A blockchain company for the entertainment industry is getting ready to rebrand itself to be about more than blockchain.
SingularDTV, based in Switzerland and New York, has spent the past two years building a platform that lets the creators of movie and music titles a way to get paid directly by fans without using other distribution platforms. Now, ahead of its beta release, it’s renaming itself Breaker as it gets ready to debut a new app for mobile devices and smart TVs, which aims to be an on-demand hub for both funding and watching content. Kerry Fitzmaurice, svp of brand marketing at Breaker, said the company spent the past six months trying to decide how it could move away from the initial brand focused on the promises of blockchain to something that might resonate more with fans who are more about content than technology.
“If we lead with blockchain [or] data sovereignty,”she said. “People will be like ‘I’m going back to Netflix.’”
Early content includes movies produced by Steven Soderbergh and David Lynch, along with songs from DJ Spooky and the singer-songwriter Casey Pearl. It also worked with filmmaker Alex Winter to produce a documentary called “Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain,” which debuted last fall in New York.
“I’m always looking for new ways to increase the transparency of the business while also trying to simplify it,” Soderbergh said in a statement. “If this what the future’s going to look like, I want to be in on it early.”
Fitzmaurice said the original logo had the resemblance of an eye to represent the singularity—a concept of when artificial and human intelligence between indistinguishable—along with the Ethereum logo to represent the blockchain platform used by the company. (Joseph Lubin, the co-founder of Ethereum and the company Consensys, is one of SingularDTV’s founders.)
The new logo—a circular comprised of small lines swirling inward—is meant to represent the “the hive mind” that’s often associated with decentralized marketplaces that blockchain companies and cryptocurrencies so often promise to create.
“If you look at decentralization, it’s about many nodes rather than an entertainment studio or a bank,” she said. “It’s about empowering many.”
AirPods 2 Leak Hints Launch Will Be Later But 2 Cool New Features Still Imminent
Apple’s AirPods have been amazingly successful. They have regularly been praised and consistently big sellers. Some surveys have claimed that AirPods owners have been ecstatic in their appreciation of the in-ear buds, with 98% or respondents either satisfied or very satisfied with them, as reported by Fortune.
There have been plenty of rumors recently suggesting that the second version of AirPods were almost with us. New features such as hands-free “Hey, Siri” were hinted at.
Improved electronics with biometrics and health monitoring were suggested to be on the cards.
And just a couple of days ago, it was rumored that the next AirPods would fix the current models’ problem: that they might slip out of your ears.
The new leak
But now, reliable leaker @OnLeaks has tweeted that we shouldn’t be getting excited about the new, upgraded earbuds just yet.
Now, @OnLeaks correctly predicted the design of the iPad Pro last year, when I was decidedly skeptical, so he has a record of accurate leaks. What he says today sounds promising, apart from one bit, which we’ll come to.
Here’s what he says.
Some #AirPods2 details I got from a new and yet unconfirmed but seemingly reliable source. Thus, I can’t vouch these at 100%… – New wireless charging #AirPods Case to be launched soon BUT shipped with current AirPods – Brand new AirPods + new color(s) likely unveiled this fall
He’s careful to stress this is not certain, but it’s certainly intriguing. I’m sure he’s right that the wireless charging case for AirPods is coming. Well, we know it is on its way because Apple told us about this case over a year ago when it announced the wireless charging pad, AirPower.
It makes perfect sense that the new case would be released when AirPower was – I believe both will be formally unveiled at an Apple special event in March.
As @OnLeaks points out, it would be weird if Apple announced a case for AirPods and then followed up with AirPods 2 shortly afterward.
It’s disappointing that we might have to wait until the Fall for the new version, but at least a new color or colors is something to look forward to.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. AirPods have been incredibly successful, with stock shortages common because of high demand. So, really, why would Apple update them when they’re doing so well?
The bit I don’t quite get – and the 2 cool features
The first cool feature is the wireless-chargeable case to go with AirPower.
The other feature is related to the bit of the rumors I haven’t quite squared.
There’s just one thing, which keeps me hoping the new rumor may be wrong. The latest iOS beta includes a set-up screen so you can use Siri on AirPods hands-free, that is, without touching the earbud to awaken the virtual personal assistant as you do now.
Now, why would that be there if Apple doesn’t believe it’s not going to be used soon?
Maybe the chip in the current AirPods is capable of hands-free, though in that case why hasn’t it surfaced before, if all it needed was a software upgrade?
Or maybe, just maybe, the wireless charging case will come with a gently updated chip inside – what shall we call these, AirPods 1.5?
Which would leave the way clear for a full update in the Fall as this rumor suggests.
To look at it another way, since wireless charging will be a step forward, anything else on top of that will be a proper treat.
I’m keeping my ear glued to every single new credible hint about AirPods 2, so please check back to find out the latest.
New tech-based entertainment concept targets malls, other locations
A concept that combines cutting-edge virtual and augmented reality technologies with the physical world is looking to enter the U.S. market.
Retail leasing specialist R.J. Brunelli & Co. announced that it has been selected by D. Legends Holdings Pte Ltd., the Singapore-based creator of indoor virtual reality theme parks, as exclusive nationwide real estate broker for Legend Heroes Park’s entry into the U.S. market. The concept features a wide range of rides, games, sports, entertainment, and other attractions employing virtual and augmented reality, holograms, motion tracking, projection mapping and 4D+ technologies.
Heroes Park can be adapted to a wide range of building sizes, with the space divided into a series of zones targeting different interests. These range from a junior zone that allows young children to learn and explore through virtual and physical spaces to a sports zone where people of all ages can learn, practice and hone their skills in football, baseball, archery, clay pigeon shooting and other sports. There is also an arcade zone with immersive and interactive arcade games.
For its U.S. entry, the company is seeking big-box locations in major metropolitan markets across the country, including New York, Atlanta, Orlando, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Houston, Chicago, Boston, Denver, San Diego, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Vacant anchor and sub-anchor spaces at regional malls, as well as freestanding or strip center big-boxes are primary targets.
Building requirements call for 30,000- to 40,000-sq.-ft. spaces with a minimum ceiling height of 16-ft. overall, with 40% of the space at least 32-ft. high for rides, noted Julie T. Fox, manager of new tenant representation, R.J. Brunelli. Preferred locations should have five million people within 30 miles, with a one-hour maximum driving distance.
Regional malls are the preferred venue, where the company can absorb vacant sub-anchors or single floors of subdivided department store buildings. Legends Holdings will also consider vacant big-box retail spaces on the periphery of regional malls or in high-profile power centers, strip centers or freestanding highway locations. Other potential venues include warehouse/flex buildings in close proximity to major malls or entertainment complexes.
“At a time when many mall operators are struggling to fill vacant department store spaces, Legend Heroes Park offers a unique entertainment destination use aimed at people of all ages,” said Fox. “In particular, the flexible concept presents a compelling alternative for properties desiring to present new options that can potentially bring back Millennials who have shied away from malls in recent years.”
Facebook pays teens to install VPN that spies on them
Desperate for data on its competitors, Facebook has been secretly paying people to install a “Facebook Research” VPN that lets the company suck in all of a user’s phone and web activity, similar to Facebook’s Onavo Protect app that Apple banned in June and that was removed in August. Facebook sidesteps the App Store and rewards teenagers and adults to download the Research app and give it root access to network traffic in what may be a violation of Apple policy so the social network can decrypt and analyze their phone activity, a TechCrunch investigation confirms.
Facebook admitted to TechCrunch it was running the Research program to gather data on usage habits.
Since 2016, Facebook has been paying users ages 13 to 35 up to $20 per month plus referral fees to sell their privacy by installing the iOS or Android “Facebook Research” app. Facebook even asked users to screenshot their Amazon order history page. The program is administered through beta testing services Applause, BetaBound and uTest to cloak Facebook’s involvement, and is referred to in some documentation as “Project Atlas” — a fitting name for Facebook’s effort to map new trends and rivals around the globe.
After this story was published, Facebook later told TechCrunch it will shut down the iOS version of its Research app in the wake of our report.
On Wednesday, an Apple spokesperson confirmed that Facebook violated its policies.
“We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization,” said a spokesperson. “Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data.”
Facebook’s Research program will continue to run on Android.
We asked Guardian Mobile Firewall’s security expert Will Strafach to dig into the Facebook Research app, and he told us that “If Facebook makes full use of the level of access they are given by asking users to install the Certificate, they will have the ability to continuously collect the following types of data: private messages in social media apps, chats from in instant messaging apps – including photos/videos sent to others, emails, web searches, web browsing activity, and even ongoing location information by tapping into the feeds of any location tracking apps you may have installed.” It’s unclear exactly what data Facebook is concerned with, but it gets nearly limitless access to a user’s device once they install the app.
The strategy shows how far Facebook is willing to go and how much it’s willing to pay to protect its dominance — even at the risk of breaking the rules of Apple’s iOS platform on which it depends. Apple may have asked Facebook to discontinue distributing its Research app. A more stringent punishment would be to revoke Facebook’s permission to offer employee-only apps. The situation could further chill relations between the tech giants. Apple’s Tim Cook has repeatedly criticized Facebook’s data collection practices. Facebook disobeying iOS policies to slurp up more information could become a new talking point.
“The fairly technical sounding ‘install our Root Certificate’ step is appalling,” Strafach tells us. “This hands Facebook continuous access to the most sensitive data about you, and most users are going to be unable to reasonably consent to this regardless of any agreement they sign, because there is no good way to articulate just how much power is handed to Facebook when you do this.”
Facebook’s surveillance app
Facebook first got into the data-sniffing business when it acquired Onavo for around $120 million in 2014. The VPN app helped users track and minimize their mobile data plan usage, but also gave Facebook deep analytics about what other apps they were using. Internal documents acquired by Charlie Warzel and Ryan Mac of BuzzFeed News reveal that Facebook was able to leverage Onavo to learn that WhatsApp was sending more than twice as many messages per day as Facebook Messenger. Onavo allowed Facebook to spot WhatsApp’s meteoric rise and justify paying $19 billion to buy the chat startup in 2014. WhatsApp has since tripled its user base, demonstrating the power of Onavo’s foresight.
Over the years since, Onavo clued Facebook in to what apps to copy, features to build and flops to avoid. By 2018, Facebook was promoting the Onavo app in a Protect bookmark of the main Facebook app in hopes of scoring more users to snoop on. Facebook also launched the Onavo Bolt app that let you lock apps behind a passcode or fingerprint while it surveils you, but Facebook shut down the app the day it was discovered following privacy criticism. Onavo’s main app remains available on Google Play and has been installed more than 10 million times.
The backlash heated up after security expert Strafach detailed in March how Onavo Protect was reporting to Facebook when a user’s screen was on or off, and its Wi-Fi and cellular data usage in bytes even when the VPN was turned off. In June, Apple updated its developer policies to ban collecting data about usage of other apps or data that’s not necessary for an app to function. Apple proceeded to inform Facebook in August that Onavo Protect violated those data collection policies and that the social network needed to remove it from the App Store, which it did, Deepa Seetharaman of the WSJ reported.
But that didn’t stop Facebook’s data collection.
TechCrunch recently received a tip that despite Onavo Protect being banished by Apple, Facebook was paying users to sideload a similar VPN app under the Facebook Research moniker from outside of the App Store. We investigated, and learned Facebook was working with three app beta testing services to distribute the Facebook Research app: BetaBound, uTest and Applause. Facebook began distributing the Research VPN app in 2016. It has been referred to as Project Atlas since at least mid-2018, around when backlash to Onavo Protect magnified and Apple instituted its new rules that prohibited Onavo. Previously, a similar program was called Project Kodiak. Facebook didn’t want to stop collecting data on people’s phone usage and so the Research program continued, in disregard for Apple banning Onavo Protect.
Ads (shown below) for the program run by uTest on Instagram and Snapchat sought teens 13-17 years old for a “paid social media research study.” The sign-up page for the Facebook Research program administered by Applause doesn’t mention Facebook, but seeks users “Age: 13-35 (parental consent required for ages 13-17).” If minors try to sign-up, they’re asked to get their parents’ permission with a form that reveal’s Facebook’s involvement and says “There are no known risks associated with the project, however you acknowledge that the inherent nature of the project involves the tracking of personal information via your child’s use of apps. You will be compensated by Applause for your child’s participation.” For kids short on cash, the payments could coerce them to sell their privacy to Facebook.
The Applause site explains what data could be collected by the Facebook Research app (emphasis mine):
“By installing the software, you’re giving our client permission to collect data from your phone that will help them understand how you browse the internet, and how you use the features in the apps you’ve installed . . . This means you’re letting our client collect information such as which apps are on your phone, how and when you use them, data about your activities and content within those apps, as well as how other people interact with you or your content within those apps. You are also letting our client collect information about your internet browsing activity (including the websites you visit and data that is exchanged between your device and those websites) and your use of other online services. There are some instances when our client will collect this information even where the app uses encryption, or from within secure browser sessions.”
Meanwhile, the BetaBound sign-up page with a URL ending in “Atlas” explains that “For $20 per month (via e-gift cards), you will install an app on your phone and let it run in the background.” It also offers $20 per friend you refer. That site also doesn’t initially mention Facebook, but the instruction manual for installing Facebook Research reveals the company’s involvement.
Facebook seems to have purposefully avoided TestFlight, Apple’s official beta testing system, which requires apps to be reviewed by Apple and is limited to 10,000 participants. Instead, the instruction manual reveals that users download the app from r.facebook-program.com and are told to install an Enterprise Developer Certificate and VPN and “Trust” Facebook with root access to the data their phone transmits. Apple requires that developers agree to only use this certificate system for distributing internal corporate apps to their own employees. Randomly recruiting testers and paying them a monthly fee appears to violate the spirit of that rule.
Once installed, users just had to keep the VPN running and sending data to Facebook to get paid. The Applause-administered program requested that users screenshot their Amazon orders page. This data could potentially help Facebook tie browsing habits and usage of other apps with purchase preferences and behavior. That information could be harnessed to pinpoint ad targeting and understand which types of users buy what.
TechCrunch commissioned Strafach to analyze the Facebook Research app and find out where it was sending data. He confirmed that data is routed to “vpn-sjc1.v.facebook-program.com” that is associated with Onavo’s IP address, and that the facebook-program.com domain is registered to Facebook, according to MarkMonitor. The app can update itself without interacting with the App Store, and is linked to the email address PeopleJourney@fb.com. He also discovered that the Enterprise Certificate first acquired in 2016 indicates Facebook renewed it on June 27th, 2018 — weeks after Apple announced its new rules that prohibited the similar Onavo Protect app.
“It is tricky to know what data Facebook is actually saving (without access to their servers). The only information that is knowable here is what access Facebook is capable of based on the code in the app. And it paints a very worrisome picture,” Strafach explains. “They might respond and claim to only actually retain/save very specific limited data, and that could be true, it really boils down to how much you trust Facebook’s word on it. The most charitable narrative of this situation would be that Facebook did not think too hard about the level of access they were granting to themselves . . . which is a startling level of carelessness in itself if that is the case.”
“Flagrant defiance of Apple’s rules”
In response to TechCrunch’s inquiry, a Facebook spokesperson confirmed it’s running the program to learn how people use their phones and other services. The spokesperson told us “Like many companies, we invite people to participate in research that helps us identify things we can be doing better. Since this research is aimed at helping Facebook understand how people use their mobile devices, we’ve provided extensive information about the type of data we collect and how they can participate. We don’t share this information with others and people can stop participating at any time.”
Facebook’s spokesperson claimed that the Facebook Research app was in line with Apple’s Enterprise Certificate program, but didn’t explain how in the face of evidence to the contrary. They said Facebook first launched its Research app program in 2016. They tried to liken the program to a focus group and said Nielsen and comScore run similar programs, yet neither of those ask people to install a VPN or provide root access to the network. The spokesperson confirmed the Facebook Research program does recruit teens but also other age groups from around the world. They claimed that Onavo and Facebook Research are separate programs, but admitted the same team supports both as an explanation for why their code was so similar.
However, Facebook’s claim that it doesn’t violate Apple’s Enterprise Certificate policy is directly contradicted by the terms of that policy. Those include that developers “Distribute Provisioning Profiles only to Your Employees and only in conjunction with Your Internal Use Applications for the purpose of developing and testing”. The policy also states that “You may not use, distribute or otherwise make Your Internal Use Applications available to Your Customers” unless under direct supervision of employees or on company premises. Given Facebook’s customers are using the Enterprise Certificate-powered app without supervision, it appears Facebook is in violation.
Seven hours after this report was first published, Facebook updated its position and told TechCrunch that it would shut down the iOS Research app. Facebook noted that the Research app was started in 2016 and was therefore not a replacement for Onavo Protect. However, they do share similar code and could be seen as twins running in parallel. A Facebook spokesperson also provided this additional statement:
“Key facts about this market research program are being ignored. Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate. Finally, less than 5 percent of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”
Facebook did not publicly promote the Research VPN itself and used intermediaries that often didn’t disclose Facebook’s involvement until users had begun the signup process. While users were given clear instructions and warnings, the program never stresses nor mentions the full extent of the data Facebook can collect through the VPN. A small fraction of the users paid may have been teens, but we stand by the newsworthiness of its choice not to exclude minors from this data collection initiative.
Facebook disobeying Apple so directly and then pulling the app could hurt their relationship. “The code in this iOS app strongly indicates that it is simply a poorly re-branded build of the banned Onavo app, now using an Enterprise Certificate owned by Facebook in direct violation of Apple’s rules, allowing Facebook to distribute this app without Apple review to as many users as they want,” Strafach tells us. ONV prefixes and mentions of graph.onavo.com, “onavoApp://” and “onavoProtect://” custom URL schemes litter the app. “This is an egregious violation on many fronts, and I hope that Apple will act expeditiously in revoking the signing certificate to render the app inoperable.”
Facebook is particularly interested in what teens do on their phones as the demographic has increasingly abandoned the social network in favor of Snapchat, YouTube and Facebook’s acquisition Instagram. Insights into how popular with teens is Chinese video music app TikTok and meme sharing led Facebook to launch a clone called Lasso and begin developing a meme-browsing feature called LOL, TechCrunch first reported. But Facebook’s desire for data about teens riles critics at a time when the company has been battered in the press. Analysts on tomorrow’s Facebook earnings call should inquire about what other ways the company has to collect competitive intelligence now that it’s ceased to run the Research program on iOS.
Last year when Tim Cook was asked what he’d do in Mark Zuckerberg’s position in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, he said “I wouldn’t be in this situation . . . The truth is we could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer, if our customer was our product. We’ve elected not to do that.” Zuckerberg told Ezra Klein that he felt Cook’s comment was “extremely glib.”
Now it’s clear that even after Apple’s warnings and the removal of Onavo Protect, Facebook was still aggressively collecting data on its competitors via Apple’s iOS platform. “I have never seen such open and flagrant defiance of Apple’s rules by an App Store developer,” Strafach concluded. Now that Facebook has ceased the program on iOS and its Android future is uncertain, it may either have to invent new ways to surveil our behavior amidst a climate of privacy scrutiny, or be left in the dark.
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