One of Waymo’s Autonomous Taxis Got Stumped by Traffic Cones and Fled Its Fleshy Overlords

Illustration for article titled One of Waymo's Autonomous Taxis Got Stumped by Traffic Cones and Fled Its Fleshy Overlords

Photo: Glenn Chapman (Getty Images)

The taxi hurt itself in confusion!

A comedy of errors unfolded after one of Waymo’s self-driving vans became confused by a construction zone, stalled in front of oncoming traffic while figuring out its next move, and then fled from Waymo’s Roadside Assistance team. And a Youtuber captured all of it on video.

Advertisement

Joel Johnson with JJRicks Studios has been chronicling his rides in Waymo’s autonomous taxis in Chandler, Arizona, on YouTube for the past two years, Autoblog reports. But in his latest video posted this week, his trip takes a bizarre turn—literally.

About 12 minutes into the video, the car attempts to turn right onto a multilane road, but stalls after it sees the rightmost lane is closed for construction and blocked off by traffic cones. While the car’s internal AI system, aka Waymo Driver, ponders what to do next, a Waymo representative contacts Johnson and informs him that Roadside Assistance is en route to his location. While they’re still on their way, the car peels out to complete the turn but promptly comes to a stop between lanes. A moment later, it backs up a few feet only to stop again, blocking the entire lane of traffic this time.

Right around this point in the video, a construction worker arrives and starts collecting the offending traffic cones that left Waymo Driver stumped. A Roadside Assistance rep pulls up behind the car not long after, but before they can enter the vehicle, it drives away.

After briefly fleeing its fleshy overlords, Waymo Driver comes to a stop again, this time long enough for Roadside Assistance to get in and take the wheel. The human driver completed the ride and Waymo waived the fee, Johnson said.

Waymo, owned by Google parent company Alphabet, claims its workers can provide Waymo Driver with suggestions about how to navigate confusing situations but can’t control the vehicle remotely, Engadget reports. In a statement to Johnson explaining what went wrong, the company said Waymo Driver detected an “unusual situation” (aka the construction zone) and only got more confused after contacting a remote specialist for help:

“While driving fully autonomously through an extended work zone, the Waymo Driver detected an unusual situation and requested the attention of a remote Fleet Response specialist to provide additional information. During that interaction, the Fleet Response team provided incorrect guidance, which made it challenging for the Waymo Driver to resume its intended route, and required Waymo’s Roadside Assistance team to complete the trip.”

Advertisement

While Waymo acknowledged that “the situation was not ideal,” it said it remained in touch with Johnson the entire time and Waymo Driver “operated the vehicle safely” until help could arrive.

“Our team has already assessed the event and improved our operational process,” Waymo said.

Advertisement

This just goes to show that there’s still plenty of work to do before we can realize our sci-fi future where everyone zips around in driverless cars. But, hey, at least he got a free ride out of the ordeal.

Here’s What to Expect From Google I/O

Illustration for article titled Here's What to Expect From Google I/O

Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

Google canceled last year’s annual Google I/O developers conference due to the pandemic, but this year, it’s back—virtually.

Advertisement

The event kicks off Tuesday, May 18 at 1 p.m. ET/10 a.m. PT with a keynote speech from Google CEO Sundar Pichai. And while we don’t know exactly what Google has in store this year, we’re hoping to hear more about Android 12, Google Assistant, and Google’s vision for the smart home.

Android 12’s New Look

Android 12's new colorization features are pretty to look at, even in theory.

Android 12’s new colorization features are pretty to look at, even in theory.
Screenshot: XDA Developers

It’s been a while since we’ve had a major shakeup of Android’s UI, but three developer previews and a plethora of leaks suggest that Android 12 is getting a big overhaul. Leaked screenshots show a new colorized interface, matching widgets, and menu schematics based on the dominant coloring of your chosen wallpaper. There’s also a reprised Quick Settings panel, with larger buttons and more contextual information. Even the Assistant shows off a little color once summoned.

XDA Developers has been uncovering some of the more significant interface changes we might see finalized in Android 12. Expect the always-on display and lock screen to be a part of the revamp, along with other subtle UI effects like screen transitions and typography.

Other improvements in Android 12 will likely center around audio and video playback and under-the-hood privacy and security changes. Reports point to specific features, like Android automatically shelving unused apps and offering better support for scrolling screenshots, as well as updated notification permissions.

There’s also a rumored gaming dashboard coming, though it’s not clear if it’d be exclusive to Pixel devices. The gaming mode would effectively add proper controls and helpful information like a frames-per-second counter. It could be akin to the gaming launcher that OnePlus bundles with its smartphones, which blocks out notifications and other interruptions so you can focus on the game.

Advertisement

Finally, Some Traction for Wear OS

Wear OS takes a lot of (well-deserved) heat for falling behind other smartwatch platforms, but we may finally see some updates. There are two sessions on the I/O schedule to go over what’s new and how to develop Tiles for Wear OS. Google’s even sending out surveys, asking for guidance on what to do next.

Advertisement

And just when you thought that the Pixel Watch rumor was dead in the water, it resurfaces with a vengeance. YouTuber Jon Prosser recently showed off a convincing render of a circular watch that looks exactly like what we’ve all envisioned a Pixel Watch would look like.

This is also the first big event since Google’s acquisition of Fitbit was a done deal. We likely won’t see anything new on the Fitbit front (after all, they just announced the Fitbit Luxe last month), but maybe we’ll see closer integration between your Fitbit and Google accounts.

Advertisement

The last bit of Wear OS rumbling is from Korean news outlet MT, which points to a supposed Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 running Wear OS instead of Samsung’s Tizen OS. Speaking as a person wearing a Samsung Galaxy Watch Active because there was no comfortable Wear OS equivalent, having this come true could be all Wear OS needs to emerge from its current rut.

Don’t Bet on the Pixel 6

With the event being virtual and the lack of live audience to “ooh” and “ahh” over the announcements, it’s unlikely Google will show even an outlined render of the Pixel 6 during the developer keynote—though it’s teased smartphones this way at past developer conferences. There’s still so much we need to learn about Whitechapel, Google’s turn at making a mobile processor. And it would be such a major play against Apple’s silicon parade that it would warrant a separate event along with the official launch of a new flagship device.

Advertisement

Pixel-Perfect Buds

Illustration for article titled Here's What to Expect From Google I/O

Screenshot: Twitter / Google

Advertisement

It’s no guarantee that they’ll be introduced during the Google I/O keynote, but the Pixel Buds A were already inadvertently leaked on Twitter. They’re a cheaper alternative to the regular Pixel Buds, which cost $180. According to the leak, they promise to deliver quality sound and one-tap pairing with Google Fast Pair.

Don’t count too hard on Google revealing the budget-inclined Pixel 5a, either. With the global chip shortage and delays in nearly every nook and cranny of tech manufacturing, there’s only a slim chance the Pixel 5a is ready to launch this soon. At least we know it’s coming, as Google refuted reports it’d canceled the model, confirming instead it would be available later this year in the U.S. and Japan.

Advertisement

The Google Assistant in Your House

Second-gen Nest Hubs are already available with new Assistant features. But maybe we’ll hear of a few more at the keynote.

Second-gen Nest Hubs are already available with new Assistant features. But maybe we’ll hear of a few more at the keynote.
Photo: Andrew Liszewski / Gizmodo

Advertisement

Google’s vision for the smart home will undoubtedly see some air time during the opening keynote. There’s even a session devoted to what’s new in Google Assistant the following day. According to the description, we can expect to hear a state of the union of sorts for the Assistant, plus new product announcements, feature updates, and tooling changes. We might even potentially hear about BERT and how Google uses it to make the Assistant understand us when we’re mouthing off gibberish, though that’s the kind of tech demo that plays during the opening keynote.

There’s a session later on that same day about what’s new in the smart home, with a mention of new product announcements and a showcase of Assistant experiences built by the developer community. Anything new introduced during these two sessions will likely be software updates or abilities made available to the Assistant since there’s already a new batch of Nest Hub smart speakers and displays.

Advertisement

There is also some expectation that Google will announce new products for its home security system, including better security cameras and a second-gen security system. Last year, Google discontinued the Nest Secure DIY security kit, then revealed to 9to5Google that it was planning a “new lineup for security cameras for 2021.” It’s also plausible it will partner up with security veterans ADT, considering the company’s CEO told CNBC it would be rolling out “Google products in the third quarter of 2021.”

Android in Your TV

The Chromecast with Google TV will certainly get a mention, but we’re not expecting too much new stuff about Google’s TV platform.

The Chromecast with Google TV will certainly get a mention, but we’re not expecting too much new stuff about Google’s TV platform.
Photo: Sam Rutherford/Gizmodo

Advertisement

The Chromecast with Google TV came storming in last holiday season to set the standard for Google TV devices going forward. There are no specific Google TV sessions on the calendar. However, there is already a developer preview available for Android 12 for TVs, and Google I/O is precisely the venue to walk developers through that sort of thing. Any major Google TV news will likely be more subtle through code reveals and other features announced for Android 12.

Chromebooks in All Forms

There’s no way we can forget Chromebooks, especially not after the platform’s phenomenal growth through the pandemic. Google offers a session on what’s new in Chrome OS the day after the keynote. The session will cover updates to Chrome OS’s Linux environment and new APIs. Hopefully, we’ll also learn how many people have adopted Android apps on Chromebook laptops since they debuted nearly three years ago.

Advertisement

Whatever Google plans to reveal, join us for our coverage of the virtual I/O 2021 developers conference beginning May 18 at 10 am PT/1 pm ET.

Google Docs Update May ‘Unilaterally Kill’ Some Chrome Extensions, Researcher Warns

Illustration for article titled Google Docs Update May 'Unilaterally Kill' Some Chrome Extensions, Researcher Warns

Photo: Robyn Beck (Getty Images)

For a company that’s staring down three separate antitrust cases from several dozen states and the Department of Justice, Google sure seems pretty comfortable issuing update after update that is nothing less than despotic. The latest example comes courtesy of a Google Docs tweak that on one hand makes the program speedier and smoother, but comes at the cost of an accessible, open internet.

Advertisement

Midas Nouwens, a Denmark-based professor who specializes in finding flaws in data protection laws like Europe’s GDPR, first flagged the Docs update in a Twitter thread Thursday morning. As he pointed out, the actual update looks, well, pretty boring: Over the next few months, Google said it plans to swap out the static HTML backbone currently supporting its Docs product for one that’s built using a code called canvas.

Google says the move is meant to “improve consistency in how content appears across different platforms,” and by all accounts, it should. Compared to its clunky static HTML counterpart, canvas-based Google Docs will be able to render complicated shapes and squiggles with more speed and precision. The update should also make these renders more consistent, meaning those squiggles will look the same for any person on any device.

Of course, these buffs come with a pretty big catch that Google—to its credit—actually alludes to in its blog post. “We don’t expect this change to impact the functionality of the features in Docs,” the company wrote. “However, this may impact some Chrome extensions, where they may no longer work as intended.”

Google’s blog didn’t clarify exactly what “impact” or “some” or “work” mean in this context, but Nouwens’s thread did.

If you’ve ever used an extension like Grammarly or Beeline Reader, then you know how smoothly a Google Chrome extension can interact with a given Doc. The way these programs function is by manipulating what’s known as a Document Object Model, or DOM, which essentially forms a structured skeleton of a given webpage. By tweaking different parts of that skeleton, these extensions are able to change what you’re seeing in your document, all in real-time.

And as Nouwens pointed out, the DOM not only easy for extensions to access, but really anyone. It literally takes two or three clicks. The fact that these bones are such a breeze to access doesn’t only mean that developers can easily whip up countless extensions to poke at them, but it also gives non-coders the freedom to devise elaborate pranks, bypass paywalls, and do… whatever this is.

Advertisement

Swapping out this system for a canvas version means leaving these Doc-tweaking extensions without the roadmap they’ve been relying on to actually do that Doc-tweaking. This could have dire consequences for Chrome extensions because, unlike the DOM, canvas makes the code tweaks inaccessible. “It will unilaterally kill many extensions people use today,” Nouwens wrote.

Advertisement

As a replacement, Google’s blog suggested that affected developers download a series of Google-owned tools that accomplish (most) of the same functions. In other words, Google’s offering developers a sleeker, faster system, but at the price of the little control they have left. (We’ve reached out to Google for comment and will update when we hear back.)

“In the context of the larger power struggle around who gets to determine our everyday digital experiences — hashtag interoperability, digital competition, platform power — this is a concrete example of technical enclosure,” Nouwens wrote. Rather than an open system, he went on, “you now have to use a Google maintained one to negotiate the design of the software. Interoperability and inspectability replaced with centralisation and obfuscation.” In other words, Google just being Google.

Advertisement

Google Assistant Is Getting a New Family Broadcast Feature Just in Time for Mother’s Day

Illustration for article titled Google Assistant Is Getting a New Family Broadcast Feature Just in Time for Mother's Day

Photo: Andrew Liszewski

Mother’s Day is coming up this weekend, so to help make it just a bit easier to organize the family for a celebration, Google is giving the Google Assistant a handful of new features including Family Broadcast.

Advertisement

While users can already use the Google Assistant’s standard Broadcast feature to send voice clips to other Google smart speakers or devices in your home, with the new Family Broadcast feature, you can now create a Google Family Group and send broadcasts to everyone at the same time, regardless of whether they’re at home or somewhere else.

Gif: Google

Google says that with the Family Broadcast update, voice clips can now be sent to both Google Assistant smart speakers and mobile devices (both Android and iOS via the Google Assistant app), with mobile devices also getting a handy button to reply to broadcasts after they arrive on the recipient’s device. While this is largely an extension of the existing Google Assistant Broadcast feature, it could still come in handy for quickly rounding up family members before a big dinner.

In addition to Family Broadcast, Google is also sprucing up the Assistant’s Family Bell feature with the ability to turn off reminder sounds simply by saying “stop,” without needing to say “Hey, Google” or “Ok, Google” first—just like you can with timers and alarms. And over the “coming weeks,” Google says it will expand support for Family Bell to eight additional languages including French, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, German, Hindi, and Korean. And similar to Family Broadcast, Family Bell is also getting the ability to ping multiple smart devices at the same time.

Meanwhile, the Google Assistant is also getting support for some new games and stories that can be played on both smart displays and Android devices, including some bedtime stories from the Harry Potter universe (“Hey Google, tell me a Quidditch story.”), and the “Who Was?” series, which is made up of illustrated profiles and biographies covering a range of people from David Bowie to RuPaul.

Alternatively, if you’re looking for some more interactive experience, Google’s smart displays are also getting some new games like Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?

Illustration for article titled Google Assistant Is Getting a New Family Broadcast Feature Just in Time for Mother's Day

Image: Google

Advertisement

Finally, after the success of its handwashing song, Google is adding a few more kid-friendly songs for other tasks and chores including a clean up song, a sleep song, and even a teeth brushing song. And if that’s not enough, Google says there are also a few hidden Google Assistant easter eggs for Mother’s Day, one of which is tied to the Assistant’s normal timer feature. (That said, it seems the easter egg hasn’t been activated just yet, so you might want to wait until Sunday to test it out.)

The Google Assistant’s Family Broadcast feature should arrive on devices in time for Mother’s Day this weekend, with the other additions arriving sometimes in the coming weeks.

Advertisement

Google Is Bringing a Google TV-Like Experience to Android Tablets

The new Entertainment Space is here, and it’s got space for everything.

The new Entertainment Space is here, and it’s got space for everything.
Image: Google

Google is revamping its Android tablet interface with what it calls Entertainment Space, which offers quick access to movies, shows, games, and books in the Play Store. Entertainment Space will be available for Walmart’s Onn tablets later this month, with launches slated for existing and new tablets from Lenovo, Sharp, and other manufacturers.

Advertisement

Google said the new interface is “designed to help you save time and avoid having to hop between apps through easy-to-use Watch, Games, and Read tabs that provide a tailored content experience.”

Entertainment Space works as a launchpad of sorts and builds upon the idea of a home screen. There’s a Watch tab, which lets you switch between streaming services, find content to watch on Google TV, and view recommended YouTube videos. Below that, there’s the Continue Watching row, which you might recognize if you’re currently running the new Chromecast with Google TV. It’ll populate with any content that’s in progress so you can pick up right where you left off. The Games tab works similarly, with pins for the most played titles at the top for easy access. And the Read tab integrates directly with Google Play Books for ebooks and audiobooks.

According to Google, Android tablet usage has jumped by 30%, which is curious considering this latest news bit appears to prioritize the mid-range and low-end Android tablets that have long permeated the market. The Walmart Onn tablets are priced between $40 and $150, with specs as entry-level as 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. These tablets compete at the same price point as Amazon’s popular array of entry-level Kindle tablets, typically priced from $50 to $200 for the Fire HD 10 Kids tablet.

Worldwide tablet market share still favors the Apple iPad and Samsung’s tablets. However, there has been slight growth among Lenovo, Amazon, and other manufacturers offering mid-range and low-end tablets.

The Android tablet as a concept is still struggling to find its footing. With Entertainment Space, Google might have some luck creating a one-stop content shop for those buying inexpensive Android tablets. At least in the U.S., it’s a chance to introduce that part of the market to Google’s offerings, including movies and TV shows available to buy and rent at comparable prices to Apple and Amazon.

Advertisement

Google May Have Inadvertently Just Spilled the Beans About the Pixel Buds A on Twitter

This image was posted alongside a tweet announcing the new Pixel Buds A-series.

This image was posted alongside a tweet announcing the new Pixel Buds A-series.
Image: Google

Google I/O 2021 is just a couple of weeks away, but in the run-up to its annual developer conference, Google may have just accidentally confirmed the existence of the Pixel Buds A on Twitter.

Advertisement

In a tweet from the official Android Twitter account that has since been deleted, Google showed off a new version of its wireless Pixel Buds headphones, while mentioning features such as “quality sound,” one-tap Bluetooth pairing, and an updated Fast Pair experience.

Here's a screenshot take of the tweet posted by the official Android Twitter account, which has since been deleted.

Here’s a screenshot take of the tweet posted by the official Android Twitter account, which has since been deleted.
Screenshot: Gizmodo

While Google may have jumped the gun on the Pixel Buds A’s announcement, this isn’t the first time we’ve heard that Google has been working on an update to last year’s Pixel Buds, which came out in the spring of 2020.

Earlier this spring, 9to5Google posted a report from a source who claimed that Google was prepping to release the Pixel Buds A as an updated and less expensive take on the standard Pixel Buds that would feature the same general design in a handful of new colors, including the all-white color paint job seen in a screenshot of the tweet above.

Many people expected that Google would officially announce the new Pixel Buds A at Google I/O 2021, and while Google has since deleted the tweet, the timing of what seems to be an accidental tweet seems to suggest that may have indeed been Google’s original plan. Unfortunately, the deleted tweet did not mention anything about price or availability, so we may need to sit tight as we wait for more official details from Google.

During Google’s most recent quarterly earnings call last week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai noted that Google will have some “significant product updates and announcements” coming soon, which along with the Pixel Buds A could include the Pixel 5a, some new security cameras from Nest, and more.

Advertisement

We’ve reached out to Google for an official statement regarding its earlier tweet about the Pixel Buds A, and we will update the story if we hear back, In the meantime stayed tuned for more news from Google as we get closer to the official start of Google I/O 2021 on May 18.

Australia Says Apple and Google’s Default Phone Apps Stifle Competition

In this photo made on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, shows iPhones on display at an Apple store at a shopping mall in Pittsburgh.

In this photo made on Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021, shows iPhones on display at an Apple store at a shopping mall in Pittsburgh.
Photo: Keith Srakocic (AP)

Google and Apple should give consumers more control over which apps they have on their phones right out of the box, according to a new interim report from Australia’s top consumer watchdog. The report is Australia’s latest attempt to pick a fight with Big Tech, and if the past is any guide, Google and Apple will likely hit back hard.

Advertisement

“Apple and Google’s stores are the gateways between consumers and app developers, and it’s true that they provide considerable benefits to both groups. But there are significant issues with how this market is operating,” the head of Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, said in a statement Wednesday.

“Apple and Google don’t only run the app marketplaces, they also compete within them with their own apps,” Sims continued. “They have the ability and incentive to promote their own apps over others, and they control the terms that their competitors must comply with to gain access to their stores.”

“To address this market power, we believe app developers should have more information about how their apps are made discoverable to consumers and that consumers should have the ability to change or remove any pre-installed or default apps. Apple and Google should also be prevented from using information collected about third-party apps to advantage their own competing apps,” said Sims.

Australia antagonized Google earlier this year over news content and the tech giant threatened to pull its search product out of the country entirely. The Australian government squared up for a similar battle with Facebook, which saw the company stop users from sharing news entirely for almost a week. Both disputes were mediated and the companies currently operate like normal down under.

But this latest report will likely anger the tech companies and we’ll just have to wait and see how they’ll respond to this latest regulatory salvo from Australia.

“We have identified a number of areas where action is required and have put forward potential measures to address areas of particular concern. There is a window of opportunity for Apple and Google themselves to take steps to improve outcomes for app developers and consumers by adopting the potential measures we have identified,” Sims said.

Advertisement

And then Sims got to the meat of the matter, threatening new regulations if Apple and Google don’t cooperate.

“The ACCC will also take into account significant proposals and law changes in other countries which have identified similar concerns. Regulation may be required if Apple and Google fail to take steps to address the concerns identified.”

Advertisement

Apple and Google did not respond to inquires from Gizmodo early Wednesday morning. We’ll update this post if we hear back.

Update, 9:22 a.m. ET: Apple sent Gizmodo the following statement:

Since its launch in 2008, the App Store has transformed how Australians are informed, inspired and entertained, and simultaneously created a rich source of opportunity for developers, turning great ideas into successful businesses that are thriving on a global stage. Today the App Store is home to nearly 2 million apps, all of which meet Apple’s rigorous standards of privacy, security and content, offering our customers a safe and trusted place to download apps. This unwavering commitment to bringing our customers the best experience is applied equally and evenly to all, including Apple’s own apps. We welcome the opportunity to continue this discussion with the ACCC.

Advertisement

Soon You May Not Have to Say ‘Hey Google’ to Get Your Phone’s Google Assistant to Listen to You

Illustration for article titled Soon You May Not Have to Say 'Hey Google' to Get Your Phone's Google Assistant to Listen to You

Illustration: Leon Neal (Getty Images)

If you’ve ever wanted your Google Assistant to get moving without having to say, “hey Google,” all the time, you may be getting your wish in the near future.

Advertisement

On Friday, Android Police spotted a new featured dubbed “Guacamole” after updating the Google app on Android. The update introduced a new Guacamole menu in the Google Assistant settings list for some users, the outlet reported, although it’s not functional yet. Nonetheless, according to screenshots of the menu posted by Android Police, Guacamole is apparently a voice shortcuts feature that will allow users to skip saying “hey Google” for help with quick tasks.

In order to enable the feature, users have to click and read, presumably, a set of terms and conditions. We say “presumably” because the link included in the menu doesn’t work yet, so we haven’t been able to confirm this. (We did try, though).

Just what exactly will these quick tasks consist of? 9to5Google reports that these quick tasks include alarms, timers, and calls. As an example, the outlet said that the feature will allow you to say “stop” or “snooze” to stop an alarm. It also stated that users will be able to say, “answer the call,” or “decline the call.”

Now, I don’t use Google Assistant, but I do use an Amazon Echo Dot that always plays a wonderful BTS playlist in the morning to wake me up. I’m a beast in the morning, and when I grumble, “Alexa, stoooooop,” I always feel the thing is paying attention to me. I don’t think I would get that same feeling of sleepy satisfaction if I just said, “stop.” That’s just me though, and this is a very particular situation.

9to5Google notes that Google is only testing the Guacamole feature with employees at the time, which is why it began showing up on some users’ phones. As with other features under development, there’s no guarantee that this one will ever make it to the mainstream. We just have to wait and see.

Researchers Take Down Botnet Pretending to Be Millions of People Watching TV

Illustration for article titled Researchers Take Down Botnet Pretending to Be Millions of People Watching TV

Photo: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)

Fraudsters operate off the assumption that it’s way more profitable to think up byzantine ways to cheat people out of money than it is to just, like, work hard and ask for a promotion occasionally. For instance: an Israeli tech company is currently accused of using a very convoluted method to screw advertisers out of buttloads of cash by pretending to be a bunch of people watching TV.

Advertisement

TopTop Media, a subsidiary of Tel Aviv-based M51 Group, bills itself as a tech company focused on solutions for app developers and advertisers. It promises to employ “real-time optimization and user profiling” in order to leverage data it gathers from its “ongoing media acquisition activities” and, you know, deliver profits somewhere in there. However, according to new research from security firm HUMAN, TopTop’s “solutions” are less than desirable.

In an elaborate scheme, the company allegedly created 29 malicious Android apps and then snuck them into the Google Play Store and third-party stores, managing to quietly infect close to a million devices with malware. The infected devices were then allegedly used to build an ever-growing botnet that fraudulently spoofed connections to streaming-TV platforms all over the world, thereby generating illegitimate ad revenue.

In other words, like other ad fraud, the scheme sought to bilk elements of the advertising ecosystem that pay for the opportunity to show ads to consumers. Because advertisers will pay streaming apps for the opportunity to use their platforms to display ads, generating the appearance of being an app like this can get you, in the immortal words of Dire Straits, money for nothing. Thus TopTop’s malicious apps used spoofing sorcery to fool ad exchanges into believing they were just such streaming apps, active on smart TV products from Apple, Amazon, Google, and others— thereby generating the appearance of “millions of people watching ads on smart TVs and other devices,” researchers say. 

The dozens of apps involved in the alleged scam all linked back to the same command and control server. While designed to appear harmless (such as the innocuous-looking flashlight app pictured below), the apps were, in reality, making an average of 650 million bid requests a day. Such requests are automatically triggered by online user engagement—like a click or a “view”—and represent the lifeblood of the online ad industry.

Illustration for article titled Researchers Take Down Botnet Pretending to Be Millions of People Watching TV

Screenshot: Lucas Ropek/HUMAN Security

In a different but related case, affiliates of the same company reportedly deployed 36 malicious apps onto the Roku’s Channel Store, which similarly spoofed connections to smart TVs and other streaming products in an effort to garner illegitimate ad revenue.

Advertisement

“The operators behind the botnet took advantage of the recent shift to digital accelerated by the pandemic by hiding in the noise in order to trick advertisers and technology platforms into believing that ads were being shown on consumer streaming devices,” HUMAN researchers write.

Michael McNally, one of the company’s top researchers, said in an interview that in many cases, the apps used were merely open-source programs that had been turned into trojans. The developers repackaged the apps, injected them with malicious code, then attempted to shepherd them onto popular platforms where a lot of people would download them. With nearly a million Android users unwittingly caught up in the vast, rat-king-like botnet, the scheme apparently worked like gangbusters.

Advertisement

HUMAN says that they helped take the botnet down and that the apps involved have all since been deleted from Google and Roku’s stores. Law enforcement has also been notified. We have reached out to the M51 Group for comment on this story and will update it if we hear back from them.

MailOnline Sues Google for ‘Hiding’ Links to News Stories

Illustration for article titled MailOnline Sues Google for 'Hiding' Links to News Stories

Photo: Michael M. Santiago (Getty Images)

MailOnline, a news site associated with the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper, has sued Google over allegations the tech giant has been “hiding” links to its news stories. Google calls the allegations “meritless.”

Advertisement

The U.S.-based lawsuit, first reported by the Guardian, alleges that articles about professional bloviator Piers Morgan and former royal Meghan Markle were recently hidden from prominent positions on Google because MailOnline has stopped using some of Google’s search engine optimization tools. But Google denies the claims.

“The Daily Mail’s claims are completely inaccurate,” a Google spokesperson told Gizmodo via email.

“The use of our ad tech tools has no bearing on how a publisher’s website ranks in Google Search. More generally, we compete in a crowded and competitive ad tech space where publishers have and exercise multiple options,” the Google spokesperson continued.

“The Daily Mail itself authorizes dozens of ad tech companies to sell and manage their ad space, including Amazon, Verizon and more. We will defend ourselves against these meritless claims.”

The lawsuit highlights the complex relationship between news outlets and Google. MailOnline and virtually every other private news enterprise depends on Google’s traffic to reach readers, but those same news outlets are struggling because companies like Google and Facebook are taking all of the ad revenue that previously went to traditional media companies.

MailOnline did not respond to a request for comment overnight from Gizmodo but whined to the Guardian about how Google was being unfair.

Advertisement

“This lawsuit is to hold Google to account for their continued anti-competitive behavior including manipulation of ad auctions and news search results, bid rigging, algorithm bias and exploiting its market power to harm their advertising rivals,” a MailOnline spokesperson told the Guardian.

“Despite increased criticism by regulators and governments around the world, Google’s ongoing behavior clearly shows they are not prepared to change their conduct,” the spokesperson continued.

Advertisement

We’ll update this post if we hear back from MailOnline.