Start Up No.1209: the podcasters hacking Ring cameras, Strava drives London’s cyclists, Apple’s influential journalists, the Apple non-tax, and more


Do you like this stuff? Then you’re probably the sort of person who picks politicians nobody cares for. Marketers love you. CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. A minority view. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Inside the podcast that hacks Ring camera owners live on air • VICE

Joseph Cox and Jason Koebler:

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“Sit back and relax to over 45 minutes of entertainment,” an advertisement for the podcast posted to a hacking forum called Nulled reads. “Join us as we go on completely random tangents such as; Ring & Nest Trolling, telling shelter owners we killed a kitten, Nulled drama, and more ridiculous topics. Be sure to join our Discord to watch the shows live.”

Software to hack Ring cameras has recently become popular on the forum. The software churns through previously compromised email addresses and passwords to break into Ring cameras at scale. This has led to a recent spate of hacks that have occurred both during the podcast and at other times, several of which have been covered by local media outlets. In Brookhaven a hacker shouted at a sleeping woman through her hacked Ring camera to wake-up. In Texas, a hacker demanded a couple pay a bitcoin ransom. Hackers targeted a family in DeSoto County, Mississippi, and spoke through the device to one of the young children.

Ring cameras are the wildly popular home surveillance devices owned and heavily marketed by Amazon. The company has signed partnership agreements with hundreds of police departments around the country; many of these police departments have marketed and sold Ring devices on the company’s behalf. These internet-connected cameras have invaded much of America’s suburbs, as Gizmodo showed using data that Ring left exposed. These hacks, and this podcast, have turned devices nominally designed to protect people’s homes into surveillance devices that have been turned back on their owners.

After the recent media attention about Ring hacks, Nulled members are scrambling to remove evidence of the Ring hacks and distance themselves from the practice.

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Inviting devices into your home and not having simple ways to make them secure seems suboptimal. And so it proves.
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City planners zero in on cyclists through exercise app • Financial Times

Bethan Staton:

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When the UK capital built a “cycle superhighway” in 2016, Strava indicated where people had changed their route and showed that the number of cyclists increased by 60% when a bike-only lane was built along the Victoria Embankment on the Thames. Planners can observe changes, such as many cyclists avoiding a direct route, to see where roads may be dangerous.

Granular data from Strava also show where cyclists have to stop and wait, information Ms Hall used to review traffic light patterns so more cyclists could get a clear run on their commute.

While recognising its potential, however, researchers warned that Strava and other crowdsourced data sets should be treated with caution. Giulio Ferrini, from cycling charity Sustrans, said the average Strava user was probably “not representative” of the average cyclist.

Strava says it has 5.5m users in the UK. But researchers fear they are a self-selecting group, filtered by an affinity for exercise apps that may make them more competitive than others. According to Ms Hall at TfL, they “tend to be more gung-ho”.

Relying on crowdsourced data, Mr Ferrini said, could lead to cities being designed for “white men in Lycra” who usually travel speedily from A to B and neglecting groups such as parents who cycle with their children to school.

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Data-powered policy decisions: enormously difficult, because how do you collect the best data without forcing people to participate in the collection? This is a good enough compromise, I suppose.
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A better internet is waiting for us • The New York Times

Annalee Newitz:

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Social media is broken. It has poisoned the way we communicate with each other and undermined the democratic process. Many of us just want to get away from it, but we can’t imagine a world without it. Though we talk about reforming and regulating it, “fixing” it, those of us who grew up on the internet know there’s no such thing as a social network that lasts forever. Facebook and Twitter are slowly imploding. And before they’re finally dead, we need to think about what the future will be like after social media so we can prepare for what comes next.

I don’t mean brainstorming new apps that could replace outdated ones, the way Facebook did Myspace. I mean what will replace social media the way the internet replaced television, transforming our entire culture?

To find out what comes next, I went on a quest. I was looking for a deeper future than the latest gadget cycle, so I spoke to experts in media history, tech designers, science fiction writers and activists for social justice. I even talked to an entity that is not a person at all.

Collectively, they gave me a glimpse of a future where the greatest tragedy is not the loss of our privacy. It is the loss of an open public sphere. There are many paths beyond the social media hellscape, and all of them begin with reimagining what it means to build public spaces where people seek common ground.

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The “harbinger customers” who buy unpopular products and back losing politicians • Kottke

Jason Kottke:

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This paper, about the curious phenomenon of “harbinger customers” and “harbinger zip codes”, is really interesting. These harbinger customers tend to buy unpopular products like Crystal Pepsi or Colgate Kitchen Entrees and support losing political candidates.

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First, the findings document the existence of “harbinger zip codes.” If households in these zip codes adopt a new product, this is a signal that the new product will fail. Second, a series of comparisons reveal that households in harbinger zip codes make other decisions that differ from other households. The first comparison identifies harbinger zip codes using purchases from one retailer and then evaluates purchases at a different retailer. Households in harbinger zip codes purchase products from the second retailer that other households are less likely to purchase. The analysis next compares donations to congressional election candidates; households in harbinger zip codes donate to different candidates than households in neighboring zip codes, and they donate to candidates who are less likely to win. House prices in harbinger zip codes also increase at slower rates than in neighboring zip codes.

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It’s fascinating that these people’s preferences persist across all sorts of categories — it’s like they’re generally out of sync with the rest of society.

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They’re a strange group: everything they touch (or pick up in the supermarket) sells like crap.
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Magic Leap is renaming its AR headset to attract business customers • The Verge

Adi Robertson:

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The new headset will ship on Magic Leap’s own site and through AT&T, just like the old one. But it’s cast as a commercial product rather than a kit for developers or artists. Magic Leap is using this new device to launch an operating system update and a software suite that appeals to professional customers, including a virtual collaboration application called Jump, which is rolling out in beta over the coming months. Magic Leap is also selling an “Enterprise Suite” at a higher price of $2,995, offering buyers access to dedicated support, device management software, and a “rapid replace” program if a headset malfunctions.

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Oh look, the pivot to business. Only, what, two or three years late.
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How Apple News UK editors quietly influence UK’s election reading • The Guardian

Jim Waterson:

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Rasmus Nielsen, of the University of Oxford’s Reuters Institute for Journalism, believes the power of the service – and equivalents such as Samsung’s Upday – is under-appreciated. “Our data suggests that more than a quarter of online news users in the UK rely on one or more aggregators for online news, and Apple News and Google News have higher reach among people aged 18-24 than established brands like ITV and Sky or the Sun and the Mirror,” Nielsen said. “Their editorial processes, however, remains opaque, whether reliant on human editors, algorithms, or some combination.”

[The five UK-based] journalists who work for Apple News have scrubbed the company’s name from their social media accounts, a move that reduces the risk of them being accused of bias but adds to the lack of transparency around their decisions.

People at British media organisations who deal with Apple News say the editors have a welcome reputation for promoting exclusives and high-quality news featuring original reporting in their “top stories” section. If the Apple News editors like what they see, their backing can deliver enormous numbers of readers – which gives these editors a power akin to an old-school newspaper boss choosing a front-page story.

“You could get a million views in the UK alone if they pick one of your stories,” said one social media manager at a British news site, who suggested outlets were hooked on traffic from the service. Although news websites struggle to make money from Apple News traffic, they are often loth to give up a source of traffic that can refer more readers than Facebook.

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Being a default helps, I suppose.
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“Link In Bio” is a slow knife • Anil Dash

Anil Dash:

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Links on the web are incredibly powerful. There are decades of theory behind the role of hyperlinks in hypertext — did you know in most early versions, links were originally designed to be two-way?  You’d be able to see every page on the web that links to this one. But even in the very simple form that we’ve ended up with on the World Wide Web for the last 30 years, links are incredibly powerful, opening up valuable connections between unexpected things.

For a closed system, those kinds of open connections are deeply dangerous. If anyone on Instagram can just link to any old store on the web, how can Instagram — meaning Facebook, Instagram’s increasingly-overbearing owner — tightly control commerce on its platform? If Instagram users could post links willy-nilly, they might even be able to connect directly to their users, getting their email addresses or finding other ways to communicate with them. Links represent a threat to closed systems.

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I remember quite a while back when Deja News was a standalone company (it archived Usenet newsgroups – a bit like archiving all of Twitter) that it was advertising-run, but none of the links worked. You literally couldn’t get out of it: it was an internet black hole, and the walls were covered in ads. Dash’s point is that Instagram is trying to do the same. (Google eventually bought Deja in February 2001. It had no idea what to do with it either.)
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52 things I learned in 2019 • Medium

Tom Whitwell:

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This year I edited another book, worked on fascinating projects at Fluxx, and learned many learnings.

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Whitwell’s lists are always one of the most wonderful things about the end of the year. A couple of favourites: emojis in court cases, harbinger customers (included today), the 10,000 steps source, how the US is like Mongolia, Japan’s love of CDs, and that asking ‘What questions do you have for me?’ can be dramatically more effective than ‘Any questions?’ at the end of a talk.
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The “Apple Tax” died years ago • Above Avalon

Neil Cybart:

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The theory of there being an Apple Tax has been around for more than a decade. The term was coined during the mid-2000s to refer primarily to Apple laptops (iBooks and then MacBooks). A MacBook was said to cost more money than a Windows laptop with similar specifications because of there being a premium built into the MacBook’s price. Said another way, the MacBook was more expensive than other products since it included an Apple logo.

The “Apple Tax’ phrase became a way to poke fun at MacBook users for their apparent cluelessness in paying more for a product despite cheaper alternatives being available. In recent years, the Apple Tax definition has morphed to merely refer to higher-priced Apple products like the iMac Pro and new Mac Pro.

There has always been a glaring hole in the Apple Tax narrative: Since Apple does not license its Mac operating system to OEMs, a MacBook running Apple software ends up being very different than a Windows laptop said to have similar specs. In addition, while Apple made a number of content creation applications available for free on the Mac, Windows laptops positioned as direct competitors lacked such free applications. It may be more correct to say that the Apple Tax reflected the price of Mac software instead of some kind of premium created out of thin air.

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Welllllll, Windows OEMs had to pay a licence fee for Windows to Microsoft. But Apple included lots of other pieces of software – Garageband (which has been used by professionals), iMovie (Bill Gates complained bitterly to Microsoft’s engineers that Windows Movie Maker wasn’t anything like as good) and iPhoto (…). But there was also build quality.
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When China and other big countries launch cryptocurrencies, it will kick off a global revolution • The Conversation

Liang Zhao is a doctoral researcher at Lund University:

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There has been a massive rise in the number of bilateral agreements between central banks that allow two countries to swap currencies directly, a large number involving China. Meanwhile, a number of countries, including Germany and the Netherlands, have been repatriating their gold reserves from vaults in the US where they had long been stored.

Yet by comparison, major sovereign digital currencies based on blockchain technology would be revolutionary. Blockchains are encrypted ledgers for storing information that are decentralised rather than being under any country’s or company’s control. When applied to international payments, this offers the prospect of much more transparent and cheaper transactions than SWIFT.

It could cut the payments time lag from a couple of days to one second, and the cost from 0.01% to almost nothing. It will have the capacity to handle far higher volumes of payments, partly since they won’t require bank accounts or even internet access.

Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and XRP have been a good experiment in using blockchains for international payments. Yet when countries issue equivalents of their own, these will have even more advantages. They will be backed by states, and completely decentralised cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin will not be able to compete with this.

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I’d certainly agree on that latter point – bitcoin will get squashed by any national cryptocurrency, because it won’t be able to compete in exchange terms; governments could make it really difficult to exchange bitcoin for any useful currency (which bitcoin still isn’t). The suggestion is that a flip to national cryptocurrencies could happen in the same manner as going bankrupt: gradually, and then suddenly.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

6 thoughts on “Start Up No.1209: the podcasters hacking Ring cameras, Strava drives London’s cyclists, Apple’s influential journalists, the Apple non-tax, and more

  1. I think the question is not whether the Apple tax is worth it or not, that’s personal preference, app availability, design… but taking a limited outlook, whether Apple hardware (and now peripherals, services…) costs more than comparable competition.

    I haven’t looked into ultraportables, but I see the Thinkpad Carbon X1 often cited opposite MacBooks. It seems (from both OEMs’ US direct sales sites)
    – Thinkpad X1 Carbon 14″ i7/16GB/512GB is $1,250
    – 13″ Macbook Pro is $2,200 for the same configuration. That’s almost double.
    I’m not sure how the screens compare, “Retina display with True Tone” isn’t informative, I took the high-end screen for the Lenovo. And I’m sure there are other HW differences. Weights seem similar (lots of asterixes).
    A hefty premium, possibly partly/wholly justified by overlooked HW differences and SW differences, but the core of the HW is a lot more expensive on the Apple side. That’s what “Apple tax” refers to.

    Also, valuing software is iffy: barely anyone around me has use for a video editor, especially beyond what phones include for free. Similarly I’m not sure about “build quality”: the pro Thinkpads are fairly solid, easy to fix, and don’t have that cursed keyboard. Anyway, I don’t think the “tax” thing refers either; just bare hardware. Again, I’m not pondering whether the Apple tax is worth it or not, but checking that it still very much exists.

    And finally, let’s not forget Apple has no low/mid-range devices. That’s an implied tax: if your requirements are very low, but want Apple, you’ll need to spend a whole lot more than if you’re OK with a Chromebook or cheap Windows laptop. Clearly not the same thing, but if your needs are modest, same result.

  2. I’m really wondering how we can make our IT secure, especially since it’s a process not a state. It certainly can’t go on like this with every device and server being hackable several times over now and in the future, and ever more IT-powered devices around us.

    Will we manage to reach a state where all devices are, at least, patchable over their lifetimes ? Where breaches are documented and users/victims warned ? Is the solution to certify IT devices same as we certify electrical equipment ? That’s certainly not going to come spontaneously from the corporations making the stuff.

    It seems we’re reaching a point where someone could win a war, at least an economic one, simply by activating 1/10th of all possible hacks at the same time. That’s frightening.

      • No: I think it’s all of us — the Waitrose-shopping classes — who can now be assumed to be on the wrong side of history I used to have a quick and dirty heuristic for predicting events in Eastern and Central Europe: find out what Tim Garton Ash wrote ought to happen and assume the opposite would. TGA had an infallible gift for winning the argument, to coin a phrase.

  3. PSA: Reviews that rate the Realme “sweet spot” devices (Realme 5/5Pro/5S and X2/X2Pro) a smidgen ahead of the Xiaomi equivalents (Note 8T/8Pro, Mi 9/Lite/S/T/T Pro/Pro) keep piling up. Since I’ve been pushing Xiaomi, I figured it’s only fair to broadcast that the favour of the god of value has changed.

    I still haven’t gotten one for myself, so this is second-hand advice. The hardware certainly is as advertised (ie slightly better than Xiaomi’s); I still have some doubts about Realme’s Color OS vs Xiaomi’s MIUI. The word on most forums is that where MIUI tends to be ahead of stock Android on quite a few features, ColorOS lags on some important ones. Eg swipes and dark mode, which MIUI has been doing well for a while (even before Stock had them) and ColorOS still doesn’t do/do well. Both have some flavor of dual-apps/accounts though.

    Not sure what I’ll personally do. I’m loath to recommend Realme sight unseen (and without a means to do hands-on support), I don’t need to upgrade my 2yo Xiaomi Mi Max 3, there’s no similarly large handset from either brand (nor from any other brand). I could buy a regular phablet but I did that 3yrs ago to try out Xiaomi and found out I dislike anything but the hugest phones, so it’d be money down the drain. Dang.

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