Start Up No.1,069: former MI6 chief warns on Huawei, the energy revolution challenge, the simple ransomware solution, and more


Facial recognition systems are spreading in the US and UK – but there’s pushback. CC-licensed photo by Sheila Scarborough on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. But it’s Friday! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Huawei poses security threat to UK, says former MI6 chief • The Guardian

Dan Sabbagh and Jon Henley:

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In a report from the Henry Jackson Society (HJS), the authors claimed Huawei “has long been accused of espionage” – a claim denied repeatedly by the firm – and notes that “while there are no definitely proven cases”, a precautionary principle should be adopted.

The document is co-authored by the Tory MP Bob Seely, who has already raised concerns about Huawei, and the expert academics Peter Varnish and John Hemmings. It adds to pressure heaped on the British government to reconsider letting Huawei participate in the UK’s 5G network from the US and Australia, whose intelligence agencies share information with the UK.

Last month May provisionally approved the use of Huawei technology for parts of the UK’s future 5G telecoms networks after a meeting of the NSC. A leaked account of the meeting said five cabinet ministers raised concerns about the company.

The HJS report has a foreword by Sir Richard Dearlove, who led MI6 between 1999 and 2004. Using blunter language than the report’s authors, he wrote: “I very much hope there is time for the UK government … to reconsider the Huawei decision.

“No part of the Communist Chinese state is ultimately able to operate free of the control exercised by its Communist party leadership,” Dearlove added. “Therefore, we must conclude the engagement of Huawei presents a potential security risk to the UK.”

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I’d link to the report, but the Henry Jackson Society has the slowest website in the world. Unless it’s being DDOSd (which seems unlikely).
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The man behind San Francisco’s facial recognition ban is working on more. Way more • The New York Times

Kate Conger:

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[Brian] Hofer is little known outside California, but his anti-surveillance measures have been making waves in the state.

He successfully pressed the Northern California cities of Richmond and Berkeley, which have sanctuary policies, to end their contracts with tech companies like Amazon and Vigilant Solutions that do business with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In Santa Clara County, in Oakland and elsewhere, he has secured transparency laws around surveillance technology.

His campaigns are just beginning. In Berkeley and Oakland, Mr. Hofer is pushing for more facial recognition bans. He has two additional privacy proposals winding their way through the state’s legislative process, focused on reining in surveillance technology. And he is establishing a nonprofit, Secure Justice, that will grapple with technology issues.

“My primary concern is when the state abuses its power, and because of the age we live in, it’s probably going to occur through technology and data mining,” Mr. Hofer said. “That’s where I see the most potential harm occurring. So I just wanted to jump right in.”

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(Thanks Jason H for the link.)
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The Met Police’s sinister facial recognition trial should worry us all • The Spectator

Jamie Bartlett:

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In a recent episode of BBC Click, journalist Geoff White followed the police’s pilot of live facial recognition technology. (The Metropolitan Police are running a number of pilots). In one chilling moment, a man walked past the facial recognition cameras and covered his face. The police stopped him, forced him to uncover and then took a photograph of him anyway. ‘This gives us grounds to stop and verify him,’ one officer said. The man got angry – understandably, I’d have done the same – which landed him a £90 fine for disorderly behaviour.

I’ve no idea what the legal basis is for any of this – but if covering your face is deemed suspicious, we’re heading somewhere where, for once, the word ‘Orwellian’ isn’t an exaggeration. Silkie Carlo from Big Brother Watch (who are running a campaign to stop this) reckons it’s a ‘free for all’ taking place in a legal vacuum. ‘The police are making up the rules as they go along,’ she says.

I won’t bother running through the possible misuses, bias data models (see here if you don’t believe that technology can’t contain biases), or the cost. Instead, just imagine real-time facial recognition technology running on the country’s six million CCTV cameras and ask yourself if you’re happy with that. And if it does roll out, I suspect thousands will do what this man did, principled or otherwise, which will surely make an ass of the law.

But what worries me most is not that facial recognition technologies won’t work – but the opposite. Despite the problems, I expect it will be very effective at tackling crime and keeping us safe. At what cost?

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I suppose the police might have been using stop and search, but it seems pretty thin.
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Energy revolution will come from foundational scientific discoveries—not renewables • City Journal

Mark Mills:

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If, in some alternative universe, the performance of silicon solar cells followed Moore’s Law, a single postage-stamp-size solar cell could fuel the Empire State Building. Similarly, a single battery the size of a book would cost 3 cents and power a jumbo jet to Asia. Such things happen only in comic books because, ultimately, physics, not policies, dictates the possibilities—and thus the economics—for energy technologies, regardless of subsidies and mandates.

Spending $1m on wind or solar hardware in order to capture nature’s diffuse wind and sunlight will yield about 50 million kilowatt-hours of electricity over a 30-year period. Meantime, the same money spent on a shale well yields enough natural gas over 30 years to produce 300 million kilowatt-hours. That difference is anchored in the far higher, physics-based energy density of hydrocarbons. Subsidies can’t change that fact.

And then batteries are needed, and widely promoted, as the way to convert wind or solar into useable on-demand power. While the physical chemistry of batteries is indeed nearly magical in storing tiny quantities of energy, it doesn’t scale up efficiently. When it comes to storing energy at country scales, or for cargo ships, cars and aircraft, engineers start with a simple fact: the maximum potential energy contained in hydrocarbon molecules is about 1,500% greater, pound for pound, than the maximum theoretical lithium chemistries. That’s why the cost to store a unit of energy in a battery is 200 times more than storing the same amount of energy as natural gas.

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*shakes fist at physics*
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Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and a history of mobile game data collection • Vox

Kaitlyn Tiffany:

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Something as vague and banal-sounding as “gameplay data” is not as obviously salacious as the types of personal data collection we know we should be scandalized by. Nobody’s getting your Social Security number from Angry Birds. Nobody’s getting your private messages.

“With Facebook, you’re putting a lot more clearly personal information out there, and with a game you’re not really sure what it’s getting from you,” says Chris Hazard, an engineer with experience in gaming and AI, currently the CTO of a startup called Diveplane. “It’s not as front and center.” Basically, it’s not obvious that data about how you play a mobile game can be as useful and as personal as your wedding photos or a rattled-off screed about the Democratic National Committee.

But people should be worried. The intricacies of gameplay data can tell you a lot about what makes people tick, and what’s going on with them — studies have shown that you play games differently when you’re depressed, or dieting. “Nobody gets too upset about games,” Nieborg says. “But the underlying technology is really powerful. These people are really pushing the technology to the limits where the potential for abuse is massive.”

Developers collect data on who was playing, for how long, how well, and how much money they were spending. It doesn’t seem like sensitive information, and it’s useful mostly because it helps developers target their Facebook ads to find more people who will “monetize well” on these games.

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The trade secret: firms that promised high-tech ransomware solutions almost always just pay the hackers • ProPublica

Renee Dudley:

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In a statement that day [in November 2018], the FBI said the “criminal actors” were “out of the reach of US law enforcement.” But they weren’t beyond the reach of an American company that says it helps victims regain access to their computers. Proven Data Recovery of Elmsford, New York, regularly made ransom payments to SamSam hackers over more than a year, according to Jonathan Storfer, a former employee who dealt with them.

Although bitcoin transactions are intended to be anonymous and difficult to track, ProPublica was able to trace four of the payments. Sent in 2017 and 2018, from an online wallet controlled by Proven Data to ones specified by the hackers, the money was then laundered through as many as 12 bitcoin addresses before reaching a wallet maintained by the Iranians, according to an analysis by bitcoin tracing firm Chainalysis at our request. Payments to that digital currency destination and another linked to the attackers were later banned by the US Treasury Department, which cited sanctions targeting the Iranian regime.

“I would not be surprised if a significant amount of ransomware both funded terrorism and also organized crime,” Storfer said. “So the question is, is every time that we get hit by SamSam, and every time we facilitate a payment — and here’s where it gets really dicey — does that mean we are technically funding terrorism?”

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Yes. Next question. Oh, you’re wondering if Proven Data was just getting the decryption keys from the hackers rather than using some Amazing Method? Yes to that too.
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DIY market may shrink further due to US-China trade tensions • Digitimes

Monica Chen and Joseph Tsai:

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With the cryptocurrency mining fad dissipating, most motherboard and graphics card players have seen their revenues returning to regular levels. But those who heavily rely on the two business segments have reported sharp drops in sales for the first quarter.

With the US government extending the 25% tariff to consumer products including notebooks and smartphones, Taiwan’s motherboard and graphics card players noted that the impact on their businesses will not be big since they have already increased the prices for products shipping to the US previously when the US increased the tariff to 10%. They have also prepared production sites outside of China as a precaution.

As for China’s 25% retaliatory tariff on US-imported products, the firms so far have not seen major impacts.

However, fierce trade tensions are expected to result in weakening demand from the end market. China is especially important as the popularity of the country’s PC DIY market is far strong than that of the US.

For motherboards, nearly half of the worldwide shipments go to China and if demand continues falling, Taiwan suppliers’ sales in 2019 are expected to be severely undermined.

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Didn’t know that stat about China. I wonder how big the crypto craze was as a factor.
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Samsung and Huawei agree to settle patent disputes • Android Authority

Williams Pelegrin:

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Samsung and Huawei have reportedly agreed to finally bury the hatchet and settle their years-long dispute over smartphone patents. The Guangdong High People’s Court in southern China mediated the settlement, according to Nikkei.

The terms of the alleged settlement have not been made public, but it’s believed that they include some sort of cross-licensing patent deal. The patents that are part of the supposed deal include those for basic technologies, with no further specifics mentioned.

It’s suggested that Samsung and Huawei are only settling now due to them wanting to pour more resources into the stagnant smartphone market. Even though Huawei now owns a company-record 17% of the market, Q1 2019 marked the sixth straight quarter of declining overall smartphone shipments. Meanwhile, Samsung saw a 10% decrease in market share year-over-year.

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They aren’t settling to “pour more resources into”; they’re doing it because wasting money on lawyers when your profits are shrinking is daft. Slightly different when Apple and Samsung were going at it: the market was on the rise and there were big prizes to be won. Purely at a guess, the patents cover modems (Huawei) and screens (Samsung) and cameras (both).
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The story my male editors kept killing • Human Parts

Laura Kiesel:

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A year and a half ago, in the wake of the tragic Las Vegas shootings, I was struck by a single idea: If mental illness is such a prominent culprit in the phenomenon of mass shootings — as so many politicians and media pundits claim it to be — where are all the female mass shooters? After all, we have mental illness too, in arguably much greater numbers than men (at least according to the best available data). And yet, almost all mass shootings to date have been committed by cis men (most of them white).

In October 2017, I shared my idea with AlterNet. The female editor I emailed enthusiastically accepted my pitch and, after a couple of weeks of rigorous research and interviewing, I filed it. Her initial remark was that it looked good to her as is, and she would be passing it on to her superior for a final review. Then something strange happened. She came back with a slew of criticisms, copy and pasted from her supervising editor, and the outlet’s publisher: a man.

After perusing his comments, the first thing I understood was that he hadn’t read my piece thoroughly. This became clear when he scolded me for blaming gun violence on mental illness. He then asked me to insert commentary and quotes that were already in the piece. But the most distressing part was when he began making grand — and factually incorrect — assertions.

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It wasn’t a one-off, and didn’t happen just to her. Worth considering, for those in the media.
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YTMND disappeared, 15 years after changing the internet – The Verge

Bijan Stephen:

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Before the apparent shutdown, the Internet Archive had preserved a copy of the site’s 787GB of data. (You can browse the site as it was through the Wayback Machine; although, as with most cultural products created by anonymous users, a lot of the offerings are at least somewhat offensive.) The site, however, started disappearing long before then — the last admin post was made in 2014, and the site had been bleeding users for years as its popularity waned and social media became the place where memes were created and spread. In 2016, Gizmodo published a story featuring an interview with Goldberg about the site’s impending death. “Besides being a time capsule I don’t really see a reason for it to continue to exist… It seems like the internet has moved on,” Golberg wrote in an email. “And I’ve moved on too. I don’t have much interest in the site beyond it being good memories.”

Those good memories are part of the web’s cultural history, but they’re not something people often need to revisit. “People are very strange with their cultural institutions,” says Jason Scott, an archivist at the Internet Archive, when I reach him by phone. “They’re happy to know it’s there, out there, but they don’t make it a part of their lives.”

That’s partly because the internet itself has changed. As more people came online, and the web became less a place for nerds and social misfits, and as the internet became more centralized because of platforms like Facebook and Twitter, community-first sites like YTMND became less and less important. The locus of online culture had shifted to places that were predicated on massive, unchecked growth and propped up by millions in venture capital. “We’re so driven by websites that have to make a million dollars in their IPO, that people seem to have been surprised that there are websites that are literally just run, like sideline hobbies,” says Scott.

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I’d… never heard of it. I think it must have been a “just joined the internet, let’s meme!” thing.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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