Start Up No.1241: Oscar winner keys Apple, QAnon infects reality, Wuhan coronavirus takes toll on smartphones and MWC, Hong Kong v Swiss watches, and more

Start streaming, and start being tracked with data sent in cleartext to advertisers, a new paper finds. CC-licensed photo by Mike Mozart on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. For some value of “links”. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Watching you watch: the tracking system of over-the-top TV streaming devices • the morning paper

Adrian Colyer:


The results from this paper are all too predictable: channels on Over-The-Top (OTT) streaming devices are insecure and riddled with privacy leaks. The authors quantify the scale of the problem, and note that users have even less viable defence mechanisms than they do on web and mobile platforms. When you watch TV, the TV is watching you.


In this paper, we examine the advertising and tracking ecosystems of Over-The-Top (“OTT”) streaming devices, which deliver Internet-based video content to traditional TVs/display devices. OTT devices refer to a family of services and devices that either directly connect to a TV (e.g., streaming sticks and boxes) or enable functionality within a TV (e.g. smart TVs) to facilitate the delivery of Internet-based video content.


The study focuses on Roku and Amazon Fire TV, which together account for between 59% and 65% of the global market…

…Trackers are everywhere! On Roku TV, the most prevalent tracker is for Google’s (975/1000 channels). On Amazon Fire TV it is (687/1000). Facebook is notably less present on TV than it is in mobile and web channels…

…Nine of the top 100 channels on Roku, and 14 of the top 100 channels on Amazon Fire TV leak the title of each video watched to a tracking domain. The Roku channels leaked this information over unencrypted connections.

79% of Roku channels send at least one request in cleartext, and 76% of Fire TV channels.


Amazing how pretty much every platform has to rediscover security as a followup, but is fantastically good at implementing whatever the advertising world works. A little reminder that you, the customer, mean far less than them, the advertisers.
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Taika Waititi slams Apple’s MacBook keyboards after winning first Oscar • The Verge

Sam Byford:


Speaking with journalists after winning his first Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, Jojo Rabbit and Thor: Ragnarok director Taika Waititi had other things on his mind. When asked what he thought writers should be demanding in the next round of discussions with producers, Waititi put Apple’s controversial laptop keyboards on blast.

“Apple needs to fix those keyboards,” he said. “They are impossible to write on — they’ve gotten worse. It makes me want to go back to PCs. Because PC keyboards, the bounce-back for your fingers is way better. Hands up who still uses a PC? You know what I’m talking about. It’s a way better keyboard. Those Apple keyboards are horrendous.”

“I’ve got some shoulder problems,” Waititi continued. “I’ve got OOS [Occupational Overuse Syndrome, a term used in New Zealand for RSI] — I don’t know what you call it over here, this sort of thing here (gestures to arm), that tendon which goes down your forearm down into the thumb? You know what I’m talking about, if you guys are ever writing. And what happens is you open the laptop and you’re like this (makes uncomfortable hunched-over-laptop pose) — we’ve just got to fix those keyboards. The WGA [Writers’ Guild of America, for screenplay writers] needs to step in and actually do something.”


As in his fantastic film*, Waititi is using humour to make a serious point. Apple really needs to put scissor switches into the MacBook Air pronto.

* not the Thor one, which is passable, but its screenplay can’t hold a candle to Jojo Rabbit.
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Tech’s strangest job listings: Future Edition • protocol

Lauren Hepler:


Ninjas, evangelists, alchemists: Silicon Valley has a long history of unsubtly repackaging jobs that might otherwise be titled technical support, marketing or office management.

But beyond the distinctive euphemisms, the thousands of jobs posted each week by tech behemoths, well-heeled startups and those trying to bridge the valley of death in between often hint at more dramatic economic shifts underway. And, hey, even if those world-changing ideas don’t materialize, the listings provide a useful record of what once, for some reason, seemed like a good idea.

We’ve rounded up a half dozen of the most intriguing current job openings in tech. Some sound perfectly normal at first, while the jobs they describe are anything but. Others sound bonkers but may be extremely normal. Who can tell? Enjoy.


By far the most inflated is “Overnight Happiness Ambassador”, which as Hepler points out, probably just means “person who delivers snacks in the wee hours.”
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What happens when QAnon seeps from the web to the offline world • The New York Times

Mike McIntire and Kevin Roose:


What began online more than two years ago as an intricate, if baseless, conspiracy theory that quickly attracted thousands of followers has since found footholds in the offline world. QAnon has surfaced in political campaigns, criminal cases, merchandising and at least one college class. Last month, hundreds of QAnon enthusiasts gathered in a Tampa, Fla., park to listen to speakers and pick up literature, and in England, a supporter of President Trump and the Brexit leader Nigel Farage raised a “Q” flag over a Cornish castle.
Most recently, the botched Iowa Democratic caucuses and the coronavirus outbreak have provided fodder for conspiracy mongering: QAnon fans shared groundless theories online linking the liberal billionaire George Soros to technological problems that hobbled the caucuses, and passed around bogus and potentially dangerous “treatments” for the virus.

About a dozen candidates for public office in the United States have promoted or dabbled in QAnon, and its adherents have been arrested in at least seven episodes, including a murder in New York and an armed standoff with the police near the Hoover Dam. The F.B.I. cited QAnon in an intelligence bulletin last May about the potential for violence motivated by “fringe political conspiracy theories.”

Matthew Lusk, who is running unopposed in the Republican primary for a Florida congressional seat and openly embraces QAnon, said in an email that its anonymous creator was a patriot who “brings what the fake news will not touch without slanting.” As for the theory’s more extreme elements, Mr. Lusk said he was uncertain whether there really was a pedophile ring associated with the deep state.

“That being said,” he added, “I do believe there is a group in Brussels, Belgium, that do eat aborted babies.”


In the race between education and catastrophe, you have to say that education is labouring under something of a disadvantage, which is that it requires rational thinking.
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Building rules in public: our approach to synthetic and manipulated media • Twitter

Yoel Roth and Ashita Achuthan:


If we believe that media shared in a Tweet have been significantly and deceptively altered or fabricated, we will provide additional context on the Tweet. This means we may:

• Apply a label to the Tweet;
• Show a warning to people before they Retweet or like the Tweet;
• Reduce the visibility of the Tweet on Twitter and/or prevent it from being recommended; and/or
• Provide additional explanations or clarifications, as available, such as a landing page with more context.

In most cases, we will take all of the above actions on Tweets we label.


So that’s Twitter laying out its stall on how it will deal with faked video (starting from March 5). At first it sounds good, but on closer inspection it’s exactly the same as Facebook’s approach, as laid out by Monica Bickert in this (faintly maddening) encounter with CNN’s Anderson Cooper from May 2019, over the manipulated Pelosi video: label it, tell people it’s junk (but don’t prevent them passing it on), don’t remove it.

And since we’re talking about manipulation via social media…
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How social media platforms enable politicians to undermine democracy • Vox

Zack Beauchamp:


At the inauguration of Brazil’s new far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, in early January, a crowd of his supporters began a surprising chant. They weren’t cheering for Bolsonaro or his running mate or their party; instead, they were reciting the names of social media platforms.

“Facebook, Facebook, Facebook!” the crowd yelled. “WhatsApp, WhatsApp, WhatsApp!”

They were crediting the platforms with their man’s victory, and they aren’t entirely wrong. During the campaign, a conservative pro-business interest group funded a massive disinformation campaign on WhatsApp (the popular messaging app owned by Facebook). False and damaging information about Bolsonaro’s left-wing opponent, including fake news mocked up to look like neutral fact-checks, spread like wildfire in the runup to the October 8 vote. This deluge, according to one Brazilian expert, played a role in Bolsonaro’s victory.

The glee Bolsonaro’s supporters exhibited points to a troubling development, one familiar to many Americans: Social media, once seen as a profoundly democratic technology, is increasingly serving the needs of authoritarians and their allies.

Many observers have noted that entrenched authoritarian states, like Russia and China, have gotten very good at manipulating these platforms to marginalize domestic dissidents and destabilize democracies abroad. What’s gotten less attention is how authoritarian factions inside democratic states — far-right politicians and parties that are at best indifferent to democratic norms — benefit from the nature of modern social media platforms.


Hypothesis: western social media networks as presently configured are more congruent with authoritarian regimes than laissez-faire ones, despite being set up under the latter.
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In light of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak’s impact on smartphone supply chain, 1Q20 global production forecast revised to 12% decrease YoY • TrendForce


Samsung has suffered the least damage from the outbreak, but because it sources some of its components from China, Samsung’s 1Q20 production forecast has been reduced by 3% compared to our previous forecast, registering 71.5m units. Huawei, which ranks second in terms of quarterly production volume, was placed on the U.S. Entity List and subsequently prevented from installing GMS [Google Mobile services] on their newer models, lowering their overseas sales. Turning to a business model that heavily focuses on the Chinese market, Huawei sustained major losses under stagnant Chinese New Year sales numbers. Owing to losses in both domestic and overseas markets, Huawei is projected to produce 42.5m units in 1Q20, a 15% decrease from our previous forecast.

Third-place Apple made arrangements for its employees to work from home in an effort to reduce risks of infection, but this has the side effect of slowing down the development of new iPhones in 2H20, with component certification coming to a near halt. In the short term, Apple faces uncertainties in its labor force’s work resumption, and the supply of certain key components involved in the production of new iPhones cannot be properly delivered. These setbacks will directly affect the upcoming release of iPhone SE2 (also known as iPhone 9) and lower our forecast of 1Q20 iPhone production by about 10%, from 45.5m to 41m units.

Fourth-ranked Xiaomi primarily relies on online sales, with a relatively low market share in China at about 9%. Compared to OPPO and Vivo, which have a domestically focused sales model, Xiaomi is not as affected by the outbreak; thus, TrendForce is revising its 1Q20 production forecast to 10% lower than our previous projection, with 2.47m units produced in the quarter, essentially unchanged from 1Q19. Also, TrendForce is lowering Oppo and Vivo’s production forecasts by 14% and 15%, with 2.4m and 1.7m units produced, respectively. Oppo and Vivo rank fifth and sixth place globally in 1Q20.


This is likely to continue to March; I’d expect disruption to continue until April at least.
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Companies not attending MWC2020 • The Mobile Network

Keith Dyer keeping the list here up to date. Growing fast, following a GSM Association statement on 9 February that “All travellers who have been in China will need to demonstrate proof they have been outside of China 14 days prior to the event.” In other words, they had to have left by Monday 10th, as the event starts on the 24th.

The not-coming list now includes Sony, China’s Umidigi (maker of cheap.. er, affordable smartphones), NTT Docomo, Amazon, Nvidia, Ericsson (the second largest exhibitor), and LG. Going to be quite the tricky game for Huawei and Nokia to see who blinks first, if at all.
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Data Voids • Data & Society

Michael Golebiewski and danah boyd:


Data voids are often difficult to detect. Most can be harmless until something happens that causes lots of people to search for the same term, such as a breaking news event, or a reporter using an unfamiliar phrase. In some cases, manipulators work quickly to produce conspiratorial content to fill a void, whereas other data voids, such as those from outdated terms, are filled slowly over time. Data voids are compounded by the fraught pathways of search-adjacent recommendation systems such as auto-play, auto-fill, and trending topics; each of which are vulnerable to manipulation.

The report identifies five types of data voids in play:

• Breaking News: The production of problematic content can be optimized to terms that are suddenly spiking due to a breaking news situation; these voids will eventually be filled by legitimate news content, but are abused before such content exists
• Strategic New Terms: Manipulators create new terms and build a strategically optimized information ecosystem around them before amplifying those terms into the mainstream, often through news media, in order to introduce newcomers to problematic content and frames
• Outdated Terms: When terms go out of date, content creators stop producing content associated with these terms long before searchers stop seeking out content. This creates an opening for manipulators to produce content that exploits search engines’ dependence on freshness
• Fragmented Concepts: By breaking connections between related ideas, and creating distinct clusters of information that refer to different political frames, manipulators can segment searchers into different information worlds
• Problematic Queries: Search results for disturbing or fraught terms that have historically returned problematic results continue to do so, unless high quality content is introduced to contextualize or outrank such problematic content.


The report is from November 2019, but has lost none of its relevance. (Also: best use of “fraught” you’ll see today.)
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November 2019: Hong Kong crisis batters Swiss watch exports • Hodinkee

Joe Thompson:


Swiss watch exports to Hong Kong dropped 30% in value in October versus the previous year, underscoring the severe impact of the worsening political situation there on the local economy.

Six months of protests by pro-democracy demonstrators against the Beijing-backed local government have pushed Hong Kong into a recession. Increasingly violent clashes between protestors and the police have forced the closure of luxury retail shops in the world-renowned shopping Mecca. 

For the Swiss watch industry, the unexpected downturn in its top export market has become a major concern. Exports to Hong Kong have fallen for seven consecutive months. October’s drop was the worst yet: for the month, Hong Kong fell to third place in the Swiss watch export ranking, behind the U.S. and China. 

Hong Kong’s 30% decline “had a significant impact on global growth, reducing it by five points,” said the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry (FH), which issues export data each month. “The rest of the world generally saw an upturn, 6.5%,” the FH said. However, including Hong Kong, total global exports for October rose just 1.5%.


Thus answering my suspicions that the high-end Swiss watch industry hasn’t been touched by Apple. (And, to reiterate: the low end such as Swatch may well be.) The Wuhan coronavirus is surely going to hit that much harder again. (Thanks Barry Collins for the link.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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