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India Bans TikTok, Calling It A Malicious App


Following rising domestic pressure to boycott Chinese-made goods, the Indian government on Monday ordered 59 Chinese apps to be blocked, including TikTok, WeChat, Shareit, and Clash of Kings.

The Indian government framed the move as protecting personal information from what it called “malicious apps,” that “harm India’s sovereignty as well as the privacy of our citizens.”

But tensions have been rising between the two nuclear powers for weeks, following a border clash in the Himalayas in which Chinese forces killed at least 20 Indian soldiers and an unknown number of Chinese soldiers died. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced domestic criticism, which undercuts his strongman image and conciliatory posture toward China, against which India has fought sporadically since a war in 1962.

“While the prime minister called for self-dependence recently, the idea would’ve been to build capability and not boycott products from India’s second-biggest trade partner,” Abhishek Baxi, a technology journalist and digital consultant, told BuzzFeed News. “While action against smartphone brands would be too much to handle, banning apps is a low-hanging fruit for political posturing.”

Among the 59 apps are some of the country’s most popular — and controversial. As of June 2019, the most recent date for which information was available, video-sharing app TikTok was used by an estimated 200 million people in the country as of October 2019. (Tiktok has not announced more recent user numbers for the country.) In April 2019, India banned the app for just over a week over child pornography concerns.

As that banning showed, restricting the apps is not as simple as a government decree. It requires the cooperation of Google and Apple, which run the stores where the apps are sold. As of Monday, those companies had not indicated whether or not they would comply with the order. Apple and Google have not yet responded to requests for comment.

On Tuesday night, TikTok issued a statement saying that the company’s executives had been “invited to meet with concerned government stakeholders for an opportunity to respond and submit clarifications.”

Earlier this month, Google removed an app called “Remove China Apps” from the Play Store in India, which had been downloaded 4.7 million times, and which claimed to scan people’s phones for Chinese apps and delete them.

TikTok’s owner, ByteDance, is one of the world’s most valuable companies, worth over $100 billion as of May, according to Business Insider. With its headquarters in Beijing, it’s also one of the main vectors of Chinese soft power, its popularity raising concerns around the world, including from US senators, Egyptian courts, and Australian regulators.

“This isn’t just India-specific,” Abhijeet Mukherjee, the founder of Guiding Tech. “There has been growing discontent with how some of such apps are ‘probably’ crossing the line.”

Also among the ban were group chat platform WeChat, owned by Chinese conglomerate Tencent, mobile game Clash of Kings, and file-sharing app ShareIt, which BuzzFeed News reported in February was being used by Kashmiris to evade an internet shutdown levied by the Indian government. Several prominent Chinese-owned apps were not included, among them certain apps owned by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba.

Despite liberalizing its foreign direct investment policies under Modi, the Indian government recently changed course. In April, China’s central bank acquired a 1.01% stake in India’s largest housing lender, after which the Indian government announced a new policy aimed at reducing Chinese investment in Indian firms. Although Chinese investment in India is small, its capital is disproportionately concentrated in the tech industry, with major stakes in 18 of the 30 largest startups, according to the Hindu.





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Security experts raise concerns about voting app used by military voters



The app is designed by the company Voatz, whose technology has been piloted so far in West Virginia, Colorado and Utah.

“We want to be clear that all nine of our governmental pilot elections conducted to date, involving less than 600 voters, have been conducted safely and securely with no reported issues,” Voatz said in the statement. “The researchers’ true aim is to deliberately disrupt the election process, to sow doubt in the security of our election infrastructure, and to spread fear and confusion.”

The report comes amid rising concern about the use of apps and online voting tools in the 2020 election following the failure of reporting tools in the Iowa caucuses.

Last year, Utah County, Utah, began using Voatz for disabled and military voters based overseas. In an interview, County Clerk Amelia Powers Gardner said Voatz made more sense than the previous system, which required remote voters to submit their ballots by email.

A review of Utah County’s implementation of Voatz — prior to the MIT report’s publication — did not uncover any problems, Gardner told CNN. Gardner said that in phone conversations with the MIT researchers, it became clear they preferred voting to be done the traditional way, by pencil and paper. But Gardner said that isn’t feasible for Utahns living abroad.

“I have a legal obligation to provide our military members overseas an electronic form of a ballot,” she said, “and if it’s not this, it’s email — which they agreed is not as secure.”

The researchers’ conclusions about security risks in the app were based on a reverse-engineered version of Voatz’s Android app, which they ran in a simulated environment. According to the study, a hacker who gains control of a smartphone with the app installed could interfere in the voting process by altering ballots or figuring out which candidate a voter supports.

“Which means they could stop your ballot if they knew you were going to vote for someone they didn’t like,” Mike Specter, one of the authors of the report, told CNN.

Other election security experts who have reviewed the MIT paper say it appears solid.

“This study from MIT appears to have been structured with care in the way that the analysis was conducted,” said Andrea Matwyshyn, an election security expert at Penn State University.

On a conference call with reporters Thursday, however, Voatz criticized the report’s methodology. Company executives said the researchers had used an outdated version of the software and that some of the issues they found had already been patched. Voatz also accused the researchers of making “hypothetical” claims based on their simulation, rather than having the app interact with an actual Voatz server.

“We already have this server available,” said Nimit Sawhney, Voatz’s CEO. “It’s to our public bug bounty program. Anybody who wishes to sign up, test the apps over there, against the real server with full functionality, is able to do that.”

The company declined to comment further.

While participating in the bug bounty program would allow researchers to verify how Voatz’s app interacts with the company’s servers, the law largely prohibits researchers from testing the servers themselves, said Eric Mill, a cybersecurity expert who has administered technology programs for the federal government.

“The fact that the app happens to talk to the server isn’t the same as giving permission to research the real server,” said Mill.

Critics say Voatz should be more transparent about its technology and those it has tapped to perform independent audits. They also say Voatz previously reported a University of Michigan researcher to the FBI for conducting similar tests of the technology, and the report’s authors cited that episode as a reason they did not contact the company directly.

They instead reported their findings to the Department of Homeland Security, which routinely acts as a clearinghouse for election integrity information.

Voatz said Thursday that the MIT researchers should have reached out to them, in spite of their concerns about Voatz’s handling of prior research attempts. It also said it has signed non-disclosure agreements that prevent the company from discussing many of its past audits, though it did acknowledge that DHS has done its own review.

The technology news site Coindesk said it obtained a copy of the DHS review and reported it on Friday, adding that while US officials found few major issues with Voatz, the review focused primarily on the company’s internal network and servers — not the app that was the subject of the MIT report.

The tension between Voatz and independent security experts is not surprising, Mill said. But he added that the trend in the industry in recent years has tended toward greater disclosure and openness, not less — making Voatz’s reaction to the report stand out. It also highlights a common misperception that greater secrecy leads to stronger security, he said.

“That basic feeling of security through obscurity, that you want to release as few details as possible to give your attacker as little information as possible, is a very common gut instinct for a lot of lay folks and in some cases by technologists,” said Mill. “It comes from fear and also maybe not understanding or appreciating the public’s role in ensuring defense.”



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‘Find My iPhone’ app helps Des Moines woman track down stolen car


A Des Moines woman has been reunited with her stolen car, thanks to a phone app.Victoria O’Connor, 19, told KCCI she left her car running Monday night at a southside QuikTrip. The car was stolen, along with her cellphone and wallet.O’Connor said she has been practically living in her car since a fire destroyed her apartment building in September.”Anything I could think of is in that car,” she said.Police worked to track it down with the Find My Phone app but lost the signal when the phone was turned off.O’Connor told KCCI the app started pinging again Tuesday morning and KCCI’s Todd Magel was there when the car was found at a Plaza View Apartments.Her keys, phone and wallet are gone, but police said it appears the phone is inside one of the apartment units. Officers are still trying to track down the phone.”The technology is great,” Des Moines police Sgt. Paul Parizek said. “It does help us solve a lot of these crimes.”Parizek said the theft should be a warning for people not to leave keys in their car.”Thieves are going to be thieves,” he said. “So, the best thing you can do is don’t leave your car running unattended and take care of the things that are valuable to you.””I think there are a lot of things missing, but I’m glad to have my car back,” O’Connor said. “Hopefully, I get my keys and my phone.”Parizek said investigators hope camera footage from the QuickTrip helps identify the person who stole the car.

A Des Moines woman has been reunited with her stolen car, thanks to a phone app.

Victoria O’Connor, 19, told KCCI she left her car running Monday night at a southside QuikTrip. The car was stolen, along with her cellphone and wallet.

O’Connor said she has been practically living in her car since a fire destroyed her apartment building in September.

“Anything I could think of is in that car,” she said.

Police worked to track it down with the Find My Phone app but lost the signal when the phone was turned off.

O’Connor told KCCI the app started pinging again Tuesday morning and KCCI’s Todd Magel was there when the car was found at a Plaza View Apartments.

Her keys, phone and wallet are gone, but police said it appears the phone is inside one of the apartment units. Officers are still trying to track down the phone.

“The technology is great,” Des Moines police Sgt. Paul Parizek said. “It does help us solve a lot of these crimes.”

Parizek said the theft should be a warning for people not to leave keys in their car.

“Thieves are going to be thieves,” he said. “So, the best thing you can do is don’t leave your car running unattended and take care of the things that are valuable to you.”

“I think there are a lot of things missing, but I’m glad to have my car back,” O’Connor said. “Hopefully, I get my keys and my phone.”

Parizek said investigators hope camera footage from the QuickTrip helps identify the person who stole the car.



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They left Facebook to make an app that will spice up your Instagram Stories


A group of former Instagram and Facebook employees have rolled out a new app called Chroma Stories that capitalizes on social media trends at a pace far faster than what’s rolled out by Instagram and Facebook. Flagship social platforms can notoriously take months or even years to push new features to the mainstream.

Yet more and more, users are looking for additional editing tools to spruce up their content beyond filters and clever captions. This has made way for a cottage industry of apps that help Stories, or photos and videos that disappear after 24 hours, stand out.

Chroma Stories is among these new apps, offering a variety of fonts and other special effects to help users jazz up their Stories for social platforms, including Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat (SNAP), which pioneered the concept of Stories. It’s free to download for more than 150 templates and 20 fonts — that’s compared to Instagram’s five font options for Stories and nine for Snapchat. Chrome Stories users can pay up to $30 a year for additional layouts, backgrounds, fonts and other features.

The app also allows users to edit photos, create multiple slides for a Story and add Boomerang-like video effects before posting to the platform of their choice. (Boomerang hasn’t been updated since its 2015 debut).

One of the concept’s cofounders is John Barnett, a former product manager at Instagram who was behind many of the site’s popular filters, including “Lark” and “Juno,” which haven’t been updated since their debut. (Instagram has since added new filters for Stories, but the filters for posting to the feed have stayed the same).

He also helped develop Boomerang, Instagram’s tool that makes videos loop back and forth, and Stories, a feature he later brought to Instagram’s parent company Facebook. Stories has over 500 million active users each day on Instagram. YouTube, Skype and others have since rolled out their own versions of Stories.

But more than a year ago, Barnett, along with former colleagues Joshua Harris and Alex Li, left Facebook to create something new; an appealing opportunity to move faster on features with their own startup. The new app employs six full-time staffers, including two other former Instagram engineers. In December 2018, the company raised seed funding from firms including Index, Combine, Sweet Capital and others, for an undisclosed amount.

 Instagram takes another page from Snapchat's playbook with new Threads app

“As a startup, we can move even faster,” Barnett told CNN Business. “We can go and ship [a feature], try it out and get that to people a week or two later. If it’s a totally new product, that can take sometimes months, if not years, depending on what technology it involves [at Instagram].

Bigger companies like Facebook (FB) have a road map for the next 12 months, or even for many years, which “can make it harder to try something new,” he said.

Startups generally have the ability to grow faster than a large organization and can put out a new product faster because the focus is typically more narrow, according to Eleftheria Kouri, an analyst at ABI Research.

“They don’t have internal delays,” she said. “They don’t have multiple boards, and all these things that can delay a decision.”

Chroma Stories is also working with influencers and popular content creators to build layouts for the app, including Brandon Woelfel, a photographer with over 3 million Instagram followers. The layouts include options with bright-colored borders and ways to add multiple photos to one Story post, a tool Instagram doesn’t currently offer. Another photographer, known as @Bryant on Instagram, inspired layouts that make photos look like they’re part of a retro roll of film.
Chroma Stories founders Alex Li (left), Joshua Harris and John Barnett.

Li, a cofounder of the app who also helped build Stories at Instagram, said Chroma Stories has a different business model than Facebook, which is driven by advertising and time spent. Chroma Stories, which doesn’t plan to feature ads now or in the future, hopes users find enough value in the app to splurge for a subscription version.

“Many people would argue that the current social network business model is not well aligned with the people using it and the people providing the service,” Li said. “We’re in a business where that’s not the case, and I feel good about that.”

To date, Chroma Stories has been downloaded 533,000 times, according to data from Apptopia, a firm that tracks mobile apps. But other apps, including StoryArt and Unfold, which offer similar layout options, photo editing and more fonts, have been exceptionally popular, too. In October, Unfold hit over 1.2 million downloads in October, while StoryArt reached over 1.4 million. VSCO, a filters app which has been a favorite among Millennials and Gen Z, has surpassed 4.3 million downloads, according Apptopia.

Although ABI Research’s Kouri said it’s been a smart strategy for these companies to tap into the large user bases on social platforms, others argue these apps may appeal only to a niche group of social media users.

“It’s really for people who care very strongly about what they look like online, and how they are perceived online,” said Randi Priluck, a marketing professor at Pace University who studies social media. “Most people will just use the tools already available [on Instagram].”

While there’s nothing stopping Instagram or another platform from copying any of Chroma Stories’ popular features, the app said it will protect against this by continuing to create more of what resonates.

“We’re going to come up with the next thing. They can copy or take or whatever and it’s okay,” said cofounder Harris. “We’ll just keep adding to that awesome toolbox.”





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Kik messaging app won’t shut down after being acquired by MediaLab



At its peak, Kik had hundreds of millions of registered users and the company earned a private market valuation of $1 billion, placing it in the elite ranks of tech unicorns. But in September, Kik Interactive announced it would shut down the messenger app after a fight with regulators.

The company has been spared from closure by MediaLab, which also owns Whisper, another anonymous social media app on iOS and Android.

“We believe that Kik’s best days remain ahead of it,” MediaLab wrote in a statement Friday on Kik’s website. The company said that to cover the app’s expenses, it’s introducing ads. It also said it would develop the app to be faster, more reliable and remove bugs.

The Kik Interactive team did not return a request for comment Saturday on whether it still plans to layoff its Kik staff.

Kik Interactive said in September it plans to focus its remaining resources entirely on growing its cryptocurrency, Kin, the subject of a recent lawsuit filed by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The SEC sued Kik in June for raising about $100 million in an ICO, or initial coin offering, without properly registering the offering.

In a September blog post, Kik CEO and founder Ted Livingston said the legal battle with the SEC had been “a long and expensive process to drain our resources.”
Launched in 2010, Kik pulled in a wide swath of users with the promise of being able to chat anonymously. Users were not required to register with a phone number or other personal details. In 2015, the app received $50 million in funding from Chinese tech giant Tencent.
It grew alongside other popular messaging apps, including WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Telegram and Line, but the anonymity feature became a double-edged sword. Headlines appeared on how child predators contacted minors through the app and the anonymity feature hurt law enforcement’s ability to track criminals.
As of 2016, Kik had 300 million registered users. It no longer breaks out its number of active users.



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