Start Up No.1252: the auto insurance algorithm that soaked big spenders, coronavirus could threaten Olympics, Amazon’s spooky grocery, and more


It’s a fake – but how easily could you tell if it was being sold on Amazon? CC-licensed photo by Indi Samarajiva on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Suckers’ list: how Allstate’s secret auto insurance algorithm squeezes big spenders • The Markup

Maddy Varner and Aaron Sankin:

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Seven years ago, Allstate Corporation told Maryland regulators it was time to update its auto insurance rates. The insurer said its new, sophisticated risk analysis showed it was charging nearly all of its 93,000 Maryland customers outdated premiums. Some of the old rates were off by miles. One 36-year-old man from Prince George’s County, Md., who Allstate said in public records should have been paying $3,750 every six months, was instead being charged twice that, more than $7,500. Other customers were paying hundreds or thousands of dollars less than they should have been, based on Allstate’s new calculation of the risk that they would file a claim.

Rather than apply the new rates all at once, Allstate asked the Maryland Insurance Administration for permission to run each policy through an advanced algorithm containing dozens of variables that would adjust it in the general direction of the new risk model. Allstate said the goal of this new customer “retention model,” which it was rolling out across the country, was to limit policy cancellations from sticker shock. After questions from regulators, the insurer submitted thousands of pages of documentation on the price changes—including data showing how they would affect each individual customer, a rare public window into details of its auto insurance pricing that have otherwise been kept behind a wall of privacy, labeled a trade secret.

When The Markup and Consumer Reports conducted a statistical analysis of the Maryland documents, we found that, despite the purported complexity of Allstate’s price-adjustment algorithm, it was actually simple: it resulted in a suckers list of Maryland customers who were big spenders and would squeeze more money out of them than others.

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Big tech is testing you • The New Yorker

Professor Hannah Fry:

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As “The Power of Experiments” makes clear, there are times when this happens in irritating but relatively harmless ways—a company making a small tweak to a Web site that elevates profits over customer experience, for instance. Consider an experiment that StubHub, the ticket-resale company, ran to determine where best to notify users about its ticketing costs. Should it be up front about them from the moment you land on the page? Or surprise you at checkout? StubHub discovered, after experimenting, that hiding the fees until the last minute led to thirteen% more sales, plus tickets that were 5.73% more expensive on average. As Luca and Bazerman explain, “People were buying better, higher-priced tickets when the fees were hidden.” The technique did make people less likely to return to the Web site in the following months, but that falloff was not enough to counter the increase in ticket sales and prices.

There are also times when manipulation leaves people feeling cheated. For instance, in 2018 the Wall Street Journal reported that Amazon had been inserting sponsored products in its consumers’ baby registries. “The ads look identical to the rest of the listed products in the registry, except for a small gray ‘Sponsored’ tag,” the Journal revealed. “Unsuspecting friends and family clicked on the ads and purchased the items,” assuming they’d been chosen by the expectant parents. Amazon’s explanation when confronted? “We’re constantly experimenting,” a spokesperson said. (The company has since ended the practice.)…

…There’s untold good that can be done by experimentation in the digital age. It can help us to understand the impact of screen time or the Like button on our well-being; to find and fix discriminatory practices; to identify ways of promoting healthier life styles. But where these experiments are being done away from public scrutiny, the ethos of science is compromised.

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Facebook would have to pay $3.50 per month to US users for sharing contact info: study • Reuters

Nandita Bose:

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German Facebook users would want the social media platform to pay them about $8 per month for sharing their contact information, while US users would only seek $3.50, according to a study of how people in various countries value their private information.

The study by US-based think tank the Technology Policy Institute (TPI) is the first that attempts to quantify the value of online privacy and data. It assessed how much privacy is worth in six countries by looking at the habits of people in the United States, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Columbia and Argentina.

It addresses growing concern about how companies from technology platforms to retailers have been collecting and monetizing personal data. US regulators have imposed hefty fines on Facebook Inc and Alphabet-owned Google’s YouTube unit for privacy violations.

“Differences in how much people value privacy of different data types across countries suggests that people in some places may prefer weaker rules while people in other places might prefer stronger rules,” Scott Wallsten, president and senior fellow at TPI told Reuters.

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Or it suggests that they’re conditioned one way or another, perhaps by surrounding commercial and political interests?
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Inside ‘Amazon Go Grocery’: tech giant opens first full-sized store without cashiers or checkout lines • GeekWire

Kurt Schlosser:

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Amazon Go is going full grocery.

Two years after launching a chain of convenience stores without cashiers or checkout lines, Amazon is opening its first “Amazon Go Grocery” store in Seattle on Tuesday morning, enlarging the footprint for surveillance-style shopping and signaling a larger challenge to the broader world of brick-and-mortar retail.

The debut is also the answer to a longstanding mystery about the 7,700-square-foot space, at 610 E. Pike Street in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Amazon’s plans for the property have long been under wraps. Last fall the company confirmed that its Amazon Go team was “running internal tests” at the location, but declined to say more until now.

GeekWire got a sneak peek at the store during a recent media preview, entering by scanning a smartphone app and strolling the aisles of the completely stocked store. The banks of cameras and sensors overhead track everything put into a shopping cart, with the help of artificial intelligence — rendering unnecessary the old-fashioned ritual of scanning and paying at a checkout stand. Items are charged to a shopper’s Amazon account shortly after they walk through the exit.

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This feels like something out of a William Gibson book. The implicit surveillance is very spooky.
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China bans human consumption and trade of wild animals • CTV News

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China on Monday declared an immediate and “comprehensive” ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals, a practice believed responsible for the deadly coronavirus outbreak.

The country’s top legislative committee approved a proposal “prohibiting the illegal wildlife trade, abolishing the bad habit of overconsumption of wildlife, and effectively protecting the lives and health of the people,” state television reported.

Previous temporary bans have been put in place, including after the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) virus killed hundreds of people in China and Hong Kong in 2002-03 and was also traced to wild animal consumption.

That prohibition was short-lived, however, and conservationists have long accused China of tolerating a cruel trade in wild animals as exotic menu items or for use in traditional medicines whose efficacy is not confirmed by science.

The decision was made by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), which oversees the country’s rubber-stamp legislature.

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If Covid-19 has one good effect, it might be to stop China killing animals unnecessarily.
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Tokyo Olympics could be cancelled due to Coronavirus, IOC official says • CNBC

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A senior member of the International Olympic Committee said Tuesday that if it proves too dangerous to hold the Olympics in Tokyo this summer because of the coronavirus outbreak, organizers are more likely to cancel it altogether than to postpone or move it.

Dick Pound, a former Canadian swimming champion who has been on the IOC since 1978, making him its longest-serving member, estimated there is a three-month window — perhaps a two-month one — to decide the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, meaning a decision could be put off until late May.

“In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?’” he said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.

As the games draw near, he said, “a lot of things have to start happening. You’ve got to start ramping up your security, your food, the Olympic Village, the hotels. The media folks will be in there building their studios.”

If the IOC decides the games cannot go forward as scheduled in Tokyo, “you’re probably looking at a cancellation,” he said.

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A few numbers: the current flu epidemic has a mortality rate of 0.14% (or less; that’s the worst on the CDC estimates). The Spanish flu epidemic of 1918-19 had an estimated mortality rate of 10%-20%. Covid-19 has a mortality rate of about 2%.

Japan has had one of the worst outbreaks, and it’s not clear how long the virus can survive or how many asymptomatic carriers there might be. This would be the first Olympics cancelled due to a pandemic.
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Here’s how China is hunting down coronavirus critics • VICE

David Gilbert:

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Joshua Left, a 28-year-old entrepreneur who runs a self-driving car startup in Wuhan, China, arrived in San Francisco in mid-January for a vacation, just as the first reports of a new “SARS-like” virus outbreak in China reached the U.S.

He almost immediately began worrying about his family back in his hometown of Wuhan, where the disease appeared to originate, and where panic was starting to set in. Concerned that his family might not be getting information on the scale of the burgeoning epidemic, he posted messages on his WeChat account sharing information he was afraid were not available inside China.

“But then things started to get weird,” he told VICE News.

Left, who asked not to be identified by his full Chinese name, said he first received a warning message from WeChat administrators. Then he began receiving strangely specific messages that appeared to come from four of his friends on WeChat, all asking him for his location, what hotel he was staying at in San Francisco, what his room number was, and what his U.S. phone number was.

Then his cell phone received a warning message that someone in Shanghai was trying to log into his account.

Finally, when he wouldn’t tell them where he was staying, the same accounts all simultaneously began urging him to return to China as soon as possible.

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China’s government isn’t going to let a little thing like a near-pandemic (or maybe it’s there now..) get in its way.
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Firefox turns controversial new encryption on by default in the US • The Verge

Jon Porter:

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Starting today, Mozilla will turn on by default DNS over HTTPS (DoH) for Firefox users in the US, the company has announced. DoH is a new standard that encrypts a part of your internet traffic that’s typically sent over an unencrypted plain text connection, and which could allow others to see what websites you’re visiting, even when your communication with the website itself is encrypted using HTTPS. Mozilla says it is the first browser to support the new standard by default, and will be rolling it out gradually over the coming weeks in order to address any unforeseen issues.

Whenever you type a website into your address bar, your browser needs to go through a process to convert it into an IP address using a DNS lookup. However, this traffic is normally not encrypted, meaning that it’s possible for others to see what websites you’re visiting. DoH is an attempt to encrypt this information to protect your privacy. Here’s a more in-depth explanation from Mozilla that explains it in detail.

Mozilla is motivated in part by ISPs who monitor customers’ web usage. US carriers like Verizon and AT&T are building massive ad-tracking networks. DoH won’t stop the data collection but it’ll likely make it more difficult.

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Not coming by default to the UK, though it doesn’t explain why not. (Though UK users can turn it on manually.)
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Why do corporations speak the way they do? • Vulture

Molly Young:

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[“Uncanny Valley” author Anna] Wiener writes especially well — with both fluency and astonishment — about the verbal habits of her peers: “People used a sort of nonlanguage, which was neither beautiful nor especially efficient: a mash-up of business-speak with athletic and wartime metaphors, inflated with self-importance. Calls to action; front lines and trenches; blitzscaling. Companies didn’t fail, they died.” She describes a man who wheels around her office on a scooter barking into a wireless headset about growth hacking, proactive technology, parallelization, and the first-mover advantage. “It was garbage language,” Wiener writes, “but customers loved him.”

I know that man, except he didn’t ride a scooter and was actually a woman named Megan at yet another of my former jobs. What did Megan do? Mostly she set meetings, or “syncs,” as she called them. They were the worst kind of meeting — the kind where attendees circle the concept of work without wading into the substance of it. Megan’s syncs were filled with discussions of cadences and connectivity and upleveling as well as the necessity to refine and iterate moving forward. The primary unit of meaning was the abstract metaphor. I don’t think anyone knew what anyone was saying, but I also think we were all convinced that we were the only ones who didn’t know while everyone else was on the same page. (A common reference, this elusive page.)

In Megan’s syncs, I found myself becoming almost psychedelically disembodied, floating above the conference room and gazing at the dozen or so people within as we slumped, bit and chewed extremities, furtively manipulated phones, cracked knuckles, examined split ends, scratched elbows, jiggled feet, palpated stomach rolls, disemboweled pens, and gnawed on shirt collars. The sheer volume of apathy formed an energy of its own, like a mudslide. At the half-hour mark of each hour-long meeting, our bodies began to list perceptibly toward the door. It was like the whole room had to pee.

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Wiener calls it “garbage language”. But as Young points out, the words that are used are always borrowed from whichever sector is in the ascendant at the time. (Presently: new-age crystals.)
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Can you tell which of these Amazon Prime purchases are counterfeit? • Wirecutter

Ganda Suthivarakom:

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Although Amazon has taken many measures to prevent counterfeits and unsafe products from showing up on its site, plenty of fakes still slip through. Over the past several months, we’ve purchased counterfeits and knockoffs making fraudulent safety claims and encountered a few instances in which a seller switched in an authentic product but from a discontinued or lesser-quality line—all delivered through Amazon Prime. We also obtained authentic items, either directly from the manufacturer or with confirmation from the brand. While the fakes and knockoffs may look like the real products at first glance, they’re often lower in quality, sometimes hiding potential health or safety issues.

Many people think that counterfeits and knockoffs are so obviously inferior—visually and otherwise—that it’s easy to spot the difference between a fake and the real thing. But increasingly, that’s not the case with counterfeits purchased online. Test yourself: Can you spot the real thing in the photos below?

…Although knockoffs are also present on separate Amazon listings, counterfeit ‘Ove’ Gloves often pop up on the product page for the real ‘Ove’ Glove, according to Michael Hirsch, vice president of Joseph Enterprises. To combat them, the company buys the fakes and then informs Amazon of the copyright infringement. Getting the fake gloves removed from Amazon can be a long process, Hirsch said, taking weeks or even months of playing whack-a-mole with counterfeit sellers: “Once they’re off, they come back under a different brand and name.”

It’s easy to see why the fakes persist. We found counterfeit ‘Ove’ Gloves for sale for about $2 a piece in bulk on Alibaba, the photograph clearly showing a knockoff version with black stitching instead of white around the wrist.

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This is now an endless story: fakes selling for less because Amazon doesn’t have responsibility. That could be dangerous. There’s an obvious solution: make Amazon responsible for the authenticity of the products. One of the fakes is a child car seat: that’s inherently dangerous (and the seat doesn’t comply with federal regulations). It’s amazing, given the American attitude to tort law, that Amazon hasn’t been sued into the ground yet. Or do the court cases get settled quietly?
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These unknown Chinese audio brands might just be the best • WSJ

Matthew Kronsberg:

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audiophiles have been known to spend more than $1,000 for earphones from Campfire Audio, more than $10,000 for amps from Shindo Labs or upward of $20,000 for speakers by Bowers & Wilkins.

Unsurprisingly, much of the hi-fi gear designed and sold by such U.S., Japanese and European brands—the sort that now dominates the market—is built in China. But in the past few years, a wave of inscrutably named Chinese companies have begun to design and market their own audiophile-grade equipment that can often outperform their better known, better marketed rivals, usually doing so at a fraction of the price.

If there’s a poster child for “Chi-Fi”—a moniker for this constellation of equipment that’s largely made up of earphones, headphone amps and high resolution digital-to-analog audio converters known as DACs—it’s the ATE model in-ear monitors, or IEMs, from a nearly anonymous brand known as KZ (kzacoustics.com). IEMs are essentially earphones that extend slightly into the canal, like a hearing aid. John Darko, who runs darko.audio, an audiophile website out of Berlin, declared that the KZ ATEs offered an “immensely spacious and dynamically charged listening experience,” not the kind of praise you typically hear about gear that sells for around $15.

What’s the catch? That path to the audiophile Promised Land is still a confusing, poorly signposted one. The Chinese audio gear market is overflowing with confusingly named startups like BQEYZ, GGMM, UiiSi or FAAEAL, none of which likely resonate with the average U.S. consumer the way established brands like Sony, Beats and Yamaha do. And since very little of this alphabet-soup of gear makes it to traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers where you can listen before you buy, experts like Mr. Darko, and tightly curated e-commerce sites like Drop.com, are essential tools for aspiring audiophiles. This is especially true when the product in question is a $250 DAC rather than a $15 IEM.

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I linked to an article about “Chi-fi” back in November, but this at least gives you a site to check where you can see what they say. (“Sort by price” would be a great thing, Mr Darko.) The counterpoint to all the junky counterfeits on Amazon.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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