Start Up No.1,102: Europe’s heatwave is climate-driven, will Loon balloon?, 4shared shares too much, Facebook and YouTube battle cancer junk, and more


What if Superhuman isn’t such a nice product when it comes to everyone else’s email? CC-licensed photo by elycefeliz on Flickr.

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

Google internet balloon spinoff Loon still looking for its wings • Reuters

Paresh Dave:

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Google’s bet on balloons to deliver cell service soon faces a crucial test amid doubts about the viability of the technology by some potential customers.

The company behind the effort, Loon says its balloons will reach Kenya in the coming weeks for its first commercial trial. The test with Telkom Kenya, the nation’s No. 3 carrier, will let mountain villagers buy 4G service at market-rate prices for an undefined period. Kenya’s aviation authority said its final approval would be signed this month.

Hatched in 2011, Loon aims to bring connectivity to remote parts of the world by floating solar-powered networking gear over areas where cell towers would be too expensive to build.

Its tennis-court-sized helium balloons have demonstrated utility. Over the last three years, Loon successfully let wireless carriers in Peru and Puerto Rico use balloons for free to supplant cell phone towers downed by natural disasters.

Kenyan officials are enthusiastic as they try to bring more citizens online.

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Loon is still going? Perhaps the last remaining bonkers moonshot thing around.
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File-storage app 4shared caught serving invisible ads and making purchases without consent • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

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With more than 100 million installs, file-sharing service 4shared is one of the most popular apps in the Android app store.

But security researchers say the app is secretly displaying invisible ads and subscribes users to paid services, racking up charges without the user’s knowledge — or their permission — collectively costing millions of dollars.

“It all happens in the background… nothing appears on the screen,” said Guy Krief, chief executive of London-based Upstream, which shared its research exclusively with TechCrunch.

The researchers say the app contains suspicious third-party code that allowed the app to automate clicks and make fraudulent purchases. They said the component, built by Hong Kong-based Elephant Data, downloads code which is “directly responsible” for generating the automated clicks without the user’s knowledge. The code also sets a cookie to determine if a device has previously been used to make a purchase, likely as a way to hide the activity.

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Rapid results in on climate change and the European heat wave • Ars Technica

Scott Johnson:

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A team of climate scientists with an established method of rapidly analyzing extreme weather events like this has already taken a look at this heat wave. (The study has yet to be peer-reviewed but follows a protocol which has.) The team’s results give a good idea of the role of climate change in this heat wave.

The first question is how to define this weather event. The scientists decided to go with a human-health-relevant definition of the three-day mean temperature rather than a single daily high. They focused on June temperatures for the whole of France, as well as performing a local-scale analysis for just the city of Toulouse—where much of the team coincidentally happened to be attending a conference on weather extremes at the time.

The analyses look at both changes in past weather data and a host of climate-model simulations. In this case, the data shows a very large increase in heatwaves since the start of the 20th century. Based on the most recent data, this heat wave looks like it is approximately a 30-year event (meaning it has a probability of about 1 in 30 of occurring in a given year).

Around 1900, however, this would have been a much rarer event. The difference means it’s now roughly 100 times more likely to happen in our current, warmer climate. Put another way, the current 30-year heat wave event is a whopping 4°C or so hotter than what would have been a 30-year heat wave at the start of last century. These numbers came out pretty much the same for Toulouse and for France as a whole.

«

Putting more heat into the atmosphere is like putting your chips onto more numbers when you spin the roulette wheel. Your number’s more likely to come up. Not in a good way, though.
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Facebook, YouTube overrun with bogus cancer-treatment claims • WSJ

Daniela Hernandez and Robert McMillan:

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Now, the companies say they are taking steps to curb such accounts. Facebook last month changed its News Feed algorithms to reduce promotion of posts promising miracle cures or flogging health services, a move that will reduce the number of times they pop up in user feeds, the company says. Some of the affected posts involve a supplement salesman who promotes baking-soda injections as part of cancer treatment.

“Misleading health content is particularly bad for our community,” Facebook said in a blog post announcing the moves.

Alphabet Inc.’s YouTube has been cutting off advertising for bogus cancer-treatment channels, a spokesman said. It is working with medical doctors to identify content promoting unproven claims and medical conspiracy theories and has tweaked its algorithms to reduce the number of times these dubious videos are presented to users.

Facebook and YouTube detailed their recent actions on cancer-related content after the Journal presented them with its findings. Widespread misinformation sometimes appeared alongside ads, videos or pages for proven treatments, the Journal found.

«

Once again, news organisations have to function as the moderator for these networks. It repeats and repeats and repeats.
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Apple to launch tailored iPhone for China: report • Global Times

Huang Ge:

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Apple Inc will launch a new iPhone tailored for Chinese consumers, media reports said on Monday, a move that industry insiders said showed the US technology giant’s urgency to arrest a sales decline in the domestic market due to mounting cost pressure from the China-US trade war.

The new phone will reportedly remove Face ID, the facial recognition system for the iPhone, and instead employ an under-display fingerprint function, news site caijing.com.cn reported, citing sources on the upstream industry supply chain. An industry insider revealed that this is likely to “save on costs.” 

A structured light laser emitter, the major component of Face ID, would cost several hundred yuan, said a Beijing-based representative who preferred to be anonymous. He told the Global Times on Monday that “only Apple can afford it but that would also affect its sales.”

Apple declined to comment when reached by the Global Times on Monday.

Apple has lost many Chinese users who prefer smartphones priced at around 5,000 yuan ($731), indicated by an increase in purchases of local brands including Huawei, OPPO and Vivo.

Huawei shipped the largest number of phones in the Chinese market with a 34% share in the first quarter, followed by Vivo with 19%, OPPO with 18%, Xiaomi with 12% and Apple with 9%, showed data from the global industry consultancy Counterpoint Research. 

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First time I’ve heard this rumour. It would be a break from using FaceID, but the price difference might be attractive for Apple and for users. And under-screen fingerprint readers are popular in China.
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Superhuman is Spying on You » Mike Industries

Mike Davidson has been using Superhuman – you know, the $30 per month email service that does it all for you – for a while:

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when I see great design, I proactively try to spread it as far and wide as possible.

What I see in Superhuman though is a company that has mistaken taking advantage of people for good design. They’ve identified a feature that provides value to some of their customers (i.e. seeing if someone has opened your email yet) and they’ve trampled the privacy of every single person they send email to in order to achieve that. Superhuman never asks the person on the other end if they are OK with sending a read receipt (complete with timestamp and geolocation). Superhuman never offers a way to opt out. Just as troublingly, Superhuman teaches its user to surveil by default. I imagine many users sign up for this, see the feature, and say to themselves “Cool! Read receipts! I guess that’s one of the things my $30 a month buys me.”

When products are introduced into the market with behaviors like this, customers are trained to think they are not just legal but also ethical. They don’t always take the next step and ask themselves “wait, should I be doing this?” It’s kind of like if you walked by someone’s window at night and saw them naked. You could do one of two things: a) look away and get out of there, realizing you saw something that person wouldn’t want you to see, or b) keep staring, because if they really didn’t want anyone to see them, they should have closed their blinds. It’s two ways of looking at the world, and Superhuman is not just allowing for option B but actively causing it to happen.

«

Tracking pixels like that aren’t unique to Superhuman; PR companies use them all the time, and others too. But that’s different, as Davidson explains. He deals with peoples’ responses in his blogpost (including one from an investor in Superhuman), and its legal boilerplate. In short: Superhuman has been milkshake ducked.
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Chinese border guards put secret surveillance app on tourists’ phones • The Guardian

Hilary Osborne:

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The Chinese government has curbed freedoms in the province for the local Muslim population, installing facial recognition cameras on streets and in mosques and reportedly forcing residents to download software that searches their phones.

An investigation by the Guardian and international partners has found that travellers are being targeted when they attempt to enter the region from neighbouring Kyrgyzstan.

Border guards are taking their phones and secretly installing an app that extracts emails, texts and contacts, as well as information about the handset itself.

Tourists say they have not been warned by authorities in advance or told about what the software is looking for, or that their information is being taken.

The investigation, with partners including Süddeutsche Zeitung and the New York Times, has found that people using the remote Irkeshtam border crossing into the country are routinely having their phones screened by guards.

Edin Omanović, of the campaign group Privacy International, described the findings as “highly alarming in a country where downloading the wrong app or news article could land you in a detention camp”.

Analysis by the Guardian, academics and cybersecurity experts suggests the app, designed by a Chinese company, searches Android phones against a huge list of content that the authorities view as problematic.

«

For iPhones, they’re plugged into a reader which scans them. On Android, the app is removed before the phone is given back – but not always. A pervasive connected device means pervasive surveillance.
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China silences podcast and music apps as online crackdown widens • TechCrunch

Rita Liao:

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Audio apps are flying high in China. In 2018, online listeners in the country grew 22.1% to surpass 400 million, at a rate far exceeding that of the mobile video and e-reading populations, according to market researcher iiMedia.

But the fledgling sector is taking a hit. On Friday, a total of 26 audio-focused apps were ordered to terminate, suspend services, or have talks with regulators as they were investigated and deemed to have spread “historical nihilism” and “pornography,” according to a notice posted by the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC).

The clampdown has, in a way, been foreshadowed by a recent attack of user-generated audio content. Last month, Apple restricted Chinese users from accessing podcasts that aren’t hosted by its local partners, effectively preventing those with a Chinese Apple account from consuming content unchecked by Chinese censors.

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Easy to forget this is happening all the time too.
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Endless AI-generated spam risks clogging up Google’s search results • The Verge

James Vincent:

»

Just take a look at this blog post answering the question: “What Photo Filters are Best for Instagram Marketing?” At first glance it seems legitimate, with a bland introduction followed by quotes from various marketing types. But read a little more closely and you realize it references magazines, people, and — crucially — Instagram filters that don’t exist:

»

You might not think that a mumford brush would be a good filter for an Insta story. Not so, said Amy Freeborn, the director of communications at National Recording Technician magazine. Freeborn’s picks include Finder (a blue stripe that makes her account look like an older block of pixels), Plus and Cartwheel (which she says makes your picture look like a topographical map of a town.

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The rest of the site is full of similar posts, covering topics like “How to Write Clickbait Headlines” and “Why is Content Strategy Important?” But every post is AI-generated, right down to the authors’ profile pictures. It’s all the creation of content marketing agency Fractl, who says it’s a demonstration of the “massive implications” AI text generation has for the business of search engine optimization, or SEO.

“Because [AI systems] enable content creation at essentially unlimited scale, and content that humans and search engines alike will have difficulty discerning […] we feel it is an incredibly important topic with far too little discussion currently,” Fractl partner Kristin Tynski tells The Verge.

To write the blog posts, Fractl used an open source tool named Grover, made by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. Tynski says the company is not using AI to generate posts for clients, but that this doesn’t mean others won’t.

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I’m only slightly surprised nobody has realised this earlier. (Of course the AI-generated blogpost has an AI-generated author pic.) Google must be having meetings about how to tackle it, because it’s surely only a few months away. Philip K Dick’s world of computer-written newspapers feels very close.
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We’re closing the upload beta program. Here’s what artists need to know • Spotify

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Almost a year ago, we started to beta test a feature that lets independent artists upload their music directly to Spotify. Today, we notified participating artists about our decision to close the beta program, along with how we can help them migrate their music to other distributors over the next month.

The insights and feedback we received from artists in the beta led us to believe:

The most impactful way we can improve the experience of delivering music to Spotify for as many artists and labels as possible is to lean into the great work our distribution partners are already doing to serve the artist community. Over the past year, we’ve vastly improved our work with distribution partners to ensure metadata quality, protect artists from infringement, provide their users with instant access to Spotify for Artists, and more.

The best way for us to serve artists and labels is to focus our resources on developing tools in areas where Spotify can uniquely benefit them — like Spotify for Artists (which more than 300,000 creators use to gain new insight into their audience) and our playlist submission tool (which more than 36,000 artists have used to get playlisted for the very first time since it launched a year ago). We have a lot more planned here in the coming months.

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Two possible reasons why: 1) it was being used to scam Spotify through songs of minimal length which were then farmed out to bots to “listen” to, thus earning scammers money; 2) record labels didn’t like the idea of being cut out of their normal business. Preventing 1) while trying to make the people in 2) happy probably made Spotify decide that junking it altogether was simpler.

Side note: the URL for this blogpost is the first I recall encountering with an apostrophe. (Take a look.) They’re pretty uncommon in English-language (and for all I know all ASCII) sites.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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4 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,102: Europe’s heatwave is climate-driven, will Loon balloon?, 4shared shares too much, Facebook and YouTube battle cancer junk, and more

  1. Re apostrophes in URLs – I used to have a lot of them on my site, caused by URLs auto-generated by the headlines on posts. These days WordPress automatically strips out such special characters when auto-generating the URL but, if I recall correctly, older versions didn’t.

  2. Interesting but partial insight into Premium Android purchase intent in India: https://www.counterpointresearch.com/majority-potential-premium-smartphone-buyers-india-planning-replacement-next-12-months/

    You’d think Premium customers would hang on to their phones longer because they’re better, more durable, more expensive. But no. I’d guess the driver is social. That’s what I see in France too, especially with the younger market. Phones are handbags.

    The weird thing is the mix of very down-to earth (dust !) and fashion-y (in-screen/photo ID… what functional difference does it make compared to back ?) desired features. Also, I’m not sure the list was exhaustive (battery ? storage ? audio jack ? SD slot ? FM radio ? VR ? Selfie ? … not desired, or not asked about ? ). I’d be interested in a non-leading, open question about that before the closed list.

  3. I really enjoyed that Android Q deep dive: https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2019/07/android-qa-android-engineers-take-us-on-a-deep-dive-of-android-q/

    Key takeaways:
    – Google is doing a crazy amount of work trying to un-paint themselves from the seminal Android 1.0 corner (Linux dependencies, OEM dependencies, drivers dependencies). So after Apps and Google API/Services and drivers, we’re now getting “APEX” updates to parts of the OS directly from Google too, distributed via the PlayStore conduit but not listed/handled/packaged as regular apps.
    – this seems to cover a good chunk of what regularly needs fixing/updating, certainly more than 50%
    – this limits fragmentation too, since any code that’s in that scheme is identical across OEMs. They even own up to aiming for ecosystem-wide bugs instead of OEM/Device/Version-spécific bugs ;-p
    – Interestingly the one OEM name they dropped is OnePlus. Someone’s getting brownie points for not skinning AOSP and not being Andy Rubin.
    – As usual it’s a bit of a mess: phones updated to Q won’t be the same as phones that launch with Q, and OEMs can still mess with APEX via “extensions”. Dang ! Apple has it so easy ;^p
    – Some stuff blows the mind: There’s a choice of 5 Linux kernel versions for Q, non-consecutive. Google must makes those extra-LTS (6 years) versions, if Qualcomm et al. are OK with it. And Android versions must still be compatible with other, older, Linux kernels, so 7.0 phones (probably on Linux 3.x ?) can get the 9.0 update… I’m getting a headache just describing the issue. So now Google is working on a generic Linux kernel… which… somehow, will help. Fuchsia, guys ?

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