Line will give users its own cryptocurrency to buy stickers and webtoons

Japanese messaging app Line is launching its own cryptocurrency in a bid to attract and retain more active users, as spotted by TechCrunch. The token is called Link, and the company is avoiding an initial coin offering (ICO) and is instead giving the token away for free to users when they complete certain activities.

Line said the tokens can be used to buy stickers, webtoons, and other services on the app. Link will be listed on Line’s own cryptocurrency exchange, Bitbox, which launched back in June. It’s releasing 800 million tokens to users as part of a rewards system, which Line hopes will incentivize users to participate more on the app, while keeping 200 million in reserve.

Line has notably run into trouble in its home base of Japan where it awaits approval from authorities for both its cryptocurrency exchange and its own digital currency. (Bitbox is not available in the US or Japan.) While Link launches elsewhere in the world, users in Japan will get virtual points in the app for now that can be traded in for cryptocurrency later.

Examples of stickers.
Image: Line

ICOs have come under increasing regulatory scrutiny from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) over the past year. Many companies are attempting to avoid any association with scams and build customer enthusiasm by giving away digital coins through “airdrops” or by launching asset-backed tokens with something concrete tied to the name.

In the past year, the number of active users in four of Line’s largest markets has fallen. Its big rivals include WhatsApp, WeChat, and Facebook Messenger.

Betting on cryptocurrency to turn the tide for an aging product, by mixing hype with nostalgia, might have worked for some companies last year and early this year at the height of coin mania. But after a drop in the prices of digital coins and a number of ICO-related SEC probes, Line’s timing is rather off.

Facebook is working on mesh Wi-Fi to possibly bring to developing countries

Facebook gave an update yesterday on its efforts to expand Express Wi-Fi, an app that lets unserved communities pay for internet service. The company is still working on efforts to reach the 3.8 billion people in the world who don’t have internet access, in order to grow its potential market.

Facebook says it’s developing software in Boston to manage networks more easily and enable operators to deploy mesh Wi-Fi networks. It’s also working on a new routing framework at its California headquarters for large-scale Wi-Fi mesh networks, with up to 50 access points.

Express Wi-Fi was initially available in five countries: India, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, and Indonesia. It launched in 2016 as a way for local ISPs and business people to sell and provide internet service in developing countries.

Facebook also has teams working on Express Wi-Fi in Dubai, Israel, and Ireland, and is running a pilot program for the mesh Wi-Fi tech in Tanzania. The company told The Verge in a statement that it did not have concrete plans for mesh Wi-Fi for other countries besides Tanzania as of yet. “Right now, we’re focused on validating the technology … we’re still determining next steps,” a spokesperson said.

The update on a two-year project reinforces the idea that Facebook is still following its self-proposed mission to bring internet access to underserved communities, even after several years. Other internet projects it worked on haven’t fared so well. In June, Facebook announced it was abandoning the Aquila project, which explored the use of high-flying drones to deliver internet. The company stated that other companies were working on high-altitude aircraft and it would partner with them instead.

US reportedly pressuring Facebook to break Messenger’s encryption over MS-13 investigation

The US Department of Justice is reportedly trying to have Facebook break the end-to-end encryption of its popular Messenger chat app so that the government can spy on a suspect’s “ongoing voice conversations” in a criminal investigation related to the notorious MS-13 gang. Facebook has so far pushed back against the DoJ’s request, according to a new Reuters scoop on the situation.

End-to-end encryption makes it so that only the participants of a conversation can see the messages and content that it contains. Facebook does not have access to the data.

Reuters says that the surveillance case is under seal in California, so no documents or information about it are publicly accessible. And it seems like tensions are rising fast: earlier this week, the government reportedly sought to hold Facebook in contempt of court for refusing to comply with its demands. Facebook’s position is that it would either have to remove encryption from Messenger altogether or “hack” the individual that the government wants to listen in on. Right now, the company seems unwilling to do either.

The standoff is not unlike the public spat between Apple and the FBI that began when authorities ordered the iPhone maker to help them break into a phone belonging to one of the perpetrators of the 2015 San Bernardino, California shooting. Apple refused, arguing that helping the FBI skirt its end-to-end encryption would have perilous privacy consequences for millions of consumers. Before that dispute could make it to court, the FBI found a third party to unlock the San Bernardino iPhone and dropped the case.

In this instance, the government is “seeking a wiretap of ongoing voice conversations by one person on Facebook Messenger,” according to Reuters. By refusing to assist in a case that involves MS-13, Facebook could quickly find itself in a heated political conflict — and potentially draw the ire of President Trump. Trump has cited MS-13’s US presence and violent crimes as the direct result of what he says is a broken US immigration system. Trump harshly criticized Apple during the San Bernardino saga and even called for a boycott of the company’s products.

Should Facebook ultimately be forced to compromise Messenger’s encryption, it would set an alarming precedent that could have serious implications for privacy-minded apps like Signal.

Facebook Messenger conversations are not end-to-end encrypted by default, but the app’s Secret Conversation feature is.

Facebook Messenger isn’t end-to-end encrypted by default.

Messenger’s regular conversations are not end-to-end encrypted. But the app has a Secret Conversations feature that, when enabled, can secure chats under strong encryption. Facebook says “a secret conversation in Messenger is encrypted end-to-end, which means the messages are intended just for you and the other person — not anyone else, including us.”

Aside from text, Secret Conversations support photos, videos, and audio snippets. Presumably the latter is what the Reuters story refers to (though it doesn’t specify) and what the government wants to wiretap, as there’s no way to make a proper voice call in a Secret Conversation; those are only available in standard chats.