Facebook adds new background location privacy controls to its Android app

Facebook is updating its privacy settings on Android to make it easier for users to control what location data is sent to and stored by the company.

In its announcement, Facebook acknowledged that Android users have expressed concern over the app’s ability to continuously log location data in the background. Due to Android’s all-or-nothing system of location permissions relative to iOS, the Facebook app has historically had the green light for collecting location data whether a user is actively in the app or not.

While the company stopped short of admitting the practice, Facebook for Android users who previously had location services enabled can probably assume that Facebook was extensively tracking their location even when they weren’t actively using the app. Facebook describes the choice to toggle location history on as “[allowing] Facebook to build a history of precise locations received through Location Services on your devices.”

Android users who previously allowed Facebook access to their location data will retain those settings, though they’ll receive an alert about the new location controls. For users who kept the location settings for Facebook disabled, those permissions will remain toggled off. While these changes apply only to Android users, Facebook also noted that it would send out an alert to iOS users to remind them to reevaluate their location history settings.

If your location history isn’t something you’ve thought much about before, it’s worth spending a minute to consider how comfortable you are with that depth of personal data being transmitted continuously to a company with Facebook’s privacy track record. Remember: Once that information is out of your hands, you have little to no control over what happens with it.

FDA warning brings controversial young blood transfusion company to a halt

On Tuesday, the FDA issued a warning to anyone who might be inclined to give their old bones a jolt with fresh blood harvested from the young.

The idea is pretty far from mainstream, even in Silicon Valley, where the ultra-wealthy have a keen interest in the cutting edge of life-extension science. Still, there’s apparently enough buzz around the practice that the FDA is warning consumers of “unscrupulous actors” who tout the benefits of infusing patients with plasma extracted from youthful donors while extracting literal blood money from their clients:

We have significant public health concerns about the promotion and use of plasma for these purposes. There is no proven clinical benefit of infusion of plasma from young donors to cure, mitigate, treat, or prevent these conditions, and there are risks associated with the use of any plasma product.

Today, we’re alerting consumers and health care providers that treatments using plasma from young donors have not gone through the rigorous testing that the FDA normally requires in order to confirm the therapeutic benefit of a product and to ensure its safety. As a result, the reported uses of these products should not be assumed to be safe or effective. We strongly discourage consumers from [pursuing] this therapy outside of clinical trials under appropriate institutional review board and regulatory oversight.

With the new warning, any companies pursuing the controversial and currently not scientifically supported practice are on notice. The best-known company in the field, Ambrosia Medical, reportedly began its own trials for young blood plasma transfusions back in 2017. The new FDA warning took direct aim at the company, which appears to have skirted regulations by leaning on the fact that blood transfusions are FDA-approved, even if the company’s fringe anti-aging applications are not.

On Tuesday, Ambrosia Medical’s sparse website displayed a single message: “In compliance with the FDA announcement issued February 19, 2019, we have ceased patient treatments.” TechCrunch has reached out to the company about its decision to stop operations in light of the FDA’s warning.

On top of the conspicuous absence of properly studied clinical benefits — “no compelling clinical evidence on its efficacy,” as the FDA puts it — fueling yourself up with young blood without government oversight is actually pretty dangerous. The straightforward danger of blood-borne pathogens is compounded by other risks around dosing.

“Plasma is not FDA-recognized or approved to treat conditions such as normal aging or memory loss, or other diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease,” the FDA stated. “Moreover, reports we’re seeing indicate that the dosing of these infusions can involve administration of large volumes of plasma that can be associated with significant risks including infectious, allergic, respiratory and cardiovascular risks, among others.”

Ambrosia Medical appears to have wrapped up its initial study, “Young Donor Plasma Transfusion and Age-Related Biomarkers,” in January 2018 and stayed pretty quiet since. The study is registered with clinicaltrials.gov, though the research still appears to have operated beyond the bounds of the government’s institutional review and oversight process. In its warning, the FDA didn’t name Ambrosia Medical, instead referring to any entities in the young blood business as “companies that abuse the trust of patients and endanger their health.”

“As a general matter, we will consider taking regulatory and enforcement actions against companies that abuse the trust of patients and endanger their health with uncontrolled manufacturing conditions or by promoting so-called ‘treatments’ that haven’t been proven safe or effective for any use,” the FDA stated.

Netflix office goes on lockdown over report of a potential shooter, suspect now in custody

Alarming reports popped up on Twitter late Thursday of incident involving an armed individual at Netflix’s Hollywood office on Sunset Blvd. TechCrunch has confirmed with the Los Angeles Police Department that a call reporting a man with a gun first came in at 3:53 Pacific Time. According to the LAPD, there were no shots fired, no reports of injuries and the suspect in question has been taken into custody. Though some reports on social media appeared to contradict those details, the LAPD again confirmed that there is only one suspect and that suspect is in custody. As of 5:12 Pacific Time, Netflix employees reported being allowed to leave on foot though some areas remained closed as a precaution.

Netflix first moved into the historic Hollywood Sunset Bronson studio site in 2015 and expanded its lease on the space in 2017. The company shares the location with local news outlet KTLA.

This story is developing.

Citizen expands its crime-tracking alert app to Baltimore

Depending on who you ask, Citizen is either a useful urban safety tool or a menacing glimpse into a self-surveilled police state, but either way, the app is coming to Baltimore. Citizen, formerly known as Vigilante, is a crime tracking app that offers geo-targeted alerts that notify users of dangers lurking nearby, from carjackings to kidnappings and every mundane horror in between.

Citizen launched first in New York City before expanding to San Francisco in 2017. The app pulls in public safety data, sifts it through its own editorial team and dispenses it out to relevant users based on their location. Citizen’s founder and CEO Andrew Frame told the Baltimore Sun that Citizen is expanding to the city both because its team has connections there and due to Baltimore’s reputation for crime. The city’s reputation for a deeply corrupt police department with sometimes fatal results was not part of that calculation.

“Given the escalating crime and lack of public safety resources, Baltimore was a great place to try something new,” Frame said of the new market. “Citizen can now help Baltimore residents in the way it has helped New York and San Francisco, with real-time notifications that let a user escape a burning building or rescue a four-year old from an abductor. Citizen, with its real-time information, may be just what Baltimore needs.”

Considering the popularity of services like Nextdoor, it’s hard to argue that people don’t want to know what’s going on around them just for the sake of knowing. The problem is that there’s no evidence this state of hyper-awareness does any quantifiable good and at least some evidence that it can actually put people, specifically people of color, at more risk due to implicit bias and racial profiling. For better or worse, that fact paired with the collective lack of concern over the demonstrable ills of asking untrained individuals to assess and report threats explains Citizen’s apparent popularity. “How to Record Great Live Video on Citizen: By broadcasting live, you can help Protect the World,” the company implored in a blog post for users last October.

Still, given that its first iteration got banned from the app store for actually encouraging regular people to intervene in crimes in progress, the company could be said to have matured, if by no choice of its own.

As we wrote when Citizen expanded to San Francisco, “People who get off on local crime updates on the evening news with probably love Citizen. So will catastrophists, or anyone else rapt by what feels like a hastening pace of global disaster. Nextdoor-lovers who thrive in a state of hypervigilance will feel right at home.”

Update: In a conversation with TechCrunch, a spokesperson for the company noted that while users can add information to and interact with vetted reports already in the app’s systems, they cannot create those reports themselves through Citizen without going through formal law enforcement or emergency channels.

The net effect of all of that crime-watching is basically impossible to measure, but Citizen nonetheless revels in tackily taking credit for anecdotal success stories that mean little without proper outcome tracking or data sets to back them up. The whole thing is sort of the inverse of something like RideAlong, a software suite designed to help law enforcement and emergency workers provide more compassionate, longitudinal care for the individuals being policed instead of showcasing those incidents as faceless red crime dots on a map.

Unfortunately, contextual data isn’t quite as sexy as realtime threats unfolding all around us in every direction. People want the red dots. And investors are happy to throw money at the red dots. So, for Baltimore, red dots it is.

Russia plans to test a kill switch that disconnects the country from the internet

As a cyber-defensive measure, the Russian government will reportedly perform a trial run of a measure that would effectively cut the country off from the rest of the world’s web.

Last year, Russia introduced its Digital Economy National Program, a plan that would require Russian internet providers to remain functional in the event the country was cut off from worldwide internet. Under this plan, Russian ISPs would redirect web traffic to routing points within the country and rely on its own copy of the Domain Name System (DNS), the directory of domains and addresses that underpins the global internet.

The test run could be useful to the country for a few reasons. Primarily, Russia aims to simulate the drastic measures it would take in the case of some kind of cyber threat to its national security. But for a country notorious for its restrictive environment for individual and press freedom, the test may also be a useful way to see how the country could wield a more closely held internet to control its own people and guard against foreign interests.

The extreme measure, if successful, would allow Russia to effectively operate its own state-controlled internet and cut itself off from the world as it sees fit. While the test date is not yet known, it’s expected to happen before April 1 of this year, the last day for lawmakers to propose amendments to the Digital Economy National Program.

Mars One goes bankrupt as reality catches up to the doomed space scam

A grand mission to Mars that was always light on details has come to a decidedly terrestrial end. Mars One, a controversial space exploration project that made it as far as the “highly produced videos” stage of space colonization, has quietly filed for bankruptcy, according to a liquidation listing spotted by a Redditor on r/space.

As the post explains, the private company that spearheaded the Mars One spectacle is actually made up of two parts, a not-for-profit called the Mars One Foundation and a for-profit company known as Mars One Ventures. In 2016, Swiss financial services company nFin Innovative Finance AG picked up Mars One Ventures in a takeover bid.

In a statement on the takeover, Mars One’s leadership explained how the plan was still on track, in spite of appearances.

“The takeover provides a solid path to funding the next steps of Mars One’s mission to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars. Those steps include reducing the remaining 100 astronaut candidates to just 24, as well as continuing the mission design phase with Mars One’s technology suppliers.”

When contacted about the bankruptcy, Mars One Co-founder and CEO Bas Lansdorp told Engadget that the Mars One Foundation continues to operate but is stalled unless it receives an infusion of funds as Lansdorp works “to find a solution.”

Mars One was ill-fated from its inception, more grounded in CGI videos and marketing hype for a Mars mission reality TV show than any kind of scientific reality. And they couldn’t even get the show off the ground.

There were plenty of red flags for anyone willing to look, but the nature of its outlandish proposal allowed Mars One to prey on the intrinsic optimism and curiosity of would-be space explorers. As one finalist candidate revealed in an excellent exposé series on the company titled “All Dressed Up for Mars and Nowhere to go,” Mars One’s financial reality looked like a multilevel marketing scheme — not a scientific expedition.

“When you join the ‘Mars One Community,’ which happens automatically if you applied as a candidate, they start giving you points. You get points for getting through each round of the selection process… and then the only way to get more points is to buy merchandise from Mars One or to donate money to them.”

An MIT report in 2014 issued other telling warning’s about the project’s feasibility.

“… If all food is obtained from locally grown crops, as Mars One envisions, the vegetation would produce unsafe levels of oxygen, which would set off a series of events that would eventually cause human inhabitants to suffocate.”

Taken together, those two telling details tell you pretty much everything you need to know about a sadly small-minded company that sold the public a lucrative tale about its big red dreams.

Instagram and Facebook will start censoring ‘graphic images’ of self-harm

In light of a recent tragedy, Instagram is updating the way it handles pictures depicting self-harm. Instagram and Facebook announced changes to their policies around content depicting cutting and other forms of self harm in dual blog posts Thursday.

The changes comes about in light of the 2017 suicide of a 14 year old girl named Molly Russell, a UK resident who took her own life in 2017. Following her death, her family discovered that Russell was engaged with accounts that depicted and promoted self harm on the platform.

As the controversy unfolded, Instagram Head of Product Adam Mosseri penned an op-ed in the Telegraph to atone for the platform’s at times high consequence shortcomings. Mosseri previously announced that Instagram would implement “sensitivity screens” to obscure self harm content, but the new changes go a step further.

Starting soon, both platforms will no longer allow any “graphic images of self-harm” most notably those that depict cutting. This content was previously allowed because the platforms worked under the assumption that allowing people to connect and confide around these issues was better than the alternative. After a “comprehensive review with global experts and academics on youth, mental health and suicide prevention” those policies are shifting.

“… It was advised that graphic images of self-harm – even when it is someone admitting their struggles – has the potential to unintentionally promote self-harm,” Mosseri said.

Instagram will also begin burying non-graphic images about self harm (pictures of healed scars, for example) so they don’t show up in search, relevant hashtags or on the explore tab. “We are not removing this type of content from Instagram entirely, as we don’t want want to stigmatize or isolate people who may be in distress and posting self-harm related content as a cry for help,” Mosseri said.

According to the blog post, after consulting with groups like the Centre for Mental Health and Save.org, Instagram tried to strike a balance that would still allow users to express their personal struggles without encouraging others to hurt themselves. For self harm, like disordered eating, that’s a particularly difficult line to walk. It’s further complicated by the fact that not all people who self harm have suicidal intentions and the behavior has its own nuances apart from suicidality.

“Up until now, we’ve focused most of our approach on trying to help the individual who is sharing their experiences around self-harm. We have allowed content that shows contemplation or admission of self-harm because experts have told us it can help people get the support they need. But we need to do more to consider the effect of these images on other people who might see them. This is a difficult but important balance to get right.”

Mental health research and treatment teams have long been aware of “peer influence processes” that can make self destructive behaviors take on a kind of social contagiousness. While online communities can also serve as a vital support system for anyone engaged in self destructive behaviors, the wrong kind of peer support can backfire, reinforcing the behaviors or even popularizing them. Instagram’s failure to sufficiently safeguard for the potential impact this kind of content can have on a hashtag-powered social network is fairly remarkable considering that the both Instagram and Facebook claim to have worked with mental health groups to get it right.

These changes are expected in the “coming weeks.” For now, a simple search of Instagram’s #selfharm hashtag still reveals a huge ecosystem of self-harmers on Instagram, including self-harm related memes (some hopeful, some not) and many very graphic photos of cutting.

“It will take time and we have a responsibility to get this right,” Mosseri said. “Our aim is to have no graphic self-harm or graphic suicide related content on Instagram… while still ensuring we support those using Instagram to connect with communities of support.”

New York cracks down on companies that sell fake followers

On Wednesday New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that her office had reached a settlement with Devumi, a company that made millions selling fake followers to unsuspecting customers. The state of New York found that Devumi had engaged in illegal deception and illegal impersonation in the course of fluffing up social media profiles with its automated accounts.

First reported by CNN, the settlement follows a New York state probe into the company after reports of suspicious activity and potentially deceptive business practices first surfaced. Almost exactly a year ago, The New York Times reported a big feature on the company that prompted the state’s probe.

In that piece, the Times describes Devumi as “an obscure American company… that has collected millions of dollars in a shadowy global marketplace for social media fraud.” The reported detailed how the company used a stable of 3.5 million bots to fuel a business that boiled down to making people look important on platforms including Twitter. Like any bot worth its sticker price, those accounts often came with names and profile images culled from real people to help them blend in and appear legitimate.

Devumi shut down operations mid-last year in the face of the state probe and slack sales. While some customers of the company and its affiliates were aware they were buying fake followers, many others were not. That deception is central to the state’s case.

The AG’s actions set an interesting precedent for a newly defined category of potential cyber crime — one that may strike fear into the hearts of sketchy social media companies the web over.

“Bots and other fake accounts have been running rampant on social media platforms, often stealing real people’s identities to carry out fraud,” James said of the settlement. “As people and companies like Devumi continue to make a quick buck by lying to honest Americans, my office will continue to find and stop anyone who sells online deception.”

Rep. Ocasio-Cortez calls out big tech on climate change controversy

The newly minted social media star congresswoman is wasting no time in tearing into tech companies.

In a recent letter, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined Maine representative Chellie Pingree in calling out tech companies for supporting an event they believe to be inconsistent with big tech’s ostensibly climate-friendly attitude. Ocasio-Cortez is a noted champion of a Democratic package of sweeping environmental reforms called the Green New Deal — a term we can expect to hear a lot more leading into 2020.

The letter, addressed to Microsoft’s Satya Nadella, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sundar Pichai, expresses that the representatives were “deeply disappointed” to see that these companies sponsored a recent D.C. conference that featured a talk “denying established science on climate change” at a recent libertarian conference called LibertyCon.

LibertyCon appears to have hosted at least one group on the wrong side of the scientific consensus around climate change. That group, the CO2 Coalition, reportedly promoted the “good news” about carbon emissions with handouts promoting the supposed positive effects of the noxious gases on agriculture. A member of the group, Caleb Rossiter, spoke on a panel titled “Let’s Talk About Not Talking: Should There Be ‘No Debate’ that Industrial Carbon Dioxide is Causing Climate Catastrophe?”

As the letter reads:

“We understand that sponsorship of an event or conference is a common occurrence and that these sponsorships do not automatically indicate that the company endorses the variety of political viewpoints that may be presented at these events. However, given the magnitude and urgency of the climate crisis that we are now facing, we find it imperative to ensure that the climate-related views espoused at LibertyCon do not reflect the values of your companies going forward.

As you are well aware, the spreading of misinformation can be dangerous to our society. Today’s coordinated campaign to deny climate change, or put a positive spin on its effects, is not unlike that of the tobacco companies which once sought to discredit their product’s link to cancer… We cannot afford to make the same mistake again with climate change.

We look forward to hearing from you in the hope that we can continue to count on you as allies in the fight for a more sustainable future.”

As Mother Jones reported, Google contributed something in the ballpark of $25,000 for the event, with Facebook and Microsoft chipping in around $10,000 each.

US announces criminal charges against Huawei, seeks to extradite its CFO

In a press event today, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that it is pursuing criminal charges against Chinese mobile giant Huawei. Following a story from The Wall Street Journal earlier this month, TechCrunch previously reported that the indictments were set to be unsealed soon.

A grand jury in Seattle has charged Huawei with conspiracy to steal trade secrets, attempted theft of trade secrets, seven counts of wire fraud and one count of obstruction of justice for the company’s alleged attempts to move potential witnesses back to China. The indictments grew out of a civil suit dating all the way back to 2014 in which T-Mobile sued Huawei for stealing trade secrets related to a robotic phone-testing device known as “Tappy.”

“As I told Chinese officials in August, China must hold its citizens and Chinese companies accountable for complying with the law,” Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker said.

In addition to the company itself, Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou and Huawei affiliates Skycom Huawei Device USA also face charges in a 13-count indictment from a grand jury in New York. Meng, the daughter of the company’s founder, faces charges of bank fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud.

In December, Canada arrested the Huawei executive on charges related to deceptive practices designed to skirt U.S. sanctions against Iran. She remained free on bail in Vancouver as Canada waited for the U.S. to make a formal request for her extradition before a January 30 deadline.

Tensions between the U.S. and China have escalated considerably over the last year, with U.S. agencies and lawmakers increasingly cautioning that Huawei poses a major security threat. Still, the U.S. has yet to furnish proof of its claims. The conspicuous absence points to the fact that the U.S. is likely wary of allowing China to participate in building out the infrastructure for 5G mobile networks to prevent future spying — even if it lacks proof that China is leveraging its hardware for spying against domestic interests now. Pursuing aggressive criminal charges against the company is another way to make the point that Huawei’s hardware is off limits for the U.S. and its allies.

“To the detriment of American ingenuity, Huawei continually disregarded the laws of the United States in the hopes of gaining an unfair economic advantage,” FBI Director Christopher Wray said in the announcement. “As the volume of these charges prove, the FBI will not tolerate corrupt businesses that violate the laws that allow American companies and the United States to thrive.”