Start Up No.1,179: politics v Twitter v Facebook, California’s next century, Rudy Guiliani – too cybersecure!, the WhatsApp hack, and more


“Exclusive detached property, close to park and amenities.” What if your AirBnB rental turns out to be a scam? CC-licensed photo by Carl Campbell on Flickr.

A selection of 11 links for you. Soviet-style, including the gulags. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

I accidentally uncovered a nationwide scam on Airbnb • VICE

Allie Conti:

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The call came about 10 minutes before we were set to check into the Airbnb. I was sitting at a brewery just around the corner from the rental on North Wood Street in Chicago when the man on the other end of the line said that our planned visit wouldn’t be possible. A previous guest had flushed something down the toilet, which had left the unit flooded with water, he explained. Apologetic, he promised to let us stay in another property he managed until he could call a plumber.

I had flown with two friends to the city in hopes of a relaxing end-of-summer getaway. We had purchased tickets to attend the September music festival Riot Fest, where Blink-182 and Taking Back Sunday were scheduled to perform. The trip had gotten off to a rough start even before the call. Around a month before, a first Airbnb host had already canceled, leaving us with little time to figure out alternative housing. While scrambling to find something else, I stumbled upon a local Airbnb rental listed by a couple, Becky and Andrew. Sure, the house looked a little basic in the photos online, but it was nice enough, especially considering the time crunch—light-filled, spacious, and close to the Blue Line.

Now, we were facing our second potential disaster in 30 days, and I couldn’t help but feel slightly suspicious of the man on the phone, who had called me from a number with a Los Angeles area code. Hoping to talk in person, I asked him if he was in the area. He said that he was at work and didn’t really have time to chat. Then he added that I needed to decide immediately if I was willing to change my reservation.

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It’s just that tiny detail – demanding that you act immediately – which is the clue that it’s a scam. And AirBnB doesn’t know who to believe, of course, but it has fewer people looking for lodging than it does people offering lodgings, so it’s probably going to side with the lodging owners.

Meet the new boss…
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Unpopular decisions • BuzzMachine

Jeff Jarvis:

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Mark Zuckerberg has said definitively that Facebook will not fact-check political ads. That, I agree with, but not for the reason you might assume. Truth is the wrong standard. If truth were so easy then we wouldn’t need countless journalists to find it. No one will trust Facebook to decide truth. But I do think that Facebook should set and uphold standards of dignity, decency, and responsibility in the public conversation and hold everyone — politicians and citizens, users and advertisers — accountable. If Facebook wants to leave up noxious speech by pols so we can see and judge it, OK, but it should add a disclaimer disapproving of the behavior. (Twitter has said that will be its policy, but I’ve yet to see it in action.) If a politician uses a racial slur in political ad — say, calling Mexicans rapists and murderers — Facebook must condemn that behavior, or its Oversight Board likely will. If Facebook accepts such words without comment or caveat, then it must be presumed to condone them. I’d find that unacceptable.

In the end, both Facebook and Twitter — and let’s throw Google and all the other platforms in now — refuse to make judgments. They cannot get away with that anymore. They are hosts to conversation and communities. They have an impact on that conversation and thus on democracies and nations. They are private companies. They are going to have to make judgments according to public principles, no matter how allergic they are to that idea.

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I like Jeff, but I think he’s unaware of how hand-flapping this stuff actually is in the face of people who are very determined to do what they want. He’d find it “unacceptable” if Dan Scavino or Dominic Cummings were to buy ads which used racial slurs? Oh mercy me. But what would you DO about it? What would that CHANGE? It’s the same pusillanimous approach that bedevils almost all of American media: an unwillingness to prevent, and to let harms happen first, and then tut afterwards. That lets bad actors act, and get away with things that should be stopped first.
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It’s the end of California as we know it • The New York Times

Farhad Manjoo:

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lately my affinity for my home state has soured. Maybe it’s the smoke and the blackouts, but a very un-Californian nihilism has been creeping into my thinking. I’m starting to suspect we’re over. It’s the end of California as we know it. I don’t feel fine.

It isn’t just the fires — although, my God, the fires. Is this what life in America’s most populous, most prosperous state is going to be like from now on? Every year, hundreds of thousands evacuating, millions losing power, hundreds losing property and lives? Last year, the air near where I live in Northern California — within driving distance of some of the largest and most powerful and advanced corporations in the history of the world — was more hazardous than the air in Beijing and New Delhi. There’s a good chance that will happen again this month, and that it will keep happening every year from now on. Is this really the best America can do?

Probably, because it’s only going to get worse. The fires and the blackouts aren’t like the earthquakes, a natural threat we’ve all chosen to ignore. They are more like California’s other problems, like housing affordability and homelessness and traffic — human-made catastrophes we’ve all chosen to ignore, connected to the larger dysfunction at the heart of our state’s rot: a failure to live sustainably.

Now choking under the smoke of a changing climate, California feels stuck. We are BlackBerry after the iPhone, Blockbuster after Netflix: We’ve got the wrong design, we bet on the wrong technologies, we’ve got the wrong incentives, and we’re saddled with the wrong culture. The founding idea of this place is infinitude — mile after endless mile of cute houses connected by freeways and uninsulated power lines stretching out far into the forested hills. Our whole way of life is built on a series of myths — the myth of endless space, endless fuel, endless water, endless optimism, endless outward reach and endless free parking.

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This is a terrific piece: a recognition that what has worked for the past 100 years isn’t going to work for the next. There’s a response from Alissa Walker, essentially saying “but muh climate action!”. But I think she misses, and Manjoo hits, the point.
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Obama on call-out culture: ‘that’s not activism’ • The New York Times

Emily Rueb and Derrick Taylor:

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“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff,” Mr. Obama said [during an hour-long interview about youth activism]. “You should get over that quickly.”

“The world is messy; there are ambiguities,” he continued. “People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

Mr. Obama spoke repeatedly of the role of social media in activism specifically, including the idea of what’s become known as “cancel culture,” which is much remarked upon, but still nebulously defined. It tends to refer to behavior that mostly plays out on the internet when someone has said or done something to which others object. That person is then condemned in a flurry of social media posts. Such people are often referred to as “canceled,” a way of saying that many others (and perhaps the places at which they work) are fed up with them and will have no more to do with them.

Mr. Obama talked about conversations he’s had with his daughter Malia, who is a student at Harvard with Ms. Shahidi.

“I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media, there is this sense sometimes of: ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people,’” he said, “and that’s enough.”

“Like, if I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb,” he said, “then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself, cause, ‘Man, you see how woke I was, I called you out.’”

Then he pretended to sit back and press the remote to turn on a television.

“That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change,” he said. “If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far. That’s easy to do.”

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In the same way, breaking news: changing your Twitter avatar to include [topic of current concern] has zero effect.
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Black Salve is a dangerous fake cancer cure, but Facebook Groups allow it to flourish • Buzzfeed News

Katie Notopoulos:

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Even as Facebook has cracked down on anti-vaxxers and peddlers of snake oil cure-alls, a particularly grotesque form of fake cancer treatment has flourished in private groups on Facebook. Black salve, a caustic black paste that eats through flesh, is enthusiastically recommended in dedicated groups as a cure for skin and breast cancer — and for other types of cancer when ingested in pill form. There’s even a group dedicated to applying the paste to pets.

A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that these groups don’t violate its community guidelines. This summer, it launched an initiative to address “exaggerated or sensational health claims” and will downrank that content in the News Feed, similar to how it handles clickbait. But it’s not clear how it defines what a “sensational” health claim is. Citing user privacy, Facebook would not say whether or not it had downranked the black salve groups in the News Feed.

Other platforms have taken a different approach. When BuzzFeed News asked YouTube about several videos where people discussed using black salve, YouTube said the videos were in violation and removed them. Amazon, which does not sell the salve itself, removed a book about black salve when BuzzFeed News asked about it.

Doctors and medical literature are clear that black salve is not a safe or effective cure for cancer. The FDA does not allow the sale of the product in the US. But tech platforms are not in sync about how to handle it. And in the meantime, people are getting disfigured or dying.

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On the plus side, the tech companies can say they’re not colluding.
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Rudy Giuliani needed Apple genius help to unlock his iPhone after being named Trump cybersecurity adviser • NBC News

Rich Schapiro:

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Less than a month after he was named President Donald Trump’s cybersecurity adviser in 2017, Rudy Giuliani walked into an Apple store in downtown San Francisco.

He wasn’t looking for a new gadget. Giuliani was looking for help.

He was locked out of his iPhone because he had forgotten the passcode and entered the wrong one at least 10 times, according to two people familiar with the matter and a photo of an internal Apple store memo obtained by NBC News.

“Very sloppy,” said one of the people, a former Apple store employee who was there on the day that Giuliani stopped by in February 2017.

“Trump had just named him as an informal adviser on cybersecurity and here, he couldn’t even master the fundamentals of securing your own device.”

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That “entered the wrong passcode 10 times” detail is strange. Usually when that’s turned on, the phone wipes – but it takes ages to enter it wrong that many times, because the pause in between entry attempts gets longer and longer. Which implies that he didn’t have “wipe after 10 failed attempts” turned on. Quite the cyber czar. And phone czar – he has repeatedly butt-dialled Schapiro and accidentally left voicemails about financial topics.

Though as Farhad Manjoo (him again!) points out, it’s a bad security failing by Apple that a customer of any sort had personal details leaked. In Europe, it would face a big GDPR fine. (Thanks Nic for the link.)
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Why ‘Medicare for All’ could both raise taxes and lower costs • The New York Times

Margot Sanger-Katz and Josh Katz:

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The charts above compare two leading sets of health care proposals advocated by Democrats running for president. The first, a “public option” plan, is similar to proposals from Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg and other candidates. It would allow most Americans to buy insurance from the government and make other changes that would enable fewer people to go without coverage, but it would preserve much of the existing health insurance system.

The second, a “Medicare for all” plan introduced by Bernie Sanders and endorsed by Elizabeth Warren, would replace most Americans’ current health insurance with a generous government-run plan that covers more benefits. (Kamala Harris wants to replace the existing system with a mix of new public and private options, but there are not yet rigorous cost estimates for such a plan.)

When critics say that a single-payer system will be expensive, they are usually talking about the increase in federal spending — the size of the red box above. When Medicare for all enthusiasts say it would not increase spending much, they are talking about the size of the entire chart.

[Interactive: the size of the entire chart doesn’t change, no matter which option you go for.]

That’s why it could be true both that Medicare for all would require substantial tax increases and that it would leave many or most American families better off financially.

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I’m constantly amazed that Americans can’t grasp this. If the government pays for your health care, then you cut out the insurance companies and all the other middlemen who are happily taking a profit. Presently it’s a “distorted market that involves larger transfers from taxpayers to insurers”, to quote the White House in 2018. Health insurance companies made $47bn of profit on $545bn of revenues in just the second quarter of 2018. They benefit from people not getting the best service, or from maximising their charges. That’s not aligned with what people, or government, wants.
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Exclusive: WhatsApp hacked to spy on top government officials at US allies • Reuters

Christopher Bing and Raphael Satter:

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Senior government officials in multiple US-allied countries were targeted earlier this year with hacking software that used Facebook’s WhatsApp to take over users’ phones, according to people familiar with the messaging company’s investigation.

Sources familiar with WhatsApp’s internal investigation into the breach said a “significant” portion of the known victims are high-profile government and military officials spread across at least 20 countries on five continents.

The hacking of a wider group of top government officials’ smartphones than previously reported suggests the WhatsApp cyber intrusion could have broad political and diplomatic consequences.

WhatsApp filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Israeli hacking tool developer NSO Group. The Facebook-owned software giant alleges that NSO Group built and sold a hacking platform that exploited a flaw in WhatsApp-owned servers to help clients hack into the cellphones of at least 1,400 users…

…Some victims are in the United States, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Mexico, Pakistan and India, said people familiar with the investigation. Reuters could not verify whether victims from these countries included government officials.

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Principal suspects of doing the hacking: China, Russia, Israel. The US might have, but hasn’t had much motive lately.
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Editorial: Apple isn’t revamping its HomeKit team, but maybe it should • Apple Insider

William Gallagher disputes Bloomberg’s report that Apple is “revamping” its HomeKit team:

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Bloomberg is right that HomeKit devices lag far behind Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home ones. We might wish that both of those companies were more privacy and security conscious as Apple is, but if you pick up a smart device, it’s certainly going to work with them.

And whatever the smart device is that you want, there will be an Amazon and a Google one, there may well not be an Apple HomeKit one. That’s particularly true internationally, but even within the US, your range of products is quite limited.

Apple has made a move that could be designed to help this. It’s announced HomeKit Secure Video as part of iOS 13, which will store your security footage on Apple’s servers. That will unquestionably make HomeKit cameras more appealing to buyers because it will doubtlessly be convenient, plus it’s easier to trust Apple with your footage than it is an unknown third-party.

Yet although firms such as Logitech have said that they will support HomeKit Secure Video, it’s not likely to see a rush of vendors. That’s because home security firms don’t just rely on selling you a camera, they need you to buy services such as footage storage and retrieval.

If Apple made a camera, you’d call HomeKit Security Video a killer feature, especially as a certain amount of the storage will be free if you already pay for extra iCloud storage.

What it needs is HomeKit evangelism, like how it sold Macs back in the day.

Where Apple could make a killer feature that made HomeKit more appealing and yet didn’t drive away other vendors, is in its existing products.

The Apple TV and HomePod, for instance, are already able to act as a HomeKit hub in your house. It’s there, it’s plugged in, it’s working with HomeKit. What would it take for Apple to embed a mesh Wi-Fi system into that same hardware.

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Either Apple has some 3D-chess strategy here, or it’s got nothing. But it’s making it impossible to tell which. Soon though it won’t be able to catch up; people will have plumped for one of the rival ecosystems. (Thanks Clive H for the link.)
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Google Pixel 4 XL review: not quite ready for primetime • The Guardian

Samuel Gibbs:

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for every feature that’s good, there’s a problem that needs fixing. The screen’s great, but not always at 90Hz and not always bright enough, and the battery life just isn’t long enough for a top-end phone in 2019.

The fact that the new Assistant doesn’t work when you have a G Suite account on your phone – a product made and sold to companies by Google – is frankly embarrassing. As is the oversight that some may want to make sure they’re actually looking at their phone with their eyes before it unlocks – Apple knew this and has had it in Face ID for three years.

The biggest issue for me, however, is that the Android app ecosystem just isn’t ready for a phone that has dumped the fingerprint sensor. Face Unlock is genuinely great. A transformational leap just as Face ID was three years ago on the iPhone X, but only when it works. And it doesn’t work in my banking apps, my security apps or Evernote. Only one app I routinely use a fingerprint with supports Face Unlock.

That situation will change once all the apps have been updated, but I’m not holding my breath for the very slow-moving banks to support Face Unlock any time soon, and that’s a real problem.

The Pixel 4 XL is therefore a very hard phone to grade. Once Google fixes the problems and apps have been updated, the only thing really holding the phone back is below-average battery life. If that’s something you can live with, and you trust Google to fix things, then by all means buy the Pixel 4 XL.

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Huawei Mate 30 set to be launched in Europe in mid-November • Techgarage

Pascal Landolt:

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According to our own well-informed sources based in China, Huawei seems to be gearing up to launch the Mate 30 and Mate 30 pro in Europe starting mid-November, possibly on November 15th.

A complete list of included countries hasn’t been released yet but according to our contact we can expect “the usual suspects” – meaning countries often involved in the first wave of Huawei launches. Which would mean that the Mate 30 Series will launch mid-November in the following countries: Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Great Britain and Switzerland.

Could it even be possible that Huawei‘s own foldable phone, the Mate X, might be launched around the same time? Both models are already available in China’s domestic market and the Mate X especially is overdue in Europe by now, especially seeing that competitor Samsung has already launched its foldable Galaxy Fold a few weeks ago on the old continent.

What else do we know about the Mate 30 Series from Huawei? For one, it is confirmed that the devices will be shipping with Android 10 as OS and a preloaded HMS (Huawei Mobile Services) Suite instead of the more traditional GMS (Google Mobile Services). Which means you’re not getting Google Maps, the Chrome Browser or other Google Apps straight out of the box.

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Can’t see how this will possibly be anything other than a huge burden for any carrier that sells it because of the customer support (“no, there isn’t Google Maps..”). And it’s not cheap – €799 to €1,199.
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7 thoughts on “Start Up No.1,179: politics v Twitter v Facebook, California’s next century, Rudy Guiliani – too cybersecure!, the WhatsApp hack, and more

    • Samuel is well known for his impartial reviews. I’ve looked at reviews for the Pixel on Android Authority and Android Police. They said much the same: battery life is a problem, Soli makes little sense, Face Unlock is clever but needs app makers to update.
      At some point you need to accept that Google laid an egg on this one.

      • 1- It’s clear the latest Pixel is less overwhelmingly excellent that the previous one (which went fairly unmentioned here): camera no longer a length ahead, iffy battery (like all iPhones before the 11 family, not sure that ever got mentioned ^^), dubious Soli (where 3DTouch was so overwhelmingly genius it’s getting dropped despite all the praise the usual quarters heaped on it), par-for-the-course rest.
        2- I’m not talking about the review itself but your choice of the worst-sounding byline. The other sites you mention had: “Pixel 4 and 4 XL review: Every Pixel has a silver lining” and “Google Pixel 4 XL review: Untapped potential “. You also regularly use The Verge.
        2b- I’ll also claim general bias in your choice of Android news and reviews though, of course. You must be aware of that ? Where’s the news about Huawei holding up well (you did forecast doom and gloom for this quarter a while back, follow-up seems only … fair), of the Note saving Samsung’s bacon this quarter…
        3- Again, this is the context of choosing a fawning reviewer last time for I don’t remember which iDevice.

        Bias is acceptable I guess, this is your blog and you don’t claim fairness. But being called out on it from time to time is to be expected ?

      • Also, frankly, it’s kind of funny how iffy battery life became unacceptable in some quarters the minute iPhones rose above iffyness.
        Gsmarena rate the Pixel 4XL on par with an iPhone XS, and other sites rate both Pixels at the same duration (gsmarena doesn’t rate the 4). Conclusion is: all the bad things being said (and repeated, here) about the Pixel 4&XL battery coulda-shoulda been said about the iPhone XS.

        Were they ?

        And the “‘but it’s 2019 now” argument doesn’t fly. Our days didn’t get longer. Our usage of phones didn’t suddenly increase. A lot of us have been aware of battery issues for years and… were in 2019… (?) 4 years ago using other phones with solid batteries.

        So especially on the pro-Apple side (I’m not allowed to mention bubbles), mentioning the Pixels’ battery issue when the iPhones-before-11’s wasn’t is just… Trumpy.

      • Just to clarify things, I’m not in love with Google. Like all corps they’re devoted to profit and do a bunch of evil stuff. I do dislike them less than most corps, mostly because
        – they invented a way to monetize tech that makes it accessible to most everyone. They’re overdoing it on the tracking side though. Also, they’re not ashamed of going for cheap, allegedly Eric Schmidt told Raspberry’s Eben Upton to go cheap if he wanted success.
        – they’re tech-driven which is more to my taste than image- or design-driven. Fuchsia is exciting, as is Flutter, as Wave was; their camera work is amazing (no longer the end result, but still the wrong-footing of e.g. a Xiaomi’s brute force dumbness)
        – they might be slightly less evil and are certainly more transparent/FOSS, even if that’s quite self-serving/hypocritical too. But stuff like Android’s sideloading, Takeout, Android’s FOSS core, almost everything they do being cross-platform… is nice. (if, again, self-serving).
        – Mostly, I’ve got issues with Apple, and people mistake my dislike of Apple for a love of Google. Google is useful as a counter/alternative to Apple, the only one left when MS, Palm and Nokia just flubbed everything. I don’t want a future a $500+phones when $150 is enough, of not being able to run any app we want, of crazy lock-in (all corps turn either evil or inbred in the end, see MS : they lost me when they chose to make WinPhone bad so it looked like Windows, and when they hacked the IEEE process), of style above function, of political shenanigans, of PR-driven everything. Plus Apple gets a lot of stolen credit, which is maddening.

        I’m not using Google’s email. nor maps. nor browser. nor phones. nor ChromeCast/Books, nor Nest. Nor loudspeakers. I’m putting more effort into avoiding Google stuff than even most iUsers are.

        /rant.

  1. Compromising only works if the other side genuinely wants to compromise. As we saw with Obamacare (in which they compromised a lot and still didn’t get any votes from the GOP), there are risks being the only one willing to compromise.

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