Start Up No.953: Facebook’s internal fight, Tesla dinged on Autopilot, faking fingerprints, Deepmind Health into Google, and more

Want to know what women think of period-tracking apps? CC-licensed photo by calitexican on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. There you go. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Delay, deny and deflect: how Facebook’s leaders fought through crisis • The New York Times

Sheera Frenkel, Nicholas Confessore, Cecilia Kang, Matthew Rosenberg and Jack Nicas:


When Facebook users learned last spring that the company had compromised their privacy in its rush to expand, allowing access to the personal information of tens of millions of people to a political data firm linked to President Trump, Facebook sought to deflect blame and mask the extent of the problem.

And when that failed — as the company’s stock price plummeted and sparked a consumer backlash — Facebook went on the attack.

While Mr. Zuckerberg conducted a public apology tour in the last year, Ms. Sandberg has overseen an aggressive lobbying campaign to combat Facebook’s critics, shift public anger toward rival companies and ward off damaging regulation. Facebook employed a Republican opposition-research firm to discredit activist protesters, in part by linking them to the liberal financier George Soros. It also tapped its business relationships, persuading a Jewish civil rights group to cast some criticism of the company as anti-Semitic.

In Washington, allies of Facebook, including Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic Senate leader, intervened on its behalf. And Ms. Sandberg wooed or cajoled hostile lawmakers, while trying to dispel Facebook’s reputation as a bastion of Bay Area liberalism.

This account of how Mr. Zuckerberg and Ms. Sandberg navigated Facebook’s cascading crises, much of which has not been previously reported, is based on interviews with more than 50 people. They include current and former Facebook executives and other employees, lawmakers and government officials, lobbyists and congressional staff members. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had signed confidentiality agreements, were not authorized to speak to reporters or feared retaliation.


Charlie Warzel of Buzzfeed had some commentary on this story: “story nails down what i’ve always heard in vague whispers from fmr senior employees: sandberg helped install a DC establishment mentality inside the company — one that didn’t think globally/was afraid of its own shadow/wanted to operate like a think tank rather than a tech co”. Sandberg seems like the problem. Soros smears *and* alleging anti-Semitism? Geez.
link to this extract

Oi, Elon: you Musk sort out your Autopilot! Tesla loyalists tell of code crashes, near-misses • The Register

Thomas Claburn:


The car biz has plenty of ardent fans who love the idea of beta testing buggy code at high speeds and reflexively characterize critics as trolls or short sellers of Tesla stock. There are of course people who highlight Autopilot problems with an eye toward investment, as can be seen from this tweet.

But there are also customers who worry the technology isn’t ready and isn’t safe, without an ulterior motive.

Effusive reviews of the latest Autopilot update can be found, as can less positive ones, such as a detailed critique posted to the Tesla Motors Club forum earlier this month that notes Navigate on Autopilot “tries to kill you any time a lane ends.”

Twitter user @trumpery45, posting under the name Justin, gathered a collection of replies to the Tesla’s leader’s request for fix suggestions in his Twitter feed. The Register asked Justin whether we could attribute his observations to a full name but he expressed reticence, citing the potential for harassment by Tesla fanatics.


I wonder if the Tesla fanatics (there’s a ton of them on Twitter) actually own Tesla cars and use Autopilot, because you’d think their numbers would be getting thinned out. The tweets that follow in the story show there’s a significant problem.
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California man pleads guilty in deadly Wichita Swatting case • Department of Justice


Tyler Barriss, 25, Los Angeles, Calif., pleaded guilty to causing a deadly swatting incident in Wichita on Dec. 28, 2017, as well as dozens of similar crimes in which no one was injured. In those cases, Barriss was charged in federal courts in California and the District of Columbia.

In the Wichita case, Barriss entered guilty pleas to count one (making a false report resulting in a death), count two (cyberstalking) and count 12 (conspiracy) of a superseding indictment.

“Without ever stepping foot in Wichita, the defendant created a chaotic situation that quickly turned from dangerous to deadly,” US Attorney Stephen McAllister said. “His reasons were trivial and his disregard for the safety of other people was staggering.”

In the Kansas case, Barriss admitted making hoax calls that resulted in Wichita police surrounding an old house at 1033 W. McCormick. When officers arrived, they believed there was a man inside who had killed his own father and was holding family members hostage. A man who came outside to face police, however, had done nothing wrong and did not know about the swatting call. As he stepped onto the porch, police told him to put up his hands. When he unexpectedly dropped his hands, he was shot and killed…

…In Barriss’ plea, he admitted he got involved with Viner and Gaskill after they had a falling out while playing the game Call of Duty online. As a result, Viner, who was in Ohio, asked Barriss, who was in California, to swat Gaskill, who was in Wichita. Gaskill found out Barriss was stalking him and in messages over the internet he dared Barriss to carry out the swat. Gaskill fooled Barriss, however, by claiming to live at 1033 W. McCormick. In fact, Gaskill no longer lived there.


The weird thing is that the danger that the police pose to the public is simply accepted. The police officer who fired the fatal shot will not face any disciplinary or other action.
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Period-tracking apps are not for women • Vox

Kaitlyn Tiffany:


There have been free period-tracking apps ever since there have been apps, but they didn’t really boom until the rise of Glow — founded by PayPal’s Max Levchin and four other men — in 2013, which raised $23m in venture funding in its first year, and made it clear that the menstrual cycle was a big business opportunity.

By 2016, there were so many choices, surrounded by so little coherent information and virtually zero regulation, that researchers at Columbia University Medical Center buckled down to investigate the entire field. Looking at 108 free apps, they concluded, “Most free smartphone menstrual cycle tracking apps for patient use are inaccurate. Few cite medical literature or health professional involvement.” They also clarified that “most” meant 95 percent.

The Berlin-based, anti-fluff app Clue, founded by Ida Tin, would seem like an answer to this concern. It’s science-backed and science-obsessed, and offers a robust, doctor-sourced blog on women’s health topics. It arrived the same year as Glow but took several more to raise serious funding, provided mostly by Nokia in 2016. Today, Glow has around 15 million users and Clue has 10 million. There are still dozens of other options, but they’re undeniably the big two.

Still, they are not built for women.

“The design of these tools often doesn’t acknowledge the full range of women’s needs. There are strong assumptions built into their design that can marginalize a lot of women’s sexual health experiences,” Karen Levy, an assistant professor of information science at Cornell University, tells me in an email, after explaining that her period tracker couldn’t understand her pregnancy, “a several-hundred-day menstrual cycle.”

Levy coined the term “intimate surveillance” in an expansive paper on the topic in the Iowa Law Review in 2015. At the time, when she described intimate data collection as having passed from the state’s public health authorities to every citizen with a smartphone, she was mostly alone in her level of alarm.


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DeepMasterPrints: generating MasterPrints for dictionary attacks via latent variable evolution • ArXiv

A team at New York University:


Recent research has demonstrated the vulnerability of fingerprint recognition systems to dictionary attacks based on MasterPrints. MasterPrints are real or synthetic fingerprints that can fortuitously match with a large number of fingerprints thereby undermining the security afforded by fingerprint systems. Previous work by Roy et al. generated synthetic MasterPrints at the feature-level. In this work we generate complete image-level MasterPrints known as DeepMasterPrints, whose attack accuracy is found to be much superior than that of previous methods. The proposed method, referred to as Latent Variable Evolution, is based on training a Generative Adversarial Network on a set of real fingerprint images.


Yes – machine learning to generate fake fingerprints. They don’t take the extra step to try it on actual phones, from my reading, but that’s the obvious next paper.
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Google ‘betrays patient trust’ with DeepMind Health move • The Guardian

Alex Hern:


The restructure, critics argue, breaks a pledge DeepMind made when it started working with the NHS that “data will never be connected to Google accounts or services”. The change has also resulted in the dismantling of an independent review board, created to oversee the company’s work with the healthcare sector, with Google arguing that the board was too focused on Britain to provide effective oversight for a newly global body.

Google says the restructure is necessary to allow DeepMind’s flagship health app, Streams, to scale up globally. The app, which was created to help doctors and nurses monitor patients for AKI, a severe form of kidney injury, has since grown to offer a full digital dashboard for patient records.

“Our vision is for Streams to now become an AI-powered assistant for nurses and doctors everywhere – combining the best algorithms with intuitive design, all backed up by rigorous evidence,” DeepMind said, announcing the transfer. “The team working within Google, alongside brilliant colleagues from across the organisation, will help make this vision a reality.”

DeepMind Health was previously part of the AI-focused research group DeepMind, which is officially a sibling to Google, with both divisions being owned by the organisation’s holding company Alphabet.

But the transfer and vision for Streams looks hard to reconcile with DeepMind’s previous comments about the app. In July 2016, following criticism that the company’s data-sharing agreement with the NHS was overly broad, co-founder Mustafa Suleyman wrote: “We’ve been clear from the outset that at no stage will patient data ever be linked or associated with Google accounts, products or services.”

Now that Streams is a Google product itself, that promise appears to have been broken, says privacy researcher Julia Powles: “Making this about semantics is a sleight of hand. DeepMind said it would never connect Streams with Google. The whole Streams app is now a Google product. That is an atrocious breach of trust, for an already beleaguered product.”

A DeepMind spokesperson emphasised that the core of the promise remains intact: “All patient data remains under our partners’ strict control, and all decisions about its use lie with them. This data remains subject to strict audit and access controls and its processing remains subject to both our contracts and data protection legislation. The move to Google does not affect this.”


Strict audit and access controls.. but there’s no independent review board any more? Google, like Facebook, can’t deny its nature. It always wants the data.

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The Asus Eee: how close did the world come to a Linux desktop? • Linux Journal

Jeff Siegel:


How did Asus get the price so low? Cutting the weight helped. Using cheaper materials for the body, keyboard and screen made a difference too, as did the less expensive processor and memory. But one of the most important factors was substituting Linux for Windows.

An Asus spokesman did not respond to several requests for information for this story, but those with knowledge of the company’s thinking said choice of operating system was crucial in lowering the Eee’s price. A Microsoft license, depending on who you talk to, could have cost almost as much as the netbook’s suggested retail price. Even if Asus had absorbed some of the license fee, it would have been almost impossible to hit $199, then considered the sweet spot for pricing.

Enter Xandros, the operating system that Asus used on the Linux-powered versions of the Eee. It was perhaps the machine’s greatest asset and its biggest weakness. Since it was Linux, there was no Microsoft licensing fee, making it easier for Asus to hit $199. But Xandros was not quite open-source Linux—it was a commercial product from the same-named British company whose revenue came from “partnering” with OEMs. Which, of course, is what Microsoft did.

And, as anyone who knows anything about the Linux community will tell you, any open-source company with a Microsoft-like business plan can’t really be open-source or true to the spirit of Linux. In this, Asus alienated the people who should have been the Eee’s biggest supporters. Look on bulletin board and Reddit posts, and you’ll still see some of the resentment at the choice of Xandros.

Xandros’ other problem? It was just a little too Linux for the millions of people who bought it and who were used to Windows…

…It’s almost impossible to believe, a decade later, how popular netbooks were in the wake of the Eee. Way past popular, actually: the netbook was the best-selling computer in the world in 2009, with seven-fold growth from 2008 and some 20 million sold. That accounted for almost 10% of the entire computer market at a time when the recession saw desktop computer sales fall 12%, the worst decline in its history.


Arguably the Eee and netbooks propped up the PC market for a while. Then they didn’t.
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Backlash from locals, politicians erupts over Amazon’s HQ2 split • The Washington Post

Taylor Telford:


While Amazon has touted the prosperity the headquarters would bring — pledging to make $5bn in capital investments and create 50,000 jobs between the two headquarters — politicians voiced concerns that the influx of tech workers would fuel inequality and hurt lower-income populations. Others slammed the company for settling on obvious cities after a lengthy search that drew 238 bids, including many from smaller cities in need of the “transformation” Amazon promised.

While New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo implored Amazon to come to New York City, reportedly saying he’d “change his name to Amazon Cuomo if that’s what it takes”, local politicians were wary about the deal. Prior to the announcement, New York City council member Jimmy Van Bramer and state senator Michael Gianaris published a joint statement in the Yonkers Tribune criticizing the use of “scarce public resources” as “massive corporate welfare. Now, Van Bramer and Gianaris are teaming up with local activist groups to protest Amazon’s plans on Wednesday.

“Say no to the richest company in the world robbing over $1bn from state funding for our schools, transit and housing,” the ad for the protest reads.

Democratic Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Monday that her office had been flooded with calls from residents who were outraged by the pending Amazon deal. She also questioned who would truly benefit from — and who would pay for — the transformation the company touted.

“Amazon is a billion-dollar company. The idea that it will receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks at a time when our subway is crumbling and our communities need MORE investment, not less, is extremely concerning to residents here,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Monday.


Hmm. Think Amazon and/or New York will be dialling back on the subsidies over the course of the next few.. time periods.
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Astronomers discover super-Earth around Barnard’s star •


Astronomers have discovered a planet in orbit around one of the closest stars to the Sun, Barnard’s star.

The study was co-led by researchers from Queen Mary University of London, and from the Institut d’Estudis Espacials de Catalunya and the Institute of Space Sciences/CSIC in Spain.
The potentially rocky planet, known as Barnard’s star b, is a ‘super-Earth’ with a mass of at least 3.2 times that of the Earth, and it orbits around its host star once every 233 days.

The results, published in the journal Nature, show the planet lies at a distant region from the star known as the ‘snow line’. This is well beyond the habitable zone in which liquid water, and possibly life, could exist.

The planet’s surface temperature is estimated to be around -170 degrees Celsius meaning it is likely to be a frozen world which is uninviting to Earth-like life.

However, if the planet has a substantial atmosphere the temperature could be higher and conditions potentially more hospitable.


It’s only six lightyears away. Look, we should go – perhaps they could lend us money. Or we could sell them bitcoin. Same thing.
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How podcasts became a seductive—and sometimes slippery—mode of storytelling • The New Yorker

Rebecca Mead looks at Serial and the millions of other podcasts, and their sometimes unreliable narration, with this sidetrack on monetisation:


Podcasting has offered advertisers a new means of reaching demographically targeted consumers. Many podcasts feature extended endorsements, read by the host, that often include a discount code for a product or service. For listeners accustomed to a separation between advertising and editorial, the blurring of lines can be disconcerting (or embarrassing, such as when podcast hosts like Joe Rogan and Tim Ferriss expound on how much they enjoy wearing Me Undies). For advertisers that have spent heavily on podcasts, like the omnipresent Casper and Blue Apron, the effectiveness of such campaigns can be measured in increased sales. A representative for Blue Apron, which has launched its own branded podcast, “Why We Eat What We Eat,” in addition to advertising on hundreds of shows, told me, “We view podcasts less as an advertising channel and more as a content channel to win new customers and engage existing customers.”

Podcast advertising remains a relatively new science. Producers and advertisers can instantly tabulate how many times a show has been downloaded, but it’s harder to ascertain how many people have listened to the whole thing. A commercial marketplace puts pressure on podcasters to create content that can attract millions of listeners, which does not necessarily make for the strongest, or most subtle, content. Linsky, with some frustration, noted that it doesn’t matter much to an advertiser if a podcast takes an hour to record or months to report; all that matters is whether it attracts a lot of listeners. New ways of monetizing podcasts are being explored, including a paid-subscription model; apps such as Stitcher Premium offer ad-free listening and bonus episodes.


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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

7 thoughts on “Start Up No.953: Facebook’s internal fight, Tesla dinged on Autopilot, faking fingerprints, Deepmind Health into Google, and more

    • Strange thing – when I asked the editorial team of Android Police about Android tablets, wondering if they could cite people using them full-time, they were disparaging and said that lack of updates was a big part of their failings. Because it’s going to matter a lot more on a tablet.

      I’ll write it up at some point.

      • That’s weird. Why/how would updates matter more on tablets ? Indeed, I think Android tablets are even less updated than phones (yes, that’s possible ^^), but I’m only now starting to feel the pain on my Android 4.1 Galaxy Note 10.1 with a few apps that won’t update, I’d say anything above 4.4 is OK, and above 6.0 is fine, except for special cases.

        I think tech writers have a bit of last-version (and pure-Android, and flagship) fetishism. Not sure it’s objectively warranted. I myself have to check in Device Info to know which Android version a specific device is running. You certainly can’t tell by which apps it’s running because anything reasonably recent (certainly 6.0 and later) will run anything. Maybe pros can spot the difference in notifications and the multitasking screen. With so many OEM variants, I can’t.

      • When I hear “but it’s not updated” as an argument, I hear the same as when I hear “but it’s old” about a film or book from the youngins. It’s irrelevant, and misdirection (*). Being old or un-updated isn’t bad per se, you mean something else. Again, for both kids’ media and techies’ gizmos, I think it means they can’t be bothered to try it and also can’t be bothered to think up a good excuse; that their peer group won’t reward them for watching/using it, that they had a bad experience once and are over-generaizing,…

        You say updates are more important for tablets. I’m really interested in how and why.

        Again, I urge you to live by your own words (**), buy a Xiaomi Redmi Note 5 and a Chuwi Hi9 Air ($150 each) and have an honest stab at making them work for you. Not just trying to replicate what you do with your iDevices, but digging to find stuff that’s now possible, easier, impossible… You’ll be surprised.

        (*) for Android and Windows. iOS devices have issues once they stop receiving OS updates, since their 1st-party apps and features also stop being updated, and 3rd-party apps quickly move on too. Android doesn’t work that way.

        (**) “be extremely skeptical of anyone who makes a judgment about switching [] when they haven’t actually done it themselves ” “I agree with this”.

      • I take back the Chuwi Hi9 Air, I actually recommend the Mi Pad 4 Plus to the general public. Have to wait for the Global version though. Anytime now.

    • Interestingly, both Mi6 hacks used the default browser. Setting that to Firefox (recommended) or Chrome probably invalidates the hacks, since contrary to iOS Android browsers, are full browsers with their own js and rendering engines, not a reskinned WebView ?

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