Start Up No.1,152: the trouble with SDKs, Facebook’s politics pass, WeWork’s CEO’s out, Fitbit for sale?, Trump mumble mumble, and more


You can delete the messaging app Kik: its founders are closing it to defend a cryptocurrency case. CC-licensed photo by Salman Aslam on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Not available in Ukraine. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The loophole that turns your apps into spies • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel:

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By now you probably know that your apps ask for permission to tap into loads of data. They request device information, like advertiser IDs, which companies use to build marketing profiles. There’s data the companies explicitly ask for via a pop-up window, like access to contacts or your camera roll. And then there’s tracking that is especially invasive, like access to your microphone or your phone’s gyroscope or location tracking data.

What you probably didn’t know is that by downloading those apps and entering into those contracts, you’re also exposing your sensitive information to dozens of other technology companies, ad networks, data brokers and aggregators. Sometimes the information is shared with global tech giants; other times it’s with small companies you’ve never heard of.

The data is transmitted — or in some cases leaked — via software development kits (SDKs). They are essentially developer shortcuts, a set of tools or a library of code that developers can import from a third party so that they don’t have to build them from scratch.

Because they’re so useful to app developers, SDKs are embedded into thousands of apps, ranging from mundane weather services to mobile games and even in some health apps. Facebook, Google and Amazon, for example, have extremely popular SDKs that allow smaller apps to connect to bigger companies’ ad platforms or help provide web traffic analytics or payment infrastructure. In exchange, the SDK makers receive user data from that app. Just how much data is often unclear. And once the companies have it, there are no restrictions on what they can do with it. Theoretically, they could turn around and sell that data for profit.

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Argh, everything is broken.
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Nancy Pelosi announces formal impeachment inquiry of Trump • The New York Times

Nicholas Fandos:

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Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday that the House would begin a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump, opening a fresh chapter of confrontation in response to startling allegations that the president sought to enlist a foreign power for his own political gain.

“The actions taken to date by the president have seriously violated the Constitution,” she said after emerging from a meeting of House Democrats in the basement of the Capitol. Mr. Trump, she said, “must be held accountable. No one is above the law.”

The announcement was a stunning development that unfolded after months of caution by House Democrats, who have been divided over using the ultimate remedy to address what they have called flagrant misconduct by the president.

In this case, with an avalanche of Democrats — including many who had resisted the move — now demanding it, Ms. Pelosi said that Mr. Trump’s reported actions, and his administration’s refusal to share details about the matter with Congress, have left the House no alternative outside of impeachment. The inquiry has the potential to reshape Mr. Trump’s presidency and to cleave an already divided nation only a year before he plans to stand for re-election.

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And there we were thinking that the UK Supreme Court ruling 11-0 that the prime minister acted unlawfully in suspending Parliament was the international story of the day. OK, neither is tech, but they seemed worth marking.
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Facebook, elections and political speech • Facebook Newsroom

The former leader of the UK Liberal Democrat party and once-deputy prime minister of the UK, Nick Clegg, now VP of Global Affairs and Comms at Facebook:

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Facebook has had a newsworthiness exemption since 2016. This means that if someone makes a statement or shares a post which breaks our community standards we will still allow it on our platform if we believe the public interest in seeing it outweighs the risk of harm. Today, I announced that from now on we will treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard. However, in keeping with the principle that we apply different standards to content for which we receive payment, this will not apply to ads – if someone chooses to post an ad on Facebook, they must still fall within our Community Standards and our advertising policies.

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Huh. Become a politician and you can say whatever you like. How do we define politician? Do you have to be officially in office? Running for office? Saying you’ll run for office? Can I declare myself a politician in order to say anything on Facebook without fear of being zapped?
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Facebook acquires startup developing AI finger tracking armband • UploadVR

David Heaney:

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Facebook is in the final stages of acquiring a New York based startup called CTRL Labs which was developing an armband which tracks the user’s fingers by reading electrical signals inside their arm.

It works by detecting electrical signals passing through the user’s wrist to the fingers. Based on how the signal changes passing through the tendons and muscles of the arm their position can be determined. Machine learning is used to convert these position changes into finger poses.

The technology is very similar to what’s described in a patent application filed by Facebook back in February. It’s possible that the CTRL Labs team were able to solve problems that Facebook’s team wasn’t, or that Facebook wanted to combine their efforts. It’s also possible that the startup held intellectual property that Facebook would need to commercialize this technology.

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Seven good and three bad things in iPadOS • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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Anybody who has felt like the iPad was a little too limiting because of how it handled windows or webpages should be excited to install this update. And although it really does feel like a “power user”-focused set of features this year, people who use their iPads for the basics will find things to like, too.

Here are the things we like best and hate the most about iPadOS so far.

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Precis: new desktop-equivalent Safari good, new managing windows method good, learning how to manage windows bad, new home screen good, floating keyboard good, text selection bad, new Files app good, Dark Mode good, Photos app good, bugs bad.

It’s putting some distance between the iPad and the iPhone OS. Though the Files app can’t preview AVI video, which is slightly annoying if that’s what you’ve got on an SD card.
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About an issue that impacts third-party keyboard apps in iOS 13 and iPadOS • Apple Support

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An upcoming software update will fix an issue that impacts third-party keyboard apps. This issue applies only if you’ve installed third-party keyboards on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch.

Third-party keyboard extensions in iOS can be designed to run entirely standalone, without access to external services, or they can request “full access” to provide additional features through network access. Apple has discovered a bug in iOS 13 and iPadOS that can result in keyboard extensions being granted full access even if you haven’t approved this access.
This issue does not impact Apple’s built-in keyboards. It also doesn’t impact third-party keyboards that don’t make use of full access. The issue will be fixed soon in an upcoming software update.

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Bugs. So it’s going to be 13.1.1.
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WeWork’s Adam Neumann to step down as chief executive • Financial Times

Eric Platt and James Fontanella-Khan:

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WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann has agreed to step down as chief executive of the lossmaking property company after some of its biggest backers lost faith in the 40-year-old executive.

Mr Neumann has been named non-executive chairman. Sebastian Gunningham, the company’s vice-chair, and finance chief Artie Minson will take over as co-chief executives.

The fall from grace of Mr Neumann is a stunning reversal at a young, hyped venture-backed firm where the cult of the founder was once especially strong. It compares in recent years only to the toppling of Uber’s chief executive Travis Kalanick…

…Mr Neumann, who earlier told employees he had been “humbled” by the aborted IPO, said in a statement: “While our business has never been stronger, in recent weeks, the scrutiny directed toward me has become a significant distraction, and I have decided that it is in the best interest of the company to step down as chief executive.”

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Damn right there’s been scrutiny of his self-dealing practices; unsurprising the IPO stalled and that he’s out. The S-1 filing was the brightest sunlight on a really badly supervised company. And according to The Information, its current spend could burn through $1.5bn over the next six months and leave it with just $400m early next year if it doesn’t raise more funds. Neumann was toxic to that, so had to go.

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WeWTF, Part Deux • No Mercy / No Malice

Scott Galloway, writing a few days before Neumann’s ouster when the IPO had been pulled:

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So, as a distressed asset, the playbook is fairly clear:

• Bring in new management. What got We here, isn’t going to get it where it needs to go. Each layer that comes off the We onion stinks more and more. The media has turned its attention to the Neumanns, and it’s as if the lights have been turned on at a cocaine-fueled party that ended several hours too late. Everyone and everything suddenly looks bad, scary even.

• The firm needs to bust a move to break even pronto. The new CEO should be from a REIT, ideally a hospitality or commercial real estate REIT. My vote is Adam Markman, CFO of Equity Commonwealth — Sam Zell’s firm.

• Shed/close all non-core businesses. WeGrow and WeLive are vanity projects. As someone close to the firm told me yesterday, they distract Mr. Neumann from the core business, where he was wreaking havoc. A $13 million investment in a firm that makes wave pools to indulge Adam’s passion for surfing. Really? Really?

• Raise money after an adult conversation with SoftBank (“You f*cked up, you trusted us. Do you want to participate in the next round or get washed out?”)

• Focus on margin expansion vs. growth. We has a differentiated product in the marketplace, and should command a premium.

• Lay off all employees not directly tied to managing the core business. Reprice options for remaining employees, as the current options are now worthless and most execs will begin looking for other jobs. The most talented (the ones with the most options) will be the first to leave if they aren’t given substantial economics for staying in Saigon as the North Vietnamese roll into town.

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Xiaomi’s Mi Mix Alpha is almost entirely made of screen • The Verge

Sam Byford:

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The “surround screen” on the Alpha wraps entirely around the device to the point where it meets the camera module on the other side. The effect is of a phone that’s almost completely made of screen, with status icons like network signal and battery charge level displayed on the side. Pressure-sensitive volume buttons are also shown on the side of the phone. Xiaomi is claiming more than 180% screen-to-body ratio, a stat that no longer makes any sense to cite at all…

…Xiaomi describes the Mix Alpha as a “concept smartphone” and isn’t going to be mass-producing it any time soon. The phone will go into small-scale production this year and go on sale in December for 19,999 yuan, or about $2,800. The original Mi Mix was also given the “concept” label and released in small quantities, with the Mi Mix 2 following a year later as a more mainstream device.

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Twice the chance to break the screen, and a real puzzler for where you put the phone case. Perfect bragging rights for Xiaomi – “we were the first with a total screen phone!” – but I don’t think it makes any sense. We can’t look around corners, which is what you’d need to use this to the full.
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Google wins landmark right to be forgotten case • BBC News

Leo Kelion:

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The EU’s top court has ruled that Google does not have to apply the right to be forgotten globally.

It means the firm only needs to remove links from its search results in Europe – and not elsewhere – after receiving an appropriate request.

The ruling stems from a dispute between Google and a French privacy regulator. In 2015, CNIL ordered the firm to globally remove search result listings to pages containing damaging or false information about a person. The following year, Google introduced a geoblocking feature that prevents European users from being able to see delisted links.

But it resisted censoring search results for people in other parts of the world. And the firm challenged a 100,000 ($109,901; £88,376) euro fine that CNIL had tried to impose.

“Currently, there is no obligation under EU law, for a search engine operator who grants a request for de-referencing made by a data subject… to carry out such a de-referencing on all the versions of its search engine,” the European Court of Justice ruling said.

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This seems a good, proportional decision: if the EU could demand Google remove stuff everywhere, why wouldn’t China allow Google in and then demand the same? Next question: should Google block access to non-EU versions by EU citizens? I suspect that’s going to be “no” as well, if anyone raises it.
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Exclusive: Fitbit considers whether it should explore a sale – sources • Reuters

Greg Roumeliotis:

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Wearable device maker Fitbit has been in talks with an investment bank about the possibility of exploring a sale amid challenges in successfully pivoting from fitness trackers to smartwatches, people familiar with the matter said on Friday.

Fitbit has struggled to gain a foothold in the smartwatch category, as Apple and Samsung Electronics have cornered a bigger share of the market with more sophisticated devices.

At the same time, Fitbit’s dominant share of the fitness tracking sector continues to be chipped away by cheaper offerings from companies such as China’s Huawei Technologies and Xiaomi Corp.

Fitbit has held discussions with investment bank Qatalyst Partners about whether it should engage with potential acquirers, the sources said.

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The way this is written seems to imply that Fitbit has already had some approaches about acquisition, and is trying to decide whether to go with them. Who would want a struggling fitness tracker company, though? It’s been essentially unprofitable since the end of 2016.
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Kik chat app shuts down as company goes all-in on Kin cryptocurrency • BetaKit

Meagan Simpson:

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The Kik app is officially shutting down. The company will reduce its headcount to 19 people, and will focus solely on converting Kin users into Kin buyers, according to a company blog post by Kik founder Ted Livingston.

Livingston said although the Kik app will shut down, Kin is “here to stay.” The remaining team will focus on “moving the Kin blockchain forward,” he added. It appears the company is shedding its operational costs so it can fight the United States Securities Commission (SEC) in court, with Livingston saying the changes will “drop our burn rate by 85%, putting us in position to get through the SEC trial with the resources we have.”

He said that instead of selling some of Kik’s Kin cryptocurrency, the company made the decision to focus its “current resources on the few things that matter most.”

“These are hard decisions. Kik is one of the largest apps in the US. It has industry-leading engagement and is growing again,” wrote Livingston. “Over 100 employees and their families will be impacted. People who have poured their hearts and souls into Kik and Kin for over a decade.”

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Kik was a huge social messaging app popular with teens; but cryptocurrency looked like a way to make much quicker millions, so its founders chased that. Then the SEC pointed out that selling tokens which can change in value and be paid for in money is essentially dealing in a security. Which came as a surprise to Kik/Kin, who thought it was just a way to get rich.

Sad end for Kik, which had some momentum at one point.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,152: the trouble with SDKs, Facebook’s politics pass, WeWork’s CEO’s out, Fitbit for sale?, Trump mumble mumble, and more

  1. Someone could have much fun with any Facebook “politician exemption” by forming a Troll Party, and designating members as various types of Minister of Facebook Information. Putting it that way makes it too blunt, but something like “Official Assistant Deputy Associate Minister for Online Dissemination” sounds good (and there can be many titles like that, a unique one for everyone). Who knows, there’s probably some current respectable in-office politician who can be pointed to, who got a start doing some sort of very minor media role in a radical fringe party. That would put Facebook in a position of having to justify taking action which would deny up-and-comers the same chance. While much “politics” is a subset of “community standards”, there’s also plenty which doesn’t intersect.

    • Also, I’m not sure what qualifies for fringe, but when I started voting I was hugely delighted when socialist Mitterrand+communists (those got booted 2 years in by a notoriously two-faced Mitterrand) got elected, so we had communist ministers for a while And my first-ever vote was for the incumbent communist major of my home town, because the right was allied to the nationalists and I remember walking home through my company town w/ 30+% immigrants the world would end if they did pasaran. And I’m anything but a communist, not even a socialist.

      And now we have nationalists mayors.

      I’m not sure what counts as fringe any more. That US presidential candidate who wants to cure the world with love ? Given that Trump wants to fix it with hate, this doesn’t even sound far-fetched.

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