2018 really was more of a dumpster fire for online hate and harassment, ADL study finds

Around 37 percent of Americans were subjected to severe hate and harassment online in 2018, according to a new study by the Anti-Defamation League, up from about 18 percent in 2017. And over half of all Americans experienced some form of harassment according to the ADL study.

Facebook users bore the brunt of online harassment on social networking sites according to the ADL study, with around 56 percent of survey respondents indicating that at least some of their harassment occurred on the platform. — unsurprising given Facebook’s status as the dominant social media platform in the U.S.

Around 19 percent of people said they experienced severe harassment on Twitter (only 19 percent? That seems low); while 17 percent reported harassment on YouTube; 16 percent on Instagram; and 13 percent on WhatsApp .

Chart courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League

In all, the blue ribbon standards for odiousness went to Twitch, Reddit, Facebook and Discord, when the ADL confined their surveys to daily active users. nearly half of all daily users on Twitch have experienced harassment, the report indicated. Around 38% of Reddit users, 37% of daily Facebook users, and 36% of daily Discord users reported being harassed.

“It’s deeply disturbing to see how prevalent online hate is, and how it affects so many Americans,” said ADL chief executive Jonathan A. Greenblatt. “Cyberhate is not limited to what’s solely behind a screen; it can have grave effects on the quality of everyday lives – both online and offline. People are experiencing hate and harassment online every day and some are even changing their habits to avoid contact with their harassers.”

And the survey respondents seem to think that online hate makes people more susceptible to committing hate crimes, according to the ADL.

The ADL also found that most Americans want policymakers to strengthen laws and improve resources for police around cyberbullying and cyberhate. Roughly 80 percent said they wanted to see more action from lawmakers.

Even more Americans, or around 84 percent, think that the technology platforms themselves need to do more work to curb the harassment, hate, and hazing they see on social applications and websites.

As for the populations that were most at risk to harassment and hate online, members of the LGBTQ community were targeted most frequently, according to the study. Some 63 percent of people identifying as LGBTQ+ said they were targeted for online harassment because of their identity.

“More must be done in our society to lessen the prevalence of cyberhate,” said Greenblatt. “There are key actions every sector can take to help ensure more Americans are not subjected to this kind of behavior. The only way we can combat online hate is by working together, and that’s what ADL is dedicated to doing every day.”

The report also revealed that cyberbullying had real consequences on user behavior. Of the survey respondents 38 percent stopped, reduced or changed online activities, and 15 percent took steps to reduce risks to their physical safety.

Interviews for the survey were conducted between Dec. 17 to Dec. 27, 2018 by the public opinion and data analysis company YouGov, and was conducted by the ADL’s Center for Technology and Society. The non-profit admitted that it oversampled for respondents who identified as Jewish, Muslim, African American, Asian AMerican or LGBTQ+ to “understand the experiences of individuals who may be especially targeted because of their group identity.”

The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, according to a statement from the ADL.

2018 really was more of a dumpster fire for online hate and harassment, ADL study finds

Around 37 percent of Americans were subjected to severe hate and harassment online in 2018, according to a new study by the Anti-Defamation League, up from about 18 percent in 2017. And over half of all Americans experienced some form of harassment according to the ADL study.

Facebook users bore the brunt of online harassment on social networking sites according to the ADL study, with around 56 percent of survey respondents indicating that at least some of their harassment occurred on the platform. — unsurprising given Facebook’s status as the dominant social media platform in the U.S.

Around 19 percent of people said they experienced severe harassment on Twitter (only 19 percent? That seems low); while 17 percent reported harassment on YouTube; 16 percent on Instagram; and 13 percent on WhatsApp .

Chart courtesy of the Anti-Defamation League

In all, the blue ribbon standards for odiousness went to Twitch, Reddit, Facebook and Discord, when the ADL confined their surveys to daily active users. nearly half of all daily users on Twitch have experienced harassment, the report indicated. Around 38% of Reddit users, 37% of daily Facebook users, and 36% of daily Discord users reported being harassed.

“It’s deeply disturbing to see how prevalent online hate is, and how it affects so many Americans,” said ADL chief executive Jonathan A. Greenblatt. “Cyberhate is not limited to what’s solely behind a screen; it can have grave effects on the quality of everyday lives – both online and offline. People are experiencing hate and harassment online every day and some are even changing their habits to avoid contact with their harassers.”

And the survey respondents seem to think that online hate makes people more susceptible to committing hate crimes, according to the ADL.

The ADL also found that most Americans want policymakers to strengthen laws and improve resources for police around cyberbullying and cyberhate. Roughly 80 percent said they wanted to see more action from lawmakers.

Even more Americans, or around 84 percent, think that the technology platforms themselves need to do more work to curb the harassment, hate, and hazing they see on social applications and websites.

As for the populations that were most at risk to harassment and hate online, members of the LGBTQ community were targeted most frequently, according to the study. Some 63 percent of people identifying as LGBTQ+ said they were targeted for online harassment because of their identity.

“More must be done in our society to lessen the prevalence of cyberhate,” said Greenblatt. “There are key actions every sector can take to help ensure more Americans are not subjected to this kind of behavior. The only way we can combat online hate is by working together, and that’s what ADL is dedicated to doing every day.”

The report also revealed that cyberbullying had real consequences on user behavior. Of the survey respondents 38 percent stopped, reduced or changed online activities, and 15 percent took steps to reduce risks to their physical safety.

Interviews for the survey were conducted between Dec. 17 to Dec. 27, 2018 by the public opinion and data analysis company YouGov, and was conducted by the ADL’s Center for Technology and Society. The non-profit admitted that it oversampled for respondents who identified as Jewish, Muslim, African American, Asian AMerican or LGBTQ+ to “understand the experiences of individuals who may be especially targeted because of their group identity.”

The survey had a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, according to a statement from the ADL.

WhatsApp Business app adds customer service features to its desktop and web apps

A year ago, Facebook-owned WhatsApp officially introduced its standalone app aimed at small business customers. Today, the WhatsApp Business app has grown to reach 5 million business customers, the company says. And now it’s making the app easier to use on the desktop and the web by porting over several of the most popular features that were previously available only on mobile.

These include tools to organize and filter chats, as well as to quickly reply to customer inquiries.

Quick Replies, as the latter feature is called, lets businesses respond to common questions from customers with pre-written replies. It’s similar to a feature Facebook introduced several years ago, then called “Saved Replies,” that allowed business owners with Facebook Pages to respond to customers with canned messages.

On WhatsApp Business, you can trigger the quick replies by press the “/” button on your keyboard.

The feature joins several other customer service features, like automated greeting messages that are triggered when the customer pings the business account, or away messages that can be scheduled for those times when you’re not able to immediately answer new inquiries.

The other two features now rolling out to web and desktop users are labels and chat list filters.

The former lets you organize contacts using labels, and the latter lets you filter chat list by categories like unread messages, groups, or broadcast lists. Like Quick Replies, these were previously available on mobile.

The idea, the company explains, is to make it easier on business owners who are working from their computer – sending invoices, scheduling appointments, and responding to customer inquiries. They shouldn’t have to turn to their phone to use these sorts of basic customer service features.

The new web and desktop features are rolling out today, says WhatsApp.

Zimbabwe’s government faces off against its tech community over internet restrictions

After days of intermittent blackouts at the order of the Zimbabwe’s Minister of State for National Security, ISPs have restored connectivity through a judicial order issued Monday.  

The cyber-affair adds Zimbabwe to a growing list of African countries—including Cameroon, Congo, and Ethiopia—whose governments have restricted internet expression in recent years.

The debacle demonstrates how easily internet access—a baseline for all tech ecosystems—can be taken away at the hands of the state.  

It also provides another case study for techies and ISPs regaining their cyber rights. Internet and social media are back up in Zimbabwe — at least for now.   

Protests lead to blackout

Similar to net shutdowns around the continent, politics and protests were the catalyst. Shortly after the government announced a dramatic increase in fuel prices on January 12, Zimbabwe’s Congress of Trade Unions called for a national strike.

Web and app blackouts in the Southern African country followed demonstrations that broke out in several cities. A government crackdown ensued with deaths reported.

“That began Monday [January 14]. A few demonstrations around the country become violent…Then on Tuesday morning there was a block on social media: Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp,” TechZim CEO Tinashe Nyahasha told TechCrunch on a call from Harare.

On January 15, Zimbabwe’s largest mobile carrier Econet Wireless confirmed via SMS and a message from founder Strive Masiyiwa that it had complied with a directive from the Minister of State for National Security to shutdown internet.

Net access was restored, taken down again, then restored, but social media sites remained blocked through January 21.

Data provided to TechCrunch from Oracle’s Internet Intelligence research unit confirm the net blackouts on January 16 and 18.

VPNs, government response

Throughout the restrictions, many of Zimbabwe’s citizens and techies resorted to VPNs and workarounds to access net and social media, according to Nyahasha.

Throughout the interruption TechZim ran updated stories on ways to bypass the cyber restrictions.

The Zimbabwean government’s response to the net shutdown started with denial—one minister referred to it as a congestion problem on local TV—to presidential spokesperson George Charamba invoking its necessity for national security reasons.

Then President Dambudzo Mnangawa took to Twitter to announce he would skip Davos meetings and return home to address the country’s unrest—a move panned online given his government’s restrictions on citizens using social media.    

The Embassy of Zimbabwe in Washington, DC and Ministry for ICT did not respond to TechCrunch inquiries on the country’s internet and app restrictions.

Court ruling, takeaways

On Monday this week, Zimbabwe’s high court ordered an end to any net restrictions, ruling only the country’s president, not the National Security Minister, could legally block the internet. Econet’s Zimbabwe Chief of Staff Lovemore Nyatsine and sources on the ground confirmed to TechCrunch that net and app access were back up Tuesday.  

Zimbabwe’s internet debacle created yet another obstacle for the country’s tech scene. The 2018 departure of 37–year President Robert Mugabe—a  hero to some and progress impeding dictator to others—sparked hope for the lifting of long-time economic sanctions on Zimbabwe and optimism for its startup scene.

Some of that has been dashed by subsequent political instability and worsening economic conditions since Mugabe’s departure, but not all of it, according to TechZim CEO Tinashe Nyahasha.   

“There was momentum and talk of people coming home and investing seed money. That’s slowed down…but that momentum is still there. It’s just not as fast as it could have been if the government had lived up to the expectations,” he said.  

Of the current macro-environment for Zimbabwe’s tech sector, “The truth is, it’s bad but it has been much worse,” Tinashe said

With calls for continued protests, Monday’s court ruling is likely not the last word on the internet face-off between the government and Zimbabwe’s ISPs and tech community.

Per the ruling, a decision to restrict net or apps will have to come directly from Zimbabwe’s president, who will weigh the pros and cons.

On a case by case basis, African governments may see the economic and reputational costs of internet shutdowns are exceeding whatever benefits they seek to achieve.

Cameroon’s 2017 shutdown, covered here by TechCrunch, cost businesses millions and spurred international condemnation when local activists created a  #BringBackOurInternet campaign that ultimately succeeded.

In the case of Zimbabwe, global internet rights group Access Now sprung to action, attaching its #KeepItOn hashtag to calls for the country’s government to reopen cyberspace soon after digital interference began.

Further attempts to restrict net and app access in Zimbabwe will likely revive what’s become a somewhat ironic cycle for cyber shutdowns. When governments cut off internet and social media access, citizens still find ways to use internet and social media to stop them.

Facebook is not equipped to stop the spread of authoritarianism

After the driver of a speeding bus ran over and killed two college students in Dhaka in July, student protesters took to the streets. They forced the ordinarily disorganized local traffic to drive in strict lanes and stopped vehicles to inspect license and registration papers. They even halted the vehicle of the chief of Bangladesh Police Bureau of Investigation and found that his license was expired. And they posted videos and information about the protests on Facebook.

The fatal road accident that led to these protests was hardly an isolated incident. Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, which was ranked the second least livable city in the world in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 global liveability index, scored 26.8 out of 100 in the infrastructure category included in the rating. But the regional government chose to stifle the highway safety protests anyway. It went so far as raids of residential areas adjacent to universities to check social media activity, leading to the arrest of 20 students. Although there were many images of Bangladesh Chhatra League, or BCL men, committing acts of violence on students, none of them were arrested. (The BCL is the student wing of the ruling Awami League, one of the major political parties of Bangladesh.)

Students were forced to log into their Facebook profiles and were arrested or beaten for their posts, photographs and videos. In one instance, BCL men called three students into the dorm’s guest room, quizzed them over Facebook posts, beat them, then handed them over to police. They were reportedly tortured in custody.

A pregnant school teacher was arrested and jailed for just over two weeks for “spreading rumors” due to sharing a Facebook post about student protests. A photographer and social justice activist spent more than 100 days in jail for describing police violence during these protests; he told reporters he was beaten in custody. And a university professor was jailed for 37 days for his Facebook posts.

A Dhaka resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for their safety said that the crackdown on social media posts essentially silenced student protesters, many of whom removed from their profiles entirely photos, videos and status updates about the protests. While the person thought that students were continuing to be arrested, they said, “nobody is talking about it anymore — at least in my network — because everyone kind of ‘got the memo,’ if you know what I mean.”

This isn’t the first time Bangladeshi citizens have been arrested for Facebook posts. As just one example, in April 2017, a rubber plantation worker in southern Bangladesh was arrested and detained for three months for liking and sharing a Facebook post that criticized the prime minister’s visit to India, according to Human Rights Watch.

Bangladesh is far from alone. Government harassment to silence dissent on social media has occurred across the region, and in other regions as well — and it often comes hand-in-hand with governments filing takedown requests with Facebook and requesting data on users.

Facebook has removed posts critical of the prime minister in Cambodia and reportedly “agreed to coordinate in the monitoring and removal of content” in Vietnam. Facebook was criticized for not stopping the repression of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar, where military personnel created fake accounts to spread propaganda, which human rights groups say fueled violence and forced displacement. Facebook has since undertaken a human rights impact assessment in Myanmar, and it also took down coordinated inauthentic accounts in the country.

UNITED STATES – APRIL 10: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies during the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Senate Judiciary Committee joint hearing on “Facebook, Social Media Privacy, and the Use and Abuse of Data” on Tuesday, April 10, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Protesters scrubbing Facebook data for fear of repercussion isn’t uncommon. Over and over again, authoritarian-leaning regimes have utilized low-tech strategies to quell dissent. And aside from providing resources related to online privacy and security, Facebook still has little in place to protect its most vulnerable users from these pernicious efforts. As various countries pass laws calling for a local presence and increased regulation, it is possible that the social media conglomerate doesn’t always even want to.

“In many situations, the platforms are under pressure,” said Raman Jit Singh Chima, policy director at Access Now. “Tech companies are being directly sent takedown orders, user data requests. The danger of that is that companies will potentially be overcomplying or responding far too quickly to government demands when they are able to push back on those requests,” he said.

Elections are often a critical moment for oppressive behavior from governments — Uganda, Chad and Vietnam have specifically targeted citizens — and candidates — during election time. Facebook announced just last Thursday that it had taken down nine Facebook pages and six Facebook accounts for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior in Bangladesh. These pages, which Facebook believes were linked to people associated with the Bangladesh government, were “designed to look like independent news outlets and posted pro-government and anti-opposition content.” The sites masqueraded as news outlets, including fake BBC Bengali, BDSNews24 and Bangla Tribune and news pages with Photoshopped blue checkmarks, according to the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Still, the imminent election in Bangladesh doesn’t bode well for anyone who might wish to express dissent. In October, a digital security bill that regulates some types of controversial speech was passed in the country, signaling to companies that as the regulatory environment tightens, they too could become targets.

More restrictive regulation is part of a greater trend around the world, said Naman M. Aggarwal, Asia policy associate at Access Now. Some countries, like Brazil and India, have passed “fake news” laws. (A similar law was proposed in Malaysia, but it was blocked in the Senate.) These types of laws are frequently followed by content takedowns. (In Bangladesh, the government warned broadcasters not to air footage that could create panic or disorder, essentially halting news programming on the protests.)

Other governments in the Middle East and North Africa — such as Egypt, Algeria, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain — clamp down on free expression on social media under the threat of fines or prison time. And countries like Vietnam have passed laws requiring social media companies to localize their storage and have a presence in the country — typically an indication of greater content regulation and pressure on the companies from local governments. In India, WhatsApp and other financial tech services were told to open offices in the country.

And crackdowns on posts about protests on social media come hand-in-hand with government requests for data. Facebook’s biannual transparency report provides detail on the percentage of government requests with which the company complies in each country, but most people don’t know until long after the fact. Between January and June, the company received 134 emergency requests and 18 legal processes from Bangladeshi authorities for 205 users or accounts. Facebook turned over at least some data in 61 percent of emergency requests and 28 percent of legal processes.

Facebook said in a statement that it “believes people deserve to have a voice, and that everyone has the right to express themselves in a safe environment,” and that it handles requests for user data “extremely carefully.”

The company pointed to its Facebook for Journalists resources and said it is “saddened by governments using broad and vague regulation or other practices to silence, criminalize or imprison journalists, activists, and others who speak out against them,” but the company said it also helps journalists, activists and other people around the world to “tell their stories in more innovative ways, reach global audiences, and connect directly with people.”

But there are policies that Facebook could enact that would help people in these vulnerable positions, like allowing users to post anonymously.

“Facebook’s real names policy doesn’t exactly protect anonymity, and has created issues for people in countries like Vietnam,” said Aggarwal. “If platforms provide leeway, or enough space for anonymous posting, and anonymous interactions, that is really helpful to people on the ground.”

BERLIN, GERMANY – SEPTEMBER 12: A visitor uses a mobile phone in front of the Facebook logo at the #CDUdigital conference on September 12, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

A German court in February found the policy illegal under its decade-old privacy law. Facebook said it plans to appeal the decision.

“I’m not sure if Facebook even has an effective strategy or understanding of strategy in the long term,” said Sean O’Brien, lead researcher at Yale Privacy Lab. “In some cases, Facebook is taking a very proactive role… but in other cases, it won’t.” In any case, these decisions require a nuanced understanding of the population, culture, and political spectrum in various regions — something it’s not clear Facebook has.

Facebook isn’t responsible for government decisions to clamp down on free expression. But the question remains: How can companies stop assisting authoritarian governments, inadvertently or otherwise?

“If Facebook knows about this kind of repression, they should probably have… some sort of mechanism to at the very least heavily try to convince people not to post things publicly that they think they could get in trouble for,” said O’Brien. “It would have a chilling effect on speech, of course, which is a whole other issue, but at least it would allow people to make that decision for themselves.”

This could be an opt-in feature, but O’Brien acknowledges that it could create legal liabilities for Facebook, leading the social media giant to create lists of “dangerous speech” or profiles on “dissidents,” and could theoretically shut them down or report them to the police. Still, Facebook could consider rolling a “speech alert” feature to an entire city or country if that area becomes volatile politically and dangerous for speech, he said.

O’Brien says that social media companies could consider responding to situations where a person is being detained illegally and potentially coerced into giving their passwords in a way that could protect them, perhaps by triggering a temporary account reset or freeze to prevent anyone from accessing the account without proper legal process. Some actions that might trigger the reset or freeze could be news about an individual’s arrest — if Facebook is alerted to it, contact from the authorities, or contact from friends and loved ones, as evaluated by humans. There could even be a “panic button” type trigger, like Guardian Project’s PanicKit, but for Facebook — allowing users to wipe or freeze their own accounts or posts tagged preemptively with a code word only the owner knows.

“One of the issues with computer interfaces is that when people log into a site, they get a false sense of privacy even when the things they’re posting in that site are widely available to the public,” said O’Brien. Case in point: this year, women anonymously shared their experiences of abusive co-workers in a shared Google Doc — the so-called “Shitty Media Men” list, likely without realizing that a lawsuit could unmask them. That’s exactly what is happening.

Instead, activists and journalists often need to tap into resources and gain assistance from groups like Access Now, which runs a digital security helpline, and the Committee to Protect Journalists. These organizations can provide personal advice tailored to their specific country and situation. They can access Facebook over the Tor anonymity network. Then can use VPNs, and end-to-end encrypted messaging tools, and non-phone-based two-factor authentication methods. But many may not realize what the threat is until it’s too late.

The violent crackdown on free speech in Bangladesh accompanied government-imposed internet restrictions, including the throttling of internet access around the country. Users at home with a broadband connection did not feel the effects of this, but “it was the students on the streets who couldn’t go live or publish any photos of what was going on,” the Dhaka resident said.

Elections will take place in Bangladesh on December 30.

In the few months leading up to the election, Access Now says it’s noticed an increase in Bangladeshi residents expressing concern that their data has been compromised and seeking assistance from the Digital Security hotline.

Other rights groups have also found an uptick in malicious activity.

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in an email that the organization is “extremely concerned about the ongoing crackdown on the political opposition and on freedom of expression, which has created a climate of fear ahead of national elections.”

Ganguly cited politically motivated cases against thousands of opposition supporters, many of which have been arrested, as well as candidates that have been attacked.

Human Rights Watch issued a statement about the situation, warning that the Rapid Action Battalion, a “paramilitary force implicated in serious human rights violations including extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances,” and has been “tasked with monitoring social media for ‘anti-state propaganda, rumors, fake news, and provocations.’” This is in addition to a nine-member monitoring cell and around 100 police teams dedicated to quashing so-called “rumors” on social media, amid the looming threat of news website shutdowns.

“The security forces continue to arrest people for any criticism of the government, including on social media,” Ganguly said. “We hope that the international community will urge the Awami League government to create conditions that will uphold the rights of all Bangladeshis to participate in a free and fair vote.”

Siilo injects $5.1M to try to transplant WhatsApp use in hospitals

Consumer messaging apps like WhatsApp are not only insanely popular for chatting with friends but have pushed deep into the workplace too, thanks to the speed and convenience they offer. They have even crept into hospitals, as time-strapped doctors reach for a quick and easy way to collaborate over patient cases on the ward.

Yet WhatsApp is not specifically designed with the safe sharing of highly sensitive medical information in mind. This is where Dutch startup Siilo has been carving a niche for itself for the past 2.5 years — via a free-at-the-point-of-use encrypted messaging app that’s intended for medical professions to securely collaborate on patient care, such as via in-app discussion groups and being able to securely store and share patient notes.

A business goal that could be buoyed by tighter EU regulations around handling personal data, say if hospital managers decide they need to address compliance risks around staff use of consumer messaging apps.

The app’s WhatsApp-style messaging interface will be instantly familiar to any smartphone user. But Siilo bakes in additional features for its target healthcare professional users, such as keeping photos, videos and files sent via the app siloed in an encrypted vault that’s entirely separate from any personal media also stored on the device.

Messages sent via Siilo are also automatically deleted after 30 days unless the user specifies a particular message should be retained. And the app does not make automated back-ups of users’ conversations.

Other doctor-friendly features include the ability to blur images (for patient privacy purposes); augment images with arrows for emphasis; and export threaded conversations to electronic health records.

There’s also mandatory security for accessing the app — with a requirement for either a PIN-code, fingerprint or facial recognition biometric to be used. While a remote wipe functionality to nix any locally stored data is baked into Siilo in the event of a device being lost or stolen.

Like WhatsApp, Siilo also uses end-to-end encryption — though in its case it says this is based on the opensource NaCl library

It also specifies that user messaging data is stored encrypted on European ISO-27001 certified servers — and deleted “as soon as we can”.

It also says it’s “possible” for its encryption code to be open to review on request.

Another addition is a user vetting layer to manually verify the medical professional users of its app are who they say they are.

Siilo says every user gets vetted. Though not prior to being able to use the messaging functions. But users that have passed verification unlock greater functionality — such as being able to search among other (verified) users to find peers or specialists to expand their professional network. Siilo says verification status is displayed on profiles.

“At Siilo, we coin this phenomenon ‘network medicine’, which is in contrast to the current old-­fashioned, siloed medicine,” says CEO and co-founder Joost Bruggeman in a statement. “The goal is to improve patient care overall, and patients have a network of doctors providing input into their treatment.”

While Bruggeman brings the all-important medical background to the startup, another co-founder, Onno Bakker, has been in the mobile messaging game for a long time — having been one of the entrepreneurs behind the veteran web and mobile messaging platform, eBuddy.

A third co-founder, CFO Arvind Rao, tells us Siilo transplanted eBuddy’s messaging dev team — couching this ported in-house expertise as an advantage over some of the smaller rivals also chasing the healthcare messaging opportunity.

It is also of course having to compete technically with the very well-resourced and smoothly operating WhatsApp behemoth.

“Our main competitor is always WhatsApp,” Rao tells TechCrunch. “Obviously there are also other players trying to move in this space. TigerText is the largest in the US. In the UK we come across local players like Hospify and Forward.

“A major difference we have very experienced in-house dev team… The experience of this team has helped to build a messenger that really can compete in usability with WhatsApp that is reflected in our rapid adoption and usage numbers.”

“Having worked in the trenches as a surgery resident, I’ve experienced the challenges that healthcare professionals face firsthand,” adds Bruggeman. “With Siilo, we’re connecting all healthcare professionals to make them more efficient, enable them to share patient information securely and continue learning and share their knowledge. The directory of vetted healthcare professionals helps ensure they’re successful team­players within a wider healthcare network that takes care of the same patient.”

Siilo launched its app in May 2016 and has since grown to ~100,000 users, with more than 7.5 million messages currently being processed monthly and 6,000+ clinical chat groups active monthly.

“We haven’t come across any other secure messenger for healthcare in Europe with these figures in the App Store/Google Play rankings and therefore believe we are the largest in Europe,” adds Rao. “We have multiple large institutions across Western-Europe where doctors are using Siilo.”

On the security front, as well flagging the ISO 27001 certification the company has gained, he notes that it obtained “the highest NHS IG Toolkit level 3” — aka the now replaced system for organizations to self-assess their compliance with the UK’s National Health Service’s information governance processes, claiming “we haven’t seen [that] with any other messaging company”.

Siilo’s toolkit assessment was finalized at the end of Febuary 2018, and is valid for a year — so will be up for re-assessment under the replacement system (which was introduced this April) in Q1 2019. (Rao confirms they will be doing this “new (re-)assessment” at the end of the year.)

As well as being in active use in European hospitals such as St. George’s Hospital, London, and Charité Berlin, Germany, Siilo says its app has had some organic adoption by medical pros further afield — including among smaller home healthcare teams in California, and “entire transplantation teams” from Astana, Kazakhstan.

It also cites British Medical Journal research that found that of the 98.9% of U.K. hospital clinicians who now have smartphones, around a third are using consumer messaging apps in the clinical workplace. Persuading those healthcare workers to ditch WhatsApp at work is Siilo’s mission and challenge.

The team has just announced a €4.5 million (~$5.1M) seed to help it get onto the radar of more doctors. The round is led by EQT Ventures, with participation from existing investors. It says it will be using the funding to scale­ up its user base across Europe, with a particular focus on the UK and Germany.

Commenting on the funding in a statement, EQT Ventures’ Ashley Lundström, a venture lead and investment advisor at the VC firm, said: “The team was impressed with Siilo’s vision of creating a secure global network of healthcare professionals and the organic traction it has already achieved thanks to the team’s focus on building a product that’s easy to use. The healthcare industry has long been stuck using jurassic technologies and Siilo’s real­time messaging app can significantly improve efficiency
and patient care without putting patients’ data at risk.”

While the messaging app itself is free for healthcare professions to use, Siilo also offers a subscription service to monetize the freemium product.

This service, called Siilo Connect offers organisations and professional associations what it bills as “extensive management, administration, networking and software integration tools”, or just data regulation compliance services if they want the basic flavor of the paid tier.

Facebook’s plan to let companies it buys live independently is over

Mark Zuckerberg was quick to realize that Facebook, the largest social network in the world, doesn’t have a monopoly on all users nor can it bank on holding its position as top dog forever. Thus he instituted a policy of buying up promising rivals and integrating them into the Facebook ‘group’ in a strategy designed to be a win-win for all.

But by leaving Facebook in abrupt fashion this week, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger — the founders of Instagram — have shown that the social network’s vision of letting acquired businesses operate independently simply isn’t feasible.

Few large-scale acquisitions run smoothly, so it is to Facebook’s credit that Systrom and Krieger remained with the company for six years after Instagram was acquired for $1 billion in 2012.

That’s a long stretch by any tech acquisition standard, but it is still short of Facebook’s vision of entrepreneurs who continue their startup journeys inside its walls.

The Facebook Family

The original idea is a best-of-both-worlds approach: a company’s finances are infinitely secured and it can grow as needed inside the Facebook ‘family,’ with access to resources like engineering, marketing, admin, etc.

That was also the plan for WhatsApp, but founding pair Jan Koum and Brian Acton managed four and three and a half years, respectively, at Facebook following their $19 billion acquisition in 2014. VR firm Oculus, another billion-dollar purchase, lost co-founders Palmer Lucky (political scandal) and Brendan Iribe (reshuffled) three years after its deal. Ex-Xiaomi executive Hugo Barra now runs the unit as “Facebook VP of VR.”

In the normal state of tech acquisitions, getting six years — or even just three — from a founder post-acquisition is impressive. It requires a strong vision and autonomy for the incoming business.

Many founders become serial founders, even after an exit has set them up financially for life. There’s a thrill in building something new, taking sole charge and growing it. But post-acquisition, the basic dynamics change. As a founder, you call the shots — you are the boss — rather than part of the company hierarchy post-deal. Going from employee to founder requires adjustment, but back the other direction is often trickier — particularly when your business is part of a strategy for a larger one that’s rife with politics.

Facebook tried to mitigate that by promising autonomy for its founders.

Instagram’s duo retained a lot of control — Systrom was the face of the company and he reportedly approved all ads personally — while the same was true of WhatsApp, with Koum made a member of the Facebook board. Indeed, the WhatsApp founders dubbed the acquisition a “partnership” such was their insistence that things wouldn’t change under Facebook’s ownership.

Jan Koum, once a member of Facebook’s board, is said to have clashed with the social network’s management over its intentions for his WhatsApp service

Independence Vs Facebook’s Interests

But it didn’t work.

All four founders of WhatsApp and Instagram have left as Facebook inevitably sought further control of their companies in order to advance its wider goals as a business

WhatsApp, for example, has embraced business-consumer communication, is working on payments and has an advertising tie-in with Facebook. These are all features that would have troubled founders Koum and Acton, whose previous public manifesto railed against anything that takes away from a simple user experience, and particularly advertising.

After reported friction with Facebook management, Koum left in April 2018 to “do things I enjoy outside of technology, such as collecting rare air-cooled Porsches, working on my cars and playing ultimate frisbee.” Acton, meanwhile, quietly exited the year before but then tellingly wrote a $50 million check for Signal, an encrypted chat app that rivals WhatsApp, and publicly backed the #deletefacebook campaign over privacy concerns.

Over at Instagram, a similar situation seems to have happened with Systrom and Krieger. As TechCrunch’s Josh Constine reports, sources suggested that the leadership’s “weakening independence” from Facebook was a source of frustration for them that ultimately led to their untimely exit.

Reading the short farewell note from Systrom seems to hammer that home. There’s no thank you for Mark Zuckerberg, Sheryl Sandberg or any other Facebook executive. Systrom instead stated that Krieger and he are keen to explore their “curiosity and creativity again” by building new products.

Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom continued to be the service’s public face even after its acquisition by Facebook in 2012

Facebook had a good run with its independence policy, but ultimately these four exits illustrate that founders can’t be caged and tamed. While, on the other side, a buyer is always going to want to get their pound of flesh from billion-dollar acquisitions. Facebook can bend the rules and get a lengthier service from founders than most, but you can’t defy gravity forever.

While it has lost the original founders, Facebook has also seen wild success from its purchases. Instagram went from 30 million users pre-acquisition to over one billion today, while WhatsApp has more than 1.5 billion active users up from 450 million at the time of its deal.

The important question now is whether Facebook’s in-house team managing these services can continue to scale them without the inventors in place. Beyond talent, losing that original culture is a blow. These acquired services need to remain differentiated from Facebook from a consumer perspective, otherwise the entire point of owning them — the bet that the future of social networks may not be Facebook — is moot.

Hyper-targeted attack against 13 iPhones dropped malicious apps via MDM

Enlarge / Messages like this one would have come up every time hackers pushed a modified app to their victims. But YOLO, apparently. (credit: Cisco Talos)

Cisco’s Talos, used the “BOptions” sideloading technique to modify versions of legitimate applications, including WhatsApp and Telegram. The initiative inserted additional libraries into the application packages, and the modified applications were then deployed to the 13 victim iPhones via the rogue mobile device management systems.

“The malicious code inserted into these apps is capable of collecting and exfiltrating information from the device, such as the phone number, serial number, location, contacts, user’s photos, SMS, and Telegram and WhatsApp chat messages,” wrote Talos researchers Warren Mercer, Paul Rascagneres, and Andrew Williams in a post on the attack. “Such information can be used to manipulate a victim or even use it for blackmail or bribery.”

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