Start Up No.1,131: how YouTube corrupted Brazil’s politics, Tumblr sold!, ransomware for cameras, why not become a cartoon?, and more


Physical helms: the way forward for US destroyers, after a fatal accident with touchscreens. CC-licensed photo by Official U.S. Navy Page on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Fair warning: after this week, The Overspill will go on a two-week break and return on September 2nd. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How YouTube radicalized Brazil • The New York Times

Max Fisher and Amanda Taub:

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Members of the nation’s newly empowered far right — from grass-roots organizers to federal lawmakers — say their movement would not have risen so far, so fast, without YouTube’s recommendation engine.

New research has found they may be correct. YouTube’s search and recommendation system appears to have systematically diverted users to far-right and conspiracy channels in Brazil.

A New York Times investigation in Brazil found that, time and again, videos promoted by the site have upended central elements of daily life.

Teachers describe classrooms made unruly by students who quote from YouTube conspiracy videos or who, encouraged by right-wing YouTube stars, secretly record their instructors.

Some parents look to “Dr. YouTube” for health advice but get dangerous misinformation instead, hampering the nation’s efforts to fight diseases like Zika. Viral videos have incited death threats against public health advocates.

And in politics, a wave of right-wing YouTube stars ran for office alongside [President] Bolsonaro, some winning by historic margins. Most still use the platform, governing the world’s fourth-largest democracy through internet-honed trolling and provocation.

YouTube’s recommendation system is engineered to maximize watchtime, among other factors, the company says, but not to favor any political ideology. The system suggests what to watch next, often playing the videos automatically, in a never-ending quest to keep us glued to our screens.

But the emotions that draw people in — like fear, doubt and anger — are often central features of conspiracy theories, and in particular, experts say, of right-wing extremism.

As the system suggests more provocative videos to keep users watching, it can direct them toward extreme content they might otherwise never find. And it is designed to lead users to new topics to pique new interest — a boon for channels like Mr. Moura’s that use pop culture as a gateway to far-right ideas.

The system now drives 70% of total time on the platform, the company says. As viewership skyrockets globally, YouTube is bringing in over $1bn a month, some analysts believe.

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Verizon to sell Tumblr to WordPress owner • WSJ

Sarah Krouse:

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Verizon Communications has agreed to sell its blogging website Tumblr to the owner of popular online-publishing tool WordPress, unloading for a nominal amount a site that once fetched a purchase price of more than $1bn.

Automattic Inc. will buy Tumblr for an undisclosed sum and take on about 200 staffers, the companies said. Tumblr is a free service that hosts millions of blogs where users can upload photos, music and art, but it has been dwarfed by Facebook , Reddit and other services.

Verizon became Tumblr’s owner through the carrier’s 2017 acquisition of Yahoo as part of a bid to build a digital media and advertising business. The wireless carrier began seeking a buyer for Tumblr earlier this year, The Wall Street Journal reported…

…A decision last year by Verizon to ban adult content on Tumblr alienated some users.

[Automattic CEO Matt] Mullenweg said his company intends to maintain the existing policy that bans adult content. He said he has long been a Tumblr user and sees the site as complementary to WordPress.com. “It’s just fun,” he said of Tumblr. “We’re not going to change any of that.”

Tumblr has a strong mobile interface and dashboard where users follow other blogs, he said. Executives will look for ways WordPress.com and Tumblr can share services and functionality.

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So not Pornhub then. Guess that keeps their brand. But Tumblr was never truly worth $1bn (nor $750m, as Yahoo ludicrously “wrote it down” to). Perhaps $200m? Sources say it went for “well south of $20m” this time.
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New York Times still detects Chrome Incognito Mode after fix • 9to5Google

Kyle Bradshaw:

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With the release of Chrome 76, Google attempted to put a stop to web developers and publishers detecting people using Chrome’s Incognito Mode. Unfortunately, it seems their efforts may be all for naught, as at least one major news outlet, The New York Times, has managed to put their hard paywall back up for those using Chrome Incognito.

We’ve been tracking Google’s effort to block Incognito Mode detection since February when we discovered a document laying out the Chrome development team’s intentions. Since then, Google rolled out the functionality to all devices with the release of Chrome 76.

Of course, since then multiple security researchers have discovered at least two new ways of detecting Incognito Mode, which can just as easily be copied to almost any website. Google knew this was inevitable, which is why they publicly explained their desire for user privacy and urged sites to consider not circumventing this Incognito Mode protection method.

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Google’s explanation was “Our News teams support sites with meter strategies and recognize the goal of reducing meter circumvention, however any approach based on private browsing detection undermines the principles of Incognito Mode. We remain open to exploring solutions that are consistent with user trust and private browsing principles.”

Nice, but the News team and its “exploring solutions” isn’t actually paying the bills at the NYT and elsewhere. The paywall is.
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The Rule of 140 • The Margins

Ranjan Roy:

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I think I search these things for affirmation, but I always find confirmation that others are thinking the same thing. It happens so often, I’ve dubbed it the Rule of 140 (as an homage to Rule 34, along with the original Twitter character count):

“There are no original thoughts around a shared cultural experience (political, entertainment, sports, news). Every idea or observations that passes through your head has not only been thought of by a number of other people, it’s also been posted on social media. The hive mind is always one step ahead.”

…If you believe in the The Rule of 140 as I do, it means you can find any thought related to any event posted by someone, on some social media platform. I tend to view things in economic terms, and embedding tweets or social media comments is an arbitrage opportunity to exploit.

A publisher can make any argument, and corroborate it with a few simple embedded tweets and a headline that includes “people are saying”. The cost of production is so low, you can create a high volume of articles like this and something is bound to catch fire. Throw on a few Taboola modules and you’re in business. It captures every distorted economic incentive that plagues the current media ecosystem. It’s the proverbial free money.

It would be one thing if it were simply relegated to the confines of Yahoo Movies and CNN’s Entertainment section. But it’s widespread and in major media outlets. And of significantly greater consequence, it’s an area that is a prime target for disinformation campaigns, specifically of the Russian variety. Almost every major media outlet was found to have published articles that used tweets from Russian disinformation accounts.

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Be wonderful if publishers didn’t do this. So wonderful. Unfortunately…
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Even DSLR cameras are vulnerable to ransomware • Engadget

Steve Dent:

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researchers have discovered that some DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are actually vulnerable to ransomware attacks, of all things. Once in range of your camera’s WiFi, a bad actor could easily install malware that would encrypt your valuable photos unless you paid for a key.

Check Point Software noticed that the Picture Transfer Protocol (PTP) – which is unauthenticated in both wired and wireless modes – is particularly vulnerable to malware attacks. Ironically, they were able to uncover flaws in the Canon EOS 80D by using firmware originally cracked by Magic Lantern, which supplies its own open source app with extra features to Canon EOS owners.

In a video, the researchers showed how they first set up a rogue WiFi access point. Once the attackers were range of the camera, they ran an exploit to access the camera’s SD card and encrypt any photos. The surprised owner would then see a message that his pictures are no longer available unless he’s willing to pay a ransom.

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Inside the hidden world of elevator phone phreaking • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:

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“I can dial into an elevator phone, listen in on private conversations, reprogram the phone so that if someone hits it in an emergency it calls a number of my choosing,” [security researcher Will] Caruana told me in our first conversation. Elevator phones typically emit audible beeps in the elevator when they connect. But if someone has dialed into the phone of the elevator you’re riding before you enter it, Caruana warned me, the only indication might be a red light on the phone’s panel. “It’s hard to notice if you’re not looking for it,” Caruana says.

Over the last year, Caruana has assembled what he believes is the largest public list of elevator phone numbers, which he plans to make available to a limited audience—although he declined to say where exactly he’s publishing it. He says he’s releasing the list of 80-plus numbers not just because he wants to foster more elevator phone phreaking as an opportunity for whimsy and chance encounters, but also to draw attention to the possibility that elevator phones could be abused for serious privacy invasion and even sabotage. Call up most elevator phones and press 2, and you’ll be asked to enter a password to reprogram them. In far too many cases, Caruana says, phone installers and building managers don’t change those passwords from easily guessable default codes, allowing anyone to tamper with their settings.

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Though who’d expect someone to create a list of all the phone numbers for lifts in the world?
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Who will regulate digital political ads? • BBC News

Amol Rajan:

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there is, frankly, something weird going on here. Everyone agrees that we urgently need new legislation in this terrain.

Indeed Damian Collins MP, the chair of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, says the time has come for emergency legislation.

“Our electoral law is hopelessly out of date. And what that means is that people can set up dummy campaigns promoting causes that are there to support an official candidate, but hide who’s doing it, hide where the money’s coming from,” he said.

“You can use technology to effectively launder money into political campaigns in micro donations including from overseas and our electoral law was established to make sure voters could see who’s campaigning on what, who’s paying for it, who it’s there to promote. And yet technology allows people to sidestep all of those rules and regulations.”

He went on: “I don’t understand why the government is taking so long. I think we should be looking at emergency legislation to bring our electoral law up to date. At least to establish the basic principles that the same requirements that exist in a poster or a leaflet should exist in an online ad and on Facebook as well.”

If Damian Collins MP can’t understand why no new legislation has been passed, what hope the rest of us?

…Across the political spectrum and across the world, social media is giving a platform to powerful forces who are able to avoid scrutiny.

While it is true that, for reasons outlined above, coming up with effective regulation is tough, it’s also true that at some point voters will begin to wonder why, years after we first started talking about it, voters are still being influenced by untraceable money.

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Introducing Evermore: become a Youtube explainer cartoon • YouTube

This, by Victoria Hogan, is one of the most unsettling little film shorts you’ll see in a while: like an episode of Black Mirror that lasts three minutes. It’s just her and a computer. (Think about how it was made once you’re watched it.)


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Study reveals what consumers would pay for their favorite free apps • McGuffin Creative Group

:

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Have you ever considered the value you place on your favorite free apps? Many services remain free thanks to advertising. But what if things changed? Suppose Google and consumers had to agree on a price for Google Maps? Would its value to you translate into a monthly dollar amount — or none at all?

We’re attached to so many free services, yet we know rumbling beneath the surface of each service is an ambitious business navigating a complex and changing market.

In a recent study, we set out to measure the value regular users placed on 16 of the most widely-used apps, asking respondents what they’d pay if a subscription fee was required. They had the option to say they would pay nothing and discontinue use, without access to a free alternative.

What did we hope to learn? Our goal wasn’t to offer bankable projections for Silicon Valley but, instead, to provide some indicators to inform an ongoing discussion of how value is created and perceived in the digital age.

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This gets interesting on two levels: first, the (averaged) amounts that people would pay per month/year for these services, and then how much money these companies are (theoretically) leaving on the table by using advertising rather than subscriptions. Ah, but: subscriptions are so often promises, unkept.
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Samsung Galaxy Note 10 5G now best phone camera • Android Authority

C. Scott Brown:

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According to the venerable camera review site DxOMark, the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G is now the top smartphone camera across the entire industry. It steals the crown away from the Huawei P30 Pro, which held the top spot since its launch in March of this year.

The Note 10 Plus 5G’s score for its rear camera tops the P30 Pro’s rear camera by one point (113 against 112 respectively). Additionally, the front camera on the Note 10 Plus 5G now tops the previous record-holder for the selfie cam, too: the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G. That means, according to DxOMark, the Note 10 Plus 5G is now the best overall phone camera you can buy whether you are looking for rear shots or selfies shots.

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Nothing against Samsung, or Huawei, but I think these “scoring” systems long ago began looking foolish. DxOMark insists that its tests are objective, except that “We also get asked how a device’s Overall score can be higher than its sub-scores. The Overall score is not a weighted sum of the sub-scores. It is a proprietary and confidential mapping of sub-scores into a combined score.”

That “proprietary and confidential” mapping sounds ever so slightly fishy to me. Why can’t they publish it? Are they suggesting manufacturers would tweak their systems to win? And, honestly: the Note10 beats the P30 Pro by one point, less than 1%? The room for improvement is clearly asymptotic.
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Navy reverting DDGs back to physical throttles, after fleet rejects touchscreen controls • USNI News

Megan Eckstein:

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The Navy will begin reverting destroyers back to a physical throttle and traditional helm control system in the next 18 to 24 months, after the fleet overwhelmingly said they prefer mechanical controls to touchscreen systems in the aftermath of the fatal USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collision.

The investigation into the collision showed that a touchscreen system that was complex and that sailors had been poorly trained to use contributed to a loss of control of the ship just before it crossed paths with a merchant ship in the Singapore Strait. After the Navy released a Comprehensive Review related to the McCain and the USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) collisions, Naval Sea Systems Command conducted fleet surveys regarding some of the engineering recommendations, Program Executive Officer for Ships Rear Adm. Bill Galinis said.

“When we started getting the feedback from the fleet from the Comprehensive Review effort – it was SEA 21 (NAVSEA’s surface ship lifecycle management organization) that kind of took the lead on doing some fleet surveys and whatnot – it was really eye-opening. And it goes into the, in my mind, ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ category. We really made the helm control system, specifically on the [DDG] 51 class, just overly complex, with the touch screens under glass and all this kind of stuff,” Galinis said during a keynote speech at the American Society of Naval Engineers’ annual Fleet Maintenance and Modernization Symposium.

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I saw this via Tony Fadell (as in, the iPod and Nest). Now if Elon Musk had tweeted it, that would have been really notable and I’d have expected retrofits on Teslas. As it is…

Also, the reason why the iPhone had a touchscreen was to allow a single screen to do multiple jobs via software. That’s just not the case for an engine throttle, which is a classic YHOJ.
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Joaquin Castro’s tweet was not doxxing • The New York Times

Suzanne Nossel is CEO of PEN America (a lobby group for “literature and human rights”):

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In the wake of the El Paso shootings, Representative Joaquin Castro of Texas created a stir with a tweet on his official account listing the names and employers of 44 residents of the San Antonio area who had contributed up to the legal limit to the Trump campaign. The information was a matter of public record but not widely known.

“Sad to see so many San Antonians as 2019 maximum donors to Donald Trump,” wrote Mr. Castro, who is the chairman of his twin brother Julián’s presidential campaign. He tagged two establishments, accusing their owners of “fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’”

…While it is possible that some supporters could have harassed those named in the tweet — news reports recount at least one profane voice mail message — Mr. Castro cannot be held legally responsible for others’ harassing conduct that he did not urge. While some Twitter users did say that they would boycott the establishments named, refraining from patronizing a business is plainly not harassment.

In recent years, we have witnessed attempts to stretch legal definitions of harassment to cover speech that result in speculative forms of psychological harm like the embarrassment or vulnerability that individuals on the list may genuinely have felt. But defense of the First Amendment and open discourse demands resisting that wider and fuzzier definition. Involvement in politics — even as a donor — entails a certain willingness to engage in the rough-and-tumble of discourse with those who may make you feel uncomfortable for the views you hold. Being called out publicly, as opposed to menaced personally, is fair game.

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There was a whole lot of ridiculous pearl-clutching over this – none worse than Kimberley Strassel, a WSJ opinionist, who really can’t see the trees for the imaginary forest. Transparency about political funding is the bare minimum the US needs right now.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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