The app, which offers access to government services, has been criticised by human rights groups.
Democratic senator Ron Wyden has called for Apple and Google to remove it from their stores.
Women in Saudi Arabia need to get permission to leave the country from a male guardian, usually a father or husband.
The Absher app, which is designed for a range of government services, such as renewing driving licences, makes the process of allowing or prohibiting travel a lot easier, and it can be done via a smartphone.
Originally designed for the Ministry of Interior, the app has been in use for several years and downloaded more than a million times.
The man receives a notification if a dependent woman attempts to leave the country.
Human Rights Watch told the publication: “Apps like this one can facilitate human rights abuses, including discrimination against women.”
In an open letter to both companies, in response to the report, Mr Wyden wrote: “It is hardly news that the Saudi monarchy seeks to restrict and repress Saudi women but American companies should not enable or facilitate the Saudi government’s patriarchy.”
The app has also been used by some women to secretly change the settings on their male guardian’s phone so that it allows them to travel, the Insider reports.
Google has not responded to requests from the BBC for comment.
The net independence plan is seen as a way for Russia’s government to get more control over online life
Russia is considering whether to disconnect from the global internet briefly, as part of a test of its cyber-defences.
The test will mean data passing between Russian citizens and organisations stays inside the nation rather than being routed internationally.
A draft law mandating technical changes needed to operate independently was introduced to its parliament last year.
The test is expected to happen before 1 April but no exact date has been set.
The draft law, called the Digital Economy National Program, requires Russia’s ISPs to ensure that it can operate in the event of foreign powers acting to isolate the country online.
Nato and its allies have threatened to sanction Russia over the cyber-attacks and other online interference which it is regularly accused of instigating.
The measures outlined in the law include Russia building its own version of the net’s address system, known as DNS, so it can operate if links to these internationally-located servers are cut.
Currently, 12 organisations oversee the root servers for DNS and none of them are in Russia. However many copies of the net’s core address book do already exist inside Russia suggesting its net systems could keep working even if punitive action was taken to cut it off.
The test is also expected to involve ISPs demonstrating that they can direct data to government-controlled routing points. These will filter traffic so that data sent between Russians reaches its destination, but any destined for foreign computers is discarded.
Eventually the Russian government wants all domestic traffic to pass through these routing points. This is believed to be part of an effort to set up a mass censorship system akin to that seen in China, which tries to scrub out prohibited traffic.
Russian news organisations reported that the nation’s ISPs are broadly backing the aims of the draft law but are divided on how to do it. They believe the test will cause “major disruption” to Russian internet traffic, reports tech news website ZDNet.
The Russian government is providing cash for ISPs to modify their infrastructure so the redirection effort can be properly tested.
Analysis: Zoe Kleinman, BBC technology reporter
How does an entire country “unplug” itself from the internet?
It’s important to understand a little about how the internet works. It is essentially a series of thousands of digital networks along which information travels. These networks are connected by router points – and they are notoriously the weakest link in the chain.
What Russia wants to do is to bring those router points that handle data entering or exiting the country within its borders and under its control- so that it can then pull up the drawbridge, as it were, to external traffic if it’s under threat – or if it decides to censor what outside information people can access.
China’s firewall is probably the world’s best known censorship tool and it has become a sophisticated operation. It also polices its router points, using filters and blocks on keywords and certain websites and redirecting web traffic so that computers cannot connect to sites the state does not wish Chinese citizens to see.
It is possible to get around some firewalls using virtual private networks (VPNs) – which disguise the location of a computer so the filters do not kick in – but some regimes are more tolerant of them than others. China cracks down on them from time to time and the punishment for providing or using illegal VPNs can be a prison sentence.
Occasionally countries disconnect themselves by accident – Mauritania was left offline for two days in 2018 after the undersea fibre cable that supplied its internet was cut, possibly by a trawler.
Drones are helping conservationists rid one Galapagos island of an infestation of rats threatening indigenous birds.
The drones have dropped poison on more than half of North Seymour Island in a bid to kill off the invasive species.
The island’s rare birds nest on the ground and their numbers are being depleted by the rodent invasion.
The drones work much faster and more cheaply than helicopters which have been used in similar rat eradication projects elsewhere.
The infestation of brown and black rats was discovered in early 2018 and prompted action by NGO Island Conservation and the Galapagos’ Ministry of the Environment to rid the territory of the pest.
Rare species including frigate birds and the blue-footed booby raise their young in nests on the ground making them easy prey for the rats. The island has few trees so it is difficult for the indigenous birds to escape predation.
The rats are also known to eat native plants including the opuntia cactus and fragrant palo santo tree.
In addition, there are no species living on the island that prey on the rats. The birds mainly eat fish and North Seymour’s land iguanas eat cactus.
Island Conservation hopes that if the rats can be eliminated, this will herald the return of lava gulls that no longer nest on North Seymour.
While other eradication projects have used helicopters to deliver poison, this was not feasible on North Seymour because of its remote position. Any helicopter, and its pilot, would first have to be delivered to the island on a boat before it could be used.
Drones can deliver poison much more precisely than is possible via helicopter, said Karl Campbell, South American regional director for Island Conservation. Each drone was flown for many 15-minute journeys, during which time they dispensed about 20kg (44lb) of poison.
The poison was cooked up by Bell Labs, which used a custom formula that can survive the island’s extreme weather.
While 52% of North Seymour was baited with the drones, the rest of the 1.9 sq km (0.7 sq miles) island required work by more than 30 park rangers to cover the rugged territory with poison.
Island Conservation said it planned to put down the deadly bait once more before starting to look at the effect on the island’s rats.
Other projects in remote regions to remove rats had shown “dramatic” results, said Island Conservation. Five years after rats were extinguished on Palmyra Atoll, also in the Pacific, native tree cover had increased by 5,000%, it found.
Facebook users have continued to rise despite a series of data privacy scandals and criticism over its attempt to stem toxic content.
The social media giant said the number of people who logged into its site at least once a month jumped 9% last year to 2.32 billion people.
Fears the firm’s scandals could put off advertisers also proved unfounded with annual revenues up 30% on last year.
The rise came despite campaigns which urged people to shun the tech giant.
Founder Mark Zuckerberg said the firm had “fundamentally changed how we run the company to focus on the biggest social issues”.
The strong financial performance comes amid continuing concerns over how the social media firm handles users’ personal data and privacy after The Cambridge Analytica data sharing scandal and fears the network has been used as a political tool.
The company’s shares have lost almost a third of their value since July when it warned about slowing revenue growth and they remain near a two-year low.
But they jumped over 9% in after-hours trading after profit and revenue beat analyst forecasts.
Facebook’s total profit for 2018 was $22.1bn (£16.9bn), up 39% on 2017.
User growth was particularly strong in India, Indonesia and the Philippines, but flat in the US and Canada.
The mind boggles. In 2018 Facebook saw the Cambridge Analytica scandal, political manipulation, fake news, data breaches and accusations of deeply unethical behaviour.
Despite this, profits are up by almost 40%. Facebook isn’t just surviving, it’s thriving.
In the face of severe turbulence, Mark Zuckerberg’s company has proven to be resilient.
But while users appear to be turning a blind eye, the same won’t be said for regulators – Facebook knows huge fines are likely coming its way.
The question is how damaging those fines will be, and what other measures might be put in place that might clip the wings of a company that many lawmakers feel is too powerful.
George Salmon, analyst at Hargreaves Lansdown, said Facebook’s revenue growth in the final three months of the year was its weakest since the firm listed on the Nasdaq stock exchange in 2012, but said the figures were still “reassuring”.
“Only time will tell if Mark Zuckerberg’s ambitious plans to revolutionise Facebook pay off, but these results will go a long way towards regaining the trust of Wall Street – analysts had been jittery after a tumultuous 2018 which included the trials and tribulations of the Cambridge Analytica scandal and a reset on strategy,” he added.
Facebook is halting a scheme that gathered highly personal data from paid volunteers, after it was exposed.
TechCrunch said participants – including those aged 13-17 – had been paid up to $20 (£15.30) a month to open up their phones to deep analysis.
The news site said the app involved appeared to breach Apple’s privacy protection policies.
TechCrunch reported that Facebook used social media ads to target teenagers for the scheme. Facebook denies this.
A spokeswoman for the social network was unable to say whether it ran the programme outside the US.
The app had the potential to provide Facebook with “nearly limitless access” to a user’s device including:
the contents of private messages in chat apps including photos and videos
web browsing activity
logs of what apps were installed, and when they were used
a location history of where the owner had physically been
In addition, TechCrunch reported that users were asked to provide screenshots of their Amazon orders.
When the BBC visited one of the sign-up pages, it stated that Facebook would use the information to improve its services.
It added that “there are some instances when we will collect this information even where the app uses encryption, or from within secure browser sessions”.
It added that participants had to agree not to disclose “any information about this project to third parties”.
The social network said everyone involved in the programme had consented, and that market research was standard practice.
However, in the hours after TechCrunch’s report was published, Facebook said it would end the programme on Apple devices.
It has not, however, suspended a parallel effort on Android.
The research focused on users aged 13-35, and those under 18 were asked to get signed parental consent, Facebook said.
However, when the BBC identified itself as a 14-year-old boy during its test, it was able to download the app without any parental consent being sought. A page did state, however, that users should be over the age of 18.
In a statement, Facebook took issue with TechCrunch’s characterisation of the programme.
“Key facts about this market research programme are being ignored,” a spokeswoman said via email.
“Despite early reports, there was nothing ‘secret’ about this; it was literally called the Facebook Research App. It wasn’t ‘spying’ as all of the people who signed up to participate went through a clear on-boarding process asking for their permission and were paid to participate.
“Finally, less than 5% of the people who chose to participate in this market research program were teens. All of them with signed parental consent forms.”
When asked by the BBC how exactly the parental consent was obtained, Facebook said it was handled by a third party and did not elaborate.
Apple has not yet commented on whether it felt Facebook had broken its rules, and what action it might take as a result.
There is also an app for devices running Google’s mobile operating system Android. Google is also yet to comment.
TechCrunch’s detailed report explained Facebook had previously conducted market research using an app called Onavo, which it acquired in 2013.
Internal documents, published online in December revealed Facebook had used the data gathered to decide to takeover WhatsApp and track usage of rivals including Snapchat and Twitter’s former video service Vine.
However, Facebook has another research app that has been running since 2016. It circumvents Apple’s App Store by using testing tools typically used to install software that is still in development.
The app installs a “root certificate”, which enables deeper access to a phone’s software including functions not reachable by typical apps.
Apple allows the installation of root certificates in narrow cases, such as for companies that provide employees with iPhones but want to install internal apps, monitoring capabilities and extra security.
But Apple’s Developer Enterprise Program License Agreement makes it clear that these certificates must only be used for “specific business purposes” and “only for use by your employees”.
There are scenarios that allow exceptions to the rule, the policy goes on to say. But market research does not appear to be one of them.
Facebook insisted its market research policies were not unusual.
“Like many companies, we invite people to participate in research that helps us identify things we can be doing better,” it said.
“Since this research is aimed at helping Facebook understand how people use their mobile devices, we’ve provided extensive information about the type of data we collect and how they can participate.
“We don’t share this information with others and people can stop participating at any time.”
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The files show discussions between Facebook employees about how in-app payments were occurring within the platform, and whether children might be unwittingly spending real money during games.
Tara Stewart, a risk analyst for Facebook, remarked that in-game currency often “doesn’t necessarily look like real money to a minor”.
The investigation was prompted by Finnish game developer Rovio.
It told Facebook it had noticed an “alarmingly high refund rate”, caused by what is known as “friendly fraud”. The term typically refers to instances when parents discovered a child has been using their credit card to buy features or add-ons in a game.
Facebook considered it “really important to make Angry Birds a success story” – referencing Rovio’s smash hit game – and so investigated what was causing so many refund requests.
“In nearly all cases the parents knew their child was playing Angry Birds, but didn’t think the child would be allowed to buy anything without their password or authorisation first,” read one memo, written by Facebook employee Danny Stein.
Mr Stein went on to say that the company could build an automated method that might reduce the problem, but that it “would most likely block good total payment volume”.
While Facebook did not develop the games in question, payments were made through its system which, at the time, did not have additional measures in place that required parents to re-verify card use if a child was spending more money. Facebook took a 30% cut of payments, with the rest going to the game’s developer.
Facebook considered changing its system so that users under 17 (and over 90) who tried to make transactions worth over $75 would have to enter the first six digits of the payment card on file, in order to prove they were in possession of it, or could at least remember it.
While not foolproof, Ms Stewart – who appears to have put forward the measure – said she believed it would “curb the spending of the least savvy minors”. A colleague added: “It should keep kids from running rampant with their parents CCs.”
Facebook did not implement the idea.
‘Whale’ denied refund
In another discussion, employees talked about how one so-called “whale” – an industry-wide term for customers who spend a lot of money on in-app payments – should not be given a refund. The account had spent $6,545.
“That user looks underage as well,” one Facebook employee noted, perhaps a “13ish year old”.
A colleague replied: “I wouldn’t refund.”
As part of the 2016 settlement, Facebook paid out $5,000 each to the families of two children who racked up large bills apparently without their parents’ knowledge.
“He thought he was playing with virtual reality money,” said Glynnis Bohannon, the mother of one of the children.
The boy, who was 12 at the time, was playing a title called Ninja Saga and eventually spent $610.40 before Ms Bohannon was warned about the activity by her credit card company.
“He thought he was playing so good and it just was telling him that if he re-clicked it, it would regenerate,” she said.
“He thought it was within the game. He had no understanding that every time he clicked it, it was going to go on my credit card.”
In a statement, Facebook said it “works with parents and experts to offer tools for families navigating Facebook and the web”.
It added: “As part of that work, we routinely examine our own practices, and in 2016 agreed to update our terms and provide dedicated resources for refund requests related to purchases made by minors on Facebook.”
Amazon is experimenting with delivery robots, starting with a little truck called Scout which is taking to the pavements in Washington State.
Six of the autonomous electric trucks will deliver parcels “at walking pace” round Snohomish County.
The robots will only operate during the day and will be accompanied by an Amazon employee initially.
It is the latest in a series of trials of pavement robots, seen as being a good alternative to road deliveries.
“We developed Amazon Scout at our research and development lab in Seattle, ensuring the devices can safely and efficiently navigate around pets, pedestrians and anything else in their path,” said Amazon vice-president Sean Scott on the company’s blog.
The truck is shown in a promotional video delivering a parcel, with a lid automatically lifting when the customer comes out of their house to retrieve the package. Details of how exactly this will work are not given. Neither is there any explanation for what happens if the customer is not in at the time of delivery.
Amazon will not be alone in making such deliveries. Robotics firm Starship Technologies has also just announced a fleet of two dozen autonomous robots that will deliver coffee and pizza to college students in Virginia.
The robots can be requested via an app to deliver goods across the campus of George Mason University.
San Francisco has had delivery robots on its streets for several years, with tech start-ups, including Marble and Starship, leading the way.
But there has been something of a backlash, with some living there describing the robots as a menace and questioning how safe it was to share the pavements with them.
In 2017, city supervisor Norman Yee introduced legislation to restrict their use, including capping the number of permits issued at three per company and requiring the delivery bots to only operate within certain neighbourhoods. They must also be accompanied by a human at all times.
Google has been fined 50 million euros (£44m) by the French data regulator CNIL, for a breach of the EU’s data protection rules.
CNIL said it had levied the record fine for “lack of transparency, inadequate information and lack of valid consent regarding ads personalisation”.
The regulator said it judged that people were “not sufficiently informed” about how Google collected data to personalise advertising.
In a statement, Google said it was “studying the decision” to determine its next steps.
Complaints against Google were filed in May 2018 by two privacy rights groups: noyb and La Quadrature du Net (LQDN).
The first complaint under the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was filed on 25 May 2018, the day the legislation took effect.
The groups claimed Google did not have a valid legal basis to process user data for ad personalisation, as mandated by the GDPR.
Although Google’s European headquarters is in Ireland, it was decided among the authorities that the case would be handled by the French data regulator, since the Irish watchdog did not have “decision-making power” over its Android operating system and its services.
A lack of transparency
The regulator said Google had not obtained clear consent to process data because “essential information” was “disseminated across several documents”.
“The relevant information is accessible after several steps only, implying sometimes up to five or six actions,” the regulator said.
“Users are not able to fully understand the extent of the processing operations carried out by Google.”
No valid consent
Additionally, the regulator said Google had failed to obtain a valid legal basis to process user data.
“The information on processing operations for the ads personalisation is diluted in several documents and does not enable the user to be aware of their extent,” it said.
It said the option to personalise ads was “pre-ticked” when creating an account, which did not respect the GDPR rules.
“The user gives his or her consent in full, for all the processing operations purposes carried out by Google based on this consent (ads personalisation, speech recognition, etc).
“However, the GDPR provides that the consent is ‘specific’ only if it is given distinctly for each purpose.”
The regulator said it was Google’s “utmost responsibility to comply with the obligations on the matter”.
In a statement, Google said: “People expect high standards of transparency and control from us. We’re deeply committed to meeting those expectations and the consent requirements of the GDPR.”
Gary Shapiro runs the Consumer Technology Association, which organises the CES trade show
The ongoing US government shutdown is an embarrassment to the country’s technology industry, a leading figure has said.
Several government officials had to pull out of attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), a trade event which begins this week, because of the current political stalemate.
“I don’t imagine a lot of people who are making these decisions in Washington are even aware of the ramifications,” said Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association (CTA), which produces the show.
Mr Shapiro said he hoped stock market turbulence would put pressure on the US and China to reach an agreement on trade tariffs soon.
However, he added: “I’m not totally convinced that President Trump wants an agreement with the Chinese.”
The White House has not yet responded to a request for comment.
The CTA advocates for more than 2,000 technology firms, and counts Apple, Microsoft, IBM, Sony and many others among its membership.
CES is the largest trade show of its kind in the world. Scheduled to attend were a number of high ranking government figures, including Ajit Pai, the head of the US telecoms regulator. At least 10 officials had to withdraw, citing the government shutdown which has been in place since 22 December.
“As an American I am not thrilled that my own government can’t get its act together,” Mr Shapiro told the BBC.
“It’s embarrassing to be on the world stage with a dominant event in the world of technology, and our federal government – who had planned to send quite a significant delegation of top-ranking people – can’t be there to host their colleague government executives from around the world.”
“We like to be proud of our country, and sometimes we struggle.”
He said he was optimistic next year’s show would be different, and that current negotiations over trade tariffs would be resolved.
Last week, Apple said the struggling Chinese economy meant it had earned significantly less than predicted in the final three months of 2018. The news sent Apple’s stock plummeting – so too other tech firms deemed to be vulnerable.
Mr Shapiro said part of the problem may be changing attitudes towards American products.
“There’s a lot of social media in China which is not embracing the United States, its companies and its products,” he said.
Despite the tensions, Mr Shapiro said there was no discernible difference between the number of Chinese companies deciding to exhibit at CES. The country represents around 40% of the firms at the show.
LG has revealed a consumer version of its roll-up TV set at the CES trade show in Las Vegas.
The Signature OLED TV R is built on a concept unveiled last year, in which the screen retracts into a base when not in use so it is less obtrusive.
LG plans to sell the device in the US before the end of 2019, but has yet to reveal the month or price.
Experts say the technology is unlikely to become a mass-market proposition for many years to come.
“It’s a 4K set rather than 8K, so you could argue there’s a compromise there – but otherwise this is a very high-end design that is going to be very costly,” commented Jack Wetherill from the consultancy Futuresource.
The South Korean firm also showed off another TV that will compete with the fold-out model for flagship status: a 88in (224cm) model that was described as being the biggest OLED set to date.
Much of the presentation about it centred on its use of machine learning to finesse its picture quality.
Relatively few devices have worked with both the two rival virtual assistants to date.
Speaker-maker Sonos has notably taken longer than expected to deliver on its promise of combining the two into a single device.
In LG’s case, the two platforms will be accessed via its own ThinQ software rather than directly.
Its press conference showed a user commanding them via a TV remote control, suggesting that a different button press determined which of the two assistants was invoked.
Samsung’s new TVs will also offer access to both Amazon and Google’s platforms too, although it will prioritise its own smart assistant Bixby.
“I see it as an acceptance that there’s a very large group of users already using Google and Amazon’s AIs,” remarked Paul Gagnon from the consultancy IHS Markit.
“It would be pretty hard for a company to stand in the way of that progress and not cut out potential buyers.”
LG also said its TVs would be among the first to natively support Apple’s AirPlay technology, allowing them to stream footage and audio from iPhones and iPads as well as be controlled by Siri.
LG dedicated much of the rest of its press conference to explaining how its household appliances could be made to anticipate their owners’ wishes by allowing the company to monitor people’s wider behaviour.
One example involved its ThinQ software offering to deploy a robot vacuum because it had detected its owner picking up another cleaning device.
Another involved the dishwasher ordering itself new detergent because it had run out.
In general, things ran much more smoothly than last year when the firm’s US marketing chief David VanderWaal tried to demo a robot called Cloi, which repeatedly ignored his commands.
However, right at the end of the latest event the firm failed to mute his microphone, so that the last words heard were Mr VanderWaal saying: “That’s a wrap – one glitch on the video.”
One of the firm’s displays failed to work as intended during the TV section of the press conference.