Start Up No.1228: UN looks at Saudi hack of Bezos iPhone, Sonos amps up obsolescence, Vodafone exeunt Libra, why and when to encrypt iCloud, and more


This Puerto Rico factory owns $39bn of Microsoft’s intellectual property – at least, that’s what it told the US tax authorities. CC-licensed photo by Jose Izquierdo on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Don’t break them. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

UN experts call for investigation into allegations that Saudi Crown Prince involved in hacking of Jeff Bezos’ phone • OHCHR

Agnes Callamard and David Kaye, the UN special rapporteurs on extrajudicial killings and protection of free expression:

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“The circumstances and timing of the hacking and surveillance of [Jeff] Bezos also strengthen support for further investigation by US and other relevant authorities of the allegations that the [Saudi] Crown Prince ordered, incited, or, at a minimum, was aware of planning for but failed to stop the mission that fatally targeted Mr. Khashoggi in Istanbul.

At a time when Saudi Arabia was supposedly investigating the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, and prosecuting those it deemed responsible, it was clandestinely waging a massive online campaign against Mr. Bezos and Amazon targeting him principally as the owner of The Washington Post.”

The two experts – who were appointed by the Human Rights Council – recently became aware of a 2019 forensic analysis of Mr. Bezos’ iPhone that assessed with “medium to high confidence” that his phone was infiltrated on 1 May 2018 via an MP4 video file sent from a WhatsApp account utilized personally by Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

According to the analysis, the Crown Prince and Mr. Bezos exchanged phone/WhatsApp numbers the month before the alleged hack. The forensic analysis found that within hours of receipt of the MP4 video file from the Crown Prince’s account, massive and (for Bezos’ phone) unprecedented exfiltration of data from the phone began, increasing data egress suddenly by 29,156% to 126 MB. Data spiking then continued undetected over some months and at rates as much as 106,032,045% (4.6 GB) higher than the pre-video data egress baseline for Mr. Bezos’ phone of 430KB.

The forensic analysis assessed that the intrusion likely was undertaken through the use of a prominent spyware product identified in other Saudi surveillance cases, such as the NSO Group’s Pegasus-3 malware, a product widely reported to have been purchased and deployed by Saudi officials. This would be consistent with other information. For instance, the use of WhatsApp as a platform to enable installation of Pegasus onto devices has been well-documented and is the subject of a lawsuit by Facebook/WhatsApp against NSO Group.

The allegations are also reinforced by other evidence of Saudi targeting of dissidents and perceived opponents.

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The IRS decided to get tough against Microsoft. Microsoft got tougher • ProPublica

Paul Kiel:

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Eight years ago, the IRS, tired of seeing the country’s largest corporations fearlessly stash billions in tax havens, decided to take a stand. The agency challenged what it saw as an epic case of tax dodging by one of the largest companies in the world, Microsoft. It was the biggest audit by dollar amount in the history of the agency.

Microsoft had shifted at least $39bn in U.S. profits to Puerto Rico, where the company’s tax consultants, KPMG, had persuaded the territory’s government to give Microsoft a tax rate of nearly 0%. Microsoft had justified this transfer with a ludicrous-sounding deal: It had sold its most valuable possession — its intellectual property — to an 85-person factory it owned in a small Puerto Rican city.

Over years of work, the IRS uncovered evidence that it believed laid the scheme bare. In one document, a Microsoft senior executive celebrated the company’s “pure tax play.” In another, KPMG plotted how to make the company Microsoft created to own the Puerto Rico factory — and a portion of Microsoft’s profits — seem “real.”

Meanwhile, the numbers Microsoft had used to craft its deal were laughable, the agency concluded. In one instance, Microsoft had told investors its revenues would grow 10% to 12% but told the IRS the figure was 4%. In another, the IRS found Microsoft had understated revenues by $15bn.

Determined to seize every advantage against a giant foe, the small team at the helm of the audit decided to be aggressive.

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And this is where the story really starts. Well, actually, they could have dropped in at any point. The 2003 decision to restructure Microsoft’s taxes around the “factory”. The manipulation of campaign-contributed and thus “friendly” politicians first to lobby, and then to change laws. It’s all so astonishingly greedy; people doing things because it means unimaginable, unspendable sums of money staying with them, rather than going to taxes where it could help more people.
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Remember that Sonos speaker you bought a few years back that works perfectly? It’s about to be screwed for… reasons • The Register

Thomas Claburn:

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Sonos is doubling down on its previously disclosed inclination to drop support for older products that aren’t profitable to support.

The Internet-of-Things speaker biz said on Tuesday that it will stop providing software updates for some legacy gear in May – some of which are barely five years old. The cessation of service doesn’t have any immediate consequences but it dooms older devices to stasis, insecurity, and potential incompatibility as software from Sonos or its partners change.

There is one caveat: customers with a mix of legacy and modern Sonos gear won’t be able to run both together once a future update moves modern kit to a new version of the Sonos software. So legacy gear will have to be quarantined on its own network, a capability Sonos intends to facilitate shortly.

Affected products include its original Zone Players (released in 2006), Connect, and Connect:Amp (sold between 2011 and 2015), its first-generation Play:5 (released in 2009), C200 (released 2009), and Bridge (released 2007)…

…the company’s recent financial filings explain that Sonos itself has planned for the obsolescence of its products and the discontent of customers.

“We expect that in the near term, this backward compatibility will no longer be practical or cost-effective, and we may decrease or discontinue service for our older products,” the manufacturer’s Q4 2019 10-K financial filing explains. “If we no longer provide extensive backward capability for our products, we may damage our relationship with our existing customers, as well as our reputation, brand loyalty and ability to attract new customers.”

This is the same tech outfit that celebrates its environmental and social responsibilities by encouraging customers to flip a kill switch on older products so they cannot be resold in order to trade-in their bricked kit for a 30% discount on new Sonos gear.

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No word on the bricking. The idea that it’s getting too expensive to support the older products seems less likely than that it’s not practical – ie, they don’t have the processing power.
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Vodafone snubs Libra in favour of M-Pesa • Telecoms.com

Jamie Davies:

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The main issue with digital currencies is that this is a segment which is largely unregulated, leading to the challenge which is being faced by Libra today. The European Commission and European Parliament has said no to the likes of Libra until rules have been written, while other regulatory bodies have expressed similar disapproval.

PayPal, Mastercard, Mercado Pago, eBay, Stripe, Booking Holdings and Visa are some of the names to have withdrawn support, seemingly due to the regulatory pressure. With support dwindling and regulatory expectations an unknown for the moment, it remains to be seen whether Libra will continue on its current launch trajectory.

Although Vodafone has left the door open for the future, it will drive its efforts towards M-Pesa, the highly success digital currency which is setting the tone in Africa.

Founded by Vodafone in 2007, M-Pesa is a mobile phone-based money transfer, financing and microfinancing service. Initially launched for Vodacom and Safaricom in Kenya and Tanzania, the initiative has spread across several markets in Africa, to India, the Middle East and Eastern Europe. There is momentum for the M-Pesa initiative, so it hardly comes as a surprise Vodafone has dropped the controversial Libra.

Many would view M-Pesa as an underexploited asset for the Vodafone Group, though this is likely to change over the coming months. The team plan on expanding the service in the seven African markets it currently operates in, and even plans to launch in Ethiopia, a market where it does not currently manage a mobile network.

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If you were Vodafone’s board and the options were to pour money into Libra, or into M-Pesa, it would be a pretty easy decision. They can get back on board Libra any time it looks likely to get somewhere.
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New ‘transformational’ code to protect children’s privacy online • BBC News

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The code includes a list of 15 standards that companies behind online services are expected to comply with to protect children’s privacy.

Examples of online services which are included are toys which are connected to the internet, apps, social media platforms, online games, educational websites and streaming service.

Firms who design, develop or run such products must provide a “baseline” of data protection for children, the code says.

The standards also include:
• Location settings that would allow a child’s location to be shared should be switched off by default
• Privacy settings to be set to high by default and nudge techniques to encourage children to weaken their settings should not be used

“I believe that it will be transformational,” Ms Denham told the Press Association. “I think in a generation from now when my grandchildren have children they will be astonished to think that we ever didn’t protect kids online. I think it will be as ordinary as keeping children safe by putting on a seat belt.”

Ms Denham said the move was widely supported by firms, although added that the gaming industry and some other tech companies expressed concern about their business model.

She added: “We have an existing law, GDPR, that requires special treatment of children and I think these 15 standards will bring about greater consistency and a base level of protection in the design and implementation of games and apps and websites and social media.”

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As Denham also points out, 20% of internet users in Britain are children. The hope is that this code will come into force in autumn of 2021. Fingers crossed.
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Turn On The Subtitles

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What if we told you that you that there was a way to dramatically improve the literacy levels of millions of children?

What if we also told you that it was free?

Turn On The Subtitles (TOTS) isn’t an organisation. It’s not a company either. We’re simply a group of people who think this is an idea whose time has come.

Extensive research across multiple countries has shown us a way to improve children’s literacy. It’s incredibly simple; just turn on the subtitles.

So now, along with our friends at a number of leading charities and universities, we’re on a mission to encourage broadcasters, policymakers and parents to Turn on the Subtitles.

Ultimately we’d like to see broadcasters turn on the subtitles for most children’s television, by default. We’d like some of the world’s largest technology platforms to do the same. If you’d like to find out more about our campaign, we’d like to hear from you. Just email us on hello@turnonthesubtitles.org

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It would be great to turn it on for all childrens’ TV, though it would be a challenge for live events – not that that prevents it for news, where live transcription is available. Subtitles are also a benefit to people, not just children, with hearing problems: figuring out who has said what on TV can be enormously challenging to them.
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More Apple products to have scissor switch keyboards • Digitimes

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Apple reportedly is looking to adopt scissor switch keyboards in its new 13.3-inch MacBook Pro and new iPads slated to be available later in 2020 and the strategy should benefit their Taiwan-based component suppliers…

Apple is likely to extend the adoption of glowing scissor switch keyboards to its new iPad lineup, with prospects of continuing such design for the comprehensive lineups of its notebook and tablet products in the future, according to industry sources.

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Demonstrates that Apple’s sourcing for keyboard switches is becoming monolithic: I’m not sure the world really needs glowing switches on iPad keyboards. I have to say that I find the (butterfly) ones on the current iPad keyboard absolutely perfect: robust, quiet, thin.

But equally, scissor switches on more laptops can only be a good thing.
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Regarding Reuters’s report that Apple dropped plan for encrypting iCloud backups • Daring Fireball

John Gruber:

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[the Reuters journalist who wrote the scoop, Joseph] Menn is a solid reporter and I have no reason to doubt what he is reporting. What I suspect though, based on (a) everything we all know about Apple, and (b) my own private conversations over the last several years, with rank-and-file Apple sources who’ve been directly involved with the company’s security engineering, is that Menn’s sources for the “Apple told the FBI that it planned to offer users end-to-end encryption when storing their phone data on iCloud” bit were the FBI sources, not the Apple sources, and that it is not accurate.

It simply is not in Apple’s nature to tell anyone outside the company about any of its future product plans. I’m not sure how I could make that more clear. It is not in Apple’s DNA to ask permission for anything. (Cf. the theory that a company’s culture is permanently shaped by the personality of its founders.)

Encrypting iCloud backups would be perfectly legal. There would be no legal requirement for Apple to brief the FBI ahead of time. Nor would there be any reason to brief the FBI ahead of time just to get the FBI’s opinion on the idea. We all know what the FBI thinks about strong encryption…

…Surely there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of people every day who need to access their iCloud backups who do not remember their password. The fact that Apple can help them is a benefit to those users. That’s why I would endorse following the way local iTunes device backups work: make encryption an option, with a clear warning that if you lose your backup password, no one, including Apple, will be able to restore your data. I would be surprised if Apple’s plan for encrypted iCloud backups were not exactly that.

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Gruber has been mulling over this, and points out that Google offers (optional?) encryption of backups of Android phones. And also that Tim Cook hinted in October 2018 that iCloud might move to encrypted backups.

Save people from their own mistakes, or save people from the FBI? It’s quite the balance. Ironic too that Google’s backups are the encrypted ones – but we don’t hear the FBI gnashing its teeth over those.
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Facial recognition could help discover fate of Holocaust victims – Reuters

Rinat Harash:

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Seeking clues to the past, Eli and Saul Lieberman turned to an Israeli research center, which hopes to match family pictures from around the time of World War Two with its database of tens of thousands of photos, many taken by German Wehrmacht soldiers.

Those German photos show the troops themselves as well as people in villages and towns with Jewish populations.

Shem Olam Holocaust Memorial Centre launched its “Face to Face” project in July, calling via social media for people to send in pictures for facial recognition scans.

The Lieberman brothers know few details of the horrors their late father, Joseph, endured during the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed. A survivor of the Auschwitz death camp, he did not speak with them about his experiences.

But a photograph taken somewhere in Europe after the war shows their father together with two cousins, and Eli, 50, and Saul, 61, sent it to the Shem Olam center in July. They are awaiting a match and clues about their family’s history.

“We live in a world that if you can’t provide the document or the picture, it doesn’t feel like it happened,” Saul Lieberman said. “People want to know where they came from, who they came from.”

So far, Shem Olam has received thousands of photos from the public but only several matches were made after further research and none was conclusive.

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But I thought that facial recognition could only be a bad thing!?
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Smart scale goes dumb as Under Armour pulls the plug on connected tech • Ars Technica

Kate Cox:

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Today’s example of smart stuff going dumb comes courtesy of Under Armour, which is effectively rendering its fitness hardware line very expensive paperweights.

The company quietly pulled its UA Record app from both Google Play and Apple’s App Store on New Year’s Eve. In an announcement dated sometime around January 8, Under Armour said that not only has the app been removed from all app stores, but the company is no longer providing customer support or bug fixes for the software, which will completely stop working as of March 31.

Under Armour launched its lineup of connected fitness devices in 2016. The trio of trackers included a wrist-worn activity monitor, a smart scale, and a chest-strap-style heart rate monitor. The scale and wristband retailed at $180 each, with the heart monitor going for $80. Shoppers could buy all three together in a $400 bundle called the UA HealthBox.

Ars’ review at the time noted that none of the components, by itself, was revolutionary, but as a trio they talked to each other reasonably well. The linchpin of the whole operation was, instead, the software: the Under Armour Record app. Record tied all the data from all the hardware together into a comprehensive health, fitness, and wellness journal, allowing a user to see both high-level and granular data about their activity, weight, sleep, heart rate, and other metrics. Record also served as a one-stop shop for adjusting settings on any of the hardware.

In 2017, less than two years after launching the HealthBox line, the company gave up on the project.

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Niiice. Sure going to rush to buy their next smart device!
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Reminder: HP’s ‘Cheap’ Instant Ink program requires monthly payments, constant monitoring • ExtremeTech

Joel Hruska:

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Instant Ink is HP’s idea of “Printing as a service.” Here’s how it works:

You choose a printing plan that suits your needs. If you print 15 or fewer pages per month, you don’t have to pay anything for Instant Ink. If you pay $3, you can print 50 pages, roll over up to 100 pages that you haven’t used, and buy the right to print 10 additional pages for just $1. This scales up to $20 for 700 pages. The ratio of pages per dollar is 16.6 at the $3 plan and 35 at the $20 plan. Anything with ink on it counts as a page.

There are some good points to Instant Ink, including:
• No contract (service is month to month)
• HP monitors printer ink levels and automatically ships new cartridges before you run out
• You can print in color for the same price-per-sheet as printing in black and white, not counting the cost of photo paper
• Less risk (at least in theory) of running out of ink at a critical moment. I suspect this is why the $19.99 plan comes with a spare set of cartridges — HP is aware that a company might suddenly need to print hundreds of pages
• It appears to be optional on every printer except the HP Tango, which requires Instant Ink in order to work. If you’re aware of other products that require it, sound off below. HP is pushing the idea hard but it doesn’t seem to have started making it mandatory across product lines just yet.

Here’s the downsides:
• The printer requires a constant internet connection in order for Instant Ink to work
• You cannot roll over pages you paid for indefinitely (you can adjust your plan)
• You’re literally paying someone an ongoing fee for the privilege of printing from a product you purchased at a store at full price
• Any amount of ink counts as a page. Need to print a test sheet? That’s a page. Accidentally wind up with one letter printed on an otherwise blank sheet? Still counts as a page
• Instant Ink only competes with printer ink costs if you print a lot of photos, and most people don’t
• Good photo paper is also more expensive than regular paper, which would eat into some of the savings
• The overage fee structure is insane. You’d need to manage your print volume carefully relative to your print plan in order to avoid them, because slapping an extra 5 to 10-cent tariff on a printer’s per-sheet cost ruins the benefits of this service.

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It’s all downside, really. It’s the razor-razorblade-expensive-razorblade-delivery model.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1227: Saudis ‘hacked Bezos phone’, Apple’s unencrypted iCloud, blocking the credit card scammer, coronavirus reaches US, and more


Plastic straws: China is going to ban them by the end of the year. This year. CC-licensed photo by Stock Catalog on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 9 links for you. Ooh, have they sent a video? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon boss Jeff Bezos’s phone ‘hacked by Saudi crown prince’ • The Guardian

Stephanie Kirchgaessner:

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The Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos had his mobile phone “hacked” in 2018 after receiving a WhatsApp message that had apparently been sent from the personal account of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, sources have told the Guardian.

The encrypted message from the number used by Mohammed bin Salman is believed to have included a malicious file that infiltrated the phone of the world’s richest man, according to the results of a digital forensic analysis.

This analysis found it “highly probable” that the intrusion into the phone was triggered by an infected video file sent from the account of the Saudi heir to Bezos, the owner of the Washington Post.

The two men had been having a seemingly friendly WhatsApp exchange when, on 1 May of that year, the unsolicited file was sent, according to sources who spoke to the Guardian on the condition of anonymity.

Large amounts of data were exfiltrated from Bezos’s phone within hours, according to a person familiar with the matter. The Guardian has no knowledge of what was taken from the phone or how it was used.

The extraordinary revelation that the future king of Saudi Arabia may have had a personal involvement in the targeting of the American founder of Amazon will send shockwaves from Wall Street to Silicon Valley.

It could also undermine efforts by “MBS” – as the crown prince is known – to lure more western investors to Saudi Arabia, where he has vowed to economically transform the kingdom even as he has overseen a crackdown on his critics and rivals.

The disclosure is likely to raise difficult questions for the kingdom about the circumstances around how US tabloid the National Enquirer came to publish intimate details about Bezos’s private life – including text messages – nine months later.

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Note that it carefully doesn’t say it was MBS’s phone; but his number. That can be spoofed or duplicated, though you’d need to know it to copy it. What’s the Saudi animus against Bezos, though?
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Exclusive: Apple dropped plan for encrypting backups after FBI complained – sources • Reuters

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More than two years ago, Apple told the FBI that it planned to offer users end-to-end encryption when storing their phone data on iCloud, according to one current and three former FBI officials and one current and one former Apple employee.

Under that plan, primarily designed to thwart hackers, Apple would no longer have a key to unlock the encrypted data, meaning it would not be able to turn material over to authorities in a readable form even under court order.

In private talks with Apple soon after, representatives of the FBI’s cyber crime agents and its operational technology division objected to the plan, arguing it would deny them the most effective means for gaining evidence against iPhone-using suspects, the government sources said.

When Apple spoke privately to the FBI about its work on phone security the following year, the end-to-end encryption plan had been dropped, according to the six sources. Reuters could not determine why exactly Apple dropped the plan.

“Legal killed it, for reasons you can imagine,” another former Apple employee said he was told, without any specific mention of why the plan was dropped or if the FBI was a factor in the decision.

That person told Reuters the company did not want to risk being attacked by public officials for protecting criminals, sued for moving previously accessible data out of reach of government agencies or used as an excuse for new legislation against encryption.

“They decided they weren’t going to poke the bear anymore,” the person said, referring to Apple’s court battle with the FBI in 2016 over access to an iPhone used by one of the suspects in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California.

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Which puts the decision time at post-2016. Another possibility, raised by an ex-Apple employee in the staffer, is that people would have locked themselves out of their data too often. Which is feasible. But it sounds much more like Apple decided that the balance was fine as it was.
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How I stopped a credit card thief from ripping off 3,537 people – and saved our nonprofit • freecodecamp

Quincy Larson:

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I’d been up until 2 a.m. finishing the announcement for our new #AWSCertified Challenge. [He’d slept and been woken up again.]

And so far, the launch was going well. Our new Twitter bot was tweeting, and our Discord chatroom was abuzz with ambitious developers eager to earn their AWS certifications.

I was getting ready to meet with my team when I noticed two strange emails – both of which arrived within minutes of one another.

“Your a fraud” read one of the emails in typo-riddled English. “That’s exactly what I’m thinking since I see a charge on my financial institution from you and since I’ve never heard of you. Yes you need to resolve this.”

The other email was… well, let’s just say it was also an angry letter and let’s leave it at that.

freeCodeCamp is a donor-supported nonprofit, and we have thousands of people around the world who donate to us each month. Once in a while, there are misunderstandings – usually when one family member donates without telling the other. But this felt different.

So I tabbed over to Stripe, the credit card processing service our nonprofit uses for donations. On a typical day, we’d have 20 or 30 new donors. But here’s what I saw instead:

Stripe’s dashboard showing 11,000 new customers and $60,000 in revenue for a single 24 hour period.

It took me a moment to process what was happening. Our nonprofit – which operates on an annual budget of less than $400,000 – had just received more than $60,000 in 24 hours – and from thousands of donors.

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It’s a fascinating story, told at speed, which grabs from the outset.
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Mnuchin warns UK and Italy over digital-tax plans • WSJ

Greg Ip and Paul Hannon:

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Italy and Britain will face U.S. tariffs if they proceed with a tax on digital companies such as Alphabet’s Google and Facebook, U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned.

Mr. Mnuchin issued the warning after France agreed to delay the imposition of its own digital tax in the face of threats of steep U.S. tariffs on French exports. Mr. Mnuchin said French President Emmanuel Macron agreed to hold off on the tax through the end of the year while the two countries work out a permanent resolution.

The truce is “the beginning of a solution,” Mr. Mnuchin said an interview with The Wall Street Journal at a Journal-sponsored event on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos.

France announced the tax last year as a way of collecting revenue from web-based companies that pay little or no tax on substantial sales in France. Italy’s parliament passed a similar tax last year that was set to take effect this year. Britain is scheduled to implement a similar tax this year.

Mr. Mnuchin said the U.S. was clear it thought France’s digital tax was an unfair levy on gross revenue and hoped Britain and Italy would suspend their plans. “If not they’ll find themselves faced with President Trump’s tariffs. We’ll be having similar conversations with them.”

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June 2019: Leading scientists set out resource challenge of meeting net zero emissions in the UK by 2050 • Natural History Museum

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A letter authored by Natural History Museum Head of Earth Sciences Prof Richard Herrington and fellow expert members of SoS MinErals (an interdisciplinary programme of NERC-EPSRC-Newton-FAPESP funded research) has today been delivered to the Committee on Climate Change

The letter explains that to meet UK electric car targets for 2050 we would need to produce just under two times the current total annual world cobalt production, nearly the entire world production of neodymium, three quarters the world’s lithium production and at least half of the world’s copper production.

A 20% increase in UK-generated electricity would be required to charge the current 252.5 billion miles to be driven by UK cars.

Last month, the Committee on Climate Change published a report ‘Net Zero: The UK’s Contribution to Stopping Global Warming’ which concluded that ‘net zero is necessary, feasible and cost effective.’

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Again, it’s from June 2019, but nothing will have changed since then. The letter is pretty devastating in terms of the impossibility that it envisions.
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First case of coronavirus in US detected in traveller from China • NPR

Merrit Kennedy:

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The first case of an infection with a new coronavirus has been discovered in the United States.

A man from Washington state returned home after a trip to Wuhan, China, on Jan. 15, sought medical attention on Jan. 19 and now is in isolation at Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, Washington.

State health officials say his condition is quite good and even referred to him as “healthy.” But testing from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the 20th confirm that he is infected with the Wuhan coronavirus. The man arrived back in the U.S. prior to the implementation of screening at three domestic airports on Friday.

About 300 cases of the virus and six deaths have been reported in China, and health officials there and around the world are ramping up precautions to stem the spread.

Chinese authorities are trying to control the flow of people in and out of the eastern city of Wuhan, where a strain of the coronavirus was discovered last month. Wuhan’s mayor has asked residents to stay in the city to try to prevent the spread of the virus, which can cause respiratory symptoms such as pneumonia.

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So that’s a plane flight, plus four days of him noodling around. Guess we’ll find out how infectious it is.
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Ozone-depleting substances caused half of late 20th-century Arctic warming, says study • EurekAlert! Science News

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A study published today in Nature Climate Change by researchers at Columbia University examines the greenhouse warming effects of ozone-depleting substances and finds that they caused about a third of all global warming from 1955 to 2005, and half of Arctic warming and sea ice loss during that period. They thus acted as a strong supplement to carbon dioxide, the most pervasive greenhouse gas; their effects have since started to fade, as they are no longer produced and slowly dissolve.

Ozone-depleting substances, or ODS, were developed in the 1920s and ’30s and became popularly used as refrigerants, solvents and propellants. They are entirely manmade, and so did not exist in the atmosphere before this time. In the 1980s a hole in Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer, which filters much of the harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun, was discovered over Antarctica. Scientists quickly attributed it to ODS.

The world sprang into action, finalizing a global agreement to phase out ODS. The Montreal Protocol, as it is called, was signed in 1987 and entered into force in 1989. Due to the swift international reaction, atmospheric concentrations of most ODS peaked in the late 20th century and have been declining since. However, for at least 50 years, the climate impacts of ODS were extensive, as the new study reveals.

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YouTube’s algorithms might radicalise people – but the real problem is we’ve no idea how they work • The Conversation

Chico Q. Camargo is a postdoctoral research in data science at the University of Oxford:

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trying to write laws to regulate what algorithms should or shouldn’t do becomes a blind process or trial and error. This is what is happening with YouTube and with so many other machine learning algorithms. We are trying to have a say in their outcomes, without a real understanding of how they really work. We need to open up these patented technologies, or at least make them transparent enough that we can regulate them.

One way to do this would be for algorithms to provide counterfactual explanations along with their decisions. This means working out the minimum conditions needed for the algorithm to make a different decision, without describing its full logic. For instance, an algorithm making decisions about bank loans might produce an output that says that “if you were over 18 and had no prior debt, you would have your bank loan accepted”. But this might be difficult to do with YouTube and other sites that use recommendation algorithms, as in theory any video on the platform could be recommended at any point.

Another powerful tool is algorithm testing and auditing, which has been particularly useful in diagnosing biased algorithms. In a recent case, a professional resume-screening company discovered that its algorithm was prioritising two factors as best predictors of job performance: whether the candidate’s name was Jared, and if they played lacrosse in high school. This is what happens when the machine goes unsupervised.

In this case, the resume-screening algorithm had noticed white men had a higher chance of being hired, and had found correlating proxy characteristics (such as being named Jared or playing lacrosse) present in the candidates being hired. With YouTube, algorithm auditing could help understand what kinds of videos are prioritised for recommendation – and perhaps help settle the debate about whether YouTube recommendations contribute to radicalisation or not.

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“You’d have been shown a nicer video if you weren’t such an inherently nasty person”, perhaps?
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China to ban single-use plastic bags and straws • Deutsche Weld

Deutsche Welle (www.dw.com):

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China, one of the world’s biggest producers of plastic waste, is set to introduce a ban on all non-degradable plastic bags and single-use straws in major cities.

As part of a plan to drastically reduce plastic pollution, China’s government said the production and sale of disposable foam and plastic tableware, often used for takeout, and single-use plastic straws used in the catering industry will be banned by the end of the year.

Disposable plastic products should not be “actively provided” by hotels by 2022.

The changes were outlined in a document released on Sunday by China’s National Development and Reform Commission and the Environment Ministry. The changes are part of a move to achieve a 30% reduction in non-degradable, disposable tableware for takeout in major cities within five years.

Postal delivery outlets are also targeted in the new guidelines with a ban on non-degradable plastic packaging and disposable plastic woven bags by the end of 2022.

China produced 215 million tons of trash in 2017, according to World Bank figures, which warns that could soar to 500 million tons annually by 2030. However recently Beijing has taken environmental issues more seriously.

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That’s a pretty big step; makes everyone else’s look unambitious.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1226: Twitter considers troll score, Pichai supports facial recognition pause, when anti-vaccine nuts go viral, OnePlus won’t fold, and more


Perhaps you didn’t know, but Children Of Men is set in 2020. CC-licensed photo by sparkynufc_86 on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 11 links for you. Up, up, and away. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How science fiction imagined the 2020s • OneZero

Tim Maughan:

»

that’s the most important thing to consider when evaluating science fiction about the future, whether old or new: to not get bogged down in the details, in the accuracy of its predictions, or whether it seems dated. Making accurate predictions about the future is not only an impossible task for science fiction but also one of its least interesting aims. It’s never really about the future, but the present, is an oft-repeated mantra for good reason: It’s impossible to remove art from the time in which it was created, and as such, stories about the future will obviously reflect the aspirations, concerns, and fears of the period in which they were first told.

Which is why so many themes in 2020s science fiction from the 1980s and ’90s seem to be repeated: A fear of economic collapse and inequality is understandable when your well-being seems tied to fragile cycles of boom-and-bust economies, and it’s not surprising to worry that technology might strip you of political control — or even your humanity — when there seem to be so many new, smaller, more powerful gadgets in the stores every week that you start to lose track. It was also the era when climate change started to make the news for the first time, and while it didn’t find its way into the public consciousness quickly enough, it certainly seemed to have grabbed the interest of science fiction writers.

«

Lovely idea, and some fine books among those he examines. (Who’d have thought Rollerball, the film, is set in 2005 but Running Man, the book/film, is set in 2020?)
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Twitter is considering tipping via tweet, new identifiers for trolls and more • Social Media Today

Andrew Hutchinson:

»

In a recent interview at CES, Twitter’s head of product Kayvon Beykpour gave an overview of where the company is at, where it’s looking, and what his key priorities are in the role.

One of the more interesting notes within that chat was Beykpour’s thoughts on trolls, and reducing the incentive for anti-social behavior in the app.

“Some prominent incentives that we have: the follower counts, the likes, the retweet, impressions. These mechanics all tend to incentivize content that gets a lot of reach and popularity. And sometimes outrage can get popularity and reach. […] Oftentimes, unhealthy content can get viral more easily precisely because of those mechanics. So one of the things we’ve been thinking about is whether we have the right balance of incentives within the core product experience. Putting our rules aside for a moment, just as an example, there isn’t really a disincentive today to being a total jerk on Twitter. And that’s a product problem.”

To address this, Beykpour noted that there may be a way to disincentivize such behavior through a rating system, similar to those in use by ride-share services.

“If you think about a service like Lyft or Uber, there is a disincentive to be a total jerk. As a passenger, I have a passenger rating. As a driver, I have a driver rating. And there’s an understanding within the marketplace that if you behave a certain way, that your reputation will be impacted in a way that can have adverse consequences.”

Beykpour didn’t necessarily suggest that a similar rating system would work on Twitter, but a “troll score”, which would delineate users based on their past activity, is something that Twitter is considering, at least in some form.

«

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Unmasking a company that wants to unmask us all • The New York Times

Kashmir Hill on how she learnt more about Clearview, the facial-recognition-of-everyone company:

»

The website listed an office address, a few blocks from The Times building in Midtown Manhattan. I walked over, but the address didn’t exist. (The company later told me it was a typo.) Business filings that my colleague, Kitty Bennett, found listed an address for a building on the Upper West Side. When I went there, a doorman told me it was someone’s home and wouldn’t let me go up.

These red flags initially suggested that the technology could be fake, but police officers using the app said that wasn’t the case. (I reached out to the police departments that had turned over public records about Clearview as well as those that had Clearview AI as a line-item on their public municipal budgets.) Detectives in Florida, Texas and Georgia said it worked incredibly well and had helped them solve dozens of cases in just the few short months they had been using it. I wanted to see for myself how well it worked, so I asked a few officers if they would run my photo through the app and show me the results.

And that’s when things got kooky. The officers said there were no results — which seemed strange because I have a lot of photos online — and later told me that the company called them after they ran my photo to tell them they shouldn’t speak to the media. The company wasn’t talking to me, but it was tracking who I was talking to.

«

All started from a tipoff. Persistence pays off.
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Why Google thinks we need to regulate AI • Financial Times

Sundar Pichai:

»

there is no question in my mind that artificial intelligence needs to be regulated. It is too important not to. The only question is how to approach it.

That’s why in 2018, Google published our own AI principles to help guide ethical development and use of the technology. These guidelines help us avoid bias, test rigorously for safety, design with privacy top of mind, and make the technology accountable to people. They also specify areas where we will not design or deploy AI, such as to support mass surveillance or violate human rights.

But principles that remain on paper are meaningless. So we’ve also developed tools to put them into action, such as testing AI decisions for fairness and conducting independent human-rights assessments of new products. We have gone even further and made these tools and related open-source code widely available, which will empower others to use AI for good. We believe that any company developing new AI tools should also adopt guiding principles and rigorous review processes.

Government regulation will also play an important role. We don’t have to start from scratch. Existing rules such as Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation can serve as a strong foundation. Good regulatory frameworks will consider safety, explainability, fairness and accountability to ensure we develop the right tools in the right ways. Sensible regulation must also take a proportionate approach, balancing potential harms, especially in high-risk areas, with social opportunities.

«

Lots of claims, but zero evidence. How can we audit those guidelines? And how does he distinguish mass surveillance from what Google does with the tracking in its phones? Is it somehow OK because the masses are identified personally?

All in all, it feels like an article that was written by an AI text generator; or, just as likely, someone in Google’s PR division. I’d be surprised if Pichai ever saw it.
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Alphabet CEO backs temporary ban on facial recognition; Microsoft disagrees • Reuters

Foo Yun Chee and John Chalmers:

»

While [Sundar] Pichai cited the possibility that the technology could be used for nefarious purposes as a reason for a moratorium, Smith said a ban was akin to using a meat cleaver instead of a scalpel to solve potential problems.

“I think it is important that governments and regulations tackle it sooner rather than later and give a framework for it,” Pichai told a conference in Brussels organized by think-tank Bruegel.

“It can be immediate but maybe there’s a waiting period before we really think about how it’s being used,” he said. “It’s up to governments to chart the course” for the use of such technology.

Smith, who is also Microsoft’s chief legal officer, however cited the benefits of facial recognition technology in some instances such as NGOs using it to find missing children.

“I’m really reluctant to say let’s stop people from using technology in a way that will reunite families when it can help them do it,” Smith said.

“The second thing I would say is you don’t ban it if you actually believe there is a reasonable alternative that will enable us to, say, address this problem with a scalpel instead of a meat cleaver,” he said.

«

So he said more definitive things there than in all of that FT article. Smith’s response demonstrates Kranzberg’s First Law of technology: it’s not good or bad, but neither is it neutral. But we also live in a world where a scalpel can be resized into a meat cleaver in a moment.
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Should the world be worried about the coronavirus in China? • The Guardian

Sarah Boseley:

»

What are the symptoms caused by the Wuhan coronavirus?
The virus causes pneumonia. Those who have fallen ill are reported to suffer coughs, fever and breathing difficulties. As this is viral pneumonia, antibiotics are of no use. Antiviral drugs may be used, but usually only lessen the severity of symptoms. If people are admitted to hospital, they may get breathing support as well as fluids. Recovery will depend on the strength of their immune system. Those who have died are known to have been already in poor health.

Is the virus being transmitted from one person to another?
Human to human transmission has been confirmed by China’s National Health Commission in two cases of infection in Guangdong province, although it does not appear to be happening easily as was the case with Sars. As of 20 January the Chinese authorities had acknowledged 139 cases, double the number previously reported, and three deaths. Modelling carried out by Imperial College experts has suggested there may be more than 1,700 cases. Those that are mild may not be detected at all.

There are fears that the coronavirus may spread more widely and person to person during the Chinese new year holidays at the end of this month, when millions of people travel home to celebrate. At the moment, it appears that people in poor health are at greatest risk, as is always the case with flu. But the authorities will be keen to stop the spread and anxious that the virus will become more potent than so far appears.

«

So far, “the authorities” are trying to stop the spread by not being straight about the number of cases – as happened with SARS. Should the world be worried? Yes – but only at arms’ length, for now.
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Vaccines: TikTok video of Cincinnati doctor Nicole Baldwin goes viral • USA Today

Erin Glynn:

»

Nicole Baldwin, a paediatrician working in suburban Cincinnati, posted a TikTok video encouraging vaccination on Twitter Saturday evening.

It took less than 24 hours for the video to go viral on both TikTok, a video sharing app, and Twitter – and just another 48 hours before Baldwin was facing backlash from hundreds of thousands of people associated with the anti-vaccine movement.

The video shows Baldwin dancing to “Cupid Shuffle” and pointing to diseases that vaccines prevent. It ends with her pointing to the words “Vaccines don’t cause autism.”

Baldwin, 42, sees social media as a useful way to spread public health information to her patients. She maintains an active presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest, and runs a blog with tips on keeping parents and children well. The Blue Ash, Ohio pediatrician said she created her TikTok account last week because she wanted to reach a different demographic than she does with her other accounts…

…Baldwin reached out to Todd Wolynn, a colleague she had met a couple of months earlier at an event in Columbus and CEO of a pediatric practice in Pittsburgh. Wolynn had dealt with his own intense online backlash from the anti-vaccine movement two years prior and started the organization Shots Heard Round the World as a result.

…Baldwin ended up with 11 people volunteering their services to monitor her social media pages and prevent the spread of inaccurate information about vaccines. By Thursday morning, the volunteers had banned over 5,000 anti-vaccine accounts on Facebook and the angry calls to Baldwin’s office had slowed. By Friday afternoon, Google Reviews had removed all fraudulent reviews of Baldwin’s practice.

«

OK, but “hundreds of thousands of people associated with the anti-vaccine moment”? Doubt there are hundreds of thousands. And it’s not a “movement”; it’s an idiocracy, or if we’re being polite, a “grouping”. A movement is going somewhere. These people aren’t.
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TomTom closes deal with Huawei for use of maps and services: spokesman • Reuters

Bart Meijer:

»

Dutch navigation and digital mapping company TomTom on Friday said it has closed a deal with China’s Huawei Technologies for the use of its maps and services in smartphone apps.

Huawei was forced to develop its own operating system for smartphones, after it was effectively blacklisted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration last year out of concerns over national security.

This banned Huawei from using Google’s official Android operating system, along with widely used apps such as Google Maps, in new phones.

«

Deal was made “some time ago”. TomTom also offers the navigation, though having the map and navigation doesn’t mean you’ve got all you need: points of interest and, crucially, the geocoder. (Highly recommend the geocoder article.)
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It’s time for Google to build a video editor for Chromebooks and Android • Android Police

Corbin Davenport:

»

It takes a lot of applications to build an ecosystem. Google has all the essentials down — email, calendar, contacts, productivity applications, and so on — but the company has always struggled with creative tools. Most notably, Google is still lacking a proper video editor for its own operating systems, which is becoming even more of an issue as high-end Chromebooks gain momentum.

Let’s rewind a bit. Back in 2011, Google introduced a new app called ‘Movie Studio,’ as part of the Android Honeycomb update. It was a full-fledged video editor, complete with a timeline, transitions, audio importing, and multi-format exporting. The app turned out to be pretty awful, partially because of the meager hardware in the Motorola XOOM tablet, and also because it never received any significant updates after its introduction. Google never included it with the Nexus 7, and it was removed from AOSP at some later point.

That was more or less the only time Google ever tried to create a video editing application for Android.

«

I recall seeing that 2011 video editor being demoed. But of course Android tablets didn’t become A Thing (at least, not a content production Thing). Chromebooks should be capable of doing this now, but lack video acceleration.

And the commenters agree – including Android Police’s own staff, who have even more reason to be frustrated with this missing app (which should just be a feature of any modern OS).
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OnePlus foldable phone: here’s why it hasn’t happened yet • Android Authority

Adamya Sharma:

»

OnePlus looked into foldable phones, but CEO Pete Lau is not a believer just yet. The Verge caught up with the OnePlus head on the sidelines of the OnePlus Concept One launch. In a podcast interview with the publication, Lau expressed that OnePlus hasn’t found significant value in making a foldable smartphone just yet.

He believes that the appeal of foldables is “outweighed by the shortcomings or the disadvantages of the current state of the technology.” Lau says he has qualms with the way creases appear on the displays of foldable phones such as the Samsung Galaxy Fold. Due to the plastic nature of current foldable displays, the screen can scratch easily and issues can occur at the point where the actual fold happens, Lau explains. “This isn’t something that I can accept in products that are built,” he adds.

Lau says that the technology needs to come to a level where display folds are crisp and don’t impact the potential usability of phones. He even shrugs off the redesigned Moto Razr. The executive says that even though it’s a different implementation, its display faces the same challenges as the Galaxy Fold.

«

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Love texting? You better skip that new Samsung foldable phone! • SamMobile

“Danny D”:

»

This device is going to be a lot more compact than the original Galaxy Fold, even though it fits in your pocket just fine. However, it’s going to represent a challenge for you if you’re the kind of person who just loves texting. Since the cover display is absolutely tiny, you’ll have to unfold the device every single time you want to not only send a text but just to even see it. So if you’re sending out a hundred texts every day, that’s how many times you have to fold and unfold your device, unless you’re keeping it unfolded for extended periods of time. Just don’t sit on it accidentally, then, because you’re not going to like what happens next.

Sure, the Galaxy Flip Z is going to put a big display between the size of 6.7-6.9 inches in your pocket, but leaked photos of the device have shown that the cover display won’t be of much use besides showing notification icons. This isn’t a problem with the original Galaxy Fold. It has a 4.6-inch cover display that’s always accessible when the phone is folded. That’s obviously not possible in the first iteration of a clamshell foldable smartphone.

«

I consider myself warned. But I think Samsung might be setting itself up for trouble here. I’ve heard that texting and messaging is quite popular among smartphone users.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: yesterday’s link ranking companies by evilness was from Slate, not The Atlantic. (Thanks, Andrew B.)

Start Up No.1225: the facial recognition app to end them all, ranking the evil of companies, Opera’s shady payday loan apps, Biden v s230, and more


Maybe the phones aren’t destroying their brains, a new study suggests. CC-licensed photo by Kyle Mahaney on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. All linked up. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Panicking about your kids’ phones? New research says don’t • The New York Times

Nathaniel Popper:

»

some researchers question whether those fears are justified. They are not arguing that intensive use of phones does not matter. Children who are on their phones too much can miss out on other valuable activities, like exercise. And research has shown that excessive phone use can exacerbate the problems of certain vulnerable groups, like children with mental health issues.

They are, however, challenging the widespread belief that screens are responsible for broad societal problems like the rising rates of anxiety and sleep deprivation among teenagers. In most cases, they say, the phone is just a mirror that reveals the problems a child would have even without the phone.

The researchers worry that the focus on keeping children away from screens is making it hard to have more productive conversations about topics like how to make phones more useful for low-income people, who tend to use them more, or how to protect the privacy of teenagers who share their lives online.

“Many of the people who are terrifying kids about screens, they have hit a vein of attention from society and they are going to ride that. But that is super bad for society,” said Andrew Przybylski, the director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute, who has published several studies on the topic.

The new article by Ms. Odgers and Michaeline R. Jensen of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro comes just a few weeks after the publication of an analysis by Amy Orben, a researcher at the University of Cambridge, and shortly before the planned publication of similar work from Jeff Hancock, the founder of the Stanford Social Media Lab. Both reached similar conclusions.

“The current dominant discourse around phones and well-being is a lot of hype and a lot of fear,” Mr. Hancock said.

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The secretive company that might end privacy as we know it • The New York Times

Kashmir Hill:

»

Until now, technology that readily identifies everyone based on his or her face has been taboo because of its radical erosion of privacy. Tech companies capable of releasing such a tool have refrained from doing so; in 2011, Google’s chairman at the time said it was the one technology the company had held back because it could be used “in a very bad way.” Some large cities, including San Francisco, have barred police from using facial recognition technology.

But without public scrutiny, more than 600 law enforcement agencies have started using Clearview in the past year, according to the company, which declined to provide a list. The computer code underlying its app, analyzed by The New York Times, includes programming language to pair it with augmented-reality glasses; users would potentially be able to identify every person they saw. The tool could identify activists at a protest or an attractive stranger on the subway, revealing not just their names but where they lived, what they did and whom they knew.

And it’s not just law enforcement: Clearview has also licensed the app to at least a handful of companies for security purposes.

“The weaponization possibilities of this are endless,” said Eric Goldman, co-director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. “Imagine a rogue law enforcement officer who wants to stalk potential romantic partners, or a foreign government using this to dig up secrets about people to blackmail them or throw them in jail.”

…“With Clearview, you can use photos that aren’t perfect,” Sergeant Ferrara said. “A person can be wearing a hat or glasses, or it can be a profile shot or partial view of their face.”

He uploaded his own photo to the system, and it brought up his Venmo page. He ran photos from old, dead-end cases and identified more than 30 suspects. In September, the Gainesville Police Department paid $10,000 for an annual Clearview license.

«

The dam has broken, the toothpaste is out of the tube. Essentially, it’s a viral hit – for police forces. But if it gets into citizens’ hands, things will really get wild.
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EU mulls five-year ban on facial recognition tech in public areas • Reuters

Foo Yun Chee:

»

The European Union is considering banning facial recognition technology in public areas for up to five years, to give it time to work out how to prevent abuses, according to proposals seen by Reuters.

The plan by the EU’s executive – set out in an 18-page white paper – comes amid a global debate about the systems driven by artificial intelligence and widely used by law enforcement agencies.

The EU Commission said new tough rules may have to be introduced to bolster existing regulations protecting Europeans’ privacy and data rights.

“Building on these existing provisions, the future regulatory framework could go further and include a time-limited ban on the use of facial recognition technology in public spaces,” the EU document said.

During that ban, of between three to five years, “a sound methodology for assessing the impacts of this technology and possible risk management measures could be identified and developed.”

Exceptions to the ban could be made for security projects as well as research and development, the paper said.

The document also suggested imposing obligations on both developers and users of artificial intelligence and that EU countries should appoint authorities to monitor the new rules.

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Carbon pricing is the winning Republican climate answer • The Washington Post

George P. Shultz and Ted Halstead:

»

The newfound Republican climate position can be summarized as follows: The climate problem is real, the Green New Deal is bad and the GOP needs a proactive climate solution of its own. Our big question is what form it should take.

There are essentially three ways to reduce emissions — regulations, subsidies and pricing. The first is the worst of all options for a party committed to free markets and limited government. Many Republican legislators are, therefore, gravitating toward the second option: tax credits and research-and-development spending to promote innovation. Those now introducing legislation along these lines deserve praise.
Republicans are correct to focus on clean-energy innovation as a crucial driver of climate progress. But while subsidies are an important stepping stone in fostering nascent technologies, they are hardly the best way to stimulate innovation across the whole economy.

As numerous studies show, subsidies are a costly means to drive clean tech deployment at scale, requiring ever-higher taxes and deficits to get the job done. [Oh, so deficits are bad if they’re not tax breaks for the rich, then – CA]

The winning Republican climate answer is the third option: carbon pricing. Just as a market-based solution is the Republican policy of choice on most issues, so should it be on climate change. A well-designed carbon fee checks every box of conservative policy orthodoxy. Not surprisingly, this is the favored option of corporate America and economists — including all former Republican chairs of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers.

…carbon pricing offers the most cost-effective and fiscally conservative solution and would unlock all facets of clean-energy innovation.

Nevertheless, carbon pricing still encounters opposition among some GOP lawmakers, albeit a shrinking number. They fear that putting a price on carbon could hurt ordinary Americans, grow the size of government and harm the competitiveness of American manufacturers.

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It’s just adorkable that they’ve come round to carbon pricing, and that they think it isn’t a form of regulation. (How do you think the price is set? By government. Who checks businesses/people pay it? The government.) But better late than never.
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Sonos, Tile, and PopSockets lead small companies calling foul on Big Tech • Input Mag

Jazmin Goodwin:

»

In a statement on Friday, Chairman David Cicilline of the antitrust subcommittee argued that companies “both large and small, have found themselves dependent on the arbitrary whim of these platform giants, one algorithm tweak away from ruin.”

“Because their decisions are largely unaccountable, opaque, and result in sweeping consequences, the dominant platforms effectively serve as private regulators,” Cicilline said.

First there is Amazon. PopSockets was once a vendor on Amazon, selling on the marketplace for two years — but stopped after a dispute with Amazon over its products. In a lawsuit filed in 2019, the company claimed Amazon was damaging the brand with its selling of “defective, damaged and poor-quality” knock-offs of its product. The year before, Amazon was called out for the flagrance of counterfeit products sold on its platform.

PopSockets CEO David Barnett, who testified before lawmakers today, said prior to the hearing that in 2018 the company spent $7m defending its patents and trademarks. He noted: “Hundreds, sometimes thousands would pop up in a day on eBay, Amazon. “We were probably losing every other sale to fakes.”

Sonos, on the other hand, filed two lawsuits against Google regarding five patents on its speaker technology, according to reports from The New York Times. The company alleged Google copied its wireless speaker design following a 2013 partnership.

Sonos alleges continuous infringements followed, dating back to 2016 after Google’s launch of its Home smart speaker. The audio company also requested a sales ban of Google’s laptops, phones and speakers in the U.S. in an ITC complaint case. Google disputes the claims and, of course, has put on its boxing gloves to fight the lawsuits.

Rumors have surfaced that Apple is developing its own tracking device and Tile is not having it. The two were once partners of sorts; Apple carried Tile products in its stores and online. At one point, back in 2018, Apple worked with one of Tile’s engineers on incorporating Apple’s Siri into Tile’s product line-up. Last year, the company stopped selling its product in Apple Stores.

Tile also claims that Apple’s iOS 13 Bluetooth and location tracking device and “Find Me” has a strong resemblance to Tile’s service offerings. Apple claims otherwise.

«

Tile has the least strong claim here, given that Apple hasn’t made anything that competes with it – yet. Sonos and PopSockets have real problems, though.
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Joe Biden in conversation with the NYT • The New York Times

Joe Biden, talking to the NYT:

»

I’ve been in the view that not only should we be worrying about the concentration of power, we should be worried about the lack of privacy and them being exempt, which you’re not exempt. [The Times] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can. The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act says that online platforms aren’t held liable for things their users post on them, with some exceptions. In July, The Times’s Sarah Jeong weighed in on proposed updates to Section 230, arguing that “we should reopen the debate on C.D.A. 230 only because so much of the internet has changed,” but “the discourse will be improved if we all take a moment to actually read the text of C.D.A. 230.”

Charlie Warzel: That’s a pretty foundational laws of the modern internet.

That’s right. Exactly right. And it should be revoked. It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy. You guys still have editors. I’m sitting with them. Not a joke. There is no editorial impact at all on Facebook. None. None whatsoever. It’s irresponsible. It’s totally irresponsible.

CW: If there’s proven harm that Facebook has done, should someone like Mark Zuckerberg be submitted to criminal penalties, perhaps?

He should be submitted to civil liability and his company to civil liability, just like you would be here at The New York Times.

«

Section 230 is coming under subtle but sustained attack from a number of American politicians, who don’t like the way it gets internet companies off all sorts of hooks. As the interview goes on, it’s clear that Biden really doesn’t like Silicon Valley.
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Instagram drops IGTV button, but only 1% downloaded the app • TechCrunch

Josh Constine:

»

At most, 7 million of Instagram’s 1 billion-plus users have downloaded its standalone IGTV app in the 18 months since launch. And now, Instagram’s main app is removing the annoying orange IGTV button from its home page in what feels like an admission of lackluster results. For reference, TikTok received 1.15 billion downloads in the same period since IGTV launched in June 2018. In just the US, TikTok received 80.5 million downloads compared to IGTV’s 1.1 million since then, according to research commissioned by TechCrunch from Sensor Tower.

To be fair, TikTok has spent huge sums on install ads. But while long-form mobile video might gain steam as the years progress, Instagram hasn’t seemed to crack the code yet.

“As we’ve continued to work on making it easier for people to create and discover IGTV content, we’ve learned that most people are finding IGTV content through previews in Feed, the IGTV channel in Explore, creators’ profiles and the standalone app. Very few are clicking into the IGTV icon in the top right corner of the home screen in the Instagram app” a Facebook company spokesperson tells TechCrunch.

«

It’s dead, Jim. Creators still can’t earn money directly with videos on IGTV, which is a problem for them.
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Opera: phantom of the turnaround – 70% downside • Hindenburg Research

»

Summary: Opera went public in mid-2018 based largely on prospects for its core browser business. Now, its browser market share is declining rapidly, down ~30% since its IPO.
• Browser gross margins have collapsed by 22.6% in just one year. Opera has swung to negative $12 million in LTM operating cash flow, compared to positive cash flow of $32 million for the comparable 2018 period.
• Opera was purchased by a China-based investor group prior to its IPO. The group’s largest investor and current Opera Chairman/CEO was recently involved in a Chinese lending business that listed in the U.S. and saw its shares plunge more than 80% in just 2 years amid allegations of fraud and illegal lending practices.
• Post IPO, Opera has now also made a similar and dramatic pivot into predatory short-term loans in Africa and India, deploying deceptive ‘bait and switch’ tactics to lure in borrowers and charging egregious interest rates ranging from ~365-876%.
• Most of Opera’s lending business is operated through apps offered on Google’s Play Store. In August, Google tightened rules to curtail predatory lending and, as a result, Opera’s apps are now in black and white violation of numerous Google rules.
• Given that the vast majority of Opera’s loans are disbursed through Android apps, we think this entire line of business is at risk of disappearing or being severely curtailed when Google notices.

«

This is really skeevy behaviour by Opera. Fingers crossed that Google bans all those apps by later today. Also: who on earth buys shares in a browser company? Between this and Mozilla, life’s not looking good for companies reliant on browsers. (In passing, you’ve got to be really brave to brand yourself with “Hindenburg”, but I guess once you’ve got established, people will remember the name.)
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The Evil List: Which tech companies are doing the most harm? • The Atlantic

:

»

The tech industry doesn’t intoxicate us like it did just a few years ago. Keeping up with its problems—and its fixes, and its fixes that cause new problems—is dizzying. Separating out the meaningful threats from the noise is hard. Is Facebook really the danger to democracy it looks like? Is Uber really worse than the system it replaced? Isn’t Amazon’s same-day delivery worth it? Which harms are real and which are hypothetical? Has the techlash gotten it right? And which of these companies is really the worst? Which ones might be, well, evil?

We don’t mean evil in the mustache-twirling, burn-the-world-from-a-secret-lair sense—well, we mostly don’t mean that—but rather in the way Googlers once swore to avoid mission drift, respect their users, and spurn short-term profiteering, even though the company now regularly faces scandals in which it has violated its users’ or workers’ trust. We mean ills that outweigh conveniences. We mean temptations and poison pills and unanticipated outcomes.

«

A list compiled by asking journalists, scholars, advocates and others. Some surprises, some completely-as-expected. Welcome to the Decade of Disillusion.
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USB 3.0* radio frequency interference impact on 2.4 ghz wireless devices • Intel

From April 2012:

»

As previously shown in Figure 2-2, the noise from USB 3.0 data spectrum can be high (in the 2.4–2.5 GHz range). This noise can radiate from the USB 3.0 connector on a PC platform, the USB 3.0 connector on the peripheral device or the USB 3.0 cable. If the antenna of a wireless device operating in this band is placed close to any of the above USB 3.0 radiation channels, it can pick up the broadband noise. The broadband noise emitted from a USB 3.0 device can affect the SNR [signal to noise ratio] and limit the sensitivity of any wireless receiver whose antenna is physically located close to the USB 3.0 device. This may result in a drop in throughput on the wireless link.

«

One of the examples is that a hard drive plugged into a USB 3 socket could make a wireless mouse’s response lag if it’s three feet or more from the wireless receiver.

What sort of mad mess is USB 3? Is this some plot by the makers of tinfoil? And yes, the problem is still ongoing. If you’ve got problems with your wireless mouse, this could feasibly be why. (Via the latest Accidental Tech Podcast.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1224: AR contact lenses!, Pelosi slams Facebook, retail privacy policies, WhatsApp NoAds, and more


Want to go to the Bose store? Not any more in the US or Europe or Japan or Australia. CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. You call that perfect? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Augmented reality in a contact lens: it’s the real deal • IEEE Spectrum

Tekla Perry:

»

Augmented reality in a contact lens? Science fiction writers envisioned the technology decades ago, and startups have been working on developing an actual product for at least 10 years.

Today, Mojo Vision announced that it has done just that—put 14K pixels-per-inch microdisplays, wireless radios, image sensors, and motion sensors into contact lenses that fit comfortably in the eyes. The first generation of Mojo Lenses are being powered wirelessly, though future generations will have batteries on board. A small external pack, besides providing power, handles sensor data and sends information to the display. The company is calling the technology Invisible Computing, and company representatives say it will get people’s eyes off their phones and back onto the world around them.

The first application, says Steve Sinclair, senior vice president of product and marketing, will likely be for people with low vision—providing real-time edge detection and dropping crisp lines around objects. In a demonstration last week at CES 2020, I used a working prototype (albeit by squinting through the lens rather than putting it into my eyes), and the device highlighted shapes in bright green as I looked around a dimly lit room.

The effect was impressive and it was easy to see how useful this could be.

«

And when you close your eyes, says an exec, you still see content displayed. It was all sounding so good until then. Wonder if it will actually come to fruition, unlike Google’s (and before that Microsoft’s) “contact lenses that take your blood sugar”.
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Pelosi says Facebook execs ‘schmooze’ the Trump admin to avoid taxes • CNBC

Lauren Feiner:

»

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., slammed Facebook during her weekly press briefing Thursday, accusing the company of only caring about profits and saying executives “schmooze” the Trump administration to avoid taxes and antitrust action.

“The Facebook business model is strictly to make money. They don’t care about the impact on children, they don’t care about truth, they don’t care about where this is all coming from, and they have said, even if they know it’s not true, they will print it,” Pelosi said in what appeared to be a reference to the company’s policy not to remove or fact-check political ads. “I think they have been very abusive of the great opportunity that technology has given them.”

Pelosi, whose constituency includes the tech-heavy district of San Francisco, said Facebook’s behavior has been “shameful.”

“All they want are their tax cuts and no antitrust action against them,” Pelosi said. “And they schmooze this administration in that regard because so far that’s what they have received. But I think that what they have said very blatantly, very clearly, that they intend to be accomplices for misleading the American people with money from God knows where, they didn’t even check on the money from Russia in the last election, they never even thought they should. So they have been very irresponsible.”

«

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Bose is closing all of its retail stores in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia • The Verge

Chris Welch:

»

Bose plans to close its entire retail store footprint in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia. The company announced the decision earlier today and pointed to the fact that its headphones, speakers, and other products “are increasingly purchased through e-commerce” as the reasoning. Hundreds of employees will be laid off as a result.

Bose opened its first physical retail store in 1993 and currently has locations in many shopping centers and the remaining malls scattered across the US. The stores are used to showcase the company’s product lineup, which has grown beyond Bose’s signature noise-canceling headphones in recent years to include smart speakers and sunglasses that double as earbuds. There are often similar demo areas at retailers like Best Buy, though Bose has plenty of competition to worry about in that environment.

«

Wow. That’s 119 stores. Yet keeping open 130 stores in China, UAE, India, SE Asia and South Korea. Are they seriously trying to suggest that e-commerce isn’t big in any of those?
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Now stores must tell you how they’re tracking your every move • WIRED

Tom Simonite:

»

To anyone with eyes in their kneecaps, the notice outside gadget retailer B8ta’s glossy store next to San Francisco’s new NBA arena is obvious. “We care about your privacy,” the small plaque proclaims, offering a web address and QR code.

Anyone curious and limber enough to bend down and follow these pointers is taken to the retailer’s online privacy policy, which discloses that stepping inside the store puts you in range of technology that automatically collects personal information. That includes “smartphone detectors” and Wi-Fi routers that note the location and unique identifiers of your phone, and cameras equipped with software that estimates your age and gender.

B8ta added the signage to its six California stores and expanded its online privacy policy late last year as it prepared to comply with a new state law that took effect this month called the California Consumer Privacy Act. The law requires businesses to disclose what personal information they collect from consumers at or before the time it is collected. It gives state residents the right to request data collected about them be deleted and to forbid a business from selling it.

CCPA’s most visible effect has been a plague of website popups on California residents. But the law also applies to offline data collection.

«

The annoyance is felt directly, and lawmakers get the blame – because the surveillance is silent, but pervasive.
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Study confirms climate models are getting future warming projections right • Nasa Climate Change

Alan Buis, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

»

For decades, people have legitimately wondered how well climate models perform in predicting future climate conditions. Based on solid physics and the best understanding of the Earth system available, they skillfully reproduce observed data. Nevertheless, they have a wide response to increasing carbon dioxide levels, and many uncertainties remain in the details. The hallmark of good science, however, is the ability to make testable predictions, and climate models have been making predictions since the 1970s. How reliable have they been?

Now a new evaluation of global climate models used to project Earth’s future global average surface temperatures over the past half-century answers that question: most of the models have been quite accurate.

In a study accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, a research team led by Zeke Hausfather of the University of California, Berkeley, conducted a systematic evaluation of the performance of past climate models. The team compared 17 increasingly sophisticated model projections of global average temperature developed between 1970 and 2007, including some originally developed by NASA, with actual changes in global temperature observed through the end of 2017.

«

And those are temperatures in Fahrenheit – if it were in Celsius, the accuracy would look a lot better.
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Carriers ignore studies that show they suck at preventing SIM-swap attacks • Boing Boing

:

»

The study – conducted by Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy – details how researchers were able to bypass carrier security measures such as requiring people to give date of birth and billing ZIP codes by stating that they had been careless during the signup period and couldn’t recall what answers they’d given previously. What’s more, the researchers found it simple to bypass the carriers’ requirement that the subscriber dial two phone numbers to confirm the swap – they just sent fraudulent texts to the real customers telling them they’d won a prize and asking them to dial a certain number to collect it, then followed up by saying they had sent the wrong number originally and asking the victim to dial the second number instead.

Four out of the five carriers whose security was bypassed in this manner took no steps to fix it.

«

That’s sneaky stuff with the texts. Give the fraudsters this: they’re imaginative, in way that the companies aren’t.
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EU to consider mandatory common charger for smartphones, paving the way for USB-C domination • Android Police

Cody English:

»

The European Union will soon hold a vote to decide if it will enforce a mandatory, universal charging connector for all smartphones and other similar, small electronic devices. Arguments in favor of the new legislation include a reduction of e-waste and easy, interoperable charging for end-users. The introduction of USB Type-C has energized standardization talks as it incorporates many of the advantages (reversibility of connection, data transmission rates, and charging speeds) used to justify the existence of proprietary charging connectors.

«

Let’s look at what the Euro Parliament says:

»

To reduce electronic waste and make consumers’ life easier, MEPs want binding measures for chargers to fit all mobile phones and other portable devices.

In the 2014 Radio Equipment Directive, EU lawmakers called for a common charger to be developed and gave the Commission powers to pursue this via a delegated act.

The Commission’s approach of “encouraging” industry to develop common chargers fell short of the co-legislators’ objectives. The voluntary agreements between different industry players have not yielded the desired results.

A common charger should fit all mobile phones, tablets, e-book readers and other portable devices, MEPs will insist.

«

Chargers are the things that plug into the wall. They’re not the plugs that go into the devices. Apple has already moved its chargers to USB-C – all its current laptop line, its iPads, its iPhones. So the companies that will be affected like this are other companies. But of course everyone thinks this is about Apple.
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WhatsApp backs off controversial plan to sell ads • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz and Kirsten Grind:

»

Facebook Inc. is backing away from efforts to sell ads in WhatsApp, marking a retreat from a controversial plan that drove the creators of the popular messaging service to resign more than 18 months ago, according to people familiar with the matter.

WhatsApp in recent months disbanded a team that had been established to find the best ways to integrate ads into the service, according to people familiar with the matter. The team’s work was then deleted from WhatsApp’s code, the people said.

The shift marks a setback in the social-media giant’s quest to monetize WhatsApp, which it bought in a blockbuster $22bn acquisition in 2014 that has yet to pay financial dividends despite the service being used by more than 1.5 billion people globally.

«

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This sci-fi-inspired device could replace bulky, expensive X-ray machines • ExtremeTech

Ryan Whitwam:

»

Current X-ray machinery is bulky, requiring arrays of rotating tubes with superheated filaments that produce electron clouds. When moved near a metal anode, the filament produces the X-rays needed for imaging. These giant analog contraptions require heavy shielding to keep patients safe, and they use a lot of power. There’s also a substantial upfront cost that can run $2-3m. The Nanox.Arc, on the other hand, uses silicon micro-electromechanical systems (MEMs) in the form of more than 100 million molybdenum nano-cones that generate electrons. 

Nanox says its field emission X-ray technology is the product of 15 years of research, and no other company on Earth has done something similar. The upshot of all this is that the Nanox.Arc takes up very little space and uses less power than traditional machines. The company also has a plan to address the low global availability of X-ray machines. Instead of selling the Nanox.Arc for millions of dollars, it will lease the devices to hospitals and medical centers and charge per scan.

«

But it’s not enough to do that; it has to add a “cloud-based AI platform” to analyse the images.
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The FBI got data from a locked iPhone 11 Pro Max—so why is it demanding Apple unlock older phones? • Forbes

Thomas Brewster:

»

Questions are being asked about the FBI’s motivations over demanding Apple help it unlock the iPhones of the Pensacola shooting suspect, after Forbes uncovered a search warrant that strongly indicates the feds have access to a tool that can grab data on the latest, and most secure, iPhones.

Last year, FBI investigators in Ohio used a hacking device called a GrayKey to draw data from the latest Apple model, the iPhone 11 Pro Max. The phone belonged to Baris Ali Koch, who was accused of helping his convicted brother flee the country by providing him with his own ID documents and lying to the police. He has now entered a plea agreement and is awaiting sentencing.

Forbes confirmed with Koch’s lawyer, Ameer Mabjish, that the device was locked. Mabjish also said he was unaware of any way the investigators could’ve acquired the passcode; Koch had not given it to them nor did they force the defendant to use his face to unlock the phone via Face ID, as far as the lawyer was aware. The search warrant document obtained by Forbes, dated October 16, 2019, also showed the phone in a locked state, giving the strongest indication yet that the FBI has access to a device that can acquire data from the latest iPhone.

Given the models in the Pensacola shooting case are iPhones 5 and 7, it’s unclear why a GrayKey hasn’t proven useful in that investigation. Forbes has previously revealed a GrayKey brochure that showed it worked on older devices, too.

Senator Wyden’s office told Forbes it has asked the Department of Justice to explain why it is making public demands for backdoors if it has already used the tool to access the newest iPhones.

«

So that answers my question from earlier this week: could the FBI get into the Pensacola phones? It seems yes, it could. (Link via @benthompson’s Stratechery newsletter.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1223: Mozilla lays off 70, Apple buys another AI company, could the FBI hack those iPhones?, what bystanders really do, and more


Google’s new neural network can forecast weather from photos like this – really quickly. CC-licensed photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 12 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Mozilla lays off 70 as it waits for new products to generate revenue • TechCrunch

Frederic Lardinois:

»

Mozilla laid off about 70 employees today, TechCrunch has learned.

In an internal memo, Mozilla chairwoman and interim CEO Mitchell Baker specifically mentions the slow rollout of the organization’s new revenue-generating products as the reason for why it needed to take this decision. The overall number may still be higher, though, as Mozilla is still looking into how this decision will affect workers in the UK and France. In 2018, Mozilla Corporation (as opposed to the much smaller Mozilla Foundation) said it had about 1,000 employees worldwide.

“You may recall that we expected to be earning revenue in 2019 and 2020 from new subscription products as well as higher revenue from sources outside of search. This did not happen,” Baker writes in her memo. “Our 2019 plan underestimated how long it would take to build and ship new, revenue-generating products. Given that, and all we learned in 2019 about the pace of innovation, we decided to take a more conservative approach to projecting our revenue for 2020. We also agreed to a principle of living within our means, of not spending more than we earn for the foreseeable future.”

«

Wants to offer a VPN, which would be a break from its reliance on search: 91% of its revenue comes from search. (Google pays, a lot, to be Firefox’s default search engine.)
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Climate threats now dominate long-term risks, survey of global leaders finds • Reuters

Laurie Goering:

»

Climate-change-related threats such as extreme weather, large-scale biodiversity losses and a failure of political leaders to slow planetary heating are now the top long-term risks facing the globe, business and other leaders said on Wednesday.

An annual risk survey published ahead of the World Economic Forum next week put climate threats ahead of risks ranging from cyberattacks and pandemics to geopolitical conflict and weapons of mass destruction for the first time.

“That’s new. Last year we didn’t have it,” said Mirek Dusek, deputy head of the Centre for Geopolitical and Regional Affairs and an executive committee member of the World Economic Forum, of the rise of environmental issues up the list.

The shift comes as climate-changing emissions continue to rise strongly globally, despite government and business commitments to reduce them, and as the potential impact of runaway climate change becomes clearer.

«

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2020 update on my global warming “traffic light” bet with Bryan Caplan and Alex Tabarrok • Stand-Up Economist

Yoram Bauman:

»

Back in 2014 I made a global warming bet with fellow economists Bryan Caplan and Alex Tabarrok about global temperatures over the following 15 years (2015-2029) compared with the previous 15 years (2000-2014). The bet can be illustrated with this graphic, so I’m calling it our “traffic light” bet:

The short version is that the red line at 0.92°C represents average temperatures during the first 5 years of our 15-year betting period; the yellow line at 0.67°C shows the finish line for the bet: if the red line is above the yellow line after another 10 years then I win the bet, and otherwise they win the bet; and the green line at 0.55°C shows how high average temperatures can be over the next 10 years for Bryan and Alex to win the bet.

The good news for Bryan and Alex is that they can still win our global warming bet if average temperatures for the next 10 years are about 0.4°C lower than the average for the past 5 years! (The bad news is that the green line is moving down: last year it was at 0.58°C.)

«

I hope the bet is for two trillion dollars, via some sort of leveraged derivative, so we can sort this stuff out.
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Equal Rights Amendment: Virginia General Assembly passes resolution • CNNPolitics

Veronica Stracqualursi:

»

Virginia’s General Assembly on Wednesday approved resolutions to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, a century-long dream of progressives and feminists that would ban discrimination on the basis of sex and guarantee equality for women under the Constitution…

…Congress passed the ERA in 1972, sending the amendment to the states to ratify within a seven-year window. That deadline was later extended by three years to 1982. By the 1982 deadline, only 35 states had ratified the amendment – three-fourths of state legislatures, or 38 out of 50, are needed to amend the Constitution – though five that had earlier passed it had by then rescinded their support. In subsequent years, two more states – Nevada in 2017 and Illinois in 2018 -have ratified the ERA.

The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel said in a legal opinion made public last week that the deadline to ratify the ERA has expired and is no longer pending before the states. The opinion effectively prevents the archivist of the United States from verifying the ERA as Virginia is on the cusp of becoming the 38th state to ratify the amendment.

But the archivist’s authority doesn’t prevent states from acting on their own to ratify the amendment – or preclude them from legally challenging the Justice Department’s opinion in court.

«

The point about the ratification and the challenges is miles down the story, but it matters a bit.
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Apple buys Xnor.ai, an edge-centric AI2 spin-out, for price in $200M range • GeekWire

Alan Boyle, Taylor Soper and Todd Bishop:

»

The arrangement suggests that Xnor’s AI-enabled image recognition tools could well become standard features in future iPhones and webcams.

Xnor.ai’s acquisition marks a big win for the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, or AI2, created by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen to boost AI research. It was the second spin-out from AI2’s startup incubator, following Kitt.ai, which was acquired by the Chinese search engine powerhouse Baidu in 2017 for an undisclosed sum.

The deal is a big win as well for the startup’s early investors, including Seattle’s Madrona Venture Group; and for the University of Washington, which serves as a major source of Xnor.ai’s talent pool.

The three-year-old startup’s secret sauce has to do with AI on the edge — machine learning and image recognition tools that can be executed on low-power devices rather than relying on the cloud. “We’ve been able to scale AI out of the cloud to every device out there,” co-founder Ali Farhadi, who is the venture’s CXO (chief Xnor officer) as well as a UW professor, told GeekWire in 2018…

…The company notched several notable advances in 2019, including the development of a standalone AI chip capable of running for years on solar power or a coin-sized battery, the debut of an AI-enabled gizmo that can autonomously monitor grocery shelves; and a deal to have its edge-based person recognition technology built into Wyze Labs’ low-cost security cameras.

«

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September 2019: developer of Checkm8 explains why iDevice jailbreak exploit is a game changer • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin in September 2019:

»

Checkm8 was developed by a hacker who uses the handle axi0mX. He’s the developer of another jailbreak-enabling exploit called alloc8 that was released in 2017. Because it was the first known iOS bootrom exploit in seven years, it was of intense interest to researchers, but it worked only on the iPhone 3GS, which was seven years old by the time alloc8 went public. The limitation gave the exploit little practical application.

Checkm8 is different. It works on 11 generations of iPhones, from the 4S to the X. While it doesn’t work on newer devices, Checkm8 can jailbreak hundreds of millions of devices in use today. And because the bootrom can’t be updated after the device is manufactured, Checkm8 will be able to jailbreak in perpetuity.

I wanted to learn how Checkm8 will shape the iPhone experience—particularly as it relates to security—so I spoke at length with axi0mX on Friday. Thomas Reed, director of Mac offerings at security firm Malwarebytes, joined me. The takeaways from the long-ranging interview are:

• Checkm8 requires physical access to the phone. It can’t be remotely executed, even if combined with other exploits
• The exploit allows only tethered jailbreaks, meaning it lacks persistence. The exploit must be run each time an iDevice boots.
• Checkm8 doesn’t bypass the protections offered by the Secure Enclave and Touch ID.

«

Sounds like the FBI (or a third party) could use this at least to bypass security on the iPhone 5. If that isn’t the one that the guy shot with a bullet. The iPhone 7 Plus will be more of a problem: it has the Secure Enclave, and as the hacker says “for pretty much all current phones, from iPhone 6 to iPhone 8, there is a Secure Enclave that protects your data if you don’t have the PIN.”

So you need a method to find the PIN – which could be a password. Tricky.
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Why Japan is so successful at returning lost property • BBC Future

William Park and Johanna Airth:

»

“Handing in a lost or forgotten item is something that is taught at a young age,” says Tamura. “Children are encouraged to deliver lost items to the kōban, even if it’s 10 yen (7p). A child can deliver this coin to the kōban, the police officer will treat it formally as any lost item. A report is made up, and the coin is taken into police custody. Yet, knowing that no one would report [it], the police then gives the coin back as a reward. Therefore, although it is the same monetary amount, the process of handing it into the police is different from outright taking the money – that is, one is theft, the other is a reward.”

In a study comparing dropped phones and wallets in New York and Tokyo, 88% of phones “lost” by the researchers were handed into the police by Tokyo residents, compared to 6% of the ones “lost” in New York. Likewise, 80% of Tokyo wallets were handed in compared to 10% in New York. The abundance of police stations must make it easier, but is there something else going on.

Lost umbrellas, on the other hand, are rarely retrieved by their owners. Of the 338,000 handed in to Lost Property in Tokyo in 2018, only 1% found their way back to their owner. The vast majority – about 81% – were claimed by the finder, which is a peculiarity in itself. In fact, the profligacy of umbrellas can work the other way. Knowing that many people would forget to claim their umbrella, Satoshi, a former resident of Suginami-ku, Tokyo, says he would trick Lost Property into handing one over if he was caught out in the rain.

«

Umbrellas v iPhones. Very weird.
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The FBI can unlock Florida terrorist’s IPhones without Apple • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman:

»

The FBI is pressing Apple to help it break into a terrorist’s iPhones, but the government can hack into the devices without the technology giant, according to experts in cybersecurity and digital forensics.

Investigators can exploit a range of security vulnerabilities – available directly or through providers such as Cellebrite and Grayshift – to break into the phones, the security experts said.

Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the perpetrator of a Dec. 6 terrorist attack at a Navy base in Florida, had an iPhone 5 and iPhone 7, models that were first released in 2012 and 2016, respectively. Alshamrani died and the handsets were locked, leaving the FBI looking for ways to hack into the devices.

“A 5 and a 7? You can absolutely get into that,” said Will Strafach, a well-known iPhone hacker who now runs the security company Guardian Firewall. “I wouldn’t call it child’s play, but it’s not super difficult.”

That counters the U.S. government’s stance. Attorney General William Barr slammed Apple on Monday, saying the company hasn’t done enough to help the FBI break into the iPhones…

…Strafach and other security experts said Apple wouldn’t need to create a backdoor for the FBI to access the iPhones that belonged to Alshamrani.

Neil Broom, who works with law enforcement agencies to unlock devices, warned that the software version running on the iPhone 5 and iPhone 7 could make it more difficult to break into the handsets. But it would still be possible.

“If the particular phones were at a particular iOS version, it might be as easy as an hour and boom, they are in. But they could be at an iOS version that doesn’t have a vulnerability,” he said.

«

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Using machine learning to “Nowcast” precipitation in high resolution • Google AI Blog

Jason Hickey is a senior software engineer:

»

the availability of computational resources limits the power of numerical weather prediction in several ways. For example, computational demands limit the spatial resolution to about 5 kilometers, which is not sufficient for resolving weather patterns within urban areas and agricultural land. Numerical methods also take multiple hours to run. If it takes 6 hours to compute a forecast, that allows only 3-4 runs per day and resulting in forecasts based on 6+ hour old data, which limits our knowledge of what is happening right now. By contrast, nowcasting is especially useful for immediate decisions from traffic routing and logistics to evacuation planning.

As a typical example of the type of predictions our system can generate, consider the radar-to-radar forecasting problem: given a sequence of radar images for the past hour, predict what the radar image will be N hours from now, where N typically ranges from 0-6 hours. Since radar data is organized into images, we can pose this prediction as a computer vision problem, inferring the meteorological evolution from the sequence of input images. At these short timescales, the evolution is dominated by two physical processes: advection for the cloud motion, and convection for cloud formation, both of which are significantly affected by local terrain and geography.

We use a data-driven physics-free approach, meaning that the neural network will learn to approximate the atmospheric physics from the training examples alone, not by incorporating a priori knowledge of how the atmosphere actually works. We treat weather prediction as an image-to-image translation problem, and leverage the current state-of-the-art in image analysis: convolutional neural networks (CNNs).

«

The “physics-free” emphasis is Google’s, and it’s a good point: it’s basically looking at past weather maps and estimating how the cloud maps will look, and hence the rain maps. It’s entirely image-based – it doesn’t know (or ask for) anything about barometric pressure, temperature or anything. Probably doesn’t even care about night and day.

I came across an Alex Stamos (ex-Facebook) commentary from 2019 recently where he said the best machine learning we have right now is like a humungous number of preschoolers: you can teach them how to do simple stuff, but not really complex stuff. Seems like they’re growing up a little, though.
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5G security • Schneier on Security

Bruce Schneier:

»

keeping untrusted companies like Huawei out of Western infrastructure isn’t enough to secure 5G. Neither is banning Chinese microchips, software, or programmers. Security vulnerabilities in the standards , the protocols and software for 5G ensure that vulnerabilities will remain, regardless of who provides the hardware and software. These insecurities are a result of market forces that prioritize costs over security and of governments, including the United States, that want to preserve the option of surveillance in 5G networks. If the United States is serious about tackling the national security threats related to an insecure 5G network, it needs to rethink the extent to which it values corporate profits and government espionage over security.

To be sure, there are significant security improvements in 5G over 4G in encryption, authentication, integrity protection, privacy, and network availability. But the enhancements aren’t enough.

The 5G security problems are threefold. First, the standards are simply too complex to implement securely. This is true for all software, but the 5G protocols offer particular difficulties. Because of how it is designed, the system blurs the wireless portion of the network connecting phones with base stations and the core portion that routes data around the world. Additionally, much of the network is virtualized, meaning that it will rely on software running on dynamically configurable hardware. This design dramatically increases the points vulnerable to attack, as does the expected massive increase in both things connected to the network and the data flying about it.

Second, there’s so much backward compatibility built into the 5G network that older vulnerabilities remain…

…Third, the 5G standards committees missed many opportunities to improve security. Many of the new security features in 5G are optional, and network operators can choose not to implement them.

«

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Researchers find 17 Google Play apps that bombard users with battery-draining ads • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

»

Developers employed a variety of tricks to populate Google Play with more than a dozen apps that bombard users with ads, even when the apps weren’t being used, researchers have found.

Among the tactics used to lower the chances of being caught by Google or peeved users: the apps wait 48 hours before hiding their presence on devices, hold off displaying ads for four hours, display the ads at random intervals, and split their code into multiple files, researchers with antivirus provider Bitdefender reported. The apps also contain working code that does the things promised in the Google Play descriptions, giving them the appearance of legitimacy. In all, Bitdefender found 17 such apps with a combined 550,000 installations.

One of the apps Bitdefender analyzed was a racing simulator that also charged in-app fees for extra features. While it worked as advertised, it also aggressively displayed ads that drained batteries and sometimes prevented people from playing the game. After a four-hour waiting period, ad displays are generated using a random number (less than three) that was checked against a value. If the random number was equal to the value, an ad would appear.

The result: when a user unlocks an infected phone, there’s a one-in-three chance it will display an ad. The ad-showing mechanisms are also scattered within multiple activities and use modified adware developer kits. The randomness of the ad occurrences and display-time intervals further make it hard to notice patterns that might help identify the source. The app uses other tricks to make the displays unpredictable.

“Users see multiple ads either in-game when pressing different buttons or even if not in the app,” the report said.

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Subtle point made in the comments: relies on an Android capability (background apps can Draw Over foreground ones) to do the ad thing. Can’t be done on iOS. Google is removing the apps, but removing Draw Over would be a lot better.
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You will be helped! Research using real-world situations fails to replicate the “bystander effect” • Boing Boing

Cory Doctorow:

»

an international team of psych researchers have created an empirical account of the bystander effect that punctures the received wisdom [that people don’t get involved], finding that in 9 out of 10 times, bystanders do step up to help; and the more bystanders there are, the greater the likelihood is that you will receive help.

The researchers used police CCTV video footage of “conflict between at least two individuals” and analyzed whether bystanders intervened to help. The footage came from central districts Cape Town, Amsterdam, and Lancaster, providing data on cities with very different public perceptions of the likelihood and severity of violent crime.

The researchers concluded that not only did one or more people intervene in 90% of conflicts, but also that the likelihood of intervention went up with the number of bystanders present.

The researchers say that earlier work on the bystander effect focused on “responsibility diffusion” (the feeling that someone else was likely to step in so you didn’t have to), but not enough of “mechanical helping potential” (the pervasive tendency to want to help). They caution that they were only able to survey conflicts in cities’ central business districts, and that these conclusions don’t necessarily carry over to “conflicts at music and sporting events, or sexual aggression on campuses.”

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Here’s the paper. CCTV is turning out to be useful for all sorts of things, including dispelling old wives’ (and psychologists’) tales.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1222: US considers anti-Huawei subsidies, will finance strangle coal?, sayonara Windows 7 – hello PC sales!, Norway sues apps, and more


Prices on old John Deere tractors are rocketing – because they’re comparatively easy to maintain. No software! CC-licensed photo by Ted Ladue on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

BlackRock CEO Larry Fink: climate crisis will reshape finance • The New York Times

Andrew Sorkin:

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The firm, he wrote, would also introduce new funds that shun fossil fuel-oriented stocks, move more aggressively to vote against management teams that are not making progress on sustainability, and press companies to disclose plans “for operating under a scenario where the Paris Agreement’s goal of limiting global warming to less than two degrees is fully realized.”

Mr. Fink has not always been the first to address social issues, but his annual letter — such as his dictum two years ago that companies needed to have a purpose beyond profits — has the influence to change the conversations inside boardrooms around the globe.

And now Mr. Fink is sounding an alarm on a crisis that he believes is the most profound in his 40 years in finance. “Even if only a fraction of the science is right today, this is a much more structural, long-term crisis,” he wrote.

A longtime Democrat, Mr. Fink insisted in an interview that the decision was strictly business. “We are fiduciaries,” he said. “Politics isn’t part of this.”

BlackRock itself has come under criticism from both industry and environmental groups for being behind on pushing these issues. Just last month, a British hedge fund manager, Christopher Hohn, said that it was “appalling” of BlackRock not to require companies to disclose their sustainability efforts, and that the firm’s previous efforts had been “full of greenwash.”…

…Had Mr. Fink moved a decade ago to pull BlackRock’s funds out of companies that contribute to climate change, his clients would have been well served. In the past 10 years, through Friday, companies in the S&P 500 energy sector had gained just 2% in total. In the same period, the broader S&P 500 nearly tripled.

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Once finance starts getting out of coal in favour of renewables, there will be a domino effect: the next most polluting product will get starved in turn. Finance can make this a “gradually, then suddenly” change.
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Senators propose over $1bn for 5G alternatives to China’s Huawei • CNBC

Lauren Feiner:

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A bipartisan group of senators introduced legislation Tuesday that would pump more than $1bn into developing Western 5G equipment alternatives to China’s Huawei.

Reasoning that Huawei has been “heavily subsidized by the Chinese government,” the Utilizing Strategic Allied (USA) Telecommunications Act would help Western firms compete and become a robust player in next generation communication technology, according to a press release sent by the office of Sen. Mark Warker, D-Va., a co-sponsor of the bill.

The U.S. has long held national security concerns and suspicions about Huawei’s ties to the country’s Communist Party leadership. Last year, it placed the company on a blacklist prohibiting U.S. companies from doing business with the firm without a special license.

The bill proposes that the Federal Communications Commission direct at least $750m or up to 5% of annual auction proceeds from new auctioned spectrum licenses to create an open-architecture model (O-RAN) research and development fund.

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Makes sense: you need to have some sort of competition to Huawei. However it’s going to mean funding non-American companies – Nokia and Ericsson are the only notable players there.
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Microsoft bids farewell to Windows 7 and the millions of PCs that still run it • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Microsoft has been notifying Windows 7 users throughout 2019 about today’s end of support, so people still stuck on the OS can’t say they haven’t been warned. A full-screen notification will appear for Windows 7 users on Wednesday, warning that systems are now out of support. Microsoft is trying to convince existing users to upgrade to machines running Windows 10, a trend that caused the global PC market to have its first year of growth since 2011.

Despite the end of support, Windows 7 looks like it has some life left in it yet. It could take another year or two to get Windows 7 firmly below 10% market share, especially when Google is committing to support Chrome on Windows 7 until at least the middle of 2021. That presents Microsoft with some headaches for ongoing support. We’ve already seen the software giant break with tradition multiple times for Windows XP, issuing public patches for the operating system after its end of support date. Given the increases in ransomware attacks in recent years and their devastating effects, it’s likely we’ll see public Windows 7 security patches in the future.

The vast majority of these support headaches will come from businesses that don’t always upgrade to the very latest Windows releases. Windows Vista and Windows 8 weren’t exactly solid in-between releases to which you could reliably upgrade, and that left most businesses running Windows XP or Windows 7 to avoid software issues and incompatibilities. Windows 8 won’t have the same issues when its support ends in 2023, as it’s only running on less than 5% of all PCs.

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Still on 26% of PCs. That’s over 250 million of them.
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Traditional PC volumes close out an impressive 2019 with fourth quarter growth of 4.8% • IDC

:

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The worldwide market for traditional PCs, inclusive of desktops, notebooks, and workstations, finished an impressive 2019 with fourth quarter growth of 4.8% year over year, according to preliminary results from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Personal Computing Device Tracker. Global shipments during the quarter beat forecast expectations at just under 71.8 million units, the highest single quarter shipment volume in four years (4Q15). Overall, global shipments grew 2.7% year over year in 2019, the first full year of PC growth since the market grew 1.7% in 2011.

“This past year was a wild one in the PC world, which resulted in impressive market growth that ultimately ended seven consecutive years of market contraction,” said Ryan Reith, program vice president with IDC’s Worldwide Mobile Device Trackers. “The market will still have its challenges ahead, but this year was a clear sign that PC demand is still there despite the continued insurgence of emerging form factors and the demand for mobile computing.”

The holiday quarter capped an impressive run for PCs in 2019, where three out of four quarters delivered year-over-year growth.

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That’s because businesses were upgrading their old Windows 7 PCs to newer ones. As Reith admits, the next 12-18 months are going to be pretty thin.
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US government to restrict sale of AI for satellite image analysis • Defense One

Patrick Tucker:

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The federal rule change, published on Monday, affects software “‘specially designed’” to train deep learning neural networks “on the analysis of geospatial imagery.” The software would be classified as a dual-use technology under the Wassenaar Arrangement, subject to many of the same restrictions for exporting arms.

The rule affects software that would “provide a graphical user interface that enables the user to identify objects (e.g., vehicles, houses, etc.) from within geospatial imagery” and that “Trains a Deep Convolutional Neural Network to detect the object of interest from the positive and negative samples; and identifies objects in geospatial imagery using the trained Deep Convolutional Neural Network.” 

Applying machine learning to the identification of objects in satellite imagery is a big U.S. military concern. Military leaders frequently talk about the wide disconnect between the amount of video and satellite footage that the United States collects and scarcity of analysts to look through the footage and see what’s relevant to operations. They’ve invested heavily in software tools that can monitor or scan that footage, including satellite footage, and then tip a human analyst to pay attention to something of relevance. Perhaps the best example is Project Maven, a military AI project to identify objects of interest or detect changes in scenery to help analysts and operators cut through lots of imagery and footage very quickly. 

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New study: the advertising industry is systematically breaking the law • Forbrukerrådet

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The online advertising industry is behind comprehensive illegal collection and indiscriminate use of personal data, research from the Norwegian Consumer Council shows.
Based on the findings, more than 20 consumer and civil society organisations in Europe and from different parts of the world are urging their authorities to investigate the practices of the online advertising industry.

The report uncovers how every time we use apps, hundreds of shadowy entities are receiving personal data about our interests, habits, and behaviour. This information is used to profile consumers, which can be used for targeted advertising, but may also lead to discrimination, manipulation and exploitation.

These practices are out of control and in breach of European data protection legislation. The extent of tracking makes it impossible for us to make informed choices about how our personal data is collected, shared and used, says Finn Myrstad, director of digital policy in the Norwegian Consumer Council.

The Norwegian Consumer Council is now filing formal complaints against Grindr, a dating app for gay, bi, trans, and queer people and companies that were receiving personal data through the app;  Twitter`s MoPub, AT&T’s AppNexus, OpenX, AdColony and Smaato. The complaints are directed to the Norwegian Data Protection Authority for breaches of the General Data Protection Regulation.

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Could be some fun fines if the complaints are upheld.
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Seven reasons why video gaming will take over • Matthew Ball

(Ball is a venture capitalist):

»

TV isn’t going away. But regardless of how effectively the major TV companies transition to digital, it’s hard to imagine it will maintain current levels (at least until autonomous vehicles free up another two hours per day). It’s not new that human attention is finite, but the “attention economy” is so talked about today because there’s finally competition for leisure time. That doesn’t mean video time will ever fall below three hours per day, but the historical 5+ level is likely inflated by the fact real substitutes didn’t exist. Now there’s TikTok, Snapchat and Fortnite. And they continue to take generational share away from the category with the most to give.

This is why I once tweeted that Fortnite was Netflix’s most threatening competitor (which CEO Reed Hastings said in his investor letter a month later). This is most plainly understood as the idea that everyone is competing for finite attention and there are more applications for this attention than ever before. But the real challenge for Hollywood is that for decades, whenever “leisure” won over “work”, TV was the primary beneficiary. In recent years, the leisure decision has changed or “moved up” a level. It used to be “what to watch” and now it’s “whether to watch” – and the answer is increasingly “no, I’m going to play a game”. Neither Netflix nor Hollywood has a good solution for this problem. And no one chooses not to game because there’s a branching narrative available instead.

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Yeeaah, but they may choose to go on social media rather than play a game. And the cultural flow is in general still from film (sometimes TV) to games: the Star Wars game, etc. Games that get made into films tend not to thrive.
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For tech-weary Midwest farmers, 40-year-old tractors now a hot commodity • StarTribune.com

Adam Belz:

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Kris Folland grows corn, wheat and soybeans and raises cattle on 2,000 acres near Halma in the northwest corner of Minnesota, so his operation is far from small. But when he last bought a new tractor, he opted for an old one — a 1979 John Deere 4440.

He retrofitted it with automatic steering guided by satellite, and he and his kids can use the tractor to feed cows, plant fields and run a grain auger. The best thing? The tractor cost $18,000, compared to upward of $150,000 for a new tractor. And Folland doesn’t need a computer to repair it.

“This is still a really good tractor,” said Folland, who owns two other tractors built before 1982. “They cost a fraction of the price, and then the operating costs are much less because they’re so much easier to fix.”

Tractors manufactured in the late 1970s and 1980s are some of the hottest items in farm auctions across the Midwest these days — and it’s not because they’re antiques. Cost-conscious farmers are looking for bargains, and tractors from that era are well-built and totally functional, and aren’t as complicated or expensive to repair as more recent models that run on sophisticated software.

“It’s a trend that’s been building. It’s been interesting in the last couple years, which have been difficult for ag, to see the trend accelerate,” said Greg Peterson, the founder of Machinery Pete, a farm equipment data company in Rochester with a website and TV show.

“There’s an affinity factor if you grew up around these tractors, but it goes way beyond that,” Peterson said. “These things, they’re basically bulletproof. You can put 15,000 hours on it and if something breaks you can just replace it.”

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If they’ve lasted 40 years, that says a lot about their durability and repairability in itself. Less fuel-efficient (biodiesel makes up for that), but the offset against the cost of a new one is substantial. Of course, all John Deere needs to do is wait. The old tractors will eventually die.
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Low Power Mode for Mac laptops: making the case again • Marco.org

Marco Arment:

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Modern hardware constantly pushes thermal and power limits, trying to strike a balance that minimizes noise and heat while maximizing performance and battery life.

Software also plays a role, trying to keep everything background-updated, content-indexed, and photo-analyzed so it’s ready for us when we want it, but not so aggressively that we notice any cost to performance or battery life.

Apple’s customers don’t usually have control over these balances, and they’re usually fixed at design time with little opportunity to adapt to changing circumstances or customer priorities.

The sole exception, Low Power Mode on iOS, seems to be a huge hit: by offering a single toggle that chooses a different balance, people are able to greatly extend their battery life when they know they’ll need it.

Mac laptops need Low Power Mode, too. I believe so strongly in its potential because I’ve been using it on my laptops (in a way) for years, and it’s fantastic.

I’ve been disabling Intel Turbo Boost on my laptops with Turbo Boost Switcher Pro most of the time since 2015.

In 2018, I first argued for Low Power Mode on macOS with a list of possible tweaks, concluding that disabling Turbo Boost was still the best bang-for-the-buck tweak to improve battery life without a noticeable performance cost in most tasks.

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Arment’s comments follow reports that Apple might offer a “Pro Mode” (basically, burn up your battery!) in an upcoming update to the present OS version, Catalina. As he points out, people seem to prefer longer battery life to faster processing, at least on phones; why should laptops generally be any different? My kids often spend the entire day with their phones on Low Power mode.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1221: the next big thing in content, spies face the recognition age, iPhone v Apple v US government (again), kill the Android bloatware!, and more


Cory Doctorow’s “Reflectacles” bamboozle CCTV – to evade surveillance. CC-licensed photo by Cory Doctorow on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. None Oscar-nominated. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

From context collapse to content collapse • ROUGH TYPE

Nick Carr:

»

The recent history of social media isn’t a story of context collapse. It’s a story of its opposite: context restoration. Young people led the way, moving much of their online conversation from the public platform of Facebook, where parents and teachers lurked, to the more intimate platform of Snapchat, where they could restrict their audience and where messages disappeared quickly. Private accounts became popular on other social networks as well. Group chats and group texts proliferated. On Instagram, people established pseudonymous accounts — fake Instagrams, or finstas — limited to their closest friends. Responding to the trend, Facebook itself introduced tools that allow members to restrict who can see a post and to specify how long the post stays visible. (Apparently, Zuckerberg has decided he’s comfortable undermining the integrity of the public.)

Context collapse remains an important conceptual lens, but what’s becoming clear now is that a very different kind of collapse — content collapse — will be the more consequential legacy of social media. Content collapse, as I define it, is the tendency of social media to blur traditional distinctions among once distinct types of information — distinctions of form, register, sense, and importance. As social media becomes the main conduit for information of all sorts — personal correspondence, news and opinion, entertainment, art, instruction, and on and on — it homogenizes that information as well as our responses to it.

Content began collapsing the moment it began to be delivered through computers.

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‘Shattered’: inside the secret battle to save America’s undercover spies in the digital age • Yahoo News

Jenna McLaughlin and Zach Dorfman:

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The familiar trope of Jason Bourne movies and John le Carré novels where spies open secret safes filled with false passports and interchangeable identities is already a relic, say former officials — swept away by technological changes so profound that they’re forcing the CIA to reconsider everything from how and where it recruits officers to where it trains potential agency personnel. Instead, the spread of new tools like facial recognition at border crossings and airports and widespread internet-connected surveillance cameras in major cities is wiping away in a matter of years carefully honed tradecraft that took intelligence experts decades to perfect. 

Though U.S. technical capabilities can collect reams of data, human intelligence remains critical. In 2016, for example, a high-level Russian asset recruited by the CIA confirmed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally ordered plans to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. After fleeing to the United States, that same covert source was forced to relocate because of his digital trail. Without the ability to send undercover intelligence officers overseas to recruit or meet sources face to face, this type of intelligence might all but disappear, creating a blind spot for U.S. policymakers. 

During a summit of Western intelligence agencies in early 2019, officials wrestled with the challenges of protecting their employees’ identities in the digital age, concluding that there was no silver bullet. “We still haven’t figured out this problem,” says a Western intelligence chief who attended the meeting. Such conversations have left intelligence leaders weighing an uncomfortable question: is spying as we know it over?

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Another example of that issue of facial recognition and identification being Bellingcat’s identification of the Russian agents behind the Skripal poisoning. Identifying spies cuts in every direction.
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How digital sleuths unravelled the mystery of Iran’s plane crash • WIRED UK

Chris Stokel-Walker:

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in the days after the Ukraine Airlines plane crashed into the ground outside Tehran, Bellingcat and The New York Times have blown a hole in the supposition that the downing of the aircraft was an engine failure. The pressure – and the weight of public evidence – compelled Iranian officials to admit overnight on January 10 that the country had shot down the plane “in error”.

So how do they do it? “You can think of OSINT [open source intelligence] as a puzzle. To get the complete picture, you need to find the missing pieces and put everything together,” says Loránd Bodó, an OSINT analyst at Tech versus Terrorism, a campaign group. The team at Bellingcat and other open-source investigators pore over publicly available material. Thanks to our propensity to reach for our cameraphones at the sight of any newsworthy incident, video and photos are often available, posted to social media in the immediate aftermath of events. (The person who shot and uploaded the second video in this incident, of the missile appearing to hit the Boeing plane was a perfect example: they grabbed their phone after they heard “some sort of shot fired”.) “Open source investigations essentially involve the collection, preservation, verification, and analysis of evidence that is available in the public domain to build a picture of what happened,” says Yvonne McDermott Rees, a lecturer at Swansea University.

Some of the clips in this incident surfaced on Telegram, the encrypted messaging app popular in the Middle East, while others were sent directly to Bellingcat. “Because Bellingcat is known for our open source work on MH17, people immediately thought of us. People started sending us links they’d found,” says Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat. “It was involuntary crowdsourcing.”

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Special sunglasses, license-plate dresses, Juggalo face paint: how to be anonymous in the age of surveillance • The Seattle Times

Melissa Hellmann:

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Daniel Castro, the vice president of nonprofit think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, believes the error rates could be reduced by comparing images to a wider range of databases that are more diverse.

Facial recognition systems have proved effective in pursuing criminal investigation leads, he said, and are more accurate than humans at verifying people’s identities at border crossings. The development of policies and practices around the retention and usage of data could avoid government misuse, he said.

“The general use of this technology in the United States is very reasonable,” said Castro. “They’re being undertaken by police agencies that are trying to balance communities’ public safety interests with individual privacy.”

Still, in Doctorow’s eyes, the glasses serve as a conversation starter about the perils of granting governments and companies unbridled access to our personal data.

The motivation to seek out antidotes to an over-powerful force has political and symbolic significance for Doctorow, an L.A.-based science-fiction author and privacy advocate. His father’s family fled the Soviet Union, which used surveillance to control the masses.

“We are entirely too sanguine about the idea that surveillance technologies will be built by people we agree with for goals we are happy to support,” he said. “For this technology to be developed and for there to be no countermeasures is a road map to tyranny.”

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Barr asks Apple to unlock iPhones of Pensacola gunman • The New York Times

Katie Benner:

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Justice Department officials said that they need access to Mr. Alshamrani’s phones to see messages from encrypted apps like Signal or WhatsApp to determine whether he had discussed his plans with others at the base and whether he was acting alone or with help.

“The evidence shows that the shooter was motivated by jihadist ideology,” Mr. Barr said, citing a message that Mr. Alshamrani posted on last year’s anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks warning that “the countdown has begun.” He also visited the 9/11 memorial in New York over the Thanksgiving holiday.

Mr. Alshamrani also posted anti-American, anti-Israeli and jihadist messages on social media, including just two hours before he attacked the base, Mr. Barr said.

Mr. Barr turned up the pressure on Apple a week after the F.B.I.’s top lawyer, Dana Boente, asked the company for help searching Mr. Alshamrani’s iPhones. Apple said that it would turn over only the data it had, implying that it would not work to unlock the phones and hand over the private data on them.

Apple’s stance set the company on a collision course with a Justice Department that has grown increasingly critical of encryption that makes it impossible for law enforcement to search devices or wiretap phone calls.

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As I said before: here we go again. The question is, could Apple break into these phones if it wanted to? It’s still unclear. No doubt Trump will be prepared to rage on Twitter about it in a way the Obama administration didn’t.
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Apple’s new privacy features have further rattled the location-based ad market • Digiday

Seb Joseph:

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Right now opt-in rates to share [location] data with apps when they’re not in use are often below 50%, said Benoit Grouchko, who runs the ad tech business Teemo that creates software for apps to collect location data. Three years ago those opt-in rates were closer to 100%, he said. Higher opt-in rates prevailed when people weren’t aware that they even had a choice. Once installed on a phone, many apps would automatically start sharing a person’s location data.

Apple’s latest privacy protection move, however, is making people more aware that they do have a choice about which data is shared. Seven in 10 of the iPhone users tracked by location-verification business Location Sciences downloaded iOS 13 in the six weeks after it first became available, and 80% of those users stopped all background tracking across their devices.

“People have decided to stop their phones’ sharing location data at a universal level,” said Jason Smith, chief business officer at Location Sciences.

All the background location data that previously had been made available for targeted advertising is lost to marketers when people decide they don’t want their apps to share it with other companies.

“This also impacts the ability to tie users that research online and purchase in store or driving, and measuring footfall for clients becomes far more opaque,” said Paul Kasamias, managing partner at Publicis Media agency Starcom. “The drop in spend is also likely to come via small- to medium-sized advertisers, where cost efficiency is paramount and there is a physical footprint, as targeting the right user at the right time will become more difficult.”

Other media buyers say they are starting to feel the ripple effects of Apple’s move when they work with certain ad tech vendors.

“We have seen a drop in sales pitches from providers on location-data solutions, and there is a rise in ensuring that the data-exchange piece is addressed transparently up front as part of bigger deals,” said Sargi Mann, evp of digital strategy at Havas Media.

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“Once installed, many apps would automatically start sharing.” Essentially we had cars without seatbelts, and the hospitals recommended not using them.
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More than 50 organisations ask Google to take a stance against Android bloatware • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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In an open letter published on Wednesday, more than 50 organizations have asked Google to take action against Android smartphone vendors who ship devices with unremovable pre-installed apps, also known as bloatware.

The letter, signed by 53 organizations, was addressed to Google CEO Sundar Pichai.

Signees say Android bloatware has a detrimental effect on user privacy. They say many bloatware apps cannot be deleted and leave users exposed to having their data collected by unscrupulous phone vendors and app makers without their knowledge or consent.

“These pre-installed apps can have privileged custom permissions that let them operate outside the Android security model,” the open letter reads.

“This means permissions can be defined by the app – including access to the microphone, camera and location – without triggering the standard Android security prompts. Users are therefore completely in the dark about these serious intrusions.”

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And 91% of those bloatware apps aren’t on Google Play, so don’t get scanned. This came before the revelation about phones under a US government scheme with, yes, Chinese malware.

What could Google do? It could perhaps tweak its device agreement to ban certain apps, or classes of apps. Might be troublesome in Europe if it was seen as anticompetitive. But there’s a page where you can add your name to the lobbying.
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EU competition chief struggles to tame ‘dark side’ of big tech despite record fines • Sky News

Rowland Manthorpe:

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although she said she had been able to stop companies breaking European competition law, and punish past misconduct, [Margrethe Vestager] acknowledged that “recovery of the markets” was a “work in progress”.

This included two major cases against Google, the firm which has drawn the toughest actions from Ms Vestager (Google has appealed both judgments and the Android verdict).

In 2016, Ms Vestager warned Google to stop restricting third-party rivals on its AdSense search advertising platform, subsequently fining the firm €1.49bn (£1.28bn) in March 2019 for illegal actions “over 10 years”.

Yet although she said Google had stopped restricting rivals, Ms Vestager acknowledged that commercially “nothing has changed”, with Google still dominating the market in search advertising.

“That is a really sad example,” she said, saying it showed that even if a firm allowed competition it “doesn’t necessarily change anything in the marketplace because [it has] already won the market”.

Also in 2016, Ms Vestager fined Google a record-breaking €2.42bn (£2.1bn) for promoting its product advertising system Google Shopping ahead of rivals and downgrading their websites in search results.

Three years on, she said the changes she had required Google to make had “given more rivals visibility and more clicks to merchants that work with rivals, but very little traffic to the rivals themselves”.

She added: “We will keep monitoring this to see what should happen next.”

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Admitting that fines on their own don’t work is an important step; the next step is realising that you need to shape the market before it gets filled (or won). But you can’t know what markets will next be thriving; so you need to act quickly. Possibly as tricky a time as when antitrust was first emerging as a legal theory towards the end of the 19th century.
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Why the foundations of physics have not progressed for 40 years • IAI TV

Sabine Hossenfelder is a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies and author of the blog Backreaction:

»

what we have here in the foundation of physics is a plain failure of the scientific method. All these wrong predictions should have taught physicists that just because they can write down equations for something does not mean this math is a scientifically promising hypothesis. String theory, supersymmetry, multiverses. There’s math for it, alright. Pretty math, even. But that doesn’t mean this math describes reality.

Physicists need new methods. Better methods. Methods that are appropriate to the present century.

And please spare me the complaints that I supposedly do not have anything better to suggest, because that is a false accusation. I have said many times that looking at the history of physics teaches us that resolving inconsistencies has been a reliable path to breakthroughs, so that’s what we should focus on. I may be on the wrong track with this, of course. But for all I can tell at this moment in history I am the only physicist who has at least come up with an idea for what to do.

Why don’t physicists have a hard look at their history and learn from their failure? Because the existing scientific system does not encourage learning. Physicists today can happily make career by writing papers about things no one has ever observed, and never will observe. This continues to go on because there is nothing and no one that can stop it.

You may want to put this down as a minor worry because – $40 billion dollar collider aside – who really cares about the foundations of physics? Maybe all these string theorists have been wasting tax-money for decades, alright, but in the large scheme of things it’s not all that much money. I grant you that much. Theorists are not expensive.

But even if you don’t care what’s up with strings and multiverses, you should worry about what is happening here. The foundations of physics are the canary in the coal mine. It’s an old discipline and the first to run into this problem.

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Maybe it’s because there’s a civilisatoin from a three-body system observing us. (Sci-fi in-joke.)
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ICANN extracts $20m signing fee for $1bn dot-com price increases – and guess who’s going to pay for it? • The Register

Kieren McCarthy:

»

Operator of the dot-com registry, Verisign, has decided to pay DNS overseer ICANN $4m a year for the next five years in order to “educate the wider ICANN community about security threats.”

Even though the generous $20m donation has nothing to do with ICANN signing off on an extension of the dot-com contract until 2024, the “binding letter of intent” [PDF] stating the exact amount of funding will be appended to the registry agreement that Verisign has with ICANN to run the dot-com registry.

That extension lifts a price freeze put in place several years ago and will allow Verisign to increase prices by 7% a year.

It’s an increase that we calculated was worth $993m and which the stock market appeared to agree with when it raised the company’s share price by 16% when the agreement was first flagged in November 2018.

No doubt ICANN’s lawyers are concerned that extracting $20m to sign a piece of paper worth $1bn to its recipient could be viewed negatively, perhaps by the cynical as a sign that it is a corrupt organization that is using its control of a critical market to feather its own nest. But that’s clearly not the case because, as ICANN makes plain, it would have approved the agreement anyway.

«

ICANN is the worst and continues to be the worst. The fact that such a terrible organisation is in charge of a key element of infrastructure is a depressing comment on our ability to organise anything.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1220: is AI facing winter?, Huawei’s huge subsidies, mispricing renewables, LG’s big promise, and more


Facial recognition is in more and more places (like this airport gate). Maybe it’s the next big thing? CC-licensed photo by Delta News Hub on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. So let’s get started. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facial recognition creeps into everything at CES 2020 • CNET

Alfred Ng:

»

Konami Gaming, a slot machine maker, wants to weave facial recognition into its one-armed bandits. During a visit to its Las Vegas headquarters to hear more about its plans, I quickly discovered what the world would be like if facial recognition is everywhere. 

“Hello, Alfred,” said a measured, robotic voice, startling me. It came from a kiosk called “Biometrics Welcome Console” positioned right next to the door of the conference room where my meeting was held. The kiosk knew who I was because Konami had set up a profile for me, using a public photo from my CNET bio without telling me. The facial recognition tagged me before I’d even said hello to the Konami team members in the room. 

I looked at the screen showing the photo the kiosk took of me when I walked in. The camera had caught just my eyes and nose. Still, the facial recognition software calculated it detected me with 60.5% accuracy.

“Any picture you use online can be used to identify you already,” Sina Miri, Konami’s vice president of innovation and strategic research and design, told me. Konami had also set up profiles of my colleagues at the visit, again without telling them.

«

I think Ng is correct about what’s happening here: facial recognition is going to be in everything, and everywhere. Our homes and cars will recognise us, things in the street will recognise us. It will be the scene from Minority Report. The next big thing isn’t a positive thing like augmented reality spectacles that inform you about the world; it’s facial recognition everywhere, and we might not be in control of it as we are our smartphones. (Though even those leak data like mad.)
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Why does the IEA keep getting renewables wrong? • Unearthed

Lauri Myllyvirta:

»

The IEA [International Energy Agency] argues that the New Policies Scenarios are not predictions or forecasts, simply assessments of ‘where today’s policy ambitions are likely to take the energy sector’. However, global policy ambition on solar did not increase ten-fold from 2005 to 2010, the ability of the technology to deliver did. Providing information on how much solar capacity current and expected policies are likely to deliver is exactly the job of these scenarios and, so far, they have been worse than useless in that job.

Forecasting the future is very hard, while picking faults in the work of an agency that puts out detailed scenarios every year is easy. However, the blatant underestimation of renewables goes well beyond normal shifts, surprises and misjudgments that are to be expected in any attempt to assess the future. If you keep making the exact same assessment for 15 years and are wildly wrong every time, you go back and assess the premises for your assessments. If something is happening in the real world that your models fail to capture, you improve your models. Anything else is not a good-faith effort to look at energy sector trends.

«

This is from 2017. Guess what? The IEA (no relation to the right-wing shadily funded Institute of Economic Affairs) has continued getting it wrong. On its own that wouldn’t be a problem, but big banks and investment companies use the IEA’s forecasts to decide where to put their money. That keeps open the coal plants that should be shut down because they’ll be uneconomic, and prevents the investment in renewables that we need.
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State support helped fuel Huawei’s global rise • WSJ

Chuin-Wei Yap:

»

Tax deductions and exemptions helped Huawei save up to $25 billion in income, value-added and other taxes in at least the past decade, the Journal estimated. Responding to the estimate, a Huawei spokesman said the company is globally tax-compliant.

In his remarks at the conference, Mr. Li said local officials began waiving or reducing levies on Huawei, including income and value-added taxes, in the early 1990s.

Financial support helped the company undercut rivals. In 2010, the European Commission found that Chinese modem exporters including Huawei had benefited from subsidies, according to a confidential report reviewed by the Journal. The commission cut short its probe after the complainant prompting it reached a “cooperation agreement” with the company. Huawei denied receiving such subsidies.

Besides subsidies, Huawei since 1998 has received an estimated $16 billion in loans, export credits, and other forms of financing from Chinese banks for itself or its customers, the Journal found.

China’s state-controlled banking system underpins cheap loans that lower costs for Huawei and its customers to buy its products on credit. State lending facilities for Huawei were among the largest in history.

«

The WSJ puts the total subsidies at $75bn over its life. Not surprising that it has been able to undercut Nokia, Alcatel and the other network equipment companies in bids over the years; and that has a flywheel effect – you get more contracts, and your rivals aren’t getting them.

But is it really unfair, when China wanted to be able to control its destiny in the telecoms market?
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Researchers: Are we on the cusp of an ‘AI winter’? • BBC News

Sam Shead:

»

Robot Wars judge Noel Sharkey, who is also a professor of AI and robotics at Sheffield University, told the BBC that he likes the term “AI autumn” – and several others agree.

…In 2014, Nick Bostrom, a philosopher at Oxford University, went one step further with his book Superintelligence. It predicts a world where machines are firmly in control. But those conversations were taken less and less seriously as the decade went on. At the end of 2019, the smartest computers could still only excel at a “narrow” selection of tasks.

Gary Marcus, an AI researcher at New York University, said: “By the end of the decade there was a growing realisation that current techniques can only carry us so far.”

He thinks the industry needs some “real innovation” to go further. “There is a general feeling of plateau,” said Verena Rieser, a professor in conversational AI at Edinburgh’s Herriot Watt University. One AI researcher who wishes to remain anonymous said we’re entering a period where we are especially sceptical about AGI.

“The public perception of AI is increasingly dark: the public believes AI is a sinister technology,” they said.

For its part, DeepMind has a more optimistic view of AI’s potential, suggesting that as yet “we’re only just scratching the surface of what might be possible”.

“As the community solves and discovers more, further challenging problems open up,” explained Koray Kavukcuoglu, its vice president of research. “This is why AI is a long-term scientific research journey.

“We believe AI will be one of the most powerful enabling technologies ever created – a single invention that could unlock solutions to thousands of problems. The next decade will see renewed efforts to generalise the capabilities of AI systems to help achieve that potential – both building on methods that have already been successful and researching how to build general-purpose AI that can tackle a wide range of tasks.”

«

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Two states. Eight textbooks. Two American stories • The New York Times

Dana Goldstein:

»

The books The Times analyzed were published in 2016 or later and have been widely adopted for eighth and 11th graders, though publishers declined to share sales figures. Each text has editions for Texas and California, among other states, customized to satisfy policymakers with different priorities.

“At the end of the day, it’s a political process,” said Jesús F. de la Teja, an emeritus professor of history at Texas State University who has worked for the state of Texas and for publishers in reviewing standards and textbooks.

The differences between state editions can be traced back to several sources: state social studies standards; state laws; and feedback from panels of appointees that huddle, in Sacramento and Austin hotel conference rooms, to review drafts.

Requests from textbook review panels, submitted in painstaking detail to publishers, show the sometimes granular ways that ideology can influence the writing of history.

A California panel asked the publisher McGraw-Hill to avoid the use of the word “massacre” when describing 19th-century Native American attacks on white people. A Texas panel asked Pearson to point out the number of clergy who signed the Declaration of Independence, and to state that the nation’s founders were inspired by the Protestant Great Awakening.

All the members of the California panel were educators selected by the State Board of Education, whose members were appointed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. The Texas panel, appointed by the Republican-dominated State Board of Education, was made up of educators, parents, business representatives and a Christian pastor and politician.

«

You might think: America’s a big place, it’s as big as Europe, there are going to be differences. But where you have divergent pictures of a history of a single nation, you’re going to create differences in how people view the country. That will then count when it comes to picking politicians and voting on laws.
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India’s top court says indefinite Kashmir internet shutdown is illegal • Reuters

Sankalp Phartiyal and Fayaz Bukhari:

»

India’s Supreme Court said on Friday that an indefinite shutdown of the internet in Kashmir was illegal, rebuking the government for the communications lockdown imposed after it withdrew the Muslim majority region’s autonomy in August.

Internet suspensions can be imposed only for “temporary duration” and an indefinite suspension violated India’s telecoms rules, the court said in an order published on its website.

It also ordered authorities to review all such curbs in Kashmir immediately.

Authorities must consider immediately allowing the functioning of essential internet services such as for hospitals and limited e-banking in regions where internet cannot be restored right away, the court added.

“Freedom of Internet access is a fundamental right,” Supreme Court justice N. V. Ramana said.

«

New fundamental right? The Indian government has been quietly turning into a very authoritarian one, though.
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LG aims to turn around mobile unit • Korea Times

Baek Byung-yeul:

»

A senior LG Electronics executive said Thursday that the company’s long-time money-losing smartphone division will turn a profit by the end of 2021; however, he didn’t elaborate how.

“LG Electronics mobile business is going to be profitable by 2021. I can say we can make that happen as LG Electronics will expand our mobile lineup and steadily release new ones attached with some wow factors to woo consumers,” the company’s chief executive Kwon Bong-seok told reporters in a press conference on the sidelines of this year’s technology exhibition, here.

Regarding the specifics on how, the CEO didn’t delve into more but only reiterated LG Electronics’ plan to expand the phone lineup, which he believes is possibly a plus factor to improve LG’s competitiveness in the already saturated smartphone market.

«

LG’s mobile division has lost money for more than three straight years now. So when the new CEO says it’s going to become profitable, I say

via GIPHY

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Facebook’s PR feels broken • The Margins

Ranjan Roy:

»

to summarize, Andrew Bosworth, longtime Facebook exec, wrote a long, reflective internal post on Facebook’s role in the 2020 election:

So was Facebook responsible for Donald Trump getting elected? I think the answer is yes, but not for the reasons anyone thinks. He didn’t get elected because of Russia or misinformation or Cambridge Analytica. He got elected because he ran the single best digital ad campaign I’ve ever seen from any advertiser. Period.

In a section that got a lot of attention, he continued:

»

I find myself thinking of the Lord of the Rings at this moment. Specifically when Frodo offers the ring to Galadrial and she imagines using the power righteously, at first, but knows it will eventually corrupt her. As tempting as it is to use the tools available to us to change the outcome, I am confident we must never do that or we will become that which we fear.

«

I’m not a big LOTR person, and will let Gizmodo cover the accuracy of his reference, but how does Facebook possibly let this enter the national conversation? One of their most longtime, loyal leaders is directly saying they have the power to sway national elections. It is their decision, and their decision alone, to resist the temptation to “change the outcome”!

This is the very definition of a need for regulation. By its own admission, the company is acknowledging its unnatural power. In the memo, Boz clarifies he’s liberal in his politics, but the issue is not Facebook and its purported ties to the right. The issue is simply its size. An individual, for-profit corporation should not get to decide whether democracy will work.

To continue on the communications breakdown, Boz posted an explanation on Facebook, where he advertises the post as an organizational, internal call-to-debate. But while it’s great to have a safe space for internal, organizational debates, it’s still hugely concerning when that internal debate is whether we should all have a free and fair election in the U.S.

«

Roy and Manjan produce a consistently good newsletter (and it’s free). This dissects the whole Facebook debacle particularly well.
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A lazy fix 20 years ago means the Y2K bug is taking down computers now • New Scientist

Chris Stokel-Walker:

»

Parking meters, cash registers and a professional wrestling video game have fallen foul of a computer glitch related to the Y2K bug.

The Y2020 bug, which has taken many payment and computer systems offline, is a long-lingering side effect of attempts to fix the Y2K, or millennium bug.

Both stem from the way computers store dates. Many older systems express years using two numbers – 98, for instance, for 1998 – in an effort to save memory. The Y2K bug was a fear that computers would treat 00 as 1900, rather than 2000.

Programmers wanting to avoid the Y2K bug had two broad options: entirely rewrite their code, or adopt a quick fix called “windowing”, which would treat all dates from 00 to 20, as from the 2000s, rather than the 1900s. An estimated 80% of computers fixed in 1999 used the quicker, cheaper option.

“Windowing, even during Y2K, was the worst of all possible solutions because it kicked the problem down the road,” says Dylan Mulvin at the London School of Economics.

Coders chose 1920 to 2020 as the standard window because of the significance of the midpoint, 1970. “Many programming languages and systems handle dates and times as seconds from 1970/01/01, also called Unix time,” says Tatsuhiko Miyagawa, an engineer at cloud platform provider Fastly.

Unix is a widely used operating system in a variety of industries, and this “epoch time” is seen as a standard.

The theory was that these windowed systems would be outmoded by the time 2020 arrived, but many are still hanging on and in some cases the issue had been forgotten.

«

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Bing loses out to DuckDuckGo in Google’s new Android search engine ballot • The Verge

James Vincent:

»

EU citizens setting up Android devices from March 1 will be given a choice of four search engines to use as their default, including Google. Whichever provider they chose will become the default for searches made in Chrome and through Android’s home screen search box. A dedicated app for that provider will also be installed on their device.

The “choice screen” is being introduced by Google following an antitrust ruling from the European Union last March. Google was fined a record $5bn by EU regulators, who said the company had to stop “illegally tying” its search engine and browser to its mobile OS.

The search engines shown to new users will vary for each EU country, with the selection decided based on a “fourth-price” auction system. Each provider tells Google how much it’s willing to pay the company every time a user selects their product as the default. The three highest bidders are then shown to users, with the chosen provider paying Google the amount offered by the fourth-highest bid. This process is repeated every four months.

All this means that the choices Google will show to users don’t necessarily reflect a search engine’s popularity in that country. Rather, it shows how much the provider is willing to pay for users. This might explain why Microsoft’s Bing only appears as an option in the UK — a country where the revenue from search ads is likely to be higher than lower-GDP nations.

When Google announced the auction system last August, rival search providers were not happy. Eric Leandri, CEO of privacy-focused search engine Qwant, said it was a “total abuse of [Google’s] dominant position” to “ask for cash just for showing a proposal of alternatives.” Gabriel Weinberg, CEO of DuckDuckGo, said the auction system was a “pay-to-play auction” that meant “Google will profit at the expense of the competition.”

«

As one of the commenters points out, the money from the auction shouldn’t go to Google – it ought to go to a charity. Or it could go to the EC, or to rival search providers. Whichever; it doesn’t make sense for Google to be rewarded for abusing its position, which the EC decision clearly says it was doing.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

Start Up No.1219: Facebook decides on political ads, Ring fires staff over video snooping, Amazon isn’t Honey, Lime squeezed, and more


The Venetian Resort hotel in Las Vegas: its owner disparaged Iran in 2013. Its hacking response cost him over $40m. CC-licensed photo by Ken Lund on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

A selection of 10 links for you. Used the first week well? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Facebook says it won’t back down from allowing lies in political ads • The New York Times

Mike Isaac and Cecilia Kang:

»

The stance put Facebook, the most important digital platform for political ads, at odds with some of the other large tech companies, which have begun to put new limits on political ads.

Facebook’s decision, telegraphed in recent months by executives, is likely to harden criticism of the company heading into this year’s presidential election.

Political advertising cuts to the heart of Facebook’s outsize role in society, and the company has found itself squeezed between liberal critics, who want it to do a better job of policing its various social media platforms, and conservatives, who say their views are being unfairly muzzled.
The issue has raised important questions regarding how heavy a hand technology companies like Facebook — which also owns Instagram and the messaging app WhatsApp — and Google should exert when deciding what types of political content they will and will not permit.

By maintaining a status quo, Facebook executives are essentially saying they are doing the best they can without government guidance and see little benefit to the company or the public in changing.

In a blog post, a company official echoed Facebook’s earlier calls for lawmakers to set firm rules.

“In the absence of regulation, Facebook and other companies are left to design their own policies,” Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management overseeing the advertising integrity division, said in the post.

«

Facebook had a choice: leave things as they were and thus paint a big target on its back, or do something else and paint a big target on its back. The question, though, is which approach is the better one. Political ads just cause Facebook pain. Why not just ban them?
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Ring fired employees for watching customer videos • VICE

Joseph Cox:

»

Amazon-owned home security camera company Ring has fired employees for improperly accessing Ring users’ video data, according to a letter the company wrote to Senators and obtained by Motherboard.

The news highlights a risk across many different tech companies: employees may abuse access granted as part of their jobs to look at customer data or information. In Ring’s case this data can be particularly sensitive though, as customers often put the cameras inside their home.

“We are aware of incidents discussed below where employees violated our policies,” the letter from Ring, dated January 6, reads. “Over the last four years, Ring has received four complaints or inquiries regarding a team member’s access to Ring video data,” it continues. Ring explains that although each of these people were authorized to view video data, their attempted access went beyond what they needed to access for their job.

“In each instance, once Ring was made aware of the alleged conduct, Ring promptly investigated the incident, and after determining that the individual violated company policy, terminated the individual,” the letter adds.

«

“Once Ring was made aware” is suitably vague. Someone told on the staff? And there’s still the problem that it uses a simple email/password combination to log in to something intentionally accessible across the whole internet.
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Meghan and Harry’s story is quite the drama, but it’s no abdication crisis • The Guardian

Marina Hyde:

»

this is not the abdication. Whatever the vicissitudes of Harry and Meghan’s new path, it’s probably going to be better than ending up in a Bois de Boulogne house, paying social calls on Adolf Hitler. On the downside, the jewellery collection is likely to be comparatively sparse.

So people may currently claim Harry and Meghan’s move is seismic. But, long-term, it will be most dangerous insofar as it feeds into what we might call the monarchy’s Charles III problem. The UK is in a time of huge national flux and turmoil, and the Queen, the last link with the postwar consensus, is 93. Waiting in the wings is a rather unloved and not especially admirable man. For all today’s sound and fury, the real looming crisis for the royal family is not the sixth in line to the throne – but the first.

«

In the past three months Prince Andrew has “stepped back”, and now Harry and Meghan. That “postwar consensus” is looking very frayed; the succession will be a disjoint that might be on a par with Brexit for the discomfort it causes society.
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Amazon takes a swipe at Paypal’s $4bn acquisition • WIRED

Louise Matsakis:

»

“[The browser extension] Honey tracks your private shopping behavior, collects data like your order history and items saved, and can read or change any of your data on any website you visit,” the message [on Amazon’s site] read. “To keep your data private and secure, uninstall this extension immediately.” It was followed by hyperlink where users could learn how to do so. Screenshots of the warning were posted to forums and social media by Honey users, like Ryan Hutchins, an editor at Politico.

Honey isn’t some obscure browser extension from an unknown developer. Founded in 2012, the Los Angeles-based startup now boasts over 17 million users. It finds discount codes to save shoppers money at tens of thousands of online retailers, including Amazon. In November, PayPal agreed to purchase Honey for an eye-popping $4 billion, its largest deal ever. The acquisition was completed this week.

Amazon’s warning, which began appearing on December 20, confused and angered many of Honey’s users, some of whom complained on its official social media channels. The browser extension has been compatible with Amazon since it was founded, and is a significant part of Honey’s appeal. Amazon is one of the most popular retailers in the world and the place where most Americans begin when looking for a product online.

Amazon declined to explain why it decided to label Honey a security risk so suddenly last month. “Our goal is to warn customers about browser extensions that collect personal shopping data without their knowledge or consent,” a spokesperson for the company said in a statement. They declined to answer follow-up questions about the basis for that claim.

When people install the Honey extension in their browser, they consent to the company’s Terms of Use and Privacy and Security Policy. While these kinds of agreements can be dense and difficult for the average person to interpret, Honey doesn’t appear to be collecting consumer information without asking, as Amazon implied to WIRED. Its privacy policy states that it doesn’t “track your search engine history, emails, or your browsing on any site that is not a retail website.”

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I’d guess that Amazon started doing this particularly over the Christmas period because that’s its biggest quarter, but also margins get squeezed.
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E-scooter startup Lime shuts in 12 markets, lays off around 100 • Axios

Kia Kokalitcheva:

»

Scooter company Lime is laying off about 14% of its workforce (roughly 100 employees) and shuttering operations in 12 markets as it seeks to become profitable this year, the company tells Axios.

After two years of explosive growth, scooter companies have entered a new phase—survival of the fittest in a capital-intensive, money-losing industry.

Lime is not the first or only scooter company to make cuts.

Bird, Scoot, Lyft, and Skip have all held layoffs or retreated from certain markets over the past year. Lime too has made small cuts, as when it suspended operations and laid off workers in St. Louis in late 2018, though it emphasizes to Axios that it will continue to expand to new markets this year.

The companies have generated headlines for huge losses as they attempt to manage vehicle attrition, labor costs, and regulatory battles.

“We’re very confident that in 2020, Lime will be the first next-generation mobility company to be profitable,” Lime president Joe Kraus tells Axios.

«

The odd thing is that 11 of the 12 cities have warm weather, and thus scooters could work year-round.
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U.S. funds free Android phones for the poor — but with permanent Chinese malware • Forbes

Thomas Brewster:

»

It all sounds ideal for those who don’t have the money to splash on fancy Apple or Google phones. But according to security researchers, there’s a catch: the Android phones come with preinstalled Chinese malware, which effectively opens up a backdoor onto the device and endangers their private data. One of the malware types is impossible to remove, according to the researchers.

Researchers at cybersecurity company MalwareBytes said that they had tried to warn Assurance Wireless, a Virgin Mobile company, they had received no response. So the devices likely remain vulnerable today. Forbes was also unable to get a response from the company. The FCC, which runs Lifeline Assurance, also hadn’t responded to requests for comment.

Senator Ron Wyden is now asking the FCC why such phones are being shipped under the program. “It is outrageous that taxpayer money may be going to companies providing insecure, malware-ridden phones to low-income families. I’ll be asking the FCC to ensure Americans that depend on Lifeline Assistance aren’t paying the price with their privacy and security.”

The affected device is a UMX phone shipped by Assurance Wireless and one of the preinstalled malware, according to MalwareBytes senior analyst Nathan Collier, is the creation of a Chinese entity known as Adups. Though the tool looks and operates as a Wireless Update program, it’s capable of auto-installing apps without any user consent, which it starts doing immediately, according to a MalwareBytes analysis of a device, shared with Forbes ahead of publication. Adups hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.

«

Wyden is now asking the FCC to make sure the devices aren’t malware-riddled. Seems like a small request, doesn’t it?
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August 2008: Why Apple doesn’t do “concept products” « counternotions

“Counternotions”:

»

Why would a commercial entity like Apple produce a concept product? Apple is likely generating more concept products and visions than any other technology company for internal use. When Apple wanted to get into retail stores, for example, Jobs had Ron Johson build a fully-functioning, real-size prototype and tore it down at the last minute to rebuild a new one. Why didn’t Apple release the “concept store” to the then-deeply-skeptical press in order to “demonstrate visionary leadership”? In a similar situation Microsoft likely would have.

Product design, above all, is a bet. Apple understands this better than any other company. In iPhone: The bet Steve Jobs didn’t decline, I explained just what a huge bet the iPhone project was to Apple in 2005. It was a bet-the-company kind of bet. One that Nokia, which has sold hundreds of millions of phones over many years, never took. Neither did Microsoft. They would just as well release annual concept products to the public in order not to go through the pain of taking a bet.

Apple bet the company to single handedly change the industrial design of mobile devices, how we interact with them, the balance between carriers and manufacturers, mobile application vending, etc. Indeed, it simply redefined what a mobile device is to become.

«

This was linked from John Gruber’s meditation on the “Concept Electronics Show”, which is also worth reading, but this is a great piece in its own right.
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Guide to using reverse image search for investigations • bellingcat

Aric Toler:

»

Yandex is by far the best reverse image search engine, with a scary-powerful ability to recognize faces, landscapes, and objects. This Russian site draws heavily upon user-generated content, such as tourist review sites (e.g. FourSquare and TripAdvisor) and social networks (e.g. dating sites), for remarkably accurate results with facial and landscape recognition queries.

Its strengths lie in photographs taken in a European or former-Soviet context. While photographs from North America, Africa, and other places may still return useful results on Yandex, you may find yourself frustrated by scrolling through results mostly from Russia, Ukraine, and eastern Europe rather than the country of your target images.

To use Yandex, go to images.yandex.com, then choose the camera icon on the right.

From there, you can either upload a saved image or type in the URL of one hosted online.

If you get stuck with the Russian user interface, look out for Выберите файл (Choose file), Введите адрес картинки (Enter image address), and Найти (Search). After searching, look out for Похожие картинки (Similar images), and Ещё похожие (More similar).

The facial recognition algorithms used by Yandex are shockingly good. Not only will Yandex look for photographs that look similar to the one that has a face in it, but it will also look for other photographs of the same person (determined through matching facial similarities) with completely different lighting, background colors, and positions. While Google and Bing may just look for other photographs showing a person with similar clothes and general facial features, Yandex will search for those matches, and also other photographs of a facial match.

«

Useful primer (and probably a good one to bookmark for those times when you’re primed to repost/retweet something that looks remarkable, or you want to hunt down an FSB officer). There’s also a little “try this at home” series at the end.
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Iran’s cyberattack on billionaire Adelson provides lesson on strategy • Yahoo

Alyza Sebenius, Kartikay Mehrotra and William Turton:

»

In October 2013, Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and prominent supporter of conservative politicians and Israel, appeared on a panel in New York in which he suggested that the US could send a message to Iran, regarding its nuclear ambitions, by detonating an American warhead in the middle of the Iranian desert.

“You want to be wiped out? Go ahead and take a tough position,” said Adelson, who later became a major supporter of President Donald Trump. His comments infuriated Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who two weeks later said America “should slap these prating people in the mouth.”

Months later, in February 2014, hackers inserted malware into the computer networks of Adelson’s Las Vegas casino. The withering cyberattack laid waste to about three quarters of the company’s Las Vegas servers; the cost of recovering data and building new systems cost $40m or more.

A year after the attack, the top US intelligence official confirmed that Iran was behind it.

Now, as Iran vows revenge for the airstrike, the US faces an aggressive adversary in which digital warfare may be among its best options to strike directly at the American population. In the years since the Sands incident, Iranian hackers have continued their attacks, targeting a US presidential campaign, universities, journalists, and even a dam in suburban New York.

“I’m sure the Iranians are asking their hackers for a list of options,” said James Lewis, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who oversees the policy research group’s cybersecurity program. “Cyberattacks can be tempting if they can find the right American target.”

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This time around, Adelson didn’t want to comment. Funny, that. And there will be plenty of American targets. Iran can take its time and select its targets to cause maximum disruption, or the minimum visibility with maximum effect. (The JCPOA – aka the Iran nuclear deal – was signed in July 2015. I wonder if Adelson might want it back in effect after all.)
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Grubhub considers strategic options including possible sale • WSJ

Maureen Farrell and Cara Lombardo:

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Grubhub, which went public nearly six years ago, has a market value of roughly $5bn. That is down from its peak of more than $13bn just over a year ago, before competition from other delivery startups heated up and eroded the company’s market-share lead and results.

Grubhub shares rose as much as 19% on Wednesday after The Wall Street Journal reported on the review. They closed at $54.75, up nearly 13%.

Competition in the nascent food-delivery industry, which ferries takeout orders from restaurants to homes and businesses, has intensified as newcomers try to lure customers and grab market share with discounts and promotions. At the same time, restaurants are pushing back against the fees delivery companies charge, squeezing Grubhub and its competitors. Investors and analysts have said the industry needs consolidation, with many seeing room for little more than two major players.

Grubhub on Oct. 28 cut its revenue and profit forecasts amid slowing customer growth, sending the shares down 43% the following day and helping prompt the review. Its third-quarter adjusted per-share earnings dropped 40% from the year-earlier period. The stock had gained back most of that ground after Wednesday’s rise.

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Proof if it were needed that just having a big tech backend doesn’t guarantee long-term success. Amazon had to work for it, and still does; people often forget that it saw off a lot of well-funded rivals.

Related: John Colley of Warwich Business School at The Conversation on Just Eat getting bought by Takeaway.com: “Take a closer look at the the business of online food delivery and it’s easy to wonder if anyone will ever make long-term significant returns.”
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