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This tool tells you if NSO’s Pegasus spyware targeted your phone

By Zack Whittaker

Over the weekend, an international consortium of news outlets reported that several authoritarian governments — including Mexico, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates — used spyware developed by NSO Group to hack into the phones of thousands of their most vocal critics, including journalists, activists, politicians and business executives.

A leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets was obtained by Paris-based journalism non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, and shared with the reporting consortium, including the Washington Post and The Guardian. Researchers analyzed the phones of dozens of victims to confirm they were targeted by the NSO’s Pegasus spyware, which can access all of the data on a person’s phone. The reports also confirm new details of the government customers themselves, which NSO Group closely guards. Hungary, a member of the European Union where privacy from surveillance is supposed to be a fundamental right for its 500 million residents, is named as an NSO customer.

The reporting shows for the first time how many individuals are likely targets of NSO’s intrusive device-level surveillance. Previous reporting had put the number of known victims in the hundreds or over a thousand.

NSO Group sharply rejected the claims. NSO has long said that it doesn’t know who its customers target, which it reiterated in a statement to TechCrunch on Monday.

Researchers at Amnesty, whose work was reviewed by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, found that NSO can deliver Pegasus by sending a victim a link which when opened infects the phone, or silently and without any interaction at all through a “zero-click” exploit, which takes advantage of vulnerabilities in the iPhone’s software. Citizen Lab researcher Bill Marczak said in a tweet that NSO’s zero-clicks worked on iOS 14.6, which until today was the most up-to-date version.

Amnesty’s researchers showed their working by publishing meticulously detailed technical notes and a toolkit that they said may help others identify if their phones have been targeted by Pegasus.

The Mobile Verification Toolkit, or MVT, works on both iPhones and Android devices, but slightly differently. Amnesty said that more forensic traces were found on iPhones than Android devices, which makes it easier to detect on iPhones. MVT will let you take an entire iPhone backup (or a full system dump if you jailbreak your phone) and feed in for any indicators of compromise (IOCs) known to be used by NSO to deliver Pegasus, such as domain names used in NSO’s infrastructure that might be sent by text message or email. If you have an encrypted iPhone backup, you can also use MVT to decrypt your backup without having to make a whole new copy.

The Terminal output from the MVT toolkit, which scans iPhone and Android backup files for indicators of compromise. (Image: TechCrunch)

The toolkit works on the command line, so it’s not a refined and polished user experience and requires some basic knowledge of how to navigate the terminal. We got it working in about ten minutes, plus the time to create a fresh backup of an iPhone, which you will want to do if you want to check up to the hour. To get the toolkit ready to scan your phone for signs of Pegasus, you’ll need to feed in Amnesty’s IOCs, which it has on its GitHub page. Any time the indicators of compromise file updates, download and use an up-to-date copy.

Once you set off the process, the toolkit scans your iPhone backup file for any evidence of compromise. The process took about a minute or two to run and spit out several files in a folder with the results of the scan. If the toolkit finds a possible compromise, it will say so in the outputted files. In our case, we got one “detection,” which turned out to be a false positive and has been removed from the IOCs after we checked with the Amnesty researchers. A new scan using the updated IOCs returned no signs of compromise.

Given it’s more difficult to detect an Android infection, MVT takes a similar but simpler approach by scanning your Android device backup for text messages with links to domains known to be used by NSO. The toolkit also lets you scan for potentially malicious applications installed on your device.

The toolkit is — as command line tools go — relatively simple to use, though the project is open source so not before long surely someone will build a user interface for it. The project’s detailed documentation will help you — as it did us.

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Nigeria leads mobile app market growth in Africa as use of gaming apps surge 44% from Q1 2020

By Tage Kene-Okafor

The pandemic’s effect on the global app market has not been hard to miss. In the first quarter and first half of this year, consumer spending in mobile apps hit new records at $32 billion and $64.9 billion, respectively.

In Africa, it can be tough to call out exact numbers on consumer spending because the continent gets hardly a mention in global app market reports. Yet, other metrics are worth looking at, and a new report from AppsFlyer in collaboration with Google has some important insights into how the African app market has fared since the pandemic broke out last year.

The report tracked mobile app activities across three of Africa’s largest app markets (Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa) between Q1 2020 and Q1 2021.

From the first half of 2020 to the first half of 2021, the African mobile app industry (which is predominantly Android) increased by 41% in overall installs. This was analyzed from 6,000 apps and 2 billion installs in the three markets. Nigeria registered the highest growth, with a 43% rise; South Africa’s market increased by 37% and Kenya increased 29%.

Lockdown numbers

On March 22, 2020, Rwanda imposed Africa’s first lockdown. Subsequently, other countries followed; (those in the report) Kenya (March 25), South Africa (March 27), and Nigeria (March 30).

As more people spent time at home from Q2 2020, app installs increased by 20% across the three countries. South Africans were the quickest to take to their phones as the lockdowns hit with installs increasing by 17% from the previous quarter.

On the other hand, Nigerians and Kenyans recorded a 2% and 9% increase, respectively. The report attributes the disparity to the varying levels of restrictions each country faced; South Africa experienced the strictest and most frequent.

Per the report, gaming apps showed strong performance between Q1 and Q2 2020. The segment experienced a 50% growth compared to an 8% increase in nongaming apps pulled. It followed a global trend where gaming apps surged to a record high in Q2 2020, at 14 billion downloads globally.

In-app purchasing revenue and almost year-on-year growth

According to AppsFlyer, the biggest trend it noticed was in in-app purchasing revenue. In Q3 2020, in-app purchasing revenue numbers grew with a staggering 136% increase compared to Q2 2020, and accounted for 33% of 2020’s total revenue, “highlighting just how much African consumers were spending within apps, from retail purchases to gaming upgrades.”

In-app purchasing revenue among South African consumers increased by 213%, while Nigeria and Kenyan consumers recorded 141% and 74% increases, respectively.

On the advertising front and on an almost year-on-year basis, in-app advertising revenue also increased significantly as Africans were glued to their smartphones more than ever. Per the report, in-app advertising revenue increased 167% between Q2 2020 to Q1 2021.

For gaming and non-gaming apps, which was highlighted between the first two quarters, they both increased by 44% and 40% respectively in Q1 2021 compared to Q2 2020.

Fintech and super apps

In the last five years, fintech has dominated VC investments in African startups. It’s a no brainer why there is so much affinity for the sector. Fintechs create so much value for Africa’s mobile-first population, with large sections of unbanked, underbanked and banked people. This value is why all but one of the continent’s billion-dollar startups are fintech.

African fintechs have grown by 89.4% between 2017 and 2021, according to a Disrupt Africa report. Now, there are more than 570 startups on the continent. Many fintechs are mobile-based, therefore reflecting the number of fintech apps Africans use each day. Consumers in South Africa and Nigeria saw year-on-year growth in finance app installs by 116% and 60%, respectively.

AppsFlyer says that like fintech apps, super apps are on the rise as well. These “all-in-one” apps offer users a range of functions such as banking, messaging, shopping and ride-hailing. The report says their rise, partly due to device limitations on the continent, owes much to the same conditions that have led to a surge in fintech apps: systemic underbanking.

“Super apps remove some of the barriers that these users face, as well as providing a level of customer insight and experience that traditional banks cannot,” the report said.

Daniel Junowicz, RVP EMEA & Strategic Projects for AppsFlyer, commenting on the trends highlighted in the report said, “…The mobile app space in Africa is thriving despite the turmoil of last year. Installs are growing, and consumers are spending more money than ever before, highlighting just how important mobile can be for businesses when it comes to driving revenue.”

Android 12 will let you play games before they finish downloading

By Frederic Lardinois

At its Game Developer Summit, Google today announced a new feature for Android game developers today that will speed up the time from starting a download in the Google Play store to the game launching by almost 2x — at least on Android 12 devices. The name of the new feature, ‘play as you download,’ pretty much gives away what this is all about. Even before all the game’s assets have been downloaded, players will be able to get going.

On average, modern games are likely the largest apps you’ll ever download and when that download takes a couple of minutes, you may have long moved on to the next TikTok session before the game is ever ready to play. With this new feature, Google promises that it’ll take only half the time to jump into a game that weighs in at 400MB or so. If you’re a console gamer, this whole concept will also feel familiar, given that Sony pretty much does the same thing for PlayStation games.

Now, this isn’t Google’s first attempt at making games load faster. With ‘Google Play Instant,’ the company already offers a related feature that allows gamers to immediately start a game from the Play Store. The idea there, though, is to completely do away with the install process and give potential players an opportunity to try out a new game right away.

Like Play Instant, the new ‘play as you download’ feature is powered by Google’s Android App Bundle format, which is, for the most part, replacing the old APK standard

Image Credits: Google

Ex-SafeBoda executive Babajide Duroshola joins M-KOPA to lead expansion into Nigeria

By Tage Kene-Okafor

On June 18, Babajide Duroshola, ex-Country Head, SafeBoda Nigeria, stepped down from his role two years after taking the job post-Andela.

Less than a month later, the executive has found a new role as General Manager in another Kenyan company, M-KOPA. His appointment coincides with M-KOPA’s broader expansion strategy, which includes a move to Nigeria.

In 2019 when SafeBoda hired Duroshola, the Kenyan ride-hailing company was in the news for its imminent expansion to Nigeria. To the company and most of the public, Lagos was the obvious option. But Duroshola and his on the ground team chose to stay away from one of Africa’s most viable tech ecosystems and launch in neighbouring city Ibadan.

Although it was considered a huge risk, the gamble looks to have paid off. While major ride-hailing platforms in Lagos like ORide, MAX.ng, and Gokada completely halted their operations in the state after a ride-hailing ban, SafeBoda thrived in Ibadan. By the time Duroshola left the company, it had onboarded 5,000 drivers and completed more than 1.5 million rides in a full year of operation.

SafeBoda runs an asset-financing model when offering smartphones to its riders. M-KOPA has used this concept since its inception and it played a major role in Duroshola’s decision to join the company.

“Part of the things that excite me asides from ride-hailing is the credit space. I like asking questions on how to extend credits to people and help them build their digital footprints. That was why M-KOPA seemed attractive,” Duroshola said to TechCrunch. 

M-KOPA launched in Kenya ten years ago. The company is known to have kickstarted the wider pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar market in the country. Over the years, M-KOPA has expanded its offerings to include televisions, fridges, other electronic appliances, and financial services to customers in Kenya and Uganda. Through its pay-as-you-go financing model, customers can build ownership over time by paying an initial deposit followed by flexible and affordable micro-payments.

So far, M-KOPA has sold over 1 million PAYG solar systems and provided $400 million in financing to millions of customers while raising over $180 million in equity and debt. Last year, the company added smartphone financing to its offerings in Kenya by partnering with Safaricom and Samsung.

Per a GSMA report, mobile technologies and services generated 9% of sub-Saharan Africa’s GDP in 2019, representing about $155 billion in economic value. And when you think about it, smartphones are used in people’s everyday lives more than solar systems, so it isn’t surprising that M-KOPA has already sold 500,000 smartphones, half the units solar systems have managed in a ten-year period.

Early this year, M-KOPA ran a pilot test in the Nigerian market by providing customers with its solar systems and smartphone financing options. Smartphone financing had a higher uptake as M-KOPA sold over 20,000 devices in Lagos, its first market. The company considered this a success, and the appointment of Duroshola is seen as a prerequisite for scaling the offering rapidly in Nigeria.

“We’ve been deliberate about finding the right person with a strong track record and in-depth knowledge of the Nigerian tech community to lead our team as we scale up our country operations. And the milestone coincided with Babajide’s appointment as we look to grow and expand into new regions,” Mayur Patel, M-KOPA’s CCO, said to TechCrunch in an email.

M-KOPA is now present in both Lagos and Oyo after expanding to the latter last month. Just as in Kenya, M-KOPA partnered with Samsung, but a different mobile network operator in Airtel, to make its smartphone financing accessible to Nigerian customers. 

According to Patel, both Nokia and Samsung provide entry- and mid-tier handsets at different prices to their customers. He argues that a top priority for MNOs on the continent is converting 2G/3G network users to 4G. To him, M-KOPA has a shot at tackling the challenge of 4G device affordability in Nigeria because 75% of its total customers are first time 4G smartphone owners.

“Our partnership with both these OEMs has allowed M-KOPA to offer affordable ownership of quality 4G smartphones for underbanked customers, who are otherwise excluded because they lack credit histories or salaried incomes,” he said.

In Nigeria, M-KOPA deals with various products in the Samsung A series (A02, A12, A22, A32) ranging from $80-$250 (~₦40,000 to ₦125,000). The company plans to include more devices and handset manufacturers, but the COO doesn’t say when. In Kenya and Uganda, however, M-KOPA sells Nokia phones in addition to the aforementioned Samsung products.

Although M-KOPA is focused on smartphone financing in the West African country, Duroshola wants to mirror what Kenyan M-KOPA’s customers enjoy (where other products asides from smartphones are sold) in Nigeria. He reckons it will help build their credit history and worthiness over time.  

The Kenyan company is currently recruiting for engineering roles in Nigeria and globally as part of its expansion plans. Duroshola will lead the charge in Nigeria in what can be described as his third stint of scaling African startups in the country. He seems to have a knack for it. Judging from our conversation, there’s an optimistic feel about the general manager in his ability to take on a market where PAYG models outside solar systems have had relatively low success.

“My vision as a person and what really typically drives me on a normal day is to help African startups scale and being that person that would help build, set up, get to the point where they’re able to think about their business strategy and how they can plug into the Nigerian space. What I’m looking to build with M-KOPA is a full credit machine. I want it to become a household name within the Nigerian market space where when people are thinking about pay-as-you-go financing for everyday use cases, M-KOPA is what comes to their mind.” 

Global smartphone market continues rebound with 26% Q1 bump

By Brian Heater

More signs of the global market righting the ship after a disastrous 2020. New figures from Gartner point to 26% increase in global sales year over year for the first quarter of 2021. The overall increase is an impressive one, though it comes after a couple of years of market slow down, followed by a step drop amid the pandemic.

Manufacturers got hit from all sides last year. 2020 kicked things off with a manufacturing slowdown, as China and greater Asia were the first to be impacted by the effects of Covid-19. In the following months, global demand slowed, as shutdowns were instated and job loss and economic issues massively hampered sales.

Image Credits: Gartner

The new Gartner numbers maintain the same global top three manufacturers as this time last year. Samsung’s overall market share grew from 18.4- to 20.3%, courtesy of budget devices, returning to the number one spot.

Apple had managed to push its way to number one in Q4, on the strength of its belated 5G push. The company dropped down to number two for the first quarter – the same position it held this time last year. Overall, its market share is up around 2% y-o-y to 15.5, according to the figures. The top five are rounded out by three Chinese manufacturers — Xiaomi, Vivo and Oppo – as Huawei’s struggles continue.

Thus far, global chip shortages appear to have had little impact on shipments.

CorrActions raises $2.7M to help avoid errors in human-machine interactions

By Frederic Lardinois

CorrActions, a noninvasive neuroscience startup that uses sensor data to evaluate a user’s cognitive state due to drowsiness, alcohol, fatigue and other issues, today announced that it has raised a $2.7 million seed round. Early-stage fund VentureIsrael, seed fund Operator Partners and the Israeli Innovation Authority are backing the company, which is based out of OurCrowd’s Labs/02 incubator.

The idea here is to use touch sensors wherever humans may interact with machines, be that in a fighter jet’s cockpit, a car or anywhere else where knowing a user’s cognitive state could prevent potentially catastrophic errors. CorrActions promises that its proprietary algorithms can identify the user’s cognitive state and detect errors 150 milliseconds before they occur by “decoding unconscious brain signals through body motion monitoring.” For the most part, the system is use-case agnostic since it’s basically a generic platform that is independent of where it is implemented.

“Using sensors that already exist in nearly every electronic device like smartwatches, smartphones and even steering wheels and joysticks, CorrActions is the first in the world to be able to read a person’s cognitive state at any given moment by analyzing micro changes in their muscular activity,” explained Eldad Hochman, the company’s co-founder and CSO. “It is enough for the person to come in contact with an electronic device for two minutes and we can accurately quantify cognitive state and even predict a rapid deterioration, which may lead to failure or accidents. We can see this coming seconds before it occurs. This means that we can quantify the level of fatigue, intoxication, exhaustion or lack of concentration at any given moment.”

A lot of modern cars already feature sensors that can monitor your alertness, of course, and so it’s maybe no surprise that CorrActions is already working on proofs of concept with a few players in the automotive industry. In addition, it is also working on projects with the defense industry to show that its systems can assess a pilot’s performance, for example. But Hochman also believes that the company’s algorithms may be able to alert athletes or the elderly when they may be at risk of injury and falls.

The company says it will use the new funding to further develop its algorithms and support its current deployment partners, especially in the automotive industry.

“We are developing, and already seeing significant results for a technology which has the potential to save companies man-hours and money by preventing basic operational errors,” said CorrActions co-founder and CEO Zvi Ginosar. “Moreover, the application of our platform can be used to save lives, and prevent thousands of accidents and errors. In the next months we hope to be able to report more ground-breaking results and proof of concept trials, and this funding will greatly help us reach this goal.”

Google launches the first beta of Android Studio Arctic Fox

By Frederic Lardinois

At its I/O developer conference, Google today announced the first beta of the next version of its Android Studio IDE, Arctic Fox. For the most part, the idea here is to bring more of the tooling around building Android apps directly into the IDE.

While there is a lot that’s new in Arctic Fox, maybe the marquee feature of this update is the integration of Jetpack Compose, Google’s toolkit for building modern user interfaces for Android. In Android Studio, developers can now use Compose Preview to create previews of different configurations (think themes and devices) or deploy a preview directly to a device, all while the layout inspector makes it easier for developers to understand how (and why) a layout is rendered the way it is. With Live Updates enabled any change is then also directly streamed to the device.

The team also integrated the Android Accessibility Test Framework directly into Android Studio to help developers find accessibility issues like missing content descriptions or a low contrast in their designs.

Image Credits: Google

Just like with some of the updates to Android itself, the team is also looking at making it easier to develop for a wider range of form factors. To build Wear OS apps, developers previously had to physically connect the watch to their development machine or go through a lot of steps to pair the watch. Now, users can simply pair a watch and phone emulator (or physical phone) with the new Wear OS Pairing feature. All this takes now is a few clicks.

Also new on the Wear OS side is a new heart rate sensor for the Wear OS Emulators in Android Studio, while the Android Automotive emulator gains the ability to replay car sensor data to help those developers with their development and testing workflow.

Android Studio users who work on a Mac will be happy to hear that Google is also launching a first preview of Android Studio for the Apple Silicon (arm64) architecture.

Image Credits: Google

Android now powers 3B devices

By Frederic Lardinois

Google’s Android operating system is now running on 3 billion active devices, Google announced at its (virtual) I/O developer conference today. In a briefing before today’s event, the company also noted that there were 250 million active tablets running Android last year, which is likely a larger number than some expected, but which explains Google’s increased focus on these large-screen devices at I/O this year.

Traditionally, Google shares new device stats at I/O, but since it canceled the event last year, we didn’t get an update for 2020. The most recent number Google provided was 2.5 billion active devices in May 2019. That was up from 2 billion devices in 2017, so at least for the time being, this growth rate of about 500 million new devices every two years continues to remain true.

In comparison, Apple in January announced that it has an install base of 1 billion iPhones and that there are now a total of 1.65 billion active devices in its ecosystem, up from 1.5 billion devices a year before (this last number includes all active Apple devices, though).

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