Start Up: Brit ‘Wannacry’ hero arrested in US, Google’s bad app crackdown, ransomware’s future, slower tablets, and more

William Gibson isn’t just a severed head floating in blackness; he has some thoughts to offer about dystopias. Photo by Frédéric Poirot on Flickr.

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

William Gibson talks ‘Archangel,’ apocalypses, and dystopias • Vulture


Abraham Riseman: How do you account for the recent surge in popular fiction about the collapse of civilization into dystopia or Armageddon?

William Gibson: This could be a case of consumers of a particular kind of pop culture trying to tell us something, alas. Seriously, what I find far more ominous is how seldom, today, we see the phrase “the 22nd century.” Almost never. Compare this with the frequency with which the 21st century was evoked in popular culture during, say, the 1920s.

AR: Do you mean it’s ominous because people are so pessimistic that they can’t even imagine a future?
WG: Well, that’s the question — why don’t we? I don’t know.

AR: Why do you think we, as a culture, are so endlessly obsessed with stories about last-ditch attempts to stave off the end of the world?
WG: The end of the world is universal shorthand for whatever we don’t want to happen. We have very little control over anything much at all, individually, so fantasies of staving off the end of the world are fairly benign fantasies of increased agency.

AR: What grim future do you fear most? A brutal dystopia? A nuked-out wasteland? A chaotic world war?
WG: I don’t think of those as very distinct states. It’s certainly possible to have all three at once.


Lots to mull over in this one.
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Google Play will now downrank poorly performing apps • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:


Google today announced it’s rolling out a change to its Play Store so that better-performing apps – meaning those that experience fewer crashes and those that don’t drain your smartphone battery – will be ranked higher than apps with bugs and other performance issues.

The goal with this new ranking algorithm is to ensure that the best apps are being promoted, which in turn leads to increased app usage and engagement, the company says.

The impetus for this change came after Google realized that around half of the 1-star reviews on the Google Play Store were about app stability problems.

Apps that don’t work well frustrate users, who often turn to the reviews to leave a complaint. Over time, a number of bad reviews and low star ratings can impact the app’s place in the charts and search results. But if an app is popular enough, a large number of installs can still, to some extent, override its negative reviews and push the app back up into a higher position than it rightly deserves.


First comment I saw on Twitter about this: “Does that mean the Facebook app is going to be removed?”
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The campaign against Facebook and Google’s ad “duopoly” is going nowhere • Buzzfeed

Alex Kantrowitz:


Snap’s stock skyrocketed the day it hit the public markets, and investors celebrated — but only briefly. Snap’s first earnings report came in well below Wall Street expectations, and its stock cratered. The company’s shares now trade $4 below their IPO price.

Snap’s poor performance can be traced back in part to Facebook’s decision to ruthlessly copy nearly every part of its product. But the story doesn’t end there. Advertisers, some of whom have publicly criticized Facebook and Google on a range of issues from brand safety to misleading metrics, don’t seem to be allocating money to competitors like Snap in a way that would facilitate the competition they claim to desire.

“Pretty much everyone will say it is much healthier to have multiple players competing with each other,” Randall Rothenberg, CEO and president of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry trade group, told BuzzFeed News. “After they’ve said that, they all go and they pay into a handful of dominant players.”

With Snap struggling, advertisers are starting to name new companies for the role it was supposed to fill. “Amazon is going to be an increasingly important force and one we have to better understand,” Martin Sorrell, CEO of ad agency holding company WPP, said last month. And some are even pointing to the Verizon-owned AOL and Yahoo as possible challengers.

But if anything, dollars are moving away from challengers into the big platforms’ pockets. “We’ve moved millions of dollars going into Snapchat into Instagram Stories ads because they’re less expensive and have a much higher view-through rate,” one ad agency executive told BuzzFeed News.


This is a little depressing, to be honest.
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Briton who stopped WannaCry attack arrested over separate malware claims • The Guardian

Alex Hern and Sam Levin:


Marcus Hutchins, the 23-year-old British security researcher who was credited with stopping the WannaCry outbreak in its tracks by discovering a hidden “kill switch” for the malware, has been arrested by the FBI over his alleged involvement in another malicious software targeting bank accounts.

According to an indictment released by the US Department of Justice on Thursday, Hutchins is accused of having helped to create, spread and maintain the banking trojan Kronos between 2014 and 2015.

The Kronos malware was spread through emails with malicious attachments such as compromised Microsoft word documents, and hijacks credentials like internet banking passwords to let its user steal money with ease.

Hutchins, who is indicted with another unnamed co-defendant, stands accused of six counts of hacking-related crimes as a result of his alleged involvement with Kronos. “Defendant Marcus Hutchins created the Kronos malware,” the indictment, filed on behalf of the eastern district court of Wisconsin, alleges.

Hutchins, better known online by his handle MalwareTech, had been in Las Vegas for the annual Def Con hacking conference, the largest of its kind in the world. He was at the airport preparing to leave the country when he was arrested, after more than a week in the the city without incident.


This is utterly weird. Here’s the indictment, via Motherboard. It names (but obscures) the name of someone else who was apparently in Wisconsin. It sounds like the other person has fingered Hutchins. Whether that’s true is a different matter.
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China cracks down after investigation finds massive peer-review fraud • Science


[China’s Ministry of Science and Technology’s] MOST’s 27 July announcement marked the culmination of an investigation into the mass retraction this past April of 107 papers by Chinese authors that appeared in a single journal, Tumor Biology. The papers, published between 2012 and 2016, were pulled after editors found “strong reason to believe that the peer review process was compromised,” Editor-in-Chief Torgny Stigbrand, of Umeå University in Sweden, wrote on 20 April on the website of the publisher Springer. (Springer, an arm of Springer Nature, published Tumor Biology until December 2016; the journal is now operated by SAGE Publications.)

Investigators say the authors engaged in an all-too-common scam. Tumor Biology allowed submitting authors to nominate reviewers. The Chinese authors suggested “experts” and provided email addresses that routed messages from the journal back to the researchers themselves, or to accomplices—sometimes third-party firms hired by the authors—who wrote glowing reviews that helped get the papers accepted.

The MOST investigation focused on 101 papers for which there was evidence of faked peer review, according to a summary of a press conference posted on the agency’s website. Investigators concluded that for 95 of the papers third party agencies had provided phony experts or false reviews. In six cases, one or more of the authors perpetrated the fraud themselves.


The scientific process working as it should; the demand for publication as a measure of success producing perverse consequences as you might expect. (Thanks to Walt French for the link.)
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Xiaomi becomes world’s No.1 wearables vendor in Q2 2017 • Strategy Analytics


Steven Waltzer, Industry Analyst at Strategy Analytics, said, “Global wearables shipments reached 21.6 million units in Q2 2017, rising 8% year-on-year from 20.0m in Q2 2016. Strong demand for low-cost fitnessbands in China and premium smartwatches across the United States drove the uptick.”

Neil Mawston, Executive Director at Strategy Analytics, said, “Xiaomi shipped 3.7 million wearables worldwide in Q2 2017, rising 23% annually from 3.0m units in Q2 2016. Xiaomi captured 17% global marketshare and overtook Fitbit and Apple to become the world’s largest wearables vendor.

“Xiaomi’s Mi Band fitness trackers are wildly popular in China, due to their highly competitive pricing and rich features such as heart-rate monitors, step-counters and calendar alerts. Fitbit shipped 3.4m wearables for 16% marketshare worldwide in Q2 2017, almost halving from 29% a year ago. Fitbit is at risk of being trapped in a pincer movement between the low-end fitnessbands sold by Xiaomi and the fitness-led, high-end smartwatches sold by Apple.”


Xiaomi’s fitness bands are probably making some good money. Might even be saving its margins. But the comparison purely on units, done for public consumption (since detailed reports likely have prices), isn’t useful. Apple shifted 2.8m Watches, by this estimate. That’s more than any other smartwatch vendor. It’s increasingly hard to see Android Wear OEMs even taking part in this space. Though the one that’s got problems is Fitbit: number sold cratering, and Hail-Mary-pass-smartwatch still some months away.
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Transcripts of Trump’s calls with Mexico and Australia • Washington Post

Greg Miller, Julie Vitkovskaya and Reuben Fischer-Baum:


‘This deal will make me look terrible’: Full transcripts of Trump’s calls with Mexico and Australia


Oh my. I’m linking to this because it’s an important document, in its time, because it demonstrates – in the starkest form – how astonishingly bad Trump is at diplomacy, otherwise known as persuading people to do what you want them to do.

Such as this, from Trump to Mexico’s Pena Nieto:


Because you and I are both at a point now where we are both saying we are not to pay for the wall. From a political standpoint, that is what we will say. We cannot say that anymore because if you are going to say that Mexico is not going to pay for the wall, then I do not want to meet with you guys anymore because I cannot live with that. I am willing to say that we will work it out, but that means it will come out in the wash and that is okay. But you cannot say anymore that the United States is going to pay for the wall. I am just going to say that we are working it out.


Mexico isn’t going to pay for the wall. (Not that there will be a wall, but anyway.)
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Stolen nude photos and hacked defibrillators: is this the future of ransomware? • The Guardian

Alex Hern is at Defcon in Las Vegas:


Kleczynski, and his colleague, Adam Kujawa, who directs research at Malwarebytes, predict that criminals will evolve new ways of encouraging victims, both corporate and individual, to pay up rather than simply restoring from back-ups and ignoring the payment request.

New on the scene is a form of ransomware known as “doxware,”. “Basically what it says is ‘pay, or we’ll take all the stuff we encrypted and we’ll put it online with your name on it’,” says Kujawa.

The name comes from “doxing”, the term for publishing private information on the internet to bully, threaten or intimidate, and the idea of automating it isn’t hypothetical. A number of similar attacks have already occurred in the wild. At one end of the spectrum was the Chimera ransomware, which hit German companies in 2015. The malware encrypted files and asked for around £200 ($260) to return them, but also came with the warning that if victims did not pay up, “we will publish your personal data, photos and videos and your name on the internet”.

Chimera, however, didn’t actually have the capability to publish anything online – the warning was bluster, designed to scare victims into paying up. But in other cases, the threat of publishing data is very real.

In May, hackers stole files from a Lithuanian plastic surgery clinic, containing highly personal information about 25,000 former clients: names, addresses and procedures performed, as well as passport scans, national insurance numbers and nude photos of patients. They put the database online through the encrypted network Tor, and asked for payments from individual patients to remove their personal information from the site. Prices started at €50 for those patients who just had names and addresses in the site, but rose to €2,000 for the more invasive information stolen.


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Tablet market decline slows in second quarter as low-cost tablets offer temporary relief • IDC


Once touted as the savior of the market, detachable tablets also declined in the second quarter as consumers waited in anticipation of product refreshes from high-profile vendors like Apple and Microsoft. However, with new product launches towards the end of the second quarter, the detachable market is expected to maintain a stronger position in the second half of the year.

“There’s been a resetting of expectations for detachables as competing convertible notebooks offered a convincing and familiar computing experience for many,” said Jitesh Ubrani, senior research analyst with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers. “To date, the 2-in-1 market was bifurcated as Apple and Microsoft led with detachables while the PC vendors led with convertibles. Though that is slowly changing as smartphone vendors and traditional PC vendors begin to offer compelling alternatives, the pace has been rather slow as Surface and iPad Pro still dominate shelf space and mindshare.”

Market turmoil aside, three of the top five vendors managed to increase share and grow on an annual basis with price being the largest driving factor. However, these gains may be temporary as the replacement cycle of tablets is still long (closer to traditional PCs rather than smartphones) and first-time buyers have become a rare commodity. With downward pressure on pricing from big name brands, “whitebox” tablet vendors and smaller brands are starting to turn their attention away from tablets and IDC expects this trend to continue.


Apple, Huawei and Amazon all saw growth; total market shrank by 3.4%. Samsung is stuck in the middle – isn’t cheap, brand isn’t strong enough. It stayed steady, but it hasn’t done anything significant in the tablet market for some time. Strategy Analytics reckons Samsung’s sales declined.

Next big question: will Apple put OLED in tablets? Or is that an expense too far?
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HBO hack: insiders fear leaked emails as probe widens • Hollywood Reporter

Tatiana Siegel:


On July 27, Richard Plepler’s worst corporate nightmare unfolded. The HBO CEO learned that his company’s network had been breached by an apparently coordinated cyberattack that experts explained could expose a staggering 1.5 terabytes of data. That would be roughly seven times the size of the epic 2014 hack of Sony Pictures.

The attack was sophisticated, insiders tell The Hollywood Reporter, targeting specific content and data housed in different locations, suggesting multiple points of entry. Even more chilling, there was no ransom demand, say sources, leaving the motive in question and raising the specter that video footage, internal documents or even email correspondence could be leaked.

Two days later, HBO sent an alarming email on a Saturday to its 2,500-plus employees, notifying them that the company had been hit, followed by a second email warning staff not to open suspicious emails. On July 30, hackers going by the name of little.finger66 boasted to the media about pulling off “the greatest leak of cyber space era” [sic]. As a teaser, they provided a link to a script for an Aug. 6 episode of Game of Thrones and promised much more. At the same time, unaired episodes of Ballers and Room 104 began surfacing online.

To put in context the 1.5 terabytes — or 1,500 gigabytes — claim, in the Sony case, about 200 gigabytes of data was released online, a damaging deluge that brought the studio to its knees and led to the ouster of then co-chair Amy Pascal. “A traditional business-grade DSL link would take about two weeks at full blast to exfiltrate that much data,” says Farsight Security CEO Paul Vixie, noting that a finished Blu-ray is about 30 gigabytes. “If not for video and sound, a corporation the size of HBO might fit [entirely] in a terabyte, including all the email and spreadsheets ever written or stored.”


No threats; no ransom; no destruction of data. This looks like professional hackers trying to get content for piracy networks to me. Entirely unlike the Sony hack.
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Smartphone volumes decline slightly in Q2 2017 amid anticipation of strong second half product launches • IDC

IDC, unlike Counterpoint (which reckoned there was 6% growth), thinks smartphone volumes declined by 1.3% to 341.6m in Q2:


While the smartphone industry contracted slightly in the second quarter, it is worth noting that the leading vendors all saw positive shipment growth. Samsung and Apple both held shares relatively constant from the second quarter a year ago, while the other three vendors rounding out the top 5 – Huawei, OPPO, and Xiaomi – all grew shares. The one change in terms of ranking within the top 5 was Xiaomi slightly outpacing vivo, but not by much.

“In my opinion, the biggest change in the second quarter is the size of the contraction among the ‘Others’ outside of the top 5 OEMs,” said Ryan Reith, program vice president with IDC’s Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Device Trackers. “It’s no secret that the smartphone market is a very challenging segment for companies to maintain or grow share, especially as already low average selling prices declined by another 4.3% in 2016. The smaller, more localized vendors will continue to struggle, especially as the leading volume drivers build out their portfolio into new markets and price segments.”

As we look toward the second half of 2017, IDC expects to see two quarters of positive year-over-year growth, leaving 2017 as a rebound year. Samsung is riding momentum from the Galaxy S8 products, with the presumed August announcement of the Note 8 right around the corner. In parallel, anticipation continues to build for the next round of iPhones that the industry expects Apple to announce in September. Outside of these two industry leaders, the companies to watch will continue to be the next three to five OEMs and how they navigate to position themselves in growing markets.


“Others” (not Samsung, Apple, Huawei, OPPO, vivo, Xiaomi) shrank by 16%. This is starting to look like the same thing as the PC market.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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