Start Up No.1,089: the spies created by AI, the farm emissions problem, Sudan cuts its internet, iPadOS in view, and more


Mailing list company Mailchimp is blocking anti-vaccination newsletters. Not a minute too soon. CC-licensed photo by Cory Doctorow on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Counted. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


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The latest episode is a discussion with Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Rohan Candappa, plus an interview with Professor Charlton McIlwain, about race and the internet.

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Find these episodes, and the whole series, by searching for “human and machine” on your podcast app. As long as that isn’t BBC Sounds. (If it is, please explain yourself.)


Digital marketer Mailchimp bans anti-vaccination content • NBC News

Brandy Zadrozny:

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The move to block the anti-vaccination rhetoric follows similar actions by other tech companies and comes on the heels of increased pressure from public health advocates and lawmakers on digital platforms to curtail the spread of health misinformation.

“Mailchimp has shut down a number of accounts for anti-vaccination content that violates our Terms of Use, and we’re adding this category to our routine searches for prohibited content,” a Mailchimp spokesperson said in a statement provided to NBC News. “Spreading misinformation about the safety and efficacy of vaccines poses a serious threat to public health and causes real-world harm. We cannot allow these individuals and groups to use our Marketing Platform to spread harmful messages and expand their audiences.”

The company began quietly enforcing this decision last week.

“We trust the world’s leading health authorities, like the CDC, WHO, and the AAP, and follow their guidance when assessing this type of misuse of our platform,” the spokesperson said, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Vaccine misinformation that had once been allowed to flourish on the fringes of many mainstream internet destinations has come under growing scrutiny in the past six months, particularly as health officials have warned about the resurgence of some preventable diseases.

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Fascinating contrast with Facebook (inc Instagram), YouTube and Twitter, which have been pretty indifferent to complaints about such content. Mailchimp once stopped an edition of The Overspill (it goes out by email! You can get it in your inbox!) because it contained a reference to b*tco*n (I’m taking no chances) and they thought I was touting crypto~mumble~cies.

We seem to be approaching a point where not all content is created equal.
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Experts: spy used AI-generated face to connect with targets • Associated Press

Raphael Satter:

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Katie Jones sure seemed plugged into Washington’s political scene. The 30-something redhead boasted a job at a top think tank and a who’s-who network of pundits and experts, from the centrist Brookings Institution to the right-wing Heritage Foundation. She was connected to a deputy assistant secretary of state, a senior aide to a senator and the economist Paul Winfree, who is being considered for a seat on the Federal Reserve.

But Katie Jones doesn’t exist, The Associated Press has determined. Instead, the persona was part of a vast army of phantom profiles lurking on the professional networking site LinkedIn. And several experts contacted by the AP said Jones’ profile picture appeared to have been created by a computer program.

“I’m convinced that it’s a fake face,” said Mario Klingemann, a German artist who has been experimenting for years with artificially generated portraits and says he has reviewed tens of thousands of such images. “It has all the hallmarks.”

Experts who reviewed the Jones profile’s LinkedIn activity say it’s typical of espionage efforts on the professional networking site, whose role as a global Rolodex has made it a powerful magnet for spies.

“It smells a lot like some sort of state-run operation,” said Jonas Parello-Plesner, who serves as program director at the Denmark-based think tank Alliance of Democracies Foundation and was the target several years ago of an espionage operation that began over LinkedIn .

William Evanina, director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said foreign spies routinely use fake social media profiles to home in on American targets — and accused China in particular of waging “mass scale” spying on LinkedIn.

“Instead of dispatching spies to some parking garage in the US to recruit a target, it’s more efficient to sit behind a computer in Shanghai and send out friend requests to 30,000 targets,” he said in a written statement.

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Amazing story. The face would be generated by a generative adversarial network (GAN). One clue it’s a fake: her eyes are different colours. There are others which suggest she’s got lizard DNA.
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Deadly gas: cutting farm emissions in half could save 3,000 lives a year • The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Andrew Wasley, Alexandra Heal and Mie Lainio:

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The thousands of tonnes of faeces and urine produced by UK farm animals a day release ammonia gas, which combines with other particles in the air to create one of the most deadly forms of pollution. Ammonia is the only pollutant on the rise in the UK, and taking simple measures to cut it would be the “most effective way” to clean up our air and prevent deaths, according to a leading expert.

During a five month investigation the Bureau and the Guardian found:

• The government only monitors ammonia emissions from the largest intensive poultry and pig farms, completely missing the biggest polluters — beef and dairy farms.

• Despite promising to close this loophole by 2025, Michael Gove, the environment secretary, has not laid out a clear plan or any legislation to do so. In the meantime, the number of intensive US-style beef feedlots and dairy “megafarms” has been increasing.

• Cuts in staffing at the Environment Agency, which polices farm emissions, mean farms are not always monitored properly, leaked correspondence shows.

• Demand for cheap food is preventing farmers taking the basic but expensive steps to cut ammonia because their profit margins are too narrow. Brexit is likely to exacerbate this, as farmers may struggle to compete with cheap imported food.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, has called air pollution a national health emergency and a “slow and deadly poison”. Yet efforts to reduce it have largely ignored ammonia, despite its key role in producing dangerous particles.

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Huawei files to trademark mobile OS around the world after US ban • Reuters

Marco Aquino and Brenda Goh:

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A senior US official on Thursday said Huawei’s clients should be asking themselves if the Chinese firm can meet its commitments given its dependence on US companies.

Huawei – the world’s biggest maker of telecoms network gear – has filed for a Hongmeng trademark in countries such as Cambodia, Canada, South Korea and New Zealand, data from the UN World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) shows.

It also filed an application in Peru on May 27, according to the country’s anti-trust agency Indecopi.

Huawei has a back-up OS in case it is cut off from US-made software, Richard Yu, CEO of the firm’s consumer division, told German newspaper Die Welt in an interview earlier this year.

The US official, meeting with officials in Europe to warn against buying Huawei equipment for next-generation mobile networks, said only time would tell if Huawei could diversify.

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One thing to trademark the product, quite another to have it up and running.
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WeChat is watching • Nautilus

Barclay Bram:

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At 9:27, once I’ve brushed my teeth, answered a few messages, and wiped the sleep from my eyes, I order a coffee through WeChat. There’s a payments window on the app, and when you click on it you see various options, some proprietary to WeChat and some which are independent apps that run on WeChat’s platform. I open the Meituan delivery app and scroll through all the coffee options around me. I order an Americano. I have my WeChat linked with the facial recognition scanner on my iPhone; when I pay, I just hold my phone up to my face and a green tick flicks across the screen. Seven minutes later, I get a message telling me the coffee is on the way, with the name and number of the delivery driver. It arrives at 9:53.

Before 10 on a normal day in Chengdu, WeChat knows the following things about me: It knows roughly when I wake up, it knows who has messaged me and who I message, it knows what we talk about. It knows my bank details, it knows my address and it knows my coffee preference in the morning. It knows my biometric information; it knows the very contours of my face.

But this isn’t all it knows. I use WeChat to pay my rent. I use it to pay for my utilities. I use it to top up my phone credit. I use WeChat to pay for the metro system. I use it to scan QR codes on the back of shared-bike schemes throughout the city. I use it to call cabs. It knows where I go and how I go there. I follow bloggers on it, I follow media organizations and NGOs and government offices (there are over 20 million official accounts associated with governmental institutions, agencies, or officials) and I read their content through it. It knows what academic interests I have—I’m researching mental health and I pay for and attend online courses in psychology through the app. I book movie tickets, order things through Jingdong’s page (the Chinese Amazon), and I recently downloaded a WeChat app which allows me to take a photo of a flower and have it tell me the name. It also tells me anytime it’s been mentioned in Chinese poetry.

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WeChat’s dominance is accidental (as far as we know). And it’s an absolute dream for a surveillance state. And western governments with dictatorial tendencies (basically: all of them) would love WeChat, or an equivalent, to rise in their countries.
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LaLiga’s app listened in on fans to catch bars illegally streaming soccer • The Verge

Dami Lee:

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Spain’s data protection agency has fined the country’s soccer league, LaLiga, €250,000 (about $280,000) for allegedly violating EU data privacy and transparency laws. The app, which is used for keeping track of games and stats, was using the phone’s microphone and GPS to track bars illegally streaming soccer games, Spanish newspaper El País reported.

Using a Shazam-like technology, the app would record audio to identify soccer games, and use the geolocation of the phone to locate which bars were streaming without licenses. El Diario reports that fans have downloaded that app more than 10 million times, essentially turning them into undercover narcs. The league claims that the app asks for permission to access the phone’s microphone and location, and that the data — which is received as a code, not audio — is only used to detect LaLiga streams.

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You’ve got to admit: that is clever. Sneaky, but ever so clever. Of course people will be at bars with their smartphones. Of course.
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GE ‘badly’ misjudged the clean energy transition, costing investors almost $193bn: IEFFA • Utility Dive

Robert Walton:

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While General Electric (GE) led the world in gas turbine manufacturing in 2015, the company shed 74% of its market capitalization between 2016 and 2018, as demand for new turbines cratered.

GE is “a case study in how rapidly and unexpectedly the global energy transition away from fossil fuels travels up the economic chain and destroys value in the power generation sector,” the report says. It points the finger at large shareholders, like Vanguard, BlackRock, State Street and Fidelity, who IEEFA analysts say should be doing more to push companies away from fossil fuels.

“It is in [shareholder] hands to ensure companies evaluate and understand the inevitable energy transition as the world accelerates towards meeting the Paris Agreement,” report co-author and IEEFA financial analyst Kathy Hipple said in a statement.

GE declined to provide comment to Utility Dive, instead pointing toward previous statements by company leadership. In January, GE CEO Lawrence Culp said the company was “late to embrace the realities of the secular and cyclical pressures” on its power business.

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Wonder how many other companies are going to miss this in the same way.
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Internet shutdown in Sudan • iAfrikan

Nakirfai Tobor:

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According to reports from Sudan’s capital city, the last remaining Internet connections are being cut off. This attempt at a total Internet shutdown is reported to have started on Monday 10 June 2019.

This came at a time when pro-democracy protesting civilians were murdered and raped by Sudan’s military troops during a sit-in protest.

Speaking to The Guardian, a doctor who has access to data compiled by the central committee of doctors in Sudan said hospitals in Khartoum had recorded more than 70 cases of rape in the attack and its immediate aftermath. Another doctor who works at the Royal Care hospital in Khartoum added that they had treated eight victims of rape, of whom five were women and three were men. Many other rape cases had been treated at other hospitals too.

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New military thinking: control the internet, control the story.
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Initial thoughts on iPadOS: a new path forward • MacStories

Federico Viticci:

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not only does iPadOS enable split-screen for the same app, but it also supports an arbitrary number of app windows; in fact, just like on a Mac, you can create as many app windows as you want in iPadOS, and you can even preview them all with Exposé; however, the whole system has been designed around the iPad’s touch interactions with long-tap gestures, drag and drop, Slide Over, and Split View.

The net result of this new multitasking approach is a drastic departure from iOS’ longstanding assumption that an app can only live in one window at a time: it’s going to take a while to get used to the idea that iPad apps can spawn multiple windows, and that the same document or app view can coexist with other app windows across the system in different spaces. At the same time, iPadOS’ multitasking builds upon the Mac’s multiwindow environment and iOS 11’s drag and drop multitasking in a way that feels inevitable – like the best innovations always do.


Multiple Safari windows in iPadOS


Creating a new Notes window in Slide Over by dragging a note to the side of the screen

At a high level, iPadOS multitasking is still largely enabled3 by drag and drop: while iOS 11 allowed you to add apps to Split View or Slide Over by dragging their icons into a space, iPadOS lets you add windows by dragging app views or content around. For instance, Notes lets you pick up an individual note and create a new window off of it by dragging it to the side of the screen; in Messages, conversations can become windows; in Mail, a specific feature of the app (the message composer) can be detached from the main UI and turned into a window.

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This does look fascinating. The first public beta is probably next month.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,089: the spies created by AI, the farm emissions problem, Sudan cuts its internet, iPadOS in view, and more

  1. I’m wondering the same thing about mailchimp as about the US-China tech war: at what point so we graduate from “hampering the enemy” to “having them create their own, separate ecosystem” ?

    Unless mailchimp has some brand recognition as a reputable source (they don’t, they’re just a conduit, as are youtube FB etc…), this is very short-term. YT and FB have network effects on their side; mailchimp doesn’t even have that. Clue crookchimp in 3 2 1…

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