Start Up: Google’s algorithm blame, Amber’s crpyto confusion, polarised politics, and more


TfL reckons that it can make some serious money from your mobile use. Photo by canonsnapper on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Like the internet version of petrichor. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Tfl plans to make £322m by collecting data from passengers’ mobiles via Tube Wi-Fi • Sky

Tom Cheshire:

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Transport for London (TfL) plans to make £322m by collecting Tube users’ location data and potentially selling it to third parties, Sky News can reveal. 

At the end of 2016, TfL ran a pilot which tracked the Wi-Fi signals from 5.6 million phones as people moved around the London Underground, even if they weren’t connected to a Wi-Fi network.

TfL publicly stated that the purpose of the scheme was to use the aggregated, anonymised data “to better understand how people navigate the London Underground network, allowing TfL to improve the experience for customers”.

It is now in consultation about tracking passengers on a permanent basis. The only way to opt out of the scheme would be to turn your Wi-Fi or phone off.

Wi-Fi tracking is used around the UK, especially on high streets and shopping centres, to track customers as they move around a store, for example.

However, documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws show that they also anticipate there will be a significant financial benefit from the scheme, in contrast to TfL’s public messaging.

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The FOI seems to suggest that it would realise the money by being able to say how many people had seen ads. This seems rather weak. It already knows how many people go up and down the escalators and on to the platforms.
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Google’s top stories promoted misinformation about the Las Vegas shooting from 4Chan [updated] • Gizmodo 

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One might assume that the carousel of stories at the top of your Google search would be the most relevant and credible links based on their query, but to make that very reasonable assumption would be a mistake. The criteria for what gets a spot in the highly-coveted space remains vague. The links certainly don’t have to be factually accurate, given that a climate change denial story has appeared in the module. And it’s also evident that the system can be gamed. In February, a LinkedIn blogger wrote over 150 articles about how to stream the Super Bowl consisting of nonsensical strings of keywords aimed at fooling Google’s search algorithm. It worked.

Today, Google helped further the agenda of the far-right by promoting their threads misidentifying the gunman. If the search giant comments at all, it will likely blame the mishap on an improperly audited algorithm. But as people turn to Google’s search bar for information on the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history, the tech behemoth has a responsibility to ensure its users aren’t being led astray by a bunch of neo-Nazis.

Update 12:15pm: A Google spokesperson provided the following statement:

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“Unfortunately, early this morning we were briefly surfacing an inaccurate 4chan website in our Search results for a small number of queries. Within hours, the 4chan story was algorithmically replaced by relevant results. This should not have appeared for any queries, and we’ll continue to make algorithmic improvements to prevent this from happening in the future.”

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What’s fabulous is that Gizmodo correctly predicted how Google would blame this on an algorithm. Well, yeah. What that slides past is how impossible it seems to be to test these for undesirable effects.
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Amber Rudd says she doesn’t need to “understand how encryption works” to know it needs changing • Buzzfeed

Mark di Stefano:

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Home secretary Amber Rudd has declared she doesn’t need to “understand how encryption works” to see how it’s helping criminals, as she continues to make the case for a crackdown on end-to-end encryption messaging platforms such as WhatsApp and iMessage.

Rudd made the comments during the Spectator magazine’s debate about internet freedom and encryption at the Conservative party’s annual conference in Manchester on Monday night.

Asked by a party member whether members of her government actually understood how encryption worked and the difficulties in forcing a change on global tech giants who owned the platforms like Facebook and Google, Rudd replied: “I don’t need to understand how encryption works to understand how it’s helping, end-to-end encryption, the criminals.”

She said it was easy to “patronise” her colleagues when it came to their understanding of end-to-end encryption: “We will do our best to understand it.”

She went on: “I do feel that there is a sea of criticism for any of us in politics who try to legislate in new areas… [we] will automatically be sneered at and laughed at for not getting it right.”

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“We don’t need to understand how public funding works” “We don’t need to understand how the bond market works” “We don’t need to understand how railways work”. None of those would be defensible from a politician. Why is this?
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First click free is dead, but is its replacement really any better for publishers? • Distilled

Will Critchlow on the likely effects of Google ending “first click free”. FCF was Google’s demand that publishers, even (especially) those with paywalls, should make it possible to surmount those paywalls by clicking through from Google, even though Google didn’t pay the publishers any money and told them that if they prevented people getting that “first click free” (actually three clicks, mandatory, per day) they would be downgraded in search rankings:

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Publishers are calling this a win. My view is that the new Google scheme offers:

1) Something that looks very like what was in place before (“metering”)

2) Something that looks very like what pulling out of FCF looked like (“lead-in”)

And demands in return a huge amount of structured data which will cement Google’s position, allow them to maintain an excellent user experience without sending more traffic to publishers, and start them down a path to even more aggregation.

If paywalls are to be labelled in the search results [as Critchlow expects], publishers will definitely see a drop in traffic compared to what they received under FCF. The long-term possibility of a “Spotify for Publishers” bundle will likely be little solace in the interim.

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Yet at the same time, Google admits that “while FCF is a reasonable sampling model, publishers are in a better position to determine what specific sampling strategy works best for them.” The FT’s chief commercial officer says that “it’s extremely clear that advertising alone can no longer pay for the production and distribution high-quality journalism”.

FCF has been in place since 2008. That’s nine years during which Google has essentially told publishers that if they don’t allow it, they’ll pretty much vanish from search. And now it says that maybe publishers know best?

(Ben Thompson’s subscription newsletter at Stratechery.com has some very incisive thoughts on this topic.)
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Congress’ most liberal, conservative members have more Facebook followers • Pew Research Center

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In both legislative chambers, members’ ideology is a strong predictor of the number of people who follow them on Facebook. The most liberal and most conservative House members had a median of 14,361 followers as of July 25, compared with 9,017 followers for those in the middle of the ideological spectrum. The median number of followers for the Senate’s most liberal and conservative lawmakers was 78,360, while moderates had 32,626. (These figures reflect each member’s total number of followers since the creation of their official Facebook page, not the number gained since the 115th Congress began.)

The Center’s analysis determines each lawmaker’s ideology based on a score calculated through their congressional roll call votes. This widely employed measure, created by two political scientists in the 1980s, assigns each member a score that falls between -1 (most liberal) and +1 (most conservative).

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Consider what this means: on social media, the extreme voices on either side tend to be heard by more people. They’re also the ones who are least likely to compromise. What does this say for politics, notionally “the art of the possible”?

(As ever, I’d like to see a version of this for the UK.)
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Tinkering with Twitter feeds the agnostic view of its offering • FT

Helen Lewis:

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For anyone with thousands of followers, the big complaint is about feeling overwhelmed. There are too many notifications, too much abuse, too much damn noise.

But most Twitter users have the opposite problem. New joiners are encouraged to follow sports stars, actors and news brands, all of whom use the network for one-way broadcasting rather than engagement and replies.

It’s not like Facebook, where your existing relationships — friends, old classmates, colleagues — give you a ready-made audience. For too many users, it feels as though they are tweeting into the void.

Addictive as Twitter might be to its hardcore fans, it’s tough to get hooked. The latest figures showed that user growth has stalled at 328m active users a month (for comparison, Facebook claims 2bn).

Social media is very good at showing you a VIP party happening behind a velvet rope, and then making clear you’re outside it. Instagram is full of blue skies, sleek hotel rooms and aspirational smoothies; YouTubers such as Zoella seem to live in a perpetual shower of freebies, thanks to their “kind friends” at this or that brand. The buzzword for the feeling this creates is fomo — fear of missing out.

It’s a modern emotion created to serve capitalism, because the one thing that links all the big social media platforms is their reliance on advertising as a business model.

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The point about the emptiness of the “onboarding” experience for new users is key: Twitter overlooked this for years, and in some ways that may have made it less resilient – because the network of real users wasn’t strong enough – when the bots and attackers came along. Doubling the length of tweets will make no difference at all to this, apart from making it harder to scan quickly.
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Central banking and fintech – a brave new world? • IMF

Christine LaGarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, in a speech at the Bank of England recently:

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For now, virtual currencies such as Bitcoin pose little or no challenge to the existing order of fiat currencies and central banks. Why? Because they are too volatile, too risky, too energy intensive, and because the underlying technologies are not yet scalable. Many are too opaque for regulators; and some have been hacked.

But many of these are technological challenges that could be addressed over time. Not so long ago, some experts argued that personal computers would never be adopted, and that tablets would only be used as expensive coffee trays. So I think it may not be wise to dismiss virtual currencies.

For instance, think of countries with weak institutions and unstable national currencies. Instead of adopting the currency of another country—such as the U.S. dollar—some of these economies might see a growing use of virtual currencies. Call it dollarization 2.0.

IMF experience shows that there is a tipping point beyond which coordination around a new currency is exponential. In the Seychelles, for example, dollarization jumped from 20% in 2006 to 60% in 2008.

And yet, why might citizens hold virtual currencies rather than physical dollars, euros, or sterling? Because it may one day be easier and safer than obtaining paper bills, especially in remote regions. And because virtual currencies could actually become more stable.

For instance, they could be issued one-for-one for dollars, or a stable basket of currencies. Issuance could be fully transparent, governed by a credible, pre-defined rule, an algorithm that can be monitored…or even a “smart rule” that might reflect changing macroeconomic circumstances.

So in many ways, virtual currencies might just give existing currencies and monetary policy a run for their money.

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The key problem with virtual currencies has been stability of value, and the problems of exchanges, plus the limits on transaction volume (or speed). But if she thinks that citizens might “one day” hold virtual currencies, she’s dreaming. That’s already happening.
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Europol warns ransomware has taken cybercrime ‘to another level’ • Tripwire

Graham Cluley:

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Europol is right to highlight the significant impact that ransomware is having on business and home computers alike.

As we have previously discussed, multinationals like household goods manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser, and the Maersk shipping conglomerate have reported that the attacks have caused $100m and $300m in lost revenue respectively.

Meanwhile the impact felt by the WannaCry ransomware earlier in the year on the UK’s National Health Service and other large organisations is well-documented.

It’s no wonder that Europol is calling for more resources to be put in place around the world to target cybercrime gangs, and for greater co-ordination between law enforcement agencies.

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There’s an 80-page Europol report – INTERNET ORGANISED CRIME THREAT ASSESSMENT (IOCTA) 2017 – if you have some time. It’s not all about ransomware. The overview it gives of online crime is quite a thing. And its note early on that the US’s slow rollout of PIN systems for cards makes it the prime location for cashing out stolen cards is an eye-opener too.
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Commentary: Will micro LED feature on Apple devices? • Digitimes

Siu Han and Adam Hwang:

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Apple has unveiled Apple Watch Series 3 characterized by a built-in eSIM (embedded SIM) chip which independently connects the device with LTE networks for voice communications and playing Apple Music without via iPhone. However, Apple Watch 3 still faces a challenge: high power consumption for screen display.

Micro LED panels have advantages of low power consumption, high resolution, quick response and high luminance. Micro LED panels consume 90% less powr than LCD and 50% less than OLED. Micro LED could be the best solution of power consumption problem for Apple Watch.

Through acquiring US-based LuxVue Technology, Apple has acquired patented micro LED technology, especially that for mass transfer. In February 2017, Apple acquired a patent of fingerprint recogniton on micro LED panels via LuxVue, signaling Apple’s continued R&D of micro LED technology. But some reports have claimed that Apple, after LuxVue encountered bottlenecks in mass transfer, has withdrawn some of its technological staff working at a micro LED lab in northern Taiwan.

While Taiwan-based PlayNitride plans to kick off trial production of micro LED panels in the fourth quarter of 2017, there are many problems to solve for making such production at low cost and high yield rates. But many industry experts believe Apple, thanks to its abundant resources, is way ahead of small startups in micro LED development.

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Apparently microLED is good for standby and outdoor legibility; good for small panels, not so much for larger ones.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: only the Apple TV generation 4 and onwards can run independent apps and tvOS. So the Amazon Video Developer cited yesterday was correct, as were other readers.

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2 thoughts on “Start Up: Google’s algorithm blame, Amber’s crpyto confusion, polarised politics, and more

  1. The problem with Amber Rudd’s comment is an ambiguity in the phrase “understand how encryption works”. It can mean both the high-level idea that there’s no way to have a “golden key” which functions only for law-enforcement but not spies and thieves. Or it can mean the low-level technical details of public-key cryptography and computational complexity. She has a defensible point, that much of the debate involves partisans seeking a gotcha moment. That is, any politician who is even slightly awkward in expressing a concept will be roundly denounced as a total moron who deserves to be relentlessly mocked as an idiot unfit for office. I wish journalists with the ability to try to get an answer from such politicians would focus on pressing them on the former meaning, rather than clickbaiting over the latter meaning.

    Note a better comparable example, given current events, is “how *guns* work”. Consider that there’s gun-rights activists who say it’s vital to understand, e.g. the differences between semi-automatic and fully-automatic rifles, plus conversion between them. And deem anyone who can’t explain such material to their standards to be disqualified from discussing the topic of gun policy.

  2. What does “understand” mean. Some say you don’t understand something until you are able to can make/do it yourself. Do you need to “understand” cars, nuclear plants, brain surgery, … to regulate that ?

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