Category Archives: Social Media

Facebook is building a camera TV set-top box codenamed Ripley

A mysterious product called “Ripley” appeared hidden beside Facebook’s new Portal smart displays in Facebook for Android’s code. Dug up by frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong a week ago, Ripley’s name squared with Facebook’s VP of Portal Rafa Camargo telling us that “we’re already investing in expanding the product line with more products we want to launch next year.”

That Facebook device will be a camera-equipped device that connects to televisions to allow video chat and media content viewing, according to Cheddar’s Alex Heath.

Facebook’s Portal’s devices sit on a desk or countertop and cost $199 for a smaller screen and $349 for a bigger one. But with Ripley, Facebook could sell a much cheaper screen-less add-on for the televisions people already have. Facebook could build hardware network effect by releasing its Portal technology in many form factors.

The Ripley name could change before the eventual launch next year, which Cheddar says is coming in Spring 2019. It might become something more evocative of the device’s purpose. But regardless of the name, it’s sure to encounter heavy skepticism due to Facebook’s history of privacy and security troubles. Many users don’t trust Facebook enough to put one of its cameras and microphones in their house.

Ripley is said to run on the same Portal operating system that builds off the same Android open-source framework. That means it might carry a similar slate of features. Those include Portal’s auto-zooming camera that can follow users to keep them in frame, video chat through Messenger, a smart photo frame for while it’s not in use, Facebook Watch videos, Alexa voice control and a third-party app platform, including video content from outside developers.

While users might occasionally watch recipe or news videos on Portal, entertainment could be core to Ripley. The device would allow Facebook to compete with Roku, Amazon, Apple and other set-top boxes. The device could also eventually be a natural home for Facebook’s video ads, even though it’s not putting them on Portal right now.

Along with smart speakers, whoever creates what plugs into our TVs will control a fundamental wing of future home computing. Facebook won’t surrender this market, despite its disadvantage due to its many scandals.

Hinge is first dating app to actually measure real world success

Dating app Hinge is today launching a new feature aimed at improving its recommendations, based on whether or not matches had successful real-world dates. The feature may also help to address one of the major problems with today’s dating apps: that no one knows how well they actually work. After all, it’s one thing to get matches and have conversations, but it’s quite another to turn those into dates, much less a long-term relationship.

With a new feature called “We Met,” Hinge will ask users a few days after they shared their phone numbers if they went on a date, and, if so, if they’d want to see that person again. This data will be used as a signal to inform Hinge’s algorithms and improve matches, if the user later returns to the app.

During beta trials, Hinge says that 90% of members said their first dates were great, and 72% said they wanted to go on a second.

“Ultimately, if you went on a date with someone and you thought they were great, that’s the strongest signal that we’ve gotten very close to your type of person. So if there are more people like that person, we can show them to you,” says Hinge CEO Justin McLeod.

By “like that person” it’s not a matter of physical appearance or some sort of profile categorization, to be clear.

“You can’t really aggregate people into their component pieces and try to crack what’s someone’s ideal person,” McLeod explains.

Instead, Hinge uses collaborative filtering – people who like X also like Y – to help inform its matches on that front.

With the launch of We Met, Hinge will now know when dates succeed or fail, and eventually, perhaps, why. It also plans to combine the We Met data with other signals – such as, whether users become inactive in the app or delete their accounts, as well as email survey data – to figure out which dates may have turned into relationships.

This is something of a first for the dating app industry, which is today incentivized to keep users “playing” their matching games, and spending money on in-app subscriptions – not leave them. It’s not in dating apps’ financial interest, at least, to create relationships (i.e., heavy user churn).

This influences the dating apps’ design – they don’t tend to include features designed to connect people in real life.

For example, they don’t make suggestions of events, concerts, and other things to do; they don’t offer maps of nearby restaurants, bars, coffee shops, or other public spaces for first dates; they don’t offer built-in calling (or gamify unlocking a calling feature by continuing to chat in app); they don’t use in-app prompts to suggest users exchange numbers and leave the app. Instead, apps tend to push users to chat more – with things like buttons for adding photos and GIFs, or even tabs for browsing Facebook-style News Feeds.

The problem of wasting time chatting in dating apps has now become so prevalent that many users’ profiles today explicitly state that they’re “not looking for pen pals.”

Of course dating apps – just like any other way of meeting new people – will have their share of success stories. Everyone knows someone who met online.

But claims that, for example, Tinder is somehow responsible for a whole generation of “Tinder babies” are hugely suspect, because the company doesn’t have any way of tracking if matches are actually dating, and certainly not if they end up getting married and having kids. It even said so in a recent documentary.

All Tinder has – or any of these companies, really – are anecdotes and emails from happy couples. (And this, of course, should be expected, with user bases in the tens of millions, like Tinder.)

We Met, meanwhile, is actually focused on quantifying real world dating successes in Hinge, not in-app engagement. Longer term, it could help to establish Hinge as place that’s for people who want relationships, not just serial dates or hookups.

The feature is also another example of how Hinge is leveraging A.I. combined with user insights to improve matches. Recently, it rolled out a machine learning-powered feature, Most Compatible, to help provide users with daily recommendations based on their in-app activity.

Hinge says We Met will launch today, October 16, on iOS first. Android will soon follow.

Worries linger as Facebook withholds stolen searches & checkins

Hacked Facebook users still don’t know which 15 recent searches and 10 latest checkins were exposed in the company’s massive breach it detailed last week. The company merely noted that those were amongst the data sets stolen by the attackers. That creates uncertainty about how sensitive or embarrassing the scraped data is, and whether it could possibly be used to blackmail and stalk them.

Much of the scraped data from the 14 million most-impacted users out of 30 million total people hit by the breach was biographical and therefore relatively static, such as their birth date, religion or hometown. While still problematic because it could be used for unconsented ad targeting, scams, hacking attempts or social engineering attacks, at least users likely know what was illicitly grabbed.

Thankfully, some of the most sensitive data fields, such as sexual orientation, were not accessed, Facebook confirms to me. But the exposure of recent searches and checkins could threaten users in different ways.

Given the attack was so broad and impacted a wide variety of users, unlike say a targeted attack on the Democratic National Convention, there’s no evidence that blackmailing or stalking individual users was the purpose of the hack. For the average user hit by the breach, the likelihood of this kind of follow-up attack may be low.

But given that public figures, including Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg, were victims of the attack, as well as many reporters (myself included), there remains a risk that the perpetrators paw through the data seeking high-profile people to exploit.

Stolen data on “the 15 most recent searches you’ve entered into the Facebook search bar” could contain embarrassing or controversial topics, competitive business research or potential infidelity. Many users might be mortified if their searches for racy content, niche political viewpoints or their ex-lovers were published in association with their real name. Hackers could potentially target victims with blackmail scams threatening to reveal this info to the world, especially since the hack included user contact info, including phone numbers and email addresses.

Scraped checkins could power real-world stalking or attacks. Users’ exact GPS coordinates were not accessible to the hackers, but they did grab 14 million people’s “10 most recent locations you’ve checked in to or been tagged in. These locations are determined by the places named in the posts, such as a landmark or restaurant, not location data from a device,” Facebook writes. If users checked in to nearby coffee shops, their place of work or even their home if they’ve given it a cheeky name as some urban millennials do, their history of visiting those locations is now in dangerous hands.

If users at least knew what searches or checkins of theirs were stolen, they could choose if or how they should modify their behavior or better protect themselves. That’s why amongst Facebook’s warnings to users about whether they were hacked and what types of data were accessed, it should also consider giving those users the option to see the specific searches or checkins that were snatched.

When asked by TechCrunch, a Facebook spokesperson declined to comment on its plans here. It is understandable that the company might be concerned that disclosing the particular searches and checkins could unnecessarily increase fear and doubt. But if it’s just trying to limit the backlash, it forfeited that right when it prioritized growth and speed over security.

As Facebook tries to recover from the breach and regain the trust of its audience of 2.2 billion, it should err on the side of transparency. If hackers know this information, shouldn’t the hacked users too?

A fictional Facebook Portal videochat with Mark Zuckerberg

TechCrunch: Hey Portal, dial Mark

Portal: Do you mean Mark Zuckerberg?

TC: Yes

Portal: Dialling Mark…


TC: Hi Mark! Nice choice of grey t-shirt.

MZ: Uh, new phone who dis? — oh, hi, er, TechCrunch…

TC: Thanks for agreeing to this entirely fictional interview, Mark!

MZ: Sure — anytime. But you don’t mind if I tape over the camera do you? You see I’m a bit concerned about my privacy here at, like, home

TC: We feel you, go ahead.

As you can see, we already took the precaution of wearing this large rubber face mask of, well, of yourself Mark. And covering the contents of our bedroom with these paint-splattered decorator sheets.

MZ: Yeah, I saw that. It’s a bit creepy tbh

TC: Go on and get all taped up. We’ll wait.

[sound of Mark calling Priscilla to bring the tape dispenser]

[Portal’s camera jumps out to assimilate Priscilla Chan into the domestic scene, showing a generous vista of the Zuckerbergs’ living room, complete with kids playing in the corner. Priscilla, clad in an oversized dressing gown and with her hair wrapped in a big fluffy towel, can be seen gesticulating at the camera. She is also coughing]

Priscilla to Mark: I already told you — there’s a camera cover built into into Portal. You don’t need to use tape now

MZ: Oh, right, right!

Okay, going dark! Wow, that feels better already

[sound of knuckles cracking]

TC: So, Mark, let’s talk hardware! What’s your favorite Amazon Echo?

MZ: Uh, well…

TC: We’d guess one with all the bells & whistles, right? There’s definitely something more than a little Echo Show-y about Portal

MZ: Sure, I mean. We think Alexa is a great product

TC: Mhmm. Do you remember when digital photo frames first came out? They were this shiny new thing about, like, a decade ago? One of those gadgets your parents buy you around Thanksgiving, which ends up stuck in a drawer forever?

MZ: Yeah! I think someone gave me one once with a photo of me playing beer pong on it. We had it hanging in the downstairs rest room for the longest time. But then we got an Android tablet with a Wi-Fi connection for in there, so…

TC: Now here we are a decade or so later with Portal advancing the vision of what digital photo frames can be!

MZ: Yeah! I mean, you don’t even have to pick the pictures! It’s pretty awesome. This one here — oh, right you can’t see me but let me describe it for you — this one here is of a Halloween party I went to one year. Someone was dressed as SpongeBob. I think they might have been called Bob, actually… And this is, like, some other Facebook friends doing some other fun stuff. Pretty amazing.

You can also look at album art

TC: But not YouTube, right? But let’s talk about video calling

MZ: It’s an amazing technology

TC: It sure is. Skype, FaceTime… live filters, effects, animoji…

MZ: We’re building on a truly great technology foundation. Portal autozooming means you don’t even have to think about watching the person you’re talking to! You can just be doing stuff in your room and the camera will always be adjusting to capture everything you’re doing! Pretty amazing.

TC: Doing what Mark? Actually, let’s not go there

MZ: Portal will even suggest people for you to call! We think this will be a huge help for our mission to promote Being Well — uh, I mean Time Well Spent because our expert machine learning algorithms will be nudging you to talk to people you should really be talking to

TC: Like my therapist?

MZ: Uh, well, it depends. But our AI can suggest personalized meaningful interactions by suggesting Messenger contacts to call up

TC: It’s not going to suggest I videchat my ex is it?

MZ: Haha! Hopefully not. But maybe your mom? Or your grandma?

TC: Sounds incredibly useful. Well, assuming they didn’t already #deletefacebook.

But let’s talk about kids

MZ: Kids! Yeah we love them. Portal is going to be amazing for kids

TC: You have this storybook thing going on, right? Absent grandparents using Portal to read kids bedtime stories and what not…

MZ: Right! We think kids are going to love it. And grandparents! We’ve got these animal masks if you get bored of looking at your actual family members. It’s good, clean, innovative fun for all the family!

TC: Yeah, although, I mean, nothing beats reading from an actual kid’s book, right?

MZ: Well…

TC: If you do want to involve a device in your kid’s bedtime there are quite a lot of digital ebook apps for that already. Apple has a whole iBooks library of the things with read-aloud narration, for example.

And, maybe you missed this — but quite a few years ago there was a big bunch of indie apps and services all having a good go at selling the same sort of idea of ‘interactive remote reading experiences’ for families with kids. Though not many appear to have gone the distance. Which does sort of suggest there isn’t a huge unmet need for extra stuff beyond, well, actual children’s books and videochat apps like Skype and FaceTime.

Also, I mean, children’s story reading apps and interactive kids’ e-books are pretty much as old as the hills in Internet terms at this point. So, er, you’re not really moving fast and breaking things are you!?

MZ: Actually we’re more focused on stable infrastructure these days

TC: And hardware too, apparently. Which is a pretty radical departure for Facebook. All those years everyone thought you were going to do a Facebook phone but you left it to Amazon to flop into that pit… Who needs hardware when you can put apps and tracker pixels on everything, right?!

But here you are now, kinda working with Amazon for Portal — while also competing with Alexa hardware by selling your own countertop device… Aren’t you at all nervous about screwing this up? Hardware IS hard. And homes have curtains for a reason…

MZ: We’re definitely confident kids aren’t going to try swivelling around on the Portal Plus like it’s a climbing frame, if that’s what you mean. Well, hopefully not anyway

TC: But about you, Facebook Inc, putting an all-seeing-eye-cum-Internet-connected-listening-post into people’s living rooms and kids’ bedrooms…

MZ: What about it?

[MZ speaking to someone else in the room] Does the speaker have an off switch? How do I mute this thing?

TC: Hello? Mark?

[silence]

[sound comes back on briefly and a snatch of conversation can be heard between Mark and Priscilla about the need to buy more diapers. Mark is then heard shouting across the room that his Shake Shack order of a triple cheeseburger and fries plus butterscotch malt is late again]

[silence] 

[crackle and a congested throat clearing sound. A child is heard in the background asking for Legos]

MZ: Not now okay honey. Okay hon-, uh, hello — what were you saying?

TC: Will you be putting a Portal in Max’s room?

MZ: Haha! She’d probably prefer Legos

TC: August?

MZ: She’s only just turned one

TC: Okay, let’s try a more direct question. Do you at all think that you, Facebook Inc,

might have a problem selling a $200+ piece of Internet-connected hardware when your company is known for creeping on people to sell ads?

MZ: Oh no, no! — we’ve, like, totally thought of that!

Let me read you what marketing came up with. Hang on, it’s around here somewhere…

[sound of paper rustling]

Here we go [reading]:

Facebook doesn’t listen to, view, or keep the contents of your Portal video calls. Your Portal conversations stay between you and the people you’re calling. In addition, video calls on Portal are encrypted, so your calls are always secure.

For added security, Smart Camera and Smart Sound use AI technology that runs locally on Portal, not on Facebook servers. Portal’s camera doesn’t use facial recognition and doesn’t identify who you are.

Like other voice-enabled devices, Portal only sends voice commands to Facebook servers after you say, ‘Hey Portal.’ You can delete your Portal’s voice history in your Facebook Activity Log at any time.

Pretty cool, huh!

TC: Just to return to your stable infrastructure point for a second, Mark — did you mean Facebook is focused on security too? Because, well, your company keeps leaking personal data like a sieve holds water

MZ: We think of infrastructure as a more holistic concept. And, uh, as a word that sounds reassuring

TC: Okay, so of course you can’t 100% guarantee Portal against hacking risks, though you’re taking precautions by encrypting calls. But Portal might also ‘accidentally’ record stuff adults and kids say in the home — i.e. if its ‘Hey Portal’ local listening function gets triggered when it shouldn’t. And it will then be 100% up to a responsible adult to find their way through Facebook’s labyrinthine settings and delete those wiretaps, won’t it?

MZ: You can control all your information, yes

TC: The marketing bumpf also doesn’t spell out what Facebook does with ‘Hey Portal’ voice recordings, or the personal insights your company is able to glean from them, but Facebook is in the business of profiling people for ad targeting purposes so we must assume that any and all voice commands and interactions, with the sole exception of the contents of videocalls, will go into feeding that beast.

So the metadata of who you talk to via Portal, what you listen to and look at (minus any Alexa-related interactions that you’ve agreed to hand off to Amazon for its own product targeting purposes), and potentially much more besides is all there for Facebook’s taking — given the kinds of things that an always-on listening device located in a domestic setting could be accidentally privy to.

Then, as more services get added to Portal, more personal behavioral data will be generated and can be processed by Facebook for selling ads.

MZ: Well, I mean, like I told that Senator we do sell ads

TC: And smart home hardware too now, apparently.

One more thing, Mark: In Europe, Facebook didn’t used to have face recognition technology switched on did it?

MZ: We had it on pause for a while

TC: But you switched it back on earlier this year right?

MZ: Facebook users in Europe can choose to use it, yes

TC: And who’s in charge of framing that choice?

MZ: Uh, well we are obviously

TC: We’d like you to tap on the Portal screen now, Mark. Tap on the face you can see to make the camera zoom right in on this mask of your own visage. Can you do that for us?

MZ: Uh, sure

[sound of a finger thudding against glass]

MZ: Are you seeing this? It really is pretty creepy!

Or — I mean — it would be if it wasn’t so, like, familiar…

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg arrives to testify before a joint hearing of the US Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

[sound of a child crying]

Priscilla to Mark: Eeeew! Turn that thing off!

TC: Thanks Mark. We’ll leave you guys to it.

Enjoy your Shake Shack. Again.


Portal: Thanks for calling Mark, TechCrunch! Did you enjoy your Time Well Spent?

Snapchat now has cat lenses. (Yes, for your cat.)

It’s 8:00 PM on Friday night and you’re home alone and already drunk. Oh, is that just me? Well no matter. Snapchat has made lenses for your cat now. Yes, that’s right. Your cat! This is what the internet is made for, friends. Not all that fake news and trolling. Not having to read tweets where people use words like “woke” unironically. Cat lenses! 

So technically, I guess, Snapchat added the ability to recognize things in your photos last November, like food, sports, and even pets, then suggest appropriate filters – like a sticker that says “IT’S A PAWTY” above a photo of a dog.

But now you can put a set of matching glasses on yourself and your cat.

Or give you and your cat rainbow unicorn horns.

Or give Mr. Fluffypants some big ol’ googley eyes.

Or put a piece of toast over his face, which makes him look even less amused than usual.

What the actual f***

You can even give you and kitty big, fat lips as you kissy face the camera.

You can be the angel, while the cat gets devil horns and wings, as is – of course, appropriate.

I mean, this may or may not solve Snap’s long list of problems, like its rushed redesign, the mess that’s Snapchat Discover, its inability to attract adult users, falling share price, and ooooh, all that money it’s bleeding. ($353M last quarter!)

And that Saudi money, don’t forget that! (No, seriously, don’t.)

But I mean, c’mon. C’MON. 

Internet, we deserve this.

This is what 2018 needs.

Cat lenses.

Cat lenses to make everything better.

Cat lenses, and this here drink.

Facebook prototypes Unsend 6 months after Zuckerberg retracted messages

In April, TechCrunch broke the news that some of Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook messages were deleted from recipients’ inboxes in what some saw as a violation of user trust. Then, Facebook suddenly announced that it would actually build this Unsend functionality for everyone. Then six months went by without a peep about the feature, furthering suspicions that the announcement that it would release an Unsend button was merely a PR driven response to the scandal.

Late last week, TechCrunch asked Facebook about its progress on Unsend, and the company told us “Though we have nothing to announce today, we have previously confirmed that we intend to ship a feature like this and are still planning to do so.”

Now we have our first look at the feature thanks to TechCrunch’s favorite tipster Jane Manchun Wong. She’s managed to generate screenshots of a prototype Unsend button from Facebook Messenger’s Android code. Currently, you can only delete messages from your own inbox — they still remain in the recipients’ inbox. But with this Unsend feature, you’ll be able to remove a message from both sides of a conversation. However, the code indicates that in the current prototype there’s a “time limit”. That may mean users would only have a certain amount of time after they send a message to unsend it. That would essentially be an editing window in which users could take back what they said.

In response, a spokesperson confirmed that “Facebook internally tests products and features before they ship to the public so we can ensure the quality of the experience.”

The Unsend feature could be useful to people who say something stupid or inappropriate, disclose a secret they shouldn’t have, or want to erase evidence of their misdeeds. That could make users more comfortable speaking freely on the app, since they know they can retract their texts. Snapchat’s messages self-destruct unless purposefully saved to the thread by a user, permitting more off-the-cuff chatting.

But Unsend could also open vectors for abuse, as users could harass people over Messenger and then delete the evidence. Facebook will need to ensure that Unsend doesn’t accidentally become a weapon for bullies. That might mean allowing users to turn off the ability for their conversation partners to Unsend messages on a thread by thread basis, and/or a report button specifically for flagging messages that have since been retracted.

Facebook’s acquisition Instagram already lets users Unsend messages. But that chat product is more designed for having fun, discussing memes, and sharing photos with close friends. Messenger has positioned itself as a core communications utility for the world. Messing with the permanence of messages could make it feel less reliable or truthful to some users. When we talk in person, our conversations aren’t written in stone forever…but there’s also no way to force someone to forget what you said.

Facebook bans hundreds of clickbait farms for ‘coordinated inauthentic behavior’

Facebook has announced a relatively small but significant purge of bad actors from the platform: 810 pages and accounts that have “consistently broken our rules against spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior.” It may not seem like a lot, but it sounds like the company is erring on the side of disclosure even if the news isn’t particularly hard-hitting.

These were not, as far as Facebook could tell, part of an organized nation-state effort or political interference campaign, like the Iranian and Russian groups previously highlighted in these ban alert posts. These are pages that use networks of fake accounts and pages to drive traffic to clickbait articles strictly for the purpose of ad revenue.

810 can’t be much more than a drop out of the bucket of fake accounts on Facebook — of which there are millions — but the company’s focus right now isn’t individual bad actors but coordinated ones.

A few hundred accounts working together to do a bit of ad fraud produces a sort of digital footprint that might look similar to a a few hundred accounts working together to push a political narrative or sow discontent.  And one can turn into the other quite easily.

There are patterns of logins, likes, visits, account creation, and so on that Facebook has been working hard to identify — recently, at least. Although they’ve designed their net to catch the nation-state actors and large-scale operations that have previously been uncovered, small fry like these spammers are getting tangled up as well. Not a bad thing.

“Given the activity we’ve seen — and its timing ahead of the US midterm elections — we wanted to give some details about the types of behavior that led to this action,” the company wrote on its blog.

No doubt they also want to give the impression that there is indeed a cop on the beat. Expect more announcements like this through the midterms as Facebook strives to make it clear that it is working round the clock to keep you, its valuable product users, safe.