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Google’s SMS replacement ready to launch

Chat app
Image caption Chat adds modern features to Android’s Messages app

Google has started the global roll-out of its new Chat messaging service, which is designed to replace SMS text messages on Android phones.

Chat has features such as group texts, videos, typing indicators and read receipts, which are not available when sending SMS texts.

Chat will be integrated with the default messages app on Android phones.

However, it will be up to mobile operators to enable the service and it does not offer encrypted messages.

The new system has been in development for several years, but is now beginning to appear on Android phones.

Android’s messaging mess

SMS – the short message service – was widely adopted in the 1990s. It lets mobile phones exchange basic 160-character text messages over the mobile network.

Modern messaging apps offer much more advanced features and send messages over the internet rather than using SMS.

However, the default messaging app on Android smartphones – Messages – is still a comparatively basic SMS client.

Google has tried several times to launch its own feature-rich mobile messaging app, but its attempts have failed to win over a large audience.

On Thursday, the company said it was “pausing” development of its latest effort – Allo – which was launched in 2016.

Advanced rivals

Google’s rivals such as Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp support advanced features such as typing indicators and high-resolution pictures. Apple’s iPhones have the similarly feature-rich iMessage service built-in.

This time, rather than try to launch yet another messaging app, Google has been working to integrate a new messaging standard with its Android operating system.

Mobile operators, phone manufacturers and app-makers will be able to use the new technology to develop messaging apps that are compatible with one another.

Image copyright Google
Image caption Chat lets people see when a contact is typing

The standard is known as the Universal Profile for Rich Communication Services (RCS) – but it will be given the more consumer-friendly name of Chat when it is rolled out to Android devices.

To develop Chat, Google has worked with more than 50 mobile networks including Vodafone, T-Mobile and Verizon and manufacturers such as Samsung, LG and Huawei.

Compatibility

Once Chat rolls out worldwide, Android users will be able to take advantage of the advanced features when messaging other Android users.

As with Apple’s iMessage system, if the intended recipient does not have a Chat-compatible device, messages will be sent via the old SMS system instead.

Google has stressed that Chat is not a new Google app. Since RCS is a communications standard, it is up to individual mobile networks and phone-makers to switch on the functionality.

Since messages are sent over the internet, they will not use up a customer’s SMS text message allowance. However, a mobile operator could in theory charge customers a separate fee to use Chat.

US mobile giant Sprint is already providing Chat functionality, while Rogers in Canada has also switched on the service.

Microsoft is one of the companies that has supported RCS but it has not confirmed whether it will add Chat functionality to Windows 10. Apple has not signed up to the project.

Samsung, which already replaces Android’s default messaging app on its devices, will integrate RCS with its own software.

Security experts have warned that Chat does not offer encrypted communication. As with SMS, Chat messages are not scrambled as they travel across the mobile network.

Google’s Anil Sabharwal told technology news site The Verge that “RCS continues to be a carrier-owned service”, which means that messages can still be legally intercepted.

The company said it expected the functionality to be widely available on Android phones within two years.

Facebook to exclude billions from European privacy laws

Facebook's Menlo Park campusImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption A total of 1.5 billion users who had previously been under the jurisdiction of Facebook Ireland will have that moved to US headquarters

Facebook has changed its terms of service, meaning 1.5 billion members will not be protected under tough new privacy protections coming to Europe.

The move comes as the firm faces a series of questions from lawmakers and regulators around the world over its handling of personal data.

The change revolves around which users will be regulated via its European headquarters in Ireland.

Facebook said it planned clearer privacy rules worldwide.

The move, reported by Reuters, will see Facebook users outside the EU governed by Facebook Inc in the US rather than Facebook Ireland.

It is widely seen as a way of the social network avoiding having to apply the upcoming General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) to countries outside the EU.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Technology firms are rushing to ensure they are GDPR-compliant ahead of May deadline

The change will affect more than 70% of its more than two billion members. As of December, Facebook had 239 million users in the US and Canada and 370 million in Europe.

It also had 1.5 billion members in Africa, Asia, Australia and Latin America, and they are the ones affected by the change.

Users in the US and Canada have never been subject to European rules.

“The GDPR and EU consumer law set out specific rules for terms and data policies which we have incorporated for EU users. We have been clear that we are offering everyone who uses Facebook the same privacy protections, controls and settings, no matter where they live,” said Stephen Deadman, deputy chief global privacy officer at Facebook.

Sylvia Kingsmill, a digital privacy expert at consultancy KPMG, said such moves were “an easy way out” for tech firms.

“I think that the public expectation is that their data, which they freely give up to corporate giants, is protected and I think this kind of move will catch up with the firms that make it.”

She added that regulators and lawmakers in the US and Canada were working on their own laws that would reflect the same controls offered by the “game-changing” GDPR.

Positive step

In 2008, Facebook set up its international headquarters in Ireland to take advantage of the country’s low corporate tax rates but it also meant all users outside the US and Canada were protected by European regulations.

The change will mean users outside Europe will no longer be able to file complaints with the Irish data protection commissioner or in the Irish courts.

GDPR, due to come into force next month, offers EU consumers far greater control over their data. It also promises to fine firms found to have breached data rules up to 4% of their annual global revenue.

Facebook has been under extremely close scrutiny following revelations that up to 87 million users may have had their data harvested by political marketing firm Cambridge Analytica without their consent.

In his answers to Congress over Facebook’s involvement in the scandal, Mark Zuckerberg said that GDPR was “going to be a very positive step for the internet”.

When asked whether the regulations should be applied in the US, he replied: “I think everyone in the world deserves good privacy protection.”

Facebook seeks facial recognition consent in EU and Canada

SelfieImage copyright Getty Images
Image caption Facebook says its face-matching tech is a way for users to learn if they are in a photo even if not tagged

Facebook has started asking European and Canadian users to let it use facial recognition technology to identify them in photos and videos.

Facebook originally began face-matching users outside Canada in 2011, but stopped doing so for EU citizens the following year after protests from regulators and privacy campaigners.

The new request is one of several opt-in permissions being rolled out in advance of a new data privacy law.

The move is likely to be controversial.

The company is currently embroiled in a privacy scandal related to the use of its members’ personal information by the political consultancy Cambridge Analytica.

The social network is also facing a class-action lawsuit in the US for deploying the facial recognition technology there without users’ explicit consent.

“Biometric identification and tracking across the billions of photos on the platform exacerbates serious privacy risks to users,” commented Silkie Carlo, director of UK civil liberties group Big Brother Watch.

“Facebook now has a duty to prove it has learned how to respect the law, not to prove it can take its surveillance capabilities to new depths.”

Users outside the EU and Canada will be prompted to review a similar set of privacy controls in the coming months, but they will continue to be subject to facial recognition unless they opt out of the system.

Facebook’s face-matching tech

Image copyright Facebook

The facial recognition facility works by assigning each user a unique number called a template. This is calculated by analysing the way they look in their profile photograph and other images they have already been identified in.

Untagged faces are then represented in a similar manner and compared to the database of templates.

When a match is found, Facebook prompts both the person posting an image and the people appearing in it to apply the relevant name tags. In addition, it uses the tech to detect when a scammer is attempting to use a stolen photo as their profile picture.

It also helps Facebook to offer new “friends” suggestions.

When new connections are made, users have more reason to spend longer on Facebook’s app and website.

This lets the firm show them more adverts while also helping it learn more about their interests, which in turn lets it better target future ads.

Pre-ticked boxes

The new settings are being deployed ahead of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which comes into force on 25 May.

The law tightens existing privacy rules, forbids the use of pre-ticked boxes for consent, and increases the amount organisations can be fined for non-compliance.

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Users can either agree to face recognition with a single button press or click through other pages to be given the choice of refusing

Under the new system, users click a single button saying “accept and continue” to turn on face recognition, but have to delve deeper into the “manage data setting” options to confirm they want it turned off.

As has previously been the case, Facebook will not include under-18s in its face-matching database. And it has said that if users opt in but subsequently change their minds, it will delete their face templates, making further matches impossible.

Even so, the data watchdog involved has yet to sign off on the proposal.

“There are a number of outstanding issues on which we await further responses from Facebook,” Ireland’s data protection commissioner told the BBC.

“In particular, the Irish DPC is querying the technology around facial recognition and whether Facebook needs to scan all faces – ie those without consent as well – to use the facial recognition technology.

“The issue of compliance of this feature with GDPR is therefore not settled at this point.”

Sensitive data

Image copyright Facebook
Image caption Facebook will initially present the new settings pages to EU citizens before rolling versions out worldwide

Facebook will also be asking for the following consent to meet its new obligations:

  • if a member has added information about their religious views, political beliefs or sexuality, they will be asked whether they agree to continue allowing that information to be displayed to others and whether they permit Facebook to use the data to target ads and provide other personalised recommendations
  • users will be asked if they authorise data gathered from elsewhere – including third-party websites and apps – to be used to pick which ads are shown to them on Facebook and Instagram

Under GDPR, children are also afforded added protections, which the EU’s members can decide to limit to those under 13 or extend to those under 16.

Facebook already bans under-13s from being members.

But in affected countries, it will now ask under-16s for the permission of a parent or guardian to:

  • show adverts based on their interests
  • include their religious and political views in their profiles
  • allow them to express their sexuality by registering whether they are “interested in” men, women or both

To do this, the firm will either require them to send a permission request via Facebook itself or provide an email address that the older party can be reached at.

In the case of the latter, the company has confirmed that it will rely on the youngsters to provide an accurate address and does not plan its own identity checks.

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Facebook facial recognition faces class-action suit

Facebook logo on a computer screenImage copyright Getty Images

Facebook must face a class action lawsuit over its use of facial recognition technology, a California judge has ruled.

The lawsuit alleges that Facebook gathered biometric information without users’ explicit consent.

It involves the “tag suggestions” technology, which spots users’ friends in uploaded photos. The lawsuit says this breaches Illinois state law.

Facebook said the case had no merit and it would fight it vigorously.

However in his order, US District Judge James Donato wrote: “Facebook seems to believe… statutory damages could amount to billions of dollars.”

‘Face templates’

On Monday, Judge Donato ruled to certify a class of Facebook users – a key legal hurdle for a class action suit.

In a successful class action suit, any person in that group could be entitled to compensation.

The class of people in question is made up of Facebook users “in Illinois for whom Facebook created and stored a face template after 7 June 2011,” according to the court order.

The decision comes days after Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg faced intensive questioning by US lawmakers over the company’s collection and use of user data.

He is also due to meet European Commission Vice President Andrus Ansip in San Francisco this week, reports Bloomberg.

What does the facial recognition do?

June 2011 was the date on which Facebook rolled out its “tag suggestions” feature.

The feature suggests who might be present in uploaded photos, based on an existing database of faces.

In Judge Donato’s ruling, he laid out the four-step process behind the technology:

  • Initially, the software tries to detect any faces in an uploaded photo
  • It standardises and aligns them for size and direction
  • Then, for each face, Facebook computes a face signature – a mathematical representation of the face in that photo
  • Face signatures are then run through a stored database of user face templates to look for similar matches
Image copyright Facebook
Image caption The tag suggestions feature is not currently available in the UK

On its help pages, Facebook says the face templates are made from information about the similarities in every photo the user has been tagged in.

“If you’ve never been tagged in a photo on Facebook or have untagged yourself in all photos of you on Facebook, then we do not have this summary information for you,” the company says.

The feature is not available to users in most countries, including the UK – and can be turned off in settings for US users.

In December 2017 Facebook announced that users would be notified if a picture of them was uploaded by someone else, even if they hadn’t been tagged in it.

Due to privacy regulations, this feature would not be available in Europe or Canada, the firm said at the time.

Wetherspoon pub chain shuts its social media accounts

Man drinking pintImage copyright PA

Pub chain JD Wetherspoon has used Twitter to tell its 44,000 followers that it is quitting social media.

The firm’s head office and 900 pubs will quit the micro-blogging site, and also Instagram and Facebook, with immediate effect, it said.

The pub chain linked the move to bad publicity surrounding social media including the “trolling” of MPs.

Chairman Tim Martin told the BBC that society would be better off if people cut the amount of social media use.

The firm said its decision had also been influenced by concerns regarding the “misuse of personal data” and “the addictive nature of social media”.

“We are going against conventional wisdom that these platforms are a vital component of a successful business,” said Mr Martin.

He told the BBC he had always thought the idea that social media was essential for advertising was untrue.

“We were also concerned that pub managers were being side-tracked from the real job of serving customers,” he said. “I don’t believe that closing these accounts will affect our business whatsoever.”

The chairman said that it had consulted its pub managers before making the move, and “90-to-95% felt using social media was not helping the business”.

Mr Martin told BBC Radio 5 Live that he thinks coming off social media would be good for society in general.

He said that if people “limited their social media to half an hour a day, they’d be mentally and physically better off”.

He added: “I find most people I know waste their time on it. A lot of them say they know they waste their time on it, but they struggle to get off it.”


Analysis: Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC technology correspondent:

It has become received wisdom that a social media presence, used for everything from customer support to promoting the brand, is now a vital tool in the marketing strategy of any business big or small. So why does JD Wetherspoon feel it can do without one?

The pub chain has certainly put plenty of effort into it until now, with hundreds of different Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts. But the truth is that none had won much of a mass following – and those who ran the accounts were not doing a very good job. A tweet pushing fish and chips on Good Friday got just three re-tweets.

Managing an effective social media strategy and making sure staff running so many accounts stick to company policy is a very time consuming and expensive business. Perhaps for Wetherspoons all of this effort has become more trouble than it is worth.


The chairman reassured its followers that it would “still be as vocal as ever”, but would instead use its magazine and website as well as the press for news updates.

He said customers could also get in touch with them by speaking with their local pub manager.

“It’s becoming increasingly obvious that people spend too much time on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and struggle to control the compulsion,” Mr Martin added.

Backlash

The pub chain currently has more than 100,000 Facebook followers and more than 6,000 on Instagram.

Asked whether Wetherspoon’s move could start a business trend, Mr Martin said he hoped not.

“Currently we’ve got a massive commercial advantage because everyone else is wasting hours of their time,” he said.

The move is part of a wider corporate backlash against social media.

In February, consumer goods giant Unilever threatened to pull all ads from online platforms like Facebook and Google if they did not do enough to police extremist and illegal content.

And following the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal, Tesla boss Elon Musk had the official Facebook pages for his Tesla and SpaceX companies deleted.

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