Start Up: the Tinder trap, UK v US on solar, DeepMind mines more health, Android v the CIA, and more


Facial recognition systems might be in the next top-end iPhone – and might delay its introduction. Photo by nicolasnova on Flickr.

You can now 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. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How to access the secret ‘success rate’ hidden in all your Tinder photos • Business Insider

James Cook:

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Another value that Tinder tracks is the date of birth of its users. That’s perfectly normal, of course, as the app needs to figure out how old its users are. But every time you use Tinder’s share function to share a profile with a friend, that friend is able to access your full date of birth, regardless of your Tinder or Facebook privacy settings.

Rentify also found that it’s possible to find the exact number of Facebook friends of the person sharing the profile, but not the profile shared. So if I were to share a profile with someone, that person would be able to see my date of birth and the total number of my Facebook friends.

Tinder also stores all of its users’ photos in an unsecured format, meaning that anyone with the URL for one of your photos could enter it into a web browser and see the image.

Rentify found all of this by connecting a smartphone running Tinder to a computer using a man in the middle proxy. That meant all data sent to and from the phone went through the computer, and the company was able to see what Tinder sends back to its servers.

The screenshot above shows the data Tinder sends back to its servers (we’ve blurred out identifying information and photo URLs). The photo selected has a 0.58 success rating, which equals 58%, above average for a heterosexual female.

Tinder did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this article.

Wondering why a London startup was digging around into Tinder? Here’s an explanation from Rentify on why it was experimenting with the app:

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The reason we were working on this is because Tinder serves its images over http not https with a predictable file format. We’re setting up a redirect so that every time a new profile loads, and Tinder on our office WiFi asks for the images, we redirect it to a local folder filled with photos of me. So the profile of Jonny, 19, likes tattoos and interesting stories about your cat will load, but the photos will all be of George Spencer, 30, wants you to get back to work. I can’t think of a better way to remove the incentive for being on Tinder in the workplace than all the photos being of your boss frowning.

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Brilliant.
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Google’s DeepMind plans bitcoin-style health record tracking for hospitals • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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DeepMind has been working in partnership with London’s Royal Free Hospital to develop kidney monitoring software called Streams and has faced criticism from patient groups for what they claim are overly broad data sharing agreements. Critics fear that the data sharing has the potential to give DeepMind, and thus Google, too much power over the NHS.

In a blogpost, DeepMind co-founder, Mustafa Suleyman, and head of security and transparency, Ben Laurie, use an example relating to the Royal Free Hospital partnership to explain how the system will work. “[An] entry will record the fact that a particular piece of data has been used, and also the reason why, for example, that blood test data was checked against the NHS national algorithm to detect possible acute kidney injury,” they write.

Suleyman says that development on the data audit proposal began long before the launch of Streams, when Laurie, the co-creator of the widely-used Apache server software, was hired by DeepMind. “This project has been brewing since before we started DeepMind Health,” he told the Guardian, “but it does add another layer of transparency.

“Our mission is absolutely central, and a core part of that is figuring out how we can do a better job of building trust. Transparency and better control of data is what will build trust in the long term.”

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I feel obliged to point out that adding layers inevitably makes things less, not more, transparent. The criticisms of DeepMind have broadly been shrugged off, and the NHS doesn’t seem to have any incentive to engage with those critics. But whose data is it? And why does Google get it and not the NHS, since it’s public money that enables this?
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Apple’s Siri learns Shanghainese as voice assistants race to cover languages • Reuters

Stephen Nellis:

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With the broad release of Google Assistant last week, the voice-assistant wars are in full swing, with Apple, Amazon.com, Microsoft Corp and now Alphabet Inc’s Google all offering electronic assistants to take your commands.

Siri is the oldest of the bunch, and researchers including Oren Etzioni, chief executive officer of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle, said Apple has squandered its lead when it comes to understanding speech and answering questions.

But there is at least one thing Siri can do that the other assistants cannot: speak 21 languages localized for 36 countries, a very important capability in a smartphone market where most sales are outside the United States.

Microsoft Cortana, by contrast, has eight languages tailored for 13 countries. Google’s Assistant, which began in its Pixel phone but has moved to other Android devices, speaks four languages. Amazon’s Alexa features only English and German. Siri will even soon start to learn Shanghainese, a special dialect of Wu Chinese spoken only around Shanghai.

The language issue shows the type of hurdle that digital assistants still need to clear if they are to become ubiquitous tools for operating smartphones and other devices.

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Plenty of detail about how Apple does this; what’s notable is how many languages Apple can handle, especially compared to Google. This seems underappreciated. Also, it seems like a lead “squandered” in a market where there isn’t a huge amount of interest yet; and Siri does fine (in my experience) at that.
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Apple, Google, and the CIA • News from the F-Secure Lab

Sean Sullivan on the exploits shown to be available against earlier versions of Android:

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Google is “confident that security updates and protections in […] Android already shield users from many of these alleged vulnerabilities.” But here’s the big problem – while the latest version of Android OS might be secure – the version of Android actually installed on the vast majority of phones is not. Not by a long shot.

Based on our Freedome VPN telemetry, we can say that it takes a significant amount of time for Android updates to arrive on customers’ devices.

Here’s a breakdown by a selected set of countries.

The Nordics have a relatively high percentage of Android versions 6 and 7. But the majority of the world? Versions 4 and 5 still dominate.

Bottom line: if you run Android and care at all about your device’s security… choose your hardware with care. Only a few select vendors are currently focused on providing Google’s monthly security updates to end users.

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What I’d love to know – but is obscured in the Google platform stats – is how many phones that people already own get significant OS updates (ie a full digit, not a decimal), rather than the growth in new versions being from people buying new phones. I can’t see any way to back that out easily from any published data. (Hints welcomed.)
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Monopoly as the Uber business model • ON LABOR

Benjamin Sachs:

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Uber’s business model consists of: predatory pricing, underwritten by venture capital, aimed at securing a monopoly position in the urban car service industry.

To unpack that a bit, the argument proceeds as follows:

• Uber is unprofitable. It has grown and succeeded to date by engaging in below-cost pricing and subsidizing that pricing scheme with $13 billion in venture capital investments.  As the post put it: “Uber is a fundamentally unprofitable enterprise, with negative 140% profit margins.”  And, “Uber’s ability to capture customers and drivers from incumbent operators is entirely due to predatory competition funded by massive investor subsidies – Uber passengers were only paying 41% of the costs of their trips, while competitors needed to charge passengers 100% of actual costs.”

• Far from the popular image of technology-enabled low-cost superstar, Uber is in fact “the industry’s high cost producer, with a significant cost disadvantage in every cost category except fuel and fees where no operator could achieve any advantage.”…

…• Once Uber succeeds in securing monopoly power (or, “industry dominance”) it will exercise that power by: reducing driver pay to levels below those paid by traditional operators; requiring “anyone who might ever want a cab to carry Uber’s app;” and “imposing much higher prices for peak period[s] and low density neighborhood service” which would “effectively eliminate taxi service for a major segment of (mostly lower income) users.”

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All technology companies – all companies, really – aspire to monopoly power. A few get it, and their behaviour once they do is pretty consistent. No reason why Uber would be any different.
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Budget 2017: UK solar industry facing devastating 800% tax increase • The Independent

Ian Johnston:

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Britain’s solar industry is facing devastation and consumers could see energy bills rise after the Chancellor Philip Hammond refused to listen to pleas to cancel a planned tax hike of up to 800% on rooftop solar schemes.

The Solar Trade Association described the Government’s refusal to bend over the increase – due to come into force in April – as “nonsensical” and “absurd”.

Bizarrely, state schools with solar panels will be forced to pay, while private schools will remain exempt.

Mr Hammond barely mentioned the energy sector in his speech – apart from a promise to help the oil and gas industry “maximise exploitation” of the remaining reserves in the North Sea.

According to the Government’s own figures, solar power is expected to become the cheapest form of electricity generation sometime in the 2020s.

But the UK solar industry lost 12,000 jobs last year and there has been an 85% reduction in the deployment of rooftop solar schemes.

So the sector had hoped the Government would listen to their request to drop the huge increase in business rates affecting rooftop solar from next month.

Some 44,000 solar “microgenerators” who are currently exempt from business rates could be faced with a bill of hundreds, or even thousands, of pounds. 

Speaking after reading the detail of the Budget in Treasury documents, Leonie Greene, of the Solar Trade Association, told The Independent: “Fair to say we are dismayed. We are facing an extreme business rate rise of up to 800%. Listening to what the Chancellor said today, there was no mention of energy apart from oil and gas. I have to say we are astonished because deployment of solar is at a six-year low… What he is doing is advantaging old technology and disadvantaging new ones. It’s nonsensical.”

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It is utterly stupid. Businesses that install solar benefit everyone because they (a) provide jobs for fitters (b) contribute surplus energy to the grid which reduces non-baseline demand for fossil fuels at CCGT (combined cycle gas turbine) stations, which are the ones brought on and off line quickly when demand shifts.

The alternative? You don’t have solar, and so you’re reliant both on big power companies building gigantic power plants in time to meet estimated future demand, and the import of energy – two points of potential failure. Plus the fact that raising tax bills in that way could put some companies out of business. Raising it for schools will squeeze already tight budgets even further.

It doesn’t affect domestic solar – thankfully. And if you’re wondering why it doesn’t affect private schools: it’s because they’re constituted as charities.

Now contrast this with the next link…
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Tesla completes Hawaii storage project that sells solar at night • Bloomberg

Mark Chediak:

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Tesla Inc. has completed a solar project in Hawaii that incorporates batteries to sell power in the evening, part of a push by the electric car maker to provide more green power to the grid.

The Kapaia installation includes a 13-megawatt solar system and 52 megawatt-hours of batteries that can store energy during the day and dispatch it after the sun goes down, the Palo Alto, California-based company said Wednesday. Tesla has a 20-year contract with the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative on the island of Kauai to deliver electricity at 13.9 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s lower than the utility’s cost for power from diesel plants of 15.48 cents, and about half the 27.68 cents that consumers paid in December for electricity in the state.

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On a 20-year contract, Tesla is going to be making some good money towards the end. Yet everyone will benefit from it.
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Report: 3D sensor production ramp suggests iPhone 8 to launch later than September • 9to5Mac

Benjamin Mayo:

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Recent reports have suggested that the iPhone 8 may launch later than the other two models, as some of the innovative components will not be ready for September …

Specifically today, iGeneration is reporting that STMicroelectronics will be making sensors for the front 3D camera system, expected to be a major feature for the OLED iPhone.

The 3D camera will apparently be able to detect depth of objects held in front of the iPhone and may play a big role in rumored iPhone 8 facial recognition features.

The report says STMicroelectronics is now committed to providing such components for the next iPhone; in its financial report it alluded to major investment in new products without mentioning Apple by name. The CEO said it expects “a contract recently taken [will lead to] substantial revenues expected in the second half of 2017.”

However, the iGeneration report suggests that ramping to mass production of the technology will take time and the supplier may not be ready for September, the month Apple typically unveils its new iPhone lineup.

This all comes together to suggest that the iPhone 8 will not be available to buy in September. A report from Macotakara last night corroborated this line of thinking, predicting the high-end iPhone will launch much later than the other two ‘iPhone 7s’ devices.

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Given the supply constraints that usually apply to the top models, this wouldn’t be surprising; and if it became available in October, that would put it in the fourth calendar quarter, which would be fine by Apple, which has big numbers to live up to.

Quite whether the world wants facial recognition is another question.
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Nest adds a security feature it should have had all along • Gizmodo

Christina Warren:

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Nest has finally added support for two-factor authentication to help give its user accounts greater security. On the surface, this is a good idea—and plenty of people have said as much—but it also begs a very obvious question: what the hell took them so long?

Two-factor authentication (2FA) requires users to get a secondary code (sometimes sent via SMS, sometimes accessed through an app like Google Authenticator or Authy) before they can access their account. It adds extra security, because it forces the user to have possession of a secondary device like a smartphone, in addition to the account password. While it’s not the end-all-be-all of security—especially if served over text messages—it’s better than nothing.

Which is why it’s so curious that Nest, a division of Alphabet, didn’t have this feature already.

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Point of order: it doesn’t beg the question. It raises the question. To beg the question is to assume its answer – “is it popular because everyone wants one?” ( find that I’m quoted in a reference on how to use this phrase correctly. I can tell you it’s quite a weird feeling.)
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Peter Thiel: why Google never talks about search • CNBC

Matt Rossoff:

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why invest in a complicated business that goes up against some of the biggest and most cash-rich names in technology, both old — like Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle — and new, like Amazon?

For a cynical take, one might turn to investor Peter Thiel’s comments at CERAWeek, an energy industry conference, on Tuesday night.

Thiel – who is a board member and early investor in Facebook, one of Alphabet’s fiercest competitors – noted that he only wants to invest in monopolies. Then he talked about a hypothetical search company in Silicon Valley:

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If you have a monopoly, you will tell people you are in a super-competitive business. And if you are in a super-competitive business, you will tell people that you have a monopoly of sorts.

So for example, if you have a search company in Silicon Valley that I will not name, if you were to go around to CEOs saying, ‘We have a bigger share of the market and higher profit margins than Microsoft ever had in the 1990s,’ you wouldn’t do that…You don’t even talk about search. You say, ‘We are a technology company with an enormous space called technology, and we’re competing with Apple on smartphones, and we’re competing on self-driving cars, and there’s competition in everything we’re doing except this one thing called search, and we never talk about that.'”

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A slightly less cynical take: Investing billions in cloud computing might not make sense on a standalone basis, but if Alphabet is already investing billions in data center technology for its actual business, why not try and leverage some that technology into a whole new area as well, by selling it to other businesses? It’s a low-risk bet.

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It is, though I like Thiel’s explanation. He’s no fool when it comes to business analysis.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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