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FCC mandates strict caller ID authentication to beat back robocalls

31 March, by Devin Coldewey[ —]

The FCC unanimously passed a new set of rules today that will require wireless carriers to implement a tech framework to combat robocalls. Called STIR/SHAKEN, and dithered over for years by the carriers, the protocol will be required to be put in place by summer of 2021.

Robocalls have grown from vexation to serious problem as predictable “claim your free vacation” scams gave way to “here’s how to claim your stimulus check” or “apply for coronavirus testing here” scams.

A big part of the problem is that the mobile networks allow for phone numbers to be spoofed or imitated, and it’s never clear to the call recipient that the number they see may be different from the actual originating number. Tracking and preventing fraudulent use of this feature has been on the carriers’ roadmap for a long time, and some have gotten around to it in some ways, for some customers.

STIR/SHAKEN, which stands for Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs, is a way to securely track calls and callers to prevent fraud and warn consumers of potential scams. Carriers and the FCC have been talking about it since 2017, and in 2018 the FCC said it needed to be implemented in 2019. When that hadn’t happened, the FCC gave carriers a nudge, and at the end of the year Congress passed the TRACED Act to spur the regulator into carrying out its threat of mandating use of the system.

Rules to that effect were proposed earlier this month, and at the FCC’s open meeting today (conducted remotely), the measure passed unanimously. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has been vocal about the lack of concrete action on this issue, gladly approved the rules but vented her frustration in a statement:

It is good news that today the Federal Communications Commission adopts rules to reduce robocalls through call authentication. I only wish we had done so sooner, like three years ago when the FCC first proposed the use of STIR/SHAKEN technology.

Commissioner Brendan Starks called the rules a “good first step,” but pointed out that the carriers need to apply call authentication technology not just on the IP-based networks but all over, and also to work with each other (as some already are) to ensure that these protections remain in place across networks, not just within them.

Chairman Ajit Pai concurred, pointing out there was much work to do:

It’s clear that FCC action is needed to spur across-the-board deployment of this important technology…Widespread implementation of STIR/SHAKEN will reduce the effectiveness of illegal spoofing, allow law enforcement to identify bad actors more easily, and help phone companies identify—and even block—calls with illegal spoofed caller ID information before those calls reach their subscribers. Most importantly, it will give consumers more peace of mind when they answer the phone.

There’s no silver bullet for the problem of spoofed robocalls. So we will continue our aggressive, multi-pronged approach to combating it.

Consumers won’t notice any immediate changes — the deadline is next year, after all — but it’s likely that in the coming months you will receive more information from your carrier about the technology and what, if anything, you need to do to enable it.


Family-friendly Spotify Kids app launches in the U.S., Canada and France

https://open.spotify.com/track/5hf6QzXXpaJOzS7UHMXCXQ?si=BWBHej73ToCQJochvdEnSAplay episode download
31 March, by Sarah Perez[ —]

Last fall, Spotify debuted a standalone Kids application, aimed at bringing kid-friendly music and stories to Spotify Premium Family subscribers, initially in Ireland. Today, that app is being made available broadly in the U.S. Canada and France, the company announced on Tuesday. The Kids app is still considered a “beta” as it arrives in these new markets, Spotify says. However, it’s been expanded with more songs, stories and other content since the original beta tests began.

The app is largely designed to boost sign-ups for Spotify’s top-tier subscription, the $14.99 (USD) per month Premium Family plan. This plan offers up to 6 people in the same household access to Spotify’s on-demand, ad-free music streaming service, each with their own personalized account. It also includes other exclusive features like Family Mixes, as well as parental controls, and now, the Spotify Kids application.

Spotify has long since realized its one-size-fits-all strategy didn’t work for families. It needed to build a unique experience separate from its flagship app in order to best cater to children — and to abide by the regulations around data collection and consent with regard to apps aimed at kids.

Spotify designed the Kids app from the ground up with the needs of both parents and kids in mind. For parents, it offers peace of mind that children won’t accidentally encounter inappropriate lyrics, for example, or songs with more adult themes. To ensure this remains the case, Spotify editors hand-curate the content on the Kids app by following a set of guidelines about what’s inappropriate for children. It doesn’t utilize algorithms to make selections about what’s included, the way the spinoff app YouTube Kids does.

Instead of being a fully on-demand product, Spotify Kids offers playlists for little ones focused around categories like Movies, TV, Stories, or various activities, like “Learn” or “Party,” among others. As kids grow older, they may also want to follow their favorite artists in the app.

The app can also be customized by age range. For younger kids, there’s character-based artwork and content aimed at the preschool set like singalongs or lullabies. Older kids will see a more detailed experience and have access to more popular tracks that are also age-appropriate.

The programmed playlists in Spotify Kids are curated by editors hailing from some of the most well-known brands in kids’ entertainment — including Nickelodeon, Disney, Discovery Kids, Universal Pictures, and others. They know what kids want and also what sells to the parents who pay.

Since its launch in Ireland, Spotify Kids has rolled out to Sweden, Denmark, Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil.

It has also added more content since its original debut, says Spotify.

“We heard loud and clear that both parents and kids are craving more content in the app, so we’ve been increasing the number of tracks available. We’ve also heard from parents that they want even more control of the content, so we are working on some exciting new features,” noted Spotify’s Chief Premium Business Officer Alex Norström, in a statement.

The company isn’t yet going into detail about the upcoming additions, but says they’ll be focused on giving parents more control over the child’s experience. Typically, that would mean letting parents make more specific choices about what’s being streamed. But since parental controls are already available, it could mean letting parents pick specific songs or perhaps, block them. Time will tell.

Today the Spotify Kids app has over 8,000 songs in its catalog — 30% more than when it first arrived in Ireland, and growing.

It also has more local content, with 50% of the catalog in the app localized by market. Its collection of kid-friendly audiobooks and stories has grown as well, and the app now offers over 60 hours of stories, including fairy tales, classics, short stories, and stories from Disney Music Group.

In response to user feedback, there’s also now more bedtime content like lullabies, calming music and sounds, and bedtime stories. (And yes, this finally means that Spotify parents will stop having their year-end Spotify Wrapped ruined by lullabies.)

In the U.S., Spotify Kids launches today with over 125 playlists (approximately 8,000 tracks.) In addition to mainstream kids’ music, the catalog includes Spanish-language, Country, Christian, Motown, and Soul Dance Party playlists. There’s also a Trolls World Tour playlist and another for Frozen.

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, there’s also a new global playlist called “Wash Your Hands” which includes songs that teach kids to wash hands and to cough and sneeze properly. This includes the new song from Pinkfong “Wash Your Hands with Baby Shark.”

And to aid parents now educating children at home, there’s a “Learning” playlist hub where you’ll find songs about the ABC’s, counting, science and more.

The app is available today in the U.S., Canada, and France on iOS and Android. The app is a free download, but requires a Spotify Premium Family membership.

 


Snapchat preempts clones, syndicates Stories to other apps

31 March, by Josh Constine[ —]

If you can’t stop them, power them. That’s the strategy behind Snapchat App Stories, which launches today to let users show off their ephemeral content in other apps too. The first partners will let you post Stories to your dating profile in Hily, share them alongside [music] videos in Triller, watch them while screensharing in Squad, or give people a peek at your life in augmented reality network Octi. Developers can now sign up to add Stories to their apps.

Snapchat’s Stories format has been widely cloned, most famously by Instagram and Facebook, but with versions in various states of development for YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, SoundCloud, and more. Snapchat hopes to retain some grip on Stories and dissuade more copycats by letting developers bake the original version into their apps rather than building a bootleg attempt from scratch.

If you need Snapchat to share Stories to popular apps, that could boost content production plus subsequent viewership and ad impressions inside of Snapchat, remind people to shoot Stories, and make sure having a Snapchat account stays relevant. “We definitely think there’s a potential for monetization in App Stories but not yet” Snap’s VP of partnerships Ben Schwerin tells me. For now, Snapchat isn’t injecting ads into alongside Stories into other apps, though that’s clearly the plan.

“There are certain platforms out there that have decided they want to invest in building their own Stories product and their own camera, but it’s not a trivial thing to do. It takes resources and time. We think we can help developers do that” Schwerin explains. “Getting more people out there, regardless of age or where they live, comfortable using Stories probably makes them more likely to be able to pick up and enjoy Snapchat.”

Snapchat initially announced the plan for App Stories at its Partner Summit exactly a year ago. Unfortunately, its second annual developer conference that was set for this week was cancelled due to coronavirus.

Though advertising spend may be reduced, at least the app has experienced an increase in usage while everyone shelters in place. That includes third-party apps built on its Snap Kit platform that lets developers piggyback on Snapchat’s login, Bitmoji, and camera effects.

“We continue to see incredible growth from established apps like Reddit and Spotify and TikTok, and from startups that are really building from the ground up on Snap Kit like Yolo” Schwerin reveals. “People are spending more time at home and less time with friends. We’re seeing increased usage of Snapchat.”

Snap Kit has allowed Snapchat to rally would-be copycats into a legion of allies as it fights to stave off the Facebook empire. That strategy combined with a high-performance rebuild of its Android app for the developing world led Snapchat’s share price to grow from $11.36 a year ago to a recent high of $18.98 before coronavirus dragged it almost all the way back down.

Now, when people shoot a photo or video in the Snapchat camera, they’ll get options to share it not just to their Story or Snap Map and the crowdsourced community Stories, but also to their Story within other apps integrated with Snap Kit. Users will see options to syndicate their Story to products equipped with App Stories where they’re already logged in.

Unlike on Snapchat where Stories disappear after 24 hours, they default to a 7-day expiration in other App Stories. That relieves users of having to constantly post ephemeral Snaps to keep their dating or social app profiles stocked with biographical content.

In Hily, Snapchat Stories partially replaces the homegrown version it’d spun up in the meantime to show potential dates off-the-cuff looks at people’s lives. In Triller, users can tap on a content creator’s profile pic to see biographical Stories instead of just their polished music videos. In Squad, users can co-watch Stories along with other things to screenshare. And in Octi, users can see someone’s Snapchat Story amongst other hidden content revealed by its augmented reality camera.

One app missing is Tinder, which Snapchat originally previewed as its launch partner at the App Stories reveal last year. Tinder is using Snapchat’s Bitmoji stickers, but may have gotten cold feet about Stories. The fact that Snap is only now launching App Stories, and still hasn’t officially launched Ad Kit that lets it inject its ads into other apps and split revenue with developers, shows it’s taking time to adjust to its platform strategy after years of shunning outside integrations. It still won’t reveal the revenue percentage split it’s applying to Ad Kit.

For Snapchat to gain momentum it needs two things: a constant influx of new users, eager to use its augmented reality camera and Bitmoji wherever they’re available, and more impressions to monetize with ads after Instagram stole the Stories use case for untold millions of older users. App Stories could help with both.

“The proliferation of stories as the primary way to share video content on mobile we think is a good thing” Schwerin concludes. But Snap has sat by idly as it’s served as the R&D lab for Facebook’s product. Now Snapchat needs to own the viewership and the ad dollars that Stories generate everywhere other than Facebook. Just coining the concept doesn’t bring in cash.


Disney+ to launch in India on April 3

31 March, by Manish Singh[ —]

Disney said on Tuesday that it will launch its streaming service, Disney+, in India on April 3. The service, available globally in about a dozen markets, will launch in India on Hotstar, one of the most popular on-demand streaming services in the country that is also owned by Disney.

The company said it is raising the yearly subscription cost of the combined entity, Disney+Hotstar, to Rs 1,499 ($20), up from Rs 999 ($13.2) that it previously charged for its most premium content on Hotstar. TechCrunch reported last year that Disney+ will launch in India in 2020 and will increase its subscription cost.

Hotstar, which claimed to have amassed 300 million monthly active users during the cricket season in India last year, would continue to offer an ad-supported service that it will offer to users without a fee. But it is increasing the cost of both of its premium tiers.

Disney is offering a more affordable yearly tier that costs Rs 399 ($5.3) — up from Rs 365 — that will include movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, access to live sporting events and a wide catalog of movies and shows, and original shows produced by Hotstar. It will not include Disney+ Originals.

The $20 yearly subscription tier will offer over 100 series and 250 superhero and animated titles, including Disney+ Originals and shows from HBO, Fox, and Showtime, the company said. It will also include access to everything that Disney+Hotstar customers are availing at $5.3 tier.

All existing subscribers will be automatically upgraded to their respective new subscription plan and will be charged the new rates upon renewal, the company said.

“With the success of Hotstar, we ushered in a new era for premium video streaming in India. Today, as we unveil Disney+ Hotstar, we take yet another momentous step in staying committed to our promise of delivering high-quality impactful stories for India that have not only entertained but also made a difference in people’s lives, a promise that is even more meaningful in challenging times such as this,” said Uday Shankar, President of The Walt Disney Company APAC and Chairman, Star & Disney India, said in a statement.

“We hope the power of Disney’s storytelling, delivered through Hotstar’s technology, will help our viewers find moments of comfort, happiness and inspiration during these difficult times,” he added.

The company had originally planned to launch Disney+Hotstar in India on March 29, but it began testing the service in the country weeks prior to that.

But as the coronavirus outbreak prompted New Delhi to order a nation-wide lockdown, which put a halt to public events including the cricket tournament Indian Premier League (IPL), Disney postponed the launch of Disney+Hostar in India.

IPL cricket tournament is by far the biggest attraction on Hotstar. According to people familiar with the matter, the months following IPL saw Hotstar’s userbase drop from 300 million to about 60 million last year.

If the IPL cricket tournament, which has been postponed until mid next month, is further delayed — or cancelled — it might significantly hurt Hotstar’s relevance and financials.

If that wasn’t enough, some of the shows and movies on Hotstar may disappear soon as one of its partners, Hooq, filed for liquidation last week.

Disney was also recently criticized for blocking and censoring episodes of John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.” Hotstar did not stream a recent episode of Oliver’s show that was critical of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and some of his policies. Hotstar has also edited out jokes from Oliver’s show that mocked Disney.

Oliver called out Disney and Hotstar for the censorship. Disney has not responded to multiple requests for comment on this matter.


Facebook Messenger preps Auto Status location type sharing

30 March, by Josh Constine[ —]

Facebook Messenger could soon automatically tell your closest friends you’re at the gym, driving or in Tokyo. Messenger has been spotted prototyping a ported version of the Instagram close friends-only Threads app’s Auto Status option that launched in October.

The unreleased Messenger feature would use your location, accelerometer and battery life to determine what you’re up to and share it with a specific subset of your friends. But instead of sharing your exact coordinates, it overlays an emoji on your Messenger profile pic to indicate that you’re at the movies, biking, at the airport or charging your phone.

It’s unclear if or when Messenger might launch Auto Status. But if released, the feature could become Facebook’s version of the AOL Away Message, allowing people to stay in closer touch without the creepiness of exact location sharing. It might also help people coordinate online or offline meetups by revealing what friends are up to. Auto Status creates an ice breaker, so if it says a close friend is “at a cafe,” or “chilling,” you could ask to hang out.

Back in 2016, I wrote about how exact location sharing had failed to become mainstream because knowing where someone is doesn’t tell you their intention. What matters is whether they’re free to interact with you, which none of the social networks offered.

A few products, like Down To Lunch and Free, came and went in the meantime. Snapchat’s Snap Map and its acquisition of Zenly both doubled down on precise location sharing, yet still we’re often stuck home wondering if anyone we care about is similarly bored and might want to hang out.

Facebook has been experimenting in this space since at least early 2018, when its manual Emoji Status was spotted. That allowed you to append an emoji of your choosing to your Messenger profile pic. Then in October, Facebook introduced Auto Status, but only in the Instagram side-app Threads.

Some users were initially creeped out by the idea of Facebook relaying battery status. But Instagram director of Product Management Robby Stein explained to me that because you might not respond to a message if your phone goes dead or is left on the charger, it’s useful info to relay to friends who might be wondering what you’re doing.

Then earlier this month, reverse engineering master and constant TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong revealed a new, unreleased version of Emoji Status hidden in Messenger’s Android code. Then today, Wong showed off how she similarly spotted Facebook trying to port Auto Status to Messenger. That would bring the feature to more than one billion monthly users compared to the relatively small base for Threads.

With Auto Status, you can “Let specific friends see what you’re up to as you go about your day. Share location info, weather, and more, even when you’re not in the app.” Auto Status is only visible to a special list of friends you can change at any time, similar to Instagram Close Friends. And the feature shares “no addresses or place names. Just types of locations, like “at a cafe.” Movement (driving, biking, walking), venue (at the movies, airport), cities (in Tokyo) and battery status (low battery, charging) are some of categories of what Auto Status shares.

A Facebook Messenger communications representative confirmed to TechCrunch that the Auto Status feature was being prototyped by Messenger, noting that “We’re always exploring new features to improve your Messenger experience. This feature is still in early development and not externally testing.” The company also tweeted the statement.

One of the biggest unsolved problems in social networking and messaging remains knowing whether friends are free to chat or hang out without having to ask them directly. Reaching out at the wrong time only to be ignored or rejected can feel awkward or intimidating, and can discourage connection later. But if you have a vague idea of what a close friend is up to, you can more deftly plan when to message them, and be more likely to get to spend time together in person or just online.

That could be a cure to the loneliness that endless feed scrolling by ourselves can leave us feeling.


Turbo Systems hires former Looker CMO Jen Grant as CEO

30 March, by Ron Miller[ —]

Turbo Systems, a three-year old, no-code mobile app startup, announced today it has brought on industry veteran Jen Grant to be CEO.

Grant, who was previously vice president of marketing at Box and chief marketing officer at Elastic and Looker, brings more than 15 years of tech company experience to the young startup.

She says that when Looker got acquired by Google last June for $2.6 billion, she began looking for her next opportunity. She had done a stint with Google as a product manager earlier in her career and was looking for something new.

She saw Looker as a model for the kind of company she wanted to join, one that had a founder focused on product and engineering, who hired an outside CEO early on to run the business, as Looker had done. She found that in Turbo where founder Hari Subramanian was taking on that type of role. Subramanian was also a successful entrepreneur, having previously founded ServiceMax before selling it to GE in 2016.

“The first thing that really drew me to Turbo was this partnership with Hari,” Grant told TechCrunch. While that relationship was a key component for her, she says even with that, before she decided to join, she spoke to customers and she saw an enthusiasm there that drew her to the company.

“I love products that actually help people. And so Box is helping people collaborate and share files and work together. Looker is about getting data to everyone in the organization so that everyone could be making great decisions, and at Turbo we’re making it easy for anyone to create a mobile app that helps run their business,” she said.

Grant has been on the job for just 30 days, joining the company in the middle of a global pandemic. So it’s even more challenging than the typical early days for any new CEO, but she is looking forward and trying to help her 36 employees navigate this situation.

“You know, I didn’t know that this is what would happen in my first 30 days, but what inspires me, what’s a big part of it is that I can help by growing this company, by being successful and by being able to hire more and more people, and contribute to getting our economy back on track,” Grant said.

She also recognizes that there is a lack of diversity in her new CEO role, and she hopes to be a role model. “I have been fortunate to get to a position where I know I can do this job and do it well. And it’s my responsibility to do this work, my responsibility to show it can be done and shouldn’t be an anomaly.”

Turbo Systems was founded in 2017 and has raised $8 million, according to Crunchbase. It helps companies build mobile apps without coding, connecting to 140 different data sources such as Salesforce, SAP and Oracle.


Daily Crunch: Clearstep’s chatbot offers in-depth COVID-19 screening

27 March, by Anthony Ha[ —]

We look at an in-depth screener app for COVID-19, U.S. stocks take another tumble and Apple extends its free trial for Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. Here’s your Daily Crunch for March 27, 2020.

Stay safe and socially distanced this weekend!

1. Clearstep’s COVID-19 chat-based screener goes in-depth to preserve healthcare resources

There are a growing number of symptom checker and screening tools that you can use at home if you suspect you might have contracted the new coronavirus that is causing the global COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these are relatively simple, including three or four questions that cover the top reported symptoms experienced by anyone who has confirmed to have had the disease.

In contrast, chatbot-based symptom checking software startup Clearstep has created its own COVID-19 screener, which goes more in-depth to combine symptom checking with screening for potential exposure to the virus.

2. Stocks fall sharply Friday morning as the mid-week recovery falls short

The major American stock market indices are down sharply this morning at the open, with stocks falling after a multi-day rally helped shave some losses off their calendar-year results.

3. Apple extends free trials for its pro creative apps

Apple announced today that they are temporarily extending the free trials on Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X from 30 days to 90 days, giving potential customers stuck at home a longer window of time to try out the software. With this announcement, Apple joins a number of other software companies extending the free trials of their products in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

4. Yelp pauses GoFundMe Covid-19 fundraising after opt-out outcry

A fundraising program that Yelp and GoFundMe put in place this week to help local businesses impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic has been paused after public outcry over how it was rolled out — specifically, controversy over how the two provided no easy and quick way to opt out of the fundraising.

5. Smart telescope startups vie to fix astronomy’s satellite challenge

The stakes involved are high, with projects like Starlink (the satellite branch of SpaceX) potentially being central to the future of global internet coverage, especially as new infrastructure implements 5G and edge computing. At the same time, satellite clusters — whether from Starlink or national militaries — could threaten the foundations of astronomical research. (Extra Crunch membership required.)

6. Notarize to add 1,000 online notaries to address demand for remote transactions

The startup is partnering with the National Notary Association to verify notaries have been screened and have the necessary insurance or bonding. The service is available to Americans in all 50 states or abroad, but notaries must be physically located in Florida, Nevada, Texas or Virginia to join the platform.

7. Social Bluebook was hacked, exposing 217,000 influencers’ accounts

Social Bluebook, a Los Angeles-based company, allows advertisers to pay social media “influencers” for posts that promote their products and services. The company claims it has some 300,000 influencers on its books, but in October 2019, its entire backend database was stolen in a data breach.

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 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.


Zyl resurfaces old photos to create collaborative stories

27 March, by Romain Dillet[ —]

French startup Zyl has released a major update of its mobile app for iOS and Android. The app is all about finding long-forgotten memories of important life events in your photo library.

Zyl scans your photo library and magically finds photos that matter. Every day, the app sends you a notification to tell you that you can unlock a new memory — a new Storyl. It instantly brings you back to that special day with an automatically generated story. All your photos are already stitched together, the app is just waiting for you.

With today’s update, Zyl lets you share your memory with your friends and family members who were part of this past event. They can contribute and add their own photos from their photo library.

Sure, each user could have created their own version of this story. But collaborative stories lead to something more powerful. Years after celebrating something, Zyl brings you closer to your friends right now.

Behind the scene, the company has been working on machine learning-powered algorithms to understand the emotions behind your photo. The company has a privacy-focused approach. It scans your photo library on your devices — your photos aren’t uploaded to Zyl’s servers. You don’t need to create a user account either.

Zyl doesn’t want to overwhelm you with a ton of content at once. You have to wait 24 hours to unlock a new Storyl. That slow-paced approach sets it apart from Instagram, where you have to frenetically tap on the screen to gobble as much content as possible.

Just like with your memories, you have to make room for new memories and cherish the most important ones. In the future, Zyl could remove some of your old Storyls to let you focus on the ones that matter most. If you haven’t shared it with a friend, chances are it wasn’t that important.

Instead of traditional comments, the startup is also working on a way to add some meaningful content on top of your photos. Again, Zyl is focused on emotions and generating a good vibe. For me, it has been a great way to forget about the news cycle for a few minutes.


Telco metadata grab is for modelling COVID-19 spread, not tracking citizens, says EC

27 March, by Natasha Lomas[ —]

As part of its response to the public health emergency triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Commission has been leaning on Europe’s telcos to share aggregate location data on their users.

The Commission kick-started a discussion with mobile phone operators about the provision of aggregated and anonymised mobile phone location data,” it said today.

“The idea is to analyse mobility patterns including the impact of confinement measures on the intensity of contacts, and hence the risks of contamination. This would be an important — and proportionate — input for tools that are modelling the spread of the virus, and would also allow to assess the current measures adopted to contain the pandemic.”

“We want to work with one operator per Member State to have a representative sample,” it added. “Having one operator per Member State also means the aggregated and anonymised data could not be used to track individual citizens, that is also not at all the intention. Simply because not all have the same operator.

“The data will only be kept as long as the crisis is ongoing. We will of course ensure the respect of the ePrivacy Directive and the GDPR.”

Earlier this week Politico reported that commissioner Thierry Breton held a conference with carriers, including Deutsche Telekom and Orange, asking for them to share data to help predict the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Europe has become a secondary hub for the disease, with high rates of infection in countries including Italy and Spain — where there have been thousands of deaths apiece.

The European Union’s executive is understandably keen to bolster national efforts to combat the virus. Although, it’s less clear exactly how aggregated mobile location data can help — especially as more EU citizens are confined to their homes under national quarantine orders. (While police patrols and CCTV offer an existing means of confirming whether or not people are generally moving around.)

Nonetheless, EU telcos have already been sharing aggregate data with national governments.

Orange in France is sharing “aggregated and anonymized” mobile phone geolocation data with Inserm, a local health-focused research institute — to enable them to “better anticipate and better manage the spread of the epidemic,” as a spokeswoman put it.

“The idea is simply to identify where the populations are concentrated and how they move before and after the confinement in order to be able to verify that the emergency services and the health system are as well armed as possible, where necessary,” she added. “For instance, at the time of confinement, more than 1 million people left the Paris region and at the same time the population of Ile de Ré increased by 30%.

“Other uses of this data are possible and we are currently in discussions with the State on all of these points. But, it must be clear, we are extremely vigilant with regards to concerns and respect for privacy. Moreover, we are in contact with the CNIL [France’s data protection watchdog]… to verify that all of these points are addressed.”

Germany’s Deutsche Telekom is also providing to national health authorities what a spokesperson dubbed “anonymized swarm data” to combat the corona virus.

“European mobile operators are also to make such anonymized mass data available to the EU Commission at its request,” the spokesperson told us. “In fact, we will first provide the EU Commission with a description of data we have sent to German health authorities.”

It’s not entirely clear whether the Commission’s intention is to pool data from such existing local efforts — or whether it’s asking EU carriers for a different, universal data-set to be shared with it during the COVID-19 emergency.

When we asked about this it did not provide an answer. Although we understand discussions are ongoing with operators — and that it’s the Commission’s aim to work with one operator per Member State.

The Commission has said the metadata will be used for modelling the spread of the virus and for looking at mobility patterns to analyze and assess the impact of quarantine measures.

A spokesman emphasized that individual-level tracking of EU citizens is not on the cards.

“The Commission is in discussions with mobile operators’ associations about the provision of aggregated and anonymised mobile phone location data,” the spokesman for Breton told us.

“These data permit to analyse mobility patterns including the impact of confinement measures on the intensity of contacts and hence the risks of contamination. They are therefore an important and proportionate tool to feed modelling tools for the spread of the virus and also assess the current measures adopted to contain the Coronavrius pandemic are effective.”

“These data do not enable tracking of individual users,” he added. “The Commission is in close contact with the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) to ensure the respect of the ePrivacy Directive and the GDPR.”

At this point there’s no set date for the system to be up and running — although we understand the aim is to get data flowing asap. The intention is also to use data sets that go back to the start of the epidemic, with data-sharing ongoing until the pandemic is over — at which point we’re told the data will be deleted.

Breton hasn’t had to lean very hard on EU telcos to share data for a crisis cause.

Earlier this week Mats Granryd, director general of operator association the GSMA, tweeted that its members are “committed to working with the European Commission, national authorities and international groups to use data in the fight against COVID-19 crisis.”

Although, he added an important qualifier: “while complying with European privacy standards.”

Europe’s data protection framework means there are limits on how people’s personal data can be used — even during a public health emergency. And while the legal frameworks do quite rightly bake in flexibility for a pressing public purpose, like the COVID-19 pandemic, it does not mean individuals’ privacy rights automatically go out the window.

Individual tracking of mobile users for contact tracing — such as Israel’s government is doing — is unimaginable at the pan-EU level. Certainly unless the regional situation deteriorates drastically.

One privacy lawyer we spoke to last week suggested such a level of tracking and monitoring across Europe would be akin to a “last resort.” Though individual EU countries are choosing to respond differently to the crisis — such as, for example, Poland giving quarantined people a choice between regular police check ups or uploading geotagged selfies to prove they’re not breaking lockdown.

While former EU Member the U.K. has reportedly chosen to invite in the controversial U.S. surveillance-as-a-service tech firm Palantir to carry out resource tracking for its National Health Service during the coronavirus crisis.

Under pan-EU law (which the U.K. remains subject to, until the end of the Brexit transition period), the rule of thumb is that extraordinary data-sharing — such as the Commission asking telcos to share user location data during a pandemic — must be “temporary, necessary and proportionate,” as digital rights group Privacy International recently noted.

This explains why Breton’s request is for “anonymous and aggregated” location data. And why, in background comments to reporters, the claim is that any shared data sets will be deleted at the end of the pandemic.

Not every EU lawmaker appears entirely aware of all the legal limits, however.

Today the bloc’s lead privacy regulator, data protection supervisor (EDPS) Wojciech Wiewiórowski, could be seen tweeting cautionary advice at one former commissioner, Andrus Ansip (now an MEP) — after the latter publicly eyed up a Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing app deployed in Singapore.

“Please be cautious comparing Singapore examples with European situation. Remember Singapore has a very specific legal regime on identification of device holder,” wrote Wiewiórowski.

So it remains to be seen whether pressure will mount for more privacy-intrusive surveillance of EU citizens if regional rates of infection continue to grow.

As we reported earlier this week, governments or EU institutions seeking to make use of mobile phone data to help with the response to the coronavirus must comply with the EU’s ePrivacy Directive — which covers the processing of mobile location data.

The ePrivacy Directive allows for Member States to restrict the scope of the rights and obligations related to location metadata privacy, and retain such data for a limited time — when such restriction constitutes “a necessary, appropriate and proportionate measure within a democratic society to safeguard national security (i.e. State security), defence, public security, and the prevention, investigation, detection and prosecution of criminal offences or of unauthorised use of the electronic communication system” — and a pandemic seems a clear example of a public security issue.

Thing is, the ePrivacy Directive is an old framework. The previous college of commissioners had intended to replace it alongside an update to the EU’s broader personal data protection framework — the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) — but failed to reach agreement.

This means there’s some potential mismatch. For example the ePrivacy Directive does not include the same level of transparency requirements as the GDPR.

Perhaps understandably, then, since news of the Commission’s call for carrier metadata emerged concerns have been raised about the scope and limits of the data sharing. Earlier this week, for example, MEP Sophie in’t Veld wrote to Breton asking for more information on the data grab — including querying exactly how the data will be anonymized.

The EDPS confirmed to us that the Commission consulted it on the proposed use of telco metadata.

A spokesman for the regulator pointed to a letter sent by Wiewiórowski to the Commission, following the latter’s request for guidance on monitoring the “spread” of COVID-19.

In the letter the EDPS impresses on the Commission the importance of “effective” data anonymization — which means it’s in effect saying a technique that does genuinely block re-identification of the data must be used. (There are plenty of examples of “anonymized” data being shown by researchers to be trivially easy to reidentify; while location data typically includes many easily identified individual tells, such as a home address and workplace address.)

“Effective anonymisation requires more than simply removing obvious identifiers such as phone numbers and IMEI numbers,” warns the EDPS, adding too that aggregated data “can provide an additional safeguard.”

We also asked the Commission for more details on how the data will be anonymized and the level of aggregation that would be used — but it told us it could not provide further information at this stage. 

So far we understand that the anonymization and aggregation process will be undertaken before data is transferred by operators to a Commission science and research advisory body, called the Joint Research Centre (JRC) — which will perform the data analytics and modelling.

The results — in the form of predictions of propagation and so on — will then be shared by the Commission with EU Member States authorities. The datasets feeding the models will be stored on secure JRC servers.

The EDPS is equally clear on the Commission’s commitments vis-a-vis securing the data.

“Information security obligations under Commission Decision 2017/464 still apply [to anonymized data], as do confidentiality obligations under the Staff Regulations for any Commission staff processing the information. Should the Commission rely on third parties to process the information, these third parties have to apply equivalent security measures and be bound by strict confidentiality obligations and prohibitions on further use as well,” writes Wiewiórowski.

“I would also like to stress the importance of applying adequate measures to ensure the secure transmission of data from the telecom providers. It would also be preferable to limit access to the data to authorised experts in spatial epidemiology, data protection and data science.”

Data retention — or rather the need for prompt destruction of data sets after the emergency is over — is another key piece of the guidance.

“I also welcome that the data obtained from mobile operators would be deleted as soon as the current emergency comes to an end,” writes Wiewiórowski. “It should be also clear that these special services are deployed because of this specific crisis and are of temporary character. The EDPS often stresses that such developments usually do not contain the possibility to step back when the emergency is gone. I would like to stress that such solution should be still recognised as extraordinary.”

teresting to note the EDPS is very clear on “full transparency” also being a requirement, both of purpose and “procedure.” So we should expect more details to be released about how the data is being effectively rendered unidentifiable.

“Allow me to recall the importance of full transparency to the public on the purpose and procedure of the measures to be enacted,” writes Wiewiórowski. “I would also encourage you to keep your Data Protection Officer involved throughout the entire process to provide assurance that the data processed had indeed been effectively anonymised.”

The EDPS has also requested to see a copy of the data model. At the time of writing the spokesman told us it’s still waiting to receive that.

“The Commission should clearly define the dataset it wants to obtain and ensure transparency towards the public, to avoid any possible misunderstandings,” Wiewiórowski added in the letter.


India’s MX Player expands to US, UK and other markets in international push

26 March, by Manish Singh[ —]

MX Player, the on-demand video streaming service owned by India’s conglomerate Times Internet, is expanding to more than half a dozen new international markets including the U.S. and the U.K. to supply more entertainment content to millions of people trapped in their homes.

The Singapore-headquartered on-demand video streaming service, which raised $111 million in a round led by Tencent last year, said it has expanded to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Nepal in addition to the U.S. and the UK.

Like in India, MX Player will offer its catalog at no charge to users in the international markets and monetize through ads, Karan Bedi, chief executive of the service, told TechCrunch in an interview.

The streaming service, which has amassed over 175 million monthly active users in India, is offering locally relevant titles in each market, he said. This is notably different from Disney’s Hotstar expansion into select international markets, where it has largely aimed to cater to the Indian diaspora.

MX Player is not currently offering any originally produced titles in any international market — instead offering movies and shows it has licensed from global and local studios — but the streamer plans to change that in the coming months, said Bedi.

Even as the expansion comes at a time when the world is grappling with containing and fighting the coronavirus outbreak, Bedi said MX Player had already been testing the service in several markets for a few months.

“We believe in meeting this rapidly rising demand from discerning entertainment lovers with stories that strike a chord. To that end, we have collaborated with some of the best talent and content partners globally who will help bring us a step closer to becoming the go-to destination for entertainment across the world,” said Nakul Kapur, Business Head for International markets at MX Player, in a statement.

Times Internet acquired MX Player, an app popular for efficiently playing a plethora of locally-stored media files on entry-level Android smartphones, in 2018 for about $140 million. In the years since, Times Internet has introduced video streaming service to it, and then live TV channels in India.

MX Player has also bundled free music streaming (through Gaana, another property owned by Times Internet) and has introduced in-app casual games for users in the country.

Bedi said the company is working on bringing these additional services to international markets, and also looking to enter additional regions including the Middle East and South Asia.


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