Police taking ‘excessive’ data from mobile phones

Police in England and Wales are taking “excessive” amounts of personal data from smartphones during investigations, the UK’s data watchdog has warned.

Taking too much data may deter people from reporting crime or assisting the police, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham said. Her report on police mobile phone data extraction (MPE) calls for a “statutory code of practice” for police.

An investigation into MPE in Scotland and Northern Ireland continues.

In some cases, police ask for data from a witness or victim’s smartphone, not just the suspects’ devices.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) started its investigation following concerns police forces were inconsistent in how they collected data and many took “an overly wide approach to extracting data”.

The report says mobile phones “reveal patterns of our daily personal and professional lives and enable penetrative insights into our actions, behaviour, beliefs, and state of mind”.

Taking data without “meaningful engagement” with witnesses and victims of crime “risks dissuading citizens from reporting crime”, said Ms Denham.

Apple faces two EU anti-competition probes

Apple faces two European Commission probes into whether it has broken competition rules.

One investigation centres on iPad and iPhones being limited to installing apps from Apple’s own App Store, among other restrictions imposed on third-party developers.

The other involves Apple Pay, with one issue being that other services cannot use the iPhone’s tap-and-go facility.

Apple said it was “disappointing” the EU was “advancing baseless complaints”. And it accused companies that had raised allegations against it of wanting a “free ride”.

“Our goal is simple: for our customers to have access to the best app or service of their choice, in a safe and secure environment.”

Apple is also under scrutiny in the US where the House Judiciary Committee is reported to have asked for its chief executive Tim Cook to appear alongside other tech leaders to answer questions about anti-trust concerns.

The latest development comes days before Apple holds its annual developers conference.

The investigation into Apple’s App Store stems from a complaint raised by the music streaming service Spotify.

Last year, it raised two specific concerns:

  • the only way developers can sell content and/or subscriptions directly within an iOS app is via Apple’s own system
  • publishers cannot tell users within their apps that the same items can be bought elsewhere – for example via the service’s own website

Apple typically charges apps a 30% cut of any sales, although that rate falls to 15% for the second and later years of any subscription.

Publishers often sell media and other digital goods at a lower price when bought outside of their apps, but consumers can be unaware of the fact.

Since Apple only allows apps to be downloaded from its own store, and has repeatedly updated its mobile operating system to prevent “jailbreaks” that circumvent this rule, it is argued that third-parties have little option but to comply with its conditions.

Apple has already claimed its app ecosystem generated more than half a trillion dollars in sales and other billings last year, saying the vast majority of that was not subject to it taking a commission.

But its relationships with some developers have become strained. In recent days, one has called on Apple to reduce its standard cut from 30% to 20% while another has accused the firm of operating a “capricious and inconsistent review process” that can cause delays to the release of even minor app updates.

The only alternative is to offer their products as web-based services, which can limit their functionality.

“Apple’s anti-competitive behaviour has intentionally disadvantaged competitors, created an unlevel playing field, and deprived consumers of meaningful choice for far too long,” said Spotify in response to the latest development. “We welcome the European Commission’s decision to formally investigate Apple, and hope they’ll act with urgency to ensure fair competition on the iOS platform for all participants in the digital economy.”

The Apple Pay investigation centres on a technology that allows iPhones and Apple Watches to make tap-and-go payments. It also lets users buy goods via an app or website without having to give their payment card details to the seller.

The European Commission has concerns about the conditions imposed on services that have added the facility. It also has reservations that alternative payment tech cannot make use of the near field communication (NFC) chips in Apple’s products to work with contactless payment terminals.

By contrast, Samsung phones – for example – let their NFC chips be used for both Samsung Pay and Google Pay.

“It is important that Apple’s measures do not deny consumers the benefit of new payment technologies, including better choice, quality, innovation and competitive prices,” said Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s Competition Commissioner and Executive Vice President.

The commissioner added that she had not set a deadline for the investigations to be completed.

Facebook launches WhatsApp digital payment service

WhatsApp has launched its digital payments service in Brazil as the messaging app capitalises on its popularity in emerging markets.

The move comes as parent company Facebook pushes ahead with plans to bring more e-commerce to its platforms.

WhatsApp Pay allows users to send money to one another for free or make purchases from small businesses.

In January, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg outlined plans to offer the service in India, Indonesia and Mexico. On its blog WhatsApp highlighted that the launch was part of a wider digital payment strategy across all of Facebook’s platforms.

“Because payments on WhatsApp are enabled by Facebook Pay, in the future we want to make it possible for people and businesses to use the same card information across Facebook’s family of apps. While person-to-person payments will be free small businesses will have to pay a “processing fee to receive customer payments,” the blog stated.

WhatsApp has 120m users in Brazil, making the country its second-largest market after India. The company has already been trialling the payment service in India, where it has 400m users. However, the firm’s efforts to launch WhatsApp Pay in India have been held up for two years by regulators.

Facebook bought WhatsApp for about $20bn in 2014. In February the messaging service said it had more than 2 billion users around the world.

Free internet to help poorer pupils study online

Free internet access is being offered for six months to help some disadvantaged youngsters study online.

The scheme will provide 10,000 families in England with vouchers for internet access, funded by BT and distributed by the Department for Education.

Most primary and secondary pupils are still out of school and learning online. But there have been concerns about a “digital divide” with poorer pupils missing out.

School Standards Minister Nick Gibb said everything possible would be done to “make sure no child, whatever their background, falls behind as a result of coronavirus”.

But there have been warnings that a much greater number of poorer families do not have computer equipment or adequate internet access – and that a social divide in education is being made wider.

Labour MP Siobhan McDonagh, leading a campaign for fairer online access, says there are 700,000 disadvantaged children without the technology needed to study online at home.

The scheme between BT and the Department for Education will give vouchers for free access to five million wi-fi hotspots.

Local authorities and academies will be asked to bid for vouchers for families in their schools without internet access or who cannot afford data and the Department for Education will decide the allocations.

A scheme launched in April promised to lend laptops to disadvantaged youngsters – with 100,000 so far delivered out of an intended 200,000.

Marc Allera of BT said the free wi-fi scheme would allow thousands of children “to keep up with their important digital learning and online schoolwork for the rest of term and over the summer holidays as well as into the autumn”.

Apple claims ‘half a trillion dollars’ App Store economy

Apple has said that its App Store ecosystem “facilitated half a trillion dollars” of trade in 2019.

The firm said more than 85% of that figure occurred via transactions from which it did not take a commission. The announcement comes at a time Apple and other US tech giants are facing increased anti-competition scrutiny.

A leading developer has also called on the iPhone-maker to lower the fees it charges, ahead of its annual developers’ conference next week.

An Apple representative said that it was proud of the commerce that it had enabled and welcomed scrutiny of its App Store.

The study was commissioned by Apple but carried out by economists at the Boston-based consultancy Analysis Group. It surveyed billings and sales related to apps running on the tech firm’s iOS, Mac, Watch and Apple TV platforms.

The report attempted to account for spending that occurred externally but led to content being used within an app – for example a direct payment to Spotify, whose songs were then listened to via its iPhone app.

Likewise it subtracted a proportion of the charge of in-app purchases whose content was used elsewhere – for example a Now TV subscription taken out via Sky’s app, if most of the shows were then watched directly on a TV’s own app.

In total, the economists said $519bn (£406bn) had been generated via Apple’s software ecosystem. The figure excludes sales generated by the Android and Windows versions of the same products.

Physical goods and offline services accounted for the biggest share of the sum – $413bn. By contrast, digital goods and services – from which Apple typically takes a 30% cut – accounted for $61bn.

The study’s publications coincides with a call by the US House Judiciary Committee for Apple’s chief executive Tim Cook and other tech leaders to answer questions about anti-trust concerns, according to reports.

‘How my photo ended up breaking Android phones’

Gaurav Agrawal, a scientist and amateur photographer living in San Diego, couldn’t believe it when he suddenly started seeing a photograph he took last summer popping up on the news.

He took it at St Mary Lake in Glacier National Park, Montana, one “magical evening” in August 2019. He shared the snap on photo platform Flickr and thought no more about it.

However, a glitch meant that when the image was set as wallpaper, it caused some Android phones to fail. The handsets would switch on and off repeatedly, requiring a factory reset which meant all data on them was wiped.

“I didn’t do anything intentionally,” he said. “I’m sad that people ended up having issues.”

It seems to happen on some but not all brands of phones running Version 10 of the Android operating system. It is not advisable to test it out.

“It was a magical evening,” Mr Agrawal said of the night he took the photo, in the park with his wife. It was their third trip there, in pursuit of the perfect picture. “It was gloomy and cloudy, and we thought there wasn’t going to be a great sunset. We were about to leave when things started to change.”

He grabbed the shot on his Nikon camera, and later did a small edit using the editing software Lightroom. And that’s where the bug crept in.

Lightroom gives three colour-mode options for exporting the finished result – and the one he picked is the one that seems to confuse some Android handsets. He was unaware of the glitch because he had never tried it.

“I didn’t know the format would do this,” he said. “I have an iPhone, and my wallpaper is always a photo of my wife.”

Mr Agrawal has over 10,000 followers on the photography platform Flickr and has had his work published by National Geographic magazine.

“I hoped my photograph would have gone ‘viral’ for a good reason, but maybe that’s for another time,” he said. “I’m going to use another format from now on.”

For those who do not know the background, Ken Munro and Dave Lodge from security firm Pen Test partners have an explanation of what went wrong:

“As digital photographs have improved in quality, phones need to check what the image ‘colour space’ is to work out how to display it properly. It’s how a phone knows how to display exactly the right shade of green, for example.

“There are different ways of defining the colour space. Some spaces have specialist uses in graphic design, so sometimes you’ll see images that aren’t in the usual ‘Standard RGB’ format. It’s also possible to deliberately create images that have more colour information than some devices can handle.

“What’s happened here is that the way some phones deal with these cases has gone wrong.

“The phone crashes because it doesn’t know how to deal with it correctly, and the software developers probably hadn’t considered this might happen.”

Coronavirus: BT has ‘plenty of capacity’

BT says its broadband infrastructure has plenty of “headroom” to cope with increased demand as more people stay home due to coronavirus.

The company said that since Tuesday, data use on its network had increased by between 35-60%.

On Thursday, Netflix said it would lower the picture quality of movies in Europe, to reduce data use.

But BT said daytime and evening usage was still much lower than the highest levels it had ever recorded.

In a statement, BT said: “The additional load… is well within manageable limits and we have plenty of headroom for it to grow still further”.

The highest rate of traffic BT has ever seen on its own network is 17.5 terabits per second (Tbps), on an evening where there was high demand for video games downloads and streaming football.

At a data rate of 1Tbps, 125 gigabytes (GB) is downloaded every second – the equivalent of about 55 high-definition movies.

By comparison, average daytime use on BT’s network this week has been 7.5Tbps – far below the highest peak that the company said it had been able to handle.

While analysing its data, BT said it discovered that:

  • mobile internet use had reduced by 5% on its networks as people stay at home and use the wi-fi
  • data use peaked at 17:00 GMT every day this week, the time of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s daily news briefing about the coronavirus

However, it warned that mobile phone voice calls could be affected if demand increased.

It said current use was “well within the levels the network is built to handle”, but encouraged customers to use a landline phone if they have one, or internet voice-calling services such as Skype, WhatsApp or Zoom instead.

Virgin Media said it was seeing a similar 50% boost to the amount of downloaded data during the day – but added that this was still below its evening peaks. Uploads, meanwhile, were 80% higher than normal during daytime hours. Virgin said the number of voice calls via its landlines were also up by 80% during the busiest time of the day.

On Thursday, Netflix said it would reduce the bitrate of movies in Europe, to reduce data use by about 25%.

The company said it was in response to “the extraordinary challenges raised by the coronavirus”.

Other video-providers are considering similar moves.

Amazon’s Prime Video said it was talking to local authorities, and had “already begun the effort to reduce streaming bitrates whilst maintaining a quality streaming experience” in Europe – including the UK.

A spokesman for BBC’s iPlayer service said: “We’re in contact with the relevant organisations to determine what action to take.”

Several factors influence how much data is used when streaming a movie online.

One of them is video resolution, including whether a video is high-definition (HD) or ultra-high definition 4K. Another is bitrate, which influences how clear and smooth videos look when streamed online. Videos with a higher bitrate tend to look less “blocky” or pixelated, but use more data.

“The UK has a very capable core network because UK consumers are more heavily invested in HD-streaming video, including live football, Netflix, than many other nations,” a spokesman said “So in the UK there isn’t a pressing need to reduce bitrates at the current time, but we are supportive of the move, as clearly the situation is unprecedented and it is common sense to do it.”

“However the UK’s communications infrastructure is well within its capacity limits, and has significant headroom for growth in demand.”

Netflix to cut streaming quality

Netflix will slightly reduce the video quality on its service in Europe for the next 30 days, to reduce the strain on internet service providers.

Demand for streaming has increased because large parts of Europe are self-isolating at home due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The video-streaming provider said lowering the picture quality would reduce Netflix data consumption by 25%.

But movies will still be high-definition or ultra-high definition 4K.

The change will apply to the UK as well as other European countries.

Several factors influence how much data is used when streaming a movie online.

One of them is video resolution, including whether a video is high-definition (HD) or ultra-high definition 4K.

Another is bitrate, which influences how clear and smooth videos look when streamed online. Videos with a higher bitrate tend to look less “blocky” or pixelated, but use more data.

Out of these two, Netflix says it will cut its streaming bitrates.

Customers who pay for ultra-high definition 4K movies as part of their subscription will still be able to watch 4K films.

The announcement came after a phone call with European officials.

Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for the Internal Market, had earlier said people should “switch to standard definition when HD [high-definition] is not necessary”.

An hour of standard definition video uses about 1GB of data, while HD can use up to 3GB an hour.

Netflix also offers ultra-high definition 4K video for some of its programmes.

Netflix’s decision to reduce video bitrate by a quarter appears to be a compromise.

“Following the discussions between Commissioner Thierry Breton and [Netflix chief executive] Reed Hastings, and given the extraordinary challenges raised by the coronavirus, Netflix has decided to begin reducing bitrates across all our streams in Europe for 30 days,” the company said.

Commissioner Breton praised the “very prompt action” Netflix took just hours after the phone call, saying it would “preserve the smooth functioning of the internet during the Covid-19 crisis”.

Netflix has not yet said whether the bitrate reduction will be applied to other areas such as North America.

Internet usage has been heightened in the last few weeks as more people work from home and avoid going out.

Coronavirus: Vodafone & TalkTalk report surge in use

Vodafone has said it is experiencing a 30% rise in internet traffic across its UK fixed-line and mobile networks.

More people are working from home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, putting more demand on all networks.

TalkTalk, another internet provider, said that its daytime network traffic had risen 20% since Monday.

One EU official has suggested that online TV services should stream content in lower resolution to protect broadband infrastructure.

On Wednesday evening, European Union commissioner Thierry Breton called on content providers to switch to standard definition feeds to prevent networks from being overloaded.

But the internet providers have played down suggestions that they cannot cope.

Use of remote-access technologies, webmail and video-conferencing apps are taking their toll.

Vodafone says spikes in usage are “largely the same” as before in terms of the total amount of data being uploaded and downloaded.

But the “busy hours”, which normally run from 18:00 to 20:00, now extend all the way back to lunchtime.

“We have enough headroom to meet growing demand and to keep the UK connected,” a spokesman said. “Our network team is keeping a constant watch on the situation.”

Other network operators have noted streamed television and games downloads still make use of considerably more bandwidth.

One of the most popular corporate video chat apps, Microsoft Teams, typically requires 0.5-1Mbps, while streaming a TV programme in 4K and high dynamic range (HDR) can require a constant rate of 20-44Mbps.

The forthcoming launch of Disney+ in the UK, which will offer 4K-resolution content, and the BBC’s plans to provide classes for children online because of schools being suspended, could therefore put the networks under more strain.

However, TalkTalk rejected the idea that its systems were at any imminent risk.

“We continually optimise our network for both our consumer and business customers and are well prepared to ensure they receive reliable connectivity,” it said.

That does not mean that every service will necessarily run smoothly.

UK mobile networks face problems

person using mobile phone

The UK’s mobile networks have experienced problems with their services.

EEsaid it was something “affecting all operators and we are working closely to fix it”.

The problem has been blamed on “interconnect issues” between the operators.

“We don’t believe it is connected to the rise in home working [due to the coronavirus],” added EE.

O2 had posted on its website that some customers were experiencing issues with its voice service but added that a full service was being restored. The alert has since been removed.

In a statement, O2 said the problem meant that O2, Vodafone and Three customers were unable to connect to EE – and EE customers were unable to connect to O2, Vodafone and Three.

It added that the issues were limited to making and receiving calls on its 2G, 3G and 4G networks, while data and messaging services were not affected.

O2 also denied that the problem stemmed from its network, which had initially been blamed, saying it was a “cross-industry issue”.

“At a time when the country needs connectivity most, it is important we work together rather than pointing fingers before facts have been determined,” it said.

The firm added that a conference call had been scheduled with the communications regulator Ofcom to help determine the exact cause and “ensure this doesn’t happen again”.

Vodafone said that it was a “short-lived problem” only affecting around 9% of voice calls on 3G networks.

“All operators are working together on the matter,” a spokesman said.

Downdetector, a website which monitors network problems, had shown issues for all four operators in a range of locations, including Birmingham, London, Manchester and Glasgow.