Start up: DMCA v Volkswagen, cruel opt-outs, self-parking cars win, HP’s irrelevance, and more


The tsunami that hit the Fukushima reactor nearly led to a meltdown – but how many people died from radiation release? Photo by NRCgov 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.

Researchers could have uncovered Volkswagen’s emissions cheat if not hindered by the DMCA » Electronic Frontier Foundation

Kit Walsh:

Automakers argue that it’s unlawful for independent researchers to look at the code that controls vehicles without the manufacturer’s permission. We’ve explained before how this allows manufacturers to prevent competition in the markets for add-on technologies and repair tools. It also makes it harder for watchdogs to find safety or security issues, such as faulty code that can lead to unintended acceleration or vulnerabilities that let an attacker take over your car.

The legal uncertainly created by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act also makes it easier for manufacturers to conceal intentional wrongdoing. We’ve asked the Librarian of Congress to grant an exemption to the DMCA to make it crystal clear that independent research on vehicle software doesn’t violate copyright law. In opposing this request, manufacturers asserted that individuals would violate emissions laws if they had access to the code. But we’ve now learned that, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, Volkswagen had already programmed an entire fleet of vehicles to conceal how much pollution they generated, resulting in a real, quantifiable impact on the environment and human health.

This code was shielded from watchdogs’ investigation by the anti-circumvention provision of the DMCA. Surprisingly, the EPA wrote in [PDF] to the Copyright Office to oppose the exemptions we’re seeking.

With a headline like that, it sounds like an episode of Scooby-Doo. The EPA’s argument in the linked letter is actually reasonable: you know that people will hack the ECM, especially if they get the source code.
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The Cruelest Opt-Out Forms » Tumblr

A project in which @lydialaurenson collects all those forms where, when you decline, you’re meant to feel guilty for doing so. Such as this:

Of course you don’t have to read it. You could just miss the best chance of your life.
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Self-parking cars are better than humans at parking » Fusion

A new study from the AAA put human drivers who considered themselves adept at parallel parking in a “park-off” against five models of self-parking cars. The result? Human drivers got absolutely destroyed by the automated cars in a test of basic parking skills.

Nearly 80% of survey respondents contacted by the AAA said they were “confident in their parallel parking abilities.” But self-parking cars hit the curb 81% less often than human drivers in the road test, and parked themselves with 47% fewer maneuvers. Self-parking cars were also able to park 37% closer to the curb than human drivers, and—to add insult to injury—they did it 10% faster than the humans.

“Self-parking cars” somehow doesn’t sound as sexy, you know? But the clincher is: only one in four of the people in a survey said they’d trust a car to do the parking. This is the knowledge gap that’s so crucial: we don’t know how good robots are at things.
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One million Android users infected with malware through an IQ testing application » Softpedia

Catalin Cimpanu:

The app is called Brain Test and is a simple IQ testing utility, which comes packed with a combination of complex malware strands.

According to Check Point’s research staff, the application was detected via the company’s Mobile Threat Prevention system, first on a Nexus 5 device.

Because its owner, after receiving the malware alert, did not manage to uninstall the malicious app, this prompted Check Point’s team to have a closer look at the source of the infection.

By reverse-engineering the Brain Test app, researchers found a very well-designed piece of malware, which allowed attackers to install third-party applications on the user’s phone, after previously rooting the device and even managing to become boot-persistent.

Brain Test came with a complex detection avoidance system

Looking even further into the issue, researchers found a complex system that allowed the malware to avoid detection by Google’s Bouncer, an automated app testing system that checks for known security issues.

The malware contained code that prevented it from executing if it detected it was being run from certain IP ranges, or domains containing “google”, ”android”, ”1e100.”

After managing to get around Bouncer’s checks and getting installed on a user’s phone, Brain Test would execute a time bomb function whenever the user would run it for the first time.

Even after Google zapped it, the app was re-uploaded five days later. Software that detects when it’s being tested really is the flavour of the month, isn’t it?
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London Collision Map Beta

Discover where road traffic collisions have happened in London since 2005; then filter by year, road user, collision severity and age group.

Figures for 2014 show that the number of people Killed or Seriously Injured (KSI) on London’s roads fell to the lowest level since records began. Safe Streets for London, London’s road safety plan, set out the ambition to work towards roads free from death and serious injury and the Mayor’s new target is to halve the number of KSIs by 2020 compared to the Government baseline.

Nice idea, but it’s pretty hellish to use. Heatmaps might have worked better.

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Why HP is irrelevant » Om Malik

A few years ago, in a conversation with my friend Pip Coburn (who spent a long time as a tech-stocks strategist for UBS before starting his own firm, Coburn Ventures), I mentioned that a certain company was dead, though not many realized it. And by “dead,” I didn’t mean that it was bankrupt, out of money or out of business. I meant it was dead in its ability to find growth, excitement and new ideas. Any positive energy had flattened and turned negative. “With that lens on, HP has been ‘dead’ for 15+ years,” Pip emailed me this morning.

Pip says that “companies have a space and time and purpose and when those fade the company would be wise to steadily shut itself down.” Like some other large tech companies, HP fits that bill. In a note to some of his clients, Pip pointed out, “The company [HP] doesn’t even do a good job of pretending to have a strategy.” And he is right.

It’s true: HP hasn’t made a market since, what the inkjet printer? Bubblejet printer? Laser printer? Whichever, it’s been a long time.
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When radiation isn’t the real risk » The New York Times

George Johnson:

This spring, four years after the nuclear accident at Fukushima, a small group of scientists met in Tokyo to evaluate the deadly aftermath.

No one has been killed or sickened by the radiation — a point confirmed last month by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Even among Fukushima workers, the number of additional cancer cases in coming years is expected to be so low as to be undetectable, a blip impossible to discern against the statistical background noise.

But about 1,600 people died from the stress of the evacuation — one that some scientists believe was not justified by the relatively moderate radiation levels at the Japanese nuclear plant.

None of the workers who went into the stricken plant has died of radiation poisoning. The biggest problem for those workers is heatstroke caused by the extra protective equipment they wear.

Truly, the media reaction to Fukushima was enormously overblown; we are all bad at evaluating risk, but the media perhaps worst of all because “if it bleeds, it leads”.
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BT pledges better broadband for UK » BBC News

BT has hit back at rivals calling for its break-up, with a strategy to make the UK the fastest broadband nation.

It revealed plans to connect 10 million homes to ultrafast broadband [300-500Mbps] by the end of 2020 and raise the minimum broadband speed for homes that cannot get fibre to 5-10Mbps (megabits per second).

It comes in a week when rivals have denounced the quality of UK broadband.

In a letter to the Financial Times on Monday, they said BT should be split.

Sky, Vodafone and TalkTalk were among signatories to the letter which claimed that millions of customers currently have a “substandard” broadband service.

Homes currently passed by fibre, according to Ofcom: 23.6m (with 30% takeup, ie 7.1m users).
Households in UK: 26.4m.

However, the gap between that pledge of ultrafast and minimum is just absurd. And it’ll be those who need the faster speeds – in rural areas – who won’t get it.
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Soft underbelly » Asymco

Horace Dediu suggests that existing carmakers are underestimating the threat they face from computer-industry entrants:

Traditional car making is capital intensive due to the processes and materials used. There are however alternatives on the shelf. iStream from Gordon Murray Design proposed switching to tubular frames and low cost composites.  BMW has an approach using carbon fiber other composites. 3D printing is waiting in the wings. All offer a departure from sheet metal stamping.

With new materials, costs for new plants can be reduced by as much as 80% and since amortizing the tooling is as much as 40% of the cost of new car, the margins on new production methods could result in significant boosts in margin.

There is a downside however. What is usually compromised when using these new methods is volume and scale of production. So that becomes the real question: how many cars can Apple target? 10k, 50k, 100k per year? Could they target 500k? That would be 10 times Tesla’s current volumes but only a bit more than the output of the Mini brand.

Now consider that the total market is 85 million vehicles per year. For Apple to get 10% share would imply 8.5 million cars a year, a feat that is hard to contemplate right now with any of the production systems. On the other hand selling 80 million iPhones and iPads in a single quarter has become routine for Apple and that was considered orders of magnitude beyond what they could deliver. Amazing what 8 years of production ramping can offer.

Given that cars are increasingly computers with fancy cases on wheels, you really don’t want to rule out low-end or even high-end disruption.
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Ad tech always wins: Ad blocker users are the new hot ad-targeting segment » Digiday

Lucia Moses:

“We want to find ways to reach these consumers in ways that suit how they want to be communicated to and with,” Laura Mete Frizzell, gm of search/analytics/media at 360i. “They are part of an audience for which the brand is relevant and can offer utility.”

The potential to target ad blockers is “on the radar,” said Jon Anselmo, senior vp, managing director of digital innovation at MediaVest. “People’s behaviors, including ad blocking, do provide us insights about who they are and what they care about. A tech-savvy nature could absolutely be one such insight.”

On the seller side, too, the idea of targeting blockers is starting to pop up in conversations with publishers like Complex, said its CEO and founder Rich Antoniello. “Those are the hardest to reach people,” he said. One response by Complex has been to use the space normally given over to ads to present ad blocker users with a message asking for their emails to target them regardless.

Mark that last one, because it must surely be the dumbest thing you’ll see today. (Via Rowland Manthorpe.)
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2 thoughts on “Start up: DMCA v Volkswagen, cruel opt-outs, self-parking cars win, HP’s irrelevance, and more

  1. Yes I concur with Jonny – great links, Charles, thanks.

    On HP – I curse them every time I have to use my printer. Cannot turn off the wifi (since moving printer so that USB make more sense) and have to force shut it down whenever the paper feed fails (about every 5th page) as the HP software wont accept I’ve ‘re-fed’ the paper
    A technology company that continually makes tech products that fail in technological terms is always a bad sign.

    Re Fukushima; interesting report but isn’t even four years a bit soon to proclaim no long term impact?

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