Start Up No.1243: the app to sue robocallers, the botnet that loves you, the trouble with Equifax, Europe breaks Facebook date, adieu Essential!, and more

Mobile technology connects people who can’t be together. Looks like MWC – now canceled – will need it. CC-licensed photo by K%u0101rlis Dambr%u0101ns on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Mobile World Congress cancelled over coronavirus • Financial Times

Daniel Thomas and Daniel Dombey:


Europe’s largest telecoms conference has been forced to cancel this year’s event after companies from Deutsche Telekom and Nokia to Amazon and Vodafone refused to attend over fears of the spread of coronavirus.

Mobile World Congress is a key event for Barcelona and claims to host more than 1m business meetings for its 109,000 attendees during the four-day conference at the end of February.

Most of the big telecoms and tech groups had decided not to attend owing to the rapid spread of coronavirus, including Facebook, Amazon, Cisco and Intel, as well as European telecoms vendors such as Ericsson. Many attendees are from Asia, with groups such as Huawei among the largest exhibitors.

…The conference’s cancellation will be a big blow for Barcelona, where hotels and restaurants ramp up prices in expectation of a bumper week that attracts high-spending telecoms executives. Local media has estimated that it generates €492m for the city, and creates about 14,000 temporary jobs.

It is not clear whether MWC will need to carry the heavy cost of cancelling the event, or be able to recover the money spent on the conference, which officially takes place across a series of huge hangars between the city and the airport. Discussions over costs were still being held on Wednesday night, said one person familiar with the matter.


So the GSMA was going to put off the decision until Friday, but the cancellations tipped its hand. There will be a huge row with the insurers about whether this is covered: the GSMA had been trying to get the city of Barcelona to declare Wuhan CV a health emergency (or similar), which would have triggered an insurance payout. But the city wouldn’t.

Flights and hotels are booked, though, so there might be a shadow MWC. The big question is whether it will return.
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This app automatically cancels and sues robocallers • VICE

Edward Ongweso:


DoNotPay’s Free Trial Card creates a virtual, one-time-use credit card to protect you from getting charged by “industrialized scams” like free trials. DoNotPay’s original offering was a chatbot lawyer program that automatically disputed parking tickets in small claims court.

Robo Revenge combines both features to automatically add you to the Do Not Call Registry, generate a virtual DoNotPay burner credit card to provide scammers when they illegally call you anyways, use the transaction information to get the scammer’s contact information, then walk you through how to sue them for as much as $3,000 per call under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), a law already on the books meant to protect consumers from calls that violate the Do Not Call Registry. The app also streamlines the litigation paperwork by automatically generating demand letters and court filing documents.

“There are two types of scammers. There are the scammers based abroad who are trying to get your bank details—those people you can’t sue because you don’t even know where they are. But the type we can stop is the businesses like a U.S. based travel company trying to sell you a cruise and asking for your credit card number,” Browder said. “We can take them out with U.S. based laws. If they’re calling someone and every time they’re calling someone, there’s a risk of a penalty, maybe they’ll think twice.”

Together, new legislation and mass adoption of the app might be sufficient to overcome the technological and regulatory difficulties of reigning in illegal robocallers. Browder, however, also wants to shift some agency back into the consumer’s hands.


Amazing stat in this story: spam calls have gone from 3.7% of (US) calls in 2017 to 29.2% in 2018 and were heading to 50% for 2019. Maybe a privacy law might help…?
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You are famous on Botnet!

Botnet is a social network simulator where you’re the only human along with a million bots who are obsessed with you.


Creepy. Or, perhaps, just like being a Kardashian.
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Chinese hacking is alarming. So are data brokers • The New York Times

Charlie Warzel:


Mr. Begor, Equifax’s chief executive, noted that “cybercrime is one of the greatest threats facing our nation today.” But what he ignored was his own company’s role in creating a glaring vulnerability in the system. If we’re to think of cybercrime like an analog counterpart, then Equifax is a bank on Main Street that forgot to lock its vault.

Why rob a bank? Because that’s where the money is. Why hack a data broker? Because that’s where the information is.

The analogy isn’t quite apt, though, because Equifax, like other data brokers, doesn’t fill its vaults with deposits from willing customers. Equifax amasses personal data on millions of Americans whether we want it to or not, creating valuable profiles that can be used to approve or deny loans or insurance claims. That data, which can help dictate the outcome of major events in our lives (where we live, our finances, even potentially our health), then becomes a target.

From this vantage, it’s unclear why data brokers should continue to collect such sensitive information at scale. Setting aside Equifax’s long, sordid history of privacy concerns and its refusal to let Americans opt out of collection, the very existence of such information, stored by private companies with little oversight, is a systemic risk..


It was difficult to pick a section to extract: this is a terrific article. But who’s going to rein in the data brokers?
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The high-tech secret behind the stunning cinematography of ‘Uncut Gems’ • Input Mag

Charles Bramesco:


Josh and Benny Safdie’s Uncut Gems is a film of relentless, unceasing motion. Harried jeweler–slash–gambling addict Howard Ratner (Adam Sandler) hustles through midtown Manhattan’s Diamond District, up and down Sixth Avenue, back and forth from his home on Long Island to his philandering-pad in the city.

Even the closeups have a jittery sort of kinetic energy to them; Howard is always rocking back and forth, pacing, at times seemingly vibrating in place. That the film’s cinematographer, Darius Khondji, won’t get any recognition at the Oscars this Sunday is yet another reason to cast doubt on the Academy’s judgment.

That sensation of constant propulsive force was a tonal must for the film, but the Safdie brothers’ particular filmmaking methods made that a unique challenge. The co-directors get some of their best material by fostering a sense of spontaneity, so they eschew marks — electrical-tape X’s on the floor tipping off actors on where to stand — and encourage free movement about the set. They also believe that actors work best when hulking machines aren’t all up in their faces, so they prefer to situate their cameras far from a scene’s action and shoot using super-long zoom lenses. “The margin of error in these extreme closeups is less than an inch,” says Chris Silano, Khondji’s A-camera assistant on Uncut Gems.

The combination of unpredictable choreography and a depth of field flattened by distance would’ve made focusing these scenes impossible. That is, if not for a focus-calibrating device called the Light Ranger 2, which has amassed a cult following among Hollywood’s camera crews. “The Light Ranger 2 is going to revolutionize this piece of the industry,” Silano says. “It’s already started.” Everyone interviewed for this article echoed some version of this same sentiment, and the word revolutionize was used by all but one person.

That would be Howard Preston, the inventor of the Light Ranger and a friendly guy who’s modest about his estimable achievements.


I’ll admit I didn’t notice the camerawork – the film is so stomach-churning. Though as one of the interviewees says, people only notice when it doesn’t work. And it worked.
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Stood up: Facebook keeps Europe waiting over dating feature • WSJ

Parmy Olson:


Facebook is postponing the European rollout of its dating service which it planned to debut this week ahead of Valentine’s Day, according to Ireland’s top privacy regulator.

The move came after the Irish Data Protection Commission raised issues with the feature’s compliance with European Union data protection rules, the agency said. The company had been planning to launch the service on Thursday. The Irish regulator acts as the lead privacy cop for Facebook and Google parent Alphabet because they have both based their European operations in Dublin.

The agency said Facebook had notified it last week of its plans to roll out the service, which launched in the U.S. in September. Facebook says on its website that the dating service is available in 20 countries and “will be in Europe by early 2020.”

The commission’s concerns are focused on whether or not Facebook conducted the correct data-protection assessment ahead of the launch of the feature, the agency said. Several inspectors from the agency visited Facebook offices in Dublin earlier this week. The visit represented the first time that the regulator had carried out such an inspection on a large technology firm, under the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR. The set of rules governs how companies can use and share data.


Amazingly sloppy on Facebook’s part. If Valentine’s Day really is just right for its dating app (don’t you need a slightly longer run-up than one day?), it overlooked Europe’s bitey privacy regulations.

(The headline, though, is all over the place. It’s not as though Europe has been gagging for Facebook to do this, so it’s not really “stood up”. It’s Europe that’s making Facebook wait, sort of. “Europe breaks Facebook’s date”?)
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Online dating: the virtues and downsides • Pew Research Center


The current survey finds that online dating is especially popular among certain groups – particularly younger adults and those who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB). Roughly half or more of 18- to 29-year-olds (48%) and LGB adults (55%) say they have ever used a dating site or app, while about 20% in each group say they have married or been in a committed relationship with someone they first met through these platforms. Americans who have used online dating offer a mixed look at their time on these platforms.

On a broad level, online dating users are more likely to describe their overall experience using these platforms in positive rather than negative terms. Additionally, majorities of online daters say it was at least somewhat easy for them to find others that they found physically attractive, shared common interests with, or who seemed like someone they would want to meet in person. But users also share some of the downsides to online dating. Roughly seven-in-ten online daters believe it is very common for those who use these platforms to lie to try to appear more desirable. And by a wide margin, Americans who have used a dating site or app in the past year say the experience left them feeling more frustrated (45%) than hopeful (28%).


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Opinion: the ‘race to 5G’ is a myth • CNN

Kevin Werbach:


Romania is one of 10 countries with significantly faster average fixed broadband connections than America today, yet no one in Washington seems concerned that will give Romanian firms a dominant advantage. The major tech platforms delivering innovative digital services to the world are still based in the United States and China. There are important concerns about the Chinese networking firm Huawei creating backdoors for surveillance or tilting the carrier equipment market toward Chinese-defined standards. Your 5G user experience, however, won’t depend on who makes the gear in the guts of the network.

The overheated rhetoric is based on the misconception that 5G heralds a new era of services for end-users. In reality, the claimed performance — hundreds of megabits or even gigabits per second — is misleading. Averages and ideal numbers mask huge variations depending on distance to an antenna, obstructions, weather and other factors. The fastest speeds require “millimeter wave” spectrum, which doesn’t penetrate walls or foliage well, and is generally less reliable than the lower frequencies used today. Millimeter wave requires a much denser network of antennas, which could be cost-prohibitive outside dense urban areas. Even if that hurdle is overcome, a gigabit per second to millions of phones requires a network able to move traffic at that speed end-to-end, which doesn’t exist today.

And just what are the applications that need more capacity than 4G offers? We already get crystal-clear video chats, a torrent of TikToks, Pokemon Go augmented reality, and massive Fortnite battles. Yes, every advance in network performance opened up new uses that seemed insignificant before, but the new capabilities of 5G are best suited to non-consumer applications.

If and when fleets of self-driving vehicles communicate constantly with each other or remote robotic surgery is a standard feature in local hospitals, 5G will be a must. But these next-generation “internet of things” scenarios are years in the future, as are the kinds of virtual and augmented reality worlds that appear in science fiction.


Solid argument. I like how CNN feels obliged to say that it’s an opinion – as if there might be a factual news story that had discovered that the “race to 5G” was a myth all along, like the Loch Ness monster.
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Why poor people make poor decisions • The Correspondent

Rutger Bregman:


the most significant improvement was in how the money helped parents, well, to parent. Before the casino [on a native American reservation in North Carolina] opened its doors [in 1997], parents worked hard through the summer but were often jobless and stressed in the winter. The new income enabled Cherokee families to put money aside and to pay bills in advance. Parents who were lifted out of poverty now reported having more time for their children.

They weren’t working any less though, Costello discovered. Mothers and fathers alike were putting in just as many hours as before the casino opened. More than anything, said tribe member Vickie L Bradley, the money helped ease the pressure on families, so the energy they’d spent worrying about money was now freed up for their children. And as Bradley put it, that “helps parents be better parents”.

What, then, is the cause of mental health problems among poorer people? Nature or culture? Costello’s conclusion was both: the stress of poverty puts people genetically predisposed to develop an illness or disorder at an elevated risk. But there’s a more important takeaway from this study.

Genes can’t be undone. Poverty can.


Seems like a good argument for Universal Basic Income.
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Andy Rubin’s Essential Products is shutting down • 9to5Google

Abner Li:


Essential Products today that it’s ceasing operations and shutting down. Founded by the controversial Andy Rubin, the startup last August showed off a radical ‘GEM’ smartphone.

Today’s shutdown is framed as due to Essential having “no clear path to deliver” its next smartphone to customers.

Despite our best efforts, we’ve now taken Gem as far as we can and regrettably have no clear path to deliver it to customers. Given this, we have made the difficult decision to cease operations and shutdown Essential.

Essential was founded in 2015 following long-time Android head Andy Rubin’s departure from Google, which emerged in 2018 was due to alleged sexual misconduct. The Essential Phone was first detailed in mid-2017, along with a smart hub called the Essential Home. The latter product never materialized, while the PH-1 launched in August of that year.

While the smartphone did not sell well, it was one of the first devices to feature a minimal notch for the front-facing camera. It was also applauded for getting fast Android updates, though that is ending today.


Love how the notice that it’s shutting down is an “An update” rather than, say, “sayonara and thanks for all the fish”. Essential’s fate was sealed from that very first, overconfident, phone launched into a market that had already hit the wall.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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