Start Up No.878: why WikiTribune?, Huawei and the Africa hack, our confused streets, Hollywood’s con queen, and more


It was 30 years ago today. OK, yesterday. Photo by John Koetsier on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. “These guys are mostly European judging by their clothing labels and…[long pause] cigarettes.” I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The African Union headquarters hack and Australia’s 5G network • The Strategist

Danielle Cave:

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In January 2018, France’s Le Monde newspaper published an investigation, based on multiple sources, which found that from January 2012 to January 2017 servers based inside the AU’s headquarters in Addis Ababa were transferring data between 12 midnight and 2  am—every single night—to unknown servers more than 8,000 kilometres away hosted in Shanghai. Following the discovery of what media referred to as ‘data theft’, it was also reported that microphones hidden in desks and walls were detected and removed during a sweep for bugs.

The Chinese government refuted Le Monde’s reporting. Chinese state media outlet CGTN (formerly CCTV) reported that China’s foreign ministry spokesperson called the Le Monde investigation ‘utterly groundless and ridiculous’. China’s ambassador to the AU said it was ‘ridiculous and preposterous’. The BBC also quoted the ambassador as saying that the investigation ‘is not good for the image of the newspaper itself’.

Other media outlets, including the Financial Times, confirmed the data theft in reports published after the Le Monde investigation. It’s also been reported on by think tanks and private consultancies from around the world.

One AU official told the Financial Times that there were ‘many issues with the building that are still being resolved with the Chinese. It’s not just cybersecurity’.

The Le Monde report also said that since the discovery of the data theft, ‘the AU has acquired its own servers and declined China’s offer to configure them’. Other media reports confirmed that servers and equipment were replaced and that following the incident ‘other enhanced security features have also been installed’…

…What seems to have been entirely missed in the media coverage at the time was the name of the company that served as the key ICT provider inside the AU’s headquarters.

It was Huawei.

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On Twitter, Cave says that Huawei “must answer some tough questions in relation to this incident… Huawei never discovered what appears to be one of the longest-running thefts of confidential government data that we know about.”
link to this extract


Lawmakers target Chinese security companies over spy fears • The Hill

Katie Bo Williams and Morgan Chalfant:

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Congress is weighing a ban on federal agencies using video surveillance equipment from two large Chinese companies, the latest sign of concerns about foreign espionage among lawmakers.

It’s part of a broader trend. Across the government, the U.S. is moving away from foreign state-owned tech companies to prevent cyber spying.

But one of the companies named in the proposed ban is pushing back. Hikvision argues that the legislation — written into the House version of the annual defense authorization bill — is a knee-jerk response to an anti-Chinese “Red Scare.”

“To my knowledge, and to my understanding, I’ve got a gut feeling that if we are not a Chinese company, this wouldn’t be an issue at all,” said Jeffrey He, president of Hikvision’s independent U.S. subsidiary, in an interview with The Hill.

“It’s very difficult to prove ourselves not guilty of providing back doors to Chinese government or any source.”

Indeed, unlike firms like ZTE or the Russian-owned Kaspersky, it’s a much more open question whether Hikvision products are pinging home to China.

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Rob Graham of Errata Security had a thread on this, concluding with the tweet: “BTW, when masscanning the Internet, Hikvision cameras are one of the more popular devices I find exposed to the Internet – because of the difficulty of getting video streams through firewalls, they are left exposed by default.”
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City street orientations around the world • Geoff Boeing

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By popular request, this is a quick follow-up to this post comparing the orientation of streets in 25 US cities using Python and OSMnx. Here are 25 more cities around the world:

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Compare them to the American cities, also shown in the post. “Regular” barely begins to describe it. OSMnx is an interesting package, building on OpenStreetMap.
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Several people are typing: the good, the bad, and the mansplaining of WikiTribune • Nieman Journalism Lab

Laura Hazard Owen:

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“I realized that I built Nupedia again — too top-down, too restrained, not trusting enough,” [Jimmy] Wales told me in a Slack DM last month. (Nupedia was the predecessor of Wikipedia, but it required a seven-step, editor-driven approval process for any updates to any of its content; in its three years of operations, only 25 fully approved articles were actually published.) “I should have known better, but hey, at least this time it only took me a year to realize it — last time it took two.”

“When community members read a complete story, signed by a journalist, they don’t feel comfortable to change or improve it,” Orit Kopel, cofounder of WikiTribune and CEO of the Jimmy Wales Foundation, told me in an email. “Unless they identified a typo or a meaningful error, they were pretty much deterred from touching it. With the new design, we wanted to deliberately project an incomplete work, raw material and initial stories which invite the readers to expand, improve, and lead them…We’re just in early days of the new design, but it seems to communicate our vision better and increase participation already.”

What does it look like when the community takes control? I’ve spent the past few weeks immersed in WikiTribune’s article sidebars and its public Slack, trying to get a better sense of how it runs. Doing so, I’ve seen both the promise and the pitfalls of WikiTribune’s model. On the one hand, it’s admirably transparent: If you’ve always wanted to peek inside a news organization’s Slack channel (sorry to reach peak Nieman Lab niche), here’s a chance, sort of. On the other hand, it’s as annoying as any public Slack — dominated by the same men (its 150-ish users are about 90% male), rife with nitpicking, aggravatingly earnest discussion.

Here are a few things I noticed when I poked around.

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The question I don’t quite understand is: why WikiTribune, when Wikipedia exists and can be updated just as quickly? Why not just start a Wikipedia article and focus on that? There are a zillion news sites out there, of varying quality; why add another, whose quality can’t be as good as the best?
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Medical AI safety: we have a problem • Luke Oakden-Rayner

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There are also systems where the line gets a bit blurry. An FDA approved system to detect atrial fibrillation in ECG halter monitors from Cardiologs highlights possible areas of concern to doctors, but the final judgement is on them. The concern here is that if this system is mostly accurate, are doctors really going to spend time painstakingly looking through hours of ECG traces? The experience from mammography is that computer advisers might even worsen patient outcomes, as unexpected as that may be. Here is a pertinent quote from Kohli and Jha, reflecting on decades of follow-up studies for systems that appeared to perform well in multi-reader testing:

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Not only did CAD increase the recalls without improving cancer detection, but, in some cases, even decreased sensitivity by missing some cancers, particularly non-calcified lesions. CAD could lull the novice reader into a false sense of security. Thus, CAD had both lower sensitivity and lower specificity, a non-redeeming quality for an imaging test.

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These sort of systems can clearly have unintended and unexpected consequences, but the differences in outcomes are often small enough that they take years to become apparent. This doesn’t mean we ignore these risks, just that the risk of disaster is fairly low.

Now we come to the tipping point.

A few months ago the FDA approved a new AI system by IDx, and it makes independent medical decisions. This system can operate in a family doctor’s office, analysing the photographs of patients’ retinas, and deciding whether that patient needs a referral to an ophthalmologist.

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This is where “move fast and break things” isn’t the right approach, he points out.
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Refusal of new passports for children raises DNA testing fears • Financial Times

Robert Wright:

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The Home Office has refused to renew the British passports of at least two children in recent weeks without proof of paternity that lawyers say can be provided only through a DNA test.

In both cases, the mothers of the children were not UK citizens, but their children had already been issued British passports on account of their British fathers.

The cases suggest the Home Office is taking a particularly hard line where the right to reside in the UK of a mother depends on the UK citizenship of their child.

The revelations came after the Home Office ordered an urgent review last week into why its immigration officers have been demanding DNA tests even though guidelines state they should not be compulsory.

Letters from HM Passport Office, a department of the Home Office, were sent to the two women on June 11 and July 2.

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Note that this is *renewal*, not instantiation, of the passport. Seems like the “hostile environment” towards immigrants hasn’t changed after all.
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Die Hard at 30: how it remains the quintessential American action movie • The Guardian

Scott Tobias:

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There are dozens of other examples of small, deftly planted details that will pay off later on. The first terrorist McClane kills has feet “smaller than [his] sister’s”, so he can’t take his shoes; he also happens to be the brother of Karl (Alexander Godunov), the vicious right-hand to the mastermind, Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman), which raises the stakes for their inevitable mano a mano. And that famous shot of Hans falling to his death from an upper floor after McClane unclasps the watch from his wife’s wrist? That Rolex is accounted for, too, in the early going, when it’s revealed to have been a reward for Holly’s excellent performance for the company. The watch is a painful symbol of their separation, because she left New York to pursue her career ambition and he didn’t follow. Unclasping the watch means more than merely saving her from peril.

There’s not a wasted moment in Die Hard, not a moment when the audience feels confused about who’s who or what’s going on or where the characters are in relation to each other. It seems like simplest, most banal part of a making a movie, but it must be the hardest, because the vast majority of actioners, even good ones, don’t succeed in doing it. Stuart and De Souza’s script is a perfectly worked-out puzzle of a thousand tiny pieces: Die Hard has at least five major villains, unfolds over multiple planes of action, and fully works out Gruber’s elaborate scheme to steal $640m in negotiable bearer bonds (he’s no mere common thief, he’s an exceptional thief) and McClane’s improvised efforts to stop it. “I always enjoyed to make models when I was a boy,” says Gruber at one point, in the meticulously jumbled English of a native German. “The exactness, the attention to every conceivable detail.” This is the screenwriters showing a little swagger.

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Yippie-ki-yay, indeed. Yes, this Christmas-set film really was released on July 12 1988.
link to this extract


Hunting the con queen of Hollywood • Hollywood Reporter

Scott Johnson, with a fascinating piece about someone who impersonates high-level Hollywood studio execs over the phone and has fooled a stack of people in the business:

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The imposter works by using a combination of deceit, charm and intimidation to manipulate her marks. The victims travel to Indonesia on a promise of work and, once there, are asked to hand over relatively modest amounts of money at a time, up to $3,000 in some cases, to help cover expenses for things like car travel, translation, tour guides and fixers. A designated Indonesian “moneyman” arrives on a moped to collect the funds. Needless to say, the promised reimbursements never arrive. Over time, these small sums add up. All told, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been collectively stolen this way. “Even if they’re bringing in $300,000 a year, that’s a huge amount of money in Indonesia,” says Kotsianas, who believes the same group is behind all of the cases.

At the center of the organization is the impersonator — a woman whose sophisti cated research, skill with accents and deft psychological and emotional manipulation have earned her the begrudging respect of her victims and trackers. K2 investigators believe the woman is the “talent” of an operation that, while relatively small, may have legs on at least three continents, including the U.S., Asia and Europe. The victims come from all over — the U.K., Europe and the U.S. primarily — and represent a wide swath of creative industries: hairstylists, stuntmen, military advisers, photographers and cinematographers.

The Hollywood Reporter has obtained two separate audio recordings of the woman’s voice, which has never been publicly disclosed. Both of the tapes date from an earlier incarnation of the scam, when the imposter was targeting makeup artists in the U.K. at the end of 2015 and early 2016. In one, she speaks in a distinct American twang, a flat, almost nasal intonation, berating her interlocutor (in this case, a victim’s agent) about a missed flight. “To be very blunt with you, when I travel internationally, I use this number,” she says, exasperated. “This number can be reached, it was registered 10 years ago. OK?”

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There’s audio as well, if you want to hear how she sounds.
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2017 emissions • International Energy Authority

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Global energy-related CO2 emissions grew by 1.4% in 2017, reaching a historic high of 32.5 gigatonnes, a resumption of growth after three years of global emissions remaining flat.

The increase in CO2 emissions, however, was not universal. While most major economies saw a rise, some others experienced declines, including the United States, United Kingdom, Mexico and Japan. The biggest decline came from the United States, mainly because of higher deployment of renewables.

Global energy-related CO2 rose by 1.4% in 2017, an increase of 460 million tonnes (Mt), and reached a historic high of 32.5 gigatonnes (Gt). Last year’s growth came after three years of flat emissions and contrasts with the sharp reduction needed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change.

The increase in carbon emissions, equivalent to the emissions of 170 million additional cars, was the result of robust global economic growth of 3.7%, lower fossil-fuel prices and weaker energy efficiency efforts. These three factors contributed to pushing up global energy demand by 2.1% in 2017…

…The biggest decline came from the United States, where emissions dropped by 0.5%, or 25 Mt, to 4,810 Mt of CO2, marking the third consecutive year of decline. While coal-to-gas switching played a major role in reducing emissions in previous years, last year the drop was the result of higher renewables-based electricity generation and a decline in electricity demand. The share of renewables in electricity generation reached a record level of 17%, while the share of nuclear power held steady at 20%.

In the United Kingdom, emissions dropped by 3.8%, or 15 Mt, to 350 Mt of CO2, their lowest level on record back to 1960. A continued shift away from coal towards gas and renewables led to a 19% drop in coal demand. In Mexico, emissions dropped by 4%, driven by a decline in oil and coal use, efficiency gains in the power system, strong growth in renewables-based electricity generation and a slight increase in overall gas use. In Japan, emissions fell by 0.5% as increased electricity generation from renewables and nuclear generation displaced generation from fossil-fuels, especially oil.

Overall, Asian economies accounted for two-thirds of the global increase in carbon emissions. China’s economy grew nearly 7% last year but emissions increased by just 1.7% (or 150 Mt) thanks to continued renewables deployment and faster coal-to-gas switching. China’s carbon dioxide emissions in 2017 reached 9.1 Gt, almost 1% higher than their 2014 level. While China’s coal demand peaked in 2013, energy-related emissions have nonetheless increased because of rising oil and gas demand.

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Still going in the wrong direction – this is extra CO2 added to the atmosphere – but the slowdown is welcome. Would love to see renewables v output. (Thanks Pete Kleinschmidt for the link.)
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BBC news: now on https • Medium

James Donohue on the surprisingly complex task of getting the BBC News site onto SSL/TLS:

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As a public service, we have to ensure that BBC News is available to the widest possible audience, regardless of device, browser or use of assistive technology. We champion the ideal of graceful degradation of service as far as possible. But in a climate of anxiety around fake news, it’s vital that users are able to determine that articles have not been tampered with and that their browsing history is private to them. HTTPS achieves both of these as it makes it far more difficult for ISPs to track which articles and videos you’re looking at or selectively suppress individual pieces of content. We’ve seen cases outside the UK with some of our World Service sites where foreign governments have tried to do this.

Our plan for migrating the News website was relatively straightforward, built on extensive groundwork already done to move World Service sites (such as BBC Hindi) to HTTPS. Until recently, anyone accessing BBC News over HTTPS was redirected (‘downgraded’) to HTTP. This changed in March when we enabled access via both protocols and began an iterative process of chasing down a multitude of bugs, while we worked on updating links, feeds and metadata to reflect the new address. Colleagues in BBC bureaux around the world helped us detect access issues in different geographical areas early (we discovered, for example, that in India a government-mandated network block initially made the site totally inaccessible).

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The fact of a government blocking https makes one suspicious that it’s monitoring what people read.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.878: why WikiTribune?, Huawei and the Africa hack, our confused streets, Hollywood’s con queen, and more

  1. “why WikiTribune, when Wikipedia … ” – because Wales cannot profit *directly* from Wikipedia, i.e. not the Facebook/Google/Amazon level. He has been looking to replicate the formula ever since, but in a manner which being (co-)Founder translates into billionairehood. Remember, in a situation of winner-take-all network effects, if his site is the winner, it doesn’t matter if there are zillion other sites out there, even better ones. On one hand, he does have a much higher than average chance due to the enormous amount of free publicity and marketing he gets. But on the other hand, something like 1000x advantage on a million-to-one shot is still pretty poor odds overall.

    It’s a sad recursive commentary that there is very little support for journalism exploring this.

  2. re: WikiTribune. As a journalist, you’re probably feeling the same way encyclopedists feel about Wikipedia: “We’re already doing an excellent job, why duplicate with crowd-sourced crap that’ll ruin us ?”.
    I’d argue thre are glaring issue with the current setup:
    – An utter schism between liberal and conservative media,
    – alignment of media groups with misc. commercial and political interest,
    – appalling lack of knowledge of some writers,
    – the elitism and high cost.
    Something that’s more inclusive, more independent, more reviewed, more accessible, and free could be useful.

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