Start Up No.1353: hackers hit Twitter, Apple escapes tax bill, the technological genocide in Xinjiang, Zoom thinks big, and more


Fake photos were used to create a “personality” for articles attacking an activist. Who’s behind them? CC-licensed photo by World Economic Forum on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The world’s most technologically sophisticated genocide is happening in Xinjiang • Foreign Policy

Rayhan Asat, Yonah Diamond:

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With Uighur men detained and women sterilized, the government has laid the groundwork for the physical destruction of the Uighur people. At least half a million of the remaining Uighur children have been separated from their families and are being raised by the state at so-called “children shelters.”

What makes this genocide so uniquely dangerous is its technological sophistication, allowing for efficiency in its destruction and concealment from global attention. The Uighurs have been suffering under the most advanced police state, with extensive controls and restrictions on every aspect of life—religious, familial, cultural, and social. To facilitate surveillance, Xinjiang operates under a grid management system. Cities and villages are split into squares of about 500 people. Each square has a police station that closely monitors inhabitants by regularly scanning their identification cards, faces, DNA samples, fingerprints, and cell phones. These methods are supplemented by a machine-operated system known as the Integrated Joint Operations Platform. The system uses machine learning to collect personal data from video surveillance, smartphones, and other private records to generate lists for detention. Over a million Han Chinese watchers have been installed in Uighur households, rendering even intimate spaces subject to the government’s eye.

The Chinese government operates the most intrusive mass surveillance system in the world and repeatedly denies the international community meaningful access to it. It is therefore incumbent on us to appreciate the nature, depth, and speed of the genocide and act now before it’s too late.

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Joe Biden, Elon Musk, Apple, and others hacked in unprecedented Twitter attack • The Verge

Nick Statt:

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The Twitter accounts of major companies and individuals have been compromised in one of the most widespread and confounding hacks the platform has ever seen, all in service of promoting a bitcoin scam that appears to be earning its creator quite a bit of money. We don’t know how it’s happened or even to what extent Twitter’s own systems may have been compromised. The hack is ongoing, with new tweets posting to verified accounts on a regular basis starting shortly after 4PM ET.

It all began when Elon Musk’s Twitter account was seemingly compromised by a hacker intent on using it to run a bitcoin scam. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also had his account seemingly accessed by the same scammer, who posted a similar message with an identical bitcoin wallet address. Both accounts are continuing to post new tweets promoting the scam almost as fast as they are deleted. A spokesperson for Gates tells Recode’s Teddy Schleifer, “We can confirm that this tweet was not sent by Bill Gates. This appears to be part of a larger issue that Twitter is facing. Twitter is aware and working to restore the account.”

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Incredible if there are people who would honestly send money to a bitcoin address just because they see a tweet which says “I am giving back to my fans. All Bitcoin sent to my address below will be sent back doubled.” I mean, there’s intellectually challenged, and there’s utterly stupid. You can see the money moving into it at this page. Apparently more than 200 people were that dim.

Just after the hack, the suggestion is that a Twitter employee admin panel was hacked. It’s that or a third-party app, the common method.
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Deepfake used to attack activist couple shows new disinformation frontier • Reuters

Raphael Satter:

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Oliver Taylor, a student at England’s University of Birmingham, is a twenty-something with brown eyes, light stubble, and a slightly stiff smile.

Online profiles describe him as a coffee lover and politics junkie who was raised in a traditional Jewish home. His half dozen freelance editorials and blog posts reveal an active interest in anti-Semitism and Jewish affairs, with bylines in the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel.

The catch? Oliver Taylor seems to be an elaborate fiction.

His university says it has no record of him. He has no obvious online footprint beyond an account on the question-and-answer site Quora, where he was active for two days in March. Two newspapers that published his work say they have tried and failed to confirm his identity. And experts in deceptive imagery used state-of-the-art forensic analysis programs to determine that Taylor’s profile photo is a hyper-realistic forgery – a “deepfake.”

…Reuters was alerted to Taylor by London academic Mazen Masri, who drew international attention in late 2018 when he helped launch an Israeli lawsuit against the surveillance company NSO on behalf of alleged Mexican victims of the company’s phone hacking technology.

In an article in U.S. Jewish newspaper The Algemeiner, Taylor had accused Masri and his wife, Palestinian rights campaigner Ryvka Barnard, of being “known terrorist sympathizers.”

Masri and Barnard were taken aback by the allegation, which they deny. But they were also baffled as to why a university student would single them out. Masri said he pulled up Taylor’s profile photo. He couldn’t put his finger on it, he said, but something about the young man’s face “seemed off.”

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Not a deepfake, but certainly a fake. I think we can join the dots on how Masri was targeted. Howcome a news organisation would just take an article from a Uni of Birmingham student, though?
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Zoom introduces all-in-one home communications appliance for $599 • TechCrunch

Ron Miller:

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The device, dubbed the Zoom for Home – DTEN ME, is being produced by partner DTEN. It consists of a standalone 27in screen, essentially a large tablet equipped with three wide-angle cameras designed for high-resolution video and 8 microphones. Zoom software is pre-loaded on the device and the interface is designed to provide easy access to popular Zoom features.

Jeff Smith, head of Zoom Rooms, says that the idea is to offer an appliance that you can pull out of the box and it’s ready to use with minimal fuss. “Zoom for Home is an initiative from Zoom that allows any Zoom user to deploy a personal collaboration device for their video meetings, phone calls, interactive whiteboard annotation — all the good stuff that you want to do on Zoom, you can do with a dedicated purpose-built device,” Smith told TechCrunch.

He says this is designed with simplicity in mind, so that you pull it out of the box and launch the interface by entering a pairing code on a website on your laptop or mobile phone. Once the interface appears, you simply touch the function you want, such as making a phone call or starting a meeting, and it connects automatically.

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Clearly they’re thinking that *waves hands all this* is going to go on and on. Doubt they’ll find any buyers in business while the China rhetoric is getting louder and louder, until Zoom corrals off its servers there.
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Apple adds audio to Apple News, along with in-house daily podcast • Axios

Sara Fischer:

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Apple is adding new audio features to both its free Apple News and subscription Apple News+ services, including a short daily podcast, produced and narrated by its own editorial staff.

Apple is doubling down on its commitment to human and editorial curation of news content, something its rival tech partners have mostly been slower to do.

The podcast, called “Apple News Today,” will be seven to eight minutes long, and offered free to Apple News users on weekdays.

It will be hosted by two former journalists who now work as Apple News editors, Shumita Basu and Duarte Geraldino.

“Apple News Today” will exist exclusively within the Apple News app, meaning Apple won’t make it available on rival platforms like Spotify.

Apple will also produce roughly 20 audio stories a week for Apple News+ subscribers, based off narrations of mostly long-form stories from publishing partners.

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Is this meant to make people more likely to subscribe to News+? I don’t get it. Somehow this feels like makework for the folk they’ve got curating stuff at Apple News.
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Apple wins major tax battle against EU • WSJ

Valentina Pop and Sam Schechner:

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Apple won a major battle with the European Union when the bloc’s second-highest court on Wednesday sided with the US company over a €13bn ($14.8bn) tax bill that EU antitrust officials had said the company owed to Ireland.

The decision was a rebuke to Margrethe Vestager, who is leading the charge at the European Commission to rein in alleged abuses by big tech companies including Apple, Alphabet’s Google, and Amazon.

But Wednesday’s setback may at the same time embolden Ms. Vestager and other EU leaders in their push to create new regulations for tech companies, because they already argue that existing rules are insufficient to bring big tech companies to heel in areas ranging from competition to taxes.

The case stems from a 2016 decision by the European Commission, the bloc’s top antitrust enforcer, which said that Ireland must recoup €13bn in allegedly unpaid taxes between 2003 and 2014, money the commission said constituted an illegal subsidy under the bloc’s strict state-aid rules.

The General Court swept aside that reasoning, saying it annulled the decision because the commission had failed to meet the legal standards in showing that Apple was illegally given special treatment.

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Surprising: this seemed like a lock at the time.
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MP who beat Chris Grayling to intelligence chair role loses Tory whip • The Guardian

Dan Sabbagh:

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One source said Grayling “didn’t see it coming” as the nine members of the MPs’ committee voted five to four in favour of Lewis, with the four opposition members all voting against Grayling.

A furious Downing Street responded by stripping the whip from Lewis – a Tory MP since 1997 – “because he worked with Labour and other opposition MPs to his own advantage”.

The committee, responsible for oversight of Britain’s spy agencies, has agreed to meet again before recess and is expected to discuss publishing the long-delayed report into Russian interference in British politics.

Grayling had been the prime minister’s choice for months, but his appointment was controversial even amongst Conservatives because of his error-prone record as a cabinet minister.

He presided over the collapse of Northern and Thameslink rail services and the granting of a no-deal Brexit ferry contract to a company with no ships.

As justice secretary, he part-privatised the probation service and banned prisoners from receiving books from relatives, a measure that was overturned in the courts. He was also a prominent supporter of leave in the 2016 referendum campaign.

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Simply the most hilarious story in British politics. Grayling is known as “Failing Grayling” because of all the screwups he’s overseen. And now he screws up getting selected for a plum job that the government wanted him to do – heading the Intelligence and Security Committee. And now the government has taken away its hold over the Tory MP who did get in. Let all dunderheads fail in the same way.
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Wirecard boasted of hundreds of partnerships. Some were less than meets the eye • WSJ

Caitlin Ostroff:

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Wirecard’s former Chief Executive Markus Braun, now accused by German prosecutors of falsely inflating revenues, put a high priority on issuing news releases, according to former employees. Business unit leaders would get regular calls from the investor relations team demanding things to announce, according to one employee. Some joked internally that these releases were Wirecard’s real product.

A lawyer for Mr. Braun didn’t respond to requests for comment. The lawyer previously said his client was cooperating fully with prosecutors.

In 2019, Wirecard issued over 100 news releases, while competitors such as Dutch payments processor Adyen NV issued 21 releases and the U.S.’s Discover Financial Services put out 80.

“If you’re just scratching the surface and you look at headlines, you’ll say ‘oh that’s pretty impressive,’” said Neil Campling, head of telecoms, media and technology research at Mirabaud Securities. “If you looked at the details, you’d realize it was absolutely meaningless.”

More than 90 companies identified in Wirecard’s releases responded to The Journal’s inquiries. Many declined to comment. Others confirmed that they had legitimate business with Wirecard. Some said they were Wirecard customers but that the releases overplayed their relationship.

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With Trump, invective obscures his policy messages • Los Angeles Times

Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman:

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the White House spent a good part of the day dealing with a controversy set off by an op-ed column in which Trump’s trade advisor, Peter Navarro, slammed Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert.

Fauci “has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on,” Navarro said in his column in USA Today, which appeared Tuesday night online.

White House officials tried to distance the president from the column. Deputy press secretary Alyssa Farah tweeted that it “didn’t go through normal White House clearance processes and is the opinion of Peter alone.” Trump, she continued, “values the expertise of the medical professionals advising his Administration.”

But there’s little doubt that Navarro’s broadside reflected — and appealed to — the president’s own frustration with Fauci, who has not been invited to the Oval Office to brief Trump since early June and whose proposed television appearances often have been blocked by the White House.

According to one administration official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, Navarro had the president’s permission to write the column.

“Not only was he authorized by Trump, he was encouraged,” the official said.

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Navarro’s column begin “Anthony Fauci has been wrong about everything I have interacted with him on”. He rather kills his argument by suggesting that hydroxychloroquine is an effective treament: the study he quotes isn’t an RCT (randomized controlled trial). But there’s a simple explanation: Navarro’s a grifter who says things his boss wants to hear.
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12 things I learned by switching from the 13-inch MacBook Pro to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro • Macworld

Michael Simon:

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My setup was as high-end as you could get: a 12.9-inch iPad Pro with 1TB of storage and cellular connectivity, a Magic Keyboard, and Apple Pencil—a setup that’s more expensive than the 13-inch MacBook Pro I got it in 2016. It looked great on my desk and felt every bit like the future Apple sells. When I snapped the iPad into its magnetic enclosure, I truly hoped it could replace my MacBook with a sleek, modern, and versatile device.

Sadly, it didn’t work out. I spent more time fighting my iPad than loving it, and when push came to shove, it was just too difficult to get things done as quickly and efficiently as I do on my Mac. Some of it is muscle memory, of course, but there are still fundamental issues with the iPad that prevent it from being the work-first device Apple wants it to be. So I’m giving it up.

While there’s a lot to like about the iPad Pro and Apple’s whole tablet experience, it isn’t as simple as a trackpad being the missing link between it and the Mac.

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His two main criticisms are that it was hard to work with photos, and hard to work with text. That seems like it would cover the work you’d want to do. Though I don’t think that the week he gave it is quite enough – and also, you need to think hard about what apps you’re going to use. Cross-platform ones are a good idea, for instance.
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Start Up No.1352: more on Facebook’s pseudoscience ads, TikTok as warfare, the trouble with VC money, Google’s ATAP lives!, and more


UK networks have been told by the government to remove these pieces. Very, very slowly. CC-licensed photo by Christoph Scholz on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How to fight health ‘cures’ online • The New York Times

Shira Ovide:

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Stories like [Anne Borden King’s, featured here yesterday after she got pseudoscience junk ads on Facebook after posting about her cancer diagnosis] feel distressingly familiar. Internet grifters looking to make money have been responsible for spreading false vaccine conspiracies online or selling illegal drugs. And because our health is a perennial anxiety, there’s a big market for false hope.

“You can’t get rid of the impetus for pseudoscience, but you can stop a lot of vulnerable people from being exploited,” Borden said.

First, let’s discuss what Facebook can do to stop this. “Only take as many ads as they have time for humans for review,” Borden said. “That’s the only ethical thing they can do.”

This one is a doozy. Advertising online tends to be more automated than it is for TV or newspapers. Facebook and Google do have people and computer systems to weed out some inappropriate ads, but many are purchased without much human intervention.

Borden is essentially saying that automated advertising is too risky, at least for health-related products.

A Facebook spokeswoman said that the company rejected ads with claims that fact checkers rated as false, and that it didn’t “allow ads claiming to cure incurable diseases.”

Like many proposed fixes for our popular internet hangouts, Borden’s suggestion boils down to making social media more like conventional media. That’s what critics of Facebook or other online companies mean when they say that these companies should add context to politicians’ inflammatory statements posted on their sites, or that they shouldn’t be a forum for all ideas.

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I’d been in touch with Borden King yesterday (for a book I’m working on) – she’s clearly had a busy time. The extent of the pseudoscience exploitation, and the length of time it’s been going on, is just staggering. And in her words to me, “Facebook is the worst.”
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The TikTok war • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:

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[TikTok] censored #BlackLivesMatter and #GeorgeFloyd, blocked a teenager discussing China’s genocide in Xinjiang, and blocked a video of Tank Man. The Guardian published TikTok guidelines that censored Tiananmen Square, Tibetan independence, and the Falun Gong, and I myself demonstrated that TikTok appeared to be censoring the Hong Kong protests and Houston Rockets basketball team.

The point, though, is not just censorship, but its inverse: propaganda. TikTok’s algorithm, unmoored from the constraints of your social network or professional content creators, is free to promote whatever videos it likes, without anyone knowing the difference. TikTok could promote a particular candidate or a particular issue in a particular geography, without anyone — except perhaps the candidate, now indebted to a Chinese company — knowing. You may be skeptical this might happen, but again, China has already demonstrated a willingness to censor speech on a platform banned in China; how much of a leap is it to think that a Party committed to ideological dominance will forever leave a route directly into the hearts and minds of millions of Americans untouched?

Again, this is where it is worth taking China seriously: the Party has shown through its actions, particularly building and maintaining the Great Firewall at tremendous expense, that it believes in the power of information and ideas. Countless speeches, from Chairman Xi and others, have stated that the Party believes it is in an ideological war with liberalism generally and the U.S. specifically. If we are to give China’s leaders the respect of believing what they say, instead of projecting our own beliefs for no reason other than our own solipsism, how can we take that chance?

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Ben’s position on this is entirely reasonable and well-argued, though there’s also the corollary: Facebook will promote adverts by politicians for free if there’s a lot of engagement. Is that also propaganda?
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Why venture capital doesn’t build the things we really need • MIT Technology Review

Elizabeth MacBride:

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it has become clearer that things many people thought about life in America aren’t true. The nation wasn’t ready for a pandemic. It hasn’t made much progress on providing justice for all, as the riots provoked by police brutality in late May reminded us. And it is hard to claim that it remains the world’s most innovative economy. Software and technology are only one corner of the innovation playground, and the US has been so focused on the noisy kids in the sandbox that it has failed to maintain the rest of the equipment. 

People who really study innovation systems “realize that venture capital may not be a perfect model” for all of them, says Carol Dahl, executive director of the Lemelson Foundation, which supports inventors and entrepreneurs building physical products.

In the United States, she says, 75% of venture capital goes to software. Some 5 to 10% goes to biotech: a tiny handful of venture capitalists have mastered the longer art of building a biotech company. The other sliver goes to everything else—“transportation, sanitation, health care.” To fund a complete system of innovation, we need to think about “not only the downstream invention itself, but what preceded it,” Dahl says. “Not only inspiring people who want to invent, but thinking about the way products reach us through companies.”

Dahl told me about a company that had developed reusable protective gear when Ebola emerged, and was now slowly ramping up production. What if it had been supported by venture funds earlier on?

That’s not going to happen, Asheem Chandna, a partner at Greylock, a leading VC firm, told me: “Money is going to flow where returns are. If software continues to have returns, that’s where it will flow.” Even with targeted government subsidies that lower the risks for VCs, he said, most people will stick with what they know.

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Big deep dive, but the real lesson is that VCs simply don’t have diverse enough lives to understand where the opportunities are.
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China malware: sorry, techno geeks, there still is no place to hide • China Law Blog

Steve Dickinson:

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In The Chinese Government is Accessing YOUR Network Through the Backdoor and There Still is NO Place to Hide, I explained how Chinese banks are requiring their account holders to install malware which allows the Chinese government to see All account holder data — financial or otherwise. We received the usual set of comments we get whenever we right about the lack of data protection in China:

• There are those who ask why we write about China’s lack of data protection when “every country does the same thing.” First off, this is a blog about China. Second, not every country does the same thing. Third, your data in China goes to the Chinese government, not to Facebook or to Google and last we looked, neither Facebook nor Google have virtually unlimited power to imprison you.

• There are those who ask why we write about China’s lack of data protection when there isn’t anything anyone can do about it and would not we all (including YOUR law firm) be better off just keeping our mouths shut. Yes, we would all be better keeping our mouths shut and just acting like this is not a problem and continuing to encourage companies to go into China strictly for the money. But that is just not how we roll.

• You are international lawyers, not data security specialists and you just don’t know all the easy workarounds out there that will enable you to have a China bank account and give no data to the Chinese government. I will address these comments in this post

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Quite wild that the Chinese government installs malware. And it’s dramatic malware too which does an end-run around Windows user protection.
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Inside Google’s secretive ATAP research lab • Fast Company

Harry McCracken:

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From Samsung’s “Air View” feature to the Leap Motion controller, various approaches to interacting with a screen without touching it have been around for years. But ATAP director of engineering Ivan Poupyrev and head of design Leo Giusti—who spearhead Jacquard as well as Soli—took a fresh look at the challenge of interpreting such gestures. The goal was to create something that was intuitive, power-efficient, capable of working in the dark, and (by not using a camera) privacy-minded. The enabling technology they settled on: radar.

If Google had required Soli to prove its worth in two years, it might never have emerged from the lab. It was “a little insane to say we are going to put radar—60 gigahertz radar!—onto a chip,” Kaufman says. And even if ATAP did manage the feat, that was a long way from being able to suss out specific gestures being made by a human being.

“We spent the first years exploring this new material that is the electromagnetic spectrum,” says Giusti. “We really didn’t think about use cases at the very beginning. So it’s kind of different from a normal product development cycle. This was truly research and development.”

Once the Soli team was ready to consider specific real-world scenarios, it envisioned using Soli in smartwatches, where screens are dinky and traditional touch input can be tough to pull off. “We just needed a target,” says Poupyrev. “And we focused a lot on small gestures and fine finger motions, just to [be] super aggressive.” Eventually, the researchers began experimenting with the technology’s possibilities in smartphones—though at first, the requisite technology ate up so much internal space that an early prototype had no room for a camera.

After multiple iterations, ATAP had a Soli chip that looks tiny even when sitting next to a pushpin. That’s what went into the Pixel 4 to enable its Motion Sense features.

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Which, I’m guessing, pretty much nobody uses. It’s the biannual visit to ATAP. Google’s obsession with having wild and crazy hardware is really strange, given how little hardware it offers, or sells. One of the ideas mentioned here – shouldn’t your Google Home know to wait until you’re back in the room to say the cooking timer’s finished? – sounds smart. Then you realise you could just do it with a phone or a smartwatch. I’m not sure they’re asking the right questions.
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Huawei decision ‘may delay 5G by three years and cost UK £7bn’ • The Guardian

Dan Sabbagh:

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Matthew Howett, the founder of the research firm Assembly, said: “Mobile phone operators have so far cherry-picked the major urban areas to deploy 5G, but changing the rules now will mean delays for the rest of the country.”

Previous research conducted by Assembly on behalf of the telecoms firms BT, Vodafone, O2 and Three, concluded the UK would suffer an economic hit of £6.8bn from not deploying 5G and risk falling behind continental Europe.

“We also thought it would set the UK back 18 to 24 months, but [UK culture secretary Oliver] Dowden went further and said it would be three years,” Howett said. “Anywhere where coverage is already poor is now going to have to wait longer.”

However, BT said that despite “logistical and cost implications”, it thought it could continue “without a significant impact on the timescales we’ve previously announced”.

After Dowden said it would cost mobile phone companies an extra £2bn, a source at one of the major operators said that would inevitably have a knock-on impact on the already fragile economics of rural communications.

Dowden was responding to a decision made by the Trump administration in May to ban Huawei from using US microchips, which meant the UK could no longer be confident the Chinese company’s technology did not pose a security risk.

One Whitehall official described the US sanctions as “a game changer”, while another said Britain had been surprised by how draconian they were. “This was at the harder end of expectations,” they said.

The prime minister has become embroiled in an intense geopolitical row over Huawei, in which Trump has demanded the Chinese company be kicked out of the UK, claiming it poses a long-term security risk.

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The mobile operators are also saying it will slow down the deployment of 5G in rural areas. Speaking as someone in a rural area, I’d be happy for them just to get the 4G deployment solid.
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Why is a tech executive installing security cameras around San Francisco? • The New York Times

Nellie Bowles:

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[Chris Larsen’s] apartment on Russian Hill has a trophy view of San Francisco Bay and the tight curves of Lombard Street. But also: the crews coming in to rob tourists’ cars, right in the middle of the day. Mr. Larsen watches the police drive by, and the criminals arriving 15 seconds later, smashing the vehicles’ windows and stealing luggage.

“They don’t care at all — they don’t care if they’re being seen,” Mr. Larsen said. “It’s brazen.”

His father-in-law’s car was robbed. Mr. Larsen’s own car windows were smashed. When a group of men climbed into his garden and one of them cut the wires on his home security system, while his children were sleeping inside, Mr. Larsen decided that he had had enough.

…Here is what he is doing: Writing checks for nearly $4m to buy cameras that record high-definition video of the streets and paying to have them maintained by a company called Applied Video Solutions The rest is up to locals in neighborhood coalitions like Community Benefit Districts, nonprofits formed to provide services to the area.

Here is how the project works. Neighbors band together and decide where to put the cameras. They are installed on private property at the discretion of the property owner, and in San Francisco many home and business owners want them. The footage is monitored by the neighborhood coalition. The cameras are always recording.

The cameras are not hidden. Mr. Larsen believes they can serve as both deterrent and aid in investigations, but it is difficult to say how effective they have been in reducing overall crime.

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Too early to say. The initial finding seems to be that cameras installed on one block then push crime a few blocks away. Not quite a solution, but a very common experience.
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Google steers users to YouTube over rivals • WSJ

Sam Schechner, Kirsten Grind and John West:

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When choosing the best video clips to promote from around the web, Alphabet’s Google gives a secret advantage to one source in particular: itself.

Or, more specifically, its giant online-video service, YouTube.

Take a clip of basketball star Zion Williamson that the National Basketball Association posted online in January, when he made his highly anticipated pro debut. The clip was popular on Facebook, drawing more than one million views and nearly 900 comments as of March. A nearly identical YouTube version of the clip with the same title was seen about 182,000 times and garnered fewer than 400 comments.

But when The Wall Street Journal’s automated bots searched Google for the clip’s title, the YouTube version featured much more prominently than the Facebook version.

The Journal conducted Google searches for a selection of other videos and channels that are available on YouTube as well as on competitors’ platforms. The YouTube versions were significantly more prominent in the results in the vast majority of cases.

This isn’t by accident. Engineers at Google have made changes that effectively preference YouTube over other video sources, according to people familiar with the matter. Google executives in recent years made decisions to prioritize YouTube on the first page of search results, in part to drive traffic to YouTube rather than to competitors, and also to give YouTube more leverage in business deals with content providers seeking traffic for their videos, one of those people said.

“All else being equal, YouTube will be first,” the person said.

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Welcome to 2008! Google has been doing this sort of thing for more than a decade.
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Bitcoin is more like ham radio than the early internet • Moneyness

JP Koning:

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Bitcoin and ham radio are quite similar. They are both clunky and old-fangled. Neither technology is particularly easy to use relative to more mainstream options: ham radio’s user experience is trumped by Whatsapp’s, and Zelle is smoother to use than bitcoin. Go to Youtube an you’ll find thousands of videos explaining how each technology works.

The very feature that makes both ham and bitcoin so confusing is also its strength. They are both decentralized. That is, neither relies on a single omnipresent service provider. Rather, the actual user is 100% in charge of operating the tool. No account necessary. This lack of a gate keeper means that there is no one to soften the user experience. It also means that no one can be excluded from broadcasting a radio message, or transferring some bitcoins. That’s a neat feature.

The ham radio community seems to be quite comfortable with its nicheness. Ham radio operators don’t huddle together and talk about “overthrowing the totalitarian system of smart phones” or “displacing evil email.” There is no ham radio fixes this meme on twitter.

And no wonder. If ham radio were to have gone mainstream by 2025, it would only be because some sort of massive natural disaster, say a meteor strike, has crippled all other forms of communication. No sane ham radio operator would wish this sort of doom scenario on the world.

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That’s a good way to think of it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1351: Facebook’s junk cancer ads, the trouble with efficiency, California quake odds rise, Google’s walled garden, and more


Blue LEDs: efficient, but really quite vexing if they’re on you a lot. CC-licensed photo by Bill Strong on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Short rations. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

I have cancer. Now my Facebook feed is full of ‘alternative care’ ads • The New York Times

Anne Borden King:

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Last week, I posted about my breast cancer diagnosis on Facebook. Since then, my Facebook feed has featured ads for “alternative cancer care.” The ads, which were new to my timeline, promote everything from cumin seeds to colloidal silver as cancer treatments. Some ads promise luxury clinics — or even “nontoxic cancer therapies” on a beach in Mexico.

There’s a reason I’ll never fall for these ads: I’m an advocate against pseudoscience. As a consultant for the watchdog group Bad Science Watch and the founder of the Campaign Against Phony Autism Cures, I’ve learned to recognize the hallmarks of pseudoscience marketing: unproven and sometimes dangerous treatments, promising simplistic solutions and support. Things like “bleach cures” that promise to treat everything from Covid-19 to autism.

When I saw the ads, I knew that Facebook had probably tagged me to receive them. Interestingly, I haven’t seen any legitimate cancer care ads in my newsfeed, just pseudoscience. This may be because pseudoscience companies rely on social media in a way that other forms of health care don’t.

«

Just as worth reading is an earlier piece that Borden King co-wrote in April which points out how social media allows these junk companies to sell their stuff.
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Chance of big San Andreas quake increased by Ridgecrest temblors • Los Angeles Times

Rong-Gong Lin II:

»

A new study suggests that last year’s Ridgecrest earthquakes increased the chance of a large earthquake on California’s San Andreas fault.

The study, published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America on Monday, says there is now a 2.3% chance of an earthquake of magnitude 7.5 or greater in the next 12 months on a section of the 160-mile-long Garlock fault, which runs along the northern edge of the Mojave Desert.

That increased likelihood, in turn, would cause there to be a 1.15% chance of a large earthquake on the San Andreas fault in the next year.

Those odds may seem small. But they’re a substantial jump from what the chances were before last year’s Ridgecrest, Calif., earthquakes, whose epicenters were about 125 miles northeast of downtown L.A.

The new odds mean a large quake on the Garlock fault is now calculated to be 100 times more likely — rising from 0.023% in the next year to 2.3%.

«

That’s quite a big change. A year ago, what would you have thought were the chances of a pandemic cratering economies? 2.3%?
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Google search upgrades make it harder for websites to win traffic • Yahoo

Gerrit De Vynck:

»

In the early 2000s, the company’s search engine offered a simple deal: Produce quality information and Google will send you traffic so you can make money showing ads. Reinvest some of that cash to make better experiences, and the web will grow, giving Google more territory to explore and organize.

“Our search results are the best we know how to produce. They are unbiased and objective,” Page and co-founder Sergey Brin wrote when the company went public in 2004. Ads would be few, helpful and unobtrusive, they said. 

This deal has been slowly changing, though. A turning point came in June 2019. That was when more than half of searches kept users on Google for the first time, rather than sending people to other sites through a free web link or an ad, according to data from digital marketing company Jumpshot.

“We’ve passed a milestone in Google’s evolution from search engine to walled-garden,” said Rand Fishkin, who has advised businesses on how to work with Google’s search engine for nearly two decades. “They used to be the good guys.”

On smartphones, the change has been more pronounced. From June 2016 to June 2019, the proportion of mobile searches that led to clicks on free web links dropped to 27% from 40%. No-click searches, which Fishkin says suggests the user found the information they needed on Google, rose to 62% from 56%. Meanwhile, clicks on ads more than tripled, Jumpshot data show. 
When the search engine can give straightforward answers and save users a click, it will do that, and some sites have embraced this as a new way to gain traffic, according to Danny Sullivan, public liaison for Google’s search team. The company knows “the best information is coming from the web” and it wants to support the ecosystem, he added.

«

From search engine to walled garden is a good way to put it. Google never wants to let you out.
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Just too efficient • ongoing

Tim Bray on having seen a couple of street sweepers in Beijing in 2019 pausing to tell each other a story and have a smoke:

»

You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing.

I’ve felt this for years, and there’s plenty of evidence:
Item: Every successful little store with a personality morphs into a chain because that’s more efficient. The personality becomes part of the brand and thus rote.
Item: I go to a deli fifteen minutes away to buy bacon, rashers cut from the slab while I wait, because they’re better. Except when I can’t, in which case I buy a waterlogged plastic-encased product at the supermarket; no standing or waiting! It’s obvious which is more efficient.
Item: I’ve learned, when I have a problem with a tech vendor, to seek out the online-chat help service; there’s annoying latency between question and answers as the service rep multiplexes me in with lots of other people’s problems, but at least the dialog starts without endless minutes on hold; a really super-efficient process.
Item: Speaking of which, it seems that when you have a problem with a business, the process for solving it each year becomes more and more complex and opaque and irritating and (for the business) efficient.

Item, item, item; as the world grows more efficient it grows less flavorful and less human. Because the more efficient you are, the less humans you need.

The end-game: efficiency, taken to the max, can get very dark.

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And he then goes on to show you just how dark.
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Why are LED indicator lights (especially blue lights) so annoying? • Tedium

Ernie Smith:

»

There’s a light on the front of my TV set—a 55-inch TCL Roku TV set, of the kind that people who just want an inexpensive big TV buy—that I find annoying. It seems like a light that exists basically for show. A lot of our electronics have these annoying lights, especially set-top boxes that don’t really do much more than sit there most of the time.

Yes, indicator lights are useful—a quick way of knowing whether your laptop is charging or you’ve gotten a notification of some kind—but they can be maddening when they’re too in-your-face. Recently, a follower of mine on Twitter, Michael Krakovskiy, posed what I thought was an amazing suggestion regarding these flashing lights, along with loud buzzing noises and internet access: a company should actively develop products without them, and specialize in it. (Somewhat in jest; he did suggest a router without internet access.)

How did we get here, to a place where indicator lights became a constant annoyance? And how do we get out?

«

Fascinating article on how blue became the colour.
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Aircraft: Electronic Code of Federal Regulations (eCFR)

»

Recharging of the devices and/or the batteries on board the aircraft is not permitted. Each battery must not exceed the following:

(i) For lithium metal batteries, a lithium content of 2 grams; or

(ii) For lithium ion batteries, a Watt-hour (Wh) rating of 100 Wh.

«

Why this? Because, as @push_hl points out, the 16in MacBook Pro already has a battery with the maximum size you can take on an aircraft (yes, OK, who’s going on an aircraft soon, but), and claims a battery life of 11 hours.

This means that the Apple Silicon Macs can’t use the space saved by using a SoC for battery. (Well, they might, but there’s a limit.) But the laptops can’t really get thinner – that’s limited by the keyboard key travel. My guess, along with others, is the addition of 4G modems, touch screens in future, and Face ID.
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Hulu’s ‘Mrs. America’ explores Phyllis Schlafly’s long shadow • The Atlantic

Sophie Gilbert:

»

During the 1970s, Schlafly was camera-ready pith in pearls and a pie-frill collar, a troll long before the term existed, who’d begin public speeches by thanking her husband for letting her attend, because she knew how much it riled her feminist detractors. Armed only with a newsletter and a seeming immunity to shame, Schlafly took a popular bipartisan piece of legislation—the Equal Rights Amendment, which affirms men and women as equal citizens under the law—and whipped it up into a culture war as deftly as if she were making dessert.

For all her efforts, she actually won very little—she was too toxic for a plum Cabinet post, and too early for a prime-time cable-news show. After her heyday, only glimmers of Schlafly lingered in mainstream culture. The character of Serena Joy in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, who once worked full-time lecturing women on the sanctity of staying home, was partly inspired by her. By the time a hagiographic biography of Schlafly was published in 2005, reviewers deduced that although her impact on the ugliness of American politics had been profound, her manipulation of grassroots resentment (not to mention her isolationism and hostility toward immigrants) had rendered her fogyish and obsolete in the George W. Bush era.

The other great irony of Schlafly is that she died in September 2016, two months before Donald Trump, a leader anointed in her image, beat the first female candidate for president of the United States. Like it or loathe it, the new Hulu series Mrs. America makes clear, we are living in a moment that Schlafly begot.

«

A fabulous exploration of how we got to where we are today. As the alternative headline says, we’re just living in her world. Unfortunately.
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SoftBank explores options for chip designer Arm Holdings • WSJ

Dana Cimilluca and Cara Lombardo:

»

SoftBank bought Arm, which designs microprocessors that power most of the world’s smartphones, in 2016. At the time it was SoftBank’s largest-ever acquisition.

SoftBank chief Masayoshi Son hailed the acquisition as a “paradigm shift” at the company, enabling it to take advantage of the potential of the Internet of Things, which refers to the connectivity of everyday devices. But sales of the software that Arm developed for managing connected devices have been relatively flat, excluding a boost from acquisitions.

Arm last week said it planned to transfer two IoT-services units into new entities that would be owned and operated by SoftBank as part of a move to focus on its core semiconductor-IP business. The company said it expected the transfer, if approved, to be finalized by the end of September.

SoftBank’s $100bn Vision Fund, which invests in tech companies and holds a 25% stake in Arm, has in the past considered transferring the stake back to SoftBank because fund executives believe the tech company’s lackluster revenue growth has been a drag on the overall valuation of its portfolio.

SoftBank’s earnings have been battered recently by huge losses at the Vision Fund, undermining plans to raise a second big investment vehicle.

«

The thing about Arm is that it was never going to be a big-growth business; it’s an intellectual property company.
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Traditional PC shipments continue to grow amid global economic slowdown • IDC

»

“The strong demand driven by work-from-home as well as e-learning needs has surpassed previous expectations and has once again put the PC at the center of consumers’ tech portfolio,” said Jitesh Ubrani research manager for IDC’s Mobile Device Trackers. “What remains to be seen is if this demand and high level of usage continues during a recession and into the post-COVID world since budgets are shrinking while schools and workplaces reopen.”

“Early indicators suggest strong PC shipments for education, enterprise, and consumer, muted somewhat by frozen SMBs,” said Linn Huang, research vice president, Devices and Displays at IDC. “With inventory still back ordered, this goodwill will continue into July. However, as we head deeper into a global recession, the goodwill sentiment will increasingly sour.”

«

Putting the brakes on the optimism a little, then. IDC says PC shipments rose 11.2% to 72.3m units (and put Apple 4th with a 7.7% share of the market. That’s near a historic high (which nudged over 8% in 2017).

Gartner puts the growth a lot lower, at 2.8%, and ditto for shipments at 64.8m. The two companies disagree about who was biggest (HP or Lenovo?), how many computers Apple shipped (over 5m, less?) but at least agree that lots of laptops were sold.

Also possibly relevant: Digitimes says “Apple is set to significantly increase its new MacBook Pro orders in late third-quarter 2020 and will see its overall MacBook shipments rise over 20% sequentially in the third quarter, according to sources from the upstream supply chain.” That sounds to me like the 13in MacBook Pro will be replaced with a 14in Apple Silicon MacBook Pro in the fourth quarter.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1350: Facebook mulls political ad ban, time to quit Chrome, is Big Sur fun?, Mueller on Stone, AI to make you polite, and more


An Apple ARM chip (in an iPod): what will chips like these do to Intel and OEMs once they’re in Macs? CC-licensed photo by htomari on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Rounded. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook mulls political-ad blackout ahead of US election • Bloomberg via Yahoo News

Kurt Wagner:

»

Facebook is considering imposing a ban on political ads on its social network in the days leading up to the U.S. election in November, according to people familiar with the company’s thinking.

The potential ban is still only being discussed and hasn’t yet been finalized, said the people, who asked not to be named talking about internal policies. A halt on ads could defend against misleading election-related content spreading as people prepare to vote. Still, there are concerns that an ad blackout may hurt “get out the vote” campaigns, or limit a candidate’s ability to respond widely to breaking news or new information.

This would be a big change for Facebook, which has so far stuck to a policy of not fact-checking ads from politicians or their campaigns. That’s prompted criticism from lawmakers and advocates, who say the policy means ads on the platform can be used to spread lies and misinformation. Civil rights groups also argue the company doesn’t do enough to remove efforts to limit voter participation, and a recent audit found Facebook failed to enforce its own voter-suppression policies when it comes to posts from U.S. President Donald Trump.

Facebook shares briefly dipped after Bloomberg‘s report, before recovering to close Friday at a record $245.07. Hundreds of advertisers are currently boycotting Facebook’s marketing products as part of a protest against its policies.

Ad blackouts before elections are common in other parts of the world, including the U.K., where Facebook’s global head of policy, Nick Clegg, was once deputy prime minister. A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment.

…Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former top security executive, said Friday that any political ad ban could benefit Trump. “Eliminating online political ads only benefits those with money, incumbency or the ability to get media coverage,” he tweeted. “Who does that sound like?”

«

How long is Facebook going to mull this, exactly? Stamos is right that Trump would get coverage, but this time that might not be anything like 2016. And in 2016, social media was surely a factor for some people.
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Quit Chrome. Safari and Edge are just better browsers for you and your computer • WSJ

Joanna Stern tried out both Edge on Windows (and Mac) and Safari on the Mac, and found that both were as fast or faster than Chrome, and used significantly less battery, and of course also don’t spy on you:

»

Maybe you’re stuck with Chrome, either because of your crucial work web apps, or because you like it and believe the browser (and Google) can improve.

“I view performance on Chrome as a journey not a destination,” said Max Christoff, director of Chrome browser engineering. “This is an ongoing investment in improvements to speed, performance and battery life.” When I shared my test results, he said three big improvements were due in the next few months.

Chrome will soon be updated to limit the power that resource-heavy ads can consume. A new optimization will allow the most performance-critical parts of the software to run even faster. And, perhaps most significant, Chrome will improve “tab throttling” by better prioritizing active tabs and limiting resource drain from tabs in the background. Mr. Christoff said this will have a “dramatic impact on battery and performance.” He says he’s specifically encouraged by early tests on Mac laptops.

«

I suspect those tests are against the old version of Chrome, rather than the new version of Edge or Safari. The difference in her battery tests are more than an hour for both Edge and Safari over Chrome. Google used to have a great browser, but somewhere along the way they got lost. (Firefox, meanwhile, comes out worst of the four.)
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The comeback of fun in visual design • Applypixels

Michael Flarup:

»

With the redesign of macOS 11 Big Sur, Apple has made many interface changes and updated the appearance of apps. Materials and dimensionality has made its way back into the interface —and every single app icon for every application and utility that Apple ships with macOS has been redesigned with depth, textures and lighting. This is a big deal. Probably bigger than most people realise.

As with all big shifts in design, you’re going to get a lot of noise. People will try to co-opt this new direction and attempt to label it as something it’s not (looking at you neomorphism). People will find fault with the execution. People will disagree that there’s even a change. There’ll be snark. There’ll be a period of adjustment. There’s a lot to talk about— but I think most of it misses the point.

This is a philosophical change in the role of visual design and one some of us have been working towards for a long time. It’s just the beginning, but I think we’re on the cusp of a new era.

«

OK, though the new era seems to involve inconsistency (the chess piece and the hard drive and the loupe are on differently tilted planes) and the defiance of gravity (notice the liquid in the eyedropper on the bottom row).
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Apple ‘Arms’ Macs with Apple Silicon • Counterpoint Research

Brady Wang, at the analysts:

»

Future Macs:

• PCB components will be more compact in future laptop Macs, including MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. This will allow the new Macs to use the up-to-date high-performance processors and other components in a smaller package, leaving more room for battery packs
• New Macs may adopt BGA-SSD or even raw NAND that will be managed directly by Apple Silicon. This can save some space and costs of controllers
• Since the ARM core will consume less power, it will not require a large fan as in Intel-based Macs. The saved space will be used for the battery as well
• The functions of Macbook Air and iPad Pro will become very close. The former is like a clamshell laptop and the latter is like a detachable laptop
• Future Macs are expected to integrate more sensors, such as 3D sensing and ultra-wideband (UWB). The SoC here will incorporate more powerful NPUs to process the image captured by iPhone 12 and iPad Pro
• Although the cost of Apple Silicon is lower than Intel’s CPU, the price of future Macs will not necessarily be cheaper than the current models. On the other hand, the price may increase because of the new design with additional sensors and chips.

«

Like Wang, I don’t expect the prices to come down. Apple’s pricing is part of its branding; it’s not exactly a Veblen good, but the intent is always to pick a price that sets it apart.

The latest episodes of the Accidental Tech Podcast and Upgrade have a lot of discussion about what the ARM Macs (as everyone is calling them, absent a better name for now) will look like: the slap-your-head obvious point is that they’ll have rounded screens (rather like an iPhone) because that’s how the Big Sur operating system looks.

I wonder about the expected emphasis on battery life. How long does one need, exactly? 15 hours? 24 hours?
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Apple Silicon: the passing of Wintel • Monday Note

Jean-Louis Gassée:

»

what are Dell, HP, Asus, and others going to do if Apple offers materially better laptops and desktops and Microsoft continues to improve Windows on ARM Surface devices? In order to compete, PC manufacturers will have to follow suit, they’ll “go ARM” because, all defensive rhetoric aside, Apple and Microsoft will have made the x86 architecture feel like what it actually is: old.

This won’t happen overnight and there will be an interesting mess of x86 and ARM SoC machines fighting it out in the marketplace. Large organizations need continuity and would balk at the prospect of servicing two kinds of Windows machines and apps. As usual, they’ll downplay Apple’s advantage and curse Microsoft for causing trouble. But if the newer machines are actually better, rogue members within these organizations will sneak in new devices and software; they always do.

We now come to Intel’s reaction. Not what they’ll say when the trouble really starts, which could be soon.
Intel execs know they missed the Smartphone 2.0 revolution because of culture blindness. They couldn’t bear to part with the high margins generated by the x86 cash cow; they couldn’t see that lower margins could be supported by unimaginable volume. Now, Intel is facing a more serious problem: The x86 commands high margins not because of the chip, but because of the Intel/Windows duopoly, meaning that, all other thangs being equal, chips not running Windows get lower margins than an x86 CPU. Now that union, that advantage is about to disappear. Intel will face ARM-based SoCs running Windows on ARM with applications, in PC-like quantities, at lower prices.

This leaves Intel with one path: if you can’t beat them, join them.

«

I think it was Ben Thompson who said that Intel should have taken the opportunity to make ARM chips for Apple. Instead it will be forced to if Apple shows that ARM chips get better battery life or power in the same package. Which it pretty surely will.
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Why millennial Harry Potter fans reject J. K. Rowling • The Atlantic

Helen Lewis:

»

The Millennial generation has grown up in a world shaped by the gains of the ’80s, when a rainbow coalition of queer activists, feminists, and left-wingers took on the establishment and religious right: AIDS denialists, golf-club sexists, segregation sympathizers, and televangelists ranting about Sodom. The lines are not so easily drawn now, and the modern left finds it hard to parse clashes between two oppressed groups, such as conservative Muslim parents and LGBTQ-friendly school curricula.

Much of the fan commentary following Rowling’s article has focused on what the Harry Potter series was “really about,” and whether its author has betrayed those principles. To outsiders, these discussions can seem bizarre—arguments about fascism and eugenics play out with references to goblins and Polyjuice Potions—but they are a reflection of how deeply some Millennials have been shaped by Rowling’s world.

This emotional synthesis of reader and writer happens only with books we love when we are young. (I am sad, but strangely relieved, that my own beloved Terry Pratchett is safely dead.) On The Leaky Cauldron, one commenter argued against presenting “sanitized news coverage in the way the ministry and news media do in light of Voldemort’s return.” Another replied that Voldemort demonized mudbloods and muggles for not inheriting wizarding ability: “Guess who else is demonising people for not having the correct blood to be who they say they are?” Rowling gave these fans the tools they use to think about the world. Now they are having to unstitch themselves from her universe, and discover where Harry Potter ends and they begin. It’s a wrench at least as big as leaving home.

«

Lewis, as ever, sets out the landscape in a way that lets you feel you’re safely overhead in a helicopter.
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Robert Mueller: Roger Stone remains a convicted felon, and rightly so • The Washington Post

Mueller led the long long investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election:

»

Based on our work, eight individuals pleaded guilty or were convicted at trial, and more than two dozen Russian individuals and entities, including senior Russian intelligence officers, were charged with federal crimes.

Congress also investigated and sought information from [Roger] Stone. A jury later determined he lied repeatedly to members of Congress. He lied about the identity of his intermediary to WikiLeaks. He lied about the existence of written communications with his intermediary. He lied by denying he had communicated with the Trump campaign about the timing of WikiLeaks’ releases. He in fact updated senior campaign officials repeatedly about WikiLeaks. And he tampered with a witness, imploring him to stonewall Congress.

The jury ultimately convicted Stone of obstruction of a congressional investigation, five counts of making false statements to Congress and tampering with a witness. Because his sentence has been commuted, he will not go to prison. But his conviction stands.

Russian efforts to interfere in our political system, and the essential question of whether those efforts involved the Trump campaign, required investigation. In that investigation, it was critical for us (and, before us, the FBI) to obtain full and accurate information. Likewise, it was critical for Congress to obtain accurate information from its witnesses. When a subject lies to investigators, it strikes at the core of the government’s efforts to find the truth and hold wrongdoers accountable. It may ultimately impede those efforts.

We made every decision in Stone’s case, as in all our cases, based solely on the facts and the law and in accordance with the rule of law. The women and men who conducted these investigations and prosecutions acted with the highest integrity. Claims to the contrary are false.

«

Paul Manafort, Michael Cohen, Stone, Michael Flynn – all guilty. What a bunch.
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AI wants to make your writing more polite • CNET

Leslie Katz:

»

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have devised a technique that’s designed to automatically make written communication more polite. Rather than merely scanning text for politeness, as past computational linguistics methods have, this one actually changes directives or requests that use either impolite or neutral language by restructuring them or adding words to make them more well-mannered. “Say that more politely,” for instance, might become “Could you please say that more politely?”
But it’s not just about using words or phrases such as “please” and “thank you,” said Shrimai Prabhumoye, a doctoral student at CMU’s Language Technologies Institute and one of the authors of a research paper on the method

Sometimes, it means making language a bit less direct, so that instead of saying “you should do X,” the sentence becomes something like “let us do X.”

…At the heart of their experiment is a dataset of 1.39 million sentences analyzed for politeness and labeled with a politeness score. The team then developed a “tag and generate” approach, which identifies sentences that are outright impolite, or could just use a manners boost, and tweaks them with words and phrases Emily Post would be more approving of.

“Yes, go ahead and remove it” becomes “Yes, we can go ahead and remove it.” Adding “we,” the researchers explain, creates the sense that the burden of the request is shared by speaker and addressee.

«

But:

»

The CMU team’s dataset comes from a surprising, though rather appropriate, source: emails exchanged by employees at Enron, the Texas-based energy company at the center of a high-profile accounting fraud scandal that brought into question the accounting practices of many corporations.

«

Over time might it turn, say, “let’s book this” to “let’s put this into an offshore vehicle off the books”? (Here’s the actual paper.)
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Free math apps – used by over 100 million students and teachers worldwide • GeoGebra

»

GeoGebra Math Apps:
Get our free online math tools for graphing, geometry, 3D, and more!

«

I link to this simply because it looks like the sort of thing that could be useful for anyone who wants to create some resources. 3D Calculator, graphing calculator, and all sorts.
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Benedict’s Newsletter • Benedict Evans

»

Every Sunday, I write an email newsletter about what’s happening in technology that actually matters, and what it means. I pick out the news and ideas that you don’t want to miss in all the noise, and give them context and analysis.

I’ve been writing it since 2013, and there are now 150,000 subscribers. It’s pretty good.

Starting from the summer of 2020, I’m adding a premium tier.

Every Sunday night, premium subscribers get an exclusive weekly column, in-depth analysis, and a chart, plus everything that mattered in tech. They also have access to the archive of all past issues. You can join for $10 a month or $100 a year, or you can buy a lifetime membership.

«

Until the end of the month the free tier will include the paid-for content, as a taster. With 150,000 subscribers, that’s going to be costly just to send out. Paid-for email newsletters are the new websites.

In case you’re wondering – the lifetime membership is for 25 years. Discuss whether that’s Evans’s expected lifetime, his expected working lifetime, or yours.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: The suggestion that Parler (the sinkhole for right-wingers chucked off Twitter) might offer $20,000 to “left-wing influencers” turns out not to be quite accurate. Instead, one would have to join and then “The company will judge the best one, based on engagement with the
community, and pay that person the reward.” In other words, trade your good name by doing free labour for them, and wonder about the judging process. Sounds well worth missing. (Thanks Seth for the update.)

Start Up No.1349: UK’s chaotic paper Covid trail, Facebook as gaslighter, draw that circle!, a real virus for Macs?, Quibi’s diehards, and more


UK telcos are warning that ripping out Huawei gear in a hurry could mean no signal on mobiles. CC-licensed photo by evan p. cordes on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Not available on paper. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Coronavirus: The inside story of how UK’s ‘chaotic’ testing regime ‘broke all the rules’ • Sky News

Ed Conway and Rowland Manthorpe:

»

As Britain sought to assemble its coronavirus testing programme, all the usual rules were broken.

In their effort to release rapid data to show the increase in testing capacity, officials from Public Health England (PHE) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) “hand-cranked” the numbers to ensure a constant stream of rising test numbers were available for each day’s press conference, Sky News has been told.

An internal audit later confirmed that some of those figures simply didn’t add up.
According to multiple sources, the data collection was carried out in such a chaotic manner that we may never know for sure how many people have been tested for coronavirus.

“We completely buffed the system,” says a senior Whitehall figure. “We said: forget the conventions, we’re putting [this data] out.”

Sky News has learned that in the early days of mass COVID-19 testing, the statistical problems were so deep that one minister sat at their desk with Excel spreadsheets in front of them, calling round to try to collect data to use in each daily press conference.

Even as Health Secretary Matt Hancock struggled to get the number of tests carried out up to 100,000 a day by the end of April, the collection of those testing statistics was still so primitive that they were being compiled with pen and paper.

«

“World-beating”, indeed.
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When a critic met Facebook: ‘what they’re doing is gaslighting’ • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel spoke to Rashad Robinson, who spoke to Facebook about its civil rights audit:

»

Robinson: I believe we’re not going to win this fight through policies that Facebook puts in place. Yes, there are things Facebook could do tinkering on the margins. And, honestly, the only reason I’m at the table is because we don’t have the legislative and regulatory levers to pull right now. So I feel I need to be there. But the big fixes need those levers.

If there were not rules of the road for car companies around safety and seatbelts we wouldn’t get safety from the auto industry just because. They’d probably say things like Facebook says right now. “89% of seatbelts work!” [Facebook told Robinson that 89% of hate speech is caught before users report it.] And we’d say, ’that’s not good enough!’ And they’d say, well it’s a B-plus!’ The point is that there are regulations enforcing that accountability that Facebook does not have.

Q: You were instrumental in pushing Facebook for a public civil rights audit. What’s your reaction to the audit?
RR: The audit speaks to just how much Facebook’s incentive structure is broken. I keep thinking about the fact that the decisions around political speech and violations to rules goes through the team at the company that is the most political — who are in charge of dealing with lobbyists and Washington operators like Joel Kaplan [Facebook’s vice president of global public policy and a former Republican staffer and lobbyist].

And so then they consistently say things to me like, “Well, you just don’t like Republicans.” And I say, “I don’t think these issues should go through anyone who is primarily a political animal and operates inside D.C. politics.” I won’t pretend there are two equal sides of the issue. Joel Kaplan has political leanings that would make it harder for my grandfather to vote. And so if you put him in charge of voter suppression content, that’s an issue.

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Kaplan is going to become a bigger and bigger point of tension between Facebook and the outside world in the coming months.
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Conflict Culture is making social Unsocial • On my Om

Om Malik:

»

The internet has removed the limitations of space on the print media. It might have started with the blogs, and later embraced by The Huffington Post. Today, the opinion pages of respected dailies, have also become expressive, and thus veering towards, not having a real impact, but as tools to keep the readership base close. Whether it is on the right or the left, everything has become infotainment. 

Just as daytime talk shows and cable news talk shows, the internet too has become the colosseum. The post-social internet is no different than daytime television and cable news. About a decade ago, I wrote about the future where we will all be starring in a movie called me. I was excited about the sources going direct. “In our 21st-century society, we all want to stand out and get attention,” I wrote, and that it was going to become the “defining the ethos for the new internet-connected age as we go along.”

Fast forward to today, that desire has mutated into a new dangerous form. The conflict culture has not only infected the social platforms but also started to consume the host body. Whether it is the president, or a maverick entrepreneur, a delusional rapper, self-important investor, a media personality – they are now hosts of their shows.

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Circular

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Draw a freehand circle, then click analyze to see how close you got to a perfect circle. Reset to start over

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This is damn difficult with a trackpad. (I got 12,000-plus points for something that looked like a scone.) Great way to lose some time, though.
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‘UK faces mobile blackouts if Huawei 5G ban imposed by 2023’ • BBC News

Leo Kelion:

»

While it now seems likely the government will opt for a ban of some sort, the question is when it will come into effect. Some Tory backbenchers are urging a deadline to be set before the 2024 general election – and there has been speculation that it could be as soon as 2023.

But Vodafone and BT – which both use Huawei’s products in their networks – said this would be hugely disruptive. “To get to zero in a three-year period would literally mean blackouts for customers on 4G and 2G, as well as 5G, throughout the country,” said Howard Watson, BT’s chief technology and information officer.

He explained the logistics involved in bringing in cranes and shutting off streets to replace masts, base stations and other Huawei equipment meant that the only way to meet the timespan would be to switch over multiple sites in an area at the same time.

3G signals would not be affected as the EE network uses Nokia kit to provide that service.
Vodafone made a similar case – it uses Huawei’s kit in its 2G, 3G. 4G and 5G networks.

“[Customers] would lose their signal, sometimes for a couple of days, depending on how big or how intrusive the work to be carried out is,” said Andrea Dona, Vodafone UK’s head of networks.

“I would say a five-year transition time would be the minimum,” Mr Watson added: “A minimum of five years, ideally seven.”

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Apple promises to support Thunderbolt on its new ARM Macs • The Verge

Chaim Gartenberg:

»

Apple has yet to offer Thunderbolt support on any products outside of Intel-powered Macs — Apple’s ARM-based iPad Pro, in particular, stands out as featuring a regular USB-C port, not a Thunderbolt 3 connector. Apple’s ARM-based Developer Transition Kit also only features standard USB-C ports.

The news comes as Intel detailed its upcoming Thunderbolt 4 standard, which will be based on the USB4 spec standard and which uses the same USB-C connector that Thunderbolt 3 already does today. Both Thunderbolt 3 and Thunderbolt 4 offer more guaranteed features (like the ability to power external monitors, or charge laptops) compared to the standard USB 3 and USB4 standards that they’re built off of, and offer a consistency that regular USB-C standards can often be sorely lacking in.

Thunderbolt 4, in particular, offers the same 40 Gbps speeds that Thunderbolt 3 had offered, but adds even stricter hardware requirements for manufacturers: devices will have to be able to support either two 4K displays or one 8K display, and allow for PCIe data transfer speeds of up to 32 Gbps — which should be a boon for external storage and external GPUs.

«

Not surprising that the DTKs don’t have Thunderbolt 3, since they’re using iPad Pro chips. But including it (and Thunderbolt 4) in Apple Silicon Macs would be a way to distinguish them from iPads, apart from anything.

Also, 8K displays? I don’t think I’ve even got 8K eyes.
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EvilQuest Mac malware ‘is after your data, not your money’ • Macworld UK

Anders Lundberg:

»

researchers at SentinelOne have examined the encrypted files and discovered that the files themselves contain their encryption keys, making it straightforward to decrypt them. The company has already released a small freeware program that restores all files encrypted by EvilQuest.

Malwarebytes has researched the program more deeply and reports that the whole extortion function can in fact be a distraction to divert attention from the real goal: stealing data.

The malware sometimes downloads a Python script that goes through the entire home folder and uploads a long line of files to the control server, completely unencrypted.

Patrick Wardle’s continued investigations into the malware show that it also appears to be the first genuine virus for Mac since Mac OS X was released nearly 20 years ago.

Once the program has installed itself on the Mac, it runs a process that looks up all executable files in the affected home folder and adds a new bit of malicious code to the beginning of the file which will then run every time that file is run.

«

That the files contain their own encryption keys makes this like the very, very, very first piece of ransomware, the AIDS Trojan, back in 1989, which did almost the same thing. As for the malware part – I thought Apple’s malware checker would spot this, but I guess not.
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Hong Kong downloads of Signal surge as residents fear crackdown • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

»

The secure chat app Signal has become the most downloaded app in Hong Kong on both Apple’s and Google’s app stores, Bloomberg reports, citing data from App Annie. The surging interest in encrypted messaging comes days after the Chinese government in Beijing passed a new national security law that reduced Hong Kong’s autonomy and could undermine its traditionally strong protections for civil liberties.

The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China came with a promise that China would respect Hong Kong’s autonomy for 50 years following the handover. Under the terms of that deal, Hong Kong residents should have continued to enjoy greater freedom than people on the mainland until 2047. But recently, the mainland government has appeared to renege on that deal.

Civil liberties advocates see the national security law approved last week as a major blow to freedom in Hong Kong. The New York Times reports that “the four major offenses in the law—separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign countries—are ambiguously worded and give the authorities extensive power to target activists who criticize the party, activists say.” Until now, Hong Kongers faced trial in the city’s separate, independent judiciary. The new law opens the door for dissidents to be tried in mainland courts with less respect for civil liberties or due process.

«

The problem with Signal (as Ben Thompson and John Gruber discussed on their Dithering podcast) is that it’s completely tied to your phone, and your phone number. Lose your phone (or SIM) and you’re stuffed – and that SIM or phone might be the vector for your messages to be viewed.
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Google and Amazon are inadvertently funding Covid conspiracy sites to the tune of $25m • Forbes

Isabel Togoh:

»

The research shows ads from organizations including Merck, Loreal, Canon and the British Medical Association, a trade union for U.K. doctors, appeared on pages featuring conspiracy theory content.

“Based on our findings, ads for big brands have been found funding stories that tout debunked and dangerous cures, undercut government lock-down measures, equate track-and-trace apps with state surveillance, and traffic in theories that the Chinese government and the global elite should be blamed for the virus’ spread,” the GDI said.

The figures exclude advertising on disinformation on social media and video platforms, the GDI said, meaning the real numbers could be far higher.

The study was based on the GDI’s analysis of 480 English language sites between January and June this year, whose content was dominated by coronavirus misinformation, and which also carried adverts. The GDI made conservative estimates, and warned that their figures are likely to be “the tip of the iceberg.” They also estimate that ad revenue may have been skewed by a spike in overall web traffic sparked by more people being at home and searching for news online, as well as a decline in ad spend due to the pandemic.

«

The research is by the Global Disinformation Index, and I found it at the Internet Archive – weirdly it wasn’t on the blog because Bloomberg was getting some sort of exclusive.

This story plays out again and again.
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Quibi reportedly lost 90% of early users after their free trials expired • The Verge

Nick Statt:

»

Streaming service Quibi only managed to convert a little under 10% of its early wave of users into paying subscribers, says mobile analytics firm Sensor Tower. According to the firm’s new report on Quibi’s early growth, the short-form video platform signed up about 910,000 users in its first few days back in April. Of those users, only about 72,000 stuck around after the three-month free trial, indicating the app had about an 8% conversion rate.

That’s not too bad. But compare it to the streaming video industry’s most successful debut of the last few years, Disney Plus, and the resulting picture is a grim one for Quibi, which has struggled both to find a hit among its mobile-centric shows and gain traction with its desired younger, TikTok-loving demographic, despite the surge in screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Sensor Tower, Disney managed to convert a comparable 11% of early free trials users, but that was of out of whopping 9.5 million people the firm estimates signed up for Disney Plus in its first three days of availability in the US and Canada. Since then, Disney has added tens of millions more subscribers and now enjoys more than 50 million paying users as of April thanks in part to its international expansion.

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I’m surprised that it’s as many as 72,000, though don’t ignore the likelihood that lots of them have completely forgotten ever signing up and will unsubscribe when they notice.
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Update on the upcoming Wink Subscription • Wink Blog

»

We want to share updates about our Wink subscription – a vital change for Wink that will enable us to provide our customers with a strong and growing smart home experience. The change will bring about expanded support for new brand integrations and continue to bring enhancements through firmware and software updates.

Please know that we have adjusted our timelines since our initial announcement on May 6th to allow users more opportunity to make considerations. We were able to extend our service so that subscriptions will now begin on Monday, July 27th, 2020. All users who have not already subscribed will need to visit subscription.wink.com to sign up.

«

Previously on Wink, which does a sort of smart home hub thing, but is running low on money. Was the delay was because they were trying to raise fresh funding, or because they wanted to get the news to spread a bit further? Either way, I doubt many more people will sign up. Maybe if they did a bundle with Quibi?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1348: Facebook runs into more trouble, how WW2 plane crashes improved design, Trump rally blamed for Covid ramp, and more


Rejoice! Gary Larson is drawing new cartoons on his website. CC-licensed photo by Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Keeping my distance. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook’s own civil rights auditors said its policy decisions are a ‘tremendous setback’ • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Cat Zakrzewski:

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The civil rights auditors Facebook hired to scrutinize its civil rights record on Wednesday delivered a long-awaited and scathing indictment of the social media giant’s decisions to prioritize free speech above other values, which they called a “tremendous setback” that opened the door for abuse by politicians.

The report criticized Facebook’s choice to leave several posts by President Trump untouched, including three in May that the auditors said “clearly violated” the company’s policies prohibiting voter suppression, hate speech and incitement of violence.

The conclusions by Facebook’s own auditors are likely to bolster criticism that the company has too much power and that it bends and stretches its rules for powerful people. Though Facebook frequently says it listens to experts when making judgment calls, the company’s decisions on recent posts by Trump and others suggest that is not always the case on critical matters of free expression.

“When you put free expression on top of every other consideration, I think civil rights considerations take more of a back seat,” said Laura Murphy, a civil rights lawyer and independent consultant who led the two-year audit.

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Same day as this came out, on the day Sheryl Sandberg said that the company “stands firmly against hate”, Buzzfeed News finds that for four days it’s been running a fearmongering ad from a white nationalist Facebook Page.
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New work by Gary Larson • TheFarSide.com

Yes, it’s Gary Larson:

»

a few years ago—finally fed up with my once-loyal but now reliably traitorous [because it kept getting blocked] pen—I decided to try a digital tablet. I knew nothing about these devices but hoped it would just get me through my annual Christmas card ordeal. I got one, fired it up, and lo and behold, something totally unexpected happened: within moments, I was having fun drawing again. I was stunned at all the tools the thing offered, all the creative potential it contained. I simply had no idea how far these things had evolved. Perhaps fittingly, the first thing I drew was a caveman.

The “New Stuff” that you’ll see here is the result of my journey into the world of digital art. Believe me, this has been a bit of a learning curve for me. I hail from a world of pen and ink, and suddenly I was feeling like I was sitting at the controls of a 747. (True, I don’t get out much.) But as overwhelmed as I was, there was still something familiar there—a sense of adventure. That had always been at the core of what I enjoyed most when I was drawing The Far Side, that sense of exploring, reaching for something, taking some risks, sometimes hitting a home run and sometimes coming up with “Cow tools.” (Let’s not get into that.)

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His new stuff is just as good as ever.
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How the dumb design of a WWII plane led to the Macintosh • WIRED

Cliff Kuang:

»

Fitts’ data showed that during one 22-month period of the war, the Air Force reported an astounding 457 crashes just like the one in which our imaginary pilot hit the runway thinking everything was fine. But the culprit was maddeningly obvious for anyone with the patience to look. Fitts’ colleague Alfonse Chapanis did the looking. When he started investigating the airplanes themselves, talking to people about them, sitting in the cockpits, he also didn’t see evidence of poor training. He saw, instead, the impossibility of flying these planes at all. Instead of “pilot error,” he saw what he called, for the first time, “designer error.”

The reason why all those pilots were crashing when their B-17s were easing into a landing was that the flaps and landing gear controls looked exactly the same. The pilots were simply reaching for the landing gear, thinking they were ready to land. And instead, they were pulling the wing flaps, slowing their descent, and driving their planes into the ground with the landing gear still tucked in. Chapanis came up with an ingenious solution: He created a system of distinctively shaped knobs and levers that made it easy to distinguish all the controls of the plane merely by feel, so that there’s no chance of confusion even if you’re flying in the dark.

By law, that ingenious bit of design—known as shape coding—still governs landing gear and wing flaps in every airplane today. And the underlying idea is all around you: It’s why the buttons on your videogame controller are differently shaped, with subtle texture differences so you can tell which is which. It’s why the dials and knobs in your car are all slightly different, depending on what they do. And it’s the reason your virtual buttons on your smartphone adhere to a pattern language.

But Chapanis and Fitts were proposing something deeper than a solution for airplane crashes.

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The straight line element to the Mac, and other things, is remarkable, yet logical.
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Sanders-Biden climate task force calls for carbon-free power by 2035 • The Hill

Rachel Frazin:

»

The task force’s broad plan includes a goal of eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035, achieving net-zero emissions for all new buildings by 2030, and making energy-saving upgrades to as many as 4 million buildings and 2 million households within five years. 

Some of the recommendations released Wednesday set more specific targets than the former vice president’s current climate plan, which calls for a shift away from coal-fired electricity, halving the carbon footprint of buildings by 2035 and starting a national program aimed at affordable energy efficiency retrofits in homes.

The group is one of several “unity task forces” made up of supporters of Sanders and Biden that is making platform recommendations as Biden courts favor from the progressive faction of the party. 

…The climate panel is co-chaired by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a leading proponent of the Green New Deal, and 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry.

“The Unity Task Force urges that we treat climate change like the emergency that it is and answer the crisis with an ambitious, unprecedented, economy-wide mobilization to decarbonize the economy and build a resilient, stronger foundation for the American people,” the document says.

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The power plants could be quite the challenge. The coal plants are effectively dead already, but there’s a lot of CCGT plants out there, or being planned – even though renewables will be cheaper by the time they’re ready.
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Health official: Trump rally ‘likely’ source of virus surge • Associated Press

Sean Murphy:

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President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Tulsa that drew thousands of people in late June, along with large protests that accompanied it, “likely contributed” to a dramatic surge in new coronavirus cases, Tulsa City-County Health Department Director Dr. Bruce Dart said Wednesday.

Tulsa County reported 261 confirmed new cases on Monday, a one-day record high, and another 206 cases on Tuesday.

Although the health department’s policy is to not publicly identify individual settings where people may have contracted the virus, Dart said those large gatherings “more than likely” contributed to the spike.

“In the past few days, we’ve seen almost 500 new cases, and we had several large events just over two weeks ago, so I guess we just connect the dots,” Dart said.

A spokesman for the Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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What comment could they offer? “Sorry for ignoring all the advice on social distancing”?
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China’s superpower dreams are running out of money • Foreign Policy

Salvatore Babones:

»

when Western media reported in December that China was pressuring a reluctant Pakistan to resume work on the stalled China–Pakistan Economic Corridor, they failed to mention that China is unwilling to finance the construction itself. Similarly, China wants to build a new port in Myanmar, but it is reluctant to pay for it. China signed a Transit and Transport Agreement with Nepal in 2015 but has yet to build a single mile of road or railway in the landlocked Himalayan country. It’s the same story in Africa and Eastern Europe: China continues to announce grand projects but has been unwilling to offer enough money to actually get them off the ground.

China’s financing problems are nowhere more apparent—and less acknowledged—than in its military budgets. Analyses from the Center for Strategic and International Studies suggest that Chinese defense spending may actually fall in real terms in 2020. Given China’s elevated pace of military operations on several borders, spending constraints must be putting serious pressure on acquisitions budgets. It is impossible for anyone outside China’s defence establishment to know what is really going on, but circumstantial evidence suggests that many of China’s big-ticket weapons programs have been put on go-slow.

For example, China is believed to have built only 50 or so J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighters. The J-20 program now seems to be experiencing serious development problems, limiting production for the foreseeable future. This compares to America’s stock of 195 F-22 and 134 F-35 fifth-generation fighters, with continuing annual production of more than 100 F-35s, even after coronavirus delays.

Similarly, China once planned to deploy six U.S.-style aircraft carrier strike groups by 2035. Aside from the Soviet-surplus training carrier Liaoning, China currently has only one conventionally powered ski-jump carrier, with a second under construction. Plans for four nuclear-powered carriers have been delayed indefinitely due to “technical challenges and high costs.”

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Being a superpower is also super-expensive.
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Why corporate America gave up on R&D • Marker on Medium

Kaushik Viswanath talks to the authors of a study which suggests that American companies are giving up on effective R&D:

»

Sharon Belenzon (one of the authors): Companies are withdrawing from research, and I don’t think you can compensate for that with science created in universities and small firms. More importantly, leading economists have argued that what makes America unique is the strong link between technology and science generated by a diverse capitalist system. The diversity of institutions that engage in R&D are key. I am worried that we are losing such diversity in return for greater efficiency through specialization.

Q: What are the reasons behind that loss of diversity? Why do corporations no longer find it as desirable to engage in research?

Ashish Arora: There are two big factors. One is there are alternative sources of knowledge now, like the university system and startups, but the other big issue is that research is an unnatural activity inside a company. Companies are set up mostly to produce and deliver goods and services to the marketplace, not to have activities running that have no defined deliverables, with horizons of four to six years, not six to 18 months.

In the golden period of corporate research, the early successes like DuPont’s development of nylon generated a lot of goodwill. Because of those early successes, corporations agreed to keep funding them. But at some point, that goodwill runs out.

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Italian Alps’ pink snow is a cute sign of environmental disaster • Earther

Yessenia Funes:

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the dusty pink layer atop the Presena Glacier in the Italian Alps is more sinister than it looks. Algae has dyed the snow a bizarre color. The otherworldly look could end up speeding up the melt of snow and glaciers in the fragile mountain region.

Pink snow is usually a spring and summer phenomenon, requiring the right amount of light, warmth, and water to grow. Usually, the algae are inactive while under the snow and ice, but once melt season hits, the normally stark landscape bursts with color.

Biagio Di Mauro, a researcher at the Institute of Polar Sciences at Italy’s National Research Council, told Earther in an email that the bloom on Presena Glacier is an example of Chlamydomonas nivalis, a type of algae found in the Alps as well as polar regions from Greenland to the Antarctic. It’s more commonly referred to as watermelon snow, and it could be having an impact on snowmelt.

That’s because the whiter the snow, the more effective it is at bouncing the sun’s rays back into space, keeping things cool. Global warming is already doing enough harm to polar and mountain regions without algae coming and making it all the worse. A study published last year showed that up to half of the Alps’ glaciers could disappear this century as temperature rise.

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Our self-destruction will be heralded by more and more beautiful sunsets.
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Apple is planning to build its own GPUs, too, but playing quiet for now • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:

»

Apple has already told us that it will finish its switch to Intel hardware in about two years, and the company has announced its initiative for that process. It has made no equivalent commitment to GPU hardware.

Yes, Apple has experience in building its own mobile GPUs, but scaling up a GPU design isn’t like scaling up a CPU design. Assuming Apple’s A12Z isn’t a huge departure from the A12X, we can expect a die size of 122mm2. Die size on a larger chip like the Core i9-10900K (comparing monolithic die to monolithic die) is 206.1mm2. Only modestly bigger.

122mm2 doesn’t even get the ball rolling, in terms of a high-end GPU. The RTX 2080 Ti has a die size of 775mm2. Even AMD’s Radeon VII, while much smaller, is a 331mm2 design. It’s also not an accident that Intel has taken years to bring a discrete GPU to market, despite the fact that Tiger Lake systems with Xe-class graphics are expected to ship in the very near future. Just as it takes time to scale up a CPU design, it takes time to scale up a GPU design, too.

What may happen is this: Apple may launch its own laptop / desktop ARM CPU, with its own Apple silicon, while simultaneously supporting AMD (most-likely) GPUs on higher-end Mac hardware. So long as we’re talking about an SoC, it makes obvious sense for Apple to field its own silicon. The question is, will Apple start building its own discrete add-in cards? It would have to, if it wants to supply top-end graphics performance.

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Watching people try to figure out what the hell Apple is going to do with Apple Silicon is a lot of fun. I’m filing this one away to come back to when Apple tips its hand – some time later this year.
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Your next Samsung phone may not come with a charger in the box • SamMobile

“Adrian F”:

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You can always count on your new smartphone to come with a charger in the box. However, it now seems that we’re moving towards a future where that might not be the case. According to a new report from South Korea, future Samsung phones may not ship with a charger.

Samsung ships hundreds of millions of smartphones every single year. Dropping the charger from even half of its lineup is going to result in major cost reductions for the company. It may also enable the company to price its affordable devices even more aggressively.

According to the report, Samsung is discussing plans to exclude the charger from the box components for some smartphones. If it decides to go ahead with this, we might see the first Samsung phones to ship without a charger starting next year.

«

First reaction: I wonder where they got that idea? Second reaction: this isn’t going to be as easy for Samsung as for Apple, which has a single connector standard. Some older Samsung phones will be micro-USB. It’s not clear quite when they switched over to USB-C.

But as for “major cost reductions” – nope. As Neil Cybart pointed out in his newsletter, chargers cost a few dollars at most. Hundreds of millions of dollars can get eaten up in marketing or other costs; it’s a rounding error.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1347: the MidEast propaganda fakes, the death of malls?, pricing a Covid vaccine, Quibi’s tin ear, North Korea gets hacking, and more


Might TikTok follow Huawei in being banned from the US by Trump? CC-licensed photo by ApolitikNow on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. There you go. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Right-wing media outlets duped by a Middle East propaganda campaign • Daily Beast

Adam Rawnsley:

»

If you want a hot take about the Middle East, Raphael Badani is your man.

As a Newsmax “Insider” columnist, he has thoughts about how Iraq needs to rid itself of Iranian influence to attract investment and why Dubai is an oasis of stability in a turbulent region. His career as a “geopolitical risk consultant and interactive simulation designer” and an “international relations senior analyst” for the Department of Labor have given him plenty of insights about the Middle East. He’s printed those insights at a range of conservative outlets like the Washington Examiner, RealClear Markets, American Thinker, and The National Interest.

Unfortunately for the outlets who published his articles and the readers who believed them, Raphael Badani does not exist. 

His profile photos are stolen from the blog of an unwitting San Diego startup founder. His LinkedIn profile, which described him as a graduate of George Washington and Georgetown, is equally fictitious (and was deleted following publication of this article).

«

Twitter scrubbed a whole load of related accounts. But the best bit of this whole investigation is this:

»

The fake contributors also appear to have used AI-generated avatars for a handful of their personas. A high-resolution profile photo of the Joseph Labba persona, posted for an article at The Post Millennial, shows some of the telltale glitches commonly found in AI-generated faces. The left ear is oddly smooth without any ear lobe creases. Middlebury Institute of International Studies research associate Sam Meyer reviewed the photo of Labba using imagery analysis software and also noticed he appears to have three misfit teeth in his mouth where there should be four.

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With department stores disappearing, malls could be next • The New York Times

Sapna Maheshwari:

»

The standard American mall — with its vast parking lots, escalators and air conditioning, and an atmosphere heavy on perfume samples and the scent of Mrs. Fields cookies — was built around department stores. But the pandemic has been devastating for the retail industry and many of those stores are disappearing at a rapid clip. Some chains are unable to pay rent and prominent department store chains including Neiman Marcus, as well as J.C. Penney, have filed for bankruptcy protection. As they close stores, it could cause other tenants to abandon malls at the same time as large specialty chains like Victoria’s Secret are shrinking.

Malls were already facing pressure from online shopping, but analysts now say that hundreds are at risk of closing in the next five years. That has the potential to reshape the suburbs, with many communities already debating whether abandoned malls can be turned into local markets or office space, even affordable housing.

“More companies have gone bankrupt than any of us have ever expected, and I do believe that will accelerate as we move through 2020, unfortunately,” said Deborah Weinswig, founder of Coresight Research, an advisory and research firm that specializes in retail and technology. “And then those who haven’t gone bankrupt are using this as an opportunity to clean up their real estate.”

Ms. Weinswig said the malls that are able to withstand the current turmoil will be healthier — better tenants, more inviting and occupied — but she anticipated that about 25% of the country’s nearly 1,200 malls were in danger.

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‘Parler feels like a Trump rally’ — and MAGA world says that’s a problem • POLITICO

Tina Nguyen:

»

The MAGAfication problem [of Parler] is so bad that CEO and founder John Matze has openly begged progressive pundits to join the platform, offering a “progressive bounty” of $20,000 to any left-wing influencer with a following of 50,000 or more users on Twitter who makes an account. And with even establishment conservatives like Sens. Lindsey Graham and Mitt Romney eschewing Parler for now, Trump supporters worry that Parler’s influencers will be preaching to a MAGA choir forever.

“The question is not pure engagement. The question is influence,” said Will Chamberlain, editor-in-chief of the populist magazine Human Events. “Twitter is interesting because there’s so many people, prominent people, that can be influenced. Parler is not that.”

Regardless, Parler is rapidly growing: In the past week alone, Parler’s user base has grown from 1 million to 1.5 million users, according to a CNBC interview with Matze. And given the number of conservative influencers on the site — as well as a robust presence of conservative outlets, which don’t have to worry about social media companies shutting off their traffic spigots — there is potential for the site to grow a decently sized conservative audience.

«

You only have to *make* an account? Hey, am I influential or left-wing enough to get the payment? (Compared to lots of the people on Parler, the answer to the latter is probably “yes”.) But the existence of a right-wing talking shop is fabulously pointless.
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Technology to tackle online harms • University of Exeter Business School

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David Lopez and his team are developing ‘LOLA’. She’s a sophisticated artificial intelligence, capable of picking up subtle nuances in language. This means she can detect emotional undertones, such as anger, fear, joy, love, optimism, pessimism or trust.

LOLA takes advantage of recent advances in natural language processing. Not only that, she also incorporates behavioural theory to infer stigma, giving her up to 98% accuracy. And she continues to learn and improve with each conversation she analyses.

Unlike human moderators, LOLA can analyse 25,000 texts per minute. This allows her to swiftly detect stigmatising behaviour. Thus, she highlights cyberbullying, hatred, Islamophobia and more.

In a recent use-case on fake news about Covid-19, LOLA found that this misinformation has strong components of fear and anger. This tells us that fear and anger are helping disseminate the fake news. Predictably, emotive language motivates people to pass on information, before giving it a second thought. For LOLA, it is straightforward to pinpoint the originators of the misinformation. In this way, we can reduce online harms.

In another use-case, LOLA could pinpoint the originators or cyberbullying against Greta Thurnberg. LOLA grades each tweet with a severity score, and sequences them: ‘most likely to cause harm’ to ‘least likely’. Those at the top are the tweets which score highest in toxicity, obscenity and insult.

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Lola named after “Charlie and Lola” from the Lauren Child children’s books, not the Kinks song.
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Pompeo says U.S. looking at banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok • Reuters

Kanishka Singh and Shubham Kalia:

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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday that the United States is “certainly looking at” banning Chinese social media apps, including TikTok, suggesting it shared information with the Chinese government, a charge it denied.

“I don’t want to get out in front of the President (Donald Trump), but it’s something we’re looking at,” Pompeo said in an interview with Fox News.

U.S. lawmakers have raised national security concerns over TikTok’s handling of user data, saying they were worried about Chinese laws requiring domestic companies “to support and cooperate with intelligence work controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”

Pompeo said Americans should be cautious in using the short-form video app owned by China-based ByteDance.

“Only if you want your private information in the hands of the Chinese Communist Party,” Pompeo remarked when asked if he would recommend people to download TikTok.

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Well that would wreck Trump’s chances with the youth vote– oh, never mind. Also, ByteDance insists that it’s a Cayman Islands-based company, at least when it suits it.

In sort-of related news: TikTok is withdrawing from Hong Kong. That actually makes it sound as though it might be passing data to China. Or else that it’s going to treat Hong Kong as Chinese territory, and make the Chinese version of the app available there.
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Are you dense? • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jonathan Goldberg:

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Greatly oversimplifying, the average cellular base station today covers a range of about 1 mile. There are all sorts of caveats about this number – much longer ranges in open areas, much shorter in urban areas. By contrast, 3500 MHz travels less than half that, probably closer to 1,000 feet. And mmWaves travel a few hundred feet at best.

Looking at it another way. There are about 300,000 base stations in the US today across all the operators. A single network could probably cover the US with 100,000 sites. The mid-band spectrum probably needs 1 million sites and mmWave 10 million. To be clear, many of these will probably never be built, the point is that we need orders of magnitude more sites to provide a level of service that consumers care about or even notice.

This is not a problem of technology it is one of politics and zoning and organization. Getting sites is a business heavy on shoe leather – signing deals, getting approvals and laying cables. Who is going to do all that work?

For years, the US carriers have been slowly exiting the tower business. Today, a large share of cell sites are owned by 3rd party tower companies like Crown Castle and American Tower. This is an efficient way of doing things. The tower companies can specialize in local work (and have tax efficient corporate structures to boot), while the carriers can focus on what they do best, like running a network. Unfortunately, the tower companies do not have enough sites for 5G either. One tower company recently boasted they have 70,000 small sites in their portfolio. That sounds like a big number, and to their credit it is, but in the context of needing a million or two new sites, it is a drop in the bucket.

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In case you were planning to use 5G for our next entrant, below.
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Is anyone watching Quibi? • Vulture

Benjamin Wallace with a huge in-depth piece on how the 10-minutes-per-episode-only-on-mobile app/business got set up by Jeff Katzenberg, one of the most powerful men in Hollywood, and Meg Whitman, who retired from eBay:

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People have wondered why Katzenberg and Whitman, in their late and early 60s, respectively, and not very active on social media, would believe they have uniquely penetrating insight into the unacknowledged desires of young people. When I ask Whitman what TV shows she watches, she responds, “I’m not sure I’d classify myself as an entertainment enthusiast.” But any particular shows she likes? “Grant,” she offered. “On the History Channel. It’s about President Grant.”

Katzenberg is on his phone all the time, but he is also among the moguls of his generation who have their emails printed out (and vertically folded, for some reason) by an assistant. In enthusing about what a show could mean for Quibi, Katzenberg would repeatedly invoke the same handful of musty touchstones — America’s Funniest Home Videos, Siskel and Ebert, and Jane Fonda’s exercise tapes. When Gal Gadot came to the offices and delivered an impassioned speech about wanting to elevate the voices of girls and women, Katzenberg wondered aloud whether she might become the new Jane Fonda and do a workout series for Quibi. (“Apparently, her face fell,” says a person briefed on the meeting.)

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There are many other fabulous moments in the article, but this captures it beautifully.
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North Korea behind spate of Magecart attacks • Computer Weekly

Alex Scroxton:

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The North Korean state-sponsored Lazarus or Hidden Cobra advanced persistent threat (APT) group is almost certainly behind a spate of recent cyber attacks that saw the websites of multiple retailers, including Claire’s Accessories, compromised with the Magecart credit card skimmer, according to Sansec researcher Willem de Groot, who has been tracking the group.

North Korean APTs have previously tended to restrict their activity to financial services companies and South Korean cryptocurrency markets, but Sansec found that they have pivoted to targeting retail consumers in the US and Europe in a campaign that has been running for over 12 months.

De Groot told Computer Weekly it was likely that the activity was largely financially motivated – obtaining hard currency is suspected to be the prime motivation behind much of the threat activity originating from within the isolated, secretive and impoverished country.

De Groot said that with cards and CVV codes selling for between $5 and $30 on dark web forums, using Magecart could be a goldmine for the group.

This new discovery also marks something of a sea change for use of Magecart, which has traditionally been dominated by Russian and Indonesian hacking groups.

Sansec said Hidden Cobra probably managed to gain access to the store code of retailers through spearphishing attacks trying to obtain staff passwords. Once inside, they injected the malicious Magecart script into the store checkout page, from where the skimmer collected data input my customers, such as credit card numbers, and exfiltrated it to their server.

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Sounds like cryptocurrency isn’t paying off any more then. (Claire’s Accessories is a US-based company selling, well, accessories for women, whether named Claire or not.)
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How a Covid-19 vaccine could cost Americans dearly • The New York Times

Elisabeth Rosenthal:

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Manufacturers have traditionally claimed that only the lure of windfall profits would encourage them to take the necessary risks, since drug development is expensive and there’s no way of knowing whether they’re putting their money on a horse that will finish first, or scratch.

More recently they have justified high prices by comparing them to the costs they would prevent. Expensive hepatitis C drugs, they say, avoid the need for a $1m liver transplant. No matter that the comparison being made is to the highly inflated costs of treating disease in American hospitals.

Such logic would be disastrous if it were applied to a successful Covid vaccine. Covid-19 has shut down countless businesses, creating record-high unemployment. And the medical consequences of severe Covid-19 mean weeks of highly expensive intensive care.

“Maybe the economic value of the Covid vaccine is a trillion and even if the expense to the company was a billion. That’s 1,000 times return on investment,” said Dr. Schulman. “No economic theory would support that.”

…Medicare is not allowed to engage in price negotiations for medicines covered by its part D drug plan. The Food and Drug Administration, which will have to approve the manufacturer’s vaccine for use as ‘safe and effective,’ is not allowed to consider proposed cost. The panels that recommend approval of new drugs generally have no idea how they will be priced.

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A Covid-19 vaccine is going to be for the rich first, isn’t it. Not those who actually need it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1346: does Facebook need juries?, the pub privacy problem, Nokia’s 5G error, pandemic photography, Google’s shopbot, and more


Facebook and Twitter are suspending cooperation with data requests after Hong Kong introduced a new “security” law. CC-licensed photo by Jonathan van Smit on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook, WhatsApp, Twitter suspend review of Hong Kong requests for user data • WSJ

Newley Purnell:

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Facebook and its WhatsApp messaging service, along with Twitter have suspended processing requests for user data from Hong Kong law-enforcement agencies following China’s imposition of a national-security law on the city.

WhatsApp is “pausing” such reviews “pending further assessment of the impact of the National Security Law, including formal human-rights due diligence and consultations with human-rights experts,” a WhatsApp spokeswoman said in response to a Wall Street Journal query Monday.

A spokeswoman for parent company Facebook said in a later statement that it was doing the same. “We believe freedom of expression is a fundamental human right and support the right of people to express themselves without fear for their safety or other repercussions,” the Facebook statement said.

Twitter later in a statement said it “paused” all data and information requests from Hong Kong authorities immediately when the law went into effect last week.

The moves have put U.S. technology titans on a potential collision course with Beijing, after China fast-tracked the national-security legislation that includes a provision mandating local authorities to take measures to supervise and regulate the city’s previously unfettered internet.

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Numbers:
• Twitter doesn’t seem ever to have handed over any data about Hong Kong;
• Facebook had 241 in the second half of 2019, of which it granted 46%. (That includes Instagram. WhatsApp doesn’t seem to have a separate transparency report, and I can’t figure out if Facebook includes it.)

Of course the small numbers don’t mean a lot. Things are going to change a lot with the new “security law”, which is basically a way to enforce Chinese law in Hong Kong – destroying the “one country, two systems” principle.
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Let juries review Facebook ads • The Atlantic

Jonathan Zittrain with a neat idea:

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while an independent oversight board might help with the interpretation of content policies, the job of fact-checking questionable ads is, naturally, fact-specific. The 2020 campaign could see the placement of hundreds of thousands of distinct ad campaigns—far more than Facebook’s oversight board could handle either directly or on some kind of appeal. And there won’t be easy consensus—outside of those obviously deceptive vote-next-Wednesday messages—around what’s “demonstrably false.” That’s not a reason not to vet the ads, especially when the ability to adapt and target them in so many configurations makes it difficult for an opposing candidate or fact-checking third party to catch up to them and rebut them. Instead, we should be thinking as boldly as we can about process.

That brings us back to juries. For all that people might disparage them, and try to avoid serving on them, that small group of citizens has been designed to play a vital role in the high-stakes administration of justice, not as much because 12 randos have special expertise, but because they stand in for the rest of us: I might not agree with what they did, but I wasn’t there, and they heard the evidence, and next time it could be me asked to play their role.

In that spirit, why shouldn’t public librarians be asked in small panels, real or virtually convened, to evaluate ads? Today only 33% of Americans have trust in the news media, but 78% trust libraries to help them find information that is “trustworthy and reliable.”

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There would be tons and tons and tons of ads, so I guess people would have to be instantly co-opted into juries to make decisions. Maybe that would be the CAPTCHA on logging into Facebook – “is this ad valid?” Though I’m not sure how much you could trust the decision. It could just be random, get-rid-of-it response.

(Via John Naughton.)
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Trump, Twitter, Facebook, and the future of online speech • The New Yorker

Anna Wiener on the American legislative debate around Section 230, which exempts online platforms from liability for content their users post:

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Ultimately, the problems that need solving may not be ones of content moderation. In the book “Platform Capitalism,” published in 2017, the economist Nick Srnicek explores the reliance of digital platforms on “network effects,” in which value increases for both users and advertisers as a service expands its pool of participants and suite of offerings.

Network effects, Srnicek writes, orient platforms toward monopolization; monopolization, in turn, makes it easier for a single tweet to be an extension of state power, or for a single thirty-six-year-old entrepreneur, such as Zuckerberg, to influence the speech norms of the global digital commons. Both outcomes might be less likely if there were other places to go. The business model common to many social-media platforms, meanwhile, is itself an influence over online speech. Advertisers are attracted by data about users; that data is created through the constant production and circulation of user-generated content; and so controversial content, which keeps users posting and sharing, is valuable. From this perspective, Donald Trump is an ideal user of Twitter. A different kind of business might encourage a different kind of user.

Nothing about the current arrangement should be treated as inevitable; the commercial Internet is relatively young.

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It’s Super Saturday, the pubs are open and it’s a privacy nightmare • WIRED UK

Matt Burgess:

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Underpinning all these changes is the extra burden placed on businesses which have to spend time and money on putting these systems in place. But there’s one government request to pubs that carries risks to customer’s privacy and poses a data-heavy bureaucratic problem for landlords. They’ve been asked to record customer details that can be used as part of the NHS Test and Trace scheme, which can be used to identify people in the result of an outbreak.

The idea is simple but the execution is tough. The government says pubs, restaurants and cafes – as well as hotels, museums, cinemas, zoos and hairdressers when they reopen – should collect information about every single person who has visited.

This includes names, contact numbers, date of the visit and arrival and departure times and in the cases of businesses where customers only interact with one staff member. A group can provide just one phone number instead of contact details for everyone. However, when combined this data can give a sense of who individuals interact with, where and for how long. The data should be stored for 21 days and provided to the NHS if it is required.

The scheme is voluntary: neither businesses nor customers are required to collect or provide this information by law. But there’s plenty of potential for things to go wrong.

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The cartoonist Matt, in the Daily Telegraph, depicted how this would go: the landlord saying “It’s going to be fun contacting Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Spartacus and Joris Bohnson if there’s a problem later.” (Thanks G for the link.)
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Nokia, hurt by costly 5G chip mistake, struggles to catch Huawei • WSJ

Stu Woo:

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Nokia selected the type of chip it thought would work best before an important technical debate had been settled, Mr. Uitto said. A telecom-industry consortium that included Nokia hadn’t finalized the standards for how cellular antennas should communicate with phones and other devices.

Nokia had two options. One is called a “system-on-chip,” or SoC. Advantage: It is power efficient and cheap to make. Disadvantage: Once the chip is made, it is difficult to reprogram. If Nokia ordered a supply of SoC chips and then 5G standards didn’t support them, the company would have a bunch of useless chips.

The other option was the so-called field-programmable gate array, or FPGA, chip. Its advantage was flexibility. An FPGA can be reprogrammed after it goes into an antenna. Nokia could start making antennas with the chips, and wireless carriers could reprogram them to suit whatever 5G standards would be adopted later.

Nokia focused on the more expensive FPGA. When the development of 5G accelerated, and standards crystallized sooner than expected, around 2018, Nokia realized it had too many FPGA chips and not enough of the cheaper ones [SoCs] that Huawei and Ericsson had bet on.

The FPGA was like “buying a car with a lot of features that you don’t use,” said Sandro Tavares, Nokia’s head of mobile marketing. The SoC, meanwhile, “has exactly what you need, so you’re not spending that much money there.”

One European telecom executive said the price tag for certain Nokia equipment was double that of products by Huawei and Ericsson using the SoC chips. Nokia executives say the price difference for high-volume products was typically between 5% to 15%. Nokia products using the FPGA chip also used more energy, a downside for wireless carriers trying to cut down power consumption.

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De-escalating social media • Nick Punt

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Social media has a conflict problem.

Spending even a few minutes on public social media can expose us to dozens of people we know little about, talking about things we know little about. In such a public place, any individual’s reputation, perspectives, and history are difficult to ascertain, and therefore their words must be taken at face value. Coupled with an almost complete lack of standards for participation in the community and a high degree of variance in knowledge among participants, and the environment naturally skews toward conflict and tribalism.

One particular effect of this environment is that small misunderstandings, mistakes, or disagreements can unexpectedly explode due to the public nature of discourse and assumptions of bad faith. Meanwhile, very few tools exist to moderate these effects.

This is why it’s my belief that as designed today, social media is out of balance. It is far easier to escalate than it is to de-escalate, and this is a major problem that companies like Twitter and Facebook need to address.

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He makes a lot of good points, though it’s hard to see many people climbing down from things – it’s not as if that happens now even given the chance. The option to say “I was wrong” and then turn off replies would be good – but verified users now can choose to turn off replies and effectively insist they’re right.

His mockups are for Twitter. The dynamics on Facebook are rather different, I think.
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Ex-MI6 chief: the UK should bar Huawei from its 5G network • Financial Times

John Sawers is a former head of MI6:

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The Trump administration’s motives for trying to destroy Huawei can be debated. But the latest US sanctions, at the end of June and last week, mean that reliable non-Chinese suppliers to Huawei can no longer work with the company. UK intelligence services can therefore no longer provide the needed assurances that Chinese-made equipment is still safe to use in the UK’s telecoms network.

There are now sound technical reasons for the UK to change January’s decision, which would have allowed Huawei to have an up to 35% stake in the UK’s 5G market, and exclude the company instead. The security assessment is now different because the facts have changed. It helps Boris Johnson that its conclusion points in the same direction as the political pressure from Conservative members of parliament. Reportedly, a fresh decision on Huawei is expected in the next two weeks. 

The interesting question is whether Mr Johnson’s decision to exclude Huawei from UK 5G will be justified purely on technical grounds, and leave Huawei itself to decide whether to go ahead with its planned £1bn Cambridgeshire facility. Or if Mr Johnson uses the moment to set out a comprehensive strategy that puts limits on Chinese investment in the UK.

I suspect the UK government — preoccupied by Covid-19, the deep economic recession and the Brexit negotiations — has no bandwidth to come up with a considered, new strategy. But its first response on Hong Kong, especially its open-door offer to almost 3m Hong Kong citizens, suggests there will be a sharper-edged approach. 

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The shift against China in the past couple of years has been quite something to watch. Question to consider: how would Hillary Clinton have handled what’s going on? I think the US would have ended up taking the same action against ZTE (and stuck to it) and then Huawei – that had been brewing for a long time. Hong Kong though is quite a wild card in all this.
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Six months of pandemic photography • Science Mag: Visuals

Emily Petersen:

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Back in early March, we had already spent 2 months covering the COVID-19 outbreak. The team gathered for the morning news meeting, many joining by video conference. “I’m surprised you’re all still in the office. I bet by the end of the week they’ll send everyone home,” Science’s infectious disease reporter declared ominously from the large video screen on the wall.

Science’s offices closed 3 days later. With the pandemic hitting the Washington, D.C., area our staff began working from home.

It’s been six months since the virus emerged. Over that time, as senior photo editor, I’ve pored through thousands of pictures documenting the effects of this historical crisis.

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They’re all remarkable photos in their way. I think the one I found most captured the surreal nature of the time was the one captioned “A teacher prepares a tablet showing a student’s image for a ‘cybergraduation’ ceremony at a high school in Manila, Philippines, as social distancing continued.” But you might find something else that grabs your attention – the gym users inside plastic shrouds, perhaps.

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Telegram to pay SEC fine of $18.5m and return $1.2bn to investors as it dissolves TON • TechCrunch

Jonathan Shieber:

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Pavel Durov’s grand cryptocurrency dreams for his Telegram messaging service are ending with an $18.5m civil settlement with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and a pledge to return the more than $1.2bn that investors had put into its TON digital token.

The settlement ends a months long legal battle between the company and the regulator. In October 2019 the SEC filed a complaint against Telegram alleging the company had raised capital through the sale of 2.9 billion Grams to finance its business. The SEC sought to enjoin Telegram from delivering the Grams it sold, which the regulator alleged were securities. In March, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York agreed with the SEC and issued a preliminary injunction.

In May, Telegram announced that it was shutting down the TON initiative.

…[The SEC said:] “Our emergency action protected retail investors from Telegram’s attempt to flood the markets with securities sold in an unregistered offering without providing full disclosures concerning their project,” said Lara Shalov Mehraban, associate regional director of the New York Regional Office.

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Sure to be plenty more like this, aren’t there?
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Who is the mystery shopper leaving behind thousands of online shopping carts? • WSJ

Paul Ziobro:

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Shawn Bercuson perks up at the mention of John Smith. The chief executive of FinnBin Inc. first spotted the shopper on his site, which sells Scandinavian-inspired boxes for newborns to sleep in, over a year ago.

At first, he thought it was a corporate client—the address was in the heart of Silicon Valley—ready to make a large order, a gift to new parents. But as more orders popped up from John Smith, he wondered whether a competitor was collecting pricing and other information from his site.

“Then it started getting out of hand,” Mr. Bercuson said. “The amount of abandoned carts we got were just insane.” In May, he said, John Smith started and walked away from 73 orders.

A part of the original team that founded Groupon Inc., Mr. Bercuson traffics in analytics to make business decisions from advertising to website design. John Smith fouled that up. When shoppers abandon carts, websites typically send an automated email prodding them to finish the purchase. The dozens of emails to John Smith distort the numbers, as does false shopping traffic.

“I want to know what is working and what’s not,” he said.

He turned to message boards for other online merchants to see if he was John Smith’s only target. He quickly found out he wasn’t, but nobody had answers.

Jeffrey Gornstein thinks of John Smith every day. His site, ComfortHouse.com, which sells home goods such as address plaques and other personalized gifts, has been warned by its email provider about sending emails to nonexistent accounts, due to all the follow-ups sent to John Smith, which bounce back as undeliverable. Every time he gets a readout of recent sales, he scans to see if his foe has visited. He then logs into his email platform to deactivate all the fictitious entries from John Smith.

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Turns out that John Smith is a Googlebot checking prices, to make sure the cart prices match the advertised ones. Smart, even if it does screw up sites’ statistics.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1345: scientists warn on airborne Covid, how Facebook flattens us, iOS 14’s password watch, MIT’s bad images, and more


Seems we have these folks – the Neanderthals – to blame for some susceptibility to SARS-Cov-2. CC-licensed photo by Allan Henderson on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Restart! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

239 experts with one big claim: the coronavirus is airborne • The New York Times

Apoorva Mandavilli:

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The coronavirus is finding new victims worldwide, in bars and restaurants, offices, markets and casinos, giving rise to frightening clusters of infection that increasingly confirm what many scientists have been saying for months: The virus lingers in the air indoors, infecting those nearby.

If airborne transmission is a significant factor in the pandemic, especially in crowded spaces with poor ventilation, the consequences for containment will be significant. Masks may be needed indoors, even in socially-distant settings. Health care workers may need N95 masks that filter out even the smallest respiratory droplets as they care for coronavirus patients.

Ventilation systems in schools, nursing homes, residences and businesses may need to minimize recirculating air and add powerful new filters. Ultraviolet lights may be needed to kill viral particles floating in tiny droplets indoors.

The World Health Organization has long held that the coronavirus is spread primarily by large respiratory droplets that, once expelled by infected people in coughs and sneezes, fall quickly to the floor.

But in an open letter to the W.H.O., 239 scientists in 32 countries have outlined the evidence showing that smaller particles can infect people, and are calling for the agency to revise its recommendations. The researchers plan to publish their letter in a scientific journal next week.

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This surfaced over the weekend and has created a furore, science-wise. The implication is that if you’re not outdoors, you’re at risk (at least if people aren’t all using masks). Remember the restaurant that helped infect three different families? It’s essentially that.
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DNA linked to Covid-19 was inherited from Neanderthals, study finds • The New York Times

Carl Zimmer:

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“This interbreeding effect that happened 60,000 years ago is still having an impact today,” said Joshua Akey, a geneticist at Princeton University who was not involved in the new study.

This piece of the genome, which spans six genes on Chromosome 3, has had a puzzling journey through human history, the study found. The variant is now common in Bangladesh, where 63% of people carry at least one copy. Across all of South Asia, almost one-third of people have inherited the segment.

Elsewhere, however, the segment is far less common. Only 8% of Europeans carry it, and just 4% have it in East Asia. It is almost completely absent in Africa.

It’s not clear what evolutionary pattern produced this distribution over the past 60,000 years. “That’s the $10,000 question,” said Hugo Zeberg, a geneticist at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden who was one of the authors of the new study.

One possibility is that the Neanderthal version is harmful and has been getting rarer over all. It’s also possible that the segment improved people’s health in South Asia, perhaps providing a strong immune response to viruses in the region.

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Un-peer-reviewed, it’s worth saying. Although the top line is that it makes you more vulnerable to severe illness, the much higher occurrence in Asia and lower in Europe argues the other way.

But if it is dangerous, then it’s the best example of revenge being a dish best served cold. Quite the move there, Neanderthals. (Thanks G for the link.)
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How Facebook has flattened human communication • OneZero

David Auerbach, writing in 2018:

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The conclusions and impact of data analyses more often flow from the classifications under which the data has been gathered than from the data itself. When Facebook groups people together in some category like “beer drinkers” or “fashion enthusiasts,” there isn’t some essential trait to what unifies the people in that group. Like Google’s secret recipe, Facebook’s classification has no actual secret to it. It is just an amalgam of all the individual factors that, when summed, happened to trip the category detector. Whatever it was that caused Facebook to decide I had an African-American “ethnic affinity” (was it my Sun Ra records?), it’s not anything that would clearly cause a human to decide that I have such an affinity.

What’s important, instead, is that such a category exists, because it dictates how I will be treated in the future. The name of the category — whether “African American,” “ethnic minority,” “African descent,” or “black” — is more important than the criteria for the category. Facebook’s learned criteria for these categories would significantly overlap, yet the ultimate classification possesses a distinctly different meaning in each case. But the distinction between criteria is obscured. We never see the criteria, and very frequently this criteria is arbitrary or flat-out wrong. The choice of classification is more important than how the classification is performed.

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The way that we’re reduced to bits is easy to forget, but it’s part of why these systems distort our existences so much.
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Spies, lies, and stonewalling: what it’s like to report on Facebook • Columbia Journalism Review

Jacob Silverman:

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In conversations with more than fifteen journalists and industry observers, I tried to understand what it is like to cover Facebook. What I found was troublesome: operating with the secrecy of an intelligence agency and the authority of a state government, Facebook has arrogated to itself vast powers while enjoying, until recently, limited journalistic scrutiny. (Some journalists, like The Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr, have done important work linking Facebook data to political corruption in the UK and elsewhere.) Media organizations have stepped up their game, but they suffer from a lack of access, among other power asymmetries.

Many journalists contacted for this story declined to talk out of fear of hurting relationships with Facebook’s communications shop. A number of journalists agreed to be interviewed, only to pass after speaking to their editors and PR reps. Some spoke to me off the record.

Nearly everyone I talked to acknowledged that the relationship between Facebook and journalists had dramatically deteriorated in recent years. It wasn’t long ago, after all, that Facebook and its comms shop was, for many journalists, a valued source.

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I can’t think of a time when I thought of Facebook as a valued source. Certainly though in my experience it moved, exactly like Google, from being eager to talk up new products and give on-the-record briefings about those things, to being secretive and reactive. The shift wasn’t just about going public; there was also a size element (harder to coordinate things), and numerous scandals (for Google and Facebook) which subsequently made them wary of answering questions.

It’s a great piece, this.
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New Trump appointee puts global internet freedom at risk, critics say • The New York Times

Pranshu Verma and Edward Wong:

»

In less than a decade, the Open Technology Fund has quietly become integral to the world’s repressed communities. Over two billion people in 60 countries rely on tools developed and supported by the fund, like Signal and Tor, to connect to the internet securely and send encrypted messages in authoritarian societies.

After Mr. Pack was confirmed for his new post on June 4, following a personal campaign of support by President Trump, Mr. Pack fired the technology group’s top officials and bipartisan board, an action now being fought in the courts. A federal judge on Thursday ruled in Mr. Pack’s favor, a decision that plaintiffs will likely appeal.

On Friday, Mr. Pack appointed an interim chief executive, James M. Miles, to head the fund, according to a letter obtained by The New York Times. Mr. Miles is little known in the internet freedom community, and his appointment needs approval from the fund’s new board, which is stacked with Trump administration officials and chaired by Mr. Pack.

The move was a victory for a lobbying effort backed by religious freedom advocates displeased with the fund’s work and who are often allied with conservative political figures.

This battle revolves around software developed by Falun Gong, the secretive spiritual movement persecuted by the Chinese Communist Party.

«

At this point the story takes quite a weird turn, but the key point is that the OTF has always pushed open source software, because it’s easier to spread to countries, easier to verify. (Signal and Tor have been pushed by the OTF.) The bonkers group pushing at Pack wants him to boost a closed-source app. That creates all sorts of risks from fakes and man-in-the-middle attacks.

Every one of these political appointments makes the US that little bit worse.
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iOS 14: iCloud Keychain now alerts users about leaked passwords, more • 9to5Mac

Filipe Espósito:

»

If you’re not familiar with iCloud Keychain, it stores and syncs all your passwords from different websites and apps through iCloud. Users can access the iCloud Keychain with an iPhone or iPad by opening the Settings app and then tapping the Passwords menu.

With iOS 14, Apple offers a new “Security Recommendations” menu that shows only your passwords that could put your accounts at risk for some reason. This includes passwords that are easy to guess and even those that may have leaked on the web.

iCloud Keychain now clarifies what the problem is with the password for each specific account saved there, so users can learn more about creating stronger passwords. Some of these features were already present in iOS 13, but they weren’t as prominent as in iOS 14.

Here are some examples of security alerts provided by iCloud Keychain on iOS 14:
• Many people use this password, which makes it easy to guess.
• This password is easy to guess.
• This password uses a sequence, “123”. Using commom patterns makes passwords easy to guess.

There’s a new alert in particular that’s also one of the most important for users. According to Apple, iCloud Keychain now verifies if your passwords are involved in a data breach.

«

Though that last one will probably mean you’ll get an alert all the time if you’ve signed in many places. Data breaches are more than an everyday occurrence.
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Google-backed groups criticize Apple’s new warnings on user tracking • Reuters

Stephen Nellis and Paresh Dave:

»

Apple last week disclosed features in its forthcoming operating system for iPhones and iPads that will require apps to show a pop-up screen before they enable a form of tracking commonly needed to show personalized ads.

Sixteen marketing associations, some of which are backed by Facebook and Alphabet’s Google, faulted Apple for not adhering to an ad-industry system for seeking user consent under European privacy rules. Apps will now need to ask for permission twice, increasing the risk users will refuse, the associations argued.

Facebook and Google are the largest among thousands of companies that track online consumers to pick up on their habits and interests and serve them relevant ads.

Apple said the new feature was aimed at giving users greater transparency over how their information is being used. In training sessions at a developer conference last week, Apple showed that developers can present any number of additional screens beforehand to explain why permission is needed before triggering its pop-up.

«

Nobody’s going to say “yes, track me everywhere!” For the small adtech companies, it’s going to be a test of whether they really do need to do tracking to earn their money.
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NewsGuard: The internet trust tool

»

Get detailed ratings of more than 4,500 news websites that account for 95% of online engagement with news. See ratings displayed as icons next to links on all the major search engines, social media sites, and platforms.

See who’s behind each site and whether it has a record of publishing accurate information. Learn how each site fares on the nine journalistic standards NewsGuard uses to assess each site.

Get warnings on new trending misinformation sites as they are flagged and rated by NewsGuard’s 24/7 rapid response SWAT team.

[But] NewsGuard is exclusively for personal use, for use by journalists reporting on misinformation, or for use by our school and library partners. Any use of NewsGuard’s data by researchers, or any commercial use, including by moderators, coders and others at technology platforms, search providers or other companies, is strictly prohibited unless expressly permitted…

«

Interesting project. Browser extensions for Edge, Explorer, Chrome, Firefox and Safari. Mobile apps for iOS and Android. It rates Gateway Pundit as “completely full of crap” (I paraphrase). Not free: it’s £2.95 per month.
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MIT apologizes, permanently pulls offline huge dataset that taught AI systems to use racist, misogynistic slurs • The Register

Katyanna Quach:

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MIT has taken offline its highly cited dataset that trained AI systems to potentially describe people using racist, misogynistic, and other problematic terms.

The database was removed this week after The Register alerted the American super-college. MIT also urged researchers and developers to stop using the training library, and to delete any copies. “We sincerely apologize,” a professor told us.

The training set, built by the university, has been used to teach machine-learning models to automatically identify and list the people and objects depicted in still images. For example, if you show one of these systems a photo of a park, it might tell you about the children, adults, pets, picnic spreads, grass, and trees present in the snap. Thanks to MIT’s cavalier approach when assembling its training set, though, these systems may also label women as whores or bitches, and Black and Asian people with derogatory language. The database also contained close-up pictures of female genitalia labeled with the C-word.

Applications, websites, and other products relying on neural networks trained using MIT’s dataset may therefore end up using these terms when analyzing photographs and camera footage.

«

An old but much-used AI picture training database, dating back to the early 2000s, where nobody had actually bothered (we have to assume) to check quite how the content was labelled. Until these researchers did.
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Facebook admits Ben Shapiro is breaking its rules • Popular Information

Judd Legum:

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Last week, Popular Information exposed how The Daily Wire has gained unprecedented distribution on Facebook through its relationship with Mad World News. Five large Facebook pages controlled by Mad World News expanded The Daily Wire’s audience by millions through the coordinated posting of dozens of links from The Daily Wire each day. 

Facebook previously said it had looked into the matter, found no evidence of a violation, and could not prove a financial relationship. The company now admits the two publishers are working together.

“After further investigation, we’ve found that these Pages violate our policies against undisclosed paid relationships between publishers. Our enforcement typically focuses on the Page distributing the cross-promoted content, which is why we are temporarily demoting Mad World News. We are also warning Daily Wire and will demote them if we see this behavior continue,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

«

Legum is chipping away, very gradually but thoroughly, at Shapiro’s little empire of paid-for Facebook echo chambers. (Facebook’s policy: “Facebook pages cannot ‘accept anything of value to post content that you did not create.'”) This is the first takedown, and more will surely follow.

Of course, far too difficult for Facebook, with its gigantic systems, to spot that someone’s posts always get echoed at precisely the same time across a whole ton of Pages. It needs one person asking difficult questions – and even then Facebook initially denied there was a problem.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1344: the ‘rabbit Ebola’ outbreak, Facebook shuts its TikTok clone, UK regulators look at Google’s iPhone deal, and more


Google’s $2.1bn acquisition of Fitbit is being held up by by regulators. Perhaps forever CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Another one down. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The rabbit outbreak • The New Yorker

Susan Orlean:

»

One of the lagoviruses of the family Caliciviridae causes a highly contagious illness called rabbit hemorrhagic disease. RHD is vexingly hard to diagnose. An infected rabbit might experience vague lethargy, or a high fever and difficulty breathing, or it might exhibit no symptoms at all. Regardless of the symptoms, though, the mortality rate for RHD can reach a gloomy hundred%. There is no treatment for it. The virus’s ability to survive and spread is uncanny. It can persist on dry cloth with no host for more than a hundred days; it can withstand freezing and thawing; it can thrive in a dead rabbit for months, and on rabbit pelts, and in the wool made from Angora-rabbit fur, and in the rare rabbit that gets infected but survives. It can travel on birds’ claws and flies’ feet and coyotes’ fur. Its spread has been so merciless and so devastating that some pet owners have begun referring to it as “rabbit Ebola.”

…In the universe of human-animal relations, rabbits occupy a liminal space. They are the only creatures we regularly keep as pets in our homes that we also, just as regularly, eat or wear. Fitting into both the companion-animal category and the livestock category means that rabbits are not entirely claimed by either. A number of animal statutes—particularly, felony-cruelty provisions—are specific to dogs and cats, but not to rabbits. Laws protecting livestock, such as the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, don’t apply to rabbits, either, even rabbits being raised for meat, because the U.S.D.A. does not officially recognize them as livestock. There is probably no other animal that is viewed as diversely, and valued as differently, by its various partisans. Simply being a rabbit person doesn’t mean that you look at rabbits the same way as another self-identified rabbit person. Any of the almost twenty thousand members of the American Rabbit Breeders Association are just as likely to be raising a prized Jersey Wooly that sleeps in their bed and is primped for rabbit shows as they are to have hundreds of caged rabbits that will end up as stew.

A few years ago, a lawyer named Natalie Reeves, who volunteers at a rabbit shelter and has lectured on rabbit law at the New York City Bar Association, was having trouble untangling the hair of her pet long-haired rabbit, Mopsy McGillicuddy. She found an Internet group for long-haired-rabbit owners, and posted about Mopsy’s hair troubles, expecting tips on conditioners and brushes. On the site, she noticed that a common response to similar problems was to kill the rabbit and start fresh with another.

«

This is an amazing tale. Give it your time.
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Facebook says the good it does outweighs the bad. But how many Likes make up for the hate? • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong, with a really powerful piece questioning the calculus of Likes:

»

I’m not saying that Facebook is solely responsible for the actions of every hate-addled individual who harassed me, let alone for the decisions made by [Heather] Heyer’s murderer [at the far-right rally in Charlottesville] or Myanmar’s military.

But I do think that Facebook played a role in creating the conditions necessary for those things to happen. I think that not because I am a bitter and cynical reporter who is chasing clicks with outrage, but because over and over and over again reporters, researchers and activists have documented the real and devastating costs of Facebook’s algorithmic negligence and record of accommodating hate.

So when I hear Facebook touting all the good it has supposedly done for the world, I want to know just how it’s making that accounting, because I’m not prepared to say that it’s enough.

Hate is an existential threat to the people it targets, but it’s no threat at all to Facebook. The only existential threat to a $650bn multinational corporation is a threat to its revenues. That’s where the real calculations are taking place right now at Facebook. When hate hurt people, Facebook did nothing. Now that it’s hurting Facebook, we’ll see what it really values.

«

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Facebook to shut down experimental apps Hobbi, Lasso • CNET

Alexandra Garrett:

»

Facebook is shutting down experimental apps Hobbi and Lasso. Users reportedly received notifications that each app will be closing up shop as of July 10.

Hobbi, developed by Facebook’s New Product Experimentation team, launched in February for iOS as a Pinterest-like app for organizing and saving photos of personal projects such as baking, ceramics, gardening, arts & crafts and more. From these photos, users could share videos of their projects with friends and family. 

Facebook confirmed that the NPE team will be shutting down its hobby focused app.

“Many of NPE’s products start small,” said a Facebook spokesperson on Wednesday. “We expect to have to shut down apps when they’re not catching on, but we also hope to learn from these experiments so that we can build better, more interesting apps in the future.”

Lasso was released over a year and a half ago, before the launch of the NPE team in 2019. The app lets users record 15-second long videos to share with friends. Lasso also includes video-editing tools to help users add music and text to their videos, similar to the social app TikTok. Facebook has since added a similar short-form video feature to Instagram, called Reels.

«

Quite a thing if Facebook has realised that it can’t compete with TikTok.
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Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg should change amid ad boycott pressure • Bloomberg

Tae Kim and Alex Webb:

»

antitrust is far more of an existential threat to Facebook than is regulation. That’s not simply because it could, in the most extreme circumstances, result in a breakup of the company. It’s because antitrust by definition seeks to tackle its business practices.

Just last week, Germany’s highest civil court ruled that Facebook must stop logging browsing activity outside of its platforms without users’ explicit permission, and that such permission couldn’t be a condition of using its other services. Crucially, though, the decision was based not on data protection but antitrust laws. It said Facebook was abusing its market power to force users to accept the terms because it is the dominant social network. And the ruling fundamentally attacked the company’s business model, which is built on using such data to target ads effectively. An effort by Britain’s Competition and Markets Authority is even less ambiguous: it’s carrying out a study into online platforms and digital advertising.

While the UK is no longer a member of the European Union, the bloc’s regulators are following the findings of the study closely. After years of tackling Google, Facebook is now high on the European agenda. The two firms’ dominance of digital advertising is fueled by their low incremental costs. Tackle their business models, and you might resolve the harmful content problem, runs the argument. The EU plans new rules by the end of the year on content regulation and platform liability, while Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s antitrust and tech chief, is seeking new powers to break companies up.

«

(Style note: Bloomberg calls the United Kingdom “U.K.” but the European Union “EU”. I removed the full stops. But why is the EU just EU to Bloomberg yet the UK is U.K.?)
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EU signals deeper investigation of Google Fitbit deal • Financial Times

Javier Espinoza:

»

EU regulators have sent two questionnaires, adding up to around 60 pages, asking Google and Fitbit’s rivals whether the deal will damage competition, disadvantage other fitness tracking apps in Google’s Play Store, or give Google more profiling data to improve its online search and advertising businesses.

The questionnaires also ask rivals to assess the impact of the deal on Google’s growing digital healthcare business.

Separately, 20 consumer groups, including Europe’s umbrella consumer organisation BEUC and the Consumer Federation of America, issued a warning about the deal on Thursday.

“Regulators must assume that Google will in practice utilise the entirety of Fitbit’s currently independent unique, highly sensitive data set in combination with its own, particularly as this could increase its profits, or they must impose strict and enforceable limitations on data use,” they said, in a joint statement.

The detail of the questions posed by the EU suggests that Brussels is gearing up for an extended investigation and may block the transaction, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation.

«

This acquisition is crawling along. It was announced in November 2019; still hasn’t happened. Australia’s competition commission is looking at this too. They’re concerned that it’s a one-way street for data, and that Google will get too much of it.
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UK regulators take aim at Apple’s search engine deal with Google • Reuters

Stephen Nellis:

»

The payments by Alphabet Inc’s Google to Apple Inc to be the default search engine on Apple’s Safari web browser create “a significant barrier to entry and expansion” for Google’s rivals in the search engine market, the UK markets regulator said in a report released on Wednesday.

Apple received the “substantial majority” of the £1.2bn ($1.5bn) that Google paid to be the default search engine on a variety of devices in the United Kingdom in 2019, according to the report.

The UK Competition and Markets Authority, in its final report investigating online platforms and digital advertising, said the arrangements between Apple and Google create “a significant barrier to entry and expansion” for Google’s rivals in the search engine market. Those rivals include Microsoft Corp’s Bing, Verizon Communications Inc-owned Yahoo and independent search engine DuckDuckGo, all of which also make payments to Apple in exchange for being search engine options on its devices, the report said.

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The full report is really very interesting. Lots of data, plenty of graphs. Not short, though. Tantalising detail – such as how much Google’s search share would drop if it was forced to give up the iPhone default – are missing though.
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ThiefQuest Mac malware includes ransomware, data theft capabilities • SecurityWeek.Com

Eduard Kovacs:

»

at the time of writing it is detected by over a dozen engines.

Malwarebytes has seen the malware being distributed as trojanized installers for popular macOS applications, including the Little Snitch firewall, the Mixed In Key and Ableton DJ apps, and a Google software update.

Patrick Wardle, a researcher who specializes in the security of Apple products, pointed out that since these installers are not signed, macOS alerts users before opening them, but people who download pirated software are likely to ignore the warning and install the malware on their device.

Wardle has published a detailed analysis of how ThiefQuest is installed, how it achieves persistence and its capabilities. Once the malware has been deployed, it starts encrypting certain types of files found on the system, including archives, images, audio and video files, documents, spreadsheets, presentations, databases and web files.

It then drops a text file informing users that their files have been encrypted and instructs them to pay $50 in bitcoin to recover them. A summary of the ransom note is also displayed in a modal window and its content is read out using the speech feature in macOS.

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Basically, people think they’re getting a pirated (free!) version of paid software, and get more than they expected. Life advice: don’t look into the egg when it opens for you.
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FakeSpy masquerades as postal service apps around the world • Cybereason

Ofir Almkias:

»

The Cybereason Nocturnus team is investigating a new campaign involving FakeSpy, an Android mobile malware that emerged around October 2017. FakeSpy is an information stealer used to steal SMS messages, send SMS messages, steal financial data, read account information and contact lists, steal application data, and do much more.

FakeSpy first targeted South Korean and Japanese speakers. However, it has begun to target users all around the world, especially users in countries like China, Taiwan, France, Switzerland, Germany, United Kingdom, United States, and others.

FakeSpy masquerades as legitimate postal service apps and transportation services in order to gain the users’ trust. Once installed, the application requests permissions so that it may control SMS messages and steal sensitive data on the device, as well as proliferate to other devices in the target device’s contact list.

Cybereason’s investigation shows that the threat actor behind the FakeSpy campaign is a Chinese-speaking group dubbed “Roaming Mantis”, a group that has led similar campaigns.

«

By “postal service”, they literally mean the services that deliver your post – this group has made fake apps pretending to be Royal Mail, Swiss Post, Deutsche Post, French La Poste, US Postal Service, and more. It’s kicked off by an SMS to your phone telling you there’s a package, and that you need to download an app – which it directs you to. The app is real, but fake, if you see what I mean. And then you have a real problem.

It asks for a million permissions, of course, but Android users have been inculcated into ignoring those and just saying yes, of course. (Thanks Jim for the link.)
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Uncovered: 1,000 phrases that incorrectly trigger Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

As Alexa, Google Home, Siri, and other voice assistants have become fixtures in millions of homes, privacy advocates have grown concerned that their near-constant listening to nearby conversations could pose more risk than benefit to users. New research suggests the privacy threat may be greater than previously thought.

The findings demonstrate how common it is for dialog in TV shows and other sources to produce false triggers that cause the devices to turn on, sometimes sending nearby sounds to Amazon, Apple, Google, or other manufacturers. In all, researchers uncovered more than 1,000 word sequences—including those from Game of Thrones, Modern Family, House of Cards, and news broadcasts—that incorrectly trigger the devices.

“The devices are intentionally programmed in a somewhat forgiving manner, because they are supposed to be able to understand their humans,” one of the researchers, Dorothea Kolossa, said. “Therefore, they are more likely to start up once too often rather than not at all.”

Examples of words or word sequences that provide false triggers include
• Alexa: “unacceptable,” “election,” and “a letter”
• Google Home: “OK, cool,” and “Okay, who is reading”
• Siri: “a city” and “hey jerry”
• Microsoft Cortana: “Montana”

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So don’t watch Seinfeld with a Homepod or similar in the room. Got it. (Have never watched Seinfeld.)
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Google pushing scam ads on Americans searching for how to vote • Tech Transparency Project

»

Google is allowing scammers to prey on Americans seeking information about how to vote in the upcoming election, according to a Tech Transparency Project (TTP) analysis, undercutting the company’s claims that it’s helping people navigate the process of registering to vote, securing a mail-in ballot or finding their polling place.

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is changing the way millions of Americans vote, and that makes access to accurate information about elections more important than ever. But citizens who turn to Google for answers could be discouraged or misled by scam ads that pop up as they search for how and where to vote in 2020.

TTP found that search terms like “register to vote,” “vote by mail,” and “where is my polling place” generated ads linking to websites that charge bogus fees for voter registration, harvest user data, or plant unwanted software on people’s browsers.

Such ads could have a suppressive effect on voters. Users searching for guidance about elections who instead find themselves on manipulative or confusing sites may eventually give up on finding the information they need. That’s a far cry from Google’s commitment to “protect our users from harm and abuse, especially during elections.” 

The ads identified by TTP appear to violate Google’s policies that prohibit misrepresentation, collecting user data for unclear purposes, and unwanted software. They may also run afoul of Federal Trade Commission regulations banning “unfair or deceptive advertising.”

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OK, there are lots of ads to police, but you’d think if it’s important then Google would police it more closely.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified