Start Up No.1196: Berners-Lee calls for halt on political ads, the dumbest smartwatch, China’s pork crisis, crypto’s scammers, and more

The new alternative to Uber, which has had its licence revoked in London. CC-licensed photo by torbakhopper on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Boomer or whimper? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee attacks Tories over misinformation • BBC News

Rory Cellan-Jones:


The inventor of the World Wide Web has accused the Conservatives of spreading misinformation during the general election campaign.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee described the renaming of a Tory Twitter account as a fact checking body as “impersonation”.

“That was really brazen,” he told the BBC. “It was unbelievable they would do that.”

During a live TV leaders’ debate on Tuesday the Tory press office account @CCHQ was rebranded “factcheckuk”.

The renaming remained for the duration of the hour-long debate between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. The Conservatives have said “no one will have been fooled” by the move.

But Sir Tim said the renaming “was impersonation. Don’t do that. Don’t trust people who do that.”
He went on to compare what happened with someone impersonating a friend for the purpose of defrauding them. “What the Conservative Party has done is obviously a no no. That’s amazingly blatant,” Sir Tim said.

The Conservative Party has yet to respond to a BBC request for comment on Sir Tim’s criticism, but has previously insisted that it was clear at all times that the Twitter account belonged to the party.

The web’s creator also called on Facebook to stop allowing targeted political adverts. He issued a personal appeal to the company’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, to ban them before the election. Sir Tim said: “It’s not fair to risk democracy by allowing all these very subtle manipulations with targeted ads which promote completely false ideas. They do it just before the election, and then disappear.”


It wasn’t clear, but it feels like this was an own goal for the Conservatives: it undermines trust.
link to this extract

Cheap kids smartwatch exposes the location of 5,000+ children • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:


A cheap $35 kids’ smartwatch made in China was caught exposing the personal details and location information for more than 5,000 children and their parents.

In a report published today by the Internet of Things testing division of AV-TEST, researchers said they found egregious security measures put in place to protect the backend and mobile app of the M2 smartwatch, made by Chinese company SMA.

“The Chinese SMA-WATCH-M2 tops the security failures of other manufacturers by far,” said Maik Morgenstern, CEO and the Technical Director of AV-TEST, whose team has been testing kids smartwatches for more than two years.

The SMA W2 kids smartwatch has been around for years. It was designed to work with a companion mobile app. Parents would register an account on the SMA service, pair their child’s smartwatch to their phone, and use the app to track the kid’s location, make voice calls, or get notifications when the child would leave a designated area.

The concept is not new, as there are plenty of similar products on the market, varying in prices from $30 to $200-$300. However, Morgenstern suggests that SMA created one of the most insecure products on the market.

For starters, Morgenstern says anyone can query the smartwatch’s backend via a publicly accessible web API. This is the same backend where the mobile app also connects to retrieve the data it shows on parents’ phones.

Morgenstern says there’s an authentication token in place that’s supposedly there to prevent unauthorized access, but attackers can supply any token they like, as the server never verifies its validity.


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Hours of daylight mapped as a function of latitude and time of year • FlowingData

Nathan Yau:


Reddit user harpalss animated hours of day light by latitude and day of year. Just let it hypnotize you.

They used this formula to calculate daylight hours.


Wonderful idea and execution. (Via Sophie Warnes’s Fair Warning.)
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Uber is fighting to survive in London after losing its licence • The New York Times

Adam Satariano and Amie Tsang:


London is one of Uber’s most lucrative markets, but also home to some of its most contentious struggles with government authorities. The company has been in a battle to retain its license in the British capital for years.

In 2017, authorities in London also revoked Uber’s license for, among other reasons, poor oversight of drivers. Uber appealed the decision and was granted a 15-month license after it agreed to more government supervision and several policy changes, including adopting rules on how to report incidents to the police, keeping tired drivers off the road and naming a new independent board to oversee British operations.

City authorities acknowledged that Uber “has made a number of positive changes and improvement to its culture, leadership and systems,” but said it had not gone far enough. The company’s license was due to expire at 11:59 p.m. on Monday.

The transport authority said one main issue was a flaw in Uber’s system that let unauthorized drivers sneak onto it. The drivers sidestepped rules by colluding with authorized drivers to pick up riders under their account. At least 14,000 trips were conducted by at least 43 drivers using the workaround.

“This means all the journeys were uninsured and some passenger journeys took place with unlicensed drivers,” Transport for London said.

This practice, known as “account spoofing,” is a challenge for gig-economy platforms to police. Food delivery companies have also seen people working under the accounts of others to sidestep policies.

London officials cited other safety deficiencies at Uber, including instances when dismissed or suspended drivers were able to create another account. Transport for London found several examples in which drivers did not have the correct insurance. The regulators said that because of the volume of problems, they had lost faith in Uber’s ability to improve.


Astonishing what happens when you have a regulator that’s actually prepared to regulate. Do we really think that these unauthorised rides only happen in London?
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‘Not enough pork in the world’ to deal with China’s demand for meat • The Guardian

Bibi van der Zee:


Pork imports into China have also rocketed. In September last year 94 million kg were shipped in, but the ASF [Asian swine flu] crisis has pushed imports to 161m kg this year and officials are now rushing to certify farms in Brazil, Ireland and several other countries for export at an unprecedented rate to satisfy demand. Two weeks ago, they lifted a ban on imports from Canada.

As a result pork prices are rising outside China too. Europe has seen a jump of at least 35% since the beginning of the year. “The problem is that total global pork exports in 2018 were 8m tonnes, and China is short 24 million,” said Claxton. “There just isn’t enough pork in the world to fill the gap.”

African swine fever is a highly contagious virus which is fatal to pigs. It is extremely hardy, can survive being cooked and processed, and will endure in frozen meat for a number of years. It is transmitted directly between animals, or by the feeding of infected meat, and there have also been cases of infected animal feed.

ASF has been circulating in Europe for a number of years, but it began to spread at a more rapid rate last year. It is now reported in more than 40 countries, and earlier this week was discovered to have leapt 300km across Poland from its easternmost provinces to farms near its western border.

Alistair Driver of UK monthly magazine Pig World said this was extremely concerning. “That is just 70km from the German border, and Germany is one of the largest pork exporters in the world.”


Who had “pig pandemic” creating a world trade crisis in 2019?
link to this extract

Rev transcribers face low pay and disturbing recordings • The Verge

Dani Deahl:


One transcriber working for Rev says that, for them, the recordings that graphically detail someone being abused or assaulted are the most difficult to get through. For other transcribers at Rev, it’s the videos from police body cams that show dead bodies and people who have been attacked, or files where children talk about where an abuser touched them. “Of course, I have the option not to work on such files, but I have no way of knowing what I’m clicking on until I hear it,” the Revver says. A Rev transcriber can choose from a long list of largely unidentified recordings when picking what to work on. The trouble is, a file submitted under the “legal” category might be “a corporate law meeting,” the Revver says, or “a police recording with someone screaming in distress.”

Rev made headlines this month after it slashed minimum pay for its transcribers from 45 cents per audio / video minute transcribed to 30 cents. The company justified the change by saying it was also increasing the pay for more difficult files, and so, ultimately, the amount paid out to transcribers would be about the same. But even though Rev says the changes will only affect a “very small number of jobs,” workers say they are seeing substantial pay cuts because of the change — and for some, the work increasingly isn’t worth the time and stress…

…Nearly every Revver who spoke with The Verge said they were exposed to graphic or troubling material on multiple occasions with no warning. This includes recordings of physical and verbal abuse between intimate partners, graphic descriptions of sexual assault, amateur porn, violent footage from police body cameras, a transphobic rant, and, in one instance, “a breast augmentation filmed by a physician’s cell phone, being performed on a patient who was under sedation.”

It doesn’t bother everyone, but for some, it can be overwhelming. “I’ve finished more than one file in tears because listening to someone talk about being abused or assaulted is emotionally taxing, and frankly I have no training or expertise that really helps me cope with it,” one Revver tells The Verge.


Also: the pay rate is set by an algorithm. Hard to know how it could be worse.
link to this extract

Study: almost half of new cancer patients lose their entire life savings • Insider

Lana Bandoim:


According to a new study published in the American Journal of Medicine, 42% of new cancer patients lose all of their life savings in two years because of treatment. The average amount a cancer patient lost was $92,098.

After tracking 9.5 million cancer patients from 2000 to 2012, researchers also learned that 62% of all cancer patients are in debt because of their treatment, and 55% of them owe at least $10,000.

Overall, the total medical costs for cancer are $80bn in the US.

Even if you have insurance, it may not cover all the medical costs associated with cancer. From high deductibles to large copayments, cancer patients can end up with a huge stack of bills.


That figure for “total medical costs” is completely made up. It could be any number, depending how you decide to allocate the cost of drugs, hospital time and doctors. You could also factor in the “cost” to the economy of sick people who aren’t able to contribute because they don’t have any money because it went on cancer treatment they can’t afford. And yet there are Americans who find the idea of publicly funded healthcare repellent.

Also: 1 in 2 women, and 1 in 3 men, will develop cancer during their lifetime.
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The secret life and strange death of Quadriga founder Gerald Cotten • Vanity Fair

Nathaniel Rich:


Cotten returned for [sailing] lessons the following summer, though not as often. He was busy. Then, in December, Robertson called Sunnybrook to explain that Gerry, while on their honeymoon in Jaipur, had died suddenly. She wanted to sell the Gulliver. When national news articles began to appear a month later, they emphasized another detail: Cotten was the only person with the passwords to the accounts holding Quadriga’s funds—cryptocurrency and cash—worth approximately a quarter billion U.S. dollars. Nobody knew how to find the money.

The yacht salesman had questions, though it was not his job to ask questions. More than 75,000 Quadriga account holders also had questions. The Nova Scotia Supreme Court declared the company bankrupt and selected the accounting firm Ernst & Young to serve as its third-party monitor, responsible for securing the lost funds belonging to Quadriga’s creditors. Additional investigations were begun by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police; the FBI; and at least two other law enforcement agencies that have not been publicly disclosed (though one of them is likely a federal agency in Japan). The most effective and thorough investigation to date, however, has been conducted by anonymous accounts posting on Twitter, Reddit, Pastebin, and Telegram. Their findings, though baroquely technical, could be distilled to a two-word conclusion:

Gerry’s alive.


Odd how the story’s essentially the same with “the missing cryptoqueen” (about another cryptocoin, OneCoin): huge promise around a cryptocurrency, and then the central person vanishes abruptly and a fortune is unspoken for. With OneCoin, it was a more straightforward pyramid scheme. (Meanwhile, bitcoin is swooning nicely for Thanksgiving as people sell their positions to get some money they can use to buy actual things.)
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OK Boomer, who’s going to buy your 21 million homes? • WSJ

Laura Kusisto:


By 2037, one quarter of the US for-sale housing stock, or roughly 21 million homes, will be vacated by seniors. That is more than twice the number of new properties built during a 10-year period that spanned the last housing bubble.

Most of these homes will be concentrated in traditional retirement communities in Arizona and Florida, according to Zillow, or parts of the Rust Belt that have been losing population for decades. A more modest infusion of new housing is expected in pricey coastal neighborhoods of New York or San Francisco where younger Americans are still flocking in large numbers.

On the face of it, this doesn’t sound all bad. Dying homeowners have always needed to be replaced by younger ones and the US has for a number of years suffered from a shortage of housing, a development that has dampened recent home sales activity and kept many millennials stuck in rentals.

But the buyers coming behind the baby boomers, the Gen Xers, are a smaller and more financially precarious generation with different preferences, posing a new kind of test for the housing market.

One problem is that the bulk of the supply won’t necessarily be in places where these new buyers want to live. Gen Xers and the younger millennials have shown thus far they would rather be in cities or suburbs in major metropolitan areas that offer strong Wi-Fi and plenty of shops and restaurants within walking distance—like the Frisco suburbs of Dallas or the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.


Doesn’t it just mean that the homes will sell for less than the boomers had hoped? The bigger problem is going to be those Florida homes: the climate crisis is going to make them close to unsaleable quite quickly.

Going to be a thing in the UK too, I expect.
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YouTube Masthead is a massive auto-playing video ad for TV • 9to5Google

Ben Schoon:


Earlier this year YouTube tested a huge new ad format for its TV experience called a Masthead. Today, that new ad format is rolling out widely to all users.

Announced in a brief post, YouTube says that its beta test of this new ad format was successful in select markets leading to the now global rollout of the Masthead ad format. The new format is available to all advertisers on a CPM basis as part of a cross-screen advertising campaign on YouTube.

YouTube’s Masthead ad format is not subtle by any means, appearing over the entire top portion of the TV app. Further, that ad auto-plays silently and expands to full-size when the user hovers over the ad. Advertisers, such as FOX, call this “first of its kind” initiative a “fantastic way” to promote its content. The TV network has been using the YouTube Masthead to promote its hit show The Masked Singer.


Autoplaying, unskippable (unlike the ads that come on broadcast or cable TV that you might watch with a digital video recorder, aka DVR). The only way to avoid them is to sign up to the paid-for YouTube Premium. TV advertising in the modern internet age begins to look a lot like it did in the 1950s – more targeted, but no less annoying.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

6 thoughts on “Start Up No.1196: Berners-Lee calls for halt on political ads, the dumbest smartwatch, China’s pork crisis, crypto’s scammers, and more

  1. The problem with the empty houses being where the jobs aren’t is also visible in Sweden, where the refugee influx has mostly been settled in housing built in the Sixties and Seventies to serve industrial jobs which vanished 20 or 30 years ago. This is going to lead to a lot of social tension and is desperately unfair on everyone involved – even if a largely abandoned housing estate in the Swedish provinces is still a huge improvement on a refugee camp in Syria or south east Turkey, and probably a whole lot warmer now that winter’s coming on.

  2. “It wasn’t clear, but it feels like this was an own goal for the Conservatives: it undermines trust.”

    But isn’t that exactly what they want: undermine trust and replace it with control (by a strong leader)?

  3. YouTube ads are, for now, killed by good adblockers, I’m on uBlock Origin on my PC and Android browsers and don’t see a single ad, which is so nice I’ve stopped using the YouTube app. Nice to have a real browser with real add-ons on Android !
    I’ve got a PiHole (+home-based VPN for my Mobiles) project on track for this Yuletide holiday, now that I just got Fiber at home so the bandwidth and ping for it. That should put the app back in play ? We’ll see.
    If that works well I’ll add a Pi-based ownCloud and BitTorrent Sync and cut Google Drive. I’m getting weary of my reliance on Cloud ( ie, “some else’s computer”) and Synology (in case it dies, that’ll be $500 + one week, vs a spare $50 Pi I can have laying about, an SD swap away from taking over.

  4. “In September last year 94 million kg were shipped in, but the ASF [Asian swine flu]”

    It’s not the “Asian swine flu.” It’s the “African swine fever.”

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