Start up: Britain’s web grab, Trumpbots v Hillarybots, Twitter’s new crackdown, de-OLED iPhones?, and more

Distracted by an app while driving? The result might not be pleasant. Photo by idarknight on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Sad! I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Britain has passed the ‘most extreme surveillance law ever passed in a democracy’ • ZDNet

Zack Whittaker:


It’s 2016 going on 1984.

The UK has just passed a massive expansion in surveillance powers, which critics have called “terrifying” and “dangerous”. The new law, dubbed the “snoopers’ charter”, was introduced by then-home secretary Theresa May in 2012, and took two attempts to get passed into law following breakdowns in the previous coalition government.

Four years and a general election later – May is now prime minister – the bill was finalized and passed on Wednesday by both parliamentary houses. But civil liberties groups have long criticized the bill, with some arguing that the law will let the UK government “document everything we do online”.

It’s no wonder, because it basically does.

The law will force internet providers to record every internet customer’s top-level web history in real-time for up to a year, which can be accessed by numerous government departments; force companies to decrypt data on demand – though the government has never been that clear on exactly how it forces foreign firms to do that that; and even disclose any new security features in products before they launch…

…The bill was opposed by representatives of the United Nations, all major UK and many leading global privacy and rights groups, and a host of Silicon Valley tech companies alike. Even the parliamentary committee tasked with scrutinizing the bill called some of its provisions “vague”.


The “decryption on demand” simply can’t be done. The “new security features” is likely to give GCHQ the chance to think whether it can exploit it – though there’ll be nothing there which an alert intelligence agency wouldn’t already know about; it’s more to give them something to accuse companies of.

The government will suggest that the new powers are necessary to “stop terrorism”. We’ll see whether it has any cases it can point to in a few years’ time that flowed from this.
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Automated pro-Trump bots overwhelmed pro-Clinton messages, researchers say • The New York Times

John Markoff:


An automated army of pro-Donald J. Trump chatbots overwhelmed similar programs supporting Hillary Clinton five to one in the days leading up to the presidential election, according to a report published Thursday by researchers at Oxford University.

The chatbots — basic software programs with a bit of artificial intelligence and rudimentary communication skills — would send messages on Twitter based on a topic, usually defined on the social network by a word preceded by a hashtag symbol, like #Clinton.

Their purpose: to rant, confuse people on facts, or simply muddy discussions, said Philip N. Howard, a sociologist at the Oxford Internet Institute and one of the authors of the report. If you were looking for a real debate of the issues, you weren’t going to find it with a chatbot.

“They’re yelling fools,” Dr. Howard said. “And a lot of what they pass around is false news”…

…“The use of automated accounts was deliberate and strategic throughout the election,” the researchers wrote in the report, published by the Project on Algorithms, Computational Propaganda and Digital Politics at Oxford.

Because the chatbots were almost entirely anonymous and were frequently bought in secret from companies or individual programmers, it was not possible to directly link the activity to either campaign, except for a handful of “joke” bots created by Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, they noted.


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Full disclosure – this Bluetooth tag is leaking your personal data • Terence Eden

Terence Eden:


First off, all data is sent in the clear to Heroku.

TinTag are sending…
• The street address of the user.
• The MAC address of the TinTag.
• The precise latitude and longitude of the user.
• The tag’s ID.
• A unique user ID.

Of these, the most obvious concern is the exact location of the user. They aren’t encrypted in transit – what’s the betting that they’re encrypted on the server?
Given that TinTag haven’t updated their Android app since the beginning of the year, do you think they’ve updated their server’s software recently?

If TinTag’s servers are attacked – someone could get your entire location history.


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Twitter cracks down, banning prominent alt-right accounts • BuzzFeed News

Charlie Warzel:


Last night, Twitter suspended a number of prominent alt-right accounts, including alt-right leader, Richard Spencer (@RichardBSpencer), his think tank, called the National Policy Institute, and his magazine (@radixjournal). The suspensions come only hours after Twitter announced an new set of abuse tools, including an expanded mute future and a retraining of how its safety staff handles hateful abuse.

Other suspended accounts include Ricky Vaughn (who was previously banned after a BuzzFeed News story detailing his campaign to disenfranchise voters with false information), former Business Insider CTO Pax Dickenson, and John Rivers.

Though the abuse tools were received tepidly as a small first step that was in many ways cosmetic, the decision to begin to ban some of Twitter’s more prominent alt-right and white nationalist voices is a signal that the company may be getting serious about reclaiming its platform from trolls.

It’s unclear whether Twitter will continue the wave or issue any mass bans quietly throughout the coming months but there is precedent for such a decision — in order to crack down on ISIS, Twitter banned 125,000 Isis-linked accounts between mid-2015 and February 2016.


Interesting equivalence there. Twitter is clearly moving away though from its one-time position as “the free-speech wing of the free-speech camp”.
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Apple wants OLED in iPhones, but most suppliers aren’t ready yet • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:


the four main suppliers for such components won’t have enough production capacity to make screens for all new iPhones next year, with constraints continuing into 2018, people familiar with the matter said, presenting a potential challenge for the Cupertino, California-based company.

OLED screens are more difficult to produce, putting Apple at the mercy of suppliers that are still working to manufacture the displays in mass quantities, the people said. The four largest producers are Samsung Display Co., LG Display Co., Sharp Corp., and Japan Display Inc. While Samsung is on track to be the sole supplier for the new displays next year, the South Korean company may not be able to make enough due to low yield rates combined with increasing iPhone demand.

The supply constraints may force Apple to use OLED in just one version of the next-generation iPhone, push back adoption of the technology or cause other snags.

“Apple has already figured in there will be high demand for the OLED model and they’ve also figured out there will be constraints to these panels,” said Dan Panzica, a supply chain analyst at IHS Markit. The combination of Apple’s stringent quality requirements and the difficulty of producing OLED panels will likely lead to supply constraints, he said.


Apple’s deal with Samsung is for 100m units in the first year, apparently. That’s going to constrain supply quite considerably.
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Theranos whistleblower shook the company—and his family • WSJ

John Carreyrou reveals that one of his Theranos sources was the grandson of former secretary of state George Shultz (who was also on the Theranos board). Shultz Jr had seen and heard false claims about Theranos tests, and had quit the company:


In March 2015, Tyler Shultz was contacted by a Journal reporter through the professional network LinkedIn. He called the reporter several weeks later with a prepaid phone, reasoning it would be harder to track than a conventional mobile phone. They met at a Mountain View, Calif., beer garden in May 2015.

A few weeks later, Mr. Shultz was confronted by his father after arriving for dinner with his parents at their home in Los Gatos, Calif. His grandfather had called to say Theranos suspected he had talked to the Journal reporter. Theranos’s lawyers wanted to meet with him the next day.

He says he called his grandfather and asked if they could meet without lawyers. The elder Mr. Shultz agreed and invited his grandson to his house. The mood was tense but cordial, Tyler Shultz recalls, and he denied talking to any reporters. He says his step-grandmother was present during the conversation.

His grandfather asked if he would sign a one-page confidentiality agreement to give Theranos peace of mind. According to Tyler Shultz, when he said yes, his grandfather revealed that two lawyers were waiting upstairs with the agreement.

Michael Brille and Meredith Dearborn, partners at the law firm Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP, then came downstairs, says the younger Mr. Shultz. Mr. Brille said he was trying to identify the Journal’s sources. He handed the young man a temporary restraining order, a notice to appear in court and a letter signed by Mr. Boies alleging the former employee had leaked Theranos trade secrets.

Tyler Shultz says his grandfather protested to the lawyers that this wasn’t what he and Ms. Holmes had agreed to earlier, but that Mr. Brille kept pressing the younger Mr. Shultz to admit he had spoken to the Journal.

He wouldn’t.


It does take brave people to bring fraud to the attention of the world. Shultz didn’t bring down Theranos – that took the WSJ, and then regulators – but he was the key element.
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William Tunstall-Pedoe: the Cambridge AI guru who taught Amazon’s Alexa how to talk • Business Insider

Sam Shead with an entertaining review of the man behind Evi, which was sold to Amazon:


Some Amazon reviewers have said they use Echo for timers and alarms but not much else. Tunstall-Pedoe, however, insists Echo is “amazingly useful.” When I ask him what he uses Echo for, he replies: “Loads of stuff,” before going on to instruct the device to get the local weather for Cambridge.

“Right now in Cambridge, United Kingdom, it’s 17 degrees with showers and partly cloudy skies,” Alexa responds. “Today’s forecast is rainy weather with a high of 19 degrees and a low of 13 degrees.” He goes on to play “Call Me Maybe” by Canadian singer-songwriter Carly Rae Jepsen on Spotify and a “trance” music playlist on Pandora.

Concluding his demo, and showing off Alexa’s intelligence, Tunstall-Pedoe asks: “Amazon, who was president of the US when Barack Obama was a teenager?” The device replies: “Ronald Reagen, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford were the US presidents when Barack Obama was a teenager.” This is the very same question and answer that Evi used to show off in screenshots of the company’s app.

In terms of who developed Evi’s core technology, Tunstall-Pedoe doesn’t hold back when it comes to taking the credit. “The technology is actually largely a result of me,” he says. “There have been some additions to the technology since. And obviously there’s been a huge amounts of work engineering it, creating a platform that massively scales very fast. But the actual core IP all came out my head. So the original patents are all mine.”


Note that none of those demos was of anything particularly useful. You can find the weather by looking outside. OK, the song thing is nice. The Obama one sounds like a programmed trick.

(Side note: if you want to test voice recognition systems, ask them “is nutmeg poisonous?” Nutmeg appears to be a difficult-to-understand word in the canon.)
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Snapchat files confidentially for IPO • Bloomberg

Alex Barinka and Sarah Frier:


Snap Inc., the parent company of Snapchat, has filed confidentially for an initial public offering, according to people familiar with the matter.

Snapchat filed papers with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission before last week’s U.S. Presidential election, one of the people said, asking not to be identified as the details are private. The company is targeting a valuation of about $20bn to $25bn in a listing that could come as early as March, the person said. No final decision has been made on the size or timing of the IPO, they said.

The camera-application maker will seek to raise as much as $4bn at a valuation of about $25bn to $35bn, people familiar with the matter said in October, with one adding that the valuation could reach as much as $40bn. Valuations can vary in the lead-up to an IPO as companies may try to temper expectations among investors, while others on the deal are more likely to promote higher numbers.


About 150m daily active users, expected ad revenue of $350m this year – up from $59m in 2015. (That’s about 0.64 cents per person per day, 4.5 cents per week, just under 20 cents per month.)
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Biggest spike in traffic deaths in 50 years? Blame apps • The New York Times

Neil Boudette:


The messaging app Snapchat allows motorists to post photos that record the speed of the vehicle. The navigation app Waze rewards drivers with points when they report traffic jams and accidents. Even the game Pokémon Go has drivers searching for virtual creatures on the nation’s highways.

When distracted driving entered the national consciousness a decade ago, the problem was mainly people who made calls or sent texts from their cellphones. The solution then was to introduce new technologies to keep drivers’ hands on the wheel. Innovations since then — car Wi-Fi and a host of new apps — have led to a boom in internet use in vehicles that safety experts say is contributing to a surge in highway deaths.

After steady declines over the last four decades, highway fatalities last year recorded the largest annual percentage increase in 50 years. And the numbers so far this year are even worse. In the first six months of 2016, highway deaths jumped 10.4 percent, to 17,775, from the comparable period of 2015, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.


That Snapchat thing is crazy.
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Facing a Trump administration, NYC may push its immigrant data kill switch • The Verge

Colin Lecher:


In 2015, New York City launched a municipal identification program with the goal of giving some of the city’s most vulnerable residents access to services that require an ID. Mayor Bill de Blasio gave the plan vocal support, saying the card represented “who we are: New Yorkers who value equality, opportunity, and diversity.”

But now parts of the program are suddenly being questioned. As an unexpected Donald Trump term approaches, de Blasio last week suggested the city would fight to prevent the future president from accessing ID-related data, which contains personal information on undocumented immigrants.

The hurdle is one of many that cities will face as they prepare for an administration that, at least by its own account, will use every tool it has to target undocumented immigrants. In an interview aired Sunday, Trump vowed to deport millions — raising questions about where the president-elect will look for them.


Trump’s presidency is going to pose some interesting questions for sites like The Verge, which coasted along in the Obama presidency mostly ignoring questionable actions because he was a Democrat. Will The Verge become more critical of both government and company actions around data collection that could be misused, or carry on acting as though no bad consequences can ever be foreseen?

This story is, at least, a good start.
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The post-virtual reality sadness • Tobias van Schneider


In the last few months I spent more time in Virtual Reality. Not only developing for it, but also playing games, experiencing everything I can that is out there right now.

Using a VR headset and especially playing room scale experiences is magical. It messes with your mind in ways you can’t really imagine until you tried it yourself.

What I quickly noticed after a couple hours of intense VR sessions is the feeling you get the hours after. Depending your experience in VR, this feeling can sometimes hold on for hours, especially if you’re new to VR.

And I’m not talking about motion sickness or any immediate effects that are easier to track down.

What I’m talking about is a weird sense of sadness & depressed feeling. Let me walk you through it.


Here’s a taster of the physical aftereffects:


In the first couple minutes after any VR experience you feel strange, almost like you’re detached from reality.

You will interact with physical objects with special care because for some reason you think that you can simply fly through them.

Interacting with your smartphone touch screen becomes almost comical because the interface seems so dull and disappointing to you. It’s like your fingers are passing through the touch screen when touching it.

This specific feeling usually fades within the first 1-2 hours and gets better over time. It’s almost like a little hangover, depending on the intensity of your VR experience.


Pause for thought.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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