Apple goes to war with the gaming industry

Most gamers may not view Apple as a games company to the same degree that they see Sony with PlayStation or Microsoft with Xbox, but the iPhone-maker continues to uniformly drive the industry with decisions made in the Apple App Store.

The company made the news a couple times late this week for App Store approvals. Once for denying a gaming app, and the other for approving one.

The denial was Microsoft’s xCloud gaming app, something the Xbox folks weren’t too psyched about. Microsoft xCloud is one of the Xbox’s most substantial software platform plays in quite some time, allowing gamers to live-stream titles from the cloud and play console-quality games across a number of devices. It’s a huge effort that’s been in preview for a bit, but is likely going to officially launch next month. The app had been in a Testflight preview for iOS, but as Microsoft looked to push it to primetime, Apple said not so fast.

The app that was approved was the Facebook Gaming app which Facebook has been trying to shove through the App Store for months to no avail. It was at last approved Friday after the company stripped one of its two central features, a library of playable mobile games. In a curt statement to The New York Times, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said, “Unfortunately, we had to remove gameplay functionality entirely in order to get Apple’s approval on the stand-alone Facebook Gaming app.”

Microsoft’s Xbox team also took the unusually aggressive step of calling out Apple in a statement that reads, in-part, “Apple stands alone as the only general purpose platform to deny consumers from cloud gaming and game subscription services like Xbox Game Pass. And it consistently treats gaming apps differently, applying more lenient rules to non-gaming apps even when they include interactive content.”

Microsoft is still a $1.61 trillion company so don’t think I’m busting out the violin for them, but iOS is the world’s largest gaming platform, something CEO Tim Cook proudly proclaimed when the company launched its own game subscription platform, Apple Arcade, last year. Apple likes to play at its own pace, and all of these game-streaming platforms popping up at the same time seem poised to overwhelm them.

Image Credits: Microsoft

There are a few things about cloud gaming apps that seem at odds with some of the App Store’s rules, yet these rules are, of course, just guidelines written by Apple.  For Apple’s part, they basically said (full statement later) that the App Store had curators for a reason and that approving apps like these means they can’t individually review the apps which compromises the App Store experience.

To say that’s “the reason” seems disingenuous because the company has long approved platforms to operate on the App Store without stamping approval on the individual pieces of content that can be accessed. With “Games” representing the App Store’s most popular category, Apple likely cares much more about keeping their own money straight.

Analysis from CNBC pinned Apple’s 2019 App Store total revenue at $50 billion.

When these cloud gaming platforms like xCloud scale with zero iOS support, millions of Apple customers, myself included, are actually going to be pissed that their iPhone can’t do something that their friend’s phone can. Playing console-class titles on the iPhone would be a substantial feature upgrade for consumers. There are about 90 million Xbox Live users out there, a substantial number of which are iPhone owners I would imagine. The games industry is steadily rallying around game subscription networks and cloud gaming as a move to encourage consumers to sample more titles and discover more indie hits.

I’ve seen enough of these sagas to realize that sometimes parties will kick off these fights purely as a tactic to get their way in negotiations and avoid workarounds, but it’s a tactic that really only works when consumers have a reason to care. Most of the bigger App Store developer spats have played in the background and come to light later, but at this point the Xbox team undoubtedly sees that Apple isn’t positioned all that well to wage an App Store war in the midst of increased antitrust attention over a cause that seems wholly focused on maintaining their edge in monetizing the games consumers play on Apple screens.

CEO Tim Cook spent an awful lot of time in his Congressional Zoom room answering question about perceived anticompetitiveness on the company’s application storefront.

The big point of tension I could see happening behind closed doors is that plenty of these titles offer in-game transactions and just because that in-app purchase framework is being live-streamed from a cloud computer doesn’t mean that a user isn’t still using experiencing that content on an Apple device. I’m not sure whether this is actually the point of contention, but it seems like it would be a major threat to Apple’s ecosystem-wide in-app purchase raking.

The App Store does not currently support cloud gaming on Nvidia’s GeForce platform or Google’s Stadia which are also both available on Android phones. Both of these platforms are more limited in scope than Microsoft’s offering which is expected to launch with wider support and pick up wider adoption.

While I can understand Apple’s desire to not have gaming titles ship that might not function properly on an iPhone because of system constraints, that argument doesn’t apply so well to the cloud gaming world where apps are translating button presses to the cloud and the cloud is sending them back the next engine-rendered frames of their game. Apple is being forced to get pretty particular about what media types of apps fall under the “reader” designation. The inherent interactivity of a cloud gaming platform seems to be the differentiation Apple is pushing here — as well as the interfaces that allows gamers to directly launch titles with an interface that’s far more specialized than some generic remote desktop app.

All of these platforms arrive after the company already launched Apple Arcade, a non-cloud gaming product made in the image of what Apple would like to think are the values it fosters in the gaming world: family friendly indie titles with no intrusive ads, no bothersome micro-transactions and Apple’s watchful review.

Apple’s driver’s seat position in the gaming world has been far from a wholly positive influence for the industry. Apple has acted as a gatekeeper, but the fact is plenty of the “innovations” pushed through as a result of App Store policies have been great for Apple but questionable for the development of a gamer-friendly games industry.

Apple facilitated the advent of free-to-play games by pushing in-app purchases which have been abused recklessly over the years as studios have been irresistibly pushed to structure their titles around principles of addiction. Mobile gaming has been one of the more insane areas of Wild West startup growth over the past decade and Apple’s mechanics for fueling quick transactions inside these titles has moved fast and broken things.

Take a look at the 200 top grossing games in the App Store (data via Sensor Tower) and you’ll see that all 199 of them rely solely on in-app micro-transaction to reach that status — Microsoft’s Minecraft, ranked 50th costs $6.99 to download, though it also offers in-app purchases.

In 2013, the company settled a class-action lawsuit that kicked off after parents sued Apple for making it too easy for kids to make in-app purchases. In 2014, Apple settled a case with the FTC over the same mechanism for $32 million. This year, a lawsuit filed against Apple questioned the legality of “loot box” in-app purchases which gave gamers randomized digital awards.

“Through the games it sells and offers for free to consumers through its AppStore, Apple engages in predatory practices enticing consumers, including children to engage in gambling and similar addictive conduct in violation of this and other laws designed to protect consumers and to prohibit such practices,” read that most recent lawsuit filing.

This is, of course, not how Apple sees its role in the gaming industry. In a statement to Business Insider responding to the company’s denial of Microsoft’s xCloud, Apple laid out its messaging.

The App Store was created to be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers. Before they go on our store, all apps are reviewed against the same set of guidelines that are intended to protect customers and provide a fair and level playing field to developers.

Our customers enjoy great apps and games from millions of developers, and gaming services can absolutely launch on the App Store as long as they follow the same set of guidelines applicable to all developers, including submitting games individually for review, and appearing in charts and search. In addition to the App Store, developers can choose to reach all iPhone and iPad users over the web through Safari and other browsers on the App Store.

The impact has — quite obviously — not been uniformly negative, but Apple has played fast and loose with industry changes when they benefit the mothership. I won’t act like plenty of Sony and Microsoft’s actions over the years haven’t offered similar affronts to gamers, but Apple exercises the industry-wide sway it holds, operating the world’s largest gaming platform, too often and gamers should be cautious in trusting the App Store owner to make decisions that have their best interests at heart.


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OneKey wants to make it easier to work without a desktop by integrating apps into mobile keyboards

“The app that you use the most on your phone and you don’t realize it is your keyboard,” says Christophe Barre the co-founder and chief executive of OneKey.

A member of Y Combinator’s most recent cohort, OneKey has a plan to make work easier on mobile devices by turning the keyboard into a new way to serve up applications like calendars, to-do lists, and, eventually, even Salesforce functionality.

People have keyboards for emojis, other languages, and gifs, but there have been few ways to integrate business apps into the keyboard functionality, says Barre. And he’s out to change that.

Right now, the company’s first trick will be getting a Calendly-like scheduling app onto the keyboard interface. Over time, the company will look to create modules that they can sell in an app-store style marketplace for the keyboard space on smartphones.

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For Barre, the inspiration behind OneKey was the time spent working in Latin America and primarily conducting business through WhatsApp. The tool was great for messaging, but enterprise functionality broke down across for scheduling or other enterprise app integrations.

“People are doing more and more stuff on mobile and it’s happening right now in business,” said Barre. “When you switch from a computer-based world to a mobile phone, a lot of the productivity features disappear.”

Barre, originally from the outskirts of Paris, traveled to Bogota with his partner. She was living there and he was working on a sales automation startup called DeepLook. Together with his DeepLook co-founder (and high school friend), Ulysses Pryjiel, Barre set out to see if he could bring some of the business tools he needed over to the mobile environment.

The big realization for Barre was the under-utilized space on the phone where the keyboard inputs reside. He thinks of OneKey as a sort of browser extension for mobile phones, centered in the keyboard real estate.

“The marketplace for apps is the longterm vision,” said Barre. “That’s how you bring more and more value to people. We started with those features like calendars and lists that brought more value quickly without being too specialized.”

The idea isn’t entirely novel. SwiftKey had a marketplace for wallpapers, Barre said, but nothing as robust as the kinds of apps and services that he envisions.

“If you can do it in a regular app, it’s very likely that you can do it through a keyboard,” Barre said.

Google One now offers free phone backups up to 15GB on Android and iOS

Google One, Google’s subscription program for buying additional storage and live support, is getting an update today that will bring free phone backups for Android and iOS devices to anybody who installs the app — even if they don’t have a paid membership. The catch: While the feature is free, the backups count against your free Google storage allowance of 15GB. If you need more you need — you guessed it — a Google One membership to buy more storage or delete data you no longer need. Paid memberships start at $1.99/month for 100GB.

Image Credits: Google

Last year, paid members already got access to this feature on Android, which stores your texts, contacts, apps, photos and videos in Google’s cloud. The “free” backups are now available to Android users. iOS users will get access to it once the Google One app rolls out on iOS in the near future.

Image Credits: Google

With this update, Google is also introducing a new storage manager tool in Google One, which is available in the app and on the web, and which allows you to delete files and backups as needed. The tool works across Google properties and lets you find emails with very large attachments or large files in your Google Drive storage, for example.

With this free backup feature, Google is clearly trying to get more people onto Google One. The free 15GB storage limit is pretty easy to hit, after all (and that’s for your overall storage on Google, including Gmail and other services) and paying $1.99 for 100GB isn’t exactly a major expense, especially if you are already part of the Google ecosystem and use apps like Google Photos already.

You can now install the first beta of Android 11

After a series of developer previews, Google today released the first beta of Android 11 and with that, it is also making these pre-release versions available for over-the-air updates. This time around, the list of supported devices only includes the Pixel 2, 3, 3a and 4.

If you’re brave enough to try this early version (and I wouldn’t do so on your daily driver until a few more people have tested it), you can now enroll here. Like always, Google is also making OS images available for download and an updated emulator is available, too.

Google says the beta focuses on three key themes: people, controls and privacy.

Like in previous updates, Google once again worked on improving notifications — in this case, conversation notifications, which now appear in a dedicated section at the top of the pull-down shade. From there, you will be able to take actions right from inside the notification or ask the OS to remind you of this conversation at a later time. Also new is built-in support in the notification system for what are essentially chat bubbles, which messaging apps can now use to notify you even as you are working (or playing) in another app.

Another new feature is consolidated keyboard suggestions. With these, Autofill apps and Input Method Editors (think password managers and third-party keyboards), can now securely offer context-specific entries in the suggestion strip. Until now, enabling autofill for a password manager, for example, often involved delving into multiple settings and the whole experienced often felt like a bit of a hack.

For those users who rely on voice to control their phones, Android now uses a new on-device system that aims to understand what is on the screen and then automatically generates labels and access points for voice commands.

As for controls, Google is now letting you long-press the power button to bring up controls for your smart home devices (though companies that want to appear in this new menu need to make use of Google’s new API for this). In one of the next beta releases, Google will also enable media controls that will make it easier to switch the output device for their audio and video content.

In terms of privacy, Google is adding one-time permissions so that an app only gets access to your microphone, camera or location once, as well as auto-resets for permissions when you haven’t used an app for a while.

A few months ago, Google said that developers would need to get a user’s approval to access background location. That caused a bit of a stir among developers and now Google will keep its current policies in place until 2021 to give developers more time to update their apps.

In addition to these user-facing features, Google is also launching a series of updates aimed at Android developers. You can read more about them here.

Data startup Axiom secures $4M from Crane Venture Partners, emerges from stealth

Axiom, a startup that helps companies deal with their internal data, has secured a new $4m seed round led by UK-based Crane Venture Partners, with participation from LocalGlobe, Fly VC and Mango Capital. Notable angel investors include former Xamarin founder and current GitHub CEO Nat Friedman and Heroku co-founder Adam Wiggins. The company is also emerging from a relative stealth mode to reveal that is has now raised $7m in funding since it was founded in 2017.

The company says it is also launching with an enterprise-grade solution to manage and analyze machine data “at any scale, across any type of infrastructure”. Axiom gives DevOps teams a cloud-native, enterprise-grade solution to store and query their data all the time in one interface – without the overhead of maintaining and scaling data infrastructure.

DevOps teams have spent a great deal of time and money managing their infrastructure, but often without being able to own and analyze their machine data. Despite all the tools at hand, managing and analyzing critical data has been difficult, slow and resource-intensive, taking up far too much money and time for organizations. This is what Axiom is addressing with its platform to manage machine data and surface insights, more cheaply, they say, that other solutions.

Co-founder and CEO Neil Jagdish Patel told TechCrunch: “DevOps teams are stuck under the pressure of that, because it’s up to them to deliver a solution to that problem. And the solutions that existed are quite, well, they’re very complex. They’re very expensive to run and time-consuming. So with Axiom, our goal is to try and reduce the time to solve data problems, but also allow businesses to store more data to query at whenever they want.”

Why did they work with Crane? “We needed to figure out how enterprise sales work and how to take this product to market in a way that makes sense for the people who need it. We spoke to different investors, but when I sat down with Crane they just understood where we were. They have this razor-sharp focus on how they get you to market and how you make sure your sales process and marketing is a success. It’s been beneficial to us as were three engineers, so you need that,” said Jagdish.

Commenting, Scott Sage, Founder and  Partner at Crane Venture Partners added: “Neil, Seif and Gord are a proven team that have created successful products that millions of developers use. We are proud to invest in Axiom to allow them to build a business helping DevOps teams turn logging challenges from a resource-intense problem to a business advantage.”

Axiom co-founders Neil Jagdish Patel, Seif Lotfy and Gord Allott, previously created Xamarin Insights that enabled developers to monitor and analyse mobile app performance in real-time for Xamarin, the open-source cross-platform app development framework. Xamarin was acquired by Microsoft for between $400 and $500 million in 2016. Before working at Xamarin, the co-founders also worked together at Canonical, the private commercial company behind the Ubuntu Project.

Germany ditches centralized approach to app for COVID-19 contacts tracing

Germany has U-turned on building a centralized COVID-19 contacts tracing app — and will instead adopt a decentralized architecture, Reuters reported Sunday, citing a joint statement by chancellery minister Helge Braun and health minister Jens Spahn.

In Europe in recent weeks, a battle has raged between different groups backing centralized vs decentralized infrastructure for apps being fast-tracked by governments which will use Bluetooth-based smartphone proximity as a proxy for infection risk — in the hopes of supporting the public health response to the coronavirus by automating some contacts tracing.

Centralized approaches that have been proposed in the region would see pseudonymized proximity data stored and processed on a server controlled by a national authority, such as a healthcare service. However concerns have been raised about allowing authorities to scoop up citizens’ social graph, with privacy experts warning of the risk of function creep and even state surveillance.

Decentralized contacts tracing infrastructure, by contrast, means ephemeral IDs are stored locally on device — and only uploaded with a user’s permission after a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. A relay server is used to broadcast infected IDs — enabling devices to locally compute if there’s a risk that requires notification. So social graph data is not centralized.

The change of tack by the German government marks a major blow to a homegrown standardization effort, called PEPP-PT, that had been aggressively backing centralization — while claiming to ‘preserve privacy’ on account of not tracking location data. It quickly scrambled to propose a centralized architecture for tracking coronavirus contacts, led by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute, and claiming the German government as a major early backer, despite PEPP-PT later saying it would support decentralized protocols too.

As we reported earlier, the effort faced strident criticism from European privacy experts — including a group of academics developing a decentralized protocol called DP-3T — who argue p2p architecture is truly privacy preserving. Concerns were also raised about a lack of transparency around who is behind PEPP-PT and the protocols they claimed to support, with no code published for review.

The European Commission, meanwhile, has also recommended the use of decentralization technologies to help boost trust in such apps in order to encourage wider adoption.

EU parliamentarians have also warned regional governments against trying to centralize proximity data during the coronavirus crisis.

But it was Apple and Google jumping into the fray earlier this month by announcing joint support for decentralized contacts tracing that was the bigger blow — with no prospect of platform-level technical restrictions being lifted. iOS limits background access to Bluetooth for privacy and security reasons, so national apps that do not meet this decentralized standard won’t benefit from API support — and will likely be far less usable, draining battery and functioning only if actively running.

Nonetheless PEPP-PT told journalists just over a week ago that it was engaged in fruitful discussions with Apple and Google about making changes to their approach to accommodate centralized protocols.

Notably, the tech giants never confirmed that claim. They have only since doubled down on the principle of decentralization for the cross-platform API for public health apps — and system-wide contacts tracing which is due to launch next month.

At the time of writing PEPP-PT’s spokesman, Hans-Christian Boos, had not responded to a request for comment on the German government withdrawing support.

Boos previously claimed PEPP-PT had around 40 governments lining up to join the standard. However in recent days the momentum in Europe has been going in the other direction. A number of academic institutions that had initially backed PEPP-PT have also withdrawn support.

In a statement emailed to TechCrunch, the DP-3T project welcomed Germany’s U-turn.

“DP-3T is very happy to see that Germany is adopting a decentralized approach to contact tracing and we look forward to its next steps implementing such a technique in a privacy preserving manner,” the group told us.

Berlin’s withdrawal leaves France and the UK the two main regional backers of centralized apps for coronavirus contacts tracing. And while the German U-turn is certainly a hammer blow for the centralized camp in Europe the French government appears solid in its support — at least for now.

France has been developing a centralized coronavirus contacts tracing protocol, called ROBERT, working with Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute and others.

In an opinion issued Sunday, France’s data protection watchdog, the CNIL, did not take active issue with centralizing pseudonymized proximity IDs — saying EU law does not in principle forbid such a system — although the watchdog emphasized the need to minimize the risk of individuals being re-identified.

It’s notable that France’s digital minister, Cédric O, has been applying high profile public pressure to Apple over Bluetooth restrictions — telling Bloomberg last week that Apple’s policy is a blocker to the virus tracker.

Yesterday O was also tweeting to defend the utility of the planned ‘Stop Covid’ app.

We reached out to France’s digital ministry for comment on Germany’s decision to switch to a decentralized approach but at the time of writing the department had not responded.

In a press release today the government highlights the CNIL view that its approach is compliant with data protection rules, and commits to publishing a data protection impact assessment ahead of launching the app.

If France presses ahead it’s not clear how the country will avoid its app being ignored or abandoned by smartphone users who find it irritating to use. (Although it’s worth noting that Google’s Android platform has a substantial marketshare in the market, with circa 80% vs 20% for iOS, per Kantar.)

A debate in the French parliament tomorrow is due to include discussion of contacts tracing apps.

We’ve also reached out to the UK’s NHSX — which has been developing a COVID-19 contacts tracing app for the UK market — and will update this report with any response.

In a blog post Friday the UK public healthcare unit’s digital transformation division said it’s “working with Apple and Google on their welcome support for tracing apps around the world”, a PR line that entirely sidesteps the controversy around centralized vs decentralized app infrastructures.

The UK has previously been reported to be planning to centralize proximity data — raising questions about the efficacy of its planned app too, given iOS restrictions on background access to Bluetooth.

“As part of our commitment to transparency, we will be publishing the key security and privacy designs alongside the source code so privacy experts can ‘look under the bonnet’ and help us ensure the security is absolutely world class,” the NHSX’s Matthew Gould and Dr Geraint Lewis added in the statement.

Germany’s COVID-19 contacts tracing app to link to labs for test result notification

A German research institute that’s involved in developing a COVID-19 contacts tracing app with the backing of the national government has released some new details about the work, which suggests the app is being designed as more of a “one-stop shop” to manage coronavirus impacts at an individual level, rather than having a sole function of alerting users to potential infection risk.

Work on the German app began at the start of March, per the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft institute, with initial funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research and the Federal Ministry of Health funding a feasibility study.

In a PDF published today, the research organization reveals the government-backed app will include functionality for health authorities to directly notify users about a COVID-19 test result if they’ve opted in to get results this way.

It says the system must ensure only people who test positive for the virus make their measurement data available to avoid incorrect data being input. For the purposes of “this validation process,” it envisages “a digital connection to the existing diagnostic laboratories is implemented in the technical implementation.”

“App users can thus voluntarily activate this notification function and thus be informed more quickly and directly about their test results,” it writes in the press release (which we’ve translated from German with Google Translate) — arguing that such direct digital notification of tests results will mean that no “valuable time” is lost to curb the spread of the virus.

Governments across Europe are scrambling to get Bluetooth-powered contacts tracing apps off the ground, with apps also in the works from a number of other countries, including the U.K. and France, despite ongoing questions over the efficacy of digital contacts tracing versus such an infectious virus.

The great hope is that digital tools will offer a route out of economically crippling population lockdowns by providing a way to automate at least some contacts tracing — based on widespread smartphone penetration and the use of Bluetooth-powered device proximity as a proxy for coronavirus exposure.

Preventing a new wave of infections as lockdown restrictions are lifted is the near-term goal. Although — in line with Europe’s rights frameworks — use of contacts tracing apps looks set to be voluntary across most of the region, with governments wary about being seen to impose “health surveillance” on citizens, as has essentially happened in China.

However if contacts tracing apps end up larded with features that are deep linking into national health systems, that raises questions about how optional their use will really be.

An earlier proposal by a German consortium of medical device manufacturers, laboratories, clinics, clinical data management systems and blockchain solution providers — proposing a blockchain-based Digital Corona Health Certificate, which was touted as being able to generate “verifiable, certified test results that can be fed into any tracing app” to cut down on false positives — claimed to have backing from the City of Cologne’s public health department, as one example of potential function creep.

In March, Der Spiegel also reported on a large-scale study being coordinated by the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research in Braunschweig, to examine antibody levels to try to determine immunity across the population. Germany’s Robert Koch Institute (RKI) was reportedly involved in that study — and has been a key operator in the national contacts tracing push.

Both RKI and the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft institute are also involved in parallel German-led pan-EU standardization efforts for COVID-19 contacts tracing apps (called PEPP-PT) that’s been the leading voice for apps to centralize proximity data with governments/health authorities, rather than storing it on users’ device and performing risk processing locally.

As we reported earlier, PEPP-PT and its government backers appear to be squaring up for a battle with Apple over iOS restrictions on Bluetooth.

PEPP-PT bases its claim of being a “privacy-preserving” standard on not backing protocols or apps that use location data or mobile phone numbers — with only arbitrary (but pseudonymized) proximity IDs shared for the purpose of tracking close encounters between devices and potential coronavirus infections.

It has claimed it’s agnostic between centralization of proximity data versus decentralization, though so far the only protocol it’s publicly committed to is a centralized one.

Yet, at the same time, regional privacy experts, the EU parliament and even the European Commission have urged national governments to practice data minimization and decentralized when it comes to COVID-19 contacts tracing in order to boost citizen trust by shrinking associated privacy risks.

If apps are voluntary, citizens’ trust must be earned not assumed, is the key argument. Without substantial uptake the utility of digital contacts tracing seems doubtful.

Apple and Google have also come down on the decentralized side of this debate — outting a joint effort last week for an API and later opt-in system-wide contacts tracing. The first version of their API is slated to be in developers’ hands next week.

Meanwhile, a coalition of nearly 300 academics signed an open letter at the start of this week warning that centralized systems risked surveillance creep — voicing support for decentralized protocols, such as DP-3T: Another contact tracing protocol that’s being developed by a separate European coalition which has been highly critical of PEPP-PT.

And while PEPP-PT claimed recently to have seven governments signed up to its approach, and 40 more in the pipeline, at least two of the claimed EU supporters (Switzerland and Spain) had actually said they will use a decentralized approach.

The coalition has also been losing support from a number of key research institutions which had initially backed its push for a “privacy-preserving” standard, as controversy around its intent and lack of transparency has grown.

Nonetheless, the two biggest EU economies, Germany and France, appear to be digging in behind a push to centralize proximity data — putting Apple in their sights.

Bloomberg reported earlier this week that the French government is pressurizing Apple to remove Bluetooth restrictions for its COVID-19 contacts tracing app which also relies on a “trusted authority” running a central server (we’ve covered the French ROBERT protocol in detail here).

It’s possible Germany and France are sticking to their centralized guns because of wider plans to pack more into these contacts tracing apps than simply Bluetooth-powered alerts — as suggested by the Fraunhofer document.

Access to data is another likely motivator.

“Only if research can access sufficiently valid data it is possible to create forecasts that are the basis for planning further steps against are the spread of the virus,” the institute goes on. (Though, as we’ve written before, the DP-3T decentralized protocol sets out a path for users to opt in to share proximity data for research purposes.)

Another strand that’s evident from the Fraunhofer PDF is sovereignty.

“Overall, the approach is based on the conviction that the state healthcare system must have sovereignty over which criteria, risk calculations, recommendations for action and feedback are in one such system,” it writes, adding: “In order to achieve the greatest possible usability on end devices on the market, technical cooperation with the targeted operating system providers, Google and Apple, is necessary.”

Apple and Google did not respond to requests for comment on whether they will be making any changes to their API as a result of French and German pressure.

Fraunhofer further notes that “full compatibility” between the German app and the centralized one being developed by French research institutes Inria and Inserm was achieved in the “past few weeks” — underlining that the two nations are leading this particular contacts tracing push.

In related news this week, Europe’s Data Protection Board (EDPB) put out guidance for developers of contacts tracing apps, which stressed an EU legal principle related to processing personal data that’s known as purpose limitation — warning that apps need to have purposes “specific enough to exclude further processing for purposes unrelated to the management of the COVID-19 health crisis (e.g., commercial or law enforcement purposes)”.

Which sounds a bit like the regulator drawing a line in the sand to warn states that might be tempted to turn contacts tracing apps into coronavirus immunity passports.

The EDPB also urged that “careful consideration” be given to data minimisation and data protection by design and by default — two other key legal principles baked into Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, albeit with some flex during a public health emergency.

However the regulatory body took a pragmatic view on the centralization vs decentralization debate — saying both approaches are “viable” in a contacts tracing context, with the key caveat that “adequate security measures” must be in place.

Apple opens access to mobility data, offering insight into how COVID-19 is changing cities

Apple is providing a dataset derived from aggregated, anonymized information taken from users of its Maps navigational app, the company announced today. The data is collected as a set of “Mobility Trends Reports,” which are updated daily and which provide a look at the change in the number of routing requests made within the Maps app, which is the default routing app on iPhones, for three modes of transportation including driving, walking and transit.

Apple is quick to note that this information isn’t tied to any individuals, since Maps does not associate any mobility data with a user’s Apple ID, nor does it maintain any history of where people have been. In fact, Apple notes that all data collected by maps, including search terms and specific routing, is only ever tied to random rotating identifying numbers that are reset on a rolling basis. This anonymized, aggregated data is collected only to provide a city, country or region-level view, representing the change over time in the number of pedestrians, drivers and transit-takers in an area based on the number of times they open the app and ask for directions.

As far as signals go for measuring the decrease in outdoor activity in a given city, this is a pretty good one considering Apple’s install base and the fact that most users probably don’t bother installing or using a third-party app like Google Maps for their daily commuting or transportation needs.

The data is available to all directly from Apple’s website, and can be downloaded in a broadly compatible CSV format. You can also use the web-based version to search a particular location and see the overall trend for that area.

For an individual, this is more or less a curiosity, but the release f this info could be very useful for municipal, state and federal policy makers looking to study the impact of COVID-19, as well as the effect of strategies put in place to mitigate its spread, including social distancing, shelter-in-place and quarantining measures.

Apple has also announced that it’s working with Google on a new system-level, anonymized contact tracing system that both companies will first release as APIs for use by developers, before making them native built-in features that are supplemented by public health agency applications and guidance. Apple seems particularly eager to do what it can to assist with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, while still striving to ensure that these measures respect the privacy of their individual users. That’s a hard balance to strike in terms of taking effective action at a population level, but Apple’s reach is a powerful potential advantage to any tools it provides.

Pinterest CEO and a team of leading scientists launch a self-reporting COVID-19 tracking app

There have been a few scattered efforts to leverage crowd-sourced self-reporting of symptoms as a way to potentially predict and chart the progress of COVID-19 across the U.S., and around the world. A new effort looks like the most comprehensive, well-organized and credibly backed yet — and it has been developed in part by Pinterest co-founder and CEO Ben Silbermann.

Silbermann and a team from Pinterest enlisted the help of high school friend, and CRISPR gene-editing pioneer / MIT and Harvard Broad Institute member, Dr. Feng Zhang to build what Silbermann termed in a press release a “bridge between citizens and scientists.” The result is the How We Feel app that Silbermann developed along with input from Zhang and a long list of well-regarded public health, computer science, therapeutics, social science and medical professors from Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Weill Cornell and more.

How We Feel is a mobile app available for both iOS and Android, which is free to download, and which is designed to make it very easy to self-report whether or not they feel well — and if they’re feeling unwell, what symptoms they’re experiencing. It also asks for information about whether or not you’ve been tested for COVID-19, and whether you’re in self-isolation, and for how long. The amount of interaction required is purposely streamlined to make it easy for anyone to contribute daily, and to do so in a minute or less.

The app doesn’t ask for or collect info like name, phone number or email information. It includes an up-front request that users agree to donate their information, and the data collected will be aggregated and then shared with researchers, public health professionals and doctors, including those who are signed on as collaborators with the project, as well as others (and the project is encouraging collaborators to reach out if interested). Part of the team working on the project are experts in the field of differential privacy, and a goal of the endeavor is to ensure that people’s information is used responsibly.

The How We Feel app is, as mentioned, one of a number of similar efforts out there, but this approach has a number of advantages when compared to existing projects. First, it’s a mobile app, whereas some rely on web-based portals that are less convenient for the average consumer, especially when you want continued use over time. Second, they’re motivating use through positive means — Silbermann and his wife Divya will be providing a donated meal to nonprofit Feeding America for every time a person downloads and uses the app for the first time, up to a maximum of 10 million meals. Finally, it’s already designed in partnership with, and backed by, world-class academic institutions and researchers, and seems best-positioned to be able to get the information it gathers to the greatest number of those in a position to help.

How We Feel is organized as an entirely independent, nonprofit organization, and it’s hoping to expand its availability and scientific collaboration globally. It’s an ambitious project, but also one that could be critically important in supplementing testing efforts and other means of tracking the progress and course of the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. While self-reported information on its own is far from a 100% accurate or reliable source, taken in aggregate at scale, it could be a very effective leading indicator of new or emerging viral hotspots, or provide scientific researches with other valuable insights when used in combination with other signals.

Apple has blocked Clearview AI’s iPhone app for violating its rules

An iPhone app built by controversial facial recognition startup Clearview AI has been blocked by Apple, effectively banning the app from use.

Apple confirmed to TechCrunch that the startup “violated” the terms of its enterprise developer program.

The app allows its users — which the company claims it serves only law enforcement officers — to use their phone camera or upload a photo to search its database of 3 billion photos. But BuzzFeed News revealed that the company — which claims to only cater to law enforcement users — also includes many private-sector users, including Macy’s, Walmart and Wells Fargo.

Clearview AI has been at the middle of a media — and legal — storm since its public debut in The New York Times last month. The company scrapes public photos from social media sites, drawing ire from the big tech giants that claim Clearview AI misused their services. But it’s also gained attention from hackers. On Wednesday, Clearview AI confirmed a data breach in which its client list was stolen.

The public Amazon S3 page containing the iPhone app. (Image: TechCrunch)

TechCrunch found Clearview AI’s iPhone app on an public Amazon S3 storage bucket on Thursday, despite a warning on the page that the app is “not to be shared with the public.”

The page asks users to “open this page on your iPhone” to install and approve the company’s enterprise certificate, allowing the app to run.

But this, according to Apple’s policies, is prohibited if the app’s users are outside of Clearview AI’s organization.

Clearview AI’s use of an enterprise certificate on an iPhone. (Image: TechCrunch)

Enterprise certificates are issued by Apple to allow companies to build and approve iPhone and iPad apps designed for internal company use only. It’s common for these certificates to be used to test apps internally before they are pushed out to the App Store. Apple maintains a strict set of rules on use of enterprise certificates, and says they cannot be used by consumers. But there have been cases of abuse.

Last year, TechCrunch exclusively reported that both Facebook and Google were using their enterprise certificates for consumer-facing apps in an effort to bypass Apple’s App Store. Apple revoked the tech giants’ enterprise certificates, disabling the infracting app but also any other app that relied on the certificate, including their catering and lunch menu apps.

The app was labeled as “beta” — typically a pre-release or a test version of the app. Besides this claim, there is no evidence to suggest this app was not used by Clearview AI customers.

Clearview AI chief executive Hoan Ton-That told TechCrunch: “We are in contact with Apple and working on complying with their terms and conditions.”

A brief analysis of the app through network traffic tools and disassembly tools shows it works largely in the same way as Clearview AI’s Android app, which was discovered by Gizmodo on Thursday.

Like the Android app, a user needs a Clearview AI-approved username and password to use the app.