Monthly Archives: January 2019
Google is removing apps from Google Play that request permission to access call logs and SMS text message data but haven’t been manually vetted by Google staff.
The search and mobile giant said it is part of a move to cut down on apps that have access to sensitive calling and texting data.
Google said in October that Android apps will no longer be allowed to use the legacy permissions as part of a wider push for developers to use newer, more secure and privacy minded APIs. Many apps request access to call logs and texting data to verify two-factor authentication codes, for social sharing, or to replace the phone dialer. But Google acknowledged that this level of access can and has been abused by developers who misuse the permissions to gather sensitive data — or mishandle it altogether.
“Our new policy is designed to ensure that apps asking for these permissions need full and ongoing access to the sensitive data in order to accomplish the app’s primary use case, and that users will understand why this data would be required for the app to function,” wrote Paul Bankhead, Google’s director of product management for Google Play.
Any developer wanting to retain the ability to ask a user’s permission for calling and texting data has to fill out a permissions declaration.
Google will review the app and why it needs to retain access, and will weigh in several considerations, including why the developer is requesting access, the user benefit of the feature that’s requesting access and the risks associated with having access to call and texting data.
Bankhead conceded that under the new policy, some use cases will “no longer be allowed,” rendering some apps obsolete.
So far, tens of thousands of developers have already submitted new versions of their apps either removing the need to access call and texting permissions, Google said, or have submitted a permissions declaration.
Developers with a submitted declaration have until March 9 to receive approval or remove the permissions. In the meantime, Google has a full list of permitted use cases for the call log and text message permissions, as well as alternatives.
The last two years alone has seen several high-profile cases of Android apps or other services leaking or exposing call and text data. In late 2017, popular Android keyboard ai.type exposed a massive database of 31 million users, including 374 million phone numbers.
Managing accounts is much more than following a rulebook, template, or guide. In reality, it frequently allows for (and requires) more creativity and flexibility than I anticipated at the outset.
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Robots are amazing things, but outside of their specific domains they are incredibly limited. So flexibility — not physical, but mental — is a constant area of research. A trio of new robotic setups demonstrate ways they can evolve to accommodate novel situations: using both “hands,” getting up after a fall, and understanding visual instructions they’ve never seen before.
The robots, all developed independently, are gathered together today in a special issue of the journal Science Robotics dedicated to learning. Each shows an interesting new way in which robots can improve their interactions with the real world.
On the other hand…
First there is the question of using the right tool for a job. As humans with multi-purpose grippers on the ends of our arms, we’re pretty experienced with this. We understand from a lifetime of touching stuff that we need to use this grip to pick this up, we need to use tools for that, this will be light, that heavy, and so on.
Robots, of course, have no inherent knowledge of this, which can make things difficult; it may not understand that it can’t pick up something of a given size, shape, or texture. A new system from Berkeley roboticists acts as a rudimentary decision-making process, classifying objects as able to be grabbed either by an ordinary pincer grip or with a suction cup grip.
A robot, wielding both simultaneously, decides on the fly (using depth-based imagery) what items to grab and with which tool; the result is extremely high reliability even on piles of objects it’s never seen before.
It’s done with a neural network that consumed millions of data points on items, arrangements, and attempts to grab them. If you attempted to pick up a teddy bear with a suction cup and it didn’t work the first ten thousand times, would you keep on trying? This system learned to make that kind of determination, and as you can imagine such a thing is potentially very important for tasks like warehouse picking for which robots are being groomed.
Interestingly, because of the “black box” nature of complex neural networks, it’s difficult to tell what exactly Dex-Net 4.0 is actually basing its choices on, although there are some obvious preferences, explained Berkeley’s Ken Goldberg in an email.
“We can try to infer some intuition but the two networks are inscrutable in that we can’t extract understandable ‘policies,’ ” he wrote. “We empirically find that smooth planar surfaces away from edges generally score well on the suction model and pairs of antipodal points generally score well for the gripper.”
Now that reliability and versatility are high, the next step is speed; Goldberg said that the team is “working on an exciting new approach” to reduce computation time for the network, to be documented, no doubt, in a future paper.
ANYmal’s new tricks
Quadrupedal robots are already flexible in that they can handle all kinds of terrain confidently, even recovering from slips (and of course cruel kicks). But when they fall, they fall hard. And generally speaking they don’t get up.
The way these robots have their legs configured makes it difficult to do things in anything other than an upright position. But ANYmal, a robot developed by ETH Zurich (and which you may recall from its little trip to the sewer recently), has a more versatile setup that gives its legs extra degrees of freedom.
What could you do with that extra movement? All kinds of things. But it’s incredibly difficult to figure out the exact best way for the robot to move in order to maximize speed or stability. So why not use a simulation to test thousands of ANYmals trying different things at once, and use the results from that in the real world?
This simulation-based learning doesn’t always work, because it isn’t possible right now to accurately simulate all the physics involved. But it can produce extremely novel behaviors or streamline ones humans thought were already optimal.
At any rate that’s what the researchers did here, and not only did they arrive at a faster trot for the bot (above), but taught it an amazing new trick: getting up from a fall. Any fall. Watch this:
It’s extraordinary that the robot has come up with essentially a single technique to get on its feet from nearly any likely fall position, as long as it has room and the use of all its legs. Remember, people didn’t design this — the simulation and evolutionary algorithms came up with it by trying thousands of different behaviors over and over and keeping the ones that worked.
Ikea assembly is the killer app
Let’s say you were given three bowls, with red and green balls in the center one. Then you’re given this on a sheet of paper:
As a human with a brain, you take this paper for instructions, and you understand that the green and red circles represent balls of those colors, and that red ones need to go to the left, while green ones go to the right.
This is one of those things where humans apply vast amounts of knowledge and intuitive understanding without even realizing it. How did you choose to decide the circles represent the balls? Because of the shape? Then why don’t the arrows refer to “real” arrows? How do you know how far to go to the right or left? How do you know the paper even refers to these items at all? All questions you would resolve in a fraction of a second, and any of which might stump a robot.
Researchers have taken some baby steps towards being able to connect abstract representations like the above with the real world, a task that involves a significant amount of what amounts to a sort of machine creativity or imagination.
Making the connection between a green dot on a white background in a diagram and a greenish roundish thing on a black background in the real world isn’t obvious, but the “visual cognitive computer” created by Miguel Lázaro-Gredilla and his colleagues at Vicarious AI seems to be doing pretty well at it.
It’s still very primitive, of course, but in theory it’s the same toolset that one uses to, for example, assemble a piece of Ikea furniture: look at an abstract representation, connect it to real-world objects, then manipulate those objects according to the instructions. We’re years away from that, but it wasn’t long ago that we were years away from a robot getting up from a fall or deciding a suction cup or pincer would work better to pick something up.
The papers and videos demonstrating all the concepts above should be available at the Science Robotics site.
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Instagram has been earning money from businesses flooding its social network with spam notifications. Instagram hypocritically continues to sell ad space to services that charge clients for fake followers or that automatically follow/unfollow other people to get them to follow the client back. This is despite Instagram reiterating a ban on these businesses in November and threatening the accounts of people who employ them.
A TechCrunch investigation initially found 17 services selling fake followers or automated notification spam for luring in followers that were openly advertising on Instagram despite blatantly violating the network’s policies. This demonstrates Instagram’s failure to adequately police its app and ad platform. That neglect led to users being distracted by notifications for follows and Likes generated by bots or fake accounts. Instagram raked in revenue from these services while they diluted the quality of Instagram notifications and wasted people’s time.
In response to our investigation, Instagram tells me it’s removed all ads as well as disabled all the Facebook Pages and Instagram accounts of the services we reported were violating its policies. Pages and accounts that themselves weren’t in violation but whose ads were have been banned from advertising on Facebook and Instagram. However, a day later TechCrunch still found ads from two of these services on Instagram, and discovered five more companies paying to promote policy-violating follower growth services.
This raises a big question about whether Instagram properly protects its community from spammers. Why would it take a journalist’s investigation to remove these ads and businesses that brazenly broke Instagram’s rules when the company is supposed to have technical and human moderation systems in place? The Facebook-owned app’s quest to “move fast” to grow its user base and business seems to have raced beyond what its watchdogs could safeguard.
I first began this investigation a month ago after being pestered with Instagram Stories ads by a service called GramGorilla. The slicked-back hipster salesmen boasted how many followers he gained with the service and that I could pay to do the same. The ads linked to the website of a division of Krends Marketing where for $ 46 to $ 126 per month, it promised to score me 1000 to 2500 Instagram followers.
Some apps like this sell followers directly, though these are typically fake accounts. They might boost your follower count (unless they’re detected and terminated) but won’t actually engage with your content or help your business, and end up dragging down your metrics so Instagram shows your posts to fewer people. But I discovered that GramGorilla/Krends and the majority of apps selling Instagram audience growth do something even worse.
You give these scammy businesses your Instagram username and password, plus some relevant topics or demographics, and they automatically follow and unfollow, like, and comment on strangers’ Instagram profiles. The goal is to generate notifications those strangers will see in hopes that they’ll get curious or want to reciprocate and so therefore follow you back. By triggering enough of this notification spam, they trick enough strangers to follow you to justify the monthly subscription fee.
That pissed me off. Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks send enough real notifications as is, growth hacking their way to more engagement, ad views, and daily user counts. But at least they have to weigh the risk of annoying you so much that you turn off notifications all together. Services that sell followers don’t care if they pollute Instagram and ruin your experience as long as they make money. They’re classic villains in the ‘tragedy of the commons’ of our attention.
This led me to start cataloging these spam company ads, and I was startled by how many different ones I saw. Soon, Instagram’s ad targeting and retargeting algorithms were backfiring, purposefully feeding me ads for similar companies that also violated Instagram’s policies.
The 17 services selling followers or spam that I originally indexed were Krends Marketing / GramGorilla, SocialUpgrade, MagicSocial, EZ-Grow, Xplod Social, Macurex, GoGrowthly, Instashop / IG Shops, TrendBee, JW Social Media Marketing, YR Charisma, Instagrocery, SocialSensational, SocialFuse, WeGrowSocial, IGWildfire, and GramFlare. TrendBee and GramFlare were found to still be running Instagram ads after the platform said they’ve been banned from doing so. Upon further investigation after Instagram’s supposed crackdown, I discovered five more services sell prohibited growth services: FireSocial, InstaMason/IWentMissing, NexStore2019, InstaGrow, and Servantify.
Knowingly Poisoning The Well
I wanted to find out if these companies were aware that they violate Instagram’s policies and how they justify generating spam. Most hide their contact info and merely provide a customer support email, but eventually I was able to get on the phone with some of the founders.
“What we’re doing is obviously against their terms of service” said GoGrowthly’s co-founder who refused to provide their name. “We’re going in and piggybacking off their free platform and not giving them any of the revenue. Instagram doesn’t like us at all. We utilize private proxies depending on clients’ geographic location. That’s sort of our trick to reduce any sort of liability” so clients’ accounts don’t get shut down, they said. “It’s a careful line that we tread with Instagram. Similar to SEO companies and Google, Google wants the best results for customers and customers want the best results for them. There’s a delicate dance” said Macurex founder Gun Hudson.
EZ-Grow’s co-founder Elon refused to give his last name on the record, but told me “[Clients] always need something new. At first it was follows and likes. Now we even watch Stories for them. Every new feature that Instagram has we take advantage of it to make more visibility for our clients.” He says EZ-Grow spends $ 500 per day on Instagram ads, which are its core strategy for finding new customers. SocialFuse founder Alexander Heit says his company spends a couple hundred dollars per day on Instagram and Facebook ads, and was worried when Instagram reiterated its ban on his kind of service in November, but says “We thought that we were definitely going to get shut down but nothing has changed on our end.”
Several of the founders tried to defend their notification spam services by saying that at least they weren’t selling fake followers. Lacking any self-awareness, Macurex’s Hudson said “If it’s done the wrong way it can ruin the user experience. There are all sorts of marketers who will market in untasteful or spammy ways. Instagram needs to keep a check on that.” GoGrowthly’s founder actually told me “We’re actually doing good for the community by generating those targeted interactions.” WeGrowSocial’s co-founder Brandon also refused to give his last name, but was willing to rat out his competitor SocialSensational for selling followers.
Only EZ-Grow’s Elon seemed to have a moment of clarity. “Because the targeting goes to the right people . . . and it’s something they would like, it’s not spam” he said before his epiphany. “People can also look at it as spam, maybe.”
Instagram Finally Shuts Down The Spammers
In response to our findings, an Instagram spokesperson provided this lengthy statement confirming it’s shut down the ads and accounts of the violators we discovered, claiming that it works hard to fight spam, and admitting it needs to do better:
“Nobody likes receiving spammy follows, likes and comments. It’s really important to us that the interactions people have on Instagram are genuine, and we’re working hard to keep the community free from spammy behavior. Services that offer to boost an account’s popularity via inauthentic likes, comments and followers, as well as ads that promote these services, aren’t allowed on Instagram. We’ve taken action on the services raised in this article, including removing violating ads, disabling Pages and accounts, and stopping Pages from placing further ads. We have various systems in place that help us catch and remove these types of ads before anyone sees them, but given the number of ads uploaded to our platform every day, there are times when some still manage to slip through. We know we have more to do in this area and we’re committed to improving.”
Instagram tells me it uses machine learning tools to identify accounts that pay third-party apps to boost their popularity and claims to remove inauthentic engagement before it reaches the recipient of the notifications. By nullifying the results of these services, Instagram believes users will have less incentive to use them. It uses automated systems to evaluate the images, captions, and landing pages of all its ads before they run, and sends some to human moderators. It claims this lets it catch most policy-violating ads, and that users can report those it misses.
But these ads and their associated accounts were filled with terms like “get followers”, “boost your Instagram followers”, “real followers”, “grow your engagement”, “get verified”, “engagement automation”, and other terms tightly linked to policy-violating services. That casts doubt on just how hard Instagram was working on this problem. It may have simply relied on cheap and scalable technical approaches to catching services with spam bots or fake accounts instead of properly screening ads or employing sufficient numbers of human moderators to police the network.
That misplaced dependence on AI and other tech solutions appears to be a trend in the industry. When I recently reported that child sexual abuse imagery was easy to find on WhatsApp and Microsoft Bing, both seemed to be understaffing the human moderation team that could have hunted down this illegal content with common sense where complex algorithms failed. As with Instagram, these products have highly profitable parent companies who can afford to pour more dollars in policy enforcement.
Kicking these services off Instagram is an important step, but the company must be more proactive. Social networks and self-serve ad networks have been treated as efficient cash cows for too long. The profits from these products should be reinvested in policing them. Otherwise, crooks will happily fleece users for our money and attention.
To learn more about the future of Instagram, check out this article’s author Josh Constine’s SXSW 2019 keynote with Instagram co-founders Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger — their first talk together since leaving the company.
The company needs more cash for content and global expansion—and it’s still cheaper than a lot of streaming services.
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Investors are still pouring millions into scooter startups, albeit sometimes at flat valuations. At the same time a little cash is flowing the other way, in cases where cities have realized the importance of prioritizing the needs of the local environment and its citizens, over and above the ambitions of VCs for a swift and lucrative exit.
Scooter startups affected by such regulatory bumps in the road are, unsurprisingly, rather less keen to shout about this sort of policy friction and the negative cash and ride flow it generates.
The startup is so new it doesn’t even have scooters available for public hire yet. But it’s already had some of its ‘test’ rides removed by police and been fined for breaking scooter sharing rules.
If it was hoping to copy-paste from an Uber 1.0 playbook, things aren’t looking good for Reby. (Indeed, that’s a very tatty manual in most places these days.)
Spain’s capital city Madrid also forced a temporary suspension on scooter sharing startups recently, as we reported last month, after changes to mobility laws that tighten the screw on scooter sharing — requiring already operational startups to tweak how their rides operate in order to come into compliance.
While Madrid authorities haven’t banned scooter sharing entirely, they have imposed more limits on where and how they can be used, thereby injecting fresh friction into the business model.
But compared to Barcelona that’s actually a free ride. Things aren’t so much bumpy as roadblocked entirely for scooter sharing in the latter city where regulations adopted by Barcelona town hall in 2017 essentially ban the on-demand scooter model, at least as startups prefer to operate it.
These rules require companies that wanting to offer scooters for hire must provide a guide with the ride (one guide per maximum two people), as well as a helmet. They must also verify that the person to whom the vehicle is hired has the ability to ride it properly.
Rides might scale if you’re able to litter enough cheap and easy scooters all over the urban place but a (human) guide per two rides definitely does not.
Yet, as we’ve written before, there’s no shortage of patinetes electronics weaving around Barcelona’s often narrow and crowded streets. Most of these are locally owned though. And the town hall appears to prefer it that way. After all, people who own high tech scooters aren’t usually in a rush to ditch them in stupid places.
In its 2017 by-law regulating various personal mobility vehicles (PMVs) — including, but not limited to, two-wheeled electric scooters — the city council said it wanted to foster safer and sustainable usage of scooters and other PMVs, pointing to “the growing presence of this new mobility which is taking up more and more road space”.
“Barcelona City Council is committed to a sustainable city mobility model which gives priority to journeys on foot, by bicycle or on public transport,” it added, setting out what it dubbed a “pioneering regulation” that forbids e-scooter use on pavements; imposes various speed restrictions; and gives priority to pedestrians at all times.
Scooters can also only be parked in authorized parking places, with the council emphasizing: “It is forbidden to tie them to trees, traffic lights, benches or other items of urban furniture when this could affect their use or intended purpose; in front of loading or unloading zones, or in places reserved for other users, such as persons with reduced mobility; in service areas or where parking is prohibited, such as emergency exits, hospitals, clinics or health centres, Bicing [the local city bike hire scheme] zones and on pavements where this might block the path of pedestrians.”
There’s more though: The regulation also targets scooter sharing startups seeking to exploit PMVs as a commercial opportunity — with “special conditions for economic activities”.
These include the aforementioned guide, helmet and minimum skill level rule. There’s also a registration scheme for PMVs being used for economic activity which allows city police to scan a QR code that must be displayed on the ride to check it conforms to the regulation’s technical requirements. How’s that for a smart use of tech?
“There may be specific restrictions in specific areas and districts where there is a lot of pressure from these kinds of vehicles or they pose a specific problem,” the council also warns, giving itself further leeway to control PMVs and ensure they don’t become a concentrated nuisance.
Despite what are clear, strict and freshly imposed controls on scooter sharing, that hasn’t stopped a couple of smaller European startups from trying their luck at getting rentable rubber on Catalan carrers anyway — perhaps encouraged by demonstrable local appetite to scoot (that and the lack of any big Birds).
The opportunity probably looks tantalizing; a dense urban environment that’s also a tourist hotspot with clement weather, lots of two-wheel-loving locals and a small but vibrant tech scene.
In Reby’s case, the very early stage Catalan startup, whose co-founders’ LinkedIn profiles suggests the business was founded last July, has a website and not much else at this point, aside from its ambitions to follow in the wheeltracks of Bird, Lime et al.
Nonetheless it has racked up fines worth €5,300 (just over $ 6,000), according to town hall sources, after being deemed to have breached the city’s PMV rules.
Reby had put out up to a hundred scooters in Barcelona for ten days, according to El Pais, padlocking them to bike anchors (with a digital password for unchaining delivered via app) — presumably in the hopes of locating a grey area in the regulation and unlocking the pile em’ high, rent em’ cheap dockless on-demand scooter model that’s disrupted cities elsewhere.
But the Ayuntamiento de Barcelona was unimpressed. Its new by-law brought in a penalty system with fines of up to €100 for minor infringements, up to €200 for serious infringements and up to €500 for very serious infringements. (We understand Reby received 53 sanctions for minor infringements — costing €100 apiece).
Penalties are levied per infringement, so essentially per scooter deployed on the street. And while a few thousand euros might not sound that much of a big deal, the more scooters you scatter the higher the fine scales. And of course that’s not the kind of scaling these startups are scooting for.
We asked Reby for its version of events but it didn’t want to talk about it. A spokesman told us it’s still very early days for the business, adding: “We are a very small team and haven’t launched yet officially. We are doing some tests in Barcelona.”
A more established European scooter startup, Berlin-based Wind, has also clashed with city hall. El Pais reports it had around 100 scooters seized by police last August, also after abortively trying to put them on the streets for hire.
Town hall sources told us that, in Wind’s case, the company’s rides were removed immediately by police, not even lasting a day — so there wasn’t even the chance for a fine to be issued. (We contacted Wind for comment on the incident but it did not respond.)
The bottom line is legislative hurdles won’t simply vanish because startups wish it.
Where scooters are concerned city authorities aren’t dumb and can also move surprisingly fast. The dumping grounds some urban spaces have become after being flooded with unwanted dockless rides by overfunded startups chasing scale via max disruption (and minimum environmental sensitivity) certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed.
At the same time, keeping streets flowing, uncluttered and safe is the bread and butter business of city councils — naturally pushing PMVs up the regulatory agenda.
You also don’t have to look far for tragic stories vis-a-vis scooters. Last summer a 90-year-old pedestrian was killed in a suburb of Barcelona after she was hit by two men riding an electric scooter. In another incident in a nearby town a 40-year-old scooter rider also reportedly died after falling off her ride and being run over by a truck.
The risks of PMVs mingling with pedestrians and more powerful road vehicles are both clear and also not about to disappear. Not without radical action to expel most non-PMV vehicles from city centers to expand the safe (road) spaces where lower powered, lighter weight PMVs could operate. (And no major cities are proposing anything like that yet).
Add to that, in European cities like Barcelona, where there has already been major investment in public transport infrastructure, there’s a clear incentive to funnel residents along existing tracks, including by tightly controlling new and supplementary forms of micro-mobility.
If the Barcelona city council has one potential blind spot where urban mobility is concerned it’s air pollution. Like most dense urban centers the city often suffers terribly from this. And savvy scooter companies would do well to be pressing on that policy front.
But there’s little doubt that would-be fast-follower scooter clones have their work cut out to scale at all, let alone go the distance and get big enough to attract acquisitive attention from the category’s beefed up early movers.
Even then, for the Birds and Limes of the scooter world, multi-millions in funding may buy runway and the opportunity to scoot for international growth but policy roadblocks aren’t the kind of thing that money alone can shift.
Scooter startups need to sell cities on the potential civic benefits of their technology, by demonstrating how PMVs could replace dirtier alternatives that are already clogging roads and having a deleterious impact on urban air quality, as part of a modern and accessible mobility mix.
But that kind of lobbying, while undoubtedly benefiting from local connections, takes money and time. So there’s no shortage of challenge and complexity in the road ahead for scooter startups, even as — as we wrote last month — the investment opportunity is shrinking, with investors having now placed their big bets.
In some cities, scooter ownership also appears to be growing in popularity which will also eat into any sharing opportunities.
One regional investor from an early stage Madrid-based fund that we spoke to about scooters had no qualms at having passed over the space. “We’ve looked at various companies in the space and in Spain but we’re not very attracted by the market given our fund size, competition and regulation question marks,” KFund‘s Jamie Novoa told us.
So those entrepreneurs still dreaming of fast following the likes of Bird, Lime and Spin may find the race they were hoping to join is already over and park gates being padlocked shut.
It’s a brand new year and new companies have posted available openings on the PPC Hero Job Board, INCLUDING positions available at Hanapin (the company that produces PPC Hero)! See the open positions Here’s a brief look at just a few of the newly posted positions: Schwaab, Inc Milwaukee, WI Role: PPC Specialist We are […]
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