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This Week in Apps: Black Friday’s boost, security news and the year’s biggest apps

18:00 | 7 December

Welcome back to This Week in Apps, the Extra Crunch series that recaps the latest OS news, the applications they support and the money that flows through it all. What are developers talking about? What do app publishers and marketers need to know? How are politics impacting the App Store and app businesses? And which apps are everyone using?

This week we look at how the Black Friday weekend played out on mobile (including which non-shopping category that saw a boost in revenue!), as well as a few security-related stories, TikTok’s latest bad press, plus Apple and Google’s best and most downloaded apps of 2019, and more.

Headlines

80% of Android apps are encrypting traffic by default

Google gave an update on Android security this week, noting that 80% of Android applications were encrypting traffic by default, and that percentage was higher for apps targeting Android 9 or higher, with 90% of them encrypting traffic by default. Android protects the traffic entering or leaving the devices with TLS (Transport Layer Security). Its new statistics are related to Android 7’s introduction of the Network Security Configuration in 2016, which allows app developers to configure the network security policy for their app through a declarative configuration file. Apps targeting Android 9 (API level 28) or higher automatically have a policy set by default that prevents unencrypted traffic for every domain. And since Nov. 1, 2019, all apps (including app updates) must target at least Android 9, Google says. That means the percentages will improve as more apps roll out their next updates.

Black Friday boosted mobile game revenue to a record $70M

U.S. sales holiday Black Friday wasn’t just good for online shoppers, who spent a record $7.4 billion in sales, $2.9 billion from smartphones. It also boosted iOS and Android mobile game revenue to a single-day record of $69.7 million in the U.S., according to Sensor Tower. This was the most revenue ever generated in a single day for the category, and it represents a 25% increase over 2018. Marvel Contest of Champions from Kabam led the day with approximately $2.7 million in player spending. Two titles from Playrix — Gardenscapes and Homescapes — also won big, with $1 million and $969,000 in revenue, respectively.

These increases indicate that consumers are looking for all kinds of deals on Black Friday, not just those related to holiday gift-giving. They’re also happy to spend on themselves in games. Mobile publishers caught on to this trend and offered special in-game deals on Black Friday which really paid off.

Did Walmart beat Amazon’s app on Black Friday?

Sensor Tower and Apptopia said it did. App Annie also said it did, but then later took it back (see update). In any event, it must have been a close race. According to Sensor Tower, Walmart’s app reached No.1 on the U.S. App Store on Black Friday with 113,000 new downloads, a year-over-year increase of 23%. Amazon had 102,000 downloads, making it No. 2.

Arguably, many Amazon shoppers already have the app installed, so this is more about Walmart’s e-commerce growth more so than some ding on Amazon.

In fact, Apptopia said that Amazon still had 162% more mobile sessions over the full holiday weekend — meaning Amazon was more shopped than Walmart.

More broadly, mobile shopping is still huge on Black Friday. The top 10 shopping apps grew their new installs by 11% over last year on Black Friday, to reach a combined 527,000 installs.

Report: Android Advanced Protection Program could prevent sideloading

Google’s Advanced Protection Program protects the accounts of those at risks of targeted attacks — like journalists, activists, business leaders, and political campaign teams. This week, 9to5Google found the program may get a new protection feature with the ability to block sideloading of apps, according to an APK breakdown. What’s not yet clear is if program members will have the option to disable the protection, but there are some indications that may be the case. Another feature the report uncovered appears to show that Play Protect will automatically scan all apps, including those from outside the Play Store. This won’t affect the majority of Android users, of course, but it is an indication of where Google believes security risks may be found: sideloaded apps.

Bug hunter suggests Security.plist standard for apps

 


0

Google’s A.I.-powered voice recorder and transcription app comes to older Pixel phones

23:34 | 5 December

Google’s A.I. powered voice recorder app introduced at Google’s October hardware event was one of the company’s more impressive demos. The new app taps into advances in A.I., speech processing, and speech recognition in order to automatically transcribe a voice recording with few mistakes, in real-time as the person is speaking. Unfortunately, Google’s Recorder app was locked to Pixel 4 devices at launch. That has now changed.

As first spotted by Android Police, the Recorder app is available to Android users with older Pixel devices, including Pixel 2, Pixel 3, and Pixel 3a. The updated support was added to the app today, Sensor Tower also confirmed. But the lack of publicity around the launch has led it to see fewer than 1,000 downloads so far.

voice recorder

Google had previously announced its intention to make the app more widely available. In a recent Reddit thread, a company representative said the app would become available to more Pixel users in the future via a software update. They didn’t say when that update would arrive, though.

While there are many voice recorder apps on today’s market, there are fewer that offer real-time transcriptions. And of those that do — like Otter.ai, for example — the resulting text is often half-garbled. While these services can still be useful as a way to quickly find a section of a recording to then play back and manually transcribe, the lack of accuracy can limit adoption.

Google’s Recorder app was demonstrated at Google’s fall event as capable of taking a far more accurate transcription. Of course, the app was being not put to real-world use at the time — with different types of voices, accents, and background noise, it may not be as accurate. In addition, the app lacks the ability to identify and label different speakers, which could make it more difficult to use in situations like meetings or interviews.

That being said, the app held up well in initial tests in a review by The Wall St. Journal’s Joanna Stern, though it stumbled with accents. Other reviewers found the app to be fairly powerful, too, if a little basic in its overall design.

pixel voice recorder

However, Recorder does have an advantage over some of its rivals: it doesn’t require an internet connection to work. Instead, all the recording and transcription capabilities take place directly on the device. That means you could even use the app while in airplane mode.

In addition, a built-in advanced search feature lets you search for sounds, words, and phrases and then see a visual depiction of where the search term was spoken in the playback bar so you can go to the recording you need.

Google has put its real-time speech transcription technology to work in a number of ways, besides Recorder. It also introduced live caption technology for Android devices, for example, which brings transcriptions to things like video or audio saved on your device, or video playback outside of YouTube.

The Recorder app is a free download on Google Play.

We’ve reached out to Google for any update on its plans to make Recorder more broadly available across Android . The company hasn’t responded to our questions at this time.

 

 

 

 


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Reinventing the relationship between workers and tech

18:21 | 2 December

Rachel Kornberg Contributor
Rachel Korberg is a program officer with the Ford Foundation’s Future of Work(ers) initiative, which seeks to build a more just and inclusive future for workers in our rapidly changing economy.

A young father and kitchen worker in Pittsburgh was thrilled to get a job with a big restaurant chain that paid $15 an hour — much more than he had been making in fast food.

Soon after starting, however, he learned that his schedule was set through an algorithm that crunches a range of data — from weather forecasts to past sales — to predict customer traffic, optimize shifts, and, ultimately, maximize profits. As a result, his hours were extremely unpredictable and sometimes his shifts were cancelled minutes before they were set to start. A job he believed would provide security now barely gave him enough hours to make rent and provide for his family. And it was all because of how his employer used technology.

The Pittsburgh worker’s story is not unique; the average American worker hasn’t gotten a meaningful raise in over 40 years, which has been made worse by meager benefits packages, volatile schedules and pay, and barriers to worker voice. While technology didn’t cause these longstanding challenges, the industry has failed to disrupt them — and at times even scaled and amplified them — as new technologies proliferate the workplace. This is one of the reasons there is a growing backlash against the tech industry, from the Uber and Lyft protests that grounded New York traffic to a halt to Google walkouts to the customer uproar that spurred DoorDash to change its tipping practices. And legal action abounds. Just last week, New Jersey fined Uber $649 million, while Washington D.C. sued DoorDash .

But the future doesn’t have to be this way. New and emerging technologies have the power to improve the lives of workers and make jobs more stable, fair, and dignified, while still delivering value and profit. The first step is making sure workers have a seat at the table — and a voice — to shape every aspect of technology, from design and development, investment and adoption, and policymaking and governance. Several new initiatives led by business, government, and workers are embracing this approach and, in the process, offer models for how to create a new, win-win relationship between tech and workers.

Workers and industry are beginning to partner to develop new technologies. The Partnership on Artificial Intelligence (PAI) is a coalition of major tech companies, from Apple to Google, created with the mission of sharing the benefits of artificial intelligence. PAI recently launched an effort focused on workers and labor, engaging directly with workers and their representatives to develop a set of actionable recommendations about how to integrate AI into the workplace in a way that creates greater opportunity and security for workers. MIT, which is prolific in developing innovative technologies often in partnership with industry, is exploring inviting in groups of workers to advise their labs, an idea that emerged from the labor leaders who are involved with the University’s Work of the Future Taskforce. Tech companies should consider adopting and even deepening these practices of partnering directly with workers and worker groups and inviting them in to shape the development of new tech and business practices around tech adoption.

Government is bringing together business and workers to create policy. Government at all levels has been caught off guard by how quickly new technologies have transformed entire industries and struggled to develop the policies and programs needed to ensure that communities and workers benefit from the changes. To address this, California Governor Gavin Newsom recently launched a commission on the future of work. The president of the Service Employees International Union co-chairs the commission, and members include representatives of domestic workers and restaurant workers serving alongside leaders in business, government, and tech.

Having workers at the table for future of work conversations is all too rare, and it is already making an impact: the commission is not defaulting to only the typical solutions — guaranteed basic income and retraining — and is also exploring a range of ideas, from how workers might earn value from their data to the business case for improving job quality.  A number of cities and states are considering launching similar commissions, and New Jersey already has one in place.

When all else fails, workers are becoming the tech developers and investors they need. Many worker organizations are hopeful about the promise of technology, but they take issue with how tech is is too often used to amplify and scale business practices that hurt workers. Palak Shah, Director of National Domestic Worker Alliance’s innovation lab, is one of several, innovative leaders who is not waiting on the tech industry to develop what workers need and is instead building the tech herself. “Silicon Valley is great at optimizing for convenience… but we wanted to optimize for dignity and equity,” she said.

Over the past few years, Shah and a diverse team of organizers, developers, and domestic workers have launched a new fintech product to extend paid time off to house cleaners for the first time ever, a digital tool to help more nannies access contracts rather than work under the table, and even launched an investment fund that puts domestic workers in the investor role, directing capital to where they believe it would most improve their lives. This stands alongside a handful of other impactful efforts launched in the past few years, such as the Worker’s Lab and Employment Tech Fund, that fund a number of technologies designed for and by workers, as well as startups founded by former low-wage workers and worker organizers, such as Driver’s Seat, which supports ride-hail drivers in aggregating and capturing value from their data.

From city hall to the boardroom to protests in the streets, society is asking who tech should serve. The answer is clear: technology can and must work to disrupt the structural inequities in our workplace and economy. This starts by ensuring that workers have a seat at the table to shape how new technologies are developed, applied, and governed.

 


0

Facebook launches a photo portability tool, starting in Ireland

14:14 | 2 December

It’s not friend portability, but Facebook has announced the launch today of a photo transfer tool to enable users of its social network to port their photos directly to Google’s photo storage service, via encrypted transfer.

The photo portability feature is initially being offered to Facebook users in Ireland, where the company’s international HQ is based. Facebook says it is still testing and tweaking the feature based on feedback but slates “worldwide availability” as coming in the first half of 2020.

It also suggests porting to other photo storage services will be supported in the future, in addition to Google Photos — which specifying which services it may seek to add.

Facebook says the tool is based on code developed via its participation in the Data Transfer Project — a collaborative effort started last year that’s currently backed by five tech giants (Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Twitter) who have committed to build “a common framework with open-source code that can connect any two online service providers, enabling a seamless, direct, user initiated portability of data between the two platforms”.

Facebook also points to a white paper it published in September — where it advocates for “clear rules” to govern the types of data that should be portable and “who is responsible for protecting that data as it moves to different providers”.

Behind all these moves is of course the looming threat of antitrust regulation, with legislators and agencies on both sides of the Atlantic now closely eyeing platforms’ grip on markets, eyeballs and data.

Hence Facebook’s white paper couching portability tools as “helping keep competition vibrant among online services”. (Albeit, if the ‘choice’ being offered is to pick another tech giant to get your data that’s not exactly going to reboot the competitive landscape.)

It’s certainly true that portability of user uploaded data can be helpful in encouraging people to feel they can move from a dominant service.

However it is also something of a smokescreen — especially when A) the platform in question is a social network like Facebook (because it’s people who keep other people stuck to these types of services); and B) the value derived from the data is retained by the platform regardless of whether the photos themselves travel elsewhere.

Facebook processes user uploaded data such as photos to gain personal insights to profile users for ad targeting purposes. So even if you send your photos elsewhere that doesn’t diminish what Facebook has already learned about you, having processed your selfies, groupies, baby photos, pet shots and so on. (It has also designed the portability tool to send a copy of the data; ergo, Facebook still retains your photos unless you take additional action — such as deleting your account.)

The company does not offer users any controls (portability tools or access rights) over the inferences it makes based on personal data such as photos.

Or indeed control over insights it services from its analysis of usage of its platform or wider browsing of the Internet (Facebook tracks both users and non users across the web via tools like social plug-ins and tracking pixels).

Given its targeted ads business is powered by a vast outgrowth of tracking (aka personal data processing), there’s little risk to Facebook to offer a portability feature buried in a sub-menu somewhere that lets a few in-the-know users click to send a copy of their photos to another tech giant.

Indeed, it may hope to benefit from similar incoming ports from other platforms in future.

“We hope this product can help advance conversations on the privacy questions we identified in our white paper,” Facebook writes. “We know we can’t do this alone, so we encourage other companies to join the Data Transfer Project to expand options for people and continue to push data portability innovation forward.”

Competition regulators looking to reboot digital markets will need to dig beneath the surface of such self-serving initiatives if they are to alight on a meaningful method of reining in platform power.

 


0

Android’s Ambient Mode will soon come to ‘select devices’

21:00 | 26 November

You’ve probably heard murmurs about Google’s forthcoming Ambient Mode for Android . The company first announced this feature, which essentially turns an Android device into a smart display while it’s charging, in September. Now, in a Twitter post, Google confirmed that it will launch soon, starting with a number of select devices that run Android 8.0 or later.

At the time, Google said Ambient Mode was coming to the Lenovo Smart Tab M8 HD and Smart Tab tablets, as well as the Nokia 7.2 and 6.2 phones. According to the Verge, it’ll also come to Sony, Nokia, Transsion and Xiaomi phones, though Google’s own Pixels aren’t on the company’s list yet.

“The ultimate goal for proactive Assistant is to help you get things done faster, anticipate your needs and accomplish your tasks as quickly and as easily as possible,” said Google Assistant product manager Arvind Chandrababu in the announcement. “It’s fundamentally about moving from an app-based way of doing things to an intent-based way of doing things. Right now, users can do most things with their smartphones, but it requires quite a bit of mental bandwidth to figure out, hey, I need to accomplish this task, so let me backtrack and figure out all the steps that I need to do in order to get there.”

Those are pretty lofty goals. In practice, what this means, for now, is that you will be able to set an alarm with just a few taps from the ambient screen, see your upcoming appointments, turn off your connected lights and see a slideshow of your images in the background. I don’t think that any of those tasks really consumed a lot of mental bandwidth in the first place, but Google says it has more proactive experiences planned for the future.

 

 


0

Making sense of a multi-cloud, hybrid world at KubeCon

23:42 | 22 November

More than 12,000 attendees gathered this week in San Diego to discuss all things containers, Kubernetes and cloud-native at KubeCon.

Kubernetes, the container orchestration tool, turned five this year, and the technology appears to be reaching a maturity phase where it accelerates beyond early adopters to reach a more mainstream group of larger business users.

That’s not to say that there isn’t plenty of work to be done, or that most enterprise companies have completely bought in, but it’s clearly reached a point where containerization is on the table. If you think about it, the whole cloud-native ethos makes sense for the current state of computing and how large companies tend to operate.

If this week’s conference showed us anything, it’s an acknowledgment that it’s a multi-cloud, hybrid world. That means most companies are working with multiple public cloud vendors, while managing a hybrid environment that includes those vendors — as well as existing legacy tools that are probably still on-premises — and they want a single way to manage all of this.

The promise of Kubernetes and cloud-native technologies, in general, is that it gives these companies a way to thread this particular needle, or at least that’s the theory.

Kubernetes to the rescue

Photo: Ron Miller/TechCrunch

If you were to look at the Kubernetes hype cycle, we are probably right about at the peak where many think Kubernetes can solve every computing problem they might have. That’s probably asking too much, but cloud-native approaches have a lot of promise.

Craig McLuckie, VP of R&D for cloud-native apps at VMware, was one of the original developers of Kubernetes at Google in 2014. VMware thought enough of the importance of cloud-native technologies that it bought his former company, Heptio, for $550 million last year.

As we head into this phase of pushing Kubernetes and related tech into larger companies, McLuckie acknowledges it creates a set of new challenges. “We are at this crossing the chasm moment where you look at the way the world is — and you look at the opportunity of what the world might become — and a big part of what motivated me to join VMware is that it’s successfully proven its ability to help enterprise organizations navigate their way through these disruptive changes,” McLuckie told TechCrunch.

He says that Kubernetes does actually solve this fundamental management problem companies face in this multi-cloud, hybrid world. “At the end of the day, Kubernetes is an abstraction. It’s just a way of organizing your infrastructure and making it accessible to the people that need to consume it.

“And I think it’s a fundamentally better abstraction than we have access to today. It has some very nice properties. It is pretty consistent in every environment that you might want to operate, so it really makes your on-prem software feel like it’s operating in the public cloud,” he explained.

Simplifying a complex world

One of the reasons Kubernetes and cloud-native technologies are gaining in popularity is because the technology allows companies to think about hardware differently. There is a big difference between virtual machines and containers, says Joe Fernandes, VP of product for Red Hat cloud platform.

“Sometimes people conflate containers as another form of virtualization, but with virtualization, you’re virtualizing hardware, and the virtual machines that you’re creating are like an actual machine with its own operating system. With containers, you’re virtualizing the process,” he said.

He said that this means it’s not coupled with the hardware. The only thing it needs to worry about is making sure it can run Linux, and Linux runs everywhere, which explains how containers make it easier to manage across different types of infrastructure. “It’s more efficient, more affordable, and ultimately, cloud-native allows folks to drive more automation,” he said.

Bringing it into the enterprise

Photo: Ron Miller/TechCrunch

It’s one thing to convince early adopters to change the way they work, but as this technology enters the mainstream. Gabe Monroy, partner program manager at Microsoft says to carry this technology to the next level, we have to change the way we talk about it.

 


0

Google employees will rally in protest of alleged worker retaliation

00:52 | 22 November

Google is under fire again for its treatment of employees. Tomorrow, a group of Google employees are holding a rally and press conference to speak out against the company’s decision to place two employees on indefinite administrative leave.

Earlier this month, Google fired one employee and put two, Laurence Berland and Rebecca Rivers, on leave for allegedly violating company policies. At the time, Google said one had searched for and shared confidential documents that were not pertinent to their job, and one had looked at the individual calendars of some staffers. Both Berland and Rivers are set to speak tomorrow at the rally.

This news was reported earlier by Forbes’ Jillian D’Onfro.

“The company is claiming that it is for looking up calendars and documents, which is something we all do  but we know that it is punishment for speaking up for themselves and others,” workers organizing at Google said in a press release. “We are demanding that Google bring these workers back to work immediately.”

They went on to say that the “attack” on Rivers and Berland “is an attack on all people who care about transparency and accountability for tech.” Organizers pointed to how Rivers helped create the petition to demand Google end its contract with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, and how Berland has participated in a number of worker-organized campaigns, including the one resisting YouTube’s role in facilitating hate speech.

“It’s a brute force intimidation attempt to silence workers and make it harder for us to fight back on issues of systemic racism, sexual harassment, harmful technologies, hate speech on our platforms, and business relationships with organizations that engage in human rights abuses,” organizers said.

Since the massive employee-led walkout last November, organizers say Google has tried to undermine further attempts to organize. In July, walkout co-organizer Meredith Whittaker left the company following reports of retaliation in April. Organizers of tomorrow’s rally also say Google has implemented new policies, like accessing need-to-know data a fireable offense. Organizers of the rally say both Rivers and Berland were put on leave for “simply looking at openly shared internal information.”

The rally will start at 11 a.m. at Google’s San Francisco office at 345 Spear Street. I’ve reached out to Google and will update this story if I hear back.

 


0

Google Assistant introduces personalized playlists of audio news

21:10 | 19 November

Starting today, when you say “Hey Google, play me the news” to a Google Assistant-enabled phone or smart speaker, you’ll get a tailored playlist of the day’s big headlines and stories.

That’s probably what many of us are hoping for when we listen to a news radio station or a daily news podcast during the morning commute. But those come from a single broadcaster, and may require you to hop around to get all the news you’re looking for.

In contrast, the feature that Google is calling Your News Update draws stories from a variety of publisher partners, focusing on the ones that seem relevant to your interests and your location.

“Audio has always been great,” said Audio News Product Manager Liz Gannes (a former tech journalist herself.) “It’s a tremendously evocative medium that conveys an immense amount of information.”

But she suggested that “the distribution technology has been slower [t evolve] than things like text and video,” which is why Google has been experimenting in this area. For example, it’s already added news stories to Google Assistant, as well as responses to news-related questions like “What’s the latest news about Brexit?”

Gannes added that behind the scenes, the company has been developing “an open specification for single topic audio stories.” So rather than dealing with an unwieldy hourlong broadcast or podcast, Google Assistant is working clips focused on a specific piece of news.

Your News Update usually starts with a few brief, general interest clips — namely, the big headlines of the day. Then it starts playing longer stories that are selected based on what Google knows about you.

For example, when I tried it out this morning, my update began with a 30-second update on the impeachment from Fox News (not one of my regular news sources) and ran through other then major stories of the day, then switched to longer (two- to three-minute) entertainment stories from sources like The Hollywood Reporter.

Gannes noted that “there’s a big emphasis on local news in this product — that don’t just mean where you live, but also other locations you care about.” And she said the average update will be around an hour and a half — so it can keep you occupied during a long commute, no dial-fiddling required.

John Ciancutti, Google’s director of engineering for search, added that the recommendations should get smarter over time: “If you want to skip a story … the more you listen, the better sense we get of your tastes and interests.” He also suggested that Your News Update could become more sensitive to context, offering different stories depending on whether (say) you’re in your car or in your kitchen.

“You can imagine in the future, you tune in and we know you’re in your car on Tuesday morning at 7:36, and we can predict based on other listening that you’ve got about a 28-minute commute,” Ciancutti said.

Your News Update is currently available in English in the United States, with plans for international expansion next year.

 


0

India says law permits agencies to snoop on citizen’s devices

17:57 | 19 November

The Indian government said on Tuesday that it is “empowered” to intercept, monitor, or decrypt any digital communication “generated, transmitted, received, or stored” on a citizen’s device in the country in the interest of national security or to maintain friendly relations with foreign states.

Citing section 69 of the Information Technology Act, 2000, and section 5 of the Telegraph Act, 1885, Minister of State for Home Affairs G. Kishan Reddy said local law empowers federal and state government to “intercept, monitor or decrypt or cause to be intercepted or monitored or decrypted any information generated, transmitted, received or stored in any computer resource in the interest of the sovereignty or integrity of India, the security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states or public order or for preventing incitement to the commission of any cognizable offence relating to above or for investigation of any offence.”

Reddy’s remarks were in response to the parliament, where a lawmaker had asked if the government had snooped on citizens’ WhatsApp, Messenger, Viber, and Google calls and messages.

The lawmaker’s question was prompted after 19 activists, journalists, politicians, and privacy advocates in India revealed earlier this month that their WhatsApp communications may have been compromised.

WhatsApp has said that Israeli spyware manufacturer NSO’s tools have been used to send malware to 1,400 users. The Facebook-owned company has in recent weeks alerted users whose accounts had been compromised. The social juggernaut earlier this month sued NSO alleging that its tools were being used to hack WhatsApp users.

NSO has maintained that it only sells its tools to government and intelligence agencies, an assertion that stoked fear among some that the state could be behind targeting the aforementioned 19 people — and perhaps more — in the country.

Reddy did not directly address the questions, but in a blanket written statement said that “authorized agencies as per due process of law, and subject to safeguards as provided in the rules” can intercept or monitor or decrypt “any information from any computer resource” in the country.

He added that each case of such interception has to be approved by the Union Home Secretary (in case of federal government) and by the Home Secretary of the State (in case of state government.)

Last month, the Indian government said it was moving ahead with its plan to revise existing rules to regulate intermediaries — social media apps and others that rely on users to create their content — as they are causing “unimaginable disruption” to democracy.

It told the country’s apex court that it would formulate the rules by January 15 of next year.

A report published today by New Delhi-based Software Law and Freedom Centre (SFLC) found that more than 100,000 telephone interception are issued by the federal government alone every year.

“On adding the surveillance orders issued by the state governments to this, it becomes clear that India routinely surveils her citizens’ communications on a truly staggering scale,” the report said.

The non-profit organization added that the way current laws that enable law enforcement agencies to conduct surveillance on citizens’ private communications are “opaque” as they are run “solely by the executive arm of the government, and make no provisions for independent oversight of the surveillance process.”

 


0

Google Maps tests a social networking feature with the ability to ‘follow’ Local Guides

19:54 | 18 November

Google Maps will soon begin testing a new feature that’s more common to social networks like Facebook, rather than a maps app: the ability to find and follow other users. In Google Maps’ case, it’s specifically rolling out the ability to follow top “Local Guides” — its community members who actively review business and share photos and other knowledge to Google Maps, as part of a larger rewards program.

The Local Guides program launched in 2015 as a way to take on Yelp Elites, by allowing the most active Maps contributors to earn status as a tastemaker of sorts for their own hometown. Guides write more in-depth business reviews and post photos in order to help other Google Maps users learn about the area.

In exchange, they receive a variety of perks like early access to new features, exclusive local meetups, free access to Google services, discounts and coupons, and more.

Now, Google says, it it’s kicking off a pilot program that will allow Google Maps users in select markets to follow top Local Guides by clicking a new “Follow” button on these users’ profile pages. By doing so, the Guides’ recommendations will be surfaced for you when you’re using Google Maps. In a new section on the “For You” tab in the app, you’ll find the area recommendations from the Local Guides.

Google is piloting the program in Bangkok, Delhi, London, Mexico City, New York, Osaka, San Francisco, São Paulo, and Tokyo, for the time being. Presumably, if all goes well, it would expand to more markets.

The feature is the latest move by Google Maps to take on Facebook as the first stop for discovering area businesses and keeping up with their news, events, sales, and more. Just over a year ago, Google rolled out a “Follow” feature for tracking businesses on the Maps app, which later expanded to iOS. This summer Google launched a host of tools for local businesses that allowed them to update their photos and profiles on Google Maps, claim a short URL, and send offers to customers — all features that challenge Facebook Pages.

But until now, Google’s focus has been on getting users to follow and interact with businesses themselves, not other users.

Of course, there’s one big caveat to the Local Guides program in terms of using it as a good source for business information: it’s crowdsourced info from regular people, not professional critics or reviewers. That means the quality of the Local Guides’ reviews can be fairly hit-or-miss. Meanwhile, Google seems more concerned with Local Guides’ engagement and quantity of reviews, rather than review accuracy or quality.

Often, the Local Guides’ reviews lack any criticism, but are simply non-detailed posts about the business in question. For example, many restaurant reviews don’t say much more than “the food is amazing! can’t wait to go back!,” or some variation of this with a few more words. They often read no better (and sometimes much worse) than the other user reviews on the Google Maps app. That’s not to say all Local Guides’ reviews are unhelpful — many do make an effort — but just seeing a review labeled as being from a “Local Guide” is no indication of the review’s quality.

However, the new recommendations feature coming to these 9 test markets will focus more on the Local Guides’ photos, rather than their words. On the “For You” tab of Google Maps, their recommendations will be on display in the form of photo collages — only by clicking through will you see what they wrote. The effect is one where there’s a bit of an Instagram-like feel to the Google Maps app.

The new feature was announced at Google’s annual Local Guides summit. Here, Google also shared how its Local Guides community has grown to around 120 million people across 24,000 cities and towns. But this is another confirmation that the company is celebrating user growth, but not necessarily with an eye on review quality. Unfortunately, if Local Guides can’t all be trusted to offer compelling, detailed and fair reviews, people will not consider them of interest, and won’t be compelled to “follow” anyone here for those sorts of recommendations.

Google didn’t say when the “Follow” feature would launch into pilot testing in these markets, just that it would be arriving “soon.”

 


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