TVSmiles, a Berlin-based mobile native advertising app whose users earn digital currency in exchange for engaging with branded content such as quizzes, apps and videos, has suffered a data breach.

Security researcher UpGuard disclosed in a report today that it found an unsecured Amazon S3 bucket online last month — containing personal and device data tied to millions of the app’s users. According to TVSmiles’ marketing material the quiz app has up to three million users.

The storage bucket UpGuard found exposed to the Internet contained a 306 GB PostgreSQL database backup with “unencrypted personally identifiable information matched to individual users, profiling insights about users’ interests based on quiz responses, associations to smart devices, and accounts and login details for TVSmiles’ business relationships”, according to its report.

UpGuard writes that 261 database tables were present in the exposed repository — including a “core_users” table consisting of more than 6.6 million rows. Of the entries that had an email address tied to them UpGuard says it found 901,000 unique emails.

The exposed backup file appears to date back to August 2017.

Screengrab: UpGuard

After UpGuard reported the breach to TVSmiles, in an email sent May 13, the Berlin -based company responded on May 15, writing in an email that the repository “has been immediately secured” (UpGuard says it independently confirmed this).

TVSmiles co-founder, Gaylord Zach, added in this email to UpGuard that it would “further investigate the contents of the exposed data to take further actions”.

Reached for comment on the incident today, Zach confirmed UpGuard’s report and also confirmed that the exposed repository had been accidentally left unsecured for years.

He said internal analysis of available logs has found no unauthorized access besides UpGuard’s access of the data, adding that TVSmiles has yet to notify users of the incident — but is planning a communication to users within its mobile app and a blog post on its website.  

“Our analysis has revealed that the data consists of a database backup that was created in 2017 and mistakenly stored in a cloud storage repository provided within the cloud hosting environment,” Zach told us. “Allegedly this backup was created as a safety measure ahead of performed maintenance work. Further investigation revealed three independent but severe policy breaches: 1.) The backup was stored in plain format where all backups should have been encrypted; 2.) The affected repository was provisioned as a code repository and never intended to store data; 3.) The affected repository was intended for private use within the organization and never intended to be publicly available.

“The very unfortunate combination of these three factors resulted in the long period that this data remained stored without discovery.”

TVSmiles reported the breach to the German Data protection authorities — filing its report on May 17, per Zach.

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires data controllers to report all breaches of personal data that pose a risk to people’s rights and freedoms to a supervisory authority within at least 72 hours of discovery.

“We are very thankful to UpGuard unveiling this exposure before it has led to material data breaches and harm to our users. We are very much embarrassed by this unnecessary exposure of user data. It is a strong reminder to every developer to do regular security checks and house keeping in order to avoid these incidents,” he added.

Screengrab: UpGuard

Clicks for data

TVSmiles’ business participates in a data-fuelled digital ad ecosystem that operates by linking user IDs to devices, digital activity and tracked interests, building individual profiles for the purpose of targeting screen users with advertising.

Hence the interactive content that the TVSmiles quiz app encourages users to engage with — rewarding activity with a proprietary digital currency (called ‘Smiles’) that can be exchanged for discount vouchers on products in its shop or directly for cash — functions both as direct marketing material to drive deeper engage around branded content; and a data harvesting tool in its own right, enabling the business to gather deeper insights on users’ interests which can in turn be monetized via user profiling and ad targeting.

Such insights enable TVSmiles to plug into a wider digital advertising ecosystem in which mobile users are profiled and tracked at scale across multiple apps, services and devices in order that targeted ads can follow eyeballs as they go — all powered by the background profiling of people’s digital activity and inferred interests.

According to Crunchbase the quiz app has raised a total of $12.6M in funding since being founded around seven years ago when it was pitching itself as a second screen app for TV viewers. It went on to launch its own ad platform, called Kwizzard, which packages ads into “a native, gamified ad format” — with the aim of luring app users to engage with quiz-based ad campaigns.

Given the nature of TVSmiles’ business — and a wider problematic lack of transparency around how the adtech industry functions — this data breach is a fascinating and unnerving glimpse of the breadth and depth of data harvesting that routinely goes on in the background of ad-supported digital services.

Even an app with a relatively small user base (single digit millions) can be sitting atop a massive repository of tracking data.

The online ad industry also continues to face major questions over the legal basis it claims for processing large volumes of personal data under the European Union’s data protection regime.

 

A master database plus access tokens

In terms of the types of data exposed in this breach, UpGuard said the 306 GB PostgreSQL database backup contained “centralized information” about users of the app, alongside what it describes as “large amounts of internal system and partnership information necessary for any business participating in the modern online advertising ecosystem”.

TVSmiles’ LinkedIn page reports the app having in excess of 2M users in Germany and the U.K. — per Google’s Play store the TVSmiles app has had in excess of 1M downloads to date, and while Apple’s iOS does not break out a ballpark figure for app downloads a video on the Play Store app page makes reference to 3M users — so it’s possible the 6.6M figure relates to total downloads over the app’s lifetime since launch back in September 2013.

Zach told us that the discrepancy between the user figures is a result of TVSmiles being a much smaller business now than it was in mid 2017 — when it was spending a lot on marketing and had more active users, including as a result of operating in the UK market (which it left in 2018).

“In general we are now a much smaller organisation compared to 2017,” he added.

Other tables in the repository were found by UpGuard to contain considerably more entries — such as a “tracking_token” table, with more than 235 million entry rows.

“A table in this database called “user_core” contained six million rows, with many users having their “country” field marked for other territories throughout Europe, making this data consistent with being a master database for TVSmiles at the time,” it writes in the report. “The user_core table contained fields for email address, fb_user, fb_access_token, first and last name, gender, date of birth, address, phone number, password, and others.”

UpGuard told us that the user_core table had password hashes filled in for 626,000 of the rows. It said these passwords appear to have been hashed using a type of hashing algorithm that’s known to be vulnerable to brute forcing — the sha256 algorithm — and therefore offers little protection against malicious attackers.

It added that it was able to locate three out of three random hashed passwords it checked in publicly available indexes which are easily searchable online — meaning these password hashes had already been reversed (which in turn suggests they may have been used elsewhere before; or else are commonly guessable).

It also found Facebook user IDs (“fb_user”) and access tokens (“fb_access_token”) stored in the repository for some of the listed TVSmiles users — presumably for those who used a Facebook account to login to the app.

“Not all data points were present for all users – for example, the Facebook specific fields would likely only be present for users who had connected with their Facebook identity, and users who had authenticated via Facebook would not inherently need to create a password for the app due to the functionality of that authentication method,” UpGuard suggests.

The exposed repository contained more than 312,000 access tokens tied to Facebook IDs, according to its analysis.

Screengrab: UpGuard

It also found a large collection of personal data stored in a table related to end user devices — which it said were linked to tracking tokens, ad IDs and user rewards.

“A table called “device_core” contains 7.5 million rows tied to physical devices,” UpGuard writes. “These devices have unique device ids, access tokens, and mappings to the user ids of their owners. Those device ids, in turn, are then relevant to a “tracking_token” table consisting of 235 million entry rows.

“The rows in the tracking_token table include fields such as campaign_id, placement_id, user_payout, and challenge_id, building up a picture of the TVSmiles activity – like which ads and activities users responded to – on each device – which can then be linked back to the user.”

Other personal data found in the repository includes precise location data — “users’ latitude and longitude” — with a related admin view configured for a database named “full device info”, which UpGuard says highlights “the “tracker_name,” a token value, and the nearest weather station”.

It also found a collection of “insights” related to TVSmiles users — listed in the form of “intents, interests, and other psychographic qualities”.

“These subjects ranged from consumer goods (e.g. books, video games, furniture, and clothing) to the user’s education and more esoteric interests,” the report notes.

Redacted screengrab: UpGuard

As well as storing (unencrypted) personal data attached to millions of users of the TVSmiles app, and hashed passwords for more than half a million of these entries, the exposed repository was found to contain information related to a number of the company’s own business clients — also tied to access tokens.

“It is reasonable to interpret these names as business clients, who have paid to publish ads on TVSmiles or have access to insights gleaned from end-user app interaction,” UpGuard writes of the “business_clients” table.

“These business users’ hashed passwords, phone numbers, email addresses, names, and other data points were also present. Conversely, TVSmiles’ own credentials for interacting with vendors necessary to provide the TVSmiles platform, like ad exchanges, fraud detection platforms, and email communication scheduling, were also present.”

UpGuard suggests that a hacker who stumbled across the unsecured bucket may have been able to use the tokens to gain access to a number of additional services where they could potentially obtain further user data — such as by exporting contact data; accessing or sending mail via a third party service; or reading historic service information and performance metrics.

“If this database had been located by malicious entities, prior to UpGuard discovering it and sending appropriate notification, the possibility exists that such credentials could have allowed an attacker to impersonate TVSmiles and collect additional information about arbitrary targets from those other platforms and service providers,” it adds.

Zach confirmed the data contained “legacy access tokens” — but said they stem from a deprecated login methodology that had since been replaced with a OAuth based sign on service.

The data originates from August 2017. Any contained access tokens would therefore have expired by now,” he told us, saying TVSmiles has not yet notified any business partners on account of seeing “no major risk based on the nature and age of the exposed tokens”.

“We would however not hesitate to contact and take action if we have underestimated or overseen risks,” he added. 

 

Questions of consent

After reviewing UpGuard’s report, Wolfie Christl, an EU-based privacy researcher who focuses on adtech and data-driven surveillance, called for EU data protection agencies to launch an immediate investigation.

“This is a massive data breach. But it is about more than that. It provides a glimpse into an opaque industry consisting of thousands of companies that secretly harvest extensive personal information on millions of people for business purposes,” he told TechCrunch.

“According to the leaked database, the company has digital profiles on 6M people and 7.5M devices. It seems that they linked names, email addresses and phone numbers to device identifiers, social media accounts, and to all kinds of behavioral data.

“Data protection authorities in Germany — and perhaps in other European countries — must immediately start an investigation. In addition to the data breach, they must examine whether the company, and its affiliates and partners, processed this extensive amount of personal data in a lawful way. Did they have a legal basis to process it?”

Screengrab: UpGuard

“The wider issue is that, two years after the GDPR came into full force, it has still not been enforced in major areas,” Christl added. “We still see large-scale misuse of personal information all over the digital world, from platforms to digital marketing to mobile apps. EU authorities should have acted years ago, they must do so now.”

In its privacy policy, TVSmiles states that it only uses app users’ personal data “to the extent that this is legally permissible or you have given your consent… for the purposes of advertising, market research or the needs-based design of our offer” [text translated using Google Translate].

“We are obtaining user consent to the use of data and have created a dedicated section within our app to obtain consent like location data, advertising identifier, sharing of personal data with advertising partners,” Zach told us on this, adding that consent information is provided to “various advertising and tracking partners” — assuming users agree to be tracked via responses to its consent flows (shown below).

Screenshots: TVSmiles

References to a number of third party adtech companies can be found in TVSmiles’ repository, per UpGuard, suggesting it was making use of their services for data structuring, enrichment and monetization purposes — including Adex, a data management platform and marketplace whose website touts the “easy selling and purchase of data”; Adjust, a mobile measurement and fraud-prevention firm geared towards mobile marketing; mobile app monetization company, Fyber; and product user behavior analytics platform, Mixpanel.

Another interesting component in this story is how TVSmiles’ business straddles the TV and online advertising realms. Its business began, more than half a decade ago, with a firm focus on the notion of being a ‘second screen’ app for TV viewers — including by using audio technology to automatically identify TV ads in order to serve related in-app content. This means it’s forged links with traditional media giants.

Back in 2014, for instance, it inked a marketing partnership for its app in Austria with European media giant ProSiebenSat.1’s marketing subsidiary, SevenOne Media. At the time ProSiebenSat.1 PULS 4’s MD, Michael Stix, billed the move as astrategic step” to integrate brand communication on the second screen, lauding the tie-up as a way to offer advertising customers “additional novel touchpoints” for their target group.

But the rise of smart TVs and digital sign-ins has paved the way for deeper linking of Internet activity and TV viewing. Especially as traditional mass media giants have been looking for ways to diversify their media businesses, with more competition for viewers’ eyeballs than ever before.

Behind all these screens a complex mass of adtech pipes is exchanging data linked to individual users — trading IDs and insights to join dots and serve targeted ads. So connected “touchpoints” are now very much integral, not secondary, these days.

UpGuard found labels (see below screengrab) in the exposed TVSmiles repository that refer to “seven_pass”: Aka a single sign-on solution for all ProSieben.Sat1’s digital services, called 7Pass.

An FAQ on TVSmiles’ website confirms TVSmiles users are able to use the 7Pass service to log in to the app.

Screengrab: UpGuard

In its privacy policy, TVSmiles states that “pseudonymized” data of users of the 7Pass login is sent to ProSiebenSat.1 Digital & its affiliates and to other affiliated companies of ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE — including quiz response data.

“In addition, survey data collected and provided by you via survey cards in the app are also transmitted pseudonymised to ProSiebenSat.1 Digital & Adjacent GmbH and other affiliated companies of ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE in order to enable you to use special quiz cards in the app, bring in more smilies and be able to offer special promotions in cooperation with ProSiebenSat.1,” it adds.

Of course, much like weak password hashes, “pseudonymised” personal data can be trivially easy to re-identify — such as by unifying tracking IDs.

Asked about the 7Pass service, Zach said TVSmiles had replaced its legacy user management with ProSiebenSat.1’s digital sign-on service — claiming the main objective was “to leverage a trustworthy well maintained sign-on service by a larger partner and remove the need of self managed credentials and access tokens”. 

“Given the sensitivity of user data and access credentials it seems like a wise choice in light of this case,” he added. 

In a more recent business development, TVSmiles sold its development division and adtech to a company called PubNative in December 2019. PubNative is a mobile SSP and programmatic ad exchange owned by a German holding company called MGI Media that’s made a large number of media and adtech acquisitions in recent years (as well as being majority owner of free-to-play gamesmaker, Gamigo).

At the time of this “acqui-hire” TVSmiles and PubNative suggested an ongoing business partnership. “As we recently branched into Connected TV, PubNative’s advanced tech stack supports our continued growth and allows us to expand our business internationally. Advancements on demand-side business development will be introduced gradually across the entire product line,” said Zach in a press statement at the end of last year.

Asked about the nature of the business relationship between TVSmiles and PubNative, Zach confirmed it sold “certain people and technology” to PubNative but retained its mobile apps and user base, adding: “No user data has been shared with PubNative and they have no involvement in this case.”

However he confirmed TVSmiles uses advertising technology provided by PubNative. 

“This technology (SDK) is built into the TVSmiles app. Data sharing is limited to those authorized by user consent for advertising use,” he added.

A static analysis by Exodus suggests the TVSmiles app contains more than 40 trackers — including PubNative’s. This plus the fact the TVSmiles repository was found by UpGuard to be storing precise user location data is interesting in light of a separate report, published in January, by Norway’s Consumer Council (NCC) — which delved into how the adtech industry non-transparently exploits app users’ data.

The NCC report identified PubNative as one of the entities receiving GPS data from a number of apps it tested (NB: it did not test the TVSmiles app). The Council found a majority of apps that it did test transmitted data to entities it characterized as “unexpected third parties” — meaning users were not being clearly informed about who was getting their information and what was being done with it, in its view.

Other SDKs contained in the TVSmiles app, per Exodus and a list of software suppliers in TVSmiles’ privacy policy, include Facebook Ads, Analytics and Places; Google Ads, Analytics, DoubleClick & more; and Twitter MoPub. Also present: A longer list of smaller adtech and mobile marketing/monetization players, from AdBuddiz to Vungle.

Looking through the Exodus report most of these trackers stem from advertising technology that is being used within TVSmiles app,” Zach also told us. 

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Twitter, meanwhile, swapped its standard logo for a black and white version, adding a Black Lives Matter hashtag to its bio. Its diversity account Twitter Together offered the following statement (via tweet, naturally):

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Racism does not adhere to social distancing. Amid the already growing fear and uncertainty around the pandemic, this week has again brought attention to something perhaps more pervasive: the long-standing racism and injustices faced by Black and Brown people on a daily basis.

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Amazon also took to Twitter, offering the following statement:

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The inequitable and brutal treatment of Black people in our country must stop. Together we stand in solidarity with the Black community u2014 our employees, customers, and partners u2014 in the fight against systematic racism and injustice.

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AWS head Andy Jassy added on his own account:

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*What* will it take for us to refuse to accept these unjust killings of black people? How many people must die, how many generations must endure, how much eyewitness video is required? What else do we need? We need better than what we’re getting from courts and political leaders.

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Many were quick to condemn Amazon for perceived hypocrisy. Among the issues here are longstanding complaints over worker treatment, as well as Amazon Web Services’ technologies like facial recognition, which have been utilized by law enforcement.

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The ACLU responded rather bluntly:

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Cool tweet. Will you commit to stop selling face recognition surveillance technology that supercharges police abuse?

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Amazon does not appear to have responded to this most recent question from the organization.

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The pain of the last week reminds us how far our country has to go to give every person the freedom to live with dignity…

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Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Sunday, May 31, 2020

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Facebooku2019s response has also been a mixed bag. Staff have been vocal about their anger around Mark Zuckerbergu2019s decision to break with Twitter by leaving Trumpu2019s u201cwhen the looting starts, the shooting startsu201d statement in tact. More recently, however, the CEO committed $10 million to relevant nonprofits, adding in a post:

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To help in this fight, I know Facebook needs to do more to support equality and safety for the Black community through our platforms. As hard as it was to watch, I’m grateful that Darnella Frazier posted on Facebook her video of George Floyd’s murder because we all needed to see that. We need to know George Floyd’s name. But it’s clear Facebook also has more work to do to keep people safe and ensure our systems don’t amplify bias.

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Remarks from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella posted to LinkedIn briefly touch upon the events in Minneapolis, as well as the recent problematic encounter in Central Park in which the police were called on birder Christian Cooper:

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Our identity, our very existence is rooted in empowering everyone on the planet. So, therefore, it’s incumbent upon us to use our platforms, our resources, to drive that systemic change, right? That’s the real challenge here. It’s not just any one incident, but it’s all the things that have led to the incident that absolutely need to change.

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Meanwhile, Snap CEO Evan Spiegel sent a lengthy letter to staff on Sunday, writing:

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Of course, the same Founding Fathers who espoused the values of freedom, equality, and justice for all u2013 were predominantly slave owners. Their powerful vision of a nation created by the people, for the people was built on a foundation of prejudice, injustice, and racism. Without addressing this rotten foundation and its ongoing failures to create opportunity for all, we are holding ourselves back from realizing our true capacity for human progress u2013 and we will continue to fall short of the bold vision of freedom, equality, and justice for all.

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Spiegelu2019s letter focuses on his work to understand the struggles as a u201cyoung, white, educated male [who] got really, really lucky,u201d as well as proposals for financial methods for addressing inequality. Specifically, he calls for the establishment of a non-partisan Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations, as well as an investment in housing, healthcare and education.

n","protected":false},"excerpt":{"rendered":"

On Sunday, a fourth night of protests erupted around the country, spurred on by the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police. The movement is a response to wide-ranging and systemic inequality that has seen a disproportionate number of black Americans suffer a similar fate, with Floydu2019s desperate gasping […]

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Brian Heater is the Hardware Editor at TechCrunch. He worked for a number of leading tech publications, including Engadget, PCMag, Laptop, and Tech Times, where he served as the Managing Editor. His writing has appeared in Spin, Wired, Playboy, Entertainment Weekly, The Onion, Boing Boing, Publishers Weekly, The Daily Beast and various other publications. He hosts the weekly Boing Boing interview podcast RiYL, has appeared as a regular NPR contributor and shares his Queens apartment with a rabbit named Lucy.

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Demonstrators march during a protest of the death of George Floyd, Sunday, May 31, 2020, in Cincinnati, Ohio, United States. (Photo by Jason Whitman/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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update delivers new ‘Bedtime’ features focused on improving sleep"},"content":{"rendered":"

At Google’s 2018 I/O developer conference, the company debuted a new suite of “digital well-being” aimed at helping Android users better manage their screen time. At its 2019 event, it expanded its tools’ capabilities and improved the related parental controls. Although Google I/O isn’t taking place this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company is once again refreshing its well-being toolset. This year, the focus is a timely one, as Google will roll out new bedtime tools to help people get better sleep.

n

Google reports seeing a rise in sleep-related search queries like “insomnia” and “can’t sleep” in April and May, as the coronavirus crisis led to increased stress and anxiety, which can disrupt sleep.

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Android’s “Bedtime” mode, previously known as “Wind Down,” uses Do Not Disturb to silence calls, texts and notifications, while grayscale fades the colors on your phone to black and white, to reduce the draw to your screen. With the updates to this feature, Google is making it easier to customize when and how Bedtime mode is enabled.

n

Based on your bedtime schedule, you can now opt to have it automatically turn on after your phone is plugged into its charger. You can also add Bedtime mode to your Android phone’s Quick Settings, to instantly turn it on or off with a single tap. And if you need a few more minutes, you can choose to pause Bedtime mode without needing to adjust your schedule.

n

The update to Digital Wellbeing, which included the ability to automatically enable Bedtime mode when the phone is charging and add it to Quick Settings, actually rolled out earlier in May. But Google is announcing the features today as part of its other Bedtime mode changes.

n

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The Clock app on Android is also being updated with a new Bedtime tab.

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Here, you can set daily sleep and wake times. In the app, you’ll be able to see a preview of your calendar for the next day, and then tally the total number of hours of sleep you’d get. This way, you can adjust your bedtime if needed to sync up with tomorrow’s schedule — even if that means diverting from your typical bedtime schedule.

n

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In addition, users will receive a reminder before bedtime and have the option to play calming sounds from Calm, Spotify, YouTube Music and other sources. If they have Digital Wellbeing installed, they can pair with Bedtime mode to limit the interruptions during sleep.

n

The app will also display how much time youu2019re spending and which apps youu2019ve used after your set bedtime.

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Google additionally suggested users looking for better sleep can try the “Sunrise Alarm” option that gradually brightens your screen to help you wake up more gently. This visual alarm system will begin 15 minutes prior to your audio alarm. Users can also set their favorite songs as an alarm to make the alarm less jarring, Google recommends.

n

The sunrise alarm was first introduced with the Pixel 3 and Pixel Stand in 2018. But with the update, you will no longer need the stand to use the feature — it’s a part of the new Bedtime tab in the Clock app.

n

n

Related to today’s launch of new bedtime features, Google noted itu00a0recently added new YouTube bedtime reminders. It also supports a daily bedtime schedule in Android’s parental controls feature, Family Link.

n

n

The updated Bedtime experience is launching first on Pixel devices starting today, and will roll out to the Clock app and on other Android devices later this summer. Pixel devices will be getting a handful of other updates, as well, including Adaptive Battery.

n

n

Pixel 2 devices and newer will notify the user when the battery is set to run out, while throttling background usage to save on life. The excellent Recorder app can now be triggered with a u201cHey Googleu201d and transcripts can be saved directly to Google Docs.

n

The Personal Safety app introduced on the Pixel 4 is now coming to all devices, while the Pixel 3 will get car crash detection. Thereu2019s also a new Safety Check feature designed to send out alerts in potentially dangerous situations. Per Google:

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For example if youu2019re about to go on a run or hike alone, safety check will make sure you made it back safely. If you donu2019t respond to the scheduled check-in, the app will alert your emergency contacts. In the event that you need immediate help or are in a dangerous situation, emergency sharing notifies all of your emergency contacts and shares your real-time location through Google Maps so they can send help or find you.

n

n

The Personal Safety app will also let users set notifications for crises, including natural disasters and other public safety concerns.

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At Google’s 2018 I/O developer conference, the company debuted a new suite of “digital well-being” aimed at helping Android users better manage their screen time. At its 2019 event, it expanded its tools’ capabilities and improved the related parental controls. Although Google I/O isn’t taking place this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the company […]

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Sarah currently works as a writer for TechCrunch, after having previously spent over three years at ReadWriteWeb. Prior to her work as a reporter, Sarah worked in I.T. across a number of industries, including banking, retail and software.

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acquires Turkey’s Peak Games for $1.8B, after buying its card games studio for $100M in 2017"},"content":{"rendered":"

Today, some news of a huge acquisition out of Turkey that represents the first billion-dollar-plus exit for a startup out of the country. Social gaming company Zynga confirmed that it is buying Istanbul-based Peak Games, the company behind popular Candy-Crush-style mobile gaming apps Toon Blast and Toy Blast, for $1.8 billion — $900 million in cash, and $900 million in Zynga shares.

n

Interestingly, this is the second time that Zynga has made a Peak Games acquisition. In 2017, it purchased the company’s mobile card games business for $100 million (more on that below).

n

The news caps off a short period of speculation about an upcoming deal, with local tech publications like Webrazzi calling the sale (and correct price) last month.

n

Peak’s investors had included European VCs Earlybird and Hummingbird Ventures — both active backers of startups in emerging markets in the region — and Endeavor Global (the nonprofit that invests via its Endeavor Catalystu00a0fund). Sidar Sahin, the founder and CEO, had been the company’s biggest shareholder.

n

As with all M&A in the world of gaming, Zynga is getting a couple of big gains out of this sale.

n

The first is picking up two very popular titles/franchises that it doesn’t have do develop from scratch (in hopes of investing R&D budget in what it hopes but can’t guarantee will be a hit). Toon Blast and Toy Blast together total more than 12 million DAUs. And on top of that, those two games are some of the highest-grossing among all in Apple’s App Store, ranking among the top-10 and top-20 games in the past two years, Zynga noted in its announcement.

n

It’s not just about adding popular games content, but expanding Zynga’s advertising business as well. Significantly, Peak Games’ primary users are outside of Zynga’s home market of the US, representing a real growth opportunity for the company to cross-sell other games. Zynga says that bolting on Peak’s games network to its own will boost its number of mobile daily active users by 60%, which mean a lot of scaling up for its ad network.

n

Of course, sustaining both of those titles and their respective franchises as hits for the long run is not a given — the world of gaming regularly sees blockbusters fizzle out when the next big thing comes along — although these “forever franchises” with their steady popularity have a strong play to be exactly that.

n

However, the long play is also where the third big asset comes in: talent. Peak has 100 employees working on its current franchises and other games. So while the back ends (and revenues) may be getting combined, Zynga says Peak’s people will stay put and continue to work under the Peak brand on the existing franchises as well as on new projects that are already in development.

n

Zynga says the deal will close in the third quarter of 2020, and it’s updated its guidance already on the news, sending its stock up more than 5% in pre-market trading. Specifically, Zynga today said it believes the deal will bump up revenues by $40 million for the year, to $1.840 billion.

n

A startup so nice, Zynga bought it twice

n

The deal is notable not just because of what it’s adding to Zynga today, but because it highlights some interesting history between the two companies.

n

Back in November 2017, Zynga acquired one division of Peak Games, its mobile card games studio, for $100 million in cash.

n

The deal included games like Spades Plus and Gin Rummy Plus, respectively the largest spade and rummy mobile games in the world at the time; and games that were popular in Peak’s home market, 101 Okey Plus and Okey Plus. And according to analysis from Apptopia, it looks like Zynga was set to recoup the money it paid out by 2019, meaning that business is now profitable.

n

The remainder of Peak Games is another story. If Zynga tried to buy the whole business two years ago, it might have been that Peak was reluctant to sell its remaining two titles — its own Candy Crush crushers — Toon Blast and Toy Blast for anything near $100 million. And with good reason, since (as Zynga itself pointed out) they went on to become some of the consistently highest-grossing games in all of the App Store.

n

In the intervening period, Zynga tried to create its own rivals, namely Wonka’s World of Candy, but it’s never been as big of a hit as the others. (Apptopia’s Adam Blacker today told me, after I published this piece, that in fact Wonka’s World has made but a tiny fraction of the revenue of Peak’s titles.)

n

Hence, two years on, Zynga possibly finally found the “right price”u00a0for the whole of Peak Games.

n

u201cWe are honored to welcome Sidar and team to Zynga. Peak is one of the worldu2019s best puzzle game makers and we could not be more excited to add such creative and passionate talent to our company,u201d said Frank Gibeau, Chief Executive Officer of Zynga, in a statement. u201cWith the addition of Toon Blast and Toy Blast, we are expanding our live services portfolio to eight forever franchises, meaningfully increasing our global audience base and adding to our exciting new game pipeline. As a combined team, we are well positioned to grow faster together.u201d

n

u201cThis is a monumental partnership not only for Zynga and Peak, but for the whole mobile gaming industry,u201d said Sidar Sahin, founder and Chief Executive Officer of Peak, in a statement. u201cBoth companies share a common vision — to bring people together through games. Peaku2019s culture is rooted in relentless learning and progress, so as we embark on this new chapter in our journey together with Zynga, we remain as committed as ever to our unique culture. Weu2019re very excited for our combined future and what we will accomplish together.u201d

n

Zynga and games business strategies aside, this is also a huge deal for Turkey’s tech ecosystem.

n

Turkey has been a steady presence straddling both the European and MENA markets (much as Turkey’s wider economy and political presence does), but so far with little impact in terms of exits and activity that extend outside of the region.

n

This acquisition is a testament to the exciting companies and talent that are being developed in the market, and is of course yet another sign of how big tech companies based out of more established centres like the Bay Area will continue to take bigger leaps to tap talent ever further afield, in their ongoing consolidation push and search for both business and audience growth.

n

One impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has been that many are starting to see a much faster decentralisation in the world of technology. People are working remotely, and some are even planning to move away from tech hubs; and deals are getting done not in person but over videoconferencing links. This acquisition also demonstrates how that is also playing out in the world of M&A, too.

n","protected":false},"excerpt":{"rendered":"

Today, some news of a huge acquisition out of Turkey that represents the first billion-dollar-plus exit for a startup out of the country. Social gaming company Zynga confirmed that it is buying Istanbul-based Peak Games, the company behind popular Candy-Crush-style mobile gaming apps Toon Blast and Toy Blast, for $1.8 billion — $900 million in […]

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Ingrid is a writer and editor for TechCrunch, joining February 2012, based out of London.

nn

Before TechCrunch, Ingrid worked at paidContent.org, where she was a staff writer, and has in the past also written freelance regularly for other publications such as the Financial Times. Ingrid covers mobile, digital media, advertising and the spaces where these intersect.

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When it comes to work, she feels most comfortable speaking in English but can also speak Russian, Spanish and French (in descending order of competence).

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Ingrid is a writer and editor for TechCrunch, joining February 2012, based out of London.

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Before TechCrunch, Ingrid worked at paidContent.org, where she was a staff writer, and has in the past also written freelance regularly for other publications such as the Financial Times. Ingrid covers mobile, digital media, advertising and the spaces where these intersect.

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When it comes to work, she feels most comfortable speaking in English but can also speak Russian, Spanish and French (in descending order of competence).

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In business, there’s nothing so valuable as having the right product at the right time. Just ask Zoom, the hot cloud-based video conferencing platform experiencing explosive growth thanks to its sudden relevance in the age of sheltering in place.

n

Having worked at BlackBerry in its heyday in the early 2000s, I see a lot of parallels to what Zoom is going through right now. As Zooming into a video meeting or a classroom is today, so too was pulling out your BlackBerry to fire off an email or check your stocks circa 2002. Like Zoom, the company then known as Research in Motion had the right product for enterprise users that increasingly wanted to do business on the go.

n

Of course, BlackBerry’s story didn’t have a happy ending.

n

From 1999 to 2007, BlackBerry seemed totally unstoppable. But then Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, Google launched Android and all of the chinks in the BlackBerry armor started coming undone, one by one. How can Zoom avoid the same fate?

n

As someone who was at both BlackBerry and Android during their heydays, my biggest takeaway is that product experience trumps everything else. It’s more important than security (an issue Zoom is getting blasted about right now), what CIOs want, your user install base and the larger brand identity.

n

When the iPhone was released, many people within BlackBerry rightly pointed out that we had a technical leg up on Apple in many areas important to business and enterprise users (not to mention the physical keyboard for quickly cranking out emails)… but how much did that advantage matter in the end? If there is serious market pull, the rest eventually gets figured outu2026 a lesson I learned from my time at BlackBerry that I was lucky enough to be able to immediately apply when I joined Google to work on Android.

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As someone who was at both BlackBerry and Android during their heydays, my biggest learning takeaway is that product experience trumps everything else.

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SaaS founders be raising capital now?"},"content":{"rendered":"

COVID-19 quickly put the stock market in the ICU, with signs of unprecedented volatility and declines. However, the market’s resilience and swift action by the Fed made this downward spiral short-lived. The Russell 2000 Index, a benchmark for small-cap stocks, is one of several indices that highlights this.

n

Within a one-month period from late February into March, The Russell 2000 Index was down more than 40%, signaling the end of a long bull market and entrance into bear territory. Yet, two months later, at the end of May, the Index is up over 35% from its low. In the private market, the impact of volatility on healthy, pre-COVID-19 software company valuations is much easier to track. As SaaS founders consider their financing options, the picture might be a bit less glum than they might imagine.

n

Still going strong

n

Changes to private market valuations often lag behind what transpires in the public markets. Also, fundraising cycles for private companies generally take 2-3 months from start to close. Unlike the 2000 dot-com crash and the 2008 Great Recession, where valuations dropped for extended periods of time, private company valuations, for the most part, have not had time to adjust for the volatility seen in the public markets.

","protected":false},"excerpt":{"rendered":"

Here are a few cases and best practices that software founders can use to help push a decision forward now if considering a capital raise in the current environment.

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A seasoned startup veteran, he previously worked as City Editor for Hoodline, a hyperlocal news service.rnrnAn award-winning journalist, Walter also hosts The Golden City, a podcast that presents stories from San Francisco's past, present and future.","link":"https://techcrunch.com/author/walter-thompson/","slug":"walter-thompson","avatar_urls":{"24":"https://secure.gravatar.com/avatar/c48baf5e713b4021e7aa245ebd096727?s=24&d=identicon&r=g","48":"https://secure.gravatar.com/avatar/c48baf5e713b4021e7aa245ebd096727?s=48&d=identicon&r=g","96":"https://secure.gravatar.com/avatar/c48baf5e713b4021e7aa245ebd096727?s=96&d=identicon&r=g"},"links":{"homepage":"https://walterthompson.blog/","facebook":"https://www.facebook.com/walterlthompsoniv","twitter":"https://twitter.com/yourprotagonist","linkedin":"https://linkedin.com/heywalterthompson","crunchbase":"https://www.crunchbase.com/person/walter-thompson"},"position":"Senior Editor","cbDescription":"","cbAvatar":"https://crunchbase-production-res.cloudinary.com/image/upload/rh5glskknww13wae8ts3","twitter":"yourprotagonist","_links":{"self":[{"href":"https://techcrunch.com/wp-json/tc/v1/users/133574325"}],"collection":[{"href":"https://techcrunch.com/wp-json/tc/v1/users"}]}}],"wp:featuredmedia":[{"id":1944534,"date":"2020-02-10T14:16:46","slug":"growing-investments-heap-of-money-with-seedling","type":"attachment","link":"https://techcrunch.com/2020/02/11/meet-5-cybersecurity-unicorns-that-could-ipo-in-2020/growing-investments-heap-of-money-with-seedling/","title":{"rendered":"Growing investments. 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Growing investments. Heap of money with seedling.Some similar pictures from my portfolio:

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richest man built a telecom operator everyone wants a piece of"},"content":{"rendered":"

As investors’ appetites sour in the midst of a pandemic, a three-and-a-half-year-old Indian firm has secured $10.3 billion in a month from Facebook and four U.S.-headquartered private equity firms.

n

The major deals for Reliance Jio Platforms have sparked a sudden interest among analysts, executives and readers at a time when many are skeptical of similar big check sizes that some investors wrote to several young startups, many of which are today struggling to make sense of their finances.

n

Prominent investors across the globe, including in India, have in recent weeks cautioned startups that they should be prepared for the u201cworst timeu201d as new checks become elusive.

n

Elsewhere in India, the worldu2019s second-largest internet market and where all startups together raised a record $14.5 billion last year, firms are witnessing down rounds (where their valuations are slashed). Miten Sampat, an angel investor, said last week that startups should expect a 40%-50% haircut in their valuations if they do get an investment offer.

n

Facebooku2019s $5.7 billion investment valued the company at $57 billion. But U.S. private equity firms Silver Lake, Vista, General Atlantic, and KKR — all the other deals announced in the past five weeks — are paying a 12.5% premium for their stake in Jio Platforms, valuing it at $65 billion.

n

How did an Indian firm become so valuable? What exactly does it do? Is it just as unprofitable as Uber? What does its future look like? Why is it raising so much money? And why is it making so many announcements instead of one.

n

Itu2019s a long story.

n

Run up to the launch of Jio

n

Billionaire Mukesh Ambani gave a rundown of his gigantic Indian empire at a gathering in December 2015 packed with 35,000 people including hundreds of Bollywood celebrities and industry titans.

n

u201cReliance Industries has the second-largest polyester business in the world. We produce one and a half million tons of polyester for fabrics a year, which is enough to give every Indian 5 meters of fabric every year, year-on-year,u201d said Ambani, who is Asia’s richest man.

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As investors’ appetites sour in the midst of a pandemic, a three-and-a-half-year-old Indian firm has secured $10.3 billion in a month from Facebook and four U.S.-headquartered private equity firms. The major deals for Reliance Jio Platforms have sparked a sudden interest among analysts, executives and readers at a time when many are skeptical of similar […]

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VCs share their bets on the future of work"},"content":{"rendered":"

As tech companies like Twitter and Facebook gear up for longer-term remote work solutions, the future of work is becoming one of the more exciting opportunities in venture capital, CRV general partner Saar Gur told TechCrunch.

n

And as loneliness mounts with shelter-in-place orders implemented in various forms across the world, investors are looking for products and services that foster true connection among a distributed workforce, as well as a distributed society.

n

But the future of work doesn’t just entail spinning up home offices. It also involves gig workers, freelancers, hiring tools, tools for workplace organizing and automation. The last couple of years have particularly brought tech organizing to the forefront. Whether it was the Google walkout in 2018 or gig workers’ ongoing actions against companies like Uber, Lyft and Instacart for better pay and protections, there are many opportunities to help workers better organize and achieve their goals.

n

Below, we’ve gathered insights from:

n

n

Saar Gur, CRV

n

What are you most excited about in the future of work?

n

Future of work is one of the most exciting opportunities in venture.u00a0u00a0

n

Pre-COVID, few tech companies were fully remote. While it seems obvious in retrospect, the building blocks for fully remote technology companies now exist (e.g. high-speed internet, SaaS and the cloud, reliable video streaming, real-time documents, etc.). And while SIP may be temporary, we feel the TAM of fully remote companies will grow significantly and produce a number of exciting investment opportunities.

n

I donu2019t think we have fully grokked what it means to run a company digitally. Today, most processes like interviewing, meetings and performance/activity tracking still live in the world of atoms versus bits. As an example, imagine every meeting is recorded, transcribed and searchable — how would that transform how we work?u00a0u00a0u00a0

n

There is an opportunity to re-imagine how we work. And we are excited about products that solve meaningful problems in the areas of productivity, brainstorming, communication tools, workflows and more. We also see a lot of potential in infrastructure required to facilitate remote and global teams.

n

We are also excited by companies that are enabling new types of work. Companies like Etsy (founded 2005), Shopify (2004), TaskTabbit (2008), Uber (2009), DoorDash (2013) and Patreon (2013) have helped create a new workforce of entrepreneurs. But many of these companies are over a decade old and we fully expect a new wave of companies that give more power to the individual.

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As tech companies like Twitter and Facebook gear up for longer-term remote work solutions, the future of work is becoming one of the more exciting opportunities in venture capital, CRV general partner Saar Gur told TechCrunch. And as loneliness mounts with shelter-in-place orders implemented in various forms across the world, investors are looking for products […]

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Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between.

n

Used-car marketplace Vroomu00a0continued its march towards going public yesterday with the release of an updated IPO filing. The documents it filed provides pricing information for a somewhat odd public offering.

n

As a business, the heavily venture-backed Vroom is immature. It generates very little gross profit from its revenue (implying that it is unable to price its services attractively from a business perspective), and while it has managed consistent revenue growth, the company’s top-line gains (+39.3% in 2019) came at the price of rising unprofitability (+67.9% in 2019, on a net basis).

n

Even more, the firm’s numbers are deteriorating in Q2 due to COVID-19 and related disruptions. But, today’s public markets are prepared to move inversely to news, and Vroom, by going public as Q2 crawls in June, may manage to get its IPO done while stocks are back near record highs.

n

Let’s explore the company’s proposed $15 to $17 IPO price range and its implied valuation to see if we can parse what the company (and its investors) might be thinking.

n

Cheap, yet expensive

n

In its S-1/A filing, Vroom reports that it expects to price its IPO at between $15 and $17 per share, a range that may shift higher or lower depending on investor enthusiasm, or lack thereof. Vroom hopes to sell 18.75 million shares in its debut, generating gross proceeds of between $281.25 million and $318.75 million.

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Hello and welcome back to our regular morning look at private companies, public markets and the gray space in between. Used-car marketplace Vroomu00a0continued its march towards going public yesterday with the release of an updated IPO filing. The documents it filed provides pricing information for a somewhat odd public offering. As a business, the heavily […]

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Alex Wilhelm is Senior Editor at TechCrunch. He previously worked for Crunchbase News as Editor in Chief as well as The Next Web, TechCrunch, and Mattermark.

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TVSmiles, a Berlin-based mobile native advertising app whose users earn digital currency in exchange for engaging with branded content such as quizzes, apps and videos, has suffered a data breach.

n

Security researcher UpGuard disclosed in a report today that it found an unsecured Amazon S3 bucket online last month — containing personal and device data tied to millions of the app’s users. According to TVSmiles’ marketing material the quiz app has up to three million users.

n

The storage bucket UpGuard found exposed to the Internet contained a 306 GB PostgreSQL database backup with “unencrypted personally identifiable information matched to individual users, profiling insights about usersu2019 interests based on quiz responses, associations to smart devices, and accounts and login details for TVSmilesu2019 business relationships”, according to its report.

n

UpGuard writes that 261 database tables were present in the exposed repository — including a “core_users” table consisting of more than 6.6 million rows. Of the entries that had an email address tied to them UpGuard says it found 901,000 unique emails.

n

The exposed backup file appears to date back to August 2017.

n

Screengrab: UpGuard

n

After UpGuard reported the breach to TVSmiles, in an email sent May 13, the Berlin -based company responded on May 15, writing in an email that the repository “has been immediately secured” (UpGuard says it independently confirmed this).

n

TVSmiles co-founder, Gaylord Zach, added in this email to UpGuard that it would “further investigate the contents of the exposed data to take further actions”.

n

Reached for comment on the incident today, Zach confirmed UpGuard’s report and also confirmed that the exposed repository had been accidentally left unsecured for years.

n

He said internal analysis of available logs has found no unauthorized access besides UpGuard’s access of the data, adding that TVSmiles has yet to notify users of the incident — but is planning a communication to users within its mobile app and a blog post on its website.u00a0u00a0

n

“Our analysis has revealed that the data consists of a database backup that was created in 2017 and mistakenly stored in a cloud storage repository provided within the cloud hosting environment,” Zach told us. “Allegedly this backup was created as a safety measure ahead of performed maintenance work. Further investigation revealed three independent but severe policy breaches: 1.) The backup was stored in plain format where all backups should have been encrypted; 2.) The affected repository was provisioned as a code repository and never intended to store data; 3.) The affected repository was intended for private use within the organization and never intended to be publicly available.

n

“The very unfortunate combination of these three factors resulted in the long period that this data remained stored without discovery.”

n

TVSmiles reported the breach to the German Data protection authorities — filing its report on May 17, per Zach.

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Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) requires data controllers to report all breaches of personal data that pose a risk to people’s rights and freedoms to a supervisory authority within at least 72 hours of discovery.

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“We are very thankful to UpGuard unveiling this exposure before it has led to material data breaches and harm to our users. We are very much embarrassed by this unnecessary exposure of user data. It is a strong reminder to every developer to do regular security checks and house keeping in order to avoid these incidents,” he added.

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Screengrab: UpGuard

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Clicks for data

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TVSmiles’ business participates in a data-fuelled digital ad ecosystem that operates by linking user IDs to devices, digital activity and tracked interests, building individual profiles for the purpose of targeting screen users with advertising.

n

Hence the interactive content that the TVSmiles quiz app encourages users to engage with — rewarding activity with a proprietary digital currency (called ‘Smiles’) that can be exchanged for discount vouchers on products in its shop or directly for cash — functions both as direct marketing material to drive deeper engage around branded content; and a data harvesting tool in its own right, enabling the business to gather deeper insights on users’ interests which can in turn be monetized via user profiling and ad targeting.

n

Such insights enable TVSmiles to plug into a wider digital advertising ecosystem in which mobile users are profiled and tracked at scale across multiple apps, services and devices in order that targeted ads can follow eyeballs as they go — all powered by the background profiling of people’s digital activity and inferred interests.

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According to Crunchbase the quiz app has raised a total of $12.6M in funding since being founded around seven years ago when it was pitching itself as a second screen app for TV viewers. It went on to launch its own ad platform, called Kwizzard, which packages ads into “a native, gamified ad format” — with the aim of luring app users to engage with quiz-based ad campaigns.

n

Given the nature of TVSmiles’ business — and a wider problematic lack of transparency around how the adtech industry functionsu00a0— this data breach is a fascinating and unnerving glimpse of the breadth and depth of data harvesting that routinely goes on in the background of ad-supported digital services.

n

Even an app with a relatively small user base (single digit millions) can be sitting atop a massive repository of tracking data.

n

The online ad industry also continues to face major questions over the legal basis it claims for processing large volumes of personal data under the European Union’s data protection regime.

n

 

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A master database plus access tokens

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In terms of the types of data exposed in this breach, UpGuard said the 306 GB PostgreSQL database backup contained “centralized information” about users of the app, alongside what it describes as “large amounts of internal system and partnership information necessary for any business participating in the modern online advertising ecosystem”.

n

TVSmiles’ LinkedIn page reports the app having in excess of 2M users in Germany and the U.K. — per Google’s Play store the TVSmiles app has had in excess of 1M downloads to date, and while Apple’s iOS does not break out a ballpark figure for app downloads a video on the Play Store app page makes reference to 3M users — so it’s possible the 6.6M figure relates to total downloads over the app’s lifetime since launch back in September 2013.

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Zach told us that the discrepancy between the user figures is a result of TVSmiles being a much smaller business now than it was in mid 2017 — when it was spending a lot on marketing and had more active users, including as a result of operating in the UK market (which it left in 2018).

n

“In general we are now a much smaller organisation compared to 2017,” he added.

n

Other tables in the repository were found by UpGuard to contain considerably more entries — such as a u201ctracking_tokenu201d table, with more than 235 million entry rows.

n

“A table in this database called “user_core” contained six million rows, with many users having their “country” field marked for other territories throughout Europe, making this data consistent with being a master database for TVSmiles at the time,” it writes in the report. “The user_core table contained fields for email address, fb_user, fb_access_token, first and last name, gender, date of birth, address, phone number, password, and others.”

n

UpGuard told us that the user_core table had password hashes filled in for 626,000 of the rows. It said these passwords appear to have been hashed using a type of hashing algorithm that’s known to be vulnerable to brute forcing — the sha256 algorithm — and therefore offers little protection against malicious attackers.

n

It added that it was able to locate three out of three random hashed passwords it checked in publicly available indexes which are easily searchable online — meaning these password hashes had already been reversed (which in turn suggests they may have been used elsewhere before; or else are commonly guessable).

n

It also found Facebook user IDs (“fb_user”) and access tokens (“fb_access_token”) stored in the repository for some of the listed TVSmiles users — presumably for those who used a Facebook account to login to the app.

n

“Not all data points were present for all users u2013 for example, the Facebook specific fields would likely only be present for users who had connected with their Facebook identity, and users who had authenticated via Facebook would not inherently need to create a password for the app due to the functionality of that authentication method,” UpGuard suggests.

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The exposed repository contained more than 312,000 access tokens tied to Facebook IDs, according to its analysis.

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Screengrab: UpGuard

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It also found a large collection of personal data stored in a table related to end user devices — which it said were linked to tracking tokens, ad IDs and user rewards.

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“A table called “device_core” contains 7.5 million rows tied to physical devices,” UpGuard writes. “These devices have unique device ids, access tokens, and mappings to the user ids of their owners. Those device ids, in turn, are then relevant to a “tracking_token” table consisting of 235 million entry rows.

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“The rows in the tracking_token table include fields such as campaign_id, placement_id, user_payout, and challenge_id, building up a picture of the TVSmiles activity u2013 like which ads and activities users responded to u2013 on each device u2013 which can then be linked back to the user.”

n

Other personal data found in the repository includes precise location data — “users’ latitude and longitude” — with a related admin view configured for a database named u201cfull device infou201d, which UpGuard says highlights “the “tracker_name,” a token value, and the nearest weather station”.

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It also found a collection of “insights” related to TVSmiles users — listed in the form of “intents, interests, and other psychographic qualities”.

n

“These subjects ranged from consumer goods (e.g. books, video games, furniture, and clothing) to the useru2019s education and more esoteric interests,” the report notes.

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Redacted screengrab: UpGuard

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As well as storing (unencrypted) personal data attached to millions of users of the TVSmiles app, and hashed passwords for more than half a million of these entries, the exposed repository was found to contain information related to a number of the company’s own business clients — also tied to access tokens.

n

“It is reasonable to interpret these names as business clients, who have paid to publish ads on TVSmiles or have access to insights gleaned from end-user app interaction,” UpGuard writes of the “business_clients” table.

n

“These business usersu2019 hashed passwords, phone numbers, email addresses, names, and other data points were also present. Conversely, TVSmilesu2019 own credentials for interacting with vendors necessary to provide the TVSmiles platform, like ad exchanges, fraud detection platforms, and email communication scheduling, were also present.”

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UpGuard suggests that a hacker who stumbled across the unsecured bucket may have been able to use the tokens to gain access to a number of additional services where they could potentially obtain further user data — such as by exporting contact data; accessing or sending mail via a third party service; or reading historic service information and performance metrics.

n

“If this database had been located by malicious entities, prior to UpGuard discovering it and sending appropriate notification, the possibility exists that such credentials could have allowed an attacker to impersonate TVSmiles and collect additional information about arbitrary targets from those other platforms and service providers,” it adds.

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Zach confirmed the data contained “legacy access tokens” — but said they stem from a deprecated login methodology that had since been replaced with a OAuth based sign on service.

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The data originates from August 2017. Any contained access tokens would therefore have expired by now,” he told us, saying TVSmiles has not yet notified any business partners on account of seeing “no major risk based on the nature and age of the exposed tokens”.

n

“We would however not hesitate to contact and take action if we have underestimated or overseen risks,” he added.u00a0

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Questions of consent

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After reviewing UpGuard’s report, Wolfie Christl, an EU-based privacy researcher who focuses on adtech and data-driven surveillance, called for EU data protection agencies to launch an immediate investigation.

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“This is a massive data breach. But it is about more than that. It provides a glimpse into an opaque industry consisting of thousands of companies that secretly harvest extensive personal information on millions of people for business purposes,” he told TechCrunch.

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“According to the leaked database, the company has digital profiles on 6M people and 7.5M devices. It seems that they linked names, email addresses and phone numbers to device identifiers, social media accounts, and to all kinds of behavioral data.

n

“Data protection authorities in Germany — and perhaps in other European countries — must immediately start an investigation. In addition to the data breach, they must examine whether the company, and its affiliates and partners, processed this extensive amount of personal data in a lawful way. Did they have a legal basis to process it?”

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Screengrab: UpGuard

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“The wider issue is that, two years after the GDPR came into full force, it has still not been enforced in major areas,” Christl added. “We still see large-scale misuse of personal information all over the digital world, from platforms to digital marketing to mobile apps. EU authorities should have acted years ago, they must do so now.”

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In its privacy policy, TVSmiles states that it only uses app users’ personal data “to the extent that this is legally permissible or you have given your consent… for the purposes of advertising, market research or the needs-based design of our offer” [text translated using Google Translate].

n

“We are obtaining user consent to the use of data and have created a dedicated section within our app to obtain consent like location data, advertising identifier, sharing of personal data with advertising partners,” Zach told us on this, adding that consent information is provided to “various advertising and tracking partners” — assuming users agree to be tracked via responses to its consent flows (shown below).

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Screenshots: TVSmiles

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References to a number of third party adtech companies can be found in TVSmiles’ repository, per UpGuard, suggesting it was making use of their services for data structuring, enrichment and monetization purposes — including Adex, a data management platform and marketplace whose website touts the “easy selling and purchase of data”; Adjust, a mobile measurement and fraud-prevention firm geared towards mobile marketing; mobile app monetization company, Fyber; and product user behavior analytics platform, Mixpanel.

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Another interesting component in this story is how TVSmiles’ business straddles the TV and online advertising realms. Its business began, more than half a decade ago, with a firm focus on the notion of being a ‘second screen’ app for TV viewers — including by using audio technology to automatically identify TV ads in order to serve related in-app content. This means it’s forged links with traditional media giants.

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Back in 2014, for instance, it inked a marketing partnership for its app in Austria with European media giant ProSiebenSat.1’s marketing subsidiary, SevenOne Media. At the time ProSiebenSat.1 PULS 4’s MD, Michael Stix, billed the move as astrategic step” to integrate brand communication on the second screen, lauding the tie-up as a way to offer advertising customers “additional novel touchpoints” for their target group.

n

But the rise of smart TVs and digital sign-ins has paved the way for deeper linking of Internet activity and TV viewing. Especially as traditional mass media giants have been looking for ways to diversify their media businesses, with more competition for viewers’ eyeballs than ever before.

n

Behind all these screens a complex mass of adtech pipes is exchanging data linked to individual users — trading IDs and insights to join dots and serve targeted ads. So connected “touchpoints” are now very much integral, not secondary, these days.

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UpGuard found labels (see below screengrab) in the exposed TVSmiles repository that refer to “seven_pass”: Aka a single sign-on solution for all ProSieben.Sat1’s digital services, called 7Pass.

n

An FAQ on TVSmiles’ website confirms TVSmiles users are able to use the 7Pass service to log in to the app.

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Screengrab: UpGuard

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In its privacy policy, TVSmiles states that “pseudonymized” data of users of the 7Pass login is sent to ProSiebenSat.1 Digital & its affiliates and to other affiliated companies of ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE — including quiz response data.

n

“In addition, survey data collected and provided by you via survey cards in the app are also transmitted pseudonymised to ProSiebenSat.1 Digital & Adjacent GmbH and other affiliated companies of ProSiebenSat.1 Media SE in order to enable you to use special quiz cards in the app, bring in more smilies and be able to offer special promotions in cooperation with ProSiebenSat.1,” it adds.

n

Of course, much like weak password hashes, “pseudonymised” personal data can be trivially easy to re-identify — such as by unifying tracking IDs.

n

Asked about the 7Pass service, Zach said TVSmiles had replaced its legacy user management with ProSiebenSat.1’s digital sign-on service — claiming the main objective was “to leverage a trustworthy well maintained sign-on service by a larger partner and remove the need of self managed credentials and access tokens”.u00a0

n

“Given the sensitivity of user data and access credentials it seems like a wise choice in light of this case,” he added.u00a0

n

In a more recent business development, TVSmiles sold its development division and adtech to a company called PubNative in December 2019. PubNative is a mobile SSP and programmatic ad exchange owned by a German holding company called MGI Media that’s made a large number of media and adtech acquisitions in recent years (as well as being majority owner of free-to-play gamesmaker, Gamigo).

n

At the time of this “acqui-hire” TVSmiles and PubNative suggested an ongoing business partnership. “As we recently branched into Connected TV, PubNativeu2019s advanced tech stack supports our continued growth and allows us to expand our business internationally. Advancements on demand-side business development will be introduced gradually across the entire product line,” said Zach in a press statement at the end of last year.

n

Asked about the nature of the business relationship between TVSmiles and PubNative, Zach confirmed it sold “certain people and technology” to PubNative but retained its mobile apps and user base, adding: “No user data has been shared with PubNative and they have no involvement in this case.”

n

However he confirmed TVSmilesu00a0uses advertising technology provided by PubNative.u00a0

n

“This technology (SDK) is built into the TVSmiles app. Data sharing is limited to those authorized by user consent for advertising use,” he added.

n

A static analysis by Exodus suggests the TVSmiles app contains more than 40 trackers — including PubNative’s. This plus the fact the TVSmiles repository was found by UpGuard to be storing precise user location data is interesting in light of a separate report, published in January, by Norway’s Consumer Council (NCC) — which delved into how the adtech industry non-transparently exploits app users’ data.

n

The NCC report identified PubNative as one of the entities receiving GPS data from a number of apps it tested (NB: it did not test the TVSmiles app). The Council found a majority of apps that it did test transmitted data to entities it characterized as u201cunexpected third partiesu201d u2014 meaning users were not being clearly informed about who was getting their information and what was being done with it, in its view.

n

Other SDKs contained in the TVSmiles app, per Exodus and a list of software suppliers in TVSmiles’ privacy policy, include Facebook Ads, Analytics and Places; Google Ads, Analytics, DoubleClick & more; and Twitter MoPub. Also present: A longer list of smaller adtech and mobile marketing/monetization players, from AdBuddiz to Vungle.

n

Looking through the Exodus report most of these trackers stem from advertising technology that is being used within TVSmiles app,” Zach also told us.u00a0

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Berlin, Germany – February 12: Symbolic photo on the subject of data security on the smartphone. Hands are typing on a smartphone on February 12, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Thomas Trutschel/Photothek via Getty Images)

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