Start Up: App Store coding?, Facebook’s ad watching, AI for novels, Britney’s Russian bots, and more


Want one? Tough luck – an altcoin mining surge has created a world shortage. Photo by k0a1a.net on Flickr.

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A selection of 13 links for you. I hope you can see your way to reading them. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Cryptocurrency mining is fueling a GPU shortage • Motherboard

Daniel Oberhaus:

»

until the Ether price explosion last month, mining on the Ethereum network cost more in electricity than it generated in revenue. Following the meteoric rise of the world’s second favorite cryptocurrency, however, I decided it was finally time to become a miner. So I strapped on my hardhat and hit the internet in search of the graphics cards that are the workhorses in most Ethereum mining rigs.

Yet as I found on site after site, GPUs were SOLD OUT and wouldn’t be shipping for several weeks. As PC Gamer recently reported, it appears as though the altcoin mining boom had created a global GPU shortage. The question, however, is whether this drought has just begun, or if gamers and would-be miners will be out of luck for the foreseeable future.

As their name implies, GPUs are logic chips specifically designed for rending pictures and videos on a computer screen. They’re mostly used for gaming to render 3D graphics in realtime. Unlike a Central Processing Unit (CPU), which is responsible for coordinating and executing commands from a computer’s hardware and software, GPUs were designed so that they would be really efficient at repeatedly performing the same operation very quickly.

GPUs work well for rendering 3D games but they work great for mining Ethereum.

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*Narrator’s voice* Now, in 2100, we can understand how the seeds of the Gamer-Miner Wars were sown.
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Chinese Apple staff suspected of selling personal data • South China Morning Post

AP:

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Chinese authorities say they have uncovered a massive underground operation run by Apple employees selling computer and phone users’ personal data.

Twenty-two people have been detained on suspicion of infringing individuals’ privacy and illegally obtaining their digital personal information, according to a statement on Wednesday from police in southern Zhejiang province.

Of the 22 suspects, 20 were Apple employees who allegedly used the company’s internal computer system to gather users’ names, phone numbers, Apple IDs, and other data, which they sold as part of a scam worth more than 50m yuan (US$7.36m).

The statement did not specify whether the data belonged to Chinese or foreign Apple customers.

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Apple updates its App Store review guidelines, here’s all the changes • iClarified

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CHANGED 2.5.2 in 2.5 Software Requirements
(Old) 2.5.2 Apps should be self-contained in their bundles, and may not read or write data outside the designated container area, nor may they download, install, or execute code, including other iOS, watchOS, macOS, or tvOS apps.

(New) 2.5.2 Apps should be self-contained in their bundles, and may not read or write data outside the designated container area, nor may they download, install, or execute code, including other apps. Apps designed to teach, develop, or test executable code may, in limited circumstances, download code provided that such code is not used for other purposes. Such apps must make the source code provided by the Application completely viewable and editable by the user.

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This doesn’t look big on the surface, but it’s significant: being able to download code is important. It’s still a frustration for apps such as Pythonista that it can’t use iCloud to sync executable files. I really don’t know how Workflow managed it before.
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Android malware hid in Google Play apps to inject code into system runtime libraries • Graham Cluley

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A type of Android malware known as Dvmap hid in apps available on the Google Play Store in order to inject malicious code into system runtime libraries.

So far, Kaspersky has detected at least 50,000 downloads of the malware, which hid in apps like the puzzle game “colourblock” on Google’s Play Store…

Upon initial installation, the malware attempts to gain root privileges and to install some modules, including a malicious app called com.qualcmm.timeservices. It then launches a start file to check the Android system version and determine which runtime system library to patch…

…The malicious ip file is capable of disabling “VerifyApps,” [Google’s app verification daemon] changing system settings to allow the installation of apps from third-party marketplaces, and grant com.qualcmm.timeservices Device Administrator rights. This app can then use those rights to download archives and connect to its C&C.

To protect themselves against Dvmap, users should install an anti-virus solution onto their devices. They should also be careful about what apps they install onto their phones. As Dvmap and other threats prove, malware can hide in apps available on Google’s Play Store.

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Downloading modules seen as hazardous.
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Facebook knows what you’re doing during commercial breaks • Recode

Peter Kafka:

»

Facebook wants to spell it out for you: You ignore the commercials and you look at your phone.

Here’s the graphic version of this story: Facebook says it tracked the behavior of 537 people who told the company they watched “the season premiere of a popular TV show” last fall. This bar chart measures Facebook usage over time. See the spikes? Those are commercial breaks.

And just to beat it into the ground, Facebook tracked usage for people who didn’t watch the show. No spikes, just steady liking and sharing.

Yes, it’s a small survey, conducted by Facebook, about a single show last year.

On the other hand, since it’s only measuring Facebook usage, it probably understates the case. If you factor in Twitter, texting, Clash of Clans and everything else you can do with your phone when a commercial comes on, those spikes would likely be much sharper.

«

I make that 27 minutes of Facebook use – ads – in 60 minutes. No wonder Netflix is so popular.
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Experts predict when artificial intelligence will exceed human performance • MIT Technology Review

»

When will a machine do your job better than you?

Today, we have an answer of sorts thanks to the work of Katja Grace at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford and a few pals. To find out, these guys asked the experts. They surveyed the world’s leading researchers in artificial intelligence by asking them when they think intelligent machines will better humans in a wide range of tasks. And many of the answers are something of a surprise.

The experts that Grace and co coopted were academics and industry experts who gave papers at the International Conference on Machine Learning in July 2015 and the Neural Information Processing Systems conference in December 2015. These are two of the most important events for experts in artificial intelligence, so it’s a good bet that many of the world’s experts were on this list.

Grace and co asked them all—1,634 of them—to fill in a survey about when artificial intelligence would be better and cheaper than humans at a variety of tasks. Of these experts, 352 responded. Grave and co then calculated their median responses.

«

That “write New York Times bestseller” seems like one to watch for. More to the point, when will an AI be able to write a survey that more than 20% of respondents answer?
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Russian malware communicates by leaving comments in Britney Spears’s Instagram account • Boing Boing

Cory Doctorow:

»

A key weakness in malicious software is the “Command and Control” (C&C) system: a central server that the malware-infected systems contact to receive updates and instructions, and to send stolen data. Anti-malware researchers like to reverse engineer malicious code, discover the C&C server’s address, and then shut it down or blacklist it from corporate routers.

Turla is an “advanced persistent threat” hacking group based in Russia with a long history of attacking states in ways that advance Russian state interests — suggesting that they are either a part of the Russian espionage system, or contracting to it.

A new analysis by Eset shows that Turla is solving its C&C problems by using Britney Spears’ Instagram account as a cut-out for its C&C servers. Turla moves the C&C server around, then hides the current address of the server in encrypted comments left on Britney Spears’s image posts. The compromised systems check in with Spears’s Instagram whenever they need to know where the C&C server is currently residing.

«

This is like the subplot of Three Days of the Condor, but for the computer world.
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YouView piloting Alexa support for TV boxes, change channels using voice-control • Pocket-lint

Rik Henderson:

»

YouView is planning Alexa support for viewers using any of the connected TV set-top-boxes available through TalkTalk, BT and other manufacturers.

It is piloting voice-controlled features that will enable viewers to interact with their boxes and YouView services through speech.

A viewer will require an Amazon Echo, Echo Dot or other Alexa-enabled device, which will understand his or her commands, and a YouView Skill will give options to perform many of the current functions that usually require a remote control.

YouView is working with the Alexa Video Skill API – one of the first developers to do so. It should give viewers the ability to navigate around the user interface, play content and search for shows and movies.

Just barking “Alexa, change the channel to BT Sport 1” will find the station you want. Even commands as simple as “Alexa, play Eastenders” should work.

«

In 2011 I saw a ton of voice-activated TVs at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, made by a Chinese manufacturer. They went nowhere. This would require plugging your Echo/Dot/other somehow into the YouView box, wouldn’t it? That seems to limit things for a device that’s usually in the kitchen. Unless it makes you buy another Echo/Dot/…
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With new browser tech, Apple preserves privacy and Google preserves trackers • Electronic Frontier Foundation

Alan Toner:

»

While we welcome the willingness [in forthcoming versions of Google Chrome] to tackle annoying ads, the CBA’s [Coalition for Better Ads, of which Google and Facebook are now members] criteria do not address a key reason many of us install ad blockers: to protect ourselves against the non-consensual tracking and surveillance that permeates the advertising ecosystem operated by the members of the CBA.

Google’s approach contrasts starkly with Apple’s. Apple’s browser, Safari, will use a method called intelligent tracking prevention to prevent tracking by third parties—that is, sites that are rarely visited intentionally but are incorporated on many other sites for advertising purposes—that use cookies and other techniques to track us as we move through the web. Safari will use machine learning in the browser (which means the data never leaves your computer) to learn which cookies represent a tracking threat and disarm them. This approach is similar to that used in EFF’s Privacy Badger, and we are excited to see it in Safari.

In tandem with their Better Ads enforcement, Google will also launch a companion program, Funding Choices, that will enable CBA-compliant sites to ask Chrome users with content blockers to whitelist their site and unblock their ads. Should the user refuse, they can either pay for an “ad-free experience” or be locked out by a publisher’s adblock wall. Payment is to be made using a Google product called Contributor, first deployed in 2015. Contributor lets people pay sites to avoid being simply shown Google ads, but does not prevent Google, the site, or any other advertisers from continuing to track people who pay into the Contributor program.

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Amazon ends its unlimited cloud storage plan • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

»

Amazon has sunsetted its unlimited cloud storage plan for Amazon Drive — although members of its Prime subscription club will still get unlimited cloud storage for photos.

From today, people signing up for Amazon Drive will not be able to select an unlimited cloud storage option. Instead they can choose either 100 GB for $11.99 per year, or 1 TB for $59.99, with up to 30 TB available for an additional $59.99 per TB. (The prior pricing was $11.99pa for unlimited photos or unlimited everything for $59.99.)

All sign ups still get 5GB of storage gratis. Best to think of that as getting your first hit for free.

As for unlimited storage, Amazon only introduced the option in March 2015 — when it was couched as an aggressive play in an increasingly competitive consumer cloud storage market. And lo and behold, two months later Google announced its own free unlimited photo storage service.

Two years later Amazon is now tightening the screws on those who have locked their data inside its vaults — an all too familiar story in the cloud storage space.

«

For comparison, Apple offers 5GB for free, and then 50GB ($11.88pa), 200GB ($35.88pa) and 2TB ($119.88pa). Amazon’s is still cheaper, but it used to be $60pa to stuff everything in. Brian Barrett in Wired in March 2015 heralded it thus:

»

The steady march towards cheaper cloud storage has just turned into a sprint. Rather than being merely competitive with leaders like Google Drive, Dropbox, and iCloud, Amazon has decided to undercut their pricing by more than half. In some cases, much, much more… It’s hard to stress just how much these new offerings—particularly the Unlimited Everything plan—disrupt the current state of the cloud storage pricing structure… strictly in terms of price it’s an unarguably great deal. And even if you don’t bite, it should hopefully at least drive unlimited prices down across the entire industry.

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Important to distinguish in this field between things that are short-term promotions, and long-term disruptions. Surprise! Amazon’s storage was the former.
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UK police arrest man via automatic face recognition tech • Ars Technica UK

Sebastian Anthony:

»

Back in April, it emerged that South Wales Police planned to scan the faces “of people at strategic locations in and around the city centre” ahead of the UEFA Champions League final, which was played at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff on June 3.

On May 31, though, a man was arrested via AFR. “It was a local man and unconnected to the Champions League,” a South Wales Police spokesperson told Ars. It’s not clear whether this was due to the technology being tested ahead of the match.

We’re told that there was a warrant for the man’s arrest, but the spokesperson declined to provide any further details about the suspect. We know from the request for tender published by the South Wales Police, however, that the man’s face was probably included in the force’s “Niche Record Management system,” which contains “500,000 custody images.”

South Wales Police are using hardware and software provided by NEC, which has been working on real-time facial recognition tech for a few years now and has been the technology partner for other UK police trials. It isn’t clear how the AFR tech is set up: whether all of the tech and the database of custody images are stored in the van, or if there’s a central server that multiple vans (and eventually police cars and police body-worn cameras?) can connect to.

South Wales Police have previously said that they are serious about deploying automatic facial recognition tech on a wide scale.

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First such arrest in the UK; raises all sorts of questions, but also possibilities. For example, the database of people considered potentially dangerous by anti-terrorism teams is about 23,000; the core of “immediate risk” is about 3,000. What if they can be passively tracked by the pervasive CCTV in the UK’s cities? Is that lawful, and would it make any difference?
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Fire Travis Kalanick • Financial Times

Kadim Shubber, in an op-ed:

»

Many of Uber’s actions have been excused as aggressive but ultimately acceptable corporate behaviour. Kalanick is a fighter, we’re told. Uber is up against opponents who play hardball, and so it’s had to be tough and rough. Any problems it might have with corporate culture are ultimately fixable. Yeah, it’s played a little fast and loose, but it can grow up. Kalanick can mature.

Those arguments might just have cut it in a universe where an Uber executive didn’t keep his job for three years after digging up a rape victim’s medical records. It might be possible to imagine Kalanick as chief executive of a publicly listed Uber in a universe where he had not shielded a person who had obtained highly private and intimate information on a customer who had already been violated. In a world where Uber had not so deeply plumbed the depths of decent behaviour, Kalanick’s reign might be tolerable.

It’s time to face facts. Uber does not have an image problem, it has a chief executive problem. And for as long as it has this problem, no person who cares in the slightest about right and wrong should keep Uber’s app on their phone, if indeed it’s still there anyway.

If the independent directors on the board are unable to push him out, given his control of the company, they should resign. Bill Gurley of Benchmark; David Bonderman of TPG Capital; Cheng Wei of Didi; Yasir Al Rumayyan of Saudi Arabia’s public investment fund; and Arianna Huffington — every second they remain enablers of an Uber run by Kalanick, they are showing they lack the spine to do what’s right when it’s staring them in the face.

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Arianna Huffington looks more compromised by the minute.
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Apple’s answer to the Amazon Echo has a critical flaw • Business Insider

Ben Gilbert:

»

Amazon’s Echo is designed for flexibility. You’re a Pandora devotee? Great! Hook up your account to the Echo, then simply ask Alexa — Amazon’s equivalent of Siri — to play whatever you want. You could play out that same scenario for a wide variety of music services, including Spotify Amazon’s own music service. 

In the case of Apple’s HomePod, though, you’ll only have one choice: Apple Music. 

Want directions? They’re coming from Apple Maps. Want access to your calendar? Better hope you’re using Apple’s calendar application. That same situation will hold true for any number of things you might want the HomePod to do for you. It’s a device intended for people who live in Apple’s walled garden.

Technically speaking, you’ll be able to play any music you want on the HomePod. It’ll act as a wireless speaker, so you’ll be able to blast whatever music you want from your phone to HomePod using Apple’s AirPlay technology.

But that’s not what makes smart speakers like HomePod so compelling, is it? You’re supposed to be able to just speak to them and get instant results — no phone required.

And HomePod can do that — some of the time, and only with Apple services. That’s a big bummer!

Apple could eventually open the HomePod up to outside developers, much as it did the iPhone and, eventually, Apple TV. But it’s not clear if it will. For now there doesn’t appear to a toolkit that third-party programmers can use to create apps for the gadget or any way to distribute them to consumers, and Apple hasn’t said anything on the subject (we’ve asked).

«

This isn’t the same, though, as trying to launch a smartphone into an app gap, as Windows Phone or BB10 did. We already know that very few people use Alexa skills, and that it’s easy to forget how to invoke them. Apple has yet to put the HomePod on sale, though it might offer some sort of hookup to HomeKit.

But really: 1) who asks for directions from a home speaker 2) isn’t it highly likely that the first buyers of HomePods are going to be people who “live in Apple’s walled garden”?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

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