Start Up No.1237: Apple patents a (neat) foldable, Instagram’s big sales number, British parents fret about their online kids, the dark opioid pattern, and more


In Iowa, this was good enough for caucus voting, but not enough for reporting their results CC-licensed photo by Phil Roeder on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Tell us how you feel about it, Howard Dean. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How a bad app—not the Russians—plunged Iowa into chaos • The Atlantic

Zeynep Tufekci:

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why bother hacking the system? Anything developed this rapidly that has not been properly stress-tested—and is being used in the wild by thousands of people at the same time—is likely to crash the first time it is deployed. This has happened before, to Orca, Mitt Romney’s Election Day app, which was supposed to help volunteers get voters to the polls, but instead was overwhelmed by traffic and stopped working, leaving thousands of fuming voters without rides. It happened in 2008 to Barack Obama’s app, dubbed Houdini, which also crashed on Election Day. It happened to HealthCare.gov—the website that was launched to help people find coverage under the Affordable Care Act, but that failed so badly, it took a team of people from Silicon Valley who quickly and voluntarily left their much cushier jobs and worked seven-day weeks for months to fix it.

Immediately after it became clear that the Iowa Democratic Party was unable to produce results and, worse, was talking about “inconsistencies” in results, Donald Trump surrogates started talking up how this must have been a fix perpetrated by the Democratic National Committee (DNC), perhaps in hopes of riling up supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders who were already suspicious of the party establishment. Some Sanders supporters, wary after a last-minute poll widely expected to show a Sanders surge was scrapped due to errors, needed no such encouragement, and suspected that this was designed to trip up the momentum their candidate expected from his anticipated win. (To which I can only say: The DNC isn’t competent enough to pull off such a plot.)

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Also worth reading on this: Vice’s investigation, which found that the two-factor authentication was screwed up on the app, which the DNC spent the grand total of $60,000 to build. It didn’t work on a number of phones (expectations are high it’s just a web app with some OS-friendly clothes).

The DNC really is incompetent on computing, which is quite the miss given its importance in the 21st century.
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Apple patents foldable device with movable flaps to prevent display from creasing • MacRumors

Joe Rossignol:

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Apple this week has been granted a patent for a foldable device with a unique hinge mechanism that utilizes movable flaps to help prevent the display from being creased or damaged when folded.

Published by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office today, the patent explains that the hinge mechanism would ensure adequate separation between the first and second portions of the display. When the device is unfolded, movable flaps would extend to cover the gap, and then retract when the device is folded.

Early foldable smartphones like Samsung’s Galaxy Fold and Huawei’s Mate X have noticeable creases along the bending portion of the display. Motorola’s new foldable Razr avoids this issue with a unique hinge design, but early reviews indicate the device makes creaking sounds when opened or closed.

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Clever (and a useful illustration). Still don’t see the point, but this may be saying “we’ve looked at this and we’re staking out this part of the ground, so don’t go there”.
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US pushing effort to develop 5G alternative to Huawei • WSJ

Bob Davis and Drew FitzGerald:

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the White House is working with U.S. technology companies to create advanced software for next-generation 5G telecommunications networks.

The plan would build on efforts by some U.S. telecom and technology companies to agree on common engineering standards that would allow 5G software developers to run code atop machines that come from nearly any hardware manufacturer. That would reduce, if not eliminate, reliance on Huawei equipment.

Companies including Microsoft Corp., Dell Inc. and AT&T are part of the effort, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow said.

“The big-picture concept is to have all of the U.S. 5G architecture and infrastructure done by American firms, principally,” Mr. Kudlow said in an interview. “That also could include Nokia and Ericsson because they have big U.S. presences.”

The U.S. contends Huawei has strong links to the Chinese military, making use of its equipment a national-security risk. Huawei has denied such links and says it operates independently.

Mr. Kudlow said Dell founder Michael Dell was a strong backer of the project, noting that software is becoming more important as 5G develops.

“Dell and Microsoft are now moving very rapidly to develop software and cloud capabilities that will, in fact, replace a lot of the equipment,” he said. “To quote Michael Dell, ‘Software is eating the hardware in 5G’,” Mr. Kudlow said.

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I bet Dell would love to get any part of that money it can. Also: this will be a money spigot, with little benefit, apart maybe to Nikia and Ericsson.
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Amid coronavirus fears, a mask shortage could spread globally • WIRED

Maryn McKenna:

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for people who anticipate a pandemic—an expanding epidemic that rapidly crosses borders—the [face] masks blanketing China have an unsettling second meaning. They are a reminder that Chinese manufacturing is the source of most of the world’s masks and respirators. Now that the vast country is using more masks than it ever has before, fewer of them will likely be available to the countries that have been China’s regular customers.

That includes the United States. According to data compiled by the US Department of Health and Human Services, 95% of the surgical masks used in the US and 70% of the respirators—thicker, tight-fitting masks that offer better protection against viruses—are made overseas. That leaves the mask supply vulnerable to labor disruption if a pandemic sickens manufacturing workers, as well as to flat-out diversion if a government decides to keep its own stock at home.

“This is 100% a vulnerability,” says Saskia Popescu, a biosecurity expert who is the senior infection-prevention epidemiologist in an Arizona hospital system. “Personal protective equipment is always going to be a problem when there is an outbreak of something novel, because public health guidance will be unclear at first and there will be a run on supplies. Masks being made offshore is one more stress on the system.”

Demand for masks is enormous in China. Manufacturing has ramped up rapidly, according to the state-affiliated China Global Television Network, with factories churning out 20 million masks a day. Yet on Monday morning, the Chinese foreign ministry said masks and safety goggles that protect doctors’ eyes were running out within the country, and it issued an international appeal for more.

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Parents more concerned about their children online • Ofcom

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More parents than ever feel children’s online use now carries more risks than benefits, according to Ofcom’s latest research into children’s media and online lives.

Our Children’s Media Use and Attitudes report 2019 is based on around 3,500 interviews with children and parents. Children’s Media Lives is a qualitative report looking at how children aged eight to 18 think about and use digital media.

Parents and carers are becoming more likely to trust their children with greater digital independence at a younger age. But far fewer believe the benefits of their child being online outweigh the risks than five years ago. And around two million parents now feel the internet does their children more harm than good.

This comes as children are now more likely to see hateful content online. Half of 12-15s who go online had seen hateful content in the last year, up from a third in 2016.

Parents are increasingly concerned about their child seeing something online which might encourage them to harm themselves. Similarly, two gaming-related problems are increasingly concerning parents: the pressure on their child to make in-game purchases of things like ‘loot boxes’, a virtual item containing rewards; and the possibility of their child being bullied via online games.

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Plus three trends: “the ‘Greta effect'”, “the vlogger next door”, and “girl gamers”. Plus children using phones and WhatsApp from very early ages.
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Instagram said to generate more than a quarter of Facebook sales • Bloomberg

Sarah Frier and Nico Grant:

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Instagram, the photo-sharing app Facebook Inc. acquired for $715m in 2012, generated more than a quarter of the social-media company’s revenue last year, according to people familiar with the matter.

The app brought in about $20bn in advertising revenue in 2019, said the people, who asked to remain anonymous because the figures aren’t public. That beats Google video unit YouTube, which recorded $15.1bn in ad sales – a number parent company Alphabet Inc. revealed Monday for the first time. Facebook declined to comment.

Instagram has become increasingly central to Facebook’s future, with users and advertisers flocking to the app even as sales growth slows at the main social network. Still, Facebook doesn’t disclose revenue for Instagram separately in earnings reports, instead preferring to highlight the integration of its properties, branding them as a “family of apps.” The team in charge of direct messaging on Instagram, for example, now reports to the Facebook Messenger team, and the company is changing Instagram’s branding to “Instagram from Facebook.” Instagram has more than 1 billion users, a figure Facebook hasn’t updated since 2018.

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That makes Instagram a gazillion times more profitable than YouTube, which has to give back a sizeable chunk of money to creators. Instagram? Not a penny. And its costs are lower: it’s serving photos, not videos – less storage, less bandwidth.

Plus Facebook waited for Google to be forced to announce YouTube’s revenues, and then decided whether to leak this. Quite the poke in the eye.
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In secret deal with drugmaker, health-records tool pushed opioids • Los Angeles Times

Emma Court:

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To doctors opening patients’ electronic records across the U.S., the alert would have looked innocuous enough.

A pop-up would appear, asking about a patient’s level of pain. Then, a drop-down menu would list treatments ranging from a referral to a pain specialist to a prescription for an opioid painkiller.

Click a button, and the program would create a treatment plan. From 2016 to spring 2019, the alert went off about 230 million times.

The tool existed thanks to a secret deal. Its maker, a software company called Practice Fusion, was paid by a major opioid manufacturer to design it in an effort to boost prescriptions for addictive pain pills — even though overdose deaths had almost tripled during the previous 15 years, creating a public-health disaster. The software was used by tens of thousands of doctors’ offices.

Its existence was revealed this week thanks to a government investigation. Practice Fusion agreed to pay $145m to resolve civil and criminal cases, according to documents filed in a federal court in Vermont. Practice Fusion admitted to the scheme. The opioid maker was not named, though the details of the government case closely match a public research partnership between Practice Fusion and Purdue Pharma Inc., which makes OxyContin.

Representatives for Purdue Pharma and the Vermont U.S. attorney declined to comment.

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I bet they declined. This is the darkest of dark patterns. The Vantablack of dark patterns.
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Twitter says an attacker used its API to match usernames to phone numbers • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:

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Twitter said the attack took place on December 24, 2019, and the attacker used a large network of fake accounts to exploit its API.

“We are disclosing this out of an abundance of caution and as a matter of principle,” Twitter said.

The company said it “immediately suspended these accounts” and continued to investigate the incident, which it finally disclosed today, as it learned more about what happened.

“While we identified accounts located in a wide range of countries engaging in these behaviors, we observed a particularly high volume of requests coming from individual IP addresses located within Iran, Israel, and Malaysia,” the company added.

Twitter said that some of these IP addresses may have ties with a state-sponsored actor, a term used to described either government intelligence agencies, or third-party hacking groups that benefit from a government’s backing.

According to Twitter, the attackers used an API endpoint that allows new account holders to find people they know on Twitter. The API endpoint allows users to submit phone numbers and matches them to known Twitter accounts – but only if Twitter users enabled an option in their settings section to allow phone number-based matching.

“People who did not have this setting enabled or do not have a phone number associated with their account were not exposed by this vulnerability,” Twitter said.

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The choice of date is instructive: attack when people are likely to be less than attentive, and where if it is noticed, the next-day followup will be lacking. It’s the cyber-equivalent of drilling into a bank vault on the Thursday night of Easter.

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Gymshark influencers and branded fitness plans: a new world of training • Mel Magazine

Hussein Kesvani:

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There’s a small thumb drive in my desk that contains the secrets of how to attain the body of a Greek god (or Mark Wahlberg). On it, there are comprehensive workout plans, diets, supplement recommendations and tools to calculate the precise amount of macronutrients necessary for me to get shredded. It’s the kind of information that celebrity fitness trainers protect as highly guarded secrets, leaving Reddit’s fitness enthusiasts to speculate and obsess over it. Some people would pay good money for what’s on this thumb drive.

In fact, Marco, a pseudonymous 18-year-old from Austin, Texas, tells me that he’s made close to $300 selling such fitness plans to his Instagram followers. The thing is, Marco didn’t write any of them. If anything, he prefers playing soccer to hitting the gym and loathes the taste of protein shakes. Rather, he obtained 10 gigs’ worth of this intel from an anonymous Reddit user who had leaked dozens of exclusive, subscriber-only workout and diet plans created by the internet’s most notable fitness influencers, many of whom are associated with the sports lifestyle brand Gymshark. 

In modern gym culture, the “fitness plan” is more than just a routine to help newbies — it serves as a bespoke piece of branding, too.

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And it isn’t! The joy of “influencers”.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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