Start Up No.1,128: Instagram discovers data scrapers, Apple testing for dementia, MoviePass’s wild schemes, loot box data to be opened, and more

Good-ish news: there may be plenty more helium on Earth than we thought. CC-licensed photo by Daniel Parks on Flickr.

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

Startup HYP3R saved Instagram users’ stories and tracked locations • Business Insider

Rob Price:


A combination of configuration errors and lax oversight by Instagram allowed one of the social network’s vetted advertising partners to misappropriate vast amounts of public user data and create detailed records of users’ physical whereabouts, personal bios, and photos that were intended to vanish after 24 hours.

The profiles, which were scraped and stitched together by the San Francisco-based marketing firm HYP3R, were a clear violation of Instagram’s rules. But it all occurred under Instagram’s nose for the past year by a firm that Instagram had blessed as one of its “preferred marketing partners.”

On Wednesday, Instagram sent HYP3R a cease-and-desist letter after being presented with Business Insider’s findings and confirmed that the startup broke its rules.

“HYP3R’s actions were not sanctioned and violate our policies. As a result, we’ve removed them from our platform. We’ve also made a product change that should help prevent other companies from scraping public location pages in this way,” a spokesperson said in a statement.

The existence of the profiles is a stark indication that more than a year after revelations that Facebook users’ data was exploited by Cambridge Analytica to fuel divisive political ad campaigns, Facebook’s struggles in locking down users’ personal information not only persist but also extend beyond the core Facebook app…

…The total volume of Instagram data HYP3R has obtained is not clear, though the firm has publicly claimed to have “a unique dataset of hundreds of millions of the highest value consumers in the world,” and sources say more than of 90% of its data came from Instagram. It ingests in excess of 1 million Instagram posts a month, sources say.


Will the US get sensible gun laws before it gets sensible data laws, or vice-versa?

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Apple, Eli Lilly studying if iPhones, Apple Watches can spot dementia • CNBC

Christina Farr and Kif Leswing:


Apple has been adding health features to its iPhone and smartwatch, and is now working with Eli Lilly to see if data from the devices can help spot early signs of dementia.

According to research published this week, the two companies teamed up with health-tech start-up Evidation to find ways to more quickly and precisely detect cognitive impairments like Alzheimer’s disease with the help of popular consumer gadgets.

The study, which will be discussed on Thursday at a conference in Alaska, is the first to publicly link Apple and Eli Lilly. Of the 15 authors of the paper, five work for each company with the other five representing Evidation. It’s the latest sign that Apple’s health team is investing in deep medical research with traditional pharmaceutical players.


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South Wales police to use facial recognition apps on phones • The Guardian

Ian Sample:


Liberty, the campaign group, called the announcement “chilling”, adding that it was “shameful” that South Wales police had chosen to press ahead with handheld facial recognition systems even as it faced a court challenge over the technology.

In May, Liberty brought a legal case against the force for its recent use of automated facial recognition on city streets, at music festivals, and at football and rugby matches.

South Wales police said the technology would secure quicker arrests and enable officers to resolve cases of mistaken identity without the need for a trip to a station or custody suite. The officers testing the app would be under “careful supervision”, it said in a statement.

“This new app means that, with a single photo, officers can easily and quickly answer the question of ‘are you really the person we are looking for?’,” said deputy chief constable Richard Lewis. “When dealing with a person of interest during their patrols in our communities officers will be able to access instant, actionable data, allowing to them to identify whether the person stopped is, or is not, the person they need to speak to, without having to return to a police station.”


There is next to zero information about which company built this app, what its accuracy is, and a whole lot more. Is it basically an identikit system on a phone?
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White House drafting executive order to tackle Silicon Valley’s alleged anti-conservative bias • POLITICO

Margaret Harding Mcgill and Daniel Lippman:


Accusations of anti-conservative bias have become a frequent rallying cry for Trump and his supporters, seizing on incidents in which tech platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube have banned people like InfoWars founder and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones or faced accusations of squelching posts by pro-Trump social media personalities Diamond and Silk.

The companies have denied the allegations of bias, though they say they have blocked or removed users who violate community standards policies. They have also faced complaints from liberal activists that they’re too slow to remove hate speech, a category that some say includes Trump’s own tweets.

The issue took center stage during a White House gathering in July in which Trump railed against censorship in front of a roomful of online conservative activists, and directed his administration to explore all “regulatory and legislative solutions to protect free speech and the free-speech rights of all Americans.” Just this week, Trump warned that he is “watching Google very closely,” citing the case of an engineer who has claimed the company fired him for his conservative views.


Impossible to see how this is compatible with the First Amendment, which precludes the US government from limiting speech, which is very widely defined. The White House is full of infants and moody teenagers.
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We may not be running out of helium after all • New Atlas

David Szondy:


Most helium on Earth is helium-4 (4He), which is produced by radioactive decay deep inside the planet. Over hundreds of millions of years, it migrates up to the crust, where it is released during periods of tectonic activity. By comparing the ratios of 4He with neon-20 (20Ne) in the helium-rich Hugoton-Panhandle gas field running through Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, the team found that released helium dissolves in groundwater, which transports it to natural gas deposits. According to Danabalan, This mechanism indicates that much more helium is waiting to be tapped than previously thought.

“We identified neon isotope tracers which show a strong association between helium and groundwater,” says Danabalan. “This means that in certain geological regions, groundwater transports large volumes of helium into natural gas fields, where trapping potential is greatest. This suggests that we have probably underestimated the volumes of helium which are actually available to explore.


*high voice* Hooray!
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MoviePass worked out great • Bloomberg

Matt Levine on the Business Insider story about the flameout that was MoviePass:


under founder Stacy Spikes, MoviePass charged $50 a month for its service, but couldn’t get enough subscribers to break even. Then it was acquired by Helios & Matheson Analytics, whose chief executive officer, Ted Farnsworth, came up with the idea of charging much less:


Why Farnsworth settled on $10 is unclear. Several people told me he wanted a price that would grab headlines. …

But in July 2017, the MoviePass board agreed to the deal. And on August 15, the price drop went into effect. Thanks to word-of-mouth buzz and press attention, within two days subscriptions jumped from about 20,000 to 100,000. MoviePass had transformed from a scrappy startup trying to keep the lights on to a disrupter in the making.


What an amazing sentence. It went from being “a scrappy startup trying to keep the lights on” (bad) to a buzzy “disrupter in the making” (good) by giving up on trying to keep the lights on. The trick is not to make enough money to cover your costs; it’s to stop trying. Losing a lot of money is better than losing a little money; it has more panache, attracts more attention, certainly gives you that attractive hockey-stick user growth. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure three hundred million pounds, result unicorn.


But there was even more associated madness, first involving the cards you’d wave to demonstrate you were a MoviePass subscriber, and then – oh my – the method used to restrict high-volume users from using the service:


Per [new CEO Mitch] Lowe’s orders, MoviePass began limiting subscriber access ahead of the April release of the highly anticipated “Avengers: Infinity War,” according to multiple former employees. They said Lowe ordered that the passwords of a small percentage of power users be changed, preventing them from logging onto the app and ordering tickets.


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The Trump administration is suppressing climate science • Columbia Journalism Review

Jon Allsop:


On Friday, Lewis Ziska, a climate scientist who specializes in plant physiology, left his job at the US Department of Agriculture after more than 20 years. On Monday, Helena Bottemiller Evich, a food and agriculture reporter at Politico, explained why. Ziska had worked on a groundbreaking study that found rising atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide are causing rice to lose nutrients—a potential disaster for the 600 million people worldwide who rely on rice as a staple. Science Advances, the journal that published the study, expected that it would attract widespread interest, and advised its authors to prepare resources for the media. The Department of Agriculture refused. Officials spiked a press release promoting Ziska’s work, and asked the University of Washington, a collaborator on the paper, not to promote it either. CNN requested an interview with Ziska. Agriculture’s press office said no. That was a first, Ziska said…

…Nor is Ziska the only government official to lose his job over this administration’s climate stance. In 2017, Joel Clement, who was studying the impact of climate change on Alaska at the Interior Department, was reassigned to an accounting job collecting royalties from oil and gas companies; he spoke out, then resigned. In February, Maria Caffrey, who was modelling sea level and storm surge projections for the National Park Service, was effectively forced out after refusing to let officials excise references to man-made climate change from her report. Just last week, Rod Schoonover wrote, in a New York Times op-ed, that he decided to quit his job at the State Department after his bosses blocked written testimony from his office to the House Intelligence Committee on the national-security implications of the climate crisis. “I believe such acts weaken our nation,” Schoonover said.

The Trump White House is an informational water cannon; the endless noise of the president’s tweets and rallies disorients reporters, leads our coverage, and—all too often—distracts attention from the stories officials don’t want us to cover. As Evich notes, agency intransigence “means research from scores of government scientists receives less public attention” than it should; “Climate-related studies are still being published without fanfare in scientific journals, but they can be very difficult to find.” We need to work harder to find them, and to noisily promote them where the government will not. Let’s not be complicit in the state’s suppression of science.


I truly think people should completely ignore Trump, and focus instead on everything that those below him do. Trump is a infant; it’s the enabling behaviour of the adults around and below him which needs examination.
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Panono makes decision to hold its camera customers hostage behind a paywall • DIY Photography

John Aldred:


Panono launched on Indiegogo way back in 2013. It’s a “Panoramic Ball Camera” offering 360° views with a whopping 108 megapixels. Even today, that’s mighty impressive. You need to utilise their cloud service for processing the images, which was included in the purchase price of the camera. Now, they’ve decided to start charging for it.

The campaign raised over $1.25m with a goal of $900,000, and even had the support of former Leica CEO, Ralf Coenen…

Bringing things to the current day, an email was sent out to Panono users stating that the previously free service was, from September 1st, 2019, going to cost €0.79 per image to process and stitch using their cloud platform…

With less than a month’s notice, the service on which this camera relies is going behind a paywall. This wouldn’t be so much of a problem, except for the fact that you can only stitch images from this camera on their cloud-based system. There is no offline software to do it yourself under your own processing power, and the files created by the Panono camera are not compatible with other stitching software on the market.

Many other users on Twitter say that they have attempted to reach out to Panono on the platform as well as via email. Panono has not posted to their own Twitter account since last November.

One might argue that these people have gotten a good few years of use out of their cameras and it’s time to upgrade, however, today, even the mighty Insta360 Titan sits at only 55-megapixels at maximum resolution, which is half that of the Panono. And the Titan costs $15K. While the Titan is an excellent camera, it’s a very different kind of camera. So, there isn’t really anything else on the market today to upgrade to.


Looks like some people have a 108-megapixel doorstop.
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Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo team up to force loot box odds disclosures • Ars Technica

Kyle Orland:


The announcement came during an FTC panel on loot boxes taking place in Washington, DC today. Entertainment Software Association Chief Counsel Michael Warnecke said that the three major console makers “have indicated to ESA a commitment to new platform policies with respect to the use of paid loot boxes in games that are developed for their platforms.”

“Specifically, this would apply to new games and game updates that add loot box features,” Warnecke continued. “And it would require the disclosure of the relative rarity or probabilities of obtaining randomized virtual items on their platforms.” In a press release, the ESA said the console makers “are targeting 2020 for the implementation of the policy.”

In addition to the console makers, Warnecke said that “many of the leading video game publishers of the ESA” will also be voluntarily disclosing such odds for their own games.

In a press release, the ESA says “Activision Blizzard, Bandai Namco Entertainment, Bethesda, Bungie, Electronic Arts… Take-Two Interactive, Ubisoft, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, and Wizards of the Coast” are among the major publishers that will start disclosing loot box odds “by the end of 2020.” The release also says that “many other ESA members are considering a disclosure.”


It’s an improvement, but it’s still gambling, aimed at children. At least the FTC agenda did include one person from the US National Council on Problem Gambling – but easily outnumbered by those from the games industry.
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DeepMind’s latest AI health breakthrough has some problems • OneZero

Julia Powles:


In one paper, published in the journal Nature, with co-authors from Veterans Affairs and University College London, DeepMind claimed its biggest healthcare breakthrough to date: that artificial intelligence (AI) can predict acute kidney injury (AKI) up to two days before it happens.

AKI — which occurs when the kidneys suddenly stop functioning, leading to a dangerous buildup of toxins in the bloodstream — is alarmingly common among hospital patients in serious care, and contributes to hundreds of thousands of deaths in the United States each year. DeepMind’s bet is that if it can successfully predict which patients are likely to develop AKI well in advance, then doctors could stop or reverse its progression much more easily, saving lives along the way.

Beyond the headlines and the hope in the DeepMind papers, however, are three sobering facts.

First, nothing has actually been predicted–and certainly not before it happens. Rather, what has happened is that DeepMind has taken a windfall dataset of historic incidents of kidney injury in American veterans, plus around 9,000 data-points for each person in the set, and has used a neural network to figure out a pattern between the two.

Second, that predictive pattern only works some of the time. The accuracy rate is 55.8% overall, with a much lower rate the earlier the prediction is made, and the system generates two false positives for every accurate prediction.

Third, and most strikingly of all: the study was conducted almost exclusively on men–or rather, a dataset of veterans that is 93.6% male.


Turns out there are plenty of other anomalies about the data: armed forces veterans are far less likely to have AKI than the general population. But Powles (who has critiqued other DeepMind work) is only just getting started. The rest of the article is a very thorough look at what the papers aren’t telling you.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1,128: Instagram discovers data scrapers, Apple testing for dementia, MoviePass’s wild schemes, loot box data to be opened, and more

  1. I know we’re covering iPhone launch date rumors but not actual major Android handset launches here, but I thought I’d try to rebalance things a bit. So the Galaxy Note 10 launched yesterday.

    – very small pinhole selfie camera. Not evidently superior to a teardrop notch, but distinctive – you want bystanders to know you spent all that money. Generally nice look and feel.
    – 1st-party DeX for remoting into your phone from your Windows or Mac PC, on top of the basic stuff (notifications, calls, file transfer). That’ll come in handy, I find myself preferring to do ever more stuff on my phone, that way I won’t even have to pick it up, and I can de-dupe apps that I currently have on both phone and PC (they’re usually vastly inferior on the PC).
    – no more audio jack, and SD only on the bigger model. I’m curious how that will work for them. I’m currently hosting my 13yo nephew, he has no clue how to store music locally, and he streams the same few songs constantly. Today’s youth… Vapor chamber cooling to help sustained gaming performance, a real though not talked about issue.
    – ever more powerful and versatile pen. I never managed to find a use for it on a large tablet let alone a… less large… phone, but as a presentation or camera remote now, maybe some will.
    – overall format is disappointing. The large model has a 2.90″ wide screen, barely bigger than the original Note’s 2.70″, and that original one had flat sides, not space-wasting rounded ones. I don’t know what people are using the extra screen length for, I want wider screens for reading, videos, maps, office, games… My preferred format is 16:10, which incidentally is the Golden Ratio if designers need a fake-noble reason to make the right functional choice.

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