Start Up No.1200: China forces face scans for mobile, fake news and fake viewers, EU looks again at Google, iPhone = iPod?, and more

Reversing cameras are now obligatory on cars in the US: what’s the economic justification? CC-licensed photo by Maria Palma on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. “The right to carry narwhal tusks and fire extinguishers”. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

China due to introduce face scans for mobile users • BBC News


People in China are now required to have their faces scanned when registering new mobile phone services, as the authorities seek to verify the identities of the country’s hundreds of millions of internet users.

The regulation, announced in September, was due to come into effect on Sunday.

The government says it wants to “protect the legitimate rights and interest of citizens in cyberspace”. China already uses facial recognition technology to survey its population. It is a world leader in such technologies, but their intensifying use across the country in recent years has sparked debate.

When signing up for new mobile or mobile data contracts, people are already required to show their national identification card (as required in many countries) and have their photos taken. But now, they will also have their faces scanned in order to verify that they are a genuine match for the ID provided…

…When the regulations were announced in September, the Chinese media did not make a big deal of it.

But online, hundreds of social media users voiced concerns about the increasing amount of data being held on them.
“People are being more and more strictly monitored,” one user of the Sina Weibo microblogging website said. “What are they [the government] afraid of?”


Increasingly creepy; but what’s more concerning is that it creates a sort of mission creep for other countries: they can say, when they introduce new biometric requirements, that “it’s not as bad as China’s” – which will be true, but no less intrusive and concerning because of the potential for abuse. (Imagine the Trump administration with a facial recognition database of citizens.)
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Rear Visibility and some unresolved problems for economic analysis • SSRN

Cass Sunstein:


Rearview cameras produce a set of benefits that are hard to quantify, including increased ease of driving, and those benefits might have been made a part of “breakeven analysis,” accompanying standard cost-benefit analysis.

In addition, rearview cameras significantly improve the experience of driving, and it is plausible to think that in deciding whether to demand them, many vehicle purchasers did not sufficiently anticipate that improvement.

This is a problem of limited foresight; rearview cameras are “experience goods.” A survey conducted in 2019 strongly supports this proposition, finding that about 56% of consumers would demand at least $300 to buy a car without a rearview camera, and that fewer than 6% would demand $50 or less. Almost all of that 6% consists of people who do not own a car with a rearview camera. (The per-person cost is usually under $50.)

These conclusions have general implications for other domains in which regulation has the potential to improve social welfare, even if it fails standard cost-benefit analysis; the defining category involves situations in which people lack experience with a good whose provision might have highly beneficial welfare effects.


The US has made rear-view cameras obligatory since 2014, and (even) the Trump administration backed that in 2018. Sunstein points out that “it is not easy to identify a market failure to justify the regulation”. The long list of “backover” stories (children killed or injured by reversing vehicles) suggests that’s because it’s difficult to value a child’s life.
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Episode 203: Tech Election – Part 2 • Talking Politics podcast


We talk about the impact of different online platforms on the general election campaign, from Twitter and Facebook to WhatsApp and TikTok. Is micro-targeting getting more sophisticated? Is viral messaging getting more important? Or are traditional electioneering techniques still driving voter engagement? Plus we ask whether there’s any scope left for a ‘December surprise’. With Charles Arthur, former technology editor of the Guardian, and Jennifer Cobbe, from the Cambridge Trust and Technology Initiative.


One comment on this was “you’re usually a world class podcast, but this episode was really boring”. Knock yourself out.
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Sham news sites make big bucks from fake views • BBC News

Vivienne Nunis:


Often the sites are not designed to be seen by human eyes at all. The website also – at first glance – appears to be a regular news site for a city in south Texas. There are stories about local residents and President Trump’s border wall with Mexico.

But the stories have no publication date. There are no contact details for the editorial staff and the site loads slowly due to the large number of ads. Yet the site has had 3.7 million page views over the past three months, according to data from analytics firm SimilarWeb.

Not bad for a news site covering a city of just 260,000 people.

But the audience is fake. Bots are used to give the impression of high traffic, generating very real revenue for the site’s creators.

“We estimate each site is making at least $100,000 [£77,450] a month,” said Vlad Shevtsov, director of investigations at Social Puncher, the firm that exposed a number of fraudulent news sites. The organisation says ad fraud is a million-dollar industry.

Dig a little deeper into the Laredo Tribune’s user data, and there are other clues it is not legitimate. Advertisers might ask why there were 500,000 page views in September, which jumped to a staggering three million views in October.

Ads for major UK brands including Virgin Media, Superdrug and even TV Licensing were all displayed on related sham news sites seen by the BBC.

“We hope more can be done across the industry to clamp down on these instances of pay-per-con advertising fraud,” said a Virgin Media spokesman.

Google says the Laredo Tribune does not breach its advertising rules, and it found no issues with traffic to the site.

“That means that next month, the anonymous owner will get the next payout cheque from Google,” said Mr Shevtsov.


Google not realising that the site is fake is a bad sign – for Google, and for everyone else trying to run a legitimate news site.
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Exclusive: EU antitrust regulators say they are investigating Google’s data collection • Reuters

Foo Yun Chee:


EU antitrust regulators are investigating Google’s collection of data, the European Commission told Reuters on Saturday, suggesting the world’s most popular internet search engine remains in its sights despite record fines in recent years.

Competition enforcers on both sides of the Atlantic are now looking into how dominant tech companies use and monetise data.

The EU executive said it was seeking information on how and why Alphabet unit Google is collecting data, confirming a Reuters story on Friday.

“The Commission has sent out questionnaires as part of a preliminary investigation into Google’s practices relating to Google’s collection and use of data. The preliminary investigation is ongoing,” the EU regulator told Reuters in an email.

A document seen by Reuters shows the EU’s focus is on data related to local search services, online advertising, online ad targeting services, login services, web browsers and others.

European Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager has handed down fines totalling more than €8bn to Google in the last two years and ordered it to change its business practices.


Google’s not going to change its business practices.
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On being proud to be British • Medium

Martin Shapland:


James Ford is the man wielding the fire extinguisher [against the attacker on London Bridge who killed two people with a knife]. He murdered a 21-yr-old [Amanda Champion, aged 21] who had learning difficulties in 2004, for which he is coming to the end of a lengthy life sentence.

He happened to be at the same event [as the London Bridge attacker] on rehabilitation on day release and helped to stop another man murdering more than he managed. What does it say about Britishness? Are we unredeemable? In another age he would have been put to death for his crime, he’s no hero, but does he, and we, deserve a second chance?

And then there is the attacker. Usman Khan. Previously convicted for acts of terrorism in 2012. Clearly unredeemable and incapable of rehabilitation. Yet he too was British and part of our story.


The fact that one man defending the public is a convicted killer, and that the man attacking the public hadn’t killed anyone (because he had been stopped first) is a stunning detail. The parents of Ford’s victim did not, and do not, forgive him; it was in some ways a more brutal murder than those Khan carried out. The death penalty might have satisfied Champion’s parents, yet denied someone their life in this present day if Ford hadn’t been there.
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Scrapping paper car tax discs has cost nearly £300million • Daily Mail

Tom Payne:


Scrapping the paper car tax discs has led to a surge in fee dodging and cost nearly £300m, the Daily Mail can reveal.

Ministers claimed moving the system online would cut costs and reduce tax evasion. But the changes have led to a dramatic rise in motorists either deliberately dodging tax or forgetting to pay it. It means the Treasury has lost an estimated £281m since 2014.

Last night, critics described the scheme as a failure and said the millions could have been spent on improving our crumbling roads. Steve Gooding, director of the RAC Foundation, said: “Getting a piece of paper to stick in the windscreen might seem a quaint idea in the digital age, but what we’ve lost is the daily reminder it provided for all to see when the next payment was due.”

…Roadside surveys by the DVLA reveal that losses from car tax were around £35m in 2013/14 – the last year when discs were in use. But this has risen to £94m in 2019 alone, with an ‘upper estimate’ of £281m since 2014. Some tax will be reclaimed or repaid later, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency (DVLA) said.

…The coloured disc system was overhauled by then-Chancellor George Osborne as part of a ‘Red Tape Challenge’ to streamline services. Every vehicle’s tax status is now kept on a DVLA computer and drivers are automatically posted or emailed reminders. But evidence shows renewal letters can be sent to old addresses or are missed in mountains of junk mail.

Of those found dodging tax, 54% were caught two months after they should have renewed – suggesting the evasion is accidental. The increase is being blamed on another change in the system that requires drivers to pay tax every time a vehicle changes hands.


I’d guess that intentional dodging is made easier by this – register the vehicle to an old or fake address. But police can check automatically whether a vehicle is taxed. It’s an enforcement gap.
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SMS replacement is exposing users to text, call interception thanks to sloppy telcos • VICE

Joseph Cox:


SRLabs didn’t find an issue in the RCS standard itself, but rather how it is being implemented by different telecos. Because some of the standard is undefined, there’s a good chance companies may deploy it in their own way and make mistakes.

“Everybody seems to get it wrong right now, but in different ways,” Nohl said. SRLabs took a sample of SIM cards from a variety of carriers and checked for RCS-related domains, and then looked into particular security issues with each. SRLabs didn’t say which issues impacted which particular telecos.

Some of those issues include how devices receive RCS configuration files. In one instance, a server provides the configuration file for the right device by identifying them by their IP address. But because they also use that IP address, “Any app that you install on your phone, even if you give it no permissions whatsoever, it can request this file. So now every app can get your username and password to all your text messages and all your voice calls. That’s unexpected,” Nohl said.

In another instance, a teleco sends a text message with a six-digit code to verify that the RCS user is who they say they are, but “then give you an unlimited number of tries” to input the code, Nohl said. “One million attempts takes five minutes,” he added, meaning that it could be possible to brute force through the authentication process.

“All of these mistakes from the 90s are being reinvented, reintroduced,” Nohl said. “It is being rolled out for upwards of a billion people already who are all affected by this.”


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This iPhone app will make you nostalgic for the iPod click wheel • The Verge

Tom Warren:


An iOS developer is building an iPhone app that will turn the smartphone into an iPod Classic with its nostalgic click wheel. Elvin Hu, a design student at Cooper Union college in New York City, has been working on the project since October, and shared an early look at the app on Twitter on Thursday. It essentially turns your iPhone into a fullscreen iPod Classic with a click wheel that includes haptic feedback and click sounds just like Apple’s original device.

It has generated a lot of interest on Twitter, with even the “father of the iPod,” Tony Fadell, noting it’s a “nice throwback.” Hu built the app because he was working on a paper about the development of the iPod at school. “I’ve always been a fan of Apple products since I was a kid,” revealed Hu in an email to The Verge. “Before my family could afford one, I would draw the UI layout of iPhone on lids of Ferrero Rocher boxes. Their products (among other products, such as Windows Vista and Zune HD) have greatly influenced my decision of pursuing design as a career.”


It’s a lovely concept, though apparently he’s waiting to see whether Apple will approve it because of patents and IP and so on. Fingers crossed he gets the thumbs-up: it’s exactly what Steve Jobs described about the flexibility of having a screen rather than a keyboard: that you can turn the phone into any app you want. Including the thing it replaced.
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Britain fights its last election, again • The Atlantic

Tom McTague:


Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s core strategy is to embrace radicalism, and in doing so feed off the publicity it generates, turning Tory attack lines into free campaign commercials. Each Labour policy is actively designed to impose costs, not avoid them, on the minority of Britons who have large assets, income, or wealth, and to redistribute it across the population. Criticism of these policies, therefore, in Labour’s eyes, only serves to elevate them in the public consciousness.

This is, in effect, the same strategy the party employed in 2017, when it won far more seats than expected but still fell well short of a parliamentary majority. It comes through clearly in its latest manifesto, which promises to increase day-to-day government outlays by £80 billion ($103 billion) a year to pay for a slate of new giveaways. The scale of the proposed spending spree means that for every extra pound the Conservatives are proposing to spend if elected, Labour is offering 28. The crux of Labour’s plan, however, is not so much the scale of the spending but the proposal to load all of the extra tax burden onto the top 5% of earners. Corbyn and his aides are betting that the more the Tories attack Labour’s manifesto, the more the 95% of the country that would benefit from the Labour plan will hear about it. In other words, they have taken the strategy that failed to win the last election, and doubled down on it.

Despite emerging from the 2017 contest with the most votes and the most seats, the Tories, by comparison, had thrown away their slender majority in a vote they seemed all but guaranteed to win—and win big. It was a historic debacle that eventually cost Theresa May her job and the Conservative Party the chance to enact the version of Brexit it wanted. This year, under a new leader but with a strikingly similar offer, it is now crystal clear what the Tories have concluded went wrong the first time: Whereas May claimed it was because they allowed Labour to paint them “as the voice of continuity,” Johnson has decided they offered voters far too much change last time.


Terrific analysis about the strange times we live in – and how a Lynton Crosby memo from 2017 that was ignored now seems to form the core of the Tories’ approach.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1200: China forces face scans for mobile, fake news and fake viewers, EU looks again at Google, iPhone = iPod?, and more

  1. Emulators are fun. You’ve got them for Sinclair ZXs and HP calculators too, for those of us who aren’t 100% into only Apple products w/ appropriate references to the messiah.

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