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Mozilla flips the default switch on Firefox tracker cookie blocking

Judhajeet Das

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From today Firefox users who update to the latest version of the browser will find a pro-privacy setting flipped for them on desktop and Android smartphones, assuming they didn’t already have the anti-tracking cookie feature enabled.

Mozilla launched the Enhanced Tracking Protection (ETP) feature in June as a default setting for new users — but leaving existing Firefox users’ settings unchanged at that point.

It’s now finishing what it started by flipping the default switch across the board in v69.0 of the browser.

The feature takes clear aim at third party cookies that are used to track Internet users for creepy purposes such as ad profiling. (Firefox relies on the Disconnect list to identify creepy cookies to block.)

The anti-tracking feature also takes aim at cryptomining: A background practice which can drain CPU and battery power, negatively impacting the user experience. Again, Firefox will now block cryptomining by default, not only when user activated.

In a blog post about the latest release Mozilla says it represents a “milestone” that marks “a major step in our multi-year effort to bring stronger, usable privacy protections to everyone using Firefox”.

“Currently over 20% of Firefox users have Enhanced Tracking Protection on. With today’s release, we expect to provide protection for 100% of ours users by default,” it predicts, underlining the defining power of default settings.

Firefox users with ETP enabled will see a shield icon in the URL bar to denote the tracker blocking is working. Clicking on this icon takes users to a menu where they can view a list of all the tracking cookies that are being blocked. Users are also able to switch off tracking cookie blocking on a per site basis, via this Content Blocking menu.

While blocking tracking cookies reduces some tracking of internet users it does not offer complete protection for privacy. Mozilla notes that ETP does not yet block browser fingerprinting scripts from running by default, for example.

Browser fingerprinting is another prevalent privacy-hostile technique that’s used to track and profile web users without knowledge or consent by linking online activity to a computer’s configuration and thereby tying multiple browser sessions back to the same device-user.

It’s an especially pernicious technique because it can erode privacy across browser sessions and even different browsers — which an Internet user might be deliberately deploying to try to prevent profiling.

A ‘Strict Mode’ in the Firefox setting can be enabled by Firefox users in the latest release to block fingerprinting. But it’s not on by default.

Mozilla says a future release of the browser will flip fingerprinting blocking on by default too.

The latest changes in Firefox continue Mozilla’s strategy — announced a year ago — of pro-actively defending its browser users’ privacy by squeezing the operational range of tracking technologies.

In the absence of a robust regulatory framework to rein in the outgrowth of the adtech ‘industrial data complex’ that’s addicted to harvesting Internet users’ data for ad targeting, browser makers have found themselves at the coal face of the fight against privacy-hostile tracking technologies.

And some are now playing an increasingly central — even defining role — as they flip privacy and anti-tracking defaults.

Notably, earlier this month, the open source WebKit browser engine, which underpins Apple’s Safari browser, announced a new tracking prevention policy that puts privacy on the same footing as security, saying it would treat attempts to circumvent this as akin to hacking.

Even Google has responded to growing pressure around privacy — announcing changes to how its Chrome browser handles cookies this May. Though it’s not doing that by default yet.

It has also said it’s working on technology to reduce fingerprinting. And recently announced a long term proposal to involve its Chromium browser engine in developing a new open standard for privacy.

Though cynics might suggest the adtech giant is responding to competitive pressure on privacy by trying to frame and steer the debate in a way that elides its own role in data mining Internet users at scale for (huge) profit.

Thus its tardy privacy pronouncements and long term proposals look rather more like an attempt to kick the issue into the long grass and buy time for Chrome to keep being used to undermine web users’ privacy — instead of Google being forced to act now and close down privacy-hostile practices that benefit its business.

Tech Passionate and Heavy Geek! Into Blogging world since 2014 and never looked back since then :) I am also a YouTube Video Producer and a Aspiring Entrepreneur. Founder, MyDroidDoes

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Android

The Mate 30 is a moment of truth for Huawei

Judhajeet Das

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The newly unveiled smartphone is a tentative step toward independence from Google

We’ve known this day would come for a long time now. Over the past several months, however, it feels like it has arrived in slow motion. Seemingly legitimate concerns over security and sanction violations have been muddled by chest-puffing and braggadocio and large-headed leaders promising to do deals. Executives were arrested in Canada and the company was added to a trade blacklist, only to be given a temporary reprieve.

This morning, in spite of it all, Huawei unveiled its latest flagship. The Mate 30 Pro is a beast of a smartphone, as we’ve come to expect from the Chinese electronics powerhouse. It has a quartet of cameras aligned in a ring up top. On the flip side, a 6.53-inch flexible OLED hugs the corners of the handset, boasting an always-on functionality — the long-awaited new feature that served as the central selling point for Apple’s latest wearable.

From a 100-foot view, however, it seems inevitable that no one will remember the handset for its screen or cameras or beefy 4,500mAh. It’s what’s missing that’s the most notable. The Mate 30 and Mate 30 Pro don’t use full Android, but rather an open-source version of the operating system based on it. More importantly, they are missing Google’s fundamental apps like Gmail, Maps and Chrome, a central part of the Android experience. Worse yet, there’s no Google Play Store to download them.

The solutions for now are mostly stop-gap. There’s a Huawei-branded browser that lets you download apps through a Huawei-branded channel. There are 45,000 or so. Not bad, but nowhere near the 2.7 million you’ll find via Google Play. There will be better solutions to these, but they take a lot of time and money. Huawei’s got plenty of the latter, though the former has been the cause for some debate amongst those following the company.

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Afore Capital raises second pre-seed venture capital fund

Judhajeet Das

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As expectations from seed investors intensify, a new stage of investment has established itself earlier in the venture-backed company life cycle.

Known as “pre-seed” investing, one of the first legitimate outfits to double down on the stage has refueled, closing its second fund on $77 million.

Afore Capital’s sophomore fund is likely the largest pool of venture capital yet to focus exclusively on pre-seed companies, or pre-product businesses seeking their first bout of institutional capital. In many cases, a pre-seed startup may even be “pre-idea,” yet to fully incorporate. While some funds are happy to invest that early, Afore seeks slightly more mature companies.

Afore invests between $500,000 and $1 million in nascent startups. As it kicks off its second fund, founding partners Anamitra Banerji and Gaurav Jain tell TechCrunch they plan to lead all of their investments.

We have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category. – Afore founding partner Anamitra Banerji

Standouts in Afore’s existing portfolio include the no-fee credit card company Petal — which has raised roughly $50 million to date — mobile executive coaching business BetterUp, childcare information platform Winnie and Modern Health, a B2B mental wellness platform.

Afore portfolio companies have raised more than $360 million in follow-on funding, with an aggregate market cap of $1.5 billion, Jain, the founding product manager at Android Nexus and former principal at Founder Collective, tells TechCrunch. “These are high-quality teams with high-quality projects and ideas.”

Jain and Banerji — a founding product manager at Twitter and former partner at Foundation Capital — began raising capital for Afore’s $47 million debut fund in 2016. Since then, the landscape for seed investing has shifted. Early-stage investors have begun funneling larger sums of capital to standout teams at the seed, while billion-dollar venture capital funds set aside capital for serial entrepreneurs working on their next big idea. As a result, deal sizes have swelled and deal count has shrunk simultaneously.

“Pre-seed has replaced seed in the venture ecosystem,” Banerji tells TechCrunch. “We saw this early as a result of both of us having been at funds. We knew that this was going to be a massive category just like seed was before it. Now we think it’s clearly here to stay and we have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category.”

Since launching the firm, the pair explain they’ve noticed more and more founders explicitly stating that they are in the market for a pre-seed round, a statement you wouldn’t have heard as recently as two years ago.

This is a result of Afore’s efforts to legitimize the stage through investments and programming, including its annual Pre-Seed Summit. Though Afore is certainly not the only VC fund focused on the earliest stage of startup investing — other firms deploying capital at the stage include Hustle Fund, which closed an $11.8 million debut fund last year, plus the $20 million immigrant-focused pre-seed fund Unshackled Ventures and the predominant seed and pre-seed stage firm Precursor Ventures, which announced a $31 million second fund earlier this year.

In the past year alone, more than $200 million has been dedicated to the pre-seed stage, with at least nine new funds launching to nurture early-stage startups.

More and more firms are setting up shop at the pre-seed stage as competition at the seed stage reaches new heights. As we’ve previously reported, monster funds are becoming increasingly active at the seed stage, muscling seed funds out of top deals with less dilutive offers. While the pre-seed stage, for the most part, remains protected from competition at the later stage, these firms still have to compete.

“Nobody wants to lose sight of a deal, so they are willing to toss small amounts of capital very early behind interesting founders,” Jain said. “But frankly, we aren’t sure if it’s good for a company to raise that much capital that early in their life cycle.”

Working with a fund that isn’t passionate about what you are building or familiar with the plights of the stage of your business is terrible for founders, adds Jain. Pairing with a focused fund like Afore, on the other hand, allows for “incentive alignment.”

Afore invests across all industries, preferring to back startups in categories “before they are categories.”

“What we are looking for is deep authenticity and passion around the product they are building,” says Banerji. “Ideas on their own aren’t enough. Founder resumes on their own aren’t enough. While we do care about all of those aspects, we get crazy about their clarity of thought in the short term.”

“We don’t take the point of view of ‘here is some money, it’s OK to lose it,’ ” he adds. “For us to invest, the founder must be all in. And we generally don’t invest in celebrity founders; we are going after the underdog founder.”

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Get popcorn for iOS 13’s privacy pop-ups of creepy Facebook data grabs

Judhajeet Das

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Privacy-minded changes to smartphone operating systems which foreground the background activity of third party apps are helping to spotlight more of the surveillance infrastructure deployed by adtech giants to track and profile human eyeballs for profit.

To wit: iOS 13, which will be generally released later this week, has already been spotted catching Facebook’s app trying to use Bluetooth to track nearby users.

facebook BT

Why might Facebook want to do this? Matching Bluetooth (and wif-fi) IDs that share physical location could allow it to supplement the social graph it gleans by data-mining user-to-user activity on its platform.

Such location tracking provides a physical confirm that individuals were (at very least) in close proximity.

Combined with personal data Facebook also holds on people, and contextual data on the nature of the location itself — a bar, say, or a house — there’s a clear path for the company to make inferences about the nature of the relationship between the people who it’s repurposed short range wireless tech to determine are in close contact.

For a company that makes money by serving targeted ads at humans there are clear commercial reasons for Facebook to seek to intimately understand people’s friend networks.

Facebook piggybacking on people’s use of Bluetooth for benign purposes like pairing devices so that its ad business can ‘pair’ people is the sneaky modus operandi that iOS 13 has caught in the act here.

Ads are Facebook’s business, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously told the senate last year. But it’s worth noting the social network giant recently sought to push into the dating space — giving it a fresh, product-based incentive to pry into where and with whom humans are spending their time.

Algorithmic matchmaking based on cold signals like shared interests (in basic Facebook currency this might mean stuff like liking the same pages and events) is of course nothing new.

Yet mix in hot-blooded signals gathered by watching who actually mingles with whom, where and when — by repurposing Bluetooth to harvest interpersonal interactions via tracking people’s physical movements — and Facebook can take its curtain-twitching surveillance of human behavior to the next level.

The path of least resistance to tracking people’s movements is if Facebook app users are opting in to location tracking on their devices. Which means users enabling Location Services — a location tracking feature on smartphones that covers GPS, Bluetooth and crowd-sources wi-fi hotspots and mobile cell towers.

Unsurprisingly, then Facebook Dating requires Location Services to be enabled to function. The company confirmed to us that the Facebook app prompts dating users to enable Location Services if they haven’t already. Facebook also told us it doesn’t use wi-fi or Bluetooth to determine a person’s precise location if a user has Location Services turned off.

It also made a point of emphasizing that users can switch Location Services off at any time. Just not if they wish to use, er, Facebook Dating…

As per usual the company is tangling separate purposes for data processing in a way that denies people a meaningful choice over protecting their privacy. Hence Facebook dating users get to ‘choose’ between being able to use the service; or being able to blanket-deny Facebook the ability to track their physical movements. Like it or lump it.

iOS 13’s new privacy pop-ups to call out background app activity are a clear response to such disingenuous methods by an industry Apple CEO Tim Cook has dubbed the data industrial complex — putting a degree of control back in the hands of the user, who gets a third choice of manually disallowing Bluetooth proximity tracking (in the above example).

Android 10 has also recently expanded the location tracking controls it offers users — with the ability to only share location data with apps while you use them. Though Google’s OS lags far behind what Apple is now offering with these granular pop-ups.

Facebook has responded to awkward (for it) privacy changes incoming at the smartphone OS level by putting out an update on location services last week — where it seeks to get ahead of the deluge of data-grab warnings that iOS users of the Facebook app are likely to experience as they update to iOS 13.

Here it tries to spin Apple’s pro-active foregrounding of apps’ background tracking tactics via push notifications as “reminders” — in just one amusing rebrand.

But in a truly shameless contradiction Facebook also goes on to claim that: “You’re in control of who sees your location on Facebook” (because it says users can make use of the Location Services setting on a phone or tablet to deny tracking) — before admitting that switching off Location Services doesn’t actually mean Facebook will not track your location.

Just because you’re signalling very clearly to Facebook that you don’t want your location to be collected by Facebook doesn’t mean Facebook is going to respect that. Hell no!

“We may still understand your location using things like check-ins, events and information about your internet connection,” it writes. (For a clearer understanding of Facebook’s use of the word “understand” in that sentence we suggest you try substituting the word “steal”.)

In a final shameless kicker — in which Facebook almost appears to be trying to claim credit for smartphone OSes building more privacy features in response to its data grabs — the company seeks to finish on a forward-gazing note, per its preferred crisis PR custom, writing: “We’ll continue to make it easier for you to control how and when you share your location.”

Facebook dishing out misleading qualifications (e.g. “easier”) that whitewash the extent of its rampant data grabs is nothing new. But how much longer it can hope to rely on such flimsy figleaves to cover its privacy sins as the winds of change come rattling through remains to be seen…

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