Start Up: Tesla’s factory pains, accessing Alexa, Google’s Maps spam trouble, and more


ZTE’s handset business is abruptly in big trouble: it can’t use Google’s Android apps. Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr.

A selection of 9 links for you. Re-watching The Third Man. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Tesla says its factory is safer—but it left injuries off the books • MIT Technology Review

Will Evans and Alyssa Jeong Perry:

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Under fire for mounting injuries, Tesla recently touted a sharp drop in its injury rate for 2017, which it says came down to meet the auto industry average of about 6.2 injuries per 100 workers.

But things are not always as they seem at Tesla. An investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that Tesla has failed to report some of its serious injuries on legally mandated reports, making the company’s injury numbers look better than they actually are.

Last April, Tarik Logan suffered debilitating headaches from the fumes of a toxic glue he had to use at the plant. He texted his mom: “I’m n hella pain foreal something ain’t right.”

The searing pain became so unbearable he couldn’t work, and it plagued him for weeks.

But Logan’s inhalation injury, as it was diagnosed, never made it onto the official injury logs that state and federal law requires companies to keep. Neither did reports from other factory workers of sprains, strains and repetitive stress injuries from piecing together Tesla’s sleek cars.

Instead, company officials labeled the injuries personal medical issues or minor incidents requiring only first aid, according to internal company records obtained by Reveal.

Undercounting injuries is one symptom of a more fundamental problem at Tesla: The company has put its manufacturing of electric cars above safety concerns, according to five former members of its environment, health and safety team who left the company last year. That, they said, has put workers unnecessarily in harm’s way.

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Tesla isn’t quite getting things right, it seems. Also: that auto industry average seems very high.
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Alexa is a revelation for the blind • The Atlantic

Ian Bogost:

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Sure, Dad [who is almost completely blind after a car accident in 1954] can still pick up the phone and call people. But who talks on the phone anymore?

Now, at 82—and with a different technology on offer—Dad is willing to adapt. After his initial fumbles with the Echo, he begins to get the hang of it, asking Alexa for football scores and stock-market updates, or to tell him who the president of Venezuela is. He discovers that, for some reason, Alexa isn’t set up to report the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s Nikkei index, and he begins to enjoy posing questions the device can’t answer. He taunts it the way everyone else does: “Alexa, what would you like for breakfast?”

Dad’s background as a psychologist makes his initial error of address—Electra rather than Alexa—accidentally funny. Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, coined the Electra complex to name a girl’s competition with her mother for the attention of her father—the feminine corollary of the Oedipus complex. But unlike in Jung’s formulation, my mother relishes this new interloper. For decades, Mom has facilitated my father’s access to news and information—and she’s happy to be unseated by a rival, even if it’s just a fabric-covered cylinder with a light on top. Even so, this new setup is not perfect. “Dad often gets his commands wrong,” Mom reports, “and he gets frustrated when she does not understand him.”

When I was younger, Dad would write me letters—big, weird, angular script on stationery left over from his private practice. That became harder for him over time, as his vision and dexterity degraded—and I was never a very good written correspondent anyway. Then email and text messaging came along, and communication began to channel through computers—and for Dad, through my mother. There’s a difference between being read a letter addressed to you, and being a secondary party to communications on someone else’s personal device.

The Echo promised to rectify this slight. Dad can dictate a message to Alexa, and it will arrive on my Echo, as well as in an app on my phone, as both a recording and a transcribed text message.

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UK and US move on Chinese group, citing national security • FT

Nic Fildes, Shawn Donnan and Pan Kwan Yuk:

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Britain and the US have moved against one of China’s largest telecoms equipment makers, adding to a growing list of restrictions imposed by western governments on Chinese companies on national security grounds.

The measures taken against ZTE Corp, which cuts it off from US suppliers and bars it entirely from doing business in the UK, comes amid a particularly aggressive move by the Trump administration, which has already used the Committee on Foreign Investment in the US, a secretive national security body, to block or force changes to several Chinese-linked deals.

It also is likely to add to mounting economic tension between Washington and Beijing, which are locked in a rhetorical trade war that threatens to impose tariffs on $150bn in bilateral trade.

US commerce department officials insisted the move was not related to other actions taken in recent weeks by the White House, noting ZTE’s violations were first investigated by the Obama administration. But experts said the sanctions were part of a growing anti-China backlash not only in London and Washington, but also Germany, Australia and Canada.

“Things are pretty rocky right now,” said Matthew Goodman, an expert on US-Asian economic ties at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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The US said ZTE had supplied Iran and North Korea with equipment; the UK says ZTE’s ownership by the Chinese government raises security concerns.

While it will be able to use open-source Android (AOSP), ZTE is going to be stuffed in trying to sell handsets outside China. It won’t be able to get Google’s Play Store or other apps. ZTE was, until now, the fourth-biggest phone vendor in the US (says analyst Avi Greengart). Here’s the US Dept of Commerce order: US companies are banned from providing hardware or software.

And the network equipment business, a far more lucrative space, is in effect shot in two gigantic markets. ZTE is toast.
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Hundreds of thousands of spam listings on Google “My Maps” • Terence Eden’s Blog

Terence Eden:

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Back in 2007, Google introduced “My Maps”: “Easily create custom maps with the places that matter to you. Allow friends to see and edit your maps, or publish them to the whole world.”

Like most Google products, it was effectively abandoned after launch – receiving a superficial update in 2014. Now it is a haven for spammers and fraudsters.

Even Google’s mighty AI is unable to detect this complex spam…

How big a problem is this? Pretty big.

Each of those “My Maps” contains a link to a dodgy site delivering dubious downloads. There is, of course, no “report spam” button on these maps. Even if there were, I’m not sure I could be bothered to do Google’s job for them.

Naturally, people have reported this spam to Google many times before, but Google show no signs of removing it.

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Oddly enough, the BBC consumer programme You And Yours had an item on the same day about scammers who had changed the phone numbers for contacting UK Job Centres: normally they are freephone numbers, but the scammers changed it so they would get paid. How? By editing details on Google map listings, which of course “Anyone can edit!”

Google’s MyMaps thing has been a complete pain for years because it scales so badly: the likelihood of malicious actors is far bigger than the ability of checkers to catch them.
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FTC obtains court orders banning marketer from negative-option sales • Federal Trade Commission

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The ringleader of an operation that lured people into an expensive negative-option scam using a low-cost “trial” offer for tooth whiteners and other products is banned from negative-option sales under a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission.

The settlement order is one of three orders resolving FTC charges against Blair McNea, Jennifer Johnson, Danielle Foss and 59 corporate defendants. The defendants’ deceptive claims, hidden disclosures and confusing terms tricked people into providing their billing information, supposedly to pay shipping and a nominal cost for a trial product. They charged consumers for two ongoing subscriptions to nearly identical products until the consumers canceled. As a result, consumers who believed they had agreed to buy a single trial product for about $5 were charged about $200 a month until they canceled both unauthorized subscriptions.

Under settlement orders announced today, McNea and the corporate defendants are banned from negative-option sales, and from assisting others engaged in deceptive negative-option sales, and Foss and Johnson are subject to restrictions on negative-option marketing. The orders impose a judgment of $92,011,601, which represents the amount consumers lost to the scam. The remaining portion of the judgment will be suspended upon the surrender of the defendants’ assets, including money, vehicles, and proceeds from the sale of two homes.

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This “negative option” stuff is rife in the US. This though might dissuade companies from doing it.
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In a leaked memo, Apple warns employees to stop leaking information • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

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The Cupertino, California-based company said in a lengthy memo posted to its internal blog that it “caught 29 leakers,” last year and noted that 12 of those were arrested. “These people not only lose their jobs, they can face extreme difficulty finding employment elsewhere,” Apple added. The company declined to comment on Friday.

Apple outlined situations in which information was leaked to the media, including a meeting earlier this year where Apple’s software engineering head Craig Federighi told employees that some planned iPhone software features would be delayed. Apple also cited a yet-to-be-released software package that revealed details about the unreleased iPhone X and new Apple Watch.

Leaked information about a new product can negatively impact sales of current models, give rivals more time to begin on a competitive response, and lead to fewer sales when the new product launches, according to the memo. “We want the chance to tell our customers why the product is great, and not have that done poorly by someone else,” Greg Joswiak, an Apple product marketing executive, said in the memo.

The crackdown is part of broader and long-running attempts by Silicon Valley technology companies to track and limit what information their employees share publicly. Firms like Google and Facebook Inc. are pretty open with staff about their plans, but keep close tabs on their outside communications and sometime fire people when they find leaks.

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Steve Sinofsky wrote a long thread about this on Twitter. (The link is to the “unrolled” version.) Apple’s hate of leaks is legendary, but this memo (whose leaker[s] won’t have felt they were at much risk with an all-hands blogpost) is standard. Don’t forget, Apple has a session with everyone who joins where it drills into them Not To Leak Or Risk Getting Fired.
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UK and US accuse Russia of hacking home routers in global cyberattacks • Forbes

Thomas Fox-Brewster:

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[UK National Cyber Security Centre director, Ciaran] Martin said the sustained targeting had continued for months and could have been used for espionage, the theft of intellectual property, or for “use in times of tension.” He said millions of machines were being targeted and many had been seized by hackers to get access to ISP customers, to spy on organizations and their connections. That included the UK government, he added.

[Cybersecurity coordinator at the National Security Council, Rob] Joyce said “we can’t rule out Russia may attempt to use this [hacked] infrastructure for further attacks.” Advice will be handed out to potentially affected entities today, marking the first time the U.K. and the U.S. has pushed out such recommendations together. “The actions you’re seeing today is one in a series of steps against this unacceptable activity,” Joyce added.

Jeanette Manfra, chief cybersecurity official for the DHS, said that amongst its techniques, the Russians had scanned for devices running vulnerable Cisco Smart Install software designed to make it easy to set up network equipment from the massive networking manufacturer. Cisco itself recently warned about attacks aimed at the product, warning they could put critical infrastructure at risk.

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Routers were used to create a Mirai IoT botnet by amateur hackers; wouldn’t bet that state hackers couldn’t do something more subtle.
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Britain does a great job of opening its data, except for what journalists really want • Online Journalism Blog

SA Mathieson has just produced a new ebook, “Britdata”:

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Some specific recent improvements have made it easier and cheaper to do good journalism with public data: in June 2015, for example, Companies House, which covers England and Wales, dropped charges for online access to documents including companies’ annual filings. I was able to use that access to track how little tax companies including Facebook, Google and Apple pay in Britain.

More generally, the Office for National Statistics releases a wealth of data in machine-readable formats.


Britain is joint second with Australia in the Open Data Index

The UK government also makes it straightforward for people to reuse this data through the Open Government Licence, which is broadly similar to the Creative Commons Attribution licence with a few exceptions including images and personal data.

The fact that commercial reuse is clearly allowed is helpful for journalists trying to find new uses for their research. I have taken advantage of this in my new e-book Britdata — as well as providing a guide to data available on Britain it also includes mini-profiles of all the UK’s 206 top-tier council areas with topline numbers for population, health and economic output.

The same open data has been used in the Journalists’ Local Authority Directory, an information and contacts service already available to members of the Chartered Institute of Journalists and the Society of Authors, and in the near future the National Union of Journalists.

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However… he does have criticisms. But (12 years after beginning the Free Our Data campaign) I feel pretty happy about the general state of this.
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Google AMP for Email: what it is and why it’s a bad idea • NY Mag

Vijith Assar:

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AMP for the web is ostensibly solving a performance problem that simply doesn’t exist in the context of email. Bloated advertisements woven into the pages you want to see are a core part of the economy of the internet, and can kill your speed and battery life on mobile devices. In contrast, unexpected third-party ads in email messages aren’t a meaningful problem (outside of unsolicited spam, which is a substantially separate concern altogether). One of the fundamental miscalculations of AMP for Email is that it degrades the delivery speed of a medium in which nobody really likes rich-message content to begin with. AMP for the web was a faster subset of the standard web, but AMP for Email is a slower superset of standard email. The product name is a misnomer — it’s not accelerated at all!

There’s a steep cost: In order to add interactivity, AMP for Email executes JavaScript code in the messages for the first time, creating an enormous new target for malicious hackers. Google’s engineering and security are nearly always best in class, and you can be sure that the various scripts required for AMP features will be vigorously protected, but this is email’s biggest new attack vector since file attachments began carrying viruses.

All this to what end? AMP for Email may be an extension of email, but it is not a meaningful extension of email. There are some slick new display options, simple actions that could be accomplished with a link, a bit of that strange dynamic content, and not much else. And yet this will require carving out a schism between AMP and non-AMP email, between compatible and incompatible apps and clients. Just about one of the silliest things you can possibly do to a communication medium is artificially bifurcate it.

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I missed this when it premiered in March. It’s a colossally bad idea that could have come out of Microsoft in 1998, when its approach to standards was “embrace, extend, extinguish”.
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