And now, here’s a ‘Trumpy Cat’ augmented reality app from George Takei

Anyone who follows George Takei on Twitter can tell you that Star Trek‘s original Sulu is not a fan of President Donald Trump. But he’s found a new way to express that criticism — not just in tweets, interviews and op-eds, but also in an augmented reality app called House of Cats.

The app was built in partnership with Montreal-based development company BMAD, and it allows users to interact animated animal characters like Trumpy Cat, Meowlania, Vladdy Putin and Lil’ Rocket Pug. They can add their own voice recordings, superimpose the animals on real environments and take photos with them — Takei suggested including Trumpy Cat in photos of real-world protests.

When I asked where the idea came from, Takei had a simple explanation : “The Internet loves the combination of politics and cats.”

While the app looks pretty silly, Takei made the by-now-commonplace observation that satire is having a hard time keeping up with the daily news.

We spoke shortly after Trump had his press conference with Vladimir Putin — setting off this week’s cycle of criticism, denial and missing double negatives — and Takei told me, “No augmented reality could have created the true reality of what we saw this morning: Donald Trump standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Vladimir Putin … his denial of the attack on the core activity of our democratic system.”

Takei added that humor is a key ingredient in getting a serious message out into the world. He’s pointed to his embrace of memes (particularly Grumpy Cat) as one of the main drivers of his popularity on social media, which in turn gives him a bigger platform for his political views.

“I’m a political activist — I have been since I was a teenager, largely because of my childhood incarceration behind American barbed wire fences,” Takei said. He said his social media presence is meant to be an extension of that activism, but, “I notice that if I’m documenting the truth, people are nodding off. [So] I try to kind of inject a little humor into it.”

The app costs 99 cents, and there are plans for subscription content as well. It might seem strange to pay money for a satirical cat app, but keep in mind that some of the profits will go to Refugees International.

“Making a mockery of this particular person is going to be a very effective tool,” Takei said. “We’ll have fun while we also accomplish our mission to make this a better America.”

Kik launches beta product after $100 million ICO

Kik made waves last year after a successful $100 million ICO. Now the company has released its first beta product related to its Kin token. Called Kinit, it’s a simple wallet that enables users to earn, store, and spend its tokens.

“Kinit is a fun, easy way to earn Kin, a new cryptocurrency made for your digital life. Earning Kin is just like playing a game, only better, because you get rewarded for completing fun daily activities like surveys, quizzes, interactive videos and more,” reads the Google Play Store description. You can download the app for Android here.

The Kin token is unique for a few reasons. First it is not a traditional ERC-20 token and is instead uses Ethereum for liquidity and the on the Stellar network to improve transaction speed. Further, the company is spending a great deal – about $3 million – to get developers to develop on the token through its KinEcosystem site. The Kinit app is the first effort to get normal users to adopt the tool.

The app makes it possible for users to generate a few dollars in value per day and then exchange those dollars for gift cards and perks. According to CCN, Kik has created a product without a business model and instead it wants to drive the adoption of the token through giveaways.

“Kinit is the first publicly available app dedicated to Kin. Our goal with Kinit is to get Kin into more consumers’ hands. It’s a major step towards making crypto truly consumer-friendly through fun and engaging experiences, and we plan to learn and iterate based on real-world user behavior. We’re excited to get even more people earning and spending Kin — all on the Kin Blockchain,” wrote Rod McLeod, Kik’s VP of communications. The app currently asks you to complete surveys in order to get discounts and gift card codes for products.

With the rise of the product-less ICO it’s clear that Kik has the right idea. By encouraging usage they drive up the token price and token velocity and by launching a general beta full of cutesy imagery and text they are able to avoid the hard questions about developer adoption until far into the future. While the KinIt app is probably not what most Kin holders wanted to see, it’s at least an interim solution while the team builds out sturdier systems.

Glovo gets $134M to beef up its on-demand delivery business

Spanish startup Glovo, whose platform lets app users summon a gig economy worker to shop on their behalf, be it for a takeaway burger or a multi-bag supermarket shop, has bagged a €115 million (~$134M) Series C round of funding. Spanish press are reporting the round values Glovo’s business at more than €300M.

The lead investors in the Series C are Rakuten, Seaya and Cathay, which had also invested in its Series B.

Also investing is AmRest — a publicly listed restaurant operator in Central Europe — as well as European funds Idinvest Partners and GR Capital, plus some other minor investments.

AmRest controls more than 1,650 restaurants in more than 16 countries — with brands such as KFC, La Tagliatella, Pizza Hut, Starbucks and Burger King, Blue Frog and KABB under its belt. So the strategic opportunities it’s spying to ply fast food fans with on-demand food at the tap of an app button are clear.

Glovo raised a €30M Series B last October. The startup was founded in Barcelona in 2015, and its delivery riders — with the distinctive yellow box bags strapped to their backs — are a common sight around the city, often to be spotted clustering in expectant groups at the entrance to McDonald’s and other fast food outlets.

The startup says the new funding will be put towards optimizing its platform and tech resources to improve the service to riders, users and associated stores.

Specifically, it’s planning to increase its tech team by adding more than 100 engineers in the coming months — saying it wants to become what it dubs “the most relevant technology hub in Southern Europe”.

It also plans to use the funds to fuel its momentum, noting it’s opened up six countries and 20 cities around the world in just three months. Its regions of focus are Latin America and EMEA areas (Europe, the Middle East and Africa), and its app is available in 61 cities in 17 countries in all at this stage.

While Europe is a core region, and Spain alone accounts for a major chunk of its business — where it’s now operating in 21 cities — the legal risk for gig economy companies operating there is rising as political pressure grows to reform employment law to bolster workers’ rights against erosions by app platforms that are in turn reliant on huge armies of so-called ‘self-employed’ workers to power their businesses.  

In the UK, for example, the government is consulting on a package of labor market reforms, saying in February that it wanted to be “accountable for good quality work as well as quantity of jobs” — and putting gig economy platforms on watch for changes.

Glovo’s other regional focus — of Latin America — suggests the startup is hedging its bets where this type of employment law legal risk is concerned.

And indeed where competitive risk is concerned, given the space it’s playing it is a very crowded one on the food delivery front (with the likes of Deliveroo, UberEats and JustEast competing to conveniently serve consumers’ stomaches in Europe), and the likes of Postmates having established a shop-on-your-behalf business in the US.

Also today Glovo announced the nomination of Niall Wass as chairman. It said that Wass, a former Uber SVP for the EMEA & APAC region, has been working for it as advisor for the past year and helping with its expansion strategy.

Google launches its first WeChat mini program as its China experiments continue

Google is continuing to test new strategies in China after the U.S. search giant released its first mini program for WeChat, the country’s hugely popular messaging app.

WeChat is used by hundreds of millions of Chinese people daily for services that stretch beyond chat to include mobile payments, bill paying, food delivery and more. Tencent, the company that operates WeChat, added mini programs last year and they effectively operate like apps that are attached to the service. That means that users bypass Google Play or Apple’s App Store and install them from WeChat.

Earlier this year, Tencent added support for games — “mini games” — and the Chinese firm recently said that over one million mini programs have been created to date. Engagement is high, with some 500 million WeChat users interacting with at least one each month.

WeChat has become the key distribution channel in China and that’s why Google is embracing it with its first mini program — 猜画小歌, a game that roughly translates to ‘Guess My Sketch.’ There’s no English announcement but the details can be found in this post on Google’s Chinese blog, which includes the QR code to scan to get the game.

The app is a take on games like Zynga’s Draw Something, which puts players into teams to guess what the other is drawing. Google, however, is adding a twist. Each player teams up with an AI and then battles against their friends and their AIs. You can find an English version of the game online here.

Google’s first WeChat mini program is a sketching game that uses AI

The main news here isn’t the game, of course, but that Google is embracing mini programs, which have been christened as a threat to the Google Play Store itself.

‘When in China… play by local rules’ and Google has taken that to heart this year.

The company recently introduced a Chinese version of its Files Go Android device management app which saw it join forces with four third-party app stores in China in order to gain distribution. This sketching game has lower ambitions but, clearly, it’ll be a learning experience for Google that might prompt it to introduce more significant apps or services via WeChat in the future.

Indeed, Google has been cozying up to Tencent lately after inking a patent deal with the Chinese internet giant, investing in its close ally JD.com and combining on investment deals together, including biotech startup XtalPi.

That’s one side of a new initiative to be more involved in China, where it has been absent since 2010 after redirecting its Chinese search service to Hong Kong in the face of government pressure. In other moves, it has opened an AI lab in Beijing and a more modest office in Shenzhen while it is bringing its startup demo day event to China for the first time with a Shanghai event in September.

Finally, in a touch of irony, Google’s embrace of WeChat’s ‘app store-killing’ mini programs platform comes just hours before the EU is expected to levy a multibillion-euro penalty onit for abusing its dominant position on mobile via Android.

Instagram is building non-SMS 2-factor auth to thwart SIM hackers

Hackers can steal your phone number by reassigning it to a different SIM card, use it to reset your passwords, steal your Instagram and other accounts, and sell them for Bitcoin. As detailed in a harrowing Motherboard article today, Instagram accounts are especially vulnerable because the app only offers two-factor authentication through SMS that delivers a password reset or login code via text message.

But now Instagram has confirmed to TechCrunch that it’s building non-SMS two-factor authentication system that works with security apps like Google Authenticator or Duo. They generate a special code that you need to login that can’t be generated on a different phone in case your number is ported to a hacker’s SIM card.

Buried in the Instagram Android app’s APK code is a prototype of the upgraded 2FA feature, discovered by frequent TechCrunch tipster Jane Manchun Wong. Her work has led to confirmed TechCrunch scoops on Instagram Video Calling, Usage Insights, soundtracks for Stories, and more.

When presented with the screenshots, an Instagram spokesperson told TechCrunch that yes, it is working on the non-SMS 2FA feature, saying “We’re continuing to improve the security of Instagram accounts, including strengthening 2-factor authentication.”

Instagram actually lacked any two-factor protection until 2016 when it already had 400 million users. In November 2015, I wrote a story titled “Seriously. Instagram needs two-factor authentication.” A friend and star Instagram stop-motion animation creator Rachel Ryle had been hacked, costing up a lucrative sponsorship deal. The company listened. Three months later, the app began rolling out basic SMS-based 2FA.

But since then, SIM porting has become a much more common problem. Hackers typically call a mobile carrier and use social engineering tactics to convince them they’re you, or bribe an employee to help, and then change your number to a SIM card they control. Whether they’re hoping to steal intimate photos, empty cryptocurrency wallets, or sell desireable social media handles that like @t or @Rainbow as Motherboard reported, there are plenty of incentives to try a SIM porting attack. This article outlines how you can take steps to protect your phone number.

Hopefully as knowledge of this hacking technique becomes more well known, more apps will introduce non-SMS 2FA, mobile providers will make it tougher to port numbers, and users will take more steps to safeguard their accounts. As our identities and assets increasingly go digital, its pin codes and authenticator apps, not just deadbolts and home security systems, that must become a part of our everyday lives.

Sharecuts is creating a community for sharing Siri Shortcuts

With the upcoming release of iOS 12, Apple is introducing a new app called Shortcuts that will allow users to build custom voice commands for Siri that can be used to kick off a variety of actions in apps. While some apps will directly prompt users to add a Shortcut to Siri, the new Shortcuts app will offer more shortcut suggestions to try, plus the ability to create your own shortcuts and workflows. Now, there’s a new resource for shortcut fans, too – Sharecuts, a directory of shortcuts created and shared by the community.

The site is still very much in the early stages.

Plus, iOS 12 is still in beta testing itself, and the Shortcuts app can only be installed by developers who request access via an invite.

But by the time iOS 12 releases to the public later this fall, Sharecuts’ directory will be filled out and a lot more functional.

The premise, explains Sharecuts’ creator Guilherme Rambo, was to make an easily accessible place where people could share their shortcuts with one another, discover those others have shared, and suggest improvements to existing shortcuts.

“I was talking to a friend [Patrick Balestra] about how cool shortcuts are, and how it should be easier for people to share and discover shortcuts,” says Guilherme. “He mentioned he wanted to build a website for that  – he even had the idea for the name Sharecuts – but he was on vacation without a good internet connection so I decided to just build it myself in one day,” he says.

The site is currently a bare bones, black-and-white page with cards for each shortcut, but an update will bring a more colorful style (see below) and features that will allow users to filter the shortcuts by tags, vote on favorites, among other things.

Above: current site

Guilherme says while the backend is being built to support a larger number of users, only a few people have been invited to upload for the time being. But in the upcoming release, the site will offer a “featured” selection of shortcuts chosen by some well-known members of the Apple community who will serve as curators.

The uploads to the site will also be moderated in the future, to prevent malicious shortcuts and spam from being included in the directory.

The site itself isn’t a new business or startup, Guilherme says, just a side project for now.

It’s written in Swift and open-sourced on GitHub so others can contribute. The page already has a list of ideas for improvements to the Sharecuts site, including the new design, plus more ways to refine, sort, and organize the shortcuts.

It remains to be seen how popular Siri Shortcuts will be with the mainstream iPhone user base.

With iOS 12, Apple is turning its iPhone into an “A.I. phone,” but I believe the Shortcuts app and workflows will remain a power user feature for some time. Mainstream users will gradually warm up to the idea of customizing their Siri interactions by getting prompted to create voice commands by their favorite apps. (E.g. Your coffee shop’s mobile ordering app may push you to add a “Coffee time!” shortcut to Siri.)

Over time, that may lead them to iOS 12’s Shortcuts app to do even more.

But in the near-term, power users will be busy taking advantage of the new Shortcuts app and Siri features to test the powers of Shortcuts. And with Sharecuts, all the other shortcuts enthusiasts can benefit from their enthusiasm and activity, too.

If you already have the beta Shortcuts app installed, you can try out some of the shortcuts featured on Sharecuts today. A couple of the interesting picks include the Siri News Reader which will read you headlines from an RSS feed, the Bitcoin Price checkers, and an always useful tip calculator.

Above: The news reader shortcut, from Federico Viticci

Those interested in contributing to Sharecuts in the future can register here for an invite.

Dems and GOP unite, slamming Facebook for allowing violent Pages

In a rare moment of agreement, members of the House Judiciary Committee from both major political parties agreed that Facebook needed to take down Pages that bullied shooting survivors or called for more violence. The hearing regarding social media filtering practices saw policy staffers from Facebook, Google and Twitter answering questions, though Facebook absorbed the brunt of the ire. The hearing included Republican Representative Steve King ask “What about converting the large behemoth organizations that we’re talking about here into public utilities?”

The meatiest part of the hearing centered on whether social media platforms should delete accounts of conspiracy theorists and those inciting violence, rather than just removing the offending posts.

The issue has been a huge pain point for Facebook this week after giving vague answers for why it hasn’t deleted known faker Alex Jones’ Infowars Page, and tweeting that “We see Pages on both the left and the right pumping out what they consider opinion or analysis – but others call fake news.” Facebook’s Head of Global Policy Management Monica Bickert today reiterated that “sharing information that is false does not violate our policies.”

As I detailed in this opinion piece, I think the right solution is to quarantine the Pages of Infowars and similar fake news, preventing their posts or shares of links to their web domain from getting any visibility in the News Feed. But deleting the Page without instances of it directly inciting violence would make Jones a martyr and strengthen his counterfactual movement. Deletion should be reserved for those that blatantly encourage acts of violence.

Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) asked about how Infowars’ claims in YouTube videos that Parkland shooting’s survivors were crisis actors squared with the company’s policy. Google’s Global Head of Public Policy and Government Relations for YouTube Juniper Downs explained that “We have a specific policy that says that if you say a well-documented violent attack didn’t happen and you use the name or image of the survivors or victims of that attack, that is a malicious attack and it violates our policy.” She noted that YouTube has a “three strikes” policy, it is “demoting low-quality content and promoting more authoritative content,” and it’s now showing boxes atop result pages for problematic searches, like “is the earth flat?” with facts to dispel conspiracies.

Facebook’s answer was much less clear. Bickert told Deutch that “We do use a strikes model. What that means is that if a Page, or profile, or group is posting content and some of that violates our polices, we always remove the violating posts at a certain point” (emphasis mine). That’s where Facebook became suddenly less transparent.

“It depends on the nature of the content that is violating our policies. At a certain point we would also remove the Page, or the profile, or the group at issue,” Bickert continued. Deutch then asked how many strikes conspiracy theorists get. Bickert noted that “crisis actors” claims violate its policy and its removes that content. “And we would continue to remove any violations from the Infowars Page.” But regarding Page-level removals, she got wishy-washy, saying, “If they posted sufficient content that it would violate our threshold, then the page would come down. The threshold varies depending on the different types of violations.”

“The threshold varies”

Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) gave the conservatives’ side of the same argument, citing two posts by the Facebook Page “Milkshakes Against The Republican Party” that called for violence, including one that saying “Remember the shooting at the Republican baseball game? One of those should happen every week.”

While these posts have been removed, Gaetz asked why the Page hadn’t. Bickert noted that “There’s no place for any calls for violence on Facebook.” Regarding the threshold, she did reveal that “When someone posts an image of child sexual abuse imagery their account will come down right away. There are different thresholds for different violations.” But she repeatedly refused to make a judgement call about whether the Page should be removed until she could review it with her team.

Image: Bryce Durbin/TechCrunch

Showing surprising alignment in such a fractured political era, Democratic Representative Jamie Raskin of Florida said “I’m agreeing with the chairman about this and I think we arrived at the same exact same place when we were taking about at what threshold does Infowars have their Page taken down after they repeatedly denied the historical reality of massacres of children in public school.”

Facebook can’t rely on a shadowy “the threshold varies” explanation any more. It must outline exactly what types of violations incur not only post removal but strikes against their authors. Perhaps that’s something like “one strike for posts of child sexual abuse, three posts for inciting violence, five posts for bullying victims or denying documented tragedies occurred, and unlimited posts of less urgently dangerous false information.”

Whatever the specifics, Facebook needs to provide specifics. Until then, both liberals and conservatives will rightly claim that enforcement is haphazard and opaque.

For more from today’s hearing:

The Google Assistant app will walk you through your day

Google’s Assistant app mostly functions as a surrogate for its line of connected Home devices. But what about all of that information it’s aggregating? The company will start putting that to use, providing a “visual snapshot” of the day to come.

The new feature, rolling out to the app on Android and iOS today, pulls in a bunch of relevant information from across Google services, including calendar, reminders, stocks, package deliveries, flights, restaurant/movie reservations and suggested Actions. It also provides travel times to and from appointments to offer up a better idea of when to leave.

More features will be rolling out soon, including notes from Google Keep,  Any.do, Bring and Todoist, along with parking reminders, nearby activities and recommendations for music and podcasts. In other words, the Google Assistant app is angling to become your one stop shop for — well, basically ever single thing you do in a given day.

While Amazon’s Alexa play has been centered around commerce, it’s pretty clear that Google’s in it for the same reason as always: information. Using a voice controlled smart speaker is yet another way to gather all of that data from a user, and now it’s being out to use in a single spot.

It’s an obvious play — and an important reminder of just how much information these companies have on us at a given time.