Start Up: your call is important to our AI, US Supremes approve internet tax, where’s Apple’s AirPower?, and more

A member of Congress is suggesting DNA matching could reunite children and parents separated at the US border. Photo by Shaury Nash on Flickr.

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A selection of 8 links for you. I really like these. Do you? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How computers could make your customer-service calls more human • WSJ

Daniela Hernandez and Jennifer Strong:


Cogito is one of several companies developing analytics tools that give agents feedback about how conversations with customers are going. Its software measures in real time the tone of an agent’s voice, their speech rate, and how much each person is talking, according to Dr. Place. “We measure the conversational dance,” he says.

That dance is sometimes out of sync, such as when an agent speaks too quickly or too much, cuts a customer off, has extended periods of silence or sounds tired.

When the software detects these mistakes, a notification pops up on a window on an agent’s screen to coax them to change their strategy. The alerts are useful not just for the agents, but also for their supervisors, Cogito says.

When insurer MetLife Inc. started testing the software about nine months ago, Emily Baker, a 39-year-old supervisor at a call center in Warwick, R.I., thought: “Why do I need this artificial intelligence to allow me to be more human? How much more human can I be?”

But the program has come in handy when coaching new agents, she says, especially those with little experience. One of her 14 agents said the software noticed he wasn’t speaking with enough energy, so it prompted him with a message to pep up plus a coffee-cup icon, she says.

Tiredness can come off as lack of confidence, Ms. Baker says, and it’s important for clients to “feel confident about the service we’re providing” because callers are often going through potentially life-changing events. The call center where Ms. Baker works is focused on disability insurance.


Machines to watch over us, and correct us when we aren’t good enough with each other.
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A Congresswoman is asking 23andMe to help reunite kids and parents at the border • Buzzfeed

Lissandra Villa:


California Rep. Jackie Speier is asking 23andMe, a popular DNA-testing company, to help reunite children separated from their parents under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.

Speier, a Democrat, said she spoke with executives at 23andMe on Thursday to see if the company could play a role in bringing families back together. The congresswoman’s suggestion comes in the midst of a scramble to figure out what the next steps are for some of these families, given that there’s a lack of a plan on how to bring them back together.

“I was just trying to think, how are we going to connect these two? How can we guarantee that the parents are going to get their own child back?” Speier told BuzzFeed News. “I’m thinking, how else are we going to do that? So I was encouraging them to look at whether or not they could provide some kind of assistance here.”

Asked what she was told by the company, Speier said: “They were going to think about it.”


That’s inspired thinking. Could even work, and wouldn’t be that difficult. Objections have been raised that this creates a DNA database of would-be illegal immigrants and/or legitimate asylum seekers. Given that the US requires my fingerprints for perfectly legitimate visits, I’m not sure why that’s a big worry compared to the large good that could be achieved.
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Atari accuses El Reg of professional trolling and making stuff up. Welp, here’s the interview tape for you to decide… • The Register

Kieren McCarthy interviewed an Atari exec earlier this year, and wrote about it. Atari was unhappy:


a potential buyer of a Atari VCS posted a link to the article on the company’s Facebook page, and asked the biz to explain it. Atari responded:


We honestly can’t explain that article either. Our executives sat with that reporter for half an hour and he wrote what he wanted instead of what was discussed with him. Sadly there are even irresponsible trolls in ‘professional’ positions i guess.


We clearly said that we were bringing engineering design models to GDC and lots of people clearly don’t understand what that means. Hunks of plastic? Well, yeah, that’s how you finalize the designs and confirm that you can get the look and feel you want for the finished products. Sad.

While we at The Register often take a light-hearted and critical perspective on the news of the day, we take our professional obligations as reporters very seriously.

In that capacity, we would like to formally apologize to both Atari and Michael Arzt for digging out a recording of the interview – and for the following article in which we highlight that Atari is so full of crap that it should be designated a hazardous waste zone.

You can find the entire 30-minute interview at the bottom, but here are a few short clips covering the most salient parts.


Going to need a salve for that burn, Atari. I’ve been an editor of Kieren’s work, and he is really thorough and painstaking and accurate.
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60,000 Android devices hit by battery-saving app attack • Tripwire

Graham Cluley on a scam that “warns” you that your (Android) device – which it names, by some HTML-grabbing functionality – has a problem and recommends the app (and the only way to stop it is to kill the web page):


So what happens if you do go to the Google Play store and install the battery-saving app being touted by the fake warning?

The first thing that should ring alarm bells in you is that the app demands access to a disturbing array of permissions including:

• Read sensitive log data
• Receive text messages (SMS)
• Receive data from Internet
• Pair with Bluetooth devices
• Full network access
• Modify system settings
I can’t think of any legitimate reason why a genuine battery-saving app would ever need such invasive abilities, which in combination with the app’s other functionality allows it to steal a user’s phone number, location, and details about their device including its IMEI number.

And so it comes as something of a surprise to discover that the Advanced Battery Saver app actually does live up to its advertising – monitoring a device’s battery status, killing unwanted background processes that consume significant resources, and making other attempts to keep batteries running for longer.

And it’s this strange dichotomy – the good and the bad behavior – which leads the researchers to speculate that the battery-saving app was perhaps originally designed to perform its intended advertised function (and to fulfill only that purpose) before being extended by its creators into underhand methods of income generation.


There’s no money in standard apps at that level now, if there ever was.

Chief among those is the app’s request for access to a user’s SMS text messages. One installed, the battery-saving app recruits devices into an ad-clicking scam, with the app “clicking” on advertising links it is sent via SMS to earn more income for the fraudsters behind the scheme.
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Former CIA employee charged with leaking hacking tools to WikiLeaks • Buzzfeed

Kevin Collier:


Joshua Schulte, 29, believed to be behind the WIkiLeaks “Vault 7” disclosures of 2017, in which the site spent months slowly leaking CIA hacking tools, had previously been charged with possession of child pornography.

WikiLeaks published the Vault 7 disclosures in 25 increments from March through November 2017. The disclosures themselves didn’t reveal shocking spy powers, but they were a major embarrassment for the agency. In one release, WikiLeaks claimed that the CIA had developed a means to “bypass” the encrypted chat app Signal. The agency hadn’t actually compromised Signal itself but had noted in internal documents that hacking such an app wasn’t necessary if the agency could hack a phone itself — a technique commonly deployed among the world’s elite hackers.

If convicted of all charges, Schulte could face a maximum of 135 years in prison.

Among the charges are 10 counts of willfully distributing copyrighted materials — the same charge generally leveled against someone who posts movies, TV shows, or music files.

WikiLeaks, which has a formal policy of not naming its sources, responded to the news by retweeting last year’s biggest Vault 7 leaks.

Schulte online claimed to be a libertarian, took a photo of himself with a glass with the text “fuck Obama” on it, and repeatedly used racist slurs in chats.

He was a member of the CIA’s Engineering Development Group, which built hacking tools deployed overseas. A former CIA coworker of Schulte’s, who requested be unnamed because he wasn’t authorized to speak about agency matters, told BuzzFeed News that Schulte had had problems getting along with his coworkers.


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Supreme Court clears way for sales taxes on internet merchants • The New York Times

Adam Liptak:


Internet retailers can be required to collect sales taxes in states where they have no physical presence, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

Brick-and-mortar businesses have long complained that they are disadvantaged by having to charge sales taxes while many of their online competitors do not. States have said that they are missing out on tens of billions of dollars in annual revenue under a 1992 Supreme Court ruling that helped spur the rise of internet shopping.

On Thursday, the court overruled that ruling, Quill Corporation v. North Dakota, which had said that the Constitution bars states from requiring businesses to collect sales taxes unless they have a substantial connection to the state.

Shares in Amazon were down just 1% in morning trading after the ruling, at $1,731.59. But other e-commerce companies suffered far tougher blows: Shares in Etsy, the marketplace for artisanal crafts, fell 4.5%, to $42.21, while those in Wayfair, a popular home goods seller, were down 3.2%, at $112.42.

Writing for the majority in the 5-to-4 ruling, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the Quill decision had distorted the nation’s economy and had caused states to lose annual tax revenues between $8bn and $33bn.

“Quill puts both local businesses and many interstate businesses with physical presence at a competitive disadvantage relative to remote sellers,” he wrote. “Remote sellers can avoid the regulatory burdens of tax collection and can offer de facto lower prices caused by the widespread failure of consumers to pay the tax on their own.”


This has long looked anomalous: if you buy things on the internet, why not pay sales tax? European countries levy VAT on online sales, including software, wherever the “purchase” is made. The tax benefit for some states could be substantial – though South Dakota has an annual budget of about $4bn, and reckons this will bring in $50m. A side point: South Dakota doesn’t have income tax; instead it applies sales and “use” taxes. A touch regressive there, people.
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Are ‘sensory videos’ vulgar and pornographic? China says so • CNET

Bonnie Burton:


The autonomous sensory meridian response, or ASMR, can happen after hearing certain sounds. Entire YouTube channels are dedicated to ASMR videos of whispering, fingers tapping on surfaces or even the crushing of eggshells.

While ASMR videos are so popular they regularly trend on YouTube, China’s anti-pornography office released a statement this month saying that it would crack down on inappropriate ASMR videos appearing on the country’s popular streaming sites such as Youku and Bilibili. 

The China office says many ASMR videos stimulate sexual sensations, but ASMR fans say they use them more as sleeping aids.

In a 2015 study, UK researchers looked at ASMR media people were accessing in the US and Western Europe. Eighty-two% of study participants said they used ASMR videos as a sleep aid and 70% used them to de-stress. 

Only 5% of people who enjoy ASMR media use it for sexual stimulation, according to the study. 


If I say this has passed me by, I sound old, right?
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Why Apple’s AirPower wireless charger is taking so long to make • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:


Unlike wireless chargers on the market today, the AirPower is designed to charge three devices simultaneously: an iPhone, Apple Watch, and AirPods with a still-to-be-released wireless charging case.

Apple also wants users to be able to place any of their devices anywhere on the charging mat to begin a charge. That ambitious goal requires the company to pack the AirPower with multiple charging sensors, a process that has proven difficult, the people said. The charger is based on custom charging technology, which it intends to integrate with the Qi charging standard, the company said last year.

An executive at an Apple partner that manufactures third-party wireless chargers for iPhones, who asked not to be identified, said that the multi-device charging mechanism is challenging to build because it likely requires different sized charging components for the three types of devices, which would all overlap across the mat.

The AirPower charger is also more advanced than the current competition because it includes a custom Apple chip running a stripped down version of the iOS mobile operating system to conduct on-device power management and pairing with devices. Apple engineers have also been working to squash bugs related to the on-board firmware, according to the people familiar.


A stripped-down version of iOS? So now Apple is going to have five OSs to update – MacOS, iOS, WatchOS, tvOS and AirPowerOS (maybe AirOS).

And when is it coming? From Gurman’s piece: “engineers hoped to launch the charger by June. The aim now is to put it on sale before or in September, according to one of the people.” At least that gives us a sort-of deadline. Though “before or in” is basically “by”. The subediting on American journalism is dire.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: “who” was used instead of “whom” in a sentence in yesterday’s post. Doctors are optimistic that the person affected will make a full recovery.

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