Start Up No.875: San Francisco’s caste system, another blabby fitness app, cropmarks ahoy!, Firefox v Google, and more


Insulating foam: if it’s in China, is it made with CFCs? Photo by Henryr10 on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Inside the tent. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

This fitness app lets anyone find names and addresses for thousands of soldiers and secret agents • De Correspondent and Bellingcat

Maurits Martijn, Dimitri Tokmetzis, Riffy Bol and Foeke Postma:

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On Saturday, May 9, 2018, a man takes his regular morning run past the Erbil International Airport in northern Iraq. His pace is leisurely; he covers 2.9 miles in 29 minutes and 34 seconds.

On his wrist is a digital activity tracker, the Polar V800.
This is what the Polar V800 looks like. It records his speed, distance traveled, and calories burned over the course of his run.

The man – let’s call him Tom – is a Dutch soldier, part of the Netherlands’ Capacity Building Mission in Iraq. The CBM is encamped near the Erbil airport. Since 2015, this base has been one of the key locations from which the war against the terrorist group Islamic State is being waged.

We are absolutely not supposed to know who Tom is and where he’s stationed. And we most definitely shouldn’t know where Tom lives.

Yet the activity tracking map in Polar’s fitness app lets us see that many of Tom’s runs start and end near a cluster of homes in a small town in the northern Netherlands. A little Googling gives us his exact address. We also find the names of his wife and children, and photos.

Last Friday, Polar took its user activity map offline and published a short statement on its website. The company emphasizes that users have consciously chosen to share their activities on the map: the default setting is to keep all workouts private. We asked if this feature has always been opt-in rather than opt-out; the company hasn’t yet answered us. According to Polar, only 2% of its users share workouts on the activity map.

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Just like Strava, basically.
link to this extract


Cropmarks 2018 • Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales

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The unprecedented spell of hot, dry weather across Wales has provided perfect conditions for archaeological aerial photography. As the drought has persisted across Wales, scores of long-buried archaeological sites have been revealed once again as ‘cropmarks’, or patterns of growth in ripening crops and parched grasslands.

The Royal Commission’s aerial investigator Dr Toby Driver has been busy in the skies across mid and south Wales over the last week documenting known sites in the dry conditions, but also discovering hitherto lost monuments. With the drought expected to last at least another two weeks Toby will be surveying right across north and south Wales in a light aircraft to permanently record these discoveries for the National Monuments Record of Wales, before thunderstorms and rain wash away the markings until the next dry summer.


The Iron Age hillfort of Gaer Fawr near Lledrod, Ceredigion, looking across the parched landscape of mid Wales.

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link to this extract


Firefox and the four-year battle to have Google to treat it as a first-class citizen • ZDNet

Chris Duckett:

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Buried in Mozilla’s issue tracker is a bug that kicked off in February 2014, and is yet to be resolved: Have Google treat Firefox for Android as a first-class citizen and serve up comparable content to what the search giant hands Chrome and Safari.

After years of requests, meetings, and to and fro, it has hit a point where the developers of Firefox are experimenting by manipulating the user agent string in its nightly development builds to trick Google into thinking that Firefox Mobile is a Chrome browser.

Not only does Google’s search page degrade for Firefox on Android, but some new properties like Google Flights have occasionally taken to outright blocking of the browser. Over the past couple of months, I have been using Firefox Mobile as my primary mobile browser and happened upon Google Flights, and although I wasn’t blocked, it did fail in places — at the time of writing, though, it seems the site is fine.

As for Google’s flagship search page, Firefox users get an inferior version that does not even have the tools bar that allows users to narrow searches down by date. I find it hard to believe that in 2018, the world’s most visited web page cannot find the small amount of time and resources it would take to deliver a comparable page to non-WebKit browsers, even if they do make up a minuscule amount of its visitors.

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Hmm, how would one pursue this as a monopoly issue?
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Will Samsung’s struggles enable Apple to deliver in the seasonally weak June quarter? • BTIG Research

Walter Piecyk:

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Apple’s market share increased 350 basis points [ie 3.5 percentage points] sequentially to 58.0% in the month of June, its highest share since February 2017 according to the latest US based survey by Wave7 Research. Its gains principally came from Samsung as the Galaxy S9 launch provided less of lift in share this year and it cooled off faster when compared to prior Galaxy S models, based on the Wave7 data. Samsung pre-announced disappointing results overnight. As you can see in the table below, this resulted in only 20 basis points of share loss during the quarter compared to much larger impacts in prior years.

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The graph is here. Piecyk says that the April-June quarter is always slow (low upgrade rates, low churn), but it’s notable that Samsung really doesn’t seem to have made an impression this time round. There’s only so many people you can persuade to upgrade to an upgraded camera, it seems.
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Mysterious source of illegal ozone-killing emissions revealed, say investigators • The Guardian

Damian Carrington on the followup to the story which first surfaced in May:

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The Environmental Investigation Agency, a non-governmental organisation, has now identified widespread use of CFC-11 factories in China that make insulating foams. The EIA’s investigators identified factories that sold the chemicals needed for foam-making, then contacted and visited them.

“We were dumbfounded when out of 21 companies, 18 of them across China confirmed use of CFC-11, while acknowledging the illegality and being very blase about its use,” said Avipsa Mahapatra at the EIA. Furthermore, the companies said the use of CFC-11 was rife in the sector. “It was very clear. These companies, again and again, told us everybody else does this,” she said.

China is a major producer of the rigid polyurethane foams involved and the EIA calculates that if the illegal use of CFC-11 is pervasive in the 3,500 small- and medium-sized companies that make up the sector, then this would explain the surge. Without action, the CFC-11 emissions would delay the recovery of the planet’s ozone hole by a decade, scientists estimate.

“We didn’t know what on Earth someone would be using CFC-11 for – well, here’s one answer and that’s a surprise,” said Steve Montzka at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Colorado, whose team revealed the surge. “Despite efforts to get rid of this activity, it continues.”

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This – too – is why regulation, and enforcement of regulation, matters. The report reveals that lots of the manufacturers find ways around customs and environmental checks.
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FTC Democrat hires tech industry critic who’s taken aim at Amazon • POLITICO

Nancy Scola:

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FTC Democratic Commissioner Rohit Chopra is hiring Lina Khan, one of the country’s foremost critics of the growing market power of U.S. tech companies and the author of a landmark paper making an antitrust case against Amazon.

Chopra’s move is a sign that the newly-minted commissioner is preparing to take a tough stand against Silicon Valley. He’s doing so as political figures on both the left and right, including President Donald Trump, call for greater checks on the tech industry.

A 2017 graduate of Yale Law School, Khan made her name with an academic paper called “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox” that argues that the current U.S. approach to antitrust law hasn’t kept pace with technology and fails to accurately measure the anti-competitive threat posed by companies like Amazon.

She maintained that simply because companies offer Americans obvious benefits like lower prices — criteria under the so-called consumer welfare test — that doesn’t mean they should be exempt from antitrust scrutiny. In the paper, she floated the idea of either breaking up Amazon or regulating it like a public utility.

Khan has more recently served as the director of legal policy at the Open Markets Institute, an advocacy group that has become perhaps Washington’s highest-profile champion for the idea that the U.S. approach to antitrust has failed to counter the negative effects of technology behemoths like Amazon, Google and Facebook.

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That’s an interesting hire. The FTC decided against taking antitrust action against Google in 2012, based on that “consumer welfare” test. Will things change?
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Timehop’s database breached compromising data of 21 million users • The Next Web

Vishwam Sankaran:

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The stolen data comprised mostly of user names and email addresses. Of the 21 million compromised users’ data, the phone numbers linked to 4.7 million accounts were also stolen.

“Tokens” provided by social media profiles to Timehop for gaining access to posts and images were also taken.

With the “access tokens,” hackers could view some of the users’ social media posts without their permission. However, Timehop claims that the tokens were deauthorized and made invalid within a “short time window” and cannot be used to gain access to users’ social media profiles.

Timehop noted that the compromised cloud computing account did not have multi-step verification before the incident – a gross oversight on the company’s part, given that it’s now common practice among firms handling large volumes of user data. Timehop is in cooperation with local and federal law enforcement officials to investigate further on the breach, and to enhance its security upgrades. Following the breach Timehop also reset all its passwords and added a multi-factor authentication to all its accounts linked to cloud-based services.

As of now, Timehop claims that there is no evidence of the stolen data being used. With the new GDPR privacy law defining a breach as “likely to result in a risk to the rights and freedoms of the individuals”, Timehop claims to have notified all its European users of the breach…

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Amazing that in this day and age any commercial company would run something without multi-step authentication.
link to this extract


How Silicon Valley fuels an informal caste system • WIRED

Antonio Garcia Martinez:

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San Francisco residents seem to be divided into four broad classes, or perhaps even castes:

• The Inner Party of venture capitalists and successful entrepreneurs who run the tech machine that is the engine of the city’s economy.
• The Outer Party of skilled technicians, operations people, and marketers that keep the trains belonging to the Inner Party running on time. They are paid well, but they’re still essentially living middle-class lives—or what lives the middle-class used to have.
• The Service Class in the “gig economy.” In the past, computers filled hard-for-humans gaps in a human value chain. Now humans fill hard-for-software gaps in a software value chain. These are the jobs that AI hasn’t managed to eliminate yet, where humans are expendable cogs in an automated machine: Uber drivers, Instacart shoppers, TaskRabbit manual labor, etc.
• Lastly, there’s the Untouchable class of the homeless, drug addicted, and/or criminal. These people live at the ever-growing margins: the tent cities and areas of hopeless urban blight. The Inner Party doesn’t even see them, the Outer Party ignores them, and the Service Class eyes them warily; after all, they could end up there.

Mobility among the castes seems minimal. An Outer Party member could reach the Inner Party by chancing into an early job at a lottery-ticket company (such as a Facebook or Google) or by becoming a successful entrepreneur. But that’s rare; most of the Outer Party prefers working for the Inner Party, gradually accumulating equity through stock grants and appreciating real estate.

The Service Class will likely never be able to drive/shop/handyman enough to rise to the Outer Party, at least not without additional training or skills. They’re mostly avoiding the descent to Untouchable status, while dealing with precarious gigs that disappear semi-regularly. Uber, for example, has made no bones about its intent to replace its drivers with robots. Delivery bots have already been deployed on city streets, though they were later restricted.

There are of course people outside this taxonomy. There are longtime property owners (and renters) who view the tech boom warily, even if the former benefit from rising property prices.

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His argument is that the rest of the US inevitably becomes like California, and Europe inevitably becomes like the US. I think this analysis is flawed on two counts: California isn’t just San Francisco, and Europe isn’t *that* enamoured of the US.
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Sarah Katz: what it’s like to work as a Facebook moderator • Business Insider

Jake Kanter:

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She worked in an open plan office in Menlo Park, where free snacks flowed and there was a reasonable camaraderie among her colleagues. They would set to work on their queue of posts for review, and when in full flow, Katz said she made decisions within seconds.

If ticket targets were not met, there would be consequences. Failing to hit a goal “once or twice” would result in a warning, Katz said. More than three times, “you would probably get let go.” Katz never witnessed this, but said it was informally known among members of staff.

“It’s kind of a monotonous job after a while. You definitely grow desensitized to some of the graphic material because you see so much of it. A lot of the content tends to recirculate,” she said.

Katz said there was a particularly sinister photo and video that popped up repeatedly in her queue.

It featured two children — aged between nine and 12 — standing facing each other, wearing nothing below the waist, and touching each other. It was clear, Katz said, that there was someone behind the camera telling them what to do.

“It would go away and come back, it would appear at multiple times of the day. Each time the user location would be different. One day shared from Pakistan, another day the US. It’s kinda hard to track down the initial source,” she continued.

At the time, Katz said she was not asked to report the accounts sharing the material — a fact that “disturbed” her. “If the user’s account was less than 30 days old we would deactivate the account as a fake account. If the account was older than 30 days we would simply remove the content and leave the account active,” she said.

Her experience raises questions about the effectiveness of Facebook’s efforts to tackle child exploitation.

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Target: 8,000 posts per day. You’d get some sort of PTSD from that.
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With stock IPO, Xiaomi is now worth three times as much as LG • Android Police

David Ruddock:

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Though a far cry from Apple, Google, or even Samsung in terms of overall market capitalization, Xiaomi is – on paper – now worth more than three times as much as the entirety of LG Electronics. Think about that for a second.

Of course, Xiaomi is overall a much smaller company than many of the brands it now finds itself compared to. Xiaomi’s revenue goals for fiscal 2017 were around $16.8bn, a goal it said it achieved by the end of October. While LG is valued at less than a third of Xiaomi, it generated over three times the sales in 2017 (over $55bn in revenue). Major questions remain about Xiaomi’s ability to profitably expand outside Southeast Asia, with competitors like Huawei and HMD Global (Nokia) – both of which are privately held companies – having already established foothelds in Western Europe and other key markets Xiaomi is likely looking to grow into.

With global smartphone growth slipping, I could see two major narratives unfold for Xiaomi – one good, one bad. The positive outlook holds that, in a market where consumers are holding onto phones longer and shopping around more, Xiaomi’s value-first approach will have real appeal. If a smartphone is merely a means to an end, why spend more money than strictly necessary on one?

The other bodes far more poorly: the smartphone market has become saturated, and consumers are inundated with ads and incentives from much larger brands with more value-adds to offer than Xiaomi, especially outside of China. Xiaomi could find it intensely difficult to break into markets where Samsung and Apple are heavily entrenched, even with its price-conscious approach.

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link to this extract


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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