Start Up No.1,019: Facebook’s privacy tweak, octopi are even more weird, BBC v Netflix, US government tracks journalists, and more


So guess what might be in short supply if we have No Deal Brexit? CC-licensed photo by GorillaSushi on Flickr

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A selection of 12 links for you. Enough? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Zuckerberg’s so-called shift toward privacy • NY Times

Zeynep Tufekci on Mark Zuckerberg’s latest splurge of intent:

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what we really need — and it is not clear what Facebook has in mind — is privacy for true person-to-person messaging apps, not messaging apps that also allow for secure mass messaging.

At the moment, critics can (and have) held Facebook accountable for its failure to adequately moderate the content it disseminates — allowing for hate speech, vaccine misinformation, fake news and so on. Once end-to-end encryption is put in place, Facebook can wash its hands of the content. We don’t want to end up with all the same problems we now have with viral content online — only with less visibility and nobody to hold responsible for it.

It’s also worth noting that encrypted messaging, in addition to releasing Facebook from the obligation to moderate content, wouldn’t interfere with the surveillance that Facebook conducts for the benefit of advertisers. As Mr. Zuckerberg admitted in an interview after he posted his plan, Facebook isn’t “really using the content of messages to target ads today anyway.” In other words, he is happy to bolster privacy when doing so would decrease Facebook’s responsibilities, but not when doing so would decrease its advertising revenue.

Another point that Mr. Zuckerberg emphasized in his post was his intention to make Facebook’s messaging platforms, Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, “interoperable.” He described this decision as part of his “privacy-focused vision,” though it is not clear how doing do — which would presumably involve sharing user data — would serve privacy interests.

Merging those apps just might, however, serve Facebook’s interest in avoiding antitrust remedies. Just as regulators are realizing that allowing Facebook to gobble up all its competitors (including WhatsApp and Instagram) may have been a mistake, Mr. Zuckerberg decides to scramble the eggs to make them harder to separate into independent entities. What a coincidence.

In short, the few genuinely new steps that Mr. Zuckerberg announced on Wednesday seem all too conveniently aligned with Facebook’s needs, whether they concern government regulation, public scandal or profitability.

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The European Commission is hopping mad about the idea that Facebook would roll itself, Instagram and WhatsApp together, having promised it wouldn’t. Fines may follow.
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Hard Brexit means hard times on the toilet • Foreign Policy

Stephen Paduano:

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in the case of the United Kingdom, where the average resident uses an unrivaled 110 rolls of toilet paper per year, the highest figure in Europe, any meaningful measure of forward planning would require more real estate than is currently available. This is just one of the terrible challenges that the paper industry—and the public—may face in the coming months, said Andrew Large, the director general of the Confederation of Paper Industries, the leading trade association for the U.K.’s paper-based industries.

“It’s very bulky and light in weight for its volume, which means you need an awful lot of warehousing space in order to be able to put down meaningful stocks of the material,” he said. While there has been some stockpiling—several weeks of finished rolls and perhaps months of unfinished pulp, according to Large—the practical limitations to stockpiling leave a great deal of uncertainty. This uncertainty, more than anything, is most worrying for the industry. “The thing that will cause a crisis,” Large said, “is if people do panic and they empty the shelves preemptively, whereas if normal buying patterns are continued, there would have been enough supply in the system for everybody to be fine.”

In the event of no deal, it is difficult to imagine that this sort of self-perpetuating panic will not get produced. The campaign to drive up this panic to avert a no-deal Brexit or force a second referendum has been underway for the better part of the past three years. It will undoubtedly continue. And on the toilet paper front, “Project Fear” has already found a vociferous champion in the former Labour Party MP Denis MacShane, who has claimed, wrongly, that Britain has a toilet paper supply of just one day.

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link to this extract


Octopus and squid evolution is officially weirder than we could have ever imagined • Science Alert

Signe Dean:

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Just when we thought octopuses couldn’t be any weirder, it turns out that they and their cephalopod brethren evolve differently from nearly every other organism on the planet.

In a surprising twist, in April 2017 scientists discovered that octopuses, along with some squid and cuttlefish species, routinely edit their RNA (ribonucleic acid) sequences to adapt to their environment.

This is weird because that’s really not how adaptations usually happen in multicellular animals. When an organism changes in some fundamental way, it typically starts with a genetic mutation – a change to the DNA.

Those genetic changes are then translated into action by DNA’s molecular sidekick, RNA. You can think of DNA instructions as a recipe, while RNA is the chef that orchestrates the cooking in the kitchen of each cell, producing necessary proteins that keep the whole organism going.

But RNA doesn’t just blindly execute instructions – occasionally it improvises with some of the ingredients, changing which proteins are produced in the cell in a rare process called RNA editing.

When such an edit happens, it can change how the proteins work, allowing the organism to fine-tune its genetic information without actually undergoing any genetic mutations.

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The hypothesis that they’re actually alien visitors gathers steam.
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$356,000 to protect your computer? Feds promise ‘all-out attack’ on scams targeting the elderly • USA Today

Kevin Johnson:

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One man, alarmed at the thought that hackers might attack his computer, shelled out $14,990 to a company promising a “fix” that would keep it safe.

Eight months later, the 68-year-old from Hawaii mailed the same company a check for $24,999 more. And he kept paying. All told, the unnamed man, who suffers from dementia, sent about $356,000 in checks and wire transfers, unaware that the computer security alert was part of a network of elaborate scams that the government says cost the nation’s elderly and infirm hundreds of millions of dollars over the past year alone.

The case is part of a heartbreaking archive of court documents filed in just the past year, charging more than 200 suspects with trying to swindle 2 million Americans, most of them elderly.

Federal authorities said the illicit operations, some based in the United States and others scattered across the globe, looted seniors of nearly $1bn. The charges brought in the past 12 months, the second such enforcement campaign in as many years, represents the largest of the federal sweeps against elder fraud.

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Terrible. And also near-impossible to stop.
link to this extract


BBC boss mocks Netflix’s ‘The Crown’ viewing figures • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:

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“I mentioned the Bodyguard finale reaching 17 million viewers,” [BBC chief Tony Hall] told a media conference in London. “That was in one month. Our data suggests The Crown reached seven million users in 17 months.”

Netflix is infamous for never revealing the number of people who view any of its shows, leaving industry rivals and the media to fill in the blanks. This approach means the streaming service does not have to admit which of its shows are critical hits but flop with audiences, while also avoiding direct comparisons between the popularity of its shows and the audiences for programmes on traditional channels.

A BBC spokesperson said Hall’s source for the viewing figures was a nationally representative survey commissioned by the corporation last year, which asked Britons whether they had watched at least 15 minutes of an episode of The Crown. Netflix declined to comment on the figures.

The Crown, which is following the reign of the Queen from her early years to the present day, is scheduled to last six series at a rumoured cost of £100m. The drama, created by Peter Morgan, has been a major critical hit around the world and has been seen as indicative of a media environment where leading British television talent choose to work for streaming services on bigger budgets rather than produce material for domestic broadcasters.

Hall’s aggressive stance towards Netflix came as he urged the BBC to improve its online offering and prepare for an era where many licence fee payers never watch live television channels.

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It’s a good attempt, but Netflix aims, just like the BBC, to make its returns over the long term.
link to this extract


Facebook finds UK-based ‘fake news’ network • BBC

Chris Fox:

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Facebook said about 175,000 people followed at least one of the fake pages, which included 35 profiles on Instagram.

The company said the pages “engaged in hate speech and spread divisive comments on both sides of the political debate in the UK”.

“They frequently posted about local and political news including topics like immigration, free speech, racism, LGBT issues, far-right politics, issues between India and Pakistan, and religious beliefs including Islam and Christianity.

“We’re taking down these pages and accounts based on their behaviour, not the content they posted. In each of these cases, the people behind this activity coordinated with one another and used fake accounts to misrepresent themselves, and that was the basis for our action.”

The BBC understands Facebook discovered the network of inauthentic accounts while investigating hate speech about the UK Home Secretary Sajid Javid

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Who would be behind a fake news network that tries to spread division, do you think?
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Leaked documents show US government tracking journalists and immigration advocates through a secret database • NBC San Diego

Tom Jones:

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Documents obtained by NBC 7 Investigates show the US government created a secret database of activists, journalists, and social media influencers tied to the migrant caravan and in some cases, placed alerts on their passports.

At the end of 2018, roughly 5,000 immigrants from Central America made their way north through Mexico to the United States southern border. The story made international headlines. 

As the migrant caravan reached the San Ysidro Port of Entry in south San Diego County, so did journalists, attorneys, and advocates who were there to work and witness the events unfolding. 

But in the months that followed, journalists who covered the caravan, as well as those who offered assistance to caravan members, said they felt they had become targets of intense inspections and scrutiny by border officials. 

One photojournalist said she was pulled into secondary inspections three times and asked questions about who she saw and photographed in Tijuana shelters. Another photojournalist said she spent 13 hours detained by Mexican authorities when she tried to cross the border into Mexico City. Eventually, she was denied entry into Mexico and sent back to the US. 

These American photojournalists and attorneys said they suspected the US government was monitoring them closely but until now, they couldn’t prove it.

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This is what they warned you about: authoritarian governments misusing powers.
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US users are leaving Facebook by the millions, Edison Research says • Marketplace

Kimberly Adams:

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The biggest drop is in the very desirable 12- to 34-year-old group. Marketplace Tech got a first look at Edison’s latest social media research. It revealed almost 80% of people in the US are posting, tweeting or snapping, but fewer are going to Facebook.

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams talked with Larry Rosin, president of Edison Research. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kimberly Adams: In your survey you found an estimated drop of 15 million fewer Facebook users in the US today than in 2017. That’s just in the US. Is this a meaningful drop for Facebook?

Larry Rosin: I don’t see how you couldn’t say it’s a meaningful drop. Fifteen million is a lot of people, no matter which way you cut it. It represents about 65 of the total US population ages 12 and older. What makes it particularly important is if it is part of a trend. This is the second straight year we’ve seen this number go down. Obviously, the US is the biggest market, in terms of dollars, and it’s going to be a super important market for Facebook or anybody who’s playing in this game.

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Indeed, the US is the biggest and most valuable market for Facebook.
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Criminal machine learning • Calling Bullshit

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the authors note elsewhere that the criminal photos are all from individuals actually convicted of crimes. Figure 2 below shows the six example photos that the authors have provided from their training set.


Figure 2. Criminal and non-criminal faces from Wu and Zhang (2016)

From these details alone, two massive problems leap to our attention. Each introduces major biases of precisely the sort that the authors claim are avoided by machine learning algorithms.

The first and probably most prominent source of bias in this methodology is that the images of non-criminals have been posted to websites presumably designed for promotional purposes, be they company websites or personal profiles. Many of these images will have been chosen by the photo subject himself; most of the others, while chosen by a third party, will presumably have been picked to convey a positive impression.

By contrast, the images from the set of criminals are described as ID photographs. While it is unclear exactly what this means, it’s a pretty good guess that these have been selected neither by the individual depicted, nor with the aim of casting that individual in a favorable light. Thank goodness no one judges our character based upon our driver’s license photos!

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Such subtle things you need to beware when building a machine learning set.
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Prioritizing the MacBook hierarchy of needs • Six Colo(u)rs

Jason Snell:

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This week on the Accidental Tech Podcast, John Siracusa floated the concept of a MacBook Hierarchy of Needs, a priority list of features for the next time Apple redesigns the MacBook line, as is rumored to happen later this year.

It’s a fun thought experiment, because it requires you to rank your wish list of laptop features. That’s important, because if I’ve learned anything in this wacky world of ours, it’s that you can never get everything you ask for, so you’ve got to prioritize.

The ATP hosts all made a “good keyboard” their top priority, an idea that would’ve been surprising a few years ago but now is almost a given. Yes, of course, Apple laptops need to be fast and reliable and have great displays and good battery life, but the past few years’ worth of MacBooks have made a lot of people realize the truth: a bad/unreliable laptop keyboard isn’t something you can really work around if you’re a laptop user.

This is why a lot of nice-to-have-features, like SD card slots, have to fall way down the hierarchy of needs. Any feature that can be rectified with an add-on adapter falls immediately to the bottom of the list. You’re stuck with a laptop keyboard forever, and if you’re committed to the Mac and every single Mac laptop that’s sold uses the exact same keyboard, there’s nowhere to run.

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We are now three years into Apple’s flawed – there’s no other word – keyboard design, and it’s only improving incrementally. And yet it sells keyboards that work fine, with the iMac.

Why not listen to people who are saying: I’m not buying a new laptop until this is definitely sorted?
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Facebook will block anti-vax ads and reduce vaccine misinformation in the news feed, pages, and groups • Buzzfeed News

Ryan Broderick:

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Facebook announced Thursday that anti-vax misinformation will appear less frequently across people’s News Feeds, public pages and groups, private pages and groups, search predictions, and in recommendation widgets around the site. The announcement comes after weeks of pressure from lawmakers and public health advocates to crack down on anti-vax content.

“We are exploring ways to share educational information about vaccines when people come across misinformation on this topic,” Facebook said in its announcement. “Leading global health organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have publicly identified verifiable vaccine hoaxes. If these vaccine hoaxes appear on Facebook, we will take action against them.”

Following a measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest in January, California Rep. Adam Schiff sent Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai a letter that outlined concerns with the way the big tech platforms surface anti-vaccine content and urged them to take action. Last month, after inquiries from from BuzzFeed News, YouTube said that it would prevent channels that promote anti-vax content from running advertising.

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YouTube’s action misses the point: they don’t want to make money, they want to spread their nonsense. Both Facebook and YouTube are now in the stage of fighting fires all the time because they haven’t been designed with malice in mind.
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2018: the year that LATAM smartphone market started to decline • Counterpoint Research

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Smartphone shipments in the LATAM region declined by more than 1% year-on-year in 2018, making it the first time ever that the market has contracted in the region, the latest data from Counterpoint Research shows.

While declining smartphone sales was a global phenomenon in 2018, the LATAM region caught up with the trend at the drop of a hat due to the political and economic uncertainties in the region. Commenting on the overall market, Tina Lu, Senior Analyst at Counterpoint Research said, “With the exception of Chile, most countries in LATAM had a year-on-year decline in smartphone sales driven by the slowdown in the rate of replacement. The year was also marked by political and economic uncertainty across the region. Colombia, Mexico, and Brazil witnessed presidential elections which added to the political turmoil. The decline was led by Argentina and Brazil. While 2018 was particularly bad for Brazil as it was suffering from an economic crisis stemming out of the political uncertainty in the country, there could be some recovery in 2019. Argentina’s problems appear to be more long term as it is not possible to fix the inflationary economy in the short-term.”

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But average selling prices rose, up by 5%: top-level brands ASP rose, but second-tier brands ASP fell. A dumbbell market. Also: Samsung’s leadership position under threat. The story keeps repeating around the world.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified.

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