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Main article: Mobile networks

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European risk report flags 5G security challenges

17:49 | 9 October

European Union Member States have published a joint risk assessment report into 5G technology which highlights increased security risks that will require a new approach to securing telecoms infrastructure.

The EU has so far resisted pressure from the U.S. to boycott Chinese tech giant Huawei as a 5G supplier on national security grounds, with individual Member States such as the UK also taking their time to chew over the issue.

But the report flags risks to 5G from what it couches as “non-EU state or state-backed actors” — which can be read as diplomatic code for Huawei. Though, as some industry watchers have been quick to point out, the label could be applied rather closer to home in the near future, should Brexit comes to pass…

Back in March, as European telecom industry concern swirled about how to respond to US pressure to block Huawei, the Commission stepped in to issue a series of recommendations — urging Member States to step up individual and collective attention to mitigate potential security risks as they roll out 5G networks.

Today’s risk assessment report follows on from that.

It identifies a number of “security challenges” that the report suggests are “likely to appear or become more prominent in 5G networks” vs current mobile networks — linked to the expanded use of software to run 5G networks; and software and apps that will be enabled by and run on the next-gen networks.

The role of suppliers in building and operating 5G networks is also noted as a security challenge, with the report warning of a “degree of dependency on individual suppliers”, and also of too many eggs being placed in the basket of a single 5G supplier.

Summing up the effects expected to follow 5G rollouts, per the report, it predicts:

  • An increased exposure to attacks and more potential entry points for attackers: With 5G networks increasingly based on software, risks related to major security flaws, such as those deriving from poor software development processes within suppliers are gaining in importance. They could also make it easier for threat actors to maliciously insert backdoors into products and make them harder to detect.
  • Due to new characteristics of the 5G network architecture and new functionalities, certain pieces of network equipment or functions are becoming more sensitive, such as base stations or key technical management functions of the networks.
  • An increased exposure to risks related to the reliance of mobile network operators on suppliers. This will also lead to a higher number of attacks paths that might be exploited by threat actors and increase the potential severity of the impact of such attacks. Among the various potential actors, non-EU States or State-backed are considered as the most serious ones and the most likely to target 5G networks.
  • In this context of increased exposure to attacks facilitated by suppliers, the risk profile of individual suppliers will become particularly important, including the likelihood of the supplier being subject to interference from a non-EU country.
  • Increased risks from major dependencies on suppliers: a major dependency on a single supplier increases the exposure to a potential supply interruption, resulting for instance from a commercial failure, and its consequences. It also aggravates the potential impact of weaknesses or vulnerabilities, and of their possible exploitation by threat actors, in particular where the dependency concerns a supplier presenting a high degree of risk.
  • Threats to availability and integrity of networks will become major security concerns: in addition to confidentiality and privacy threats, with 5G networks expected to become the backbone of many critical IT applications, the integrity and availability of those networks will become major national security concerns and a major security challenge from an EU perspective.

The high level report is a compilation of Member States’ national risk assessments, working with the Commission and the European Agency for Cybersecurity. It’s couched as just a first step in developing a European response to securing 5G networks.

“It highlights the elements that are of particular strategic relevance for the EU,” the report says in self-summary. “As such, it does not aim at presenting an exhaustive analysis of all relevant aspects or types of individual cybersecurity risks related to 5G networks.”

The next step will be the development, by December 31, of a toolbox of mitigating measures, agreed by the Network and Information Systems Cooperation Group, which will be aimed at addressing identified risks at national and Union level.

“By 1 October 2020, Member States – in cooperation with the Commission – should assess the effects of the Recommendation in order to determine whether there is a need for further action. This assessment should take into account the outcome of the coordinated European risk assessment and of the effectiveness of the measures,” the Commission adds.

For the toolbox a variety of measures are likely to be considered, per the report — consisting of existing security requirements for previous generations of mobile networks with “contingency approaches” that have been defined through standardisation by the mobile telephony standards body, 3GPP, especially for core and access levels of 5G networks.

But it also warns that “fundamental differences in how 5G operates also means that the current security measures as deployed on 4G networks might not be wholly effective or sufficiently comprehensive to mitigate the identified security risks”, adding that: “Furthermore, the nature and characteristics of some of these risks makes it necessary to determine if they may be addressed through technical measures alone.

“The assessment of these measures will be undertaken in the subsequent phase of the implementation of the Commission Recommendation. This will lead to the identification of a toolbox of appropriate, effective and proportionate possible risk management measures to mitigate cybersecurity risks identified by Member States within this process.”

The report concludes with a final line saying that “consideration should also be given to the development of the European industrial capacity in terms of software development, equipment manufacturing, laboratory testing, conformity evaluation, etc” — packing an awful lot into a single sentence.

The implication is that the business of 5G security will need to get commensurately large to scale to meet the multi-dimensional security challenge that goes hand in glove with the next-gen tech. Just banning a single supplier isn’t going to cut it.

 


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Apple launches Deep Fusion feature in beta on iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro

20:11 | 1 October

Apple is launching an early look at its new Deep Fusion feature on iOS today with a software update for beta users. Deep Fusion is a technique that blends multiple exposures together at the pixel level to give users a higher level of detail than is possible using standard HDR imaging — especially in images with very complicated textures like skin, clothing or foilage.

The developer beta released today supports the iPhone 11 where Deep Fusion will improve photos taken on the wide camera and the iPhone 11 Pro where it will kick in on the telephoto and wide angle but not ultra wide lenses. 

According to Apple, Deep Fusion requires the A13 and will not be available on any older iPhones. 

As I spoke about extensively in my review of the iPhone 11 Pro, Apple’s ‘camera’ in the iPhone is really a collection of lenses and sensors that is processed aggressively by dedicated machine learning software run on specialized hardware. Effectively, a machine learning camera. 

Deep Fusion is a fascinating technique that extends Apple’s philosophy on photography as a computational process out to its next logical frontier. As of the iPhone 7, Apple was blending output from the wide and telephoto lenses to provide the best result. This process happened without the user ever being aware of it. 

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Deep Fusion continues in this vein. It will automatically take effect on images that are taken in specific situations.

On wide lens shots, it will start to be active just above the roughly 10 lux floor where Night Mode kicks in. The top of the range of scenes where it is active is variable depending on light source. On the telephoto lens, it will be active in all but the brightest situations where Smart HDR will take over, providing a better result due to the abundance of highlights.

Apple provided a couple of sample images showing Deep Fusion in action which I’ve embedded here. They have not provided any non-DF examples yet, but we’ll see those as soon as the beta gets out and people install it. 

Deep Fusion works this way:

The camera shoots a ‘short’ frame, at a negative EV value. Basically a slightly darker image than you’d like, and pulls sharpness from this frame. It then shoots 3 regular EV0 photos and a ‘long’ EV+ frame, registers alignment and blends those together. 

This produces two 12MP photos which are combined into one 24MP photo. The combination of the two is done using 4 separate neural networks which take into account the noise characteristics of Apple’s camera sensors as well as the subject matter in the image. 

This combination is done on a pixel-by-pixel basis. One pixel is pulled at a time to result in the best combination for the overall image. The machine learning models look at the context of the image to determine where they belong on the image frequency spectrum. Sky and other broadly similar high frequency areas, skin tones in the medium frequency zone and high frequency items like clothing, foilage etc.

The system then pulls structure and tonality from one image or another based on ratios. 

The overall result, Apple says, results in better skin transitions, better clothing detail and better crispness at the edges of moving subjects.

There is currently no way to turn off the Deep Fusion process but, because the ‘over crop’ feature of the new cameras uses the Ultra Wide a small ‘hack’ to see the difference between the images is to turn that on, which will disable Deep Fusion as it does not use the Ultra Wide lens.

The Deep Fusion process requires around 1 second for processing. If you quickly shoot and then tap a preview of the image, it could take around a half second for the image to update to the new version. Most people won’t notice the process happening at all.

As to how it works IRL? We’ll test and get back to you as Deep Fusion becomes available

 


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Huawei 5G indecision is hitting UK’s relations abroad, warns committee

15:20 | 19 July

The UK’s next prime minister must prioritize a decision on whether or not to allow Chinese tech giant Huawei to be a 5G supplier, a parliamentary committee has urged — warning that the country’s international relations are being “seriously damaged” by ongoing delay.

In a statement on 5G suppliers, the Intelligence and Security committee (ISC) writes that the government must take a decision “as a matter of urgency”.

Earlier this week another parliamentary committee, which focuses on science and technology, concluded there is no technical reason to exclude Huawei as a 5G supplier, despite security concerns attached to the company’s ties to the Chinese state, though it did recommend it be excluded from core 5G supply.

The delay in the UK settling on a 5G supplier policy can be linked not only to the complexities of trying to weight and balance security considers with geopolitical pressures but also ongoing turmoil in domestic politics, following the 2016 EU referendum Brexit vote — which continues to suck most of the political oxygen out of Westminster. (And will very soon have despatched two UK prime ministers in three years.)

Outgoing PM Theresa May, whose successor is due to be selected by a vote by Conservative Party members next week, appeared to be leaning towards giving Huawei an amber light earlier this year.

A leak to the press from a National Security Council meeting back in April suggested Huawei would be allowed to provide kit but only for non-core parts of 5G networks — raising questions about how core and non-core are delineated in the next-gen networks.

The leak led to the sacking by May of the then defense minister, Gavin Williamson, after an investigation into confidential information being passed to the media in which she said she had lost confidence in him.

The publication of a government Telecoms Supply Chain Review, whose terms of reference were published last fall, has also been delayed — leading to carriers to press the government for greater clarity last month.

But with May herself now on the way out, having agreed to step down as PM back in May, the decision on 5G supply is on hold. It will be down to either Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt, the two remaining contenders to take over from May, to choose whether or not to let the Chinese tech giant supply UK 5G networks.

Though whichever of the men wins the vote they will arrive in the top job needing to give their full attention to finding a way out of the Brexit morass — in a mere three months, with an October 31 extension deadline looming. So there’s a risk that 5G may not seem as urgent an issue as Brexit, and a decision once again be kicked back.

In its statement on 5G supply, the ISC backs the view expressed by the public-facing branch of the UK’s intelligence service that network security is not dependent on any one supplier being excluded from building it — writing that: “The National Cyber Security Centre… has been clear that the security of the UK’s telecommunications network is not about one company or one country: the ‘flag of origin’ for telecommunications equipment is not the critical element in determining cyber security.”

The committee argues that “some parts of the network will require greater protection” — writing that “critical functions cannot be put at risk” but also that there are “less sensitive functions where more risk can be carried”, without specifying what the latter functions might be.

“It is this distinction — between the sensitivity of the functions — that must determine security, rather than where in the network those functions are located: notions of ‘core’ and ‘edge’ ate therefore misleading in this context,” it adds. “We should therefore be thinking of different levels of security, rather than a one size fits all approach, within a network that has been built to be resilient to attack, such that no single action could disable the system.”

The committee’s statement also backs the view that the best way to achieve network resilience is to support diversity in the supply chain — i.e. by supporting more competition.

But at the same time it emphasizes that the 5G supply decision “cannot be viewed solely through a technical lens — because it is not simply a decision about telecommunications equipment”.

“This is a geostrategic decision, the ramifications of which may be felt for decades to come,” it warns, raising concerns about the perceptions of UK intelligence sharing partners by emphasizing the need for those allies to trust the decisions the government makes.

It also couches a UK decision to give Huawei access a risk by suggesting it could be viewed externally as an endorsement of the company, thereby encouraging other countries to follow suit — without them paying the full and necessary attention to the security piece.

“The UK is a world leader in cyber security: therefore if we allow Huawei into our 5G network we must be careful that that is not seen as an endorsement for others to follow. Such a decision can only happen where the network itself will be constructed securely and with stringent regulation,” it writes.

The committee’s statement goes on to raise as a matter of concern the UK’s general reliance on China as a technology supplier.

“One of the lessons the UK Government must learn from the current debate over 5G is that with the technology sector now monopolised by such a few key players, we are over-reliant on Chinese technology — and we are not alone in this, this is a global issue. We need to consider how we can create greater diversity in the market. This will require us to take a long term view — but we need to start now,” it warns.

It ends by reiterating that the debate about 5G supply has been “unnecessarily protracted”, pressing the next UK prime minister to get on and take a decision “so that all concerned can move forward”

 


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UK’s first 5G network taster goes live in six cities tomorrow

17:52 | 29 May

The UK’s first 5G consumer mobile network is launching tomorrow in six cities.

Mobile network operator EE will switch on the next-gen cellular connectivity in select locations in London, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham and Manchester — promising “increased speeds, reliability and connectivity”. Though of course consumers will also need to have a 5G handset and 5G price plan, as well as being in the right location, to see any of the touted benefits.

EE says it expects customers to experience an increase in speeds of around 100-150Mbps when using the 5G network — “even in the busiest areas” where network coverage extends.

“Some customers will break the one gigabit-per-second milestone on their 5G smartphones,” it adds.

Ten other UK cities are set to get a taste of EE’s 5G later by the end of this year, also in select, busier parts — namely Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, Leeds, Hull, Sheffield, Nottingham, Leicester, Coventry and Bristol — with more cities planned to come on stream in 2020.

While rival mobile operator Vodafone has said it will began its own rollout of a 5G network in July.

Among the advantages for 5G that EE is pushing on its website to try to persuade users to upgrade are better connections in busy places (such as festivals or stadiums); faster download speeds to support movie downloads and higher quality video streaming; and a gamer-friendly lack of lag — which it bills as “almost instant Internet connection”.

Whether those additions will convince masses of mobile users to shell out for an EE 5G device plan — which start at £53 per month — remains to be seen.

Earlier this month the network operator, which is owned by BT, launched its first 5G Sim-only handset plans, and began ranging 5G handsets — from the likes of Samsung, LG, OnePlus and Oppo.

Though not from Huawei. Last week it told the BBC it would pause on offering any 5G smartphones made by Chinese device maker Huawei — saying it wanted to “make sure we can carry out the right level of testing and quality assurance” for its customers.

Huawei remains subject to a US executive order intended to dissuade US companies from doing business with it on national security grounds. And Google has been reported to have taken a decision to withdrawn some Android-related services from Huawei — raising question-marks about the future quality of its smartphones. (The Chinese company’s involvement in building out core UK 5G networks is also subject to restriction, with the government reportedly intending to impose limits.)

EE says the 5G network it’s launching tomorrow is an additional layer on top of its existing 4G network — dubbing it “phase 1”. So this switch on is really a toe in the water. Or, well, a marketing opportunity to claim a 5G first.

It describes it as a “non-standalone” deployment, saying it’s combining 4G and 5G to “give customers the fastest, most reliable mobile broadband experience they’ve ever had” — planning to upgrade more than 100 cell sites to 5G per month, as it builds out 5G coverage. It will also expand its 4G coverage into rural areas and add more capacity to 4G sites — as 4G will remain the fall-back option for years to come (if not indefinitely).

Phase 2 of EE’s 5G rollout, from 2022, will introduce the “full next generation 5G core network, enhanced device chipset capabilities, and increased availability of 5G-ready spectrum”.

“Higher bandwidth and lower latency, coupled with expansive and growing 5G coverage, will enable a more responsive network, enabling truly immersive mobile augmented reality, real-time health monitoring, and mobile cloud gaming,” EE adds.

A third phase of the 5G rollout, from 2023, is slated to bring Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications, Network Slicing and multi-gigabit-per-second speeds.

“This phase of 5G will enable critical applications like real-time traffic management of fleets of autonomous vehicles, massive sensor networks with millions of devices measuring air quality across the entire country, and the ‘tactile internet’, where a sense of touch can be added to remote real-time interactions,” EE suggests.

As we’ve said before, there’s little call for consumers to rush to upgrade to a 5G handset, with network coverage the exception not the rule, even as building out the touted benefits will be a work of years.

 


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London’s Tube network to switch on wi-fi tracking by default in July

15:00 | 22 May

Transport for London will roll out default wi-fi device tracking on the London Underground this summer, following a trial back in 2016.

In a press release announcing the move, TfL writes that “secure, privacy-protected data collection will begin on July 8” — while touting additional services, such as improved alerts about delays and congestion, which it frames as “customer benefits”, as expected to launch “later in the year”.

As well as offering additional alerts-based services to passengers via its own website/apps, TfL says it could incorporate crowding data into its free open-data API — to allow app developers, academics and businesses to expand the utility of the data by baking it into their own products and services.

It’s not all just added utility though; TfL says it will also use the information to enhance its in-station marketing analytics — and, it hopes, top up its revenues — by tracking footfall around ad units and billboards.

Commuters using the UK capital’s publicly funded transport network who do not want their movements being tracked will have to switch off their wi-fi, or else put their phone in airplane mode when using the network.

To deliver data of the required detail, TfL says detailed digital mapping of all London Underground stations was undertaken to identify where wi-fi routers are located so it can understand how commuters move across the network and through stations.

It says it will erect signs at stations informing passengers that using the wi-fi will result in connection data being collected “to better understand journey patterns and improve our services” — and explaining that to opt out they have to switch off their device’s wi-fi.

Attempts in recent years by smartphone OSes to use MAC address randomization to try to defeat persistent device tracking have been shown to be vulnerable to reverse engineering via flaws in wi-fi set-up protocols. So, er, switch off to be sure.

We covered TfL’s wi-fi tracking beta back in 2017, when we reported that despite claiming the harvested wi-fi data was “de-personalised”, and claiming individuals using the Tube network could not be identified, TfL nonetheless declined to release the “anonymized” data-set after a Freedom of Information request — saying there remains a risk of individuals being re-identified.

As has been shown many times before, reversing ‘anonymization’ of personal data can be frighteningly easy.

It’s not immediately clear from the press release or TfL’s website exactly how it will be encrypting the location data gathered from devices that authenticate to use the free wi-fi at the circa 260 wi-fi enabled London Underground stations.

Its explainer about the data collection does not go into any real detail about the encryption and security being used. (We’ve asked for more technical details.)

“If the device has been signed up for free Wi-Fi on the London Underground network, the device will disclose its genuine MAC address. This is known as an authenticated device,” TfL writes generally of how the tracking will work.

“We process authenticated device MAC address connections (along with the date and time the device authenticated with the Wi-Fi network and the location of each router the device connected to). This helps us to better understand how customers move through and between stations — we look at how long it took for a device to travel between stations, the routes the device took and waiting times at busy periods.”

“We do not collect any other data generated by your device. This includes web browsing data and data from website cookies,” it adds, saying also that “individual customer data will never be shared and customers will not be personally identified from the data collected by TfL”.

In a section entitled “keeping information secure” TfL further writes: “Each MAC address is automatically depersonalised (pseudonymised) and encrypted to prevent the identification of the original MAC address and associated device. The data is stored in a restricted area of a secure location and it will not be linked to any other data at a device level.  At no time does TfL store a device’s original MAC address.”

Privacy and security concerns were raised about the location tracking around the time of the 2016 trial — such as why TfL had used a monthly salt key to encrypt the data rather than daily salts, which would have decreased the risk of data being re-identifiable should it leak out.

Such concerns persist — and security experts are now calling for full technical details to be released, given TfL is going full steam ahead with a rollout.

 

A report in Wired suggests TfL has switched from hashing to a system of tokenisation – “fully replacing the MAC address with an identifier that cannot be tied back to any personal information”, which TfL billed as as a “more sophisticated mechanism” than it had used before. We’ll update as and when we get more from TfL.

Another question over the deployment at the time of the trial was what legal basis it would use for pervasively collecting people’s location data — since the system requires an active opt-out by commuters a consent-based legal basis would not be appropriate.

In a section on the legal basis for processing the Wi-Fi connection data, TfL writes now that its ‘legal ground’ is two-fold:

  • Our statutory and public functions
  • to undertake activities to promote and encourage safe, integrated, efficient and economic transport facilities and services, and to deliver the Mayor’s Transport Strategy

So, presumably, you can file ‘increasing revenue around adverts in stations by being able to track nearby footfall’ under ‘helping to deliver (read: fund) the mayor’s transport strategy’.

(Or as TfL puts it: “[T]he data will also allow TfL to better understand customer flows throughout stations, highlighting the effectiveness and accountability of its advertising estate based on actual customer volumes. Being able to reliably demonstrate this should improve commercial revenue, which can then be reinvested back into the transport network.”)

On data retention it specifies that it will hold “depersonalised Wi-Fi connection data” for two years — after which it will aggregate the data and retain those non-individual insights (presumably indefinitely, or per its standard data retention policies).

“The exact parameters of the aggregation are still to be confirmed, but will result in the individual Wi-Fi connection data being removed. Instead, we will retain counts of activities grouped into specific time periods and locations,” it writes on that.

It further notes that aggregated data “developed by combining depersonalised data from many devices” may also be shared with other TfL departments and external bodies. So that processed data could certainly travel.

Of the “individual depersonalised device Wi-Fi connection data”, TfL claims it is accessible only to “a controlled group of TfL employees” — without specifying how large this group of staff is; and what sort of controls and processes will be in place to prevent the risk of A) data being hacked and/or leaking out or B) data being re-identified by a staff member.

A TfL employee with intimate knowledge of a partner’s daily travel routine might, for example, have access to enough information via the system to be able to reverse the depersonalization.

Without more technical details we just don’t know. Though TfL says it worked with the UK’s data protection watchdog in designing the data collection with privacy front of mind.

“We take the privacy of our customers very seriously. A range of policies, processes and technical measures are in place to control and safeguard access to, and use of, Wi-Fi connection data. Anyone with access to this data must complete TfL’s privacy and data protection training every year,” it also notes elsewhere.

Despite holding individual level location data for two years, TfL is also claiming that it will not respond to requests from individuals to delete or rectify any personal location data it holds, i.e. if people seek to exercise their information rights under EU law.

“We use a one-way pseudonymisation process to depersonalise the data immediately after it is collected. This means we will not be able to single out a specific person’s device, or identify you and the data generated by your device,” it claims.

“This means that we are unable to respond to any requests to access the Wi-Fi data generated by your device, or for data to be deleted, rectified or restricted from further processing.”

Again, the distinctions it is making there are raising some eyebrows.

What’s amply clear is that the volume of data that will be generated as a result of a full rollout of wi-fi tracking across the lion’s share of the London Underground will be staggeringly massive.

More than 509 million “depersonalised” pieces of data, were collected from 5.6 million mobile devices during the four-week 2016 trial alone — comprising some 42 million journeys. And that was a very brief trial which covered a much smaller sub-set of the network.

As big data giants go, TfL is clearly gunning to be right up there.

 


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Reality Check: The marvel of computer vision technology in today’s camera-based AR systems

23:00 | 15 May

Alex Chuang Contributor
Alex Chuang is the Managing Partner of Shape Immersive, a boutique studio that helps enterprise and brands transform their businesses by incorporating VR/AR solutions into their strategies.

British science fiction writer, Sir Arther C. Clark, once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Augmented reality has the potential to instill awe and wonder in us just as magic would. For the very first time in the history of computing, we now have the ability to blur the line between the physical world and the virtual world. AR promises to bring forth the dawn of a new creative economy, where digital media can be brought to life and given the ability to interact with the real world.

AR experiences can seem magical but what exactly is happening behind the curtain? To answer this, we must look at the three basic foundations of a camera-based AR system like our smartphone.

  1. How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization + Mapping)
  2. How do computers understand what the world looks like? (Geometry)
  3. How do computers understand the world as we do? (Semantics)

Part 1: How do computers know where it is in the world? (Localization)

Mars Rover Curiosity taking a selfie on Mars. Source: https://www.nasa.gov/jpl/msl/pia19808/looking-up-at-mars-rov...

When NASA scientists put the rover onto Mars, they needed a way for the robot to navigate itself on a different planet without the use of a global positioning system (GPS). They came up with a technique called Visual Inertial Odometry (VIO) to track the rover’s movement over time without GPS. This is the same technique that our smartphones use to track their spatial position and orientation.

A VIO system is made out of two parts.

 


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Developers can now verify mobile app users over WhatsApp instead of SMS

22:23 | 30 April

Facebook today released a new SDK that allows mobile app developers to integrate WhatsApp verification into Account Kit for iOS and Android. This will allow developers to build apps where users can opt to receive their verification codes through the WhatsApp app installed on their phone, instead through SMS.

Today, many apps give users the ability to sign up using only a phone number — a now popular alternative to Facebook Login, thanks to the social network’s numerous privacy scandals which led to fewer people choosing to use Facebook with third-party apps. Plus, using phone numbers to sign up is common with a younger generation of users who don’t have Facebook accounts — and sometimes barely use email, except for joining apps and services.

When using a phone number to sign in, the app can confirm the user by sending a verification code over SMS to the number provided. The user then enters that code to create their account. This process can also be used when logging in, as part of a multi-factor verification system where a user’s account information is combined with this extra step for added security.

While this process is straightforward and easy enough to follow, SMS is not everyone’s preferred messaging platform. That’s particularly true in emerging markets like India, where 200 million people are on WhatsApp, for example. In addition, those without an unlimited messaging plan are careful not to overuse texting when it can be avoided.

That’s where the WhatsApp SDK comes in. Once integrated into an iOS or Android app, developers can offer to send users their verification code over WhatsApp instead of text messaging. They can even choose to disable SMS verification, notes Facebook.

This is all a part of WhatsApp’s Account Kit, which is a larger set of developer tools designed to allow people to quickly register and login to apps or websites using only a phone number and email, no password required.

This WhatsApp verification codes option has been available on WhatsApp’s web SDK since late 2018, but hadn’t been available with mobile apps until today.

 


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Opera’s VPN returns to its Android browser

11:30 | 20 March

Opera had a couple of tumultuous years behind it, but it looks like the Norwegian browser maker (now in the hands of a Chinese consortium) is finding its stride again and refocusing its efforts on its flagship mobile and desktop browsers. Before the sale, Opera offered a useful stand-alone and built-in VPN service. Somehow, the built-in VPN stopped working after the acquisition. My understanding is that this had something to do with the company being split into multiple parts, with the VPN service ending up on the wrong side of that divide. Today, it’s officially bringing this service back as part of its Android app.

The promise of the new Opera VPN in Opera for Android 51 is that it will give you more control over your privacy and improve your online security, especially on unsecured public WiFi networks. Opera says it uses 256-bit encryption and doesn’t keep a log or retain any activity data.

Since Opera now has Chinese owners, though, not everybody is going to feel comfortable using this service, though. When I asked the Opera team about this earlier this year at MWC in Barcelona, the company stressed that it is still based in Norway and operates under that country’s privacy laws. The message being that it may be owned by a Chinese consortium but that it’s still very much a Norwegian company.

If you do feel comfortable using the VPN, though, then getting started is pretty easy (I’ve been testing in the beta version of Opera for Android for a while). Simply head to the setting menu, flip the switch, and you are good to go.

“Young people are being very concerned about their online privacy as they increasingly live their lives online, said Wallman. “We want to make VPN adoption easy and user-friendly, especially for those who want to feel more secure on the Web but are not aware on how to do it. This is a free solution for them that works.”

What’s important to note here is that the point of the VPN is to protect your privacy, not to give you a way to route around geo-restrictions (though you can do that, too). That means you can’t choose a specific country as an endpoint, only ‘America,’ ‘Asia,’ and ‘Europe.’

 


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The next phase of WeChat

20:47 | 10 January

Thousands of people gathered Wednesday night in a southern Chinese city for Zhang Xiaolong, Tencent’s low-key executive who built WeChat eight years ago. It’s no longer adequate to call the app a messenger, for it now enables myriads of functions that infiltrate Chinese people’s private and public lives.

It wasn’t just the tech circles tuning into the event. Civil servants, real-estate agents, salon owners, fruit vendors, teachers, artists — anyone who use WeChat to facilitate daily work — watched attentively for news and tips that came out of the annual conference.

Zhang, nickname Allen, is by nature a hardcore product manager. He went to great lengths during his 4-hour speech telling people productivity is WeChat’s holy grail, and that he wants to make user sessions “short and efficient.” He called out apps obsessed with keeping users on, which many may agree include ByteDance’s video app TikTok and news aggregator Jinri Toutiao.

wechat growth

That’s a tough sell, though, for WeChat is anything but a disposable tool. The app now boasts over 1 billion daily users. 750 million of them open WeChat Moments, a scrolling feed of friends’ updates, each day during which they check it more than 10 times. User growth is cooling, but that’s expected given the super app’s enormous base. In addition to being a social network, the juggernaut has also devised a host of new features that may generate more eyeball time — and help it maintain meaningful growth.

An app universe

Two years ago, WeChat made a move that would speed up its evolution from a simple app into an all-in-one platform. It rolled out so-called mini programs, which are stripped-down versions of native apps with only core features in exchange for smaller size and quicker access. To date, there are over 1 million such lite-apps and 200 million people access them every day, an achievement that inspired other tech giants to follow suit.

Zhang said from the outset that mini apps weren’t meant to replace regular apps, for the latter provide a more complete user journey. In effect, mini apps are getting more powerful as they further integrate with chats and gain new capabilities, such as an upcoming Siri-like voice assistant. Mini programs are also making inroads into the offline world, facilitating transactions like scan-to-pay at subway turnstiles, all without the fuss of app downloads.

There’s no mini-program “store” at the moment, but a less conspicuous infrastructure is taking shape. Users can already look mini apps up on WeChat’s internal search engine and may soon be able to rate them, according to Zhang. WeChat will in turn factor those reviews into search results, akin to how the App Store works.

The public space

Whether mini programs threaten the existing app ecosystem is disputed, but one thing is certain: They have a strong appeal to those without the capacity or need to build full-size apps, like a teacher who wants a tool to broadcast announcements to parents. There may be only a few dozen users, so a lightweight, easy-to-build app makes more economic sense.

wechat

WeChat’s annual company conference in Guangzhou, China. Photo: Tencent

Governments have also warmly embraced WeChat as part of a national effort to streamline public services. Anyone who’s lived in China would dread its red tape. Mini programs are digitizing many tasks that traditionally required numerous visits to government offices, such as renewing one’s social security card.

While public services may not be a big revenue driver, they do boost users’ dependence on WeChat. Alibaba’s digital wallet Alipay also offers a plethora of public services, though many are limited to payments. “After all, WeChat has more use cases, from social networking to payments, so local governments find it closer to people’s lives,” a third-party mini program developer for government services told TechCrunch, asking not to be named because the person wasn’t allowed to discuss the matter publicly.

New growth fuel

The world is watching when China’s most used app will hit its wall on user growth. WeChat hasn’t seen much momentum overseas except among Chinese expats and outbound tourists. Back home, senior users are fueling its growth. 65 million of WeChat’s monthly users are now over the age of 55, the app’s fastest growing cohort. Many of them turn out to love mini games, which are part of the mini-program universe. These games, which tend to be casual and easier to play than PC or mobile app games. have surpassed 400 million monthly users. For some context, China reached an estimated 700-million mobile game population in 2018, according to market research firm iResearch.

Curiously, WeChat hasn’t pushed monetization aggressively despite commanding a gigantic user base. Zhang has reiterated that monetization isn’t his priority, but changes are underway. WeChat is planning to add more advertising inventories to mini apps in 2019, executive of WeChat open platforms Du Jiahui said during the event. Tencent earnings show that lite-apps and Moments are already driving advertising revenues for the company over the last few months. Tencent is also under pressure to find alternative monetizing channels as its core revenue driver — video games — took a hit amid an industry shakeup last year, prompting the firm to place more focus on enterprise-facing businesses.

 


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Ericsson software problem causing widespread cell phone outages

21:01 | 6 December

A problem with the software in Ericsson equipment is causing outages across the world including O2 users in Great Britain and Softbank users in Japan, according to a report in the Financial Times earlier today.

Ericsson took blame for the outage in a press release. It apparently involves faulty software on certain Ericsson equipment used on the affected company’s mobile networks. While Ericsson indicated it involved multiple countries, it appeared to try to minimize the impact by stating it was “network disturbances for a limited number of customers.” The FT report indicated that it was actually affecting millions of mobile customers worldwide.

Regardless, the company said that an initial analysis attributed the problem to an expired software certificate on the affected equipment. Börje Ekholm, President and CEO, Ericsson said they were working to restore the service as soon as possible, which probably isn’t soon enough for people who don’t have a working cell phone at the moment.

“The faulty software that has caused these issues is being decommissioned and we apologize not only to our customers but also to their customers. We work hard to ensure that our customers can limit the impact and restore their services as soon as possible,” Ekholm said in a statement.

While the press release went onto say they are working to restore the service throughout the day, as of publishing this article, the O2 outage maps still showed problems in the London area.

The AT&T and Verizon outage pages are also currently showing outages in the US. We reached out to Ericsson by phone and email to confirm if this was part of their software problems, but had not heard back by the time we published. If we do, we will update this story.

(Note that Verizon owns this publication.)

 


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