified versions of popular apps have become common as technically-savvy hobbyists have long reverse-engineered them. Tools purporting to bypass WhatsApp restrictions are advertised in videos and online forums aimed at users in Indonesia and Nigeria, both of which held major elections this year.

For Indian politicians, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Twitter are key campaigning tools to target the country’s near 900 million voters.

Two Congress sources and one BJP source told Reuters their workers used clone apps such as “GBWhatsApp” and “JTWhatsApp”, which allowed them to cut through WhatsApp’s restrictions.

Both apps have a green-colour interface that closely resembles WhatsApp and can be downloaded for free from dozens of technology blogs. They are not available on Google’s official app store but work on Android phones.

WhatsApp describes such apps as “unofficial” and says its users can face bans, which means the company can block the account associated with a particular mobile number if it detects unusual activity. Some Congress workers said they did not care.

“WhatsApp occasionally bans some of these numbers, but the volunteers would use new (mobile) sim cards to sign up,” said a Congress member with direct knowledge of the activities.

In Mumbai, a person in the social media team of a senior BJP candidate said no restrictions on JTWhatsApp meant his team could easily send forwards to up to 6,000 people a day, as well as video files containing political content which would be far bigger in size than allowed on the official WhatsApp service.

Reuters was not able to ascertain the overall scale of such activities and found no evidence that BJP and Congress leaders officially ordered workers to campaign this way.

“Business sender”
In New Delhi, digital marketer Repswal said he would typically charge Rs. 150,000 ($2,161) for a month’s service for creating digital content, providing a database of mobile numbers and then sending 300,000 WhatsApp messages.

He uses a piece of software named “Business Sender” which he said he also sells for Rs. 1,000 ($14).

A person can add many mobile numbers in a field and compose messages with pictures. Using a so-called “Group Contacts Grabber” feature, the user can also extract a list of mobile numbers from a particular WhatsApp group with a click of a button.

Repswal didn’t name the two BJP members he worked for, but in a demonstration for Reuters, added dozens of mobile numbers in the software, typed a test message saying “your vote is your right” and hit “send”. Then, his WhatsApp web version started delivering the messages almost robotically, one after the other.

Business Sender was “not supported or endorsed” by WhatsApp and was developed by “Tiger Vikram Mysore INDIA”, its system properties said.

A member of the software support team at Business Sender, Rajesh K., declined to identify the developer by his real name, but said the tool was designed in Lebanon about four months ago and takes advantage of what he called a “loophole” in WhatsApp’s system.

“This is not rocket science or fabricated software,” said Rajesh. “There are hundreds of such software available.”

In April, when a Reuters reporter responded to a text message with an “Election Special” offer of sending 100,000 “bulk WhatsApp” messages for Rs. 7,999 ($115), he was invited to an office in a dusty industrial area of Noida in northern Uttar Pradesh state.

“How many messages you want to send, tell us: 10,000, 1 million, 2 million,” a representative asked, while showing a black-coloured, password-protected website they use for sending bulk WhatsApp messages.

© Thomson Reuters 2019


We discussed what WhatsApp absolutely needs to do in 2019, on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.

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Pinterest tests online events with dedicated ‘class communities’ – TechCrunch

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Pinterest is getting into online events. The company has been spotted testing a new feature that allows users to sign up for Zoom classes through Pinterest, while creators use Pinterest’s class boards to organize class materials, notes and other resources, or even connect with attendees through a group chat option. The company confirmed the test of online classes is an experiment now in development, but wouldn’t offer further details about its plans.

The feature itself was discovered on Tuesday by reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong, who found details about the online classes by looking into the app’s code.

Currently, you can visit some of these “demo” profiles directly — like “@pinsmeditation” or “@pinzoom123,” for example — and view their listed Class Communities. However, these communities are empty when you click through. That’s because the feature is still unreleased, Wong says.

When and if the feature is later launched to the public, the communities would include dedicated sections where creators will be able to organize their class materials — like lists of what to bring to class, notes, photos and more. They could also use these communities to offer a class overview and description, connect users to a related shop, group chat feature and more.

Creators are also able to use the communities — which are basically enhanced Pinterest boards — to respond to questions from attendees, share photos from the class and otherwise interact with the participants.

When a user wants to join a class, they can click a “book” button to sign up, and are then emailed a confirmation with the meeting details. Other buttons direct attendees to download Zoom or copy the link to join the class.

It’s not surprising that Pinterest would expand into the online events space, given its platform has become a popular tool for organizing remote learning resources during the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers have turned to Pinterest to keep track of lesson plans, get inspiration, share educational activities and more. In the early days of the pandemic, Pinterest reported record usage when the company saw more searches and saves globally in a single March weekend than ever before in its history, as a result of its usefulness as a online organizational tool.

This growth has continued throughout the year. In October, Pinterest’s stock jumped on strong earnings after the company beat on revenue and user growth metrics. The company brought in $443 million in revenue, versus $383.5 million expected, and grew its monthly active users to 442 million, versus the 436.4 million expected. Outside of the coronavirus impacts, much of this growth was due to strong international adoption, increased ad spend from advertisers boycotting Facebook and a surge of interest from users looking for iOS 14 home screen personalization ideas.

Given that the U.S. has failed to get the COVID-19 pandemic under control, many classes, events and other activities will remain virtual even as we head into 2021. The online events market may continue to grow in the years that follow, too, thanks to the kickstart the pandemic provided the industry as a whole.

“We are experimenting with ways to help creators interact more closely with their audience,” a Pinterest spokesperson said, when asked for more information.

Pinterest wouldn’t confirm additional details about its plans for online events, but did say the feature was in development and the test would help to inform the product’s direction.

Pinterest often tries out new features before launching them to a wider audience. Earlier this summer, TechCrunch reported on a Story Pins feature the company had in the works. Pinterest then launched the feature in September. If the same time frame holds up for online events, we could potentially see the feature become more widely available sometime early next year.

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Twitter will bring back verification – TechCrunch

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Twitter prepares to hand out more blue checkmarks, YouTube suspends OANN and Discord is raising a big funding round. This is your Daily Crunch for November 24, 2020.

The big story: Twitter will bring back verification

Twitter paused its blue checkmark verification system in 2017 as it faced controversy over who gets verified — specifically over the decision to verify the organizer of the infamous and deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Since then, Twitter has done occasional verifications for medical experts tweeting about COVID-19 and candidates running for public office, but it hasn’t brought back the program in a systematic way.

Now Twitter says it will relaunch verification in 2021, and that it’s currently soliciting feedback on the policy. Initially, verification will focus on six types of accounts: government officials, companies/brands/nonprofits, news, entertainment, sports and activists/organizers/other influential individuals.

The tech giants

YouTube suspends and demonetizes One America News Network over COVID-19 video — YouTube said, “After careful review, we removed a video from OANN and issued a strike on the channel for violating our COVID-19 misinformation policy.”

Instagram businesses and creators may be getting a Messenger-like ‘FAQ’ feature — This new feature will allow people to start conversations with businesses or creators’ accounts by tapping on a commonly asked question within a chat.

Fortnite adds a $12 monthly subscription bundle — The $11.99 monthly Fortnite Crew fee entitles players to a full season battle pass, 1,000 monthly bucks and a Crew Pack featuring an exclusive outfit bundle.

Startups, funding and venture capital

Discord is close to closing a round that would value the company at up to $7B — The new funding comes just months after a $100 million investment that gave the company a $3.5 billion valuation.

Dija, a new delivery startup from former Deliveroo employees, is closing in on a $20M round led by Blossom — Few details are public about Dija, except that it will offer convenience and fresh food delivery using a “dark” convenience store mode.

Marie Ekeland launches 2050, a new fund with radically ambitious, long-term goals —  Ekeland used to be an investor at French VC firm Elaia, where she backed adtech firm Criteo.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

As edtech grows cash rich, some lessons for early stage — The valuation bumps for both Duolingo and Udemy underscore just how much investor confidence there is in edtech’s remote learning boom.

Working to understand C3.ai’s growth story — As its IPO looms, how quickly did C3.ai grow in its October quarter?

Decrypted: Apple and Facebook’s privacy feud, Twitter hires Mudge, mysterious zero-days — Zack Whittaker’s latest roundup of cybersecurity-related news.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which aims to democratize information about startups. And until November 30, you can get 25% off an annual membership.)

Everything else

Biden-Harris team finally get their transition .gov domain — This comes after the General Services Administration gave the green light for the Biden-Harris team to transition from political campaign to government administration.

India bans 43 more Chinese apps over cybersecurity concerns — India is not done banning Chinese apps.

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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Twitter to relaunch account verifications in early 2021, asks for feedback on policy – TechCrunch

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Twitter announced today it’s planning to relaunch its verification system in 2021, and will now begin the process of soliciting public feedback on the new policy ahead of its implementation. Under the policy, Twitter will initially verify six types of accounts, including those belonging to government officials; companies, brands and nonprofit organizations; news; entertainment; sports; and activists, organizers and other influential individuals. The number of categories could expand in time.

Twitter’s verification system, which provides a blue checkmark to designate accounts belonging to public figures, was paused in 2017 as the company tried to address confusion over what it meant to be verified.

The issue at the time was that Twitter had verified the account belonging to Jason Keller, the person who organized the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In response to the wave of criticism directed at Twitter as a result of this action, the company defended its decision by pointing to its policies around account verification, which explained its blue badges were awarded to accounts of “public interest.”

Critics argued that genuinely noteworthy figures were still struggling to get their own accounts verified, and that verifying a known white supremacist was not something that should ever be in the “public interest.” As a result, Twitter in November 2017 decided to pause all account verifications.

The following year, the company announced work on the verification system would be placed on a longer, more indefinite hold, so Twitter could direct its resources to focus on election integrity. That proved to be a significant undertaking, as it turned out.

Though the company this year verified medical experts tweeting about COVID-19 and labeled candidates running for public office, these efforts were managed in more of a one-off fashion.

Now, with the 2020 U.S. presidential election having wrapped, and with a transition underway, Twitter says work on its new verification system will finally resume.

The company today shared a draft of its new verification policy in order to gain public feedback. The policy details more specifically which accounts can be verified and introduces additional guidelines that could limit some accounts from receiving the blue badge.

For example, Twitter says the account must be “notable and active,” and the badge won’t be awarded to any accounts with incomplete profiles. Twitter will also deny or remove verification badges from otherwise qualified individuals if their accounts are found to be in repeated violation of the Twitter Rules.

The company additionally admitted it had verified accounts over the years which should not be, as based on these guidelines. To correct this, Twitter will begin to automatically remove badges from accounts that are inactive or have incomplete profiles, to help it streamline its work going forward.

The policy also lays out specifics about how it will determine whether an account in a supported category will qualify.

For example, news organizations will have to adhere to professional standards for journalism, and independent or freelance journalists will need to provide at least three bylines in qualifying organizations published in the last six months. Entertainers will need to be able to point to credits on their IMDb page or to references in verified news publications. Government officials will need to show a public reference on an official government website, party website or multiple references by news media. Sports figures will have to appear on team websites, rosters or in sports data services like Sportradar. There are a few other ways to be verified in these categories, too.

The guidelines for public figures are more detailed, as they must meet two different criteria for “notability” — one that quantifies their Twitter activity and another that highlights their off-Twitter notability, like a Wikipedia page, Google Trends profile, profile on an official advocacy site and more.

“We know we can’t solve verification with a new policy alone — and that this initial policy won’t cover every case for being verified — but it is a critical first step in helping us provide more transparency and fairer standards for verification on Twitter as we reprioritize this work,” a company announcement stated. “This version of the policy is a starting point, and we intend to expand the categories and criteria for verification significantly over the next year,” it noted.

Twitter users will be able to offer feedback on the new verification policy starting today, November 24, 2020, and continuing through December 8, 2020. The policy is being made available in English, Hindi, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese. Users can either respond to the survey Twitter has posted or they can choose to tweet their feedback publicly, using the hashtag #VerificationFeedback.

In addition, Twitter says it’s working with local non-governmental organizations and its Trust and Safety Council to gain a range of other perspectives.

After December 8, 2020, Twitter will train its team on the new policy and introduce the final version by Decemeber 17, 2020. The verification system itself, which will include a new public application process, will begin in early 2021.

Though Twitter is giving itself time to make policy changes based on public feedback, it had already begun to develop the underlying technology for the verification application process.

Twitter confirmed to TechCrunch this June it was in the process of building a new in-app system for requesting verification. The feature had been found buried in the app’s code by reverse engineer Jane Manchun Wong, who tweeted a screenshot of a new option, “Request Verification,” that appeared under Twitter’s account settings. At the time, Twitter wouldn’t confirm when the new system would go live.

Though not everyone will qualify for verification, Twitter says it’s working on other features that will help to better distinguish accounts on its platform. Also in 2021, the company will introduce new account types and labels that will help Twitter users identify themselves on their profiles. More details on these features will be announced in the weeks to come, Twitter says.

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