Start Up: the rehab scammers, ultrasonic hacking, India’s biometric nightmare, HTC breaks up?, and more


Winning nuclear standoffs mostly consists of not getting into nuclear standoffs. Photo by vaXzine on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Satisfied? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How disreputable rehabs game Google to profit off patients • The Verge

Cat Ferguson:

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Leasha Ali had been drunk for the last two days, but she didn’t want to be anymore. The 39-year-old math teacher and mother of two was in a spiral familiar to anyone who’s struggled with addiction. A difficult event — a hospitalization, thanks to lingering symptoms from a birth defect — had stressed her to the breaking point, and then she’d gotten home and found herself alone in her house, depressed and unable to sleep. After a few days without drinking, she gave in, and spent the next 48 hours on a bender.

On the second night, January 8th of this year, she got an email from the hospital. Her liver enzymes had been dangerously high — even before the days of abuse. The birth defect that put her in the hospital had already left her with several damaged organs. Afraid of hurting another, she searched the test results in Google. Right there at the top was an ad for rehab.

“I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, even Google knows I need rehab,’” Ali told me.

It’s hard to say exactly who was on the other end, when, just before 11PM, Ali called the number in the ad. The 800 number was ephemeral. It’s missing from Yellow Pages listings, social media, and even sites for complaints about telemarketers and spam, and it was disconnected by the time I called it. The untraceability is frustrating, but not surprising. Google offers advertisers unique “tracking” phone numbers that forward to a company’s phones, so they can understand which ads are bringing in the most clients. The phone numbers only stay up as long as the ad does…

…Open another tab, and Google “alcohol rehab near me.” Take a look at the ads up top. (If you have an ad blocker, you’ll have to turn it off.)

If you’re in Arizona, and you click on the top ad, you’ll cost that advertiser around $221. If you’re in Colorado, that click costs the site $230. Sorry, New Yorkers, your click is only worth $43 — but if you searched “drug treatment centers,” you’d go for around $121. (These are estimated averages from April this year, provided to The Verge by advertising analytics company SEMrush.)

That’s assuming you don’t live in a city with a high percentage of Medicaid recipients. In New Jersey, the statewide cost for ads on “best alcohol rehab centers” searches is $190 per click, but that’s an average. Smart marketers tell Google they don’t want their ads showing up in any searches from Trenton, Camden, or other low-income cities. It’s also good practice, if you’re hoping to attract well-heeled (or at least well-insured) clients, to keep your ads away from searches with words like “free” and “Medicaid.”

Of course, there are other ways to prevent poor people from calling your hotline.

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A simple design flaw makes it astoundingly easy to hack Siri and Alexa • FastCo Design

Mark Wilson:

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Using a technique called the DolphinAttack, a team from Zhejiang University translated typical vocal commands into ultrasonic frequencies that are too high for the human ear to hear, but perfectly decipherable by the microphones and software powering our always-on voice assistants. This relatively simple translation process lets them take control of gadgets with just a few words uttered in frequencies none of us can hear.

The researchers didn’t just activate basic commands like “Hey Siri” or “Okay Google,” though. They could also tell an iPhone to “call 1234567890” or tell an iPad to FaceTime the number. They could force a Macbook or a Nexus 7 to open a malicious website. They could order an Amazon Echo to “open the backdoor” (a pin would also be required, an August spokesperson clarifies). Even an Audi Q3 could have its navigation system redirected to a new location. “Inaudible voice commands question the common design assumption that adversaries may at most try to manipulate a [voice assistant] vocally and can be detected by an alert user,” the research team writes in a paper just accepted to the ACM Conference on Computer and Communications Security.

In other words, Silicon Valley has designed human-friendly UI with a huge security oversight. While we might not hear the bad guys talking, our computers clearly can. “From a UX point of view, it feels like a betrayal,” says Ame Elliott, design director at the nonprofit SimplySecure. “The premise of how you interact with the device is ‘tell it what to do,’ so the silent, surreptitious command is shocking.”

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We’ve had something similar previously, though that was in the audible spectrum. The problem is that some of these devices use ultrasonic frequencies for pairing.
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How to win a nuclear standoff • FiveThirtyEight

Oliver Roeder:

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Imagine you’re Trump or Kim Jong Un, essentially playing a game of chicken. You’re driving at high speed directly toward your opponent who’s also racing toward you. Neither of you wants to chicken out and veer away, but neither wants to die, either. Your best strategy? Rip off your steering wheel, make sure your opponent knows you’ve done so, and hit the gas.

That’s the terrifying thing about game theory: Sometimes the most rational choice can feel like the most dangerous. And that’s a problem when there are nukes involved. In the old days, if my country had better archers than yours, you’d keep that in mind when you felt like going to war with me. But nuclear weapons don’t work like archers. They decouple raw military strength from a state’s ability to win a war. That’s why North Korea, a country smaller than Mississippi with a GDP roughly equal to Wyoming’s, gets to compete alongside a superpower like the U.S. “What matters is if they can launch ICBMs to destroy Los Angeles or Chicago or Washington or wherever,” James Fearon, a political scientist at Stanford, told me.

Either you have nukes or you don’t. Either you use nukes or you don’t. It’s not a competition with arms or battlefields any more. It’s a competition in risk taking.

Fearon is the author of a 1995 paper called “Rationalist Explanations for War.” A modern classic in its field, it begins: “The central puzzle about war, and also the main reason why we study it, is that wars are costly but nonetheless wars recur.” In the paper, Fearon argues that there are two main reasons why wars break out. First, players have private information, and incentives to misrepresent that information. Second, the players have commitment problems.

Our $100 game [in which two players write a number from 0 to 100; the higher number wins, but the lower number is used to calculate the percentage risk that both players must burn $10,000 of their own money; so if you write 100 and your opponent 99, there’s a 99% chance you both burn the cash], which Fearon teaches to his undergraduates, revolves around those two ideas. My private information is my appetite for risk. How much of it am I willing to take on to try and win the $100? You have no idea, and vice versa. And neither of us can really commit to a peaceful or bellicose strategy and make the other side believe it. The secret envelope and our unceasing self-interest stops that. That’s a commitment problem.

In our $100 game and in nuclear standoff, there’s no easy way to rip out the steering wheel.

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Fearon says that with North Korea, people aren’t sure what its $100 would be. (People aren’t thinking hard enough. For North Korea, the $100 is easier trade.)
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TalkTalk plans to bail on mobile in major shake-up for beleaguered biz • The Register

Kat Hall:

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Beleaguered UK comms provider TalkTalk is set to go against the received “wisdom” of having multiple services to flog as it plans to pull out of the mobile market entirely.

The move is a fairly significant change of tack given that not so long ago it had targeted four million mobile customers. TalkTalk now has just 913,000 SIM customers. Chief exec Tristia Harrison said the company wants to refocus on its core strength as a “fixed-line business” and reassess its mobile strategy.

No doubt she hopes concentrating on broadband will help boost the company’s lacklustre results, with revenues continuing to decline by 3% to £1.7bn for the full-year 2016/17.

The plans are part of a shake-up following founder Charles Dunstone’s return as chair after chief exec Dido Harding resigned earlier this year.

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Likely buyer for those mobile customers is Three, the smallest of the UK carriers.
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India’s biometric database is a massive achievement and a dystopian nightmare • VICE News

David Gilbert:

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Seven years ago nearly 400 million people in India did not exist in the eyes of the government. They were “ghosts” who had no identity and no way of getting one, says Sahil Kini, one of the architects of India’s controversial Aadhaar database. In a country trying to modernize on the fly and take its place among the world’s superpowers, this massive yet unknown population presented a huge problem.

So the Indian government set out on an ambitious course to build Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric database, which would not only allow these people to participate more fully in society but also become a shining beacon of technological achievement for the rest of the world.

“What’s forgotten is that before Aadhaar was built there were 400 million people in India that did not have any form of identity; they were ghosts in the system,” Kini told VICE News. “So if you had to give them any kind of subsidy, you couldn’t, because they didn’t exist on paper.”

But as the database grew to include almost all of India’s 1.3 billion citizens, cracks began to appear, and in recent months those cracks have become chasms. Now more and more Indians say they worry that what the government actually created in Aadhaar is an all-seeing surveillance apparatus that has serious holes in its security and can be used to monitor all aspects of their lives.

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Remarkable piece of research and journalism. Aadhaar is the results of good intentions gone wrong.
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Donald Trump is the first white president • The Atlantic

Ta-Nehisi Coates:

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To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular. But whereas his forebears carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman, Trump cracked the glowing amulet open, releasing its eldritch energies. The repercussions are striking: Trump is the first president to have served in no public capacity before ascending to his perch. But more telling, Trump is also the first president to have publicly affirmed that his daughter is a “piece of ass.” The mind seizes trying to imagine a black man extolling the virtues of sexual assault on tape (“When you’re a star, they let you do it”), fending off multiple accusations of such assaults, immersed in multiple lawsuits for allegedly fraudulent business dealings, exhorting his followers to violence, and then strolling into the White House. But that is the point of white supremacy—to ensure that that which all others achieve with maximal effort, white people (particularly white men) achieve with minimal qualification. Barack Obama delivered to black people the hoary message that if they work twice as hard as white people, anything is possible. But Trump’s counter is persuasive: Work half as hard as black people, and even more is possible.

For Trump, it almost seems that the fact of Obama, the fact of a black president, insulted him personally. The insult intensified when Obama and Seth Meyers publicly humiliated him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2011. But the bloody heirloom ensures the last laugh. Replacing Obama is not enough—Trump has made the negation of Obama’s legacy the foundation of his own.

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Powerful essay. Trump is the anti-Obama, in so many ways.
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Google reportedly in final stages of buying HTC’s smartphone business • Digital Trends

Christian de Looper:

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The Google Pixel was one of the best-loved phones of 2016, and according to recent reports, it looks like the company could be set to seriously bolster its smartphone business. How? By buying someone else’s smartphone business. According to a recent report, from Commercial Times, Google and HTC have entered the final stages of discussions that could ultimately lead to Google buying out HTC’s smartphone business.

It’s important to note that Google won’t buy HTC as a whole — just its smartphone business. The HTC brand will still live on, and the report noted that the company may refocus its attention on virtual reality after selling off its mobile arm.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Google has made such a purchase. The company bought out Motorola back in 2012 for a whopping $12.5bn, and at the time it was suspected that the company could end up merging the Android and Motorola teams. In the end, that didn’t happen — and instead, a few years later, Google sold the Motorola brand to Lenovo at a pretty huge loss.

This time around, however, things could be different.

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Things will be different inasmuch as HTC is nowhere near as big as Motorola. Not mentioned: HTC made the first Android phone, the G1. Hard to see HTC being profitable on the VR side, though. Volumes too low, unit price too high, competition too fierce.
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When the truth is messy and hard • Context: By New America

Anne-Marie Slaughter, chief executive of New America, which …let go Barry Flynn and the Open Markets team after Flynn praised the EC’s fine of Google:

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We tell all of our donors that they cannot control the results of what they fund; we do not do contract research. But we also develop and maintain relationships with our donors as does any nonprofit institution.

So there’s the tension. In practice, with an employee who had already surprised his colleagues unpleasantly — and many would say dishonestly — in the past, it meant that I wanted to see a press release before it went out. That is the reason that the Open Markets statement went up and then was taken down. It was posted before I had a chance to give it a final review. Indeed, I was talking to Barry about it on the phone when it went up. I have never — nor would I ever — censor anything, but I might ask questions about accuracy or tone.

And, in this case, I wanted to give the funder a heads up that it was coming and send it over ourselves. That seems like a defensible minimum courtesy that an institution can offer its funders: we’re about to do something you are really not going to like, but at least we are telling you about it. I recognize that the best journalists operate on a different principle — notice seems to imply interference. But we are not a newspaper, yet we try to uphold the best journalistic standards in our writing.

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She’s wrong about the “notice seems to imply interference”. Journalists are generally obliged to put accusations or claims to organisations which are accused of things in news reports. (Hence how Slaughter was quoted in the NYT article about Lynn being dumped.) In opinion pieces, like Flynn’s, that’s not the case. That’s because they’re opinions. News organisations don’t send people who are about to be criticised in opinion pieces a copy seeking a response. Slaughter has it exactly backwards.
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A furious think-tank boss, Google, and an academic ‘fired’ for criticizing ads giant • The Register

Kieren McCarthy takes the above post to the ethical cleaners:

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Slaughter defends her right to see and sign off on public statements from employees before she defends their independence. And she paints Lynn’s failure to give her advance notice of his critical statement as a sign that he has breached loyalty.

She even makes it plain that she was prepared to insist on changes to Lynn’s statement before giving approval for publication – which no doubt is precisely why Lynn felt he needed to “publish and be damned,” knowing that any strong claim that the US authorities need to dig into Google’s businesses was liable to meet interference from Slaughter.

And that is almost the textbook definition of how soft power works: by ensuring self-censorship.

The fact is that if the financial relationship with Google and Schmidt wasn’t there, and if Slaughter wasn’t an old friend of Schmidt’s, there would not have been any concern over Lynn’s statement in the first place. It was, after all, a personal statement from a think tank: hardly draft legislation or anti-trust charges.

That Lynn felt the need to push his statement out without going through Slaughter, and the fact that she had such a strong reaction when he didn’t, combined with the virtual certainty that Schmidt called soon after to express his annoyance, is as clear an example of soft money influence as you will ever find.

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How Verrit’s “authentication codes” expose Peter Daou’s continuing ineptitude • Medium

Jon Hendren is unimpressed by Verrit, a site which has quotes with “authentication codes” and is the latest idea from Daou, who is a big noise in the US Democratic party:

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Let’s pretend for a minute that the concept of Verrit were a good one. No, really, just play along. If you must have a “code” to accompany a quote or a blurb, then the code should be something — anything — that can be used even in some small part outside of Verrit.com. Perhaps first, an identifier of the person or entity being quoted (Hillary would be #000001, obviously), a date code for when it was uttered, and a few more digits as an index in case the person said many quotable things that day. Now when I want to verify that Bernie (identifier #000666 perhaps) said “I’m going to give away ponies” on whatever-the-hell day — I can then look that up in a thousand places that aren’t a WordPress installation on Verrit.com. (Wait, I think I just invented sourcing one’s quotes.)

Or how about a checksum of the quote? Or if you want to get really fancy, do some steganography on those social images and build a validator so people can upload suspected images they found online to see if they are legitimately from Verrit and not from one of the thousands of people making fun of Verrit.

You can nerd this up in a number of ways that are actually useful, maybe. Hell, you want to validate a continuing series of accurate statements? Get the blockchain in here, that’s what it’s for.
I get what Daou and others believe they are marketing toward — there really is a population out there that is confused about how the content they are reading is created. There are certainly voters who don’t know how to tell real news from fake, and this authentication scheme is a grab at making those people feel a little better about what they read and share.

But when the authentication mechanism is meaningless, backed by nothing but a post on a WordPress blog, you very dangerously redefine what “authentic” means…

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up: the rehab scammers, ultrasonic hacking, India’s biometric nightmare, HTC breaks up?, and more

    • Well, now. That link points out that Google paid $12.5bn for Moto. Got $3bn in cash and $1bn in tax credits. “So, $8bn really.” (OK.) Sold the set-top box business to Arris for $2.4bn. Sold the handset business and *some* patents for $2.9bn.

      “So we’re down to $3.2bn” – which is the assumed value of the patents it retained. Well, possibly: Google’s latest 10Q shows a “net carrying amount” for its “Patents and developed technology” of $2.8bn, down from a “gross carrying” amount of $5.5bn due to “accumulated amortization”. It’s not clear over what period that’s amortized, nor which patents are included. But back in 2014 Q3, when it did own Motorola and all the patents (), that “gross carrying” amount was $7.3bn and the “net carry” was $5.2bn. By 2015 Q3, the gross carry is $6.5bn and the net carry is $4.0bn. Those patents seem to be falling in value very fast.

      Remember, if the post-sale value of the patents is less than $3.2bn, then it’s showing a loss. (By the end of 2015, the “net carry” is just $3.4bn, and one would think there’s some pre-Moto patents in there.) But wait a minute, there’s another element of owning Motorola that Dealbook is overlooking: the operating losses incurred by Motorola during its ownership. Those total $2.1bn of operating losses between 2012Q2 and 2014Q4.

      That’s extra expense – which means Google is definitely in the hole from buying Motorola, yes, by a couple of billion dollars.

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