Start up: Amazon’s drone test site, AI at Apple, Spotify’s contract trouble, no Snowden 2.0, and more


Yes, Facebook really is testing autoplay video with sound! Photo by pasa47 on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

We found Amazon’s secret drone testing site hidden in the English countryside • Business Insider

Sam Shead drove to Cambridge, and then its countryside, and seems to have found Amazon’s test site. A fun little narrative, well-told through simple photos. (Though could have done with better photos and Shead spending more time staking out the secret drone testing site, to be honest.)
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An exclusive look at how AI and machine learning work at Apple • Backchannel

Steven Levy usually gets insider interviews at Google; this time, it’s Apple, on its AI efforts:

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The most recent purchase was Turi, a Seattle company that Apple snatched for a reported $200 million. It has built an ML toolkit that’s been compared to Google’s TensorFlow, and the purchase fueled speculation that Apple would use it for similar purposes both internally and for developers. Apple’s executives wouldn’t confirm or deny. “There are certain things they had that matched very well with Apple from a technology view, and from a people point of view,” says Cue. In a year or two, we may figure out what happened, as we did when Siri began showing some of the predictive powers of Cue (no relation to Eddy!), a small startup Apple snatched up in 2013.

No matter where the talent comes from, Apple’s AI infrastructure allows it to develop products and features that would not be possible by earlier means. It’s altering the company’s product road map. “Here at Apple there is no end to the list of really cool ideas,” says Schiller. “Machine learning is enabling us to say yes to some things that in past years we would have said no to. It’s becoming embedded in the process of deciding the products we’re going to do next.”

One example of this is the Apple Pencil that works with the iPad Pro. In order for Apple to include its version of a high-tech stylus, it had to deal with the fact that when people wrote on the device, the bottom of their hand would invariably brush the touch screen, causing all sorts of digital havoc. Using a machine learning model for “palm rejection” enabled the screen sensor to detect the difference between a swipe, a touch, and a pencil input with a very high degree of accuracy. “If this doesn’t work rock solid, this is not a good piece of paper for me to write on anymore — and Pencil is not a good product,” says Federighi. If you love your Pencil, thank machine learning.

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Would not have guessed that. Though I will say that I predicted AI as the “next big thing” for your phone in the talk I gave at TedX Hilversum last year. Most noteworthy: how it reconciles privacy with machine learning. (By keeping it on the phone, in a 200MB store.)
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Spotify is out of contract with all three major labels – and wants to pay them less • Music Business Worldwide

Tim Ingham:

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The Swedish streaming company has been out of a long-term deal with Universal Music Group for more than a year, say our sources.

Its contract with Warner Music Group expired in early 2016, while its licensing agreement with Sony Music Entertainment ran out of juice a few months ago.

In practical terms, this isn’t a huge problem.

Spotify continues to be licensed by all three majors on a rolling month-by-month basis, and the possibility of UMG, Sony or Warner catalogues being pulled is widely regarded as out of the question.

The majors, have, however, gnashed their teeth a little over Spotify’s recent promotional deals – not least its new family plan, which matches Apple Music’s equivalent by offering up to six people premium access for just $14.99 per month.

Some parties within Universal, Sony and Warner are believed to be uneasy about Spotify’s decision to announce such promotions without any long-term licensing agreements in place. (The situation was described by one senior major source to MBW today as a “very grey area”.)

Spotify’s investors, meanwhile, must be concerned about Daniel Ek’s chances of pulling off an IPO without long-term major label deals: the majors own around 75% of global recordings market share.

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Spotify’s weakness is that it wants to cut the amount it pays – presently 55% of revenue (v 58% for Apple Music) – but is hardly in a strong place to bargain. And meanwhile, its debt-fuelled race for an IPO continues. It can’t service its debt without a big (IPO) cash infusion: it lost $200m on revenues of $2bn last year, and the debt adds an extra $55m to its costs in its first year.

If you were negotiating for a music label, how would you play this?
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Growing number of iPhone 6 and 6Plus devices affected by insidious ‘touch disease’ • Mac Rumors

Juli Clover:

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As the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus approach their second birthday, a growing number of users are suffering from what appears to be a latent manufacturing issue that presents as a gray flickering bar at the top of the screen and a display that’s unresponsive or less responsive to touch.

In a new blog post and video, repair site iFixit says a number of third-party repair outlets have seen iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models affected by the bug, which appears to be very common. STS Telecom owner Jason Villmer says he sees faulty iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models multiple times a week, while another repair tech in Louisiana sees up to 100 iPhone 6 and 6 Plus devices that don’t respond well to touch.

“This issue is widespread enough that I feel like almost every iPhone 6/6+ has a touch of it (no pun intended) and are like ticking bombs just waiting to act up,” says Jason Villmer, owner of STS Telecom–a board repair shop in Missouri.

iFixit is calling the problem “Touch Disease,” and says Apple appears to be aware of the issue based on dozens of complaints on Apple’s support forum, but isn’t “doing anything about it.” Multiple people who brought their iPhones to Apple Stores were told that Apple doesn’t recognize it as an issue and nothing could be done as their iPhones were out of warranty.

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iFixit says that it’s because of an inherent flaw in the design that links the Touch IC chips to the logic board. But in that case, wouldn’t every single phone have the problem, and probably sooner?
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Completely Wrong • Medium

“The Grugq” takes apart James Bamford’s piece suggesting that “there is another Snowden inside the NSA leaking all those files being auctioned by a hacker group“. It’s lengthy, but even this slice will tell you the thoroughness of the takedown:

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The Auction Fallacy

• This assumes that the auction is real. There is no reason to believe that. The preparation for the distribution of the files — packaging, account creation, uploading, and announcing — spans weeks. From the way it was done we can conclude that the perpetrators were: careful (everything has been scrubbed, they used encrypted anonymous webmail); cautious (multiple locations guaranteeing wide dispersal and difficult removal); skilled (good crypto practices), and persistent (i.e. driven by purpose.) This is a lot of work for what is bound to be very little money (just over USD$1000, at this time.)

• Anyone who is skilled enough to setup this operation should be knowledgeable enough to know that selling the tools to non-FVEY nation states would be more profitable. They could literally do the exact same thing (minus the public announcement) and contact individual embassies from Europe, Asia, Africa, etc. They would get more money and run less risk. Hell, even just giving the bugs to ZDI would generate a bigger payout!

• Bitcoin is a terrible protocol to use when running an auction against the NSA. Determining where BTC are cashed out is simply a little bit of graph analysis. Know what the NSA is excellent at? Graph analysis. A Bitcoin based auction is not the way to monetise an NSA ops toolkit (and remain free.)

• To quote daveaitel: No team of “hackers” would want to piss off Equation Group this much. That’s the kind of cojones that only come from having a nation state protecting you. — Source

• If the auction was legitimate, there is no reason that 60% of the auction data would be “free” as proof. The screen shots and one or two tools/exploits (e.g. ones for old bugs) would be sufficient to pique the interest of potential bidders. Instead the “proof” file is, essentially, the entire kit and caboodle (pun absolutely intended.)

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Consider yourself informed.
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Grab your headphones: Facebook is testing video with autoplay sound • Mashable

Ariel Bogle:

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From Tuesday local time, some Australians may notice autoplay on all types of video (including ads and Facebook Live) acting differently on their mobile app.

In one version of the test, sound plays immediately as the video begins, if you have sound enabled on your device. Another group is able to turn sound on during the test session using an icon that will sit to the bottom right of videos. 

Both groups see a pop-up message informing them about how to use the controls, and sound will only play if the smartphone’s volume is up. If you don’t want to annoy your workmates, sound can also be turned to “always off” in Facebook settings.

“We’re running a small test in News Feed where people can choose whether they want to watch videos with sound on from the start,” a Facebook spokesperson told Mashable Australia. “For people in this test who do not want sound to play, they can switch it off in Settings or directly on the video itself.

“This is one of several tests we’re running as we work to improve the video experience for people on Facebook.”

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How is this “improving” the video experience for ordinary people on Facebook? This is nonsense. The “people on Facebook” for whom this is improving the experience are advertisers on Facebook. But as Mashable points out, Facebook’s own research shows that 80% of people don’t like ads that play with sound without warning.

And what is the story, which is otherwise insightful, missing? A comment from an independent expert.
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I was wrong about the iPad Pro • Technobuffalo

Todd Haselton:

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The iPad Pro 9.7 has changed my work habits. When I wake up in the morning, I’ll take it from my nightstand and start the day sitting at my kitchen table, reading the news, drinking coffee, and cruising through Twitter. If there’s something big going on, I’ll write a story before I take my wife to the train. The rest of the day is spent on my Windows 10 PC in my office, for the most part, until the evening when I return to the iPad Pro. I’ll finish editing and scheduling posts for some of our west coast writers from the iPad Pro while doing the daily NYT Crossword, for example, an app that I found isn’t available on Android tablets.

I love the portability. If I decide to change my work habits, I’ll bring the iPad Pro with me in the car, ready to edit or write a story from a coffee shop or diner over lunch. It’s lighter than my other devices and offers exactly what I need. And while my Chromebook offered a similar experience in terms of productivity, the better display, comfortable keyboard (it’s really amazing) and larger selection of apps keep bringing me back to the iPad Pro.

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Notice how he calls his “work habits” the things he does when he’s not at work. Though I agree – the 9.7 iPad Pro is great, especially with a keyboard.
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Breaking News 1: How monetizing became malvertising • Reynolds Journalism Institute

Barrett Golding:

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Bromium Labs found more than half the ads with malware payloads were on either news or entertainment websites, with news at the top of the pack (32 percent). Like all marketers, malvertisers want premiere placement on well-respected sites. The ad-bidding process grants them their wish.

In March 2016 the websites of The New York Times, BBC, Weather Network, The Hill, Newsweek, AOL, MSN, and NFL all, as CNET reported, “inadvertently ran malicious ads that attempted to hijack the computers of visitors and demand a ransom.”

This even juicier website-breaking news is from Engadget: “Forbes asked readers to turn off ad blockers in order to view the article. After doing so, visitors were immediately served with pop-under malware, primed to infect their computers, and likely silently steal passwords, personal data and banking information.”


Malicious advertisements sources, Bromium Labs

The problem is not new. It’s been happening on news sites for years. These headlines are from 2013:

The Amount of Questionable Online Traffic Will Blow Your Mind: The World Wide rip-off” – Adweek.
The $7.5 Billion Ad Swindle” – The Ad Contrarian.
Google has run an anti-malvertising team since 2009. Here’s a recent report on their progress:

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Google is enabling traffic laundering, where websites with pirated content redirect visitors to shell websites displaying AdSense ads. These ads finance piracy, and Google is taking a cut in the process. Google clients have no clue of the reputational risk they run by using AdSense.
—“A Real Life Example of Google’s Implication in Ad Fraud and Traffic Laundering,” Kalkis Research

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CNBC and CNN commentator Shelly Palmer wrote, “Ad tech has evolved into a toxic ecosystem that is killing itself, and it is taking digital advertising with it.” His article, “What We’ll Do When Ad Tech Dies,” concludes, “Ad tech will be with us in its current form until someone goes to jail.”

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Why is it that news sites are so particularly targeted? Because they take a ton more ad-tech ads? (Via Rob Leathern.)
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Opting out: the illusion • Medium

Rob Leathern:

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I wanted to opt out of all behavioral ads, not just AdRoll, and so landed on this [Ghostery] “Global opt-out” page. It was easy to select all and choose “Opt out of selected companies”. I saw stuff happening in the browser indicating to me that this seems to work (hard to know though, seems difficult to test as a user). But then I noticed that for a lot of these companies it said “go to site” to opt-out. So let’s go through the numbers here:

a. There are 615 names on this list
Here’s the full list in a Google Doc broken down by ones that you have to visit the site versus not. Here’s a screenshot of the interface.


Source: Ghostery.com, August 11, 2016

b. I was able to opt-out of 269 of them (44%)
c. 4 Didn’t respond in the browser
d. 342 Required me to visit the website (56%)

AdRoll was one of the 342 that required me to visit the website to opt-out. I’ve heard of them and they’re generally thought of as a good company, but there are hundreds of names on this list even people who’ve worked in this industry for years have never heard of (and affiliations with industry organizations usually require a membership fee only, not any degree of vetting).

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The best part? Opting out of being targeted on your cookie data requires cookie data.
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Strong demand for Samsung’s Galaxy Note 7 tests supply chain • Reuters

Se Young Lee:

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While robust demand could help deliver another solid quarter of earnings, Samsung also risks missing out on potential sales if it cannot boost supply quickly. Rivals such as Apple are poised to launch new phones which could pull customers away from Samsung if a shortage persists.

“As pre-order results for the Galaxy Note 7 have far exceeded our estimates, its release date in some markets has been adjusted,” Samsung told Reuters in a statement without commenting on where launch delays could occur.

Production problems for the curved displays for the Galaxy S6 edge phone resulted in disappointing sales last year, and some investors fear a repeat if the world’s top smartphone maker does not move quickly to meet Note 7 demand…

…”The party got more visitors than Samsung expected, so they just need to put more food out,” said Nomura analyst C.W. Chung, who said the supply situation was not a major risk given that Samsung made key parts such as displays and chips in-house.

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And how big is that demand?

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Samsung could sell as many as 15m Galaxy Note 7 phones this year, Chung said, compared with an estimated 9m Galaxy Note 5 phones sold last year.

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For comparison, the iPhone SE could hit about 9m sales this year – and that’s its low-end phone. The Note 7 is a hit, but this stuff is all relative.

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Android Nougat’s single most confounding feature • Fast Company

Harry McCracken:

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here’s something I just don’t get: Nougat retains the pointless eyesore of a status bar at the top, which quickly fills up with tiny notification icons that remind me of Windows 98, including dupes such as the three Facebook icons you can see below:

Now, I’m sure there are folks who like this feature. Fine. I can’t imagine, though, that I’m the only one who wants to turn it off. Not only does the operating system have no way to do that, but the third-party apps I know of that offer the ability either mess up Android in other ways or require the phone to be rooted.

I switch back and forth between iOS and Android on a regular basis; both are so good these days that I can’t decide which one I prefer. But every time I come back to Android and see those notification icons pile up, I wonder how they’ve survived so long.

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