Start Up No.1240: Trump admin grabs location data, the disinformation war, Apple v Swiss watches, how antivaxx can kill, and more

A manufacturing plant fire marks a serious threat to the supply of this stuff. CC-licensed photo by Ninα on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Isn’t that something? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Federal agencies use cellphone location data for immigration enforcement • WSJ

Byron Tau and Michelle Hackman:


The Trump administration has bought access to a commercial database that maps the movements of millions of cellphones in America and is using it for immigration and border enforcement, according to people familiar with the matter and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The location data is drawn from ordinary cellphone apps, including those for games, weather and e-commerce, for which the user has granted permission to log the phone’s location.

The Department of Homeland Security has used the information to detect undocumented immigrants and others who may be entering the U.S. unlawfully, according to these people and documents.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a division of DHS, has used the data to help identify immigrants who were later arrested, these people said. U.S. Customs and Border Protection, another agency under DHS, uses the information to look for cellphone activity in unusual places, such as remote stretches of desert that straddle the Mexican border, the people said.

The federal government’s use of such data for law enforcement purposes hasn’t previously been reported.


Now, many will be quick to say this is perfectly fine. After all, if people are undocumented, they’re in the country illegally, surely? But what happens when the government pushes the rules again and starts tracking people who are legally in the country, but whose status the government wants to change? Mostly importantly, who says no about tracking this data? The slip from enforcement to dictatorship isn’t a long one, and we know how data about people can be used for the worst purposes. (Thanks Nic for the link.)
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The 2020 [US] election will be a war of disinformation • The Atlantic

McKay Coppins:


The president’s reelection campaign was [last autumn/fall] in the midst of a multimillion-dollar ad blitz aimed at shaping Americans’ understanding of the recently launched impeachment proceedings. Thousands of micro-targeted ads had flooded the internet, portraying Trump as a heroic reformer cracking down on foreign corruption while Democrats plotted a coup. That this narrative bore little resemblance to reality seemed only to accelerate its spread. Right-wing websites amplified every claim. Pro-Trump forums teemed with conspiracy theories. An alternate information ecosystem was taking shape around the biggest news story in the country, and I wanted to see it from the inside.

The story that unfurled in my Facebook feed over the next several weeks was, at times, disorienting. There were days when I would watch, live on TV, an impeachment hearing filled with damning testimony about the president’s conduct, only to look at my phone later and find a slickly edited video—served up by the Trump campaign—that used out-of-context clips to recast the same testimony as an exoneration. Wait, I caught myself wondering more than once, is that what happened today?

As I swiped at my phone, a stream of pro-Trump propaganda filled the screen: “That’s right, the whistleblower’s own lawyer said, ‘The coup has started …’ ” Swipe. “Democrats are doing Putin’s bidding …” Swipe. “The only message these radical socialists and extremists will understand is a crushing …” Swipe. “Only one man can stop this chaos …” Swipe, swipe, swipe.

I was surprised by the effect it had on me. I’d assumed that my skepticism and media literacy would inoculate me against such distortions. But I soon found myself reflexively questioning every headline. It wasn’t that I believed Trump and his boosters were telling the truth. It was that, in this state of heightened suspicion, truth itself—about Ukraine, impeachment, or anything else—felt more and more difficult to locate. With each swipe, the notion of observable reality drifted further out of reach.


Those checks and balances in the US Constitution are increasingly clearly the emptiest of promises. The GOP has crossed that line too: it has fallen so in love with being in power that it has abandoned any principles that might get in the way of that. It’s the only tiniest of steps from there to Chinese-style authoritarianism.
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How Apple killed the Swiss watch industry • Forbes

Enrique Dans:


Later that year, I discussed technology substitution in the watch sector. In May 2017, I pointed out that three years of growing sales of smartwatches and a consecutive drop in exports by the Swiss watch industry represented an unprecedented crisis, one that heralded its demise, consigning it to the past and that while it would retain its followers, they would be a residual market. As I said at the time, when disruption hits, hoping that the inertia of tradition, style and other intangibles will save the bottom line won’t cut it.

Apple’s reinvention of the wristwatch is not only evident in its impressive sales figures: it can be seen by analyzing its usage dynamics. When somebody acquires an Apple Watch, they typically tell themselves they will wear it sometimes, but remain faithful to their favorite traditional watch. After all, the Swiss industry has been trying for years to get us to see watches as a fashion accessory or collectable. For many watch enthusiasts, a Swiss watch was a powerful status symbol.

But once you have tasted the apple, you’re lost. Experience shows that the Apple Watch is more than something that tells the time, and is instead receives notifications, evaluates your physical activity, shows the weather forecast, tells you if your team has won, and a myriad other things, including whether you are suffering from an arrhythmia. As soon as you start using the Apple Watch, you realize one thing is clear: the rest of your watch collection will live on in a drawer from now on. And every time you’re tempted to take them out and use them instead of the Apple device, you spend the whole day looking at your wrist for information that isn’t there.


I’ll take the contrary position: I think that Apple largely isn’t responsible for the fall in Swiss watch sales, at least at the high end. It may well be at the low end, since an Apple Watch does a hell of a lot more than a Swatch does, and lots of Americans have iPhones. But I’ve been hearing that high-end sales (or prices; effectively the same thing, for the watchmakers) are down. Is the sort of person who would drop $80,000 on a Rolex really going to opt for a $500 Watch? I just don’t think so. What I don’t know is where that money that would go on Rolexes is going. Nor can I find – yet – any data about it. Pointers welcome.
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On Facebook, anti-vaxxers urged a mom not to give her son Tamiflu. He later died • NBC News

Brandy Zadrozny:


Facebook hosts a vast network of groups that trade in false health information. On “Stop Mandatory Vaccination,” one of the largest known health misinformation groups with more than 178,000 members, people have solicited advice for how to deal with the flu. Members of the group have previously spread conspiracies that outbreaks of preventable diseases are “hoaxes” perpetrated by the government, and use the groups to mass-contact parents whose children have died and suggest without evidence that vaccines may be to blame.

One recent post came from the mother of a 4-year-old Colorado boy who died from the flu this week. In it, she consulted group members while noting that she had declined to fill a prescription written by a doctor.

The child had not been diagnosed yet, but he was running a fever and had a seizure, the mother wrote. She added that two of her four children had been diagnosed with the flu and that the doctor had prescribed the antiviral Tamiflu for everyone in the household.

“The doc prescribed tamiflu I did not pick it up,” she wrote.


So much for the wisdom of crowds. Or at least that crowd.
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The five-year plan for telecom equipment • DIGITS to DOLLARS

Jay Goldberg (and, possibly, others):


Late yesterday, the [Wall Street] Journal reported on comments made by US Attorney General Barr to the affect that the US government should construct a telecom equipment vendor that could compete with Chinese equipment major Huawei.

Put simply, this is a terrible idea.

The United States has built an incredible economy without ever involving government directly in this level of economic planning. Why should this country abandon the principles of free market capitalism that have driven its immense wealth?

We have worked in and around the telecom industry for a long time, and below we list the many reasons why this project will ultimately fail, and likely do a lot of harm in the process.

Our first impression of this proposal is that it is so ludicrous as to not merit a response. Better to ignore it because it is likely not a real effort. Last year, there were rumors of similar government intervention in the wireless industry. Those sank beneath the waves of political fever without a ripple, and it seems likely that this will as well. But this one stuck with us, and here we are. This is not intended as a partisan piece, both major US political parties have their share of political lunacy right now. We are clearly in election year Silly Season. But we do not know healthcare, taxation or energy, so we are going to write about this one, about which we do know a thing or two.

So why is this a bad idea?


He offers multiple, interconnected reasons. All solid. It’s quite strange that the US government is even beginning to contemplate this.
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Motorola Razr ‘breaks’ after just 27,000 folds in CNet’s testing video (Update: adds Motorola’s statement) • Android Police

Ryne Hager:


It looks like the Moto Razr wasn’t able to last anywhere near as long in CNet’s test as the old Galaxy Fold did. The phone “broke” after just 27,000 folds. After developing a clicking noise when folding, it developed a “hitch,” with the hinge appearing to fall out of alignment, and the automated folding machine was unable to close the device correctly. However, the screen on the device is still working. Failure, in this case, is a relative metric — it’s not like the phone exploded.

CNet’s video hosts admit they used the phone somewhat before recording to test that everything was working correctly with the automated machine, so that may have had an effect. Even so, Moto’s folding phone could have fared better, and these results don’t speak well for the phone’s potential durability.


Motorola’s response was, roughly, “you’re test-folding it wrong.”
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Why Google might prefer dropping a $22bn business • Yahoo

Alex Webb:


Whenever people rattle off big tech deals whose regulatory approval was, in hindsight, a mistake, they tend to include the Alphabet Inc. unit’s $3.2 billion acquisition of DoubleClick in 2008. I’ve done it three times in the past 12 months — here, here and here — lumping it alongside Facebook Inc.’s deals for WhatsApp and Instagram on the antitrust wall of shame.

So you can well imagine how, in one of those funky conference rooms at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters, divesting DoubleClick might emerge as a solution for the company’s growing antitrust woes. “If DoubleClick is the problem,” the argument goes, “why don’t we just sell DoubleClick?”

Such informal conversations have taken place, according to a Wall Street Journal report on Wednesday. Except it’s not DoubleClick per se (Google rebranded the product in 2018) but part of its successor: what Google calls its third-party advertising business, which places ads on websites that Google doesn’t operate itself, such as a banner ad at the top of a news website.

Selling a slice of its advertising technology operation would be a significant concession (a Google spokeswoman told the Journal it had no plans to exit the business). But selling the third-party business would not unravel Google’s dominant position in online ads. It and Facebook are the gatekeepers for some two-thirds of all online ad spending. That outlay totaled $295 billion globally last year, according to the World Advertising Research Council. Google itself hoovered up 46% of the spending, some of which gets forwarded to third parties. For example, when an ad runs during or before a video on YouTube, Google hands about 55% of the fee to the publisher.

Google’s network members unit generated sales of $21.5bn last year, the majority of which was most likely for third-party websites. For context, that’s 40% more than the trailing 12-month sales of WPP Plc, the world’s largest advertising agency. But as a proportion of the global total, it’s a drop in the ocean.


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The Human Screenome Project • Stanford University



Mapping the human screenome can be a critical and cross-cutting part of solutions and theories about social challenges involving media – from fake news to smartphone addiction to social media and mental health.

This video shows a sample movie of one person’s smartphone use for 3 minutes.  Every 5 seconds that the phone screen is activated, a screenshot is recorded, compressed, encrypted and transmitted to secure servers at  the Human Screenome Project at Stanford University.  The movie shows a compilation of screens that represents 15 mins of use over approximately 2 hours of one day.  The movie demonstrates that digital content is diverse and fragmented, with different content threaded into sequences that break apart traditional message (e.g., videos, news stories, conversations) but make sense to individual users.


The “screenome” being the digital representation of what you do on your phone. It’s ambitious, to say the least.
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“Devastating” manufacturing plant fire threatens worldwide vinyl record supply • Pitchfork

Noah Yoo:


Apollo Masters—a manufacturing plant that supplies the lacquer used for making master discs, which are used to make vinyl records—suffered a fire on Thursday, February 6, at its manufacturing and storage facility in Banning, California, The Desert Sun reports. No employees were injured in the “devastating” blaze, which completely destroyed the facility. A note on Apollo Masters’ website reads, “We are uncertain of our future at this point and are evaluating options as we try to work through this difficult time.” Figures in the vinyl record production industry have expressed similar concern.

“From my understanding, this fire will present a problem for the vinyl industry worldwide,” Ben Blackwell, co-founder of Third Man Records told Pitchfork in an email. “There are only TWO companies that make lacquers in the world, and the other, MDC in Japan, already had trouble keeping up with demand BEFORE this development.” (The emphasis is Blackwell’s.)


Well this certainly creates a problem for vinyl’s plans to overthrow streaming and get us all back buying 12in remixes of singles.
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Springs-loaded: test-driving Nike’s Vaporfly running shoe • The Guardian

Elle Hunt:


“If you hear the sound barrier being broken over Burgess Park,” I said to my flatmate as I left the house, “that will be me.”

I was joking, sort of. Ahead of me, the 5km local parkrun. Beneath me, or at least on my feet, a new pair of Nike Vaporflys – the most talked-about trainers in the world. And not just any old Vaporflys. I was road testing the even newer Vaporfly Next%, scientifically proven – it is claimed – to make plodders into joggers, and joggers into runners.

So much spring has been put into so many steps by these shoes, it has been branded “technological doping” by some in the world of athletics.

Looking at the science before heading out, it seemed that these trainers were higher-tech than the Toyota Starlet in which I learned to drive – and quite possibly faster. Even the design, in a very precisely calibrated turquoise and tangerine, makes it look as though your feet are sliding outwards off your legs.

Sandwiched inside the thick, ultra-lightweight foam is a carbon-fibre plate that is supposed to propel you forward. Nike loftily terms it the “4% system”, which refers to the percentage improvement in running efficiency the shoe is supposed to give you.

Elite runners don’t need convincing. Of the 36 possible podium finishes in world marathon majors in 2017, 19 were wearing Vaporflys.

But none of those medallist marathoners are likely to have pounded the paths of Burgess parkrun in Southwark, south London. The Next% I was wearing was apparently the next step up, promising “a statistically significant improvement” on the original.


Terrific idea for an article. Hunt is your average 28-minute 5K runner, so her questions were: would anything change, and if so would it be “statistically significant” at her level?
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An AI epidemiologist sent the first warnings of the Wuhan coronavirus • WIRED

Eric Niiler:


“We know that governments may not be relied upon to provide information in a timely fashion,” says Kamran Khan, BlueDot’s founder and CEO. “We can pick up news of possible outbreaks, little murmurs or forums or blogs of indications of some kind of unusual events going on.”

Khan says the algorithm doesn’t use social media postings because that data is too messy. But he does have one trick up his sleeve: access to global airline ticketing data that can help predict where and when infected residents are headed next. It correctly predicted that the virus would jump from Wuhan to Bangkok, Seoul, Taipei, and Tokyo in the days following its initial appearance.

Khan, who was working as a hospital infectious disease specialist in Toronto during the SARS epidemic of 2003, dreamt of finding a better way to track diseases. That virus started in provincial China and spread to Hong Kong and then to Toronto, where it killed 44 people. “There’s a bit of deja vu right now,” Khan says about the coronavirus outbreak today. “In 2003, I watched the virus overwhelm the city and cripple the hospital. There was an enormous amount of mental and physical fatigue, and I thought, ‘Let’s not do this again.’”

After testing out several predictive programs, Khan launched BlueDot in 2014 and raised $9.4m in venture capital funding. The company now has 40 employees—physicians and programmers who devise the disease surveillance analytic program, which uses natural-language processing and machine learning techniques to sift through news reports in 65 languages, along with airline data and reports of animal disease outbreaks. “What we have done is use natural language processing and machine learning to train this engine to recognize whether this is an outbreak of anthrax in Mongolia versus a reunion of the heavy metal band Anthrax,” Kahn says.

Once the automated data-sifting is complete, human analysis takes over, Khan says. Epidemiologists check that the conclusions make sense from a scientific standpoint, and then a report is sent to government, business, and public health clients.

BlueDot’s reports are then sent to public health officials in a dozen countries (including the US and Canada), airlines, and frontline hospitals where infected patients might end up. BlueDot doesn’t sell their data to the general public, but they are working on it, Khan says.


I’d really like to know what their hit rate is. It sounds like you could make anything from that data.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1240: Trump admin grabs location data, the disinformation war, Apple v Swiss watches, how antivaxx can kill, and more

  1. Re your comment “I’ll take the contrary position: I think that Apple largely isn’t responsible for the fall in Swiss watch sales, at least at the high end. It may well be at the low end, since an Apple Watch does a hell of a lot more than a Swatch does, and lots of Americans have iPhones.”

    The status of the high end has an indirect dependence on the low end. Super expensive watches are valuable precisely because nobody can afford them, and because they are far nicer than the cheap version everyone else has. But if the cheap $500 version is functionally superior, and the middle class starts to disdain those traditional cheaper versions, it will ripple into the perceived high status of the fashion super elite fashion watches. The elite no longer have the bestest that the proles can’t afford. Takes all the fun out of it.

  2. The arguments by Jay Goldberg are bunk. The US economy boomed from the 50’s onwards directly as a result of government spending – usually on the military, but also on infrastructure and even research. After all, where does the internet come from?

    Since the US (and most other western governments) stopped spending money from the 1980s onwards there has been a corresponding increase in negative indicators such as the rising gap between rich and poor documented by Piketty amongst others.

    The reason that the current US administration is imposing tariffs and talking about setting up companies to manufacture fundamental technology is directly linked to the onset of neo-capitalism. If you let the market act as the sole arbiter it takes all of the jobs (and therefore skills and knowledge) to low cost economies like China. This is just a ham fisted response to addressing that particular inequality whilst they still can.

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