Start Up: Facebook’s (extra) Russian ads, iOS 11.4’s Lightning stop, Klout gets clonked, and more


Digital photocopiers keep a record of what they’ve seen. Think about that. Photo by Pesky Librarians on Flickr.

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A selection of 8 links for you. Still, Friday! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

#BlueLivesMatter and Beyoncé: Russian Facebook ads hit hot-button US issues • The Guardian

Olivia Solon and Julia Carrie Wong:

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The ads cover a range of issues, including racial injustice, gun control, LGBT rights, immigration and patriotism. Included with each ad is information about how many people saw or engaged with the ad, the price paid in rubles and the target audience.

A sample of the ads bought by the notorious Russian troll factory between 2015 and 2017 for a total of about $100,000 was previously released by Democrats on the House intelligence committee last year. Facebook provided them to the panel last year as part of an investigation into Russian meddling in the election.

The collection doesn’t include the 80,000 posts that were shared by 120 fake Russian-backed pages, shared by 29 million Americans directly and viewed by as many as 126 million Americans.

Among the cache are sponsored posts describing police brutality against black people, including the killings of the 12-year-old Tamir Rice, the Ferguson teenager Michael Brown and the unarmed motorist Walter Scott. They link to the “Black Matters” page on Facebook.

One batch of advertisements promotes “Williams and Kalvin”, a pair of black YouTube vloggers who decried racism and police brutality in their advertisements. The Daily Beast previously reported on the pair’s YouTube videos, in which they railed against Clinton and supported Trump.

The documents show that Williams and Kalvin targeted their ads specifically toward African Americans: many of the ads instruct Facebook to exclude people who are designated as showing Hispanic or Asian American “behavior” but include people whose “behavior” is designated as “African American (US)”. Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for clarification on how Facebook defines African American “behavior”.

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In September I was on a radio show as all this was getting underway, and suggested there was plenty more to come out. Even with this, there’s still plenty more to come out. But it does show how easily Russia made an end run around Facebook (and America) by understanding the value and nature of propaganda.
link to this extract


Google Duplex makes your life easier by deceiving others • NYMag

Brian Feldman:

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The hypothetical economic benefits of such a system are obvious and substantial. It’s also, in the classic Google mode, a huge boon to daily convenience. And boy, is it impressive technology — and worrying.

To some extent, these worries are more cultural than technical. The Duplex demos showed the system completing a task, like booking an appointment, and the dialogues stuck to discussing the program objective. How does Duplex work when the conversation goes off on a tangent, or if there’s an emotional component (let’s say your preferred stylist is out because of a family emergency)? Duplex inverts what we usually want out of our software. It is a complex system for performing dead-simple tasks. Google told the Verge that “it can only converse in ‘closed domains’ — exchanges that are functional, with strict limits on what is going to be said.” As of now, Duplex can only book hair appointments, make restaurant reservations, and ask a store’s holiday hours. At that point, you’re taking what should be a relatively simple, personable action and making it artificial and complicated. Not to be a grouch, but it’s not hard to pick up the phone and call if that’s really the only option left.

At its heart, the system that Duplex proposes is imbalanced. The system of making reservations or appointments over the phone isn’t a power struggle, but for it to work well everyone has to be coming from the same place, with the same restrictions on time and effort. The introduction of automation upsets this balance. Now it’s one person tapping a button and the other performing conversation. It’s not clear what sort of safeguards are in place to ensure that, for instance, the human answering the phone is not dealing with an overload of robocalls. After all, these places don’t have online reservations systems; how can Google know if they’re all booked up? Google told Wired that it is limiting the number of background calls users can place per day, and putting in safeguards to make sure a single user can’t spam a single number (it’s got a bit of experience identifying the habits of spammers).

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I get the impression Google is listening for the reaction to Duplex to decide what it’s going to do; that’s why it isn’t giving a date for rolling it out. It might never release it, or only use it in some limited area. Some people have suggested it would be good for booking a place if you don’t talk the language (but Duplex, natch, does). Though it’s then going to be fun ordering your food there, isn’t it?
link to this extract


Digital photocopiers loaded with secrets • CBS News

Armen Keteyian:

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Nearly every digital copier built since 2002 contains a hard drive – like the one on your personal computer – storing an image of every document copied, scanned, or emailed by the machine. In the process, it’s turned an office staple into a digital time-bomb packed with highly-personal or sensitive data. If you’re in the identity theft business it seems this would be a pot of gold.

“The type of information we see on these machines with the social security numbers, birth certificates, bank records, income tax forms,” John Juntunen said, “that information would be very valuable.” Juntunen’s Sacramento-based company Digital Copier Security developed software called “INFOSWEEP” that can scrub all the data on hard drives. He’s been trying to warn people about the potential risk – with no luck. “Nobody wants to step up and say, ‘we see the problem, and we need to solve it,'” Juntunen said.

This past February, CBS News went with Juntunen to a warehouse in New Jersey, one of 25 across the country, to see how hard it would be to buy a used copier loaded with documents. It turns out … it’s pretty easy. Juntunen picked four machines based on price and the number of pages printed. In less than two hours his selections were packed and loaded onto a truck. The cost? About $300 each.

Until we unpacked and plugged them in, we had no idea where the copiers came from or what we’d find. We didn’t even have to wait for the first one to warm up. One of the copiers had documents still on the copier glass, from the Buffalo, N.Y., Police Sex Crimes Division.

It took Juntunen just 30 minutes to pull the hard drives out of the copiers. Then, using a forensic software program available for free on the Internet, he ran a scan – downloading tens of thousands of documents in less than 12 hours.

The results were stunning: from the sex crimes unit there were detailed domestic violence complaints and a list of wanted sex offenders. On a second machine from the Buffalo Police Narcotics Unit we found a list of targets in a major drug raid.

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Did not know there was a hard drive. How do you access it and see what’s on it? Or how do you get it to wipe?
link to this extract


iOS 11.4 to introduce USB Restricted Mode: disables Lightning port after 7 days • Pocket-lint

Max Langridge:

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The Lightning connector can still be used for charging, but no data can be extracted from the iOS device. However, if the owner of the iPhone or iPad unlocks it using a passcode, the Lighting port will reactivate. The feature was first seen in the iOS 11.3 beta, but was never officially released, so there’s still a chance it won’t be ready for the full iOS 11.4 rollout.

Apple’s official notes for the feature say: “To improve security, for a locked iOS device to communicate with USB accessories you must connect an accessory via lightning connector to the device while unlocked – or enter your device passcode while connected – at least once a week.”

Elcomsoft has tested the feature, but still hasn’t figured out if the Lightning port disables only if the device isn’t unlocked with a passcode for seven days, if it isn’t unlocked at all using a passcode or biometrics, or if the device hasn’t been unlocked or connected to a trusted computer. In their testing, Elcomsoft didn’t try to unlock the iOS device at all, or connect it to a trusted computer and the port disabled.

This means that if law enforcement agencies need to obtain information from an iPhone or iPad, they will have a much smaller window of time in which to unlock it. It should also mean services such as GreyKey won’t be able to get into them either. GreyKey uses the Lightning port to install a piece of software that can figure out the passcode of an iOS device.

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Strange that Elcomsoft didn’t test it further. Did they not want to know? This does seem intended to block unwanted intrusion into the device, though. For those in dictatorial regimes, that could be welcome.
link to this extract


Medium abruptly cancels the membership programs of its 21 remaining subscription publisher partners • Nieman Journalism Lab

Shan Wang:

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Medium has informed publishers using its platform to offer paid memberships that it’s ending that feature. An email at the end of last month from Medium’s head of partnerships Basil Enan told publishers that the company was planning to discontinue memberships in May.

“We were among the first to sell memberships on Medium, among the few local organizations working with them,” Chris Faraone, founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, told me. “We’ve had an arrangement with them for two years. I’m not saying they don’t have a right to break it. We’ve been scaling back, trying to get people to other platforms anyway. But it’d be nice to have more of a heads up.” (Faraone also works as the news and features editor of alt-weekly DigBoston.) “Our experience in dealing with a lot of these tech-oriented operations is that there’s some good reception, but in the end, it’s whatever their whim is.

“Meanwhile, we’re trying to make a living here. We’re cool with experimenting. But this is been an unbelievable blow. Could we have a better metaphor for the way Silicon Valley considers local journalism?”

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So Medium has tried ad-supported, premium, non-premium.. can’t be long before it starts doing a Medium conference aiming to pay for the cost of running the site.
link to this extract


Chinese tech giant on brink of collapse in new US cold war • The New York Times

Raymond Zhong:

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One of China’s most internationally successful technology suppliers, with about $17 billion in annual revenue, ZTE is facing a death sentence. The Commerce Department has blocked its access to American-made components until 2025, saying the company failed to punish employees who violated trade controls against Iran and North Korea.

American microchips power ZTE’s wireless stations. American optical components go into its optical fiber networks. Google’s Android operating system runs its smartphones. As the Trump administration threatens a trade war to stymie China’s plans for promoting advanced industries, the firm’s travails are proving an apt demonstration, for China’s leaders, of exactly why the country needs to be more self-sufficient in technology.

President Xi Jinping recently issued a rousing call to action, according to the state news agency Xinhua.

“By tightening our belts and gritting our teeth, we built ‘two bombs and one satellite,’” Mr. Xi said, referring to a Mao-era weapons development program. “This was because we made best use of the socialist system — we concentrated our efforts to get great things done. The next step is to do the same with science and technology. We must cast away false hopes and rely on ourselves.”

ZTE’s moment of crisis, if it leads to the company’s collapse, could also show how the tech cold war might ripple around the world.

The company has 75,000 employees and does business in more than 160 countries. It is the No. 4 smartphone vendor in the United States. And its telecommunications gear supports the digital backbone of a great swath of the developing world.

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Watching ZTE go down is like watching the death of the Titanic. Just a little tilt, and then more and more… but China’s reaction is going to make a big difference. If China becomes self-sufficient in hardware, the balance of power will change dramatically.
link to this extract


Klout, the scoring system for social media influence, is shutting down • Business Insider

Kif LEswing:

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Klout was founded in 2009 by Joe Fernandez, partially as a way to get a job at Twitter, according to Business Insider. But ranking people by importance or influence turned out to be a strong enough idea to raise four rounds of venture funding from top-tier firms totaling $40m.

Eventually, it was sold in 2014 for $200m to Lithium Technologies, which is the company that is shutting down the service later this month. Lithium is a private company that makes digital marketing tools.

Klout enabled users to share their Facebook and Twitter data, and parsed that data through a vague algorithm to give users a simple popularity metric between 10 and 100, called the “Klout score.”

Here’s a screenshot of the software, taken on Thursday:

Lithium CEO Pete Hess discussed the shutdown in an email to customers on Thursday. “The Klout acquisition provided Lithium with valuable artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning capabilities but Klout as a standalone service is not aligned with our long-term strategy,” he wrote.

To be fair, Klout scores are probably not aligned with anyone’s long-term strategy, unless that involves becoming a huge Twitter star. Over the years, Klout scores became a punchline for techies and the Twitter-obsessed. “Klout has been one of my go-to punchlines for some time now,” TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington wrote in August 2012.

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And yet it carried on independently for two more years, and for another four after that. Nine years of Klout? Though I can’t say I’ll miss it. Never used it; what’s a single number compared to the complexity of human interaction?
link to this extract


Android P’s gesture navigation is bad, Google • Android Police

David Ruddock:

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The multitasking button is gone – that’s the first thing to know. The home button is now a pill, and the back button appears in apps, but not on the launcher. Swiping up on the home button opens the new multitasking interface (which I actually think looks great), and swiping up a second time opens the app drawer (this makes no sense). Or, if you’re on the homescreen, a long swipe up to the middle of the screen briefly opens the multitasking UI then flips open the app drawer. Swiping right on the home button allows you to quickly switch back to the last app you had open (functionally, this is equivalent to double-tapping recents on Oreo).

Google has taken what was a not-particularly-attractive but otherwise functional navigation model and replaced it with one that isn’t any better (arguably, it is worse). At the same time, I’d argue strongly that this new navigation bar is even uglier than the old one. It’s visually uneven with the missing multitasking key, and now the back key isn’t filled. I suspect the latter inconsistency is about highlighting that the back key is ephemeral, which I get, but it looks like something out of a bad custom ROM – not a serious smartphone OS.

We also get no extra real estate out of this deal. The navigation bar still takes up a big strip on the bottom of the screen in apps, unlike the iPhone X, which integrates the home bar seamlessly over the interface of applications (and it’s completely hidden on the homescreen). The beauty of Apple’s system is that gestures allow you to get rid of overt visual elements for extremely common actions. Pull up to go home. Hold up to multitask (or go up and left to immediately multitask). Swipe on the bar to quickly switch between apps. Swipe from the left of the screen to go back (admittedly, this isn’t true in many apps, which still use the back button in the upper left).

Reviews of the iPhone X routinely cite gesture navigation as one of the best features of the phone, and for all the problems I have with using an iPhone, the gesture navigation is easily the thing I miss most after coming back to Android.

Android P’s half-baked attempt – one foot in the world of gestures, one back in software keys – simply isn’t an acceptable compromise.

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There’s some way to go before Android P is locked down, but it’s hard to know how much of this can be changed.
link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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