Start Up: Huawei face Iran questions, Amnesty knocks Google, Ellen Pao speaks, the iCloud storage problem, and more

Uber’s maps (here in France, on Bastille day) are getting more accurate. Photo by tim rich and lesley katon on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Not a substitute for percocet. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Huawei under criminal investigation over Iran sanctions • WSJ

Stu Woo and Aruna Viswanatha:


The Justice Department is investigating whether Huawei Technologies Co. violated U.S. sanctions related to Iran, according to people familiar with the matter, a move that opens a new avenue of scrutiny of the Chinese cellular-electronics giant on national security grounds.

It’s unclear how far the Justice Department probe has advanced and what specific allegation federal agents are probing. A Huawei spokesman declined to comment.

Such a probe raises the stakes for Huawei, which is facing a series of actions by Washington to diminish the company’s already limited business dealings in the U.S. It could also have spillover effects for its much larger business overseas, particularly in Europe.

Analysts said a worst-case scenario could entail Huawei suffering the same fate as smaller Chinese rival ZTE Corp, which has lost access to U.S.-made components in a similar probe.


If Huawei falls foul of this, it will have a huge effect on its business – but there will be a knock-on effect too, driving Chinese technology companies to accelerate efforts to build their own chips. ZTE is crippled already by this. But if Huawei is hit, that could feed through to problems in supply for American companies (think: Apple).

Strangely, Iran could end up splitting up the globalised tech system that binds the US and China together, and all without firing a shot.
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Google’s new Chat service shows total contempt for Android users’ privacy • Amnesty International


Responding to Google’s launch of a new messaging service for Android phones, Amnesty International’s Technology and Human Rights researcher Joe Westby said:

“With its baffling decision to launch a messaging service without end-to-end encryption, Google has shown utter contempt for the privacy of Android users and handed a precious gift to cybercriminals and government spies alike, allowing them easy access to the content of Android users’ communications.

“Following the revelations by CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden, end-to-end encryption has become recognized as an essential safeguard for protecting people’s privacy when using messaging apps. With this new Chat service, Google shows a staggering failure to respect the human rights of its customers.

“Not only does this shockingly retrograde step leave Google lagging behind its closest competitors – Apple’s iMessage and Facebook’s WhatsApp both have end-to-end encryption in place by default – it is also a step backwards from the company’s previous attempts at online messaging. Google’s own app Allo has an option for end-to-end encryption but the company says it will no longer invest in it. 

“In the wake of the recent Facebook data scandal, Google’s decision is not only dangerous but also out of step with current attitudes to data privacy…”


Harsh. Google is trying to marshal carriers to use a more modern version of SMS, called RCS; it’s also trying to bring text apps on Android up to date. (Weirdly, Google has never managed to produce a unified message product for Android in the way that Apple has iMessage.) As Ben Thompson puts it, Google’s trying to herd cats. Now it’s getting slagged off by Amnesty too.
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Bitcoin is the greatest scam in history • Recode

Bill Harris is former CEO of Intuit and the founding CEO of Paypal:


I’m tired of saying, “Be careful, it’s speculative.” Then, “Be careful, it’s gambling.” Then, “Be careful, it’s a bubble.” Okay, I’ll say it: Bitcoin is a scam.

In my opinion, it’s a colossal pump-and-dump scheme, the likes of which the world has never seen. In a pump-and-dump game, promoters “pump” up the price of a security creating a speculative frenzy, then “dump” some of their holdings at artificially high prices. And some cryptocurrencies are pure frauds. Ernst & Young estimates that 10% of the money raised for initial coin offerings has been stolen.

The losers are ill-informed buyers caught up in the spiral of greed. The result is a massive transfer of wealth from ordinary families to internet promoters. And “massive” is a massive understatement — 1,500 different cryptocurrencies now register over $300 billion of “value.”

It helps to understand that a bitcoin has no value at all.

Promoters claim cryptocurrency is valuable as (1) a means of payment, (2) a store of value and/or (3) a thing in itself. None of these claims are true.


Shall we put you down as a “undecided voter”, Bill?
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Ellen Pao, ex-Reddit CEO interview • NYMag

Noah Kulwin interviews (as part of a series) Ellen Pao, who was in charge of Reddit in 2014-15:


Q: When you think back to the early 2000s — to the post-dotcom, pre-web 2.0 era — there were a lot of folks who you knew personally, or worked with, who were the vanguard of this new emancipatory movement. I’m curious if you ever saw any ideological or intellectual shift among them.

EP: I think it all goes back to Facebook, where it was successful so quickly and raised so much money, and people got wealthy so fast. And they were so young and they were so admired that it changed the culture, and it went from “I’m going to build this company to change the way people do things and improve people’s lives” to “I’m gonna build this company that builds this product that everybody uses, so I can make a lot of money.”

Google went public, and all of a sudden you have these instant billionaires. No longer did you have to toil for decades. They were able to make billions in a very short amount of time.

And then in 2008, when the markets crashed, all those people who are motivated by money ended up coming out to Silicon Valley and going into tech and starting companies. And that’s when values shifted more.

There was, like, an optimism early around good coming out of the internet that ended up getting completely distorted in the 2000s, when you had these people coming in with a different idea and a different set of goals.

Q: I’m curious, because of your work on increasing diversity and representation of minorities within tech companies, about the ways in which you think that tech’s homogeneity sort of negatively influences its actions and makes it a more destructive force.

EP: I think that with the goal of finding the next Mark Zuckerberg, investors became oriented around finding that young white man who had dropped out of Stanford or Harvard. That became the pattern to match. And that ended up reinforcing some of the exclusion that was already there, and it made it that much harder for women and people of color, and especially women of color, to raise money.


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How Uber is moving the “blue dot” and improving GPS accuracy in big cities • The Verge

Andrew Hawkins:


All at once, satellites went from tracking airplanes to tracking the smartphones of individuals walking through dense cities. Not only did these satellites lose their line-of-sight advantage, they had to contend with a forest of tall buildings acting as mirrors to refract and distort the signals. This phenomenon, commonly referred to as “shadowing,” can create a location error of up to 100 meters or more, especially in high-value markets like New York City and San Francisco. That can wreak havoc on the most sensitive aspect of Uber’s business: the pickup.

“So this obviously presents problems for us because we might think that a driver is on a different road than they actually are,” Iland says. “And that can cause ETAs to be totally off.”

To fix the problem, Iland and Irish [whose company Shadow Maps was bought by Uber in 2016] used a process called occlusion modeling, by which Uber’s algorithm looks at a full 3D rendering of the city and does a probabilistic estimate of where you are based, which satellites you can see, and which you can’t. There are around 30 satellites in the US’s GPS constellation, as well as a constellation of Russian GLONASS satellites. (China and the European Union are in the process of launching their own GPS satellites.) Using public data from the satellites available to software developers, Uber is able to use a process of elimination to get a more accurate read on where you are when you’re trying to hail a ride.

“Pretend there are only three satellites,” Iland says. “So, if I can see satellites C and D with high signal strength, but I can’t see satellite B, then I’m probably on the left side of the street where satellite B is blocked by a building. If I can see B and C, but I can’t see D, then I’m probably on the right side of the street. And so we’re using the satellite visibility information as part of the algorithm, instead of just assuming that all satellites are line of sight.”


Because (as it explains) that means drivers and riders can find each other more accurately.
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Global smartphone shipments reached record 1.55bn units in CY 2017 • Counterpoint Research


smartphone shipments grew 2% annually in CY 2017 but declined 5% in Q4 2017. Top 10 players now capture 77% of the market thereby leaving just below a quarter of segment for over 600+ brands to compete.

Commenting on the findings, Jeff Fieldhack, Research Director at Counterpoint Research said, “For the first time in Q4 2017, shipments of seven out of the top ten brands declined YoY signaling a tough quarter for most of the OEMs. Xiaomi, OPPO and Vivo were the only brands among top ten which grew YoY–mostly due to strong performances outside of China. Apple shipped 77.3 million smartphones into the market during the final quarter of 2017, which is down 1% annually. The quarter was a week shorter than last year and the company was able to increase ASP’s by over $100 to $796 with the launch of the X, 8, and 8 Plus—a trade-off the company is content to make. The challenge for Apple going forward will be its ability to continue to grow its base of 1.3 billion devices.”


The regional variation, below, is notable (red line is the end of last year). But howcome nobody ever asks “will Samsung by able to grow its base of [very big number] devices?”

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The real problem with Apple’s iCloud storage options (hint, it’s not price) • BirchTree

Matt Birchler:


As I’ve expressed time and time again, every single paid tier of iCloud storage gets you more bang for your buck than the competition. Despite what I hear from time to time, iCloud is a great deal if you’re looking for some online storage. I think Apple’s free tier (5GB) is totally reasonable for a file backup and sync service, and their paid options are pretty excellent.

But iCloud’s real problem is with how that storage is used.

I have a 64GB iPhone 8 Plus which is Apple’s entry level storage option. My backup, which is stored on iCloud, is 8.9GB. If I was on the free storage tier, I would not be able to back up my iPhone. I also have about 112GB of photos synced with Apple Photos which would also not be possible on the free storage tier.

We can argue about whether Apple should have a free photo sync/backup solution like Google Photos, but the backups are the real killer. Being able to back up one’s phone is not a “premium feature” by any means, it’s basic functionality. There are suggestions out there to do all sorts of crazy things with building up free storage depending on how many Apple devices you own and such, but I think that way lies madness.

I think the solution for Apple’s “iCloud is too expensive” problem is super simple: don’t count iPhone and iPad backups towards your iCloud storage, and offer a free, limited photo backup option.

By doing this, your backups would always work no matter how much storage you have.


Every year as WWDC rolls around, people expect Apple to change this. So far, every year it hasn’t. (It just quietly lowers the prices.)
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‘Beyond belief’: Brexit app for EU nationals won’t work on iPhones • The Guardian

Daniel Boffey and Lisa O’Carroll:


[UK Home Secretary Amber] Rudd had insisted that using the Home Office app would be as easy for the 3 million EU nationals in the UK as setting up an online account at LK Bennett, the clothes retailer. She also said it had been “extensively tested”, but Home Office officials admitted they had not yet begun mass testing of the app. They also said they would be hiring 1,000 caseworkers for a customer service centre for EU citizens, although they had not yet begun this process.

However, the fact that the app does not work on Apple devices has highlighted what many say is the government’s poor record with technology.

EU citizens who have tested the app say it requires just a small amount of information, such as a scan of a passport, address, email address and a selfie to match the passport picture. The system then matches the biographical details with HM Revenue & Customs records to give the applicant an instant answer as to whether their application has been successful.

However, it has emerged that because Apple will not enable its technology to read the chip on modern passports, the registration can only be completed on an Android phone.

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said he would be writing to Theresa May this week about a series of wider concerns, including the £72 cost of registering, and the need for every member of a family to individually apply for settled status.


Doesn’t work on Apple devices because their NFC chips won’t talk to the NFC chip in modern passports. That’s not good planning, really.
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How did this advocate of e-waste reuse end up behind bars? • The Washington Post

Tom Jackman:


A California man who built a sizable business out of recycling electronic waste is headed to federal prison for 15 months after a federal appeals court in Miami rejected his claim that the “restore disks” he made to extend the lives of computers had no financial value, instead ruling that he had infringed Microsoft’s products to the tune of $700,000.

The appeals court upheld a federal district judge’s ruling that the disks made by Eric Lundgren to restore Microsoft operating systems had a value of $25 apiece, even though they could be downloaded free and could be used only on computers with a valid Microsoft license. The US Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit initially granted Lundgren an emergency stay of his prison sentence, shortly before he was to surrender, but then affirmed his original 15-month sentence and $50,000 fine without hearing oral argument in a ruling issued April 11…

…Initially, federal prosecutors valued the disks at $299 each, the cost of a brand-new Windows operating system, and Lundgren’s indictment claimed he had cost Microsoft $8.3m in lost sales. By the time of sentencing, a Microsoft letter to Hurley and a Microsoft expert witness had reduced the value of the disks to $25 apiece, stating that was what Microsoft charged refurbishers for such disks.

But both the letter and the expert were pricing a disk that came with a Microsoft license. “These sales of counterfeit operating systems,” Microsoft lawyer Bonnie MacNaughton wrote to the judge, “displaced Microsoft’s potential sales of genuine operating systems.” But Lundgren’s disks had no licenses and were intended for computers that already had licenses.


Man tries to do good, gets run over by US Customs. (Microsoft’s role in this is unclear; it doesn’t seem to have agitated for a prosecution.)

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Google aims at privacy law after Facebook lobbying failed • Bloomberg

Kartikay Mehrotra:


While Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg were publicly apologizing this month for failing to protect users’ information, Google’s lobbyists were drafting measures to de-fang an Illinois law recognized as the most rigorous consumer privacy statute in the country. Their ambition: to strip language from a decade-old policy that regulates the use of fingerprints, iris scans and facial recognition technology, and insert a loophole for companies embracing the use of biometrics.

Google is trying to exempt photos from the Illinois law at a time when it’s fighting a lawsuit in the state in which billions of dollars of damages may be at stake. The world’s largest search engine is facing claims that it violated the privacy of millions of users by gathering and storing biometric data without their consent.

Facebook has faced global backlash for failing to secure users’ information, triggered by revelations that a British firm with ties to President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign harvested information from as many as 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge. That breach has put the tech behemoth and its Silicon Valley cohort at the center of a data privacy debate.

Facebook is trying to show it’s taking consumer privacy more seriously, but there’s an inexorable dilemma: The business models and future growth of both Google and the world’s largest social network are tied up with the very data they’re now being asked to lock up – information most users have volunteered in exchange for these companies’ free products and services.

Illinois state senator Bill Cunningham proposed an amendment to the Biometric Information Privacy Act in February then aimed at saving a local nursing home from overly burdensome litigation. Google and lobbyists from the Illinois Chamber of Commerce – of which Facebook is a member – intervened, and on April 4 they offered a new version with Cunningham to embed further caveats in the legislation, including language to exclude photos from regulatory scrutiny.


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Student loan adviser Drew Cloud is everywhere… and doesn’t exist • The Chronicle of Higher Education



Drew Cloud is everywhere. The self-described journalist who specializes in student-loan debt has been quoted in major news outlets, including The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and CNBC, and is a fixture in the smaller, specialized blogosphere of student debt.
He’s always got the new data, featuring irresistible twists:

One in five students use extra money from their student loans to buy digital currencies.

Nearly 8% of students would move to North Korea to free themselves of their debt.

Twenty-seven% would contract the Zika virus to live debt-free.

All of those surveys came from Cloud’s website, The Student Loan Report.

Drew Cloud’s story was simple: He founded the website, an “independent, authoritative news outlet” covering all things student loans, “after he had difficulty finding the most recent student loan news and information all in one place.”

He became ubiquitous on that topic. But he’s a fiction, the invention of a student-loan refinancing company.

After The Chronicle spent more than a week trying to verify Cloud’s existence, the company that owns The Student Loan Report confirmed that Cloud was fake.


I looked at that “cryptocurrency” story a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t link to it because something didn’t feel right. And so it turns out. Companies like this, which generate bogus stories for Googlejuice, have always existed; but now they’re damn hard to get rid of once they’re in a database.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: yesterday’s post said “The idea that you could have the Internet Archive itself is a bit fanciful.” It should have been “hack” rather than “have” – clearly we do have the Internet Archive. (Thanks Barry T for the gigantic embarrassment.)

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