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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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

3 thoughts on “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

  1. I’m still running Opera as my long-form web reader. I’m not sure what to switch to since I want something that runs on both Windows and Android and syncs. Firefox is my main browser, I want to avoid Chrome, Edge is used for impersonating my mom (nothing nefarious, I manage her address book, online orders, doc appointments, utilities, not calendar though I tried ^^… sis does the financial stuff)… Vivaldi seems to be trying a bit too hard, I need something basic if possible w/ addons and night mode on Android. Brave ?

    Opera’s inclusion of a free VPN after their Chinese takeover was already iffy. They’re near the top of blocked traffic on my PiHole for misc stuff esp. the newsfeed. I’m relying a lot on PiHole but intercepting fouls is not as good as not having fouls in the first place.

  2. There’s something deeply satisfying w/ putting a bigger drive in a Synology. Way back when I was selling servers, RAID never worked as advertised, nowadays it seems to. I haven’t yet lost data (the irreplaceable data is backed up, not the media stuff) though I’ve had one disk failure and that last disk was throwing up new errors weekly. Plus that’s the second disk I’m upgrading, so I do get the extra 2TB from moving from 6 to 8TB drives this time. I was hoping to move up to 10, but that’s way outside the sweet spot still, +50% cost for +20% capacity.

    I’ll rest easier in a week when the array is done rebuilding ;-p

  3. the baddies list is Slate, not The Atlantic

    The collapse of Opera is really sad. Version 2 was the most satisfying browser I ever used, in the sense that it did a limited number of things in a sensible way and without fuss and better than anything else at the time.

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