Start Up: the fabulist smearing Moore’s accusers, Google back on Firefox, FaceID faces its fears, and more

On Twitter, nonsense about vaccines was a harbinger of what happened in 2016. Photo by VCU CNS on Flickr. (It’s an HPV vaccination.)

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Troll smearing Roy Moore’s accuser stole dead SEAL’s identity • Daily Beast

Betsy Woodruff, Ben Collins, Spencer Ackerman and Joseph Cox:


Umpire43, also known as Doug Lewis or DJ Lewis, has repeatedly invented stories in the past—particularly about his own background. Lewis said he was a 22-year veteran of the Navy, a pollster at Ipsos/Reuters, an expert on rigging voting machines, a source who was feet away from Reince Preibus, a man who speaks six languages, a beleaguered soul who needed time off after 9/11 when he saw Muslims “dancing on rooftops,” the owner of a polling company who claimed Trump had a sustained lead in California, and an actual baseball umpire with 50 years experience. Oh, and he worked at the American consulate in Calgary, where he claimed to obtain proof of a forged birth certificate for Ted Cruz’s father.

The Daily Beast spoke with each of the institutions and companies at which he claimed to be affiliated or employed. None of Umpire43’s employment or service claims are true, these organizations said.

Umpire43’s now-infamous allegation that “A family friend in Alabama just told my wife that a WAPO reporter named Beth offered her 1000$ to accuse Roy Moore,” posted last week, was deleted with the rest of his Twitter account Tuesday morning.


Wow. This is a big takedown; that account was responsible for all sorts of lies – always pro-Trump, anti-Democrat. They were picked up by idiot conservative sites which haven’t heard of fact-checking.

That the account is gone is a hell of a thing, but it won’t stop the idiot sites, and you can guess it will pop up again soon.
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Google pays to put search engine back on Firefox browser in US • Bloomberg

Mark Bergen:


In a blog post, Mozilla said Firefox’s default search engine will be Google in the US, Canada, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The agreement recalls a similar, older deal that was scuttled when Firefox and Google’s Chrome web browser became bitter rivals. Three years ago, Mozilla switched from Google to Yahoo! Inc. as the default Firefox search provider in the US after Yahoo agreed to pay more than $300m a year over five years — more than Google was willing to pay.

The new Firefox deal could boost Google’s already massive share of the web-search market. When people use Firefox, Google’s search box will be on the launch page, prompting users to type in valuable queries that Google can sell ads against. But the agreement also adds another payment that Alphabet Inc.’s Google must make to partners that send online traffic to its search engine, a worrisome cost for shareholders.

It’s unclear how much Google paid to reclaim this prized digital spot. A Google spokeswoman confirmed the deal but declined to comment further, and Mozilla didn’t disclose financial details.


Bet it’s less than Yahoo paid. That was a stunning overbid.
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Loot boxes, never-ending games and always-paying players • Rolling Stone

Jared Newman:


Years before Bioware added loot boxes to Mass Effect 3, the model gained steam in emerging markets like China, where lower disposable income and rampant piracy of full-priced software caused the free-to-play model to flourish.

“[Players] weren’t able to buy top-end PCs, they weren’t able to afford all these $50 or $60 games, and that’s why internet cafes were huge back then, and still are, in terms of just being able to sign on and play an online game,” says Daniel Ahmad, an analyst with Niko Partners. “Piracy was also huge back in the day, and the way around that was just releasing games for free, and then putting in content that people want to buy.”

Loot boxes proved especially lucrative, emerging for instance in a massive multiplayer game called ZT Online. A 2007 story in China’s Southern Weekly describes how players could purchase treasure chests, which promised a chance to earn the game’s best gear without grinding. It also rewarded the players who purchased the most chests, setting up a system where some players flushed their money away.

“It was effectively free-to-play with gambling mechanics in there,” Ahmad says.

While free-to-play PC games flourished in Asia, similar concepts started to take root in western markets, fueled by the rise of gaming on social media sites like MySpace and Facebook, and eventually on smartphones. A VentureBeat story from early 2009 said that Zynga was making at least $50 million per year, mostly from sales of virtual goods.


Loot boxes are basically gambling; they should be banned for any children’s game for the under 18s. But they aren’t. (If you like games, by the way, Ahmad is a worthwhile follow on Twitter.)
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You probably don’t need to worry about someone hacking your iPhone X’s Face ID with a mask • TechCrunch

Taylor Hatmaker:


Just a week after the device’s release, Vietnamese research team Bkav claims to have cracked Apple’s facial recognition system using a replica face mask that combines printed 2D images with three-dimensional features. The group has published a video demonstrating its proof of concept, but enough questions remain that no one really knows how legitimate this purported hack is.

As shown in the video below, Bkav claims to have pulled this off using a consumer-level 3D printer, a hand-sculpted nose, normal 2D printing and a custom skin surface designed to trick the system, all for a total cost of US$150.

For its part, in speaking with TechCrunch, Apple appears to be pretty skeptical of the purported hack. Bkav has yet to respond to our questions, including why, if its efforts are legitimate, the group has not shared its research with Apple (we’ll update this story if and when we hear back). There are at least a few ways the video could have been faked, the most obvious of which would be to just train Face ID on the mask itself before presenting it with the actual face likeness. And it’s not like Apple never considered that hackers might try this methodology.


So people who are famous enough to feature in Madame Tussauds should worry? This is pretty daft. 3D printers and hand-sculpted noses. This is Mission Impossible territory.
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Datasette: instantly create and publish an API for your SQLite databases • Simon Willison


I just shipped the first public version of datasette, a new tool for creating and publishing JSON APIs for SQLite databases.

You can try out out right now at, where you can explore SQLite databases I built from Creative Commons licensed CSV files published by FiveThirtyEight. Or you can check out, derived from the database of world political parties which illustrates some advanced features such as SQLite views.


Read-only, so people can’t hack into your system. Willison is very smart – in 2009 he was in charge of the systems crowdsourcing MPs’ expenses at The Guardian, and made it happen in lightning time.
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Liberal arts and tech • Tech.pinions

Bob O’Donnell (who is a “liberal arts” graduate):


while no two liberal arts programs are the same, the one consistent thread across them is that they teach people to think critically, ask these essential why questions, and work through the implications and longer-term impact of ideas and concepts, particularly as they relate to people. Applying these kinds of human-centric principles to tech could make a profoundly important impact.

Consider, for example, where social media has brought us as a society. From a scientific and programming perspective, it’s clearly impressive to be able to not only link billions of people around the world and let them communicate with one another, but to use advanced computer science to create algorithms that can continuously feed each one of us with the kind of information that specifically interests each one of us (in theory, at least).

However, a liberal arts major familiar with works like Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” John Mill’s “On Liberty” essay, or even the work of ancient Greek historians, might have been able to recognize much sooner the potential for the “tyranny of the majority” or other disconcerting sociological phenomena that are embedded into the very nature of today’s social media platforms. While seemingly democratic at a superficial level, a system in which the lack of structure means that all voices carry equal weight, and yet popularity, not experience or intelligence, actually drives influence, is clearly in need of more refinement and thought than it was first given.

Beyond these more philosophical debates, there are an increasing number of very practical concerns around the ethical application of technology in fields ranging from medicine to transportation to basic data analysis. Toss in the mind-numbing array of questions that arise from technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning, and it’s clear that there’s a lot more discussion that needs to happen around how technologies get applied, rather than just how to build them.


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June 2015: anti-vaxxers are using Twitter to manipulate a vaccine bill • WIRED

Renee DiResta and Gilad Lotan, writing in June 2015:


As early as Tuesday, the California State Assembly will vote on SB-277, a law that would ban the so-called personal belief exemption. School boards, medical associations, and community leaders support the law.

But a small group of vocal anti-vaxxers is fighting hard to keep it from passing. This group, which leverages the power of social media, has launched a full-scale attack on the bill as it travels through the legislature. Each day, leaders craft tweets and instruct followers to disseminate them. Several senators who voted in favor of the California legislation have found themselves receiving extensive attention from the group—one, Senator Hannah Beth Jackson, has been @-mentioned (often unfavorably) in a particular Twitter hashtag more than 2,000 times since casting her vote in favor of the legislation.

This anti-vax activity might seem like low-stakes, juvenile propaganda. But social networking has the potential to significantly impact public perception of events—and the power to influence opinions increasingly lies with those who can most widely and effectively disseminate a message. One small, vocal group can have a disproportionate impact on public sentiment and legislation. Welcome to “Anti-Vax Twitter.”


A harbinger, of course, for what would come in the future. One wonders now whether this was all ways to test how propaganda efforts might work on social media, or whether it was just spontaneous, led by idiots.
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How the iPhone earned its security record • FT

Tim Bradshaw:


Apple’s security team, led by Ivan Krstić, has won increasing respect from researchers in the field over the past few years. Typically, as the volume and variety of a company’s devices on the market increases, the security can often deteriorate. With Apple, even after more than 1.2bn iPhones have been sold over 10 years, its security has been improving. 

iPhones and iPads “are legitimately the most secure phones and tablets out there”, says Rich Mogull, chief executive of Securosis, an independent security research and advisory firm. “I don’t know if I can put a timeline on when Apple’s culture changed, but it did,” he says. “They take security and privacy very seriously now and they are getting a little better with every release of hardware and software.”

One key ingredient is the Secure Enclave, an encrypted “coprocessor” in the iPhone’s A-series chips that was first introduced with the iPhone 5s in 2013. 

This was the “underpinning for a significant step forward in their security model”, says Pepijn Bruienne, research and development engineer at Duo Security. “They can embed the security architecture in at the silicon layer.”

…As well as requiring every new app submitted to the store to be reviewed by Apple’s staff before consumers are allowed to download it, the iOS operating system is much more restrictive than Google’s rival, Android, in what apps are able to do. 

“The app can’t just go on your phone and start requesting access to your location or contacts” without the user granting their permission, says Andrew Blaich, a researcher at mobile security specialist Lookout. There are also restrictions on reading text messages, overlaying ads and running in the background. “Apple have insulated themselves from a lot of the common attacks that we see on the Android platform day to day,” he says. 

As a result, in the fourth quarter of 2016 and first quarter of 2017, 47 in 1,000 of Android enterprise devices protected by Lookout encountered app-based threats, compared with only 1 in 1,000 iOS devices. 


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Apple supplier eyes smart speakers with facial recognition • Nikkei Asian Review

Cheng Ting-Fang:


Apple HomePod maker Inventec Appliances said on Friday that it expects future voice assistant products to offer 3-D sensing features, including facial and image recognition.

“We see trends that engineers are designing smart speakers that will not only come with voice recognition but also incorporate features such as facial and image recognition,” President David Ho told reporters after the company’s earnings conference. “Such AI-related features are set to make people’s lives more convenient and to make the product easier to use.” He added, however, that he was unsure at the moment whether smart speakers with more AI features in the future would become a hit in the market.

Ho did not specify which product he was talking about, but analysts said he is likely referring to the next generation of Apple’s HomePod, the $349 voice-activated speaker that will compete with Amazon Echo and Google Home.

Inventec Appliances, a subsidiary of Taiwanese electronic contract manufacturer Inventec, currently monopolizes orders for the HomePod as well as AirPods, Apple’s wireless earbuds, according to analysts. It also makes smartphones for China-based Xiaomi, wearable products for America’s Fitbit and smart speakers for US-based Sonos and others.

Jeff Pu, an analyst at Yuanta Investment Consulting, said Apple could roll out HomePods with 3D-sensing cameras in 2019.


It’s nice to see the conception of bullshit rumours set out in so few paragraphs. Man speculates about the possibility of face and image recognition in “smart home assistants”. (Amazon already does this, by the way, in the Amazon Show.) Analyst suggests Apple could do it. Rumours take wing that next HomePod will do FaceID.

Nonsense on stilts which never asks quite how FaceID on a HomePod would (a) work (b) be useful.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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