Start Up: Facebook’s problems deepen, the illegal blockchain?, WileyFox lives!, Apple’s FaceID lead, and more

Venezuela’s currency now has a crypto sibling – apparently helped by Russia. Photo by Ammon Beckstrom on Flickr.

A selection of 12 links for you. Quite Facebooky. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Child abuse imagery found within bitcoin’s blockchain • The Guardian

Samuel Gibbs:


German researchers have discovered unknown persons are using bitcoin’s blockchain to store and link to child abuse imagery, potentially putting the cryptocurrency in jeopardy.

The blockchain is the open-source, distributed ledger that records every bitcoin transaction, but can also store small bits of non-financial data. This data is typically notes about the trade of bitcoin, recording what it was for or other metadata. But it can also be used to store links and files.

Researchers from the RWTH Aachen University, Germany found that around 1,600 files were currently stored in bitcoin’s blockchain. Of the files least eight were of sexual content, including one thought to be an image of child abuse and two that contain 274 links to child abuse content, 142 of which link to dark web services.

“Our analysis shows that certain content, eg, illegal pornography, can render the mere possession of a blockchain illegal,” the researchers wrote. “Although court rulings do not yet exist, legislative texts from countries such as Germany, the UK, or the USA suggest that illegal content such as [child abuse imagery] can make the blockchain illegal to possess for all users.”

“This especially endangers the multi-billion dollar markets powering cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin.”

While the spending of bitcoin does not necessarily require a copy of the blockchain to facilitate, some processes, such as some mining techniques, require the downloading of the full blockchain or chunks of it.


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Exclusive: Russia secretly helped Venezuela launch a cryptocurrency to evade US sanctions • Time

Simon Shuster:


Ever since 2014, when the US and its allies used sanctions to punish Russia for invading parts of Ukraine, the Russian elites have been desperate to get those sanctions lifted and, in the long term, to weaken the West’s ability to impose them in the future. One of the core aims of these efforts, as Putin outlined in a policy paper on global trade that was published in September, is to “overcome the excessive dominance” of Western currencies, and especially the dollar.

Putin’s advisers have been more open about their ultimate aim: “The reign of the dollar must end,” Andrei Kostin, the head of state-controlled VTB, Russia’s second-largest bank, said in a speech last month in Moscow, calling on Russia to promote other currencies for use in international trade. “This whip that the Americans use in the form of the dollar would then, to a great extent, not have such a serious impact on the global financial system.”

While not as ambitious as the Russian attempt in 2016 to influence the US presidential election, the Kremlin’s move into cryptocurrencies reveals another layer of ingenuity in its struggle against what Putin’s advisers have called the US “hegemony” in global affairs. The use of cryptocurrencies could, at least in theory, hurt the US ability to control the flow of money in and out of sanctioned countries, thus chipping away at one of most powerful means of US influence around the world…

…instead of putting the ruble at risk, Russia encouraged its ally in Latin America to run the experiment on itself, the banker says. “Venezuela has nothing to lose. For them it’s the only chance.” Indeed, the value of the Venezuelan currency, the bolivar, has been decimated by official mismanagement and the impact of US sanctions, which were imposed last year to punish Maduro for his deepening authoritarianism. The crisis has also made Maduro’s regime deeply dependent on Russia for loans and investments.

“So Russia made its stronghold here in Venezuela,” says Armando Armas, an opposition member of the nation’s parliament, the National Assembly, which has tried in vain to block the creation of the petro. “Now they are using Venezuela as a guinea pig for their experiment,” Armas tells TIME by phone from Caracas.


The dollar collapsing due to China and Russia and others creating an alternative currency is the starting point for Lionel Shriver’s “The Mandibles”. And here’s Russia trying to make that a true story.
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How a self-driving Uber killed a pedestrian in Arizona • The New York Times

Troy Griggs and Daisuke Wakabayashi:


The car, a Volvo XC90 sport utility vehicle outfitted with Uber’s sensor system, was in autonomous mode when it struck Elaine Herzberg, a 49-year-old woman, around 10 p.m. on Sunday. There was a human safety driver at the wheel, but the car was carrying no passengers.

The vehicle was doing about 40 miles per hour on a street with a 45 m.p.h. speed limit when it struck Ms. Herzberg, who was walking her bicycle across the street, according to the Tempe police.

Officials also said that it did not appear as though the car had slowed down before impact and that the Uber safety driver had shown no signs of impairment. The weather was clear and dry.

The accident was a reminder that self-driving technology is still in the experimental stage, as Silicon Valley giants, major automakers and other companies race to develop vehicles that can drive on their own. Governments, for their part, are still trying to figure out how to regulate the technology, and a patchwork of rules are currently in place around the country.

Uber’s self-driving program first started in Pittsburgh in Sept. 2016, and extended to Tempe in Feb. 2017.


Earlier reports suggested the car was doing 38mph in a 35mph zone, which would be breaking the law. The 40mph in a 45mph zone is more believable. The police have suggested that a human driver might not have been able to stop – but that’s not the point; SDCs are meant to have better systems and reactions than humans.
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Cambridge Analytica says it won the election for Trump. Here’s what it’s actually talking about • Buzzfeed

Craig Silverman:


A pro-Trump super PAC funded by the billionaire Mercer family used Cambridge Analytica to help it generate millions of views for dark posted Facebook ads that aggressively attacked Hillary Clinton during the fall of 2016.

BuzzFeed News examined 27 dark posted ads from the Defeat Crooked Hillary Facebook page, which was run by the Make America Number One super PAC. (A dark posted ad looks like a post from a Facebook page but does not show up on a page’s public timeline and is only seen by the users it was targeted to reach.)

The video ads — which were directed at specific audience segments on Facebook — pushed themes of Clinton’s corruption, her supposed failing health, and referred to her as “the most corrupt politician of our time” while suggesting she “might be the first president to go to jail.”

Make America Number One paid more than $1.2m to Cambridge Analytica during the 2016 election cycle for services including campaign management consulting, web services, and “data acquisition services,” according to filings with the Federal Election Commission. The PAC did not disclose exactly what ads the firm worked on, or the specifics of the data and targeting services it provided. But Cambridge Analytica won an award and has previously taken credit for at least one of the PAC’s ads, which featured Michelle Obama and resulted in cease and desist letters from the Clinton campaign, as well as low ratings from fact-checkers.

Both Cambridge Analytica and Make America Number One are financed by Robert and Rebekah Mercer, who backed Donald Trump in the general election.


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Exclusive: Mark Zuckerberg AWOL from Facebook’s data leak damage control session • Daily Beast

Spencer Ackerman:


It’s not just that he’s silent in public. Facebook CEO and co-founder Mark Zuckerberg declined to face his employees on Tuesday to explain the company’s role in a widening international scandal over the 2016 election.

Facebook employees on Tuesday got the opportunity for an internal briefing and question-and-answer session about Facebook’s role with the Trump-aligned data firm Cambridge Analytica. It was the first the company held to brief and reassure employees after, ahead of damaging news reports, Facebook abruptly suspended Cambridge Analytica. The Q&A session was first reported by The Verge.

But Zuckerberg himself wasn’t there, The Daily Beast has learned. Instead, the session was conducted by a Facebook attorney, Paul Grewal, according to a source familiar with the meeting. That was the same approach the company used on Capitol Hill this past fall, when it sent its top attorney, Colin Stretch, to brief Congress about the prevalence of Russian propaganda, to include paid ads and inauthentic accounts, on its platform.

Nor, The Daily Beast has learned, did chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg attend the internal town hall.


I’m sure this is going to be just fine. He’s only been instructed to appear by the FTC in the US and the select committee of MPs for Culture, Media And For Some Reason Sport in the UK.

(Facebook later issued a statement: “Mark, Sheryl and their teams are working around the clock to get all the facts and take the appropriate action moving forward, because they understand the seriousness of this issue,” the statement said. “The entire company is outraged we were deceived. We are committed to vigorously enforcing our policies to protect people’s information and will take whatever steps are required to see that this happens.”)
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October 2010: Facebook in online privacy breach; applications transmitting identifying information • WSJ

Emily Steel and Geoffrey Fowler, in October 2010:


Many of the most popular applications, or “apps,” on the social-networking site Facebook Inc. have been transmitting identifying information—in effect, providing access to people’s names and, in some cases, their friends’ names—to dozens of advertising and Internet tracking companies, a Wall Street Journal investigation has found.

The issue affects tens of millions of Facebook app users, including people who set their profiles to Facebook’s strictest privacy settings. The practice breaks Facebook’s rules, and renews questions about its ability to keep identifiable information about its users’ activities secure.

The problem has ties to the growing field of companies that build detailed databases on people in order to track them online—a practice the Journal has been examining in its What They Know series. It’s unclear how long the breach was in place. On Sunday, a Facebook spokesman said it is taking steps to “dramatically limit” the exposure of users’ personal information.

“A Facebook user ID may be inadvertently shared by a user’s Internet browser or by an application,” the spokesman said. Knowledge of an ID “does not permit access to anyone’s private information on Facebook,” he said, adding that the company would introduce new technology to contain the problem identified by the Journal.


I’m sure it’s they all made this just fine.
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How Facebook Groups are being exploited to spread misinformation, plan harassment, and radicalize people • Buzzfeed

Craig Silverman:


One week after the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, those searching on Facebook for information about the upcoming March for Our Lives were likely to be shown an active group with more than 50,000 members.

Called “March for Our Lives 2018 Official,” it appeared to be one of the best places to get details about the event and connect with others interested in gun control. But those who joined the group soon found themselves puzzled. The admins often posted pro-gun information and unrelated memes and mocked those who posted about gun control.

“I’m a retired federal law enforcement special agent. There is and never has been any reason for a civilian to have a high-capacity high velocity weapon,” posted one member on Feb. 20.

“Shutup fed and stop trying to spread your NWO BS,” was the top reply, which came from one of the group’s admins. (NWO is a reference to the “new world order” conspiracy theory.)

A few days later the group’s name was changed to “Kim Jong Un Fan Club,” and members continued to wonder what was going on.

The simple answer is they were being trolled. The more complicated one is that while Facebook groups may offer a positive experience for millions of people around the world, they have also become a global honeypot of spam, fake news, conspiracies, health misinformation, harassment, hacking, trolling, scams, and other threats to users, according to reporting by BuzzFeed News, findings from researchers, and the recent indictment of 13 Russians for their alleged efforts to interfere in the US election.


I’m sure it’s all going to be just fine.
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Facebook’s surveillance machine • The New York Times

Zeynep Tufekci:


If Facebook failed to understand that this data could be used in dangerous ways, that it shouldn’t have let anyone harvest data in this manner and that a third-party ticking a box on a form wouldn’t free the company from responsibility, it had no business collecting anyone’s data in the first place. But the vast infrastructure Facebook has built to obtain data, and its consequent half-a-trillion-dollar market capitalization, suggest that the company knows all too well the value of this kind of vast data surveillance.

Should we all just leave Facebook? That may sound attractive but it is not a viable solution. In many countries, Facebook and its products simply are the internet. Some employers and landlords demand to see Facebook profiles, and there are increasingly vast swaths of public and civic life — from volunteer groups to political campaigns to marches and protests — that are accessible or organized only via Facebook.

The problem here goes beyond Cambridge Analytica and what it may have done. What other apps were allowed to siphon data from millions of Facebook users? What if one day Facebook decides to suspend from its site a presidential campaign or a politician whose platform calls for things like increased data privacy for individuals and limits on data retention and use? What if it decides to share data with one political campaign and not another? What if it gives better ad rates to candidates who align with its own interests?

A business model based on vast data surveillance and charging clients to opaquely target users based on this kind of extensive profiling will inevitably be misused.


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Apple grabs two-year lead in 3D sensing race • Reuters

Sonam Rai and Stephen Nellis:


Tech research house Gartner predicts that by 2021, 40% of smartphones will be equipped with 3D cameras, which can also be used for so-called augmented reality, or AR, in which digital objects cling tightly to images of the real world.

“This kind of functionality is going to be very important for AR,” said Gartner analyst Jon Erensen. “I think that is something where you don’t want to get left behind.”

According to parts manufacturers Viavi Solutions Inc, Finisar Corp and Ams AG, bottlenecks on key parts will mean mass adoption of 3D sensing will not happen until next year, disappointing earlier expectations.

That means that China’s Huawei, Xiaomi and others could be a total of almost two years behind Apple, which launched Face ID with its iPhone X anniversary phone last September.

In particular, Android producers are struggling to source vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers, or VCSELs, a core part of Apple’s Face ID hardware.

“It is going to take them a lot of time, the Android-based customers, to secure capacity throughout the whole supply chain,” said Bill Ong, senior director of investor relations from Viavi, seen as the only major supplier of optical filters needed for the 3D sensing modules.


No doubting that the iPhone X has driven a big bump in sales at the top end for Apple. Along with the OLED and the removal of the home button, it’s a whole different phone from its predecessors. The Android rivals aren’t quite making that leap. FaceID was part of a bigger change.
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Telegram loses bid to block Russia from encryption keys • Bloomberg

Ilya Khrennikov:


Supreme Court Judge Alla Nazarova on Tuesday rejected Telegram’s appeal against the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB spy agency which last year asked the company to share its encryption keys. Telegram declined to comply and was hit with a fine of $14,000. Communications regulator Roskomnadzor said Telegram now has 15 days to provide the encryption keys.

Telegram, which is in the middle of an initial coin offering of as much as $2.55bn, plans to appeal the ruling in a process that may last into the summer, according to the company’s lawyer, Ramil Akhmetgaliev. Any decision to block the service would require a separate court ruling, the lawyer said.

“Threats to block Telegram unless it gives up private data of its users won’t bear fruit. Telegram will stand for freedom and privacy,” Pavel Durov, the company’s founder, said on his Twitter page.

Putin signed laws in 2016 on fighting terrorism, which included a requirement for messaging services to provide the authorities with means to decrypt user correspondence. Telegram challenged an auxiliary order by the Federal Security Service, claiming that the procedure doesn’t involve a court order and breaches constitutional rights for privacy, according to documents.

The security agency, known as the FSB, argued in court that obtaining the encryption keys doesn’t violate users’ privacy because the keys by themselves aren’t considered information of restricted access. Collecting data on particular suspects using the encryption would still require a court order, the agency said.


That’s not looking good for Telegram users. On the other hand: Telegram is known as the recruiting base for a lot of extremist groups (Isis was a favourite).
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Risks in IAB Europe’s proposed consent mechanism • PageFair

Johnny Ryan points to problems with the upcoming collision of the EU’s GDPR data protection regime and the desperate attempts by ad-tech companies to stick with their old business model:


The ad-tech companies who drafted the IAB [Internet Advertising Bureau] Europe proposal claim that “publishers have full control over who they partner with, who they disclose to their users and who they obtain consent for.” But the IAB Europe documentation shows that adtech companies would remain entirely free to trade the personal data with their business partners if they wish. The proposed system would share a unique consent record “throughout the online advertising ecosystem”, every time an ad is loaded on a website:


“the OpenRTB request [from a website to an ad exchange] will contain the entire DaisyBit [a persistent cookie], allowing a vendor to see which other vendors are an approved vendor or a publisher and whether they have obtained consent (and for which purposes) and which have not.”


There would be no control over what happens to personal data once they enter the RTB system: “[adtech] vendors may choose not to pass bid requests containing personal data to other vendors who do not have consent”. This is a critical problem, because the overriding commercial incentive for many of the companies involved is to share as many data with as many partners as possible, and to share it with parent companies that run data brokerages. In addition, publishers are expected to trust that JavaScript in “ad creatives” is not dropping trackers, even though no tools to police this are proposed here.

IAB Europe is asking publishers and brands to expose themselves to the legal risk of routinely sharing these personal data with several thousand adtech companies. What publishers and brands need is a “trust no one” approach. IAB Europe is proposing a “trust everyone” approach. Indeed, the proposed system looks like the GDPR’s description of a data breach…


Someone’s going to be in trouble with this.
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Wileyfox is back: new handsets arriving this year and more good news for owners • TechRadar

John McCann:


another British phone-maker, STK, has agreed a licensing deal with the Wileyfox Group to sell the firm’s handsets in the UK, Europe and South Africa.

STK isn’t just selling the handsets though – it’ll also be offering after-sales care and services, including customer support.

There’s more good news for current Wileyfox owners too, as STK will honour warranties that are still in date, ensuring that you have the support you need if your phone develops a fault.

STK will sell the Wileyfox Swift 2, Swift 2 Plus and Swift 2 X, and it’s currently planning a roadmap to launch new Wileyfox handsets in the second half of 2018.

It’s also working on rolling out the Android 8.1 update to existing Swift 2 range of devices within the next three weeks, ensuring that customers are up to date with the latest software.

There’s more too, as STK is adapting its STK Care app, which provides 24/7 live chat support for users directly on their device, for Wileyfox devices, giving owners a direct point of contact if they run into any trouble with their phone.

TechRadar spoke exclusively to Henri Salameh, STK’s Commerical Director, who told us: “What we saw was a good opportunity to not only to continue the production of the Wileyfox handsets and reinstate after-sale and warranty support, but also to save jobs in UK and Europe while merging two strong UK brands together to operate under one roof.”

STK already has its own smartphone portfolio, but Salameh said it plans to keep the two brands separate as they complement each other.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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1 thought on “Start Up: Facebook’s problems deepen, the illegal blockchain?, WileyFox lives!, Apple’s FaceID lead, and more

  1. I’m not sure I want smartphones’ UIs to become even more hidden. Heavy users probably memorize gestures, but I like buttons, and I prefer my buttons physical, not on-screen: my back and Home buttons get a lot of use, I’d rather they be a touch away, not a swipe and a touch, not a multi-finger swipe (which requires 2 hands). And casual users around me need as much exposed UI as they can get, there’s precious little of it already: would you believe most Android users aren’t aware that a long-press on Home calls up the Assistant ? That’s the case around me, at least.

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