Facebook ran ads for a fake ‘Clubhouse for PC’ app planted with malware

Cybercriminals have taken out a number of Facebook ads masquerading as a Clubhouse app for PC users in order to target unsuspecting victims with malware, TechCrunch has learned.

TechCrunch was alerted Wednesday to Facebook ads tied to several Facebook pages impersonating Clubhouse, the drop-in audio chat app only available on iPhones. Clicking on the ad would open a fake Clubhouse website, including a mocked-up screenshot of what the non-existent PC app looks like, with a download link to the malicious app.

When opened, the malicious app tries to communicate with a command and control server to obtain instructions on what to do next. One sandbox analysis of the malware showed the malicious app tried to infect the isolated machine with ransomware.

But overnight, the fake Clubhouse websites — which were hosted in Russia — went offline. In doing so, the malware also stopped working. Guardicore’s Amit Serper, who tested the malware in a sandbox on Thursday, said the malware received an error from the server and did nothing more.

The fake website was set up to look like Clubhouse’s real website, but featuring a malicious PC app. (Image: TechCrunch)

It’s not uncommon for cybercriminals to tailor their malware campaigns to piggyback off the successes of wildly popular apps. Clubhouse reportedly topped more than 8 million global downloads to date despite an invite-only launch. That high demand prompted a scramble to reverse-engineer the app to build bootleg versions of it to evade Clubhouse’s gated walls, but also government censors where the app is blocked.

Each of the Facebook pages impersonating Clubhouse only had a handful of likes, but were still active at the time of publication. When reached, Facebook wouldn’t say how many account owners had clicked on the ads pointing to the fake Clubhouse websites.

At least nine ads were placed this week between Tuesday and Thursday. Several of the ads said Clubhouse “is now available for PC,” while another featured a photo of co-founders Paul Davidson and Rohan Seth. Clubhouse did not return a request for comment.

The ads have been removed from Facebook’s Ad Library, but we have published a copy. It’s also not clear how the ads made it through Facebook’s processes in the first place.

 

Spotify stays quiet about launch of its voice command ‘Hey Spotify’ on mobile

In 2019, Spotify began testing a hardware device for automobile owners it lovingly dubbed “Car Thing,” which allowed Spotify Premium users to play music and podcasts using voice commands that began with “Hey, Spotify.” Last year, Spotify began developing a similar voice integration into its mobile app. Now, access to the “Hey Spotify” voice feature is rolling out more broadly.

Spotify chose not to officially announce the new addition, despite numerous reports indicating the voice option was showing up for many people in their Spotify app, leading to some user confusion about availability.

One early report by GSM Arena, for example, indicated Android users had been sent a push notification that alerted them to the feature. The notification advised users to “Just enable your mic and say ‘Hey Spotify, Play my Favorite Songs.” When tapped, the notification launched Spotify’s new voice interface where users are pushed to first give the app permission to use the microphone in order to be able to verbally request the music they want to hear.

Several outlets soon reported the feature had launched to Android users, which is only partially true.

As it turns out, the feature is making its way to iOS devices, as well. When we launched the Spotify app here on an iPhone running iOS 14.5, for instance, we found the same feature had indeed gone live. You just tap on the microphone button by the search box to get to the voice experience. We asked around and found that other iPhone users on various versions of the iOS operating system also had the feature, including free users, Premium subscribers and Premium Family Plan subscribers.

The screen that appears suggests in big, bold text that you could be saying “Hey Spotify, play…” followed by a random artist’s name. It also presents a big green button at the bottom to turn on “Hey Spotify.”

Once enabled, you can ask for artists, albums, songs and playlists by name, as well as control playback with commands like stop, pause, skip this song, go back and others. Spotify confirms the command with a robotic-sounding male voice by default. (You can swap to a female voice in Settings, if you prefer.)

Image Credits: Spotify screenshot iOS

This screen also alerts users that when the app hears the “Hey Spotify” voice command, it sends the user’s voice data and other information to Spotify. There’s a link to Spotify policy regarding its use of voice data, which further explains that Spotify will collect recordings and transcripts of what you say along with information about the content it returned to you. The company says it may continue to use this data to improve the feature, develop new voice features and target users with relevant advertising. It may also share your information with service providers, like cloud storage providers.

The policy looks to be the same as the one that was used along with Spotify’s voice-enabled ads, launched last year, so it doesn’t seem to have been updated to fully reflect the changes enabled with the launch of “Hey Spotify.” However, it does indicate that, like other voice assistants, Spotify doesn’t just continuously record — it waits until users say the wake words.

Given the “Hey Spotify” voice command’s origins with “Car Thing,” there’s been speculation that the mobile rollout is a signal that the company is poised to launch its own hardware to the wider public in the near future. There’s already some indication that may be true — MacRumors recently reported finding references and photos to Car Thing and its various mounts inside the Spotify app’s code. This follows Car Thing’s reveal in FCC filings back in January of this year, which had also stoked rumors that the device was soon to launch.

Spotify was reached for comment this morning, but has yet been unable to provide any answers about the feature’s launch despite a day’s wait. Instead, we were told that they “unfortunately do not have any additional news to share at this time.” That further suggests some larger projects could be tied to this otherwise more minor feature’s launch.

Though today’s consumers are wary of tech companies’ data collection methods — and particularly their use of voice data after all three tech giants confessed to poor practices on this front — there’s still a use case for voice commands, particularly from an accessibility standpoint and, for drivers, from a safety standpoint.

And although you can direct your voice assistant on your phone (or via CarPlay or Android Auto, if available) to play content from Spotify, some may find it useful to be able to speak to Spotify directly — especially since Apple doesn’t allow Spotify to be set as a default music service. You can only train Siri to launch Spotify as your preferred service.

If, however, you have second thoughts about using the “Hey Spotify” feature after enabling it, you can turn it off under “Voice Interactions” in the app’s settings.

Shell invests in LanzaJet to speed up deliveries of its synthetic aviation fuel

The energy giant Shell has joined a slew of strategic investors — including All Nippon Airways, Suncor Energy, Mitsui and British Airways — in funding LanzaJet, the company commercializing a process to convert alcohol into jet fuel. 

A spin-off from LanzaTech, one of the last surviving climate tech startups from the first cleantech boom that’s still privately held, LanzaJet is taking a phased investment approach with its corporate backers, enabling them to invest additional capital as the company scales to larger production facilities.

Terms of the initial investment, or LanzaJet’s valuation after the commitment, were not disclosed.

LanzaJet claims that it can help the aviation industry reach net-zero emissions, something that would go a long way toward helping the world meet the emissions reductions targets set in the Paris Agreement.

“LanzaJet’s technology opens up a new and exciting pathway to produce SAF using an AtJ process and will help address the aviation sector’s urgent need for SAF. It demonstrates that the industry can move faster and deliver more when we all work together,” said Anna Mascolo, president, Shell Aviation, in a statement. “Provided industry, government and society collaborate on appropriate policy mechanisms and regulations to drive both supply and demand, aviation can achieve net-zero carbon emissions. The strategic fit with LanzaJet is exciting.”

LanzaJet is currently building an alcohol-to-jet fuel facility in Soperton, Georgia. Upon completion it would be the first commercial-scale plant for sustainable synthetic jet fuel, with a capacity of 10 million gallons per year.

The fuel is made by using ethanol inputs — something that Shell is very familiar with. It’s also something that the oil giant has in ready supply. Through the Raízen joint venture in Brazil, Shell has been producing bio-ethanol for more than 10 years.

The company expects that its sustainable fuel will be mixed with conventional fossil jet fuel to power airplanes in a lower carbon intensity way. Roughly 90% of the company’s production output will be aviation fuel, while the remaining 10% will be renewable diesel, the company said.

LanzaJet’s SAF is approved to be blended up to 50% with fossil jet fuel, the maximum allowed  by ASTM, and is a drop-in fuel that requires no modifications to engines, aircraft and infrastructure. Additionally, LanzaJet’s SAF delivers more than a 70% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions on a lifecycle basis, compared to conventional fossil jet fuel. The versatility in ethanol, and a focus on low carbon, waste-based and nonfood/nonfeed sources, along with ethanol’s global availability, make  LanzaJet’s technology a relevant and enduring solution for SAF. 

 

Sonos delivers a near-perfect portable speaker with the new Sonos Roam

Sonos has a new speaker that starts shipping later this month, and it’s a significant departure from the company’s usual offerings in a number of ways. The all-new Sonos Roam is a compact, portable speaker with a built-in battery and Bluetooth connectivity — but still very much a Sonos system team player, with wifi streaming, multi-room feature, voice assistant support and surprisingly great sound quality.

The basics

Priced at $169, the Sonos Roam is truly diminutive, at just over 6 inches, by roughly 2.5 inches for both height and depth. It weighs under a pound, and is available in either a matte white or black finish, which is par for the course for Sonos in terms of colorways. Roam is also IP67-rated, meaning it’s effectively waterproof, with a resistance rating of up to 30 minutes at depths of up to 1 meter (3.3 feet).

Sonos has placed the speaker’s control surface at one end of the device, including a microphone button, volume controls and a play/pause button. These are actual, tactile buttons, rather than touch-sensitive surfaces like you’d find on other Sonos speakers, which makes sense for a speaker designed to be used on the go, and in conditions where touch controls might get flummoxed by things like rain and water.

The Roam also has a power button on the back, next to a USB-C port for charging. It also offers wireless charging, via a receiver found in the base of the speaker, which can be used with Sonos’ own forthcoming magnetic charging adapter (sold separately), or with any standard Qi-powered wireless charger you want.

In addition to wifi streaming, Sonos Roam can also connect to any device via Bluetooth 5.0. It also features AirPlay 2 for connecting to Apple devices when on wifi, and it works out of the box with Spotify Connect. The built-in battery is rated for up to 10 hours of playback on a full charge, according to Sonos, and can also provide up to 10 days of its sleep-like standby mode.

Design and performance

This is the smallest speaker yet released by Sonos, and that’s definitely a big plus when it comes to this category of device. The dimensions make it feel like a slightly taller can of Red Bull, which should give you some sense of just how portable it is. Unlike Sonos’ first portable speaker with a built-in battery, the Sonos Move, the Roam truly feels like something designed to be thrown in a bag and brought with you wherever you happen to need it.

Despite its small size, the Sonos Roam offers impressive sound — likely the best I’ve yet encountered for a portable speaker in this size class. Inside, it manages to pack in dual amplifiers, one tweeter and a separate custom racetrack mid-woofer, which Sonos developed to help deliver both lows and mids with a faithfulness that normally escapes smaller speakers. The Roam also gets a lot louder than you’d probably expect it could, while keeping audio quality clear and free of distortion at the same time.

One of the keys to the Roam’s great sound quality is Sonos’ Automatic Trueplay tech, which tunes the audio to best suit its surroundings actively and continually. This feature requires that the mic be enabled to work, but it’s well worth having on in most settings, and makes a big difference while streaming in both Bluetooth and wifi modes. This also helps the speaker adjust when it’s switched from horizontal to vertical orientation, and it’s one of the main reasons that the Roam punches above its weight relative to other speakers in this size and price category.

The Roam would be a winner based on audio quality alone for the price, but the extra Sonos system-specific features it boasts really elevate it to a true category leader. These include a standby mode that preserves battery while keeping the Roam available to your system for wifi streaming via the Sonos app (handy, and also optional since you can hold the power button down for five seconds to truly power off and preserve your charge for even longer, which is great for travel).

One of Roam’s truly amazing abilities is a hand-off feature that passes playback of whatever you’re using it to listen to on to the nearest Sonos speaker in your system when you long press the play/pause button. This works almost like magic, and is a great speaker superpower for if you’re wandering around the house and the yard doing chores with the Roam in your pocket.

Bottom line

Sonos waited a long time to release their first travel-friendly portable speaker, but they obviously used that time wisely. The Sonos Roam is the most thoughtfully-designed, feature-rich and best-sounding portable speaker you can get for under $200 (and better than many more expensive options, at that). Even if you don’t already have a Sonos system to use it with, it’s an easy choice if you’re in the market for a portable, rugged Bluetooth speaker — and if you’re already a Sonos convert, the decision gets that much easier.

Chinese startups rush to bring alternative protein to people’s plates

On a recent morning in downtown Shenzhen, Lingyu queued up to order her go-to McMuffin. As she waited in line with other commuters, the 50-year-old accountant noticed the new vegetarian options on the menu and decided to try the imitation spam and scrambled egg burger.

“I’ve never had fake meat,” she said of the burger — one of five new breakfast items that McDonald’s introduced last week in three major Chinese cities featuring luncheon meat substitutes produced by Green Monday.

Lingyu, who works in her family business in Shenzhen, is exactly the type of Chinese customer that imitation meat companies want to attract beyond the young, trendy, eco-conscious urbanites. Her yuan means potentially more to meat replacement companies because it advances their business and climate agendas both. Eating less meat is one of the simplest ways to reduce an individual’s carbon footprint and help fight climate change.

McDonald’s hopes that its pea- and soy-based, zero-cholesterol, luncheon meat substitutes will carve out a piece of China’s massive dining market. Long-time rival KFC, and local competitor Dicos introduced their own plant-based products last year. Partnering with fast food chains is a smart move for companies that want to promote alternative protein to the masses, because these products are often pricey and are usually aimed at wealthy urbanites.

2020 could well have been the dawn of alternative protein in China. More than 10 startups raised capital to make plant-based protein for a country with increasing meat demand. Of these, Starfield, Hey Maet, Vesta and Haofood have been around for about a year; ZhenMeat was founded three years ago; and the aforementioned Green Monday is a nine-year-old Hong Kong firm pushing into mainland China. The competition intensified further last year when American incumbents Beyond Meat and Eat Just entered China.

Although some investors worry the sudden boom of meat substitute startups could turn into a bubble, others believe the market is far from saturated.

“Think about how much meat China consumes a year,” said an investor in a Chinese soy protein startup who requested anonymity. “Even if alternative protein replaces 0.01% of the consumption, it could be a market worth tens of billions of dollars.”

In many ways, China is the ideal testbed for alternative protein. The country has a long history of imitation meat rooted in Buddhist vegetarianism and an expanding middle class that is increasingly health-conscious and willing to experiment. The country also has a grip on the global supply chain for plant-based protein, which could give domestic startups an edge over foreign rivals.

“I believe, in five years, China will see a raft of domestic plant-based protein companies that could be on par with industry leaders from Europe and North America,” said Xie Zihan, who founded Vesta to develop soy-based meat suitable for Chinese cuisine.

Meat varieties

Hey Maet’s imitation meat dumplings / Photo: Hey Maet 

Lily Chen, a manager at the Chinese arm of alternative protein investor Lever VC, outlines three categories of meat analog companies in China: Western giants such as Beyond Meat and Eat Just; local players; and conglomerates such as Unilever and Nestlé that are developing vegan meat product lines as a defense strategy. Lever VC invested in Beyond Meat, Impossible Foods and Memphis Meats.

“They all have their product differentiation, but the industry is still very early stage,” said Chen.