Start Up No.1,169: Zuckerberg speaks up, biggest child sex abuse site shuts, Qatar cools the world (badly), VR loses focus, and more


Got some of these? Congratulations – you can probably unlock someone’s Galaxy S10. CC-licensed photo by Kevin Dooley on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Zuckerberg defends Facebook’s handling of controversial Trump ad • The Washington Post

Tony Romm:

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Asked if the Pelosi incident [of the deepfake video] illustrated a serious gap at Facebook, Zuckerberg agreed. “If anything becomes a big issue, and we haven’t already prepared for it, then that means we were too slow in preparing for it,” he said. “And I think figuring out which types of deepfakes are actually a threat today, versus are a theoretical future threat once the technology advances, is one of the things that we need to make sure we get right.”

But Zuckerberg stood behind the way Facebook, which has long eschewed fact-checking political ads, handles political ads. “I think we’re in the right place on this,” he said. “In general, in a democracy, I think that people should be able to hear for themselves what politicians are saying.”

The Trump campaign ad about the Bidens made claims about their connections to Ukraine, a critical element in the congressional impeachment inquiry. Biden’s campaign asked Facebook to remove the ad, describing it as false, but the social network declined, pointing to a policy against fact-checking such political speech. The company’s response drew widespread rebukes from Biden and other 2020 Democratic candidates, including Warren, many of whom have charged that Facebook essentially is profiting from misinformation.

Speaking at Georgetown later Thursday, Zuckerberg acknowledged the company once considered prohibiting political ads but decided against it, believing it “favours incumbents and whoever the media covers.”

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He also had his own stab at rewriting history, insisting he created TheFacebook so that people could talk about the 2003 Iraq war. Actually it was meant to be a cross between a dating site and a college yearbook. Also worth reading: Josh Constine on why Facebook should give up political ads. And the full Facebook video is here.
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The Republican political operatives who call the shots at Facebook • Popular.info

Judd Legum:

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In recent months, Facebook has repeatedly taken actions that benefit Republicans and the right-wing. [List of examples snipped.]

Why is this happening? Popular Information spoke with three former Facebook employees to find out. All of them pointed to the leadership in Facebook’s powerful DC office. 

“Everyone in power is a Republican,” one former Facebook employee based in the DC office told Popular Information. The person requested anonymity because they are still employed in the tech industry. 

Indeed, the three top leaders of Facebook’s DC office all have extensive backgrounds in Republican politics: Vice President for Global Public Policy Joel Kaplan; Vice President for U.S. Public Policy Kevin Martin; and Public Policy Director for Global Elections Katie Harbath. 

“Decisions are made to benefit Republicans because they are paranoid about their reputation among conservative Republicans, particularly Trump,” the former Facebook employee said.  The other former Facebook employees did not agree to be quoted. 

Facebook declined to respond to a detailed set of questions about the operation of Facebook’s DC office. “We’re not going to have a comment to share,” a Facebook spokesman told Popular Information. 

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It’s very, very fishy.
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Inside the shutdown of the ‘world’s largest’ child sex abuse website • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

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This morning, the Justice Department announced that it had brought charges against the administrator and hundreds of users of the “world’s largest” child sexual exploitation marketplace on the dark web.

For me, it marked the end of a story I’ve wanted to write for two years.

In November 2017, I was working for CBS as the security editor at ZDNet. A hacker group reached out to me over an encrypted chat claiming to have broken into a dark web site running a massive child sexual exploitation operation. I was stunned. I had previous interactions with the hacker group, but nothing like this.

The group claimed it broke into the dark web site, which it said was titled “Welcome to Video,” and identified four real-world IP addresses of the site, said to be different servers running this supposedly massive child abuse site. They also provided me with a text file containing a sample of a thousand IP addresses of individuals who they said had logged in to the site. The hackers boasted about how they siphoned off the list as users logged in, without the users’ knowledge, and had more than a hundred thousand more — but they would not share them.

If proven true, the hackers would have made a major breakthrough in not only discovering a major dark web child abuse site, but could potentially identify the owners — and the visitors to the site.

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A few terrifying details: the site administrator began it when he was 18 years old; he carried out transactions in bitcoin; he brought in about $5m; some of the login IPs came from government and high-profile companies; half the 8TB of videos there contained images not seen before; there may have been about a million users of the site, and fewer than 400 have been arrested. The ages of those arrested and convicted ranges from 22 to 70.
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Qatar, facing unbearable heat, has begun to air-condition the outdoors • Washington Post

Steven Mufson:

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It was 116 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade outside the new Al Janoub soccer stadium, and the air felt to air-conditioning expert Saud Ghani as if God had pointed “a giant hair dryer” at Qatar.

Yet inside the open-air stadium, a cool breeze was blowing. Beneath each of the 40,000 seats, small grates adorned with Arabic-style patterns were pushing out cool air at ankle level. And since cool air sinks, waves of it rolled gently down to the grassy playing field. Vents the size of soccer balls fed more cold air onto the field.

Ghani, an engineering professor at Qatar University, designed the system at Al Janoub, one of eight stadiums that the tiny but fabulously rich Qatar must get in shape for the 2022 World Cup. His breakthrough realization was that he had to cool only people, not the upper reaches of the stadium — a graceful structure designed by the famed Zaha Hadid Architects and inspired by traditional boats known as dhows.

“I don’t need to cool the birds,” Ghani said.

Qatar, the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, may be able to cool its stadiums, but it cannot cool the entire country. Fears that the hundreds of thousands of soccer fans might wilt or even die while shuttling between stadiums and metros and hotels in the unforgiving summer heat prompted the decision to delay the World Cup by five months. It is now scheduled for November, during Qatar’s milder winter.

The change in the World Cup date is a symptom of a larger problem — climate change.

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Don’t adapt, destroy?
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How a massive Facebook scam siphoned millions of dollars from unsuspecting boomers • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

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In late November 2018, Asher Burke gathered his employees in their San Diego office and laid out a vision for how Ads Inc. was going to become an e-commerce powerhouse.

The tanned and muscular 27-year-old CEO detailed plans to merge the company he founded in 2015 with another e-commerce company, and hire 20 or so new employees with expertise in developing products, such as electric toothbrushes and hair extensions, to be sold online.

The goal was to “build a company that is a digital assembly line of brands that would appeal to every single person in this room,” he said in a recording obtained by BuzzFeed News, calling it “a really exciting vision worth getting up in the morning for and sinking your teeth into.”

At the time, Ads Inc. was a growing business with tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue and roughly 20 people in its San Diego office. And Burke — a politically connected entrepreneur who had served as deputy political director of the Republican Party of San Diego — was its founder, CEO, and mastermind.

There was just one problem: Ads Inc.’s business was a massive Facebook scam, and it had little, if any, expertise in legitimate e-commerce.

Since 2015, Ads Inc. has made money — lots of it — by executing one of the internet’s most persistent, lucrative, and sophisticated scams: the subscription trap. The subscription trap works by tricking people into buying what they think is a single free trial of a celebrity-endorsed product. Although the customers would receive the product — which in most cases was not made by Ads Inc. itself — in reality, the celebrity has nothing to do with the offer. And in purchasing the free trial, the customer unwittingly commits to a pricey monthly subscription designed to be hard to cancel.

As for the products, a current employee described the diet and male enhancement offerings as “the worst of the worst … China-made sawdust in a capsule.”

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Reality check for VR as projects scrapped • The Times

Matthew Moore:

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The [BBC] confirmed the closure this week of its VR hub team, responsible for the production and commissioning of films.

The unit was founded in 2017 after Facebook launched the Oculus Rift headset, when companies were convinced of the technology’s potential.

It released well-reviewed experiences including 1943 Berlin Blitz, a recreation of a Second World War bombing raid. The films are believed to have attracted tiny audiences, however, compared with other BBC content…

Analysts say the problem is that cheap headsets, which rely on smartphones, offer a disappointing experience. More sophisticated hardware, such as the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, are too expensive for most consumers at about £400 to £500.

Shipments of VR and augmented reality sets are forecast to reach 8.9 million units this year, but the industry remains a tech minnow. In comparison, more than 1.5 billion smartphones are sold around the world annually.

…VR’s spread has been hampered by complaints about feelings of nausea and isolation while using headsets.

George Jijiashvili, senior analyst at Ovum, the media consultancy firm, predicted that more sophisticated VR tech, such as the Oculus Quest headset, would catch on as prices fell. “The problem is not that VR is failing but that the wrong expectations were set. Now the industry has had a bit of a reality check.”

The BBC declined to disclose how much was spent on VR projects. Members of the team will be moved to other work.A spokeswoman said: “It has been an important part of our charter commitment to promote technological innovation and maintain a leading role in research and development which benefits the whole industry.”

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Battery life: a magnitude shift – the Apple iPhone 11, 11 Pro & 11 Pro Max review • Anandtech

Andrei Frumusanu:

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possibly the biggest changes to Apple’s line-up this year is the device’s vastly increased battery capacities. The Pro models in particular have seen significant increases: the 11 Pro gets a 3046mAh battery which represents a 14.5% increase compared to the XS, and the 11 Pro Max gets a 3969mAh battery which represents a very large 25% increase. The Pro Max is now the first Apple device which has a battery capacity comparable to Android phones out there, some of which have offered similar large capacities for a few years now…

…The battery results in our web test are outstanding. Apple in this generation has gone from being average in battery life to showcasing some of the best results we’ve seen in the market.

What is very interesting here is how our absolute test runtimes end up compared to Apple’s marketing claims. Apple has promised +1H, +4H and +5H of battery life for the 11, 11 Pro and the 11 Pro Max compared to their predecessors, and what we measured is 1.08H, 3.9H and 5.27H, which is pretty damn near Apple’s promoted figures, pointing out to some very similar testing conditions between our test and Apple’s internal metrics.

If we break this down a bit and theorize a bit, if we take the XS Max 10.31H result, multiply by 1.25x for the increased battery capacity (12.88H), multiply again naively by 1.15x for the more efficient screen (14.82H), we’re left with a ~5% margin which would account for the more efficient SoC. Give or take margin of error here or there, the results we’re seeing shouldn’t be all too surprising. The math would also check out for the iPhone 11 without a newer display: 5% increased battery capacity and an on average ~3% more efficient SoC.

There’s not much to say about the new iPhone 11 series’ battery life other than it’s exemplary. More importantly, Apple has managed to finally catch up and exceed the battery life of the LCD iPhone 8 and Plus models from 2 years ago.

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The graph on the page certainly shows that.
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Google Pixel 4 Face Unlock works if eyes are shut • BBC News

Chris Fox:

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Google has confirmed the Pixel 4 smartphone’s Face Unlock system can allow access to a person’s device even if they have their eyes closed.

One security expert said it was a significant problem that could allow unauthorised access to the device.

By comparison, Apple’s Face ID system checks the user is “alert” and looking at the phone before unlocking.

Google said in a statement: “Pixel 4 Face Unlock meets the security requirements as a strong biometric.” Speaking before the launch, Pixel product manager Sherry Lin said: “They are actually only two face [authorisation] solutions that meet the bar for being super-secure. So, you know, for payments, that level – it’s ours and Apple’s.”

On Tuesday, BBC News tested the Face Unlock feature on the new Pixel 4. Using the default settings, the phone still unlocked if the user pretended to be asleep. The test was repeated on several people, with the same result.

Images of the Pixel 4 leaked before launch showed a setting labelled: “Require eyes to be open,” in the facial-recognition menu. However, this setting was not present on the devices loaned to BBC News. And Google told BBC News it would not feature on the Pixel 4 when it went on sale, on 24 October.

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So… not really super-secure. Will it be disqualified from payments?
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Samsung will fix bug that lets any fingerprint unlock a Galaxy S10 • Engadget

Steve Dent:

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The Samsung Galaxy S10’s fingerprint reader has been balky from day one, with users reporting it could be unlocked with a 3D-printed fingerprint. Worse, a buyer recently discovered that if you install a third-party screen protector, a non-registered user could unlock the phone. Now, Samsung has acknowledged the problem and promised to patch it soon, according to Reuters.

“Samsung Electronics is aware of the case of the S10’s malfunctioning fingerprint recognition and will soon issue a software patch,” the company told Reuters in a statement. The problem has been deemed serious enough that an online bank in South Korea, KaKaobank, has advised owners to switch off fingerprint recognition until it’s resolved.

It’s not clear what’s causing the problem, but the Galaxy S10 uses an ultrasonic sensor to detect fingerprint ridges. Plastic or silicon screen protectors can stymie it, so Samsung has been recommending that buyers used approved protective devices. That doesn’t explain why the system is allowing access to non-registered fingerprints, however, so Engadget has reached out to Samsung for more information.

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Samsung didn’t have any more information, other than that it was “investigating this internally”. Possibly with flamethrowers. What’s unclear is whether the fingerprint registration was done before or after the protector was put on. If the former, then you can break into any S10 by putting a screen protector onto it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

4 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,169: Zuckerberg speaks up, biggest child sex abuse site shuts, Qatar cools the world (badly), VR loses focus, and more

    • Went and double-checked off gsmarena.com, who is making an honest stab at getting comparable figures across platforms.

      Iphone 11 Pro: 86h (of mixed, typical use including actual phone conversations)
      Iphone 11 Pro Max: 102h
      Redmi Note 8 Pro: 114h.

      So, the Redmi lasts a good 30% longer than the non-max Iphone. Used to be over 50% in previous generations, and users I switched from Iphones to Redmis noticed and cited that as one of the bigger gains.

      BTW, Xiaomi has started putting even bigger batteries in the non-Note Redmis. Not rated/reviewed yet.

  1. In the hollow news category, I’m kinda surprised Apple hasn’t started using its own GPUs in at least low-end Macs.
    Probably not worth spinning special silicon to have the GPU fully integrated with the CPU, and not high-eng enough for a discrete VidCard. But Intel made a combo package with an AMD GPU and a Core CPU, so we know it’s possible.

    I keep hoping Apple will release ARM Macs (w/ a desktopified iOS).

    • Actually, I’m surprised Apple isn’t either including an iOS module or selling it extra for at least some Macs, desktop and/or laptops. BOM is less than $150, it’d jumpstart those iPadOS/iMacOS apps, create lock-in…

      I’m thinking the main reason not to do it is to protect the MacOS ecosystem. But it’s a bit sad I’ve been running Android apps on Windows for years, and the supposedly integrated Apple ecosystem can’t do that.

      Legacy OSes are in a weird place. On the one hand, irreplaceable, on the other hand, overserving like crazy and a huge, unjustified hurdle for the Mobile-native crowd and most users. The only apps I’m using on my PC that aren’t available on my tablet are… heavy Games and full-featured Office ? And I no longer use the full features of Office much. There are actually more apps I’m using on my phone that aren’t available on Windows, or only as semi-sucky web apps.

      My best hope is that Apple is going slow on purpose to avoid spoiling the barrel w/ a Glass-like premature implementation. And that Google will follow quickly, either with Android or with Fuschia not ChromeOS.

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