Start Up No.1,091: Google pushes RCS, China’s organ scandal, social media v drugs trials, YouTube v its Kids app, and more


What if they’re watching you all the time? CC-licensed photo by Fred Barr on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Crypto? What’s that? (Let’s decide tomorrow.) I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Google is finally taking charge of the RCS rollout – The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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We’ve been hearing about RCS, the replacement for SMS texting, for over a year now, but actually using the next-generation service has been nearly impossible due to complicated carrier and phone maker politics. But now Google is taking over: later this month, Android users in the UK and France will be able to opt in to RCS Chat services provided directly by Google instead of waiting for their carrier to support it.

That seems like yet another minor status check-in on the service meant to replace SMS, but in fact it’s a huge shift in strategy: as Google rolls this offering out to more countries, it should eventually mean that RCS will become universally available for all Android users.

For the first time in years, Google will directly offer a better default texting experience to Android users instead of waiting for cellphone carriers to do it. It’s not quite the Google equivalent of an iMessage service for Android users, but it’s close. Not knowing when or if RCS Chat would be available for your phone was RCS’s second biggest problem, and Google is fixing it.

RCS’s biggest problem is that messages are still not end-to-end encrypted. iMessage, WhatsApp, and Signal are secured in that way, and even Facebook has said it will make all its apps encrypted by default. Google’s chat solution is increasingly looking out of touch — even immoral.

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Immoral is maybe overplaying it, but the reality is that if you’re communicating with someone you know then you’ll almost certainly be using one of those three services (or perhaps also Telegram). RCS is too late. Google’s never had a sensible comms strategy.
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China is harvesting organs from detainees, tribunal concludes • The Guardian

Owen Bowcott:

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An independent tribunal sitting in London has concluded that the killing of detainees in China for organ transplants is continuing, and victims include imprisoned followers of the Falun Gong movement.

The China Tribunal, chaired by Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who was a prosecutor at the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, said in a unanimous determination at the end of its hearings it was “certain that Falun Gong as a source – probably the principal source – of organs for forced organ harvesting”.

“The conclusion shows that very many people have died indescribably hideous deaths for no reason, that more may suffer in similar ways and that all of us live on a planet where extreme wickedness may be found in the power of those, for the time being, running a country with one of the oldest civilisations known to modern man.”

He added: “There is no evidence of the practice having been stopped and the tribunal is satisfied that it is continuing.”

The tribunal has been taking evidence from medical experts, human rights investigators and others.

Among those killed, it has been alleged, are members of religious minorities such as Falun Gong.

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This $3.2bn industry could turn millions of surveillance cameras into an army of robot security guards • American Civil Liberties Union

Jay Stanley is the ACLU’s senior policy analyst:

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Today we’re publishing a report on a $3.2 billion industry building a technology known as “video analytics,” which is starting to augment surveillance cameras around the world and has the potential to turn them into just that kind of nightmarish army of unblinking watchers.

Using cutting-edge, deep learning-based AI, the science is moving so fast that early versions of this technology are already starting to enter our lives. Some of our cars now come equipped with dashboard cameras that can sound alarms when a driver starts to look drowsy. Doorbell cameras today can alert us when a person appears on our doorstep. Cashier-less stores use AI-enabled cameras that monitor customers and automatically charge them when they pick items off the shelf.

In the report, we looked at where this technology has been deployed, and what capabilities companies are claiming they can offer. We also reviewed scores of papers by computer vision scientists and other researchers to see what kinds of capabilities are being envisioned and developed. What we found is that the capabilities that computer scientists are pursuing, if applied to surveillance and marketing, would create a world of frighteningly perceptive and insightful computer watchers monitoring our lives.

Cameras that collect and store video just in case it is needed are being transformed into devices that can actively watch us, often in real time.

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Social media can threaten medical experiments • The Conversation

David Teira:

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In the 1980s, the test of AZT, the first successful retroviral against AIDS, gave a hint of what could happen when patients coordinate. Many US-based AIDS patients had taken part in the gay rights campaigns of the 1970s. They entered the fight with AIDS as a community and when the AZT trial came up they acted together. Nobody wanted to take the placebo, so patients swapped pills, had them analysed by chemists and dropped out of the experiment if they could not access AZT. They broke the trial protocol in a way that made the US Food and Drug Administration reconsider its testing standards. The trial was also terminated early.

This degree of coordination between patients was until recently the exception. Digital networks might now transform the exception into the rule. Patient communities have grown greatly on the internet, ranging from simple mailing lists or Facebook groups to dedicated websites. PatientsLikeMe is one such digital platform: in 2011-2012 a group of ALS patients taking part in an early clinical trial used its message boards to share their experiences in the test, unblinding the treatment they were receiving and breaking the protocol.

Some also took a homebrew solution designed to mimic the experimental drug during the experiment. Despite that, the original trial and the parallel experiment were completed. Researchers from the platform PatientsLikeMe, however, warned about the risks of taking homebrew compounds and called for a debate on how patients and researchers could work together.

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So it’s not new, just easier.
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How YouTube is trying to fix its Kids app without ruining it • Fast Company

Jared Newman:

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I started to wonder why YouTube Kids doesn’t just put humans in charge of the curation. YouTube’s algorithms have caused a lot of damage in other areas–most notably, by recommending conspiracy theories, political extremism, and even, as the New York Times recently reported, the kind of videos of children that pedophiles might want to watch–but video for kids is arguably the one area where abandoning them makes the most sense. Doing so would eliminate any risk of surfacing inappropriate content, and could allow the app to become a kind of highlight reel for a diverse range of videos from across YouTube proper. (According to Bloomberg, some people inside YouTube even advocated for this approach, unsuccessfully.)

Alicia Blum-Ross, YouTube’s global public policy lead for kids and families, counters that without machine-driven recommendations, YouTube Kids wouldn’t be able to catch all the edge cases that drive people to the app in the first place.

As an example, she once interviewed a Brazilian and Portuguese family living in London, and found that they watched videos in Portuguese on YouTube Kids so the children could learn to speak the same language as their relatives. She also talked to a family that would watch hair braiding videos at the end of the day, which ended up becoming a bonding experience. “Would a whitelisted version have French-braiding hair? How long would your list have to be to think of all those different use cases?” Blum-Ross asks.

In lieu of changing the fundamental way that it operates, YouTube has bolted more layers of parental control onto to YouTube Kids, which is officially the only way that children under 13 are supposed to access the site. (Unlike regular YouTube, the YouTube Kids app doesn’t allow comments or video uploads, doesn’t show interest-based ads, and requires explicit permission from parents to meet federal guidelines on collecting data from children.)

For instance, parents can now set up individual profiles for their kids, each with their own viewing preferences and age ranges. And last year, YouTube Kids added an option to disable search and recommendations entirely…

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Quoting that example about the hair braiding feels like misdirection. It’s hard to argue that YouTube is a boon to kids’ lives overall, so find one example that is and quote the hell out of it.
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Inside Huawei’s secretive plans to develop an operating system to rival Google’s Android • South China Morning Post

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Huawei’s self-developed OS would be able to support a range of products and systems within its ecosystem, including smartphones, computers, tablets, TVs, automobiles and smart wear, which would also be compatible with all Android applications and existing web applications, Yu was quoted as saying in a Securities Times report published on May 21.

“The Huawei OS is likely to hit the market as soon as this fall, and no later than spring next year,” Yu said in a WeChat group discussion. Although the screenshot of the conversation has been widely circulated on Chinese media, Huawei has declined to verify the information.

“I am not able to reveal more information beyond Yu’s remarks,” Zhao Ming, president of Honor, one of Huawei’s two smartphone brands, told reporters in Shanghai last month, when asked for an update on the proprietary OS.

Questions remain though over potential user experience issues and whether overseas customers will actually want a phone without popular Google apps.

Google’s Android and Apple’s proprietary iOS have a stranglehold on smartphone operating systems, accounting for 99.9% of the global market [outside China], according to Gartner estimates last year.

Huawei was confident of its OS prospects in China as it believed developers and local consumers would support and build up the ecosystem quickly, the sources said. Huawei’s sales have continued to rise in the country as the Android system used on the mainland has never carried Google services, to comply with government restrictions.

But Bloomberg reported on June 5 that consumer fear in Europe that Huawei phones would quickly become out of date has meant demand for its devices has “dropped off a cliff” in some markets there, according to analysts.

“It is not the best time to introduce an OS as Huawei would have liked to try it when they have an even bigger market share,” one analyst said. “Domestically it may be OK, but the company remains concerned about the international response.”

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“Chernobyl” miniseries on HBO illuminates deceit of Trump era • The Intercept

Peter Maass:

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The theme of lies — the destruction of truth by a regime devoted to self-preservation — pervades “Chernobyl” in a way that is wildly relevant to America in the age of birtherism, Sarah Sanders, and “very fine people” who are neo-Nazis. The corollary is unmistakable. At one point, an engineer who is partly culpable for the nuclear accident tells an investigator that her search for honesty, and his desire to avoid a firing squad, are futile. “You think the right question will get you the truth?” he says. “There is no truth. Ask the bosses whatever you want. You will get the lie, and I will get the bullet.”

“Chernobyl” can be considered the best political film of our times because it illuminates a core problem of the Trump era: the nonstop jackhammer of falsehoods that are drowning out what’s true. The risk is that Americans who are inundated with moral rubbish from the White House and Fox News may lose the will to care about the difference between right and wrong, echoing what happened in the Soviet Union. When everything becomes gray and sluggish, there is no battle worth fighting.

The craft behind “Chernobyl” is transporting — the dialogue, the visuals, the acting, the music. It excels as a horror movie, action film, political thriller, documentary, and fable. You hardly notice the show’s gutting message up to the finale, which is like a dagger you don’t sense until it pierces your heart and you gasp. But the creator and writer of the show, Craig Mazin, has been, like his central character, explicit in saying what it means. “We are now living in a global war on the truth,” Mazin told the Los Angeles Times. “We look at this president who lies, not little ones but outstandingly absurd lies. The truth isn’t even in the conversation. It’s just forgotten or obscured to the point where we can’t see it. That’s what Chernobyl is about.”

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Trump’s obscuration of the truth through his Twitter feed is, in its way, truly Soviet. Mazin’s very smart.
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UK may get ‘thousands’ of 5G new entrants under proposed shake-up by Ofcom • Light Reading

Iain Morris:

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The future 5G opportunity for UK operators appeared to shrink today after regulatory authority Ofcom announced dramatic plans to sell licenses to “thousands” of 5G new entrants, imitating moves that have already been made in Germany and several other markets.

Under proposals unveiled at today’s 5G World event in London, Ofcom would reserve 390MHz of valuable “mid-band” spectrum between 3.8GHz and 4.2GHz for local coverage and campus use. If the scheme takes off, anyone could apply for a 5G license covering an area of just 50 square meters and develop their own local 5G network.

That could be done in partnership with a mobile network operator, but it could also be through an equipment vendor or startup, said Mansoor Hanif, Ofcom’s chief technology officer, describing the proposals as “revolutionary” during a presentation at today’s event.

“5G is an opportunity for everyone and we’d like to encourage new entrants,” he said. “We want to give low-cost access to local spectrum so that anyone who thinks they need 5G coverage on an industrial campus and feels it isn’t served by MNOs [mobile network operators] fast enough should be able to build their own network.”

The move could provoke a backlash from telcos, which have been fiercely critical of similar plans in Germany after its regulatory authorities decided to reserve 100MHz of “mid-band” spectrum for local, industrial use.

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Lots of fine detail here; Ofcom is proposing low-power spectrum in (small) 10MHz blocks. They’d be very local, probably.
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Huawei CEO says it underestimated impact of US ban, forecasts revenue dip • Reuters

Sijia Jiang:

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Huawei’s international smartphone shipments will drop 40%, Ren said on Monday, without specifying a period. Bloomberg reported on Sunday that the tech giant was preparing for a 40% to 60% decline in international smartphone shipments.

Huawei had reported revenue of 721.2bn yuan ($104.16bn) last year and said a few months ago it expected revenue this year to jump to $125bn. [The forecast now is $100bn.]

“We did not expect they would attack us on so many aspects,” Ren said but added that he expects a revival in the business in 2021.

“We cannot get components supply, cannot participate in many international organizations, cannot work closely with many universities, cannot use anything with U.S. components, and cannot even establish connection with networks that use such components.”

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Also, a little hilariously, Huawei has also delayed the launch of its foldable phone by three months, to some time in September. With Samsung having delayed its foldable launch by a continually unspecified period, there’s a game of reverse chicken going on – who can hold off launching longer?
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Russian hacks on US voting system wider than previously known • Bloomberg

Michael Riley and Jordan Robertson:

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Russia’s cyberattack on the US electoral system before Donald Trump’s election was far more widespread than has been publicly revealed, including incursions into voter databases and software systems in almost twice as many states as previously reported.

In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data. The hackers accessed software designed to be used by poll workers on Election Day, and in at least one state accessed a campaign finance database. Details of the wave of attacks, in the summer and fall of 2016, were provided by three people with direct knowledge of the US investigation into the matter. In all, the Russian hackers hit systems in a total of 39 states, one of them said.

The scope and sophistication so concerned Obama administration officials that they took an unprecedented step – complaining directly to Moscow over a modern-day “red phone.” In October [2016], two of the people said, the White House contacted the Kremlin on the back channel to offer detailed documents of what it said was Russia’s role in election meddling and to warn that the attacks risked setting off a broader conflict.

The new details, buttressed by a classified National Security Agency document recently disclosed by the Intercept, show the scope of alleged hacking that federal investigators are scrutinizing as they look into whether Trump campaign officials may have colluded in the efforts.

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Samsung accidentally makes the case for not owning a smart TV • The Verge

Jon Porter on Samsung’s bizarre tweet suggesting owners of its smart TVs should do a virus scan every few weeks or so:

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There haven’t been any recent security vulnerabilities reported for Samsung’s smart TVs, but back in 2017 WikiLeaks revealed that the CIA had developed a piece of software called “Weeping Angel” that was capable of turning Samsung’s smart TVs into a listening device. Less than a month later a security researcher found 40 zero-day vulnerabilities in Samsung’s smart TV operating system, Tizen. At the time, Samsung released a blog post detailing the security features of its TVs, which includes its ability to detect malicious code on both its platform and application levels.

Virus scans are another reminder of how annoying modern smart TVs can be. Sure, they have pretty much every streaming app under the sun built in, and Samsung’s models can even be used to stream games from a local PC. But they also contain microphones that can be a privacy risk, and are entrusted with credit card details for buying on-demand video content. Even when everything’s working as the manufacturer intended, they can be yet another way of putting ads in front of you, either on your home screen or even in some cases directly into your own video content.

Samsung’s little PSA about scanning for “malware viruses” (eh hem) might be a sound security practice on a Samsung smart TV, but it’s also an excellent reminder for why you might not want to buy one in the first place.

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The microphones are obviously for voice commands. The world is full of microphones.
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Akamai: hackers have carried out 12 billion attacks against gaming sites in 17 months • VentureBeat

Dean Takahashi:

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Hackers have targeted the gaming industry by carrying out 12 billion credential stuffing attacks against gaming websites in the 17 months ended March 2019, according to a new report by internet delivery and cloud services company Akamai.

This puts the gaming community among the fastest rising targets for credential stuffing attacks — where hackers use stolen credentials to take over an account — and one of the most lucrative targets for criminals looking to make a quick profit. During the same time period, Akamai saw a total of 55 billion credential stuffing attacks across all industries…

…“One reason that we believe the gaming industry is an attractive target for hackers is because criminals can easily exchange in-game items for profit,” said Martin McKeay, security researcher at Akamai editorial director of the report, in a statement. “Furthermore, gamers are a niche demographic known for spending money, so their financial status is also a tempting target.”

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“Why rob banks? Because it’s where the money is.” (And also because gaming sites aren’t that hot at making people use two-factor authentication.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

3 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,091: Google pushes RCS, China’s organ scandal, social media v drugs trials, YouTube v its Kids app, and more

  1. I’m not sure RCS is too late.

    I see it as an upgrade to texts, not as a competitor to Skype/whatsapp/messenger/… There are still a whole lot of texts and MMS being sent person to person (probably 30% of all my messaging, a lot more for some people; I have a tab for texting permanently pinned in my desktop browser) and business to person (I still get delivery notifications via text, sometimes with a clickable URL for more info). With people going Mobile-first, I’m even sending more pictures via MMS than I used to.

    I’m assuming that RCS will become as ubiquitous as text/MMS, and that there will be some fallback mechanism (that clickable URL ?) for non-RCS people during the transition period. It’ll at last allow us to send and get rich, nice-looking messages, and maybe to stop having 5 messaging apps laying around and getting barely any use. I can see most people around me being well served by RCS+Duo, the way Apple users are happy with iMessage and Facetime, but multiplatform.

    Apart from the support/ubiquity issue, the one huge flaw of RCS is that it requires a data connection. I’m fairly urbanized and there are plenty of time my data is iffy while texts fly through with no issue. There are still a lot of light-use phones with no data contract around me. I got a nice meal last month out of setting up a cousin with a $150 phone + $0 (free !) 2hr talk/unlimited texts contract when she thought she’d be out a $800 iPhone and a $20/mo contract. She’s got wifi most of the time, but not all the time, so, main caveat, urgent stuff must be sent to her via text (change in grandkids’ pickup…)

    As for encryption… I don’t want texts to be tempered with in transit, and some messaging apps need to be fully secure end to end. I’m OK with the basic app only being encrypted while in transit.

    • France is abuzz with the imminent rollout. They say RCS includes presence detection, and gracefully degrades to text: At sending time, if the recipient isn’t detected on the RCS network, a text is sent instead. That works, mostly, until we really get used to RCS’s HTML- (AMP- ?) like richness. Order confirmations will not degrade very gracefully, but “can you pick up the kids” won’t show any difference.

  2. re Smart TVs: there was a interview a while back of some Vizio honcho saying they put smarts in TVs because it gives them a cut of any purchase. And rises the replacement bill à la iMac because you’ve got to throw away a perfectly good screen to get new smarts (and reciprocally). I’ve yet to see a smart TV with software that’s still updated 4yrs on.
    An Android TV box (say Xiaomi’s $50 Mi Box S), will
    – be updated longer,
    – remain usable even when no longer updated
    – run content apps form all content providers (except Apple)
    – run games (w/ your usual gamepads)
    – run other apps in a pinch (kb/mouse/trackpad support FTW)

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