Start Up No.1255: coronavirus updates, FBI says ransomware has cost $140m, is Stadia struggling?, picturing Clearview AI’s data, and more


“Ultra fire” is what you get in waste plants if you just dump your lithium-ion batteries in the bin. CC-licensed photo by Leslie Wong on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Start again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

FBI says more than $140m paid to ransomware, offers defense tips • Bleeping Computer

Lawrence Abrams:

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Through the analysis of collected ransomware bitcoin wallets and ransom notes, the FBI states that victims have paid over $140m to ransomware operators over the past six years.

At the RSA security conference this week, FBI Special Agent Joel DeCapua explained how he used bitcoin wallets and ransom notes that were collected by the FBI, shared by private partners, or found on VirusTotal to compute how much money was paid in ransom payments over 6 years.

According to DeCapua between 10/0/1/2013 and 11/07/2019, there have been approximately $144,350,000 in bitcoins paid to ransomware actors as part of a ransom. This money does not include operational costs related to the attack, but purely the ransom payments.

When analyzing the ransomware families that the ransoms were paid, Ryuk stood out head and shoulders above the rest with payments totaling $61.26m. The second-place spot goes to Crysis/Dharma at $24.48m and then third place is Bitpaymer at $8.04m.

It should be noted that the actual amount of payments made over the six years is probably quite larger as there are many ransom notes and wallets that the FBI does not have access to. Furthermore, many companies keep ransomware attacks secret to prevent it from impacting stock prices.

DeCapua stated that the Windows Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) is the most common method that ransomware attackers are gaining access to a network before deploying ransomware.

“RDP is still 70-80% of the initial foothold that ransomware actors use,” DeCapua stated in his talk.

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Developers say Google didn’t offer enough money to make Stadia games – Business Insider

Ben Gilbert:

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“When we’re looking at these types of deals,” another prominent indie developer said, “We’re looking at ‘Is this enough money where we have the resources to make what we want, or is this an exclusivity deal that gives us security?'” they said.

Each of the people we spoke with, who asked to be granted anonymity due to ongoing employment in the video game industry, echoed this sentiment — and said Google simply wasn’t offering enough money, in addition to several other concerns.

“There are platforms you want to be on because they have an audience and you want to reach that audience,” one developer said. “That’s what Steam is, or that’s what [Nintendo] Switch is. They have big groups on their platforms, and you want to be with those groups so they can play your games.”

But Stadia doesn’t have a large audience to reach — at least not yet — so Google must create that incentive for developers. And the people we spoke with said, outside of money, there wasn’t much reason to put their games on Stadia.

“If you could see yourself getting into a long term relationship with Google?” one developer said. “But with Google’s history, I don’t even know if they’re working on Stadia in a year. That wouldn’t be something crazy that Google does. It’s within their track record.”

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See also this Twitter thread, suggesting that users (at least on reddit’s Android forum) are holding back from Stadia because they’re concerned that Google will abandon it, as it has so many other products, if it doesn’t get sufficient traction.
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Here’s the file Clearview AI has been keeping on me, and probably on you too • VICE

Anna Merlan:

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In mid-January, I emailed privacy-requests@clearview.ai and requested information on any of my personal data that Clearview obtained, the method by which they obtained it, and how it was used. (You can read the guidelines they claim to follow under the CCPA here.) I also asked that all said data be deleted after it was given to me and opted out of Clearview’s data collection systems in the future. In response, 11 days later, Clearview emailed me back asking for “a clear photo” of myself and a government-issued ID.

“Clearview does not maintain any sort of information other than photos,” the company wrote. “To find your information, we cannot search by name or any method other than image. Additionally, we need to confirm your identity to guard against fraudulent access requests. Finally, we need your name to maintain a record of removal requests as required by law.”

After a moment of irritation and a passing desire not to give these people any more of my information, I emailed Clearview a photo of my work ID badge and a redacted copy of my passport. About a month went by, and then I got a PDF, containing an extremely curious collection of images and an explanation that my request for data deletion and opt-out had been processed. “Images of you, to the extent the [sic] we are able to identify them using the image that you have shared to facilitate your request, will no longer appear in Clearview search results,” the “Clearview Privacy Team” wrote.

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Coronavirus live updates: first deaths confirmed in US, Australia and Thailand; health officials probe possible outbreak at Washington nursing home • The Washington Post

Katie Mettler, Alex Horton, Meryl Kornfield, Kim Bellware and Joel Achenbach:

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The novel coronavirus has probably been spreading undetected for about six weeks in Washington state, where the first U.S. death was reported this weekend. A genetic analysis suggests that the cases are linked through community transmission and that this has been going on for weeks, with hundreds of infections likely in the state.

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Weeks. Weeeeks. Weeeeeeeeks.
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Is this coronavirus ‘the big one’? • The New York Times

Nicholas Kristof:

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Another similarity with 1918 is that the United States and the world are unready for a pandemic.

“We’re amazingly unprepared,” Dr. Irwin Redlener, a Columbia University professor and director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness, told me.

President Trump exaggerates threats from caravans of migrants or from a hobbled Iran, and he has diverted billions of dollars from the military to build a border wall that smugglers hack apart with $100 saws. But he has not been attuned to pandemic threats: In 2018 the White House removed the position on the National Security Council to fight pandemics, while seeking to scale back anti-pandemic work to about 10 countries from 49. Experts warned at the time that this was dangerously shortsighted.

At a time when we need wise, scientifically informed leadership, we find ourselves with a president with little credibility and an antagonistic relationship with scientists. It doesn’t help that during the Ebola crisis of 2014, Trump was one of the most fiery critics of evidence-driven policies that actually succeeded in ending the outbreak.

The United States is also vulnerable because of longstanding deficiencies in our health care system. We are the only major rich country without universal health insurance and paid sick leave, and we have fewer doctors per capita than peer countries.

Consider a Florida man, Osmel Martinez Azcue, who returned from China and found himself becoming sick. As The Miami Herald reported, he might normally have gone to a drugstore and bought over-the-counter flu medicine. But because of the risk of coronavirus he did the responsible thing and sought medical attention: He went to a hospital for testing. In the end, it turned out not to be coronavirus — but he was billed $3,270.

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It’s a fabulous triple whammy: the incompetent president, who fired the competent people, in a country with a dysfunctional health system which works against keeping healthy.
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Worldwide smartphone market rebound on standby as Covid-19 outbreak limits short-term global outlook • IDC

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The global smartphone market recovery will be impacted in 2020 as uncertainties around COVID-19 increased over the last month. According to the latest forecast from the International Data Corporation (IDC) Worldwide Quarterly Mobile Phone Tracker, the worldwide smartphone market is expected to decline 2.3% in 2020 with shipment volume just over 1.3 billion. The COVID-19 outbreak is expected to stress the short-term scenario with shipments declining 10.6% year over year in the first half of 2020. Global smartphone shipments are expected to return to growth in 2021 driven by accelerated 5G efforts.

IDC has considered optimistic, probable, and pessimistic forecast scenarios driven by the uncertainties around COVID-19. Our current forecasts are aligned with the probable scenario, which ascribes a multi-quarter recovery for manufacturing and logistics given a more gradual return of Chinese workers to factories amidst persisting transportation challenges. China’s demand shock extends several quarters but is mitigated by the end of the year with the aid of government-backed stimuli and subsidies.

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Hmm. I wonder what will happen given that Japan is being hit hard, and that many smartphones depend on Sony for its camera components. You might be able to make all the rest of the smartphone, but if you’re waiting for camera assembly, then you’re making zero smartphones. Or else there will be a diversification away from Sony, but it remains to be seen how robust the rest of the supply chain is.
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Recycling plants are catching on fire, and lithium-ion batteries are to blame • The Verge

Jillian Mock:

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As lithium-ion batteries power more and more of our electronics, they are ending up in our recycling bins, and recycling plants are battling hundreds of battery-caused blazes. What we do with our batteries and electronics at the ends of their lives is fueling one of the biggest emerging problems in the world of waste.

“What keeps me awake at night are these,” Amy Adcox, general manager of Republic Services Plano business unit, says as she waggles her phone. “The electronics.”

She’s standing on a metal platform in the state-of-the-art processing plant in Plano that Republic Services rebuilt after the 2016 fire. Beneath her feet, a conveyor belt rises diagonally from the concrete floor where collection trucks dump their hauls in huge piles, up to the vast web of platforms, conveyor belts, and equipment that sort recyclable materials from the garbage.

Adcox’s smartphone, like virtually all smartphones, is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. These batteries are small and lightweight and store lots of power. They’re also everywhere. In 2017, the global lithium-ion battery market was valued at more than $30 billion; by 2025, it is projected to grow to more than $100 billion. Standing in that recycling plant, Adcox had at least two rechargeable batteries on her person: in her phone and smartwatch.

“I personally am a big fan of the technology. I think lithium-ion is transformational,” says Ronald Butler, a battery safety expert. But these batteries also have to be handled properly, he says. If they get damaged, overheat, or short-circuit, a rechargeable battery will have what’s called a thermal runaway event, producing heat internally and getting hotter and hotter until it begins to smoke and then burn. Other batteries, like the old-school alkaline triple As, might contaminate a load of recyclable material if they get crushed or damaged. Lithium, on the other hand, burns hot and will quickly catch fire or explode.

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Cortana in the upcoming Windows 10 release: focused on your productivity with enhanced security and privacy • Windows Experience Blog

Andrew Shuman is corporate vp for Cortana:

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As part of Cortana’s evolution into a personal productivity assistant in Microsoft 365, you’ll see some changes in how Cortana works in the latest version of Windows 10. We’ve tightened access to Cortana so that you must be securely logged in with your work or school account or your Microsoft account before using Cortana, and some consumer skills including music, connected home and third-party skills will no longer be available in the updated Cortana experience in Windows 10. We’re also making some changes to where Cortana helps you. As part of our standard practice, we are ending support for Cortana in older versions of Windows that have reached their end-of-service dates. We recommend that customers update their devices to the latest version of Windows 10 to continue using Cortana. We’ll also be turning off the Cortana services in the Microsoft Launcher on Android by the end of April.

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So unlike the trend with pretty much all the other personal assistants out there, they’re narrowing what it can do or interact with. This doesn’t feel like a promising trend for Cortana compared with what it once seemed to be aspiring to.
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Republican mega-donor buys stake in Twitter and seeks to oust Jack Dorsey – report • The Guardian

Martin Pengelly:

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Paul Singer, the billionaire founder of Elliott Management, is a Republican mega-donor who opposed Donald Trump during the real-estate magnate’s run for the presidential nomination but has since come onside.

After a White House visit in February 2017, Trump said Singer “was very much involved with the anti-Trump or, as they say, ‘Never Trump’, and Paul just left, and he’s given us his total support and it’s all about unification”.

Trump famously communicates with the public largely through Twitter, at the expense of traditional media strategy.

Twitter made headlines in October when it announced a ban on political advertising. Its use and potential manipulation by politicians of all stripes, from Trump to Democratic candidate Mike Bloomberg, remains a source of fierce contention.

Dorsey, a co-founder of Twitter, is also chief executive of Square, an online payment company. In November, he announced a plan to live and work in Africa for part of each year.

It was reported that those moves were motivations for Singer’s desire to push Dorsey out. Other stakeholders have voiced concern about Dorsey’s leadership and Twitter has seen its share price struggle, although it recently reported quarterly revenue above $1bn for the first time.

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State Department examination of Twitter found millions of coronavirus tweets pushed false information • The Washington Post

Tony Romm:

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Roughly 2 million tweets peddled conspiracy theories about the coronavirus over the three-week period when the outbreak began to spread outside China, according to an unreleased report from an arm of the State Department, raising fresh fears about Silicon Valley’s preparedness to combat a surge of dangerous disinformation online.

The wrongful, harmful posts floated a number of hoaxes — suggesting, for example, that the coronavirus had been created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or was the result of a bioweapon. These and other identified falsehoods represented 7% of the total tweets the government studied and were “potentially impactful on the broader social media conversation,” according to the report, which was obtained Saturday by The Washington Post.

The Global Engagement Center, the propaganda-fighting program at the State Department whose name appears on the document, said it focused its analysis on countries excluding the United States between Jan. 20 and Feb. 10, a period during which the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus an international health emergency. In total, the Global Engagement Center explored 29 million foreign posts, the report said.

Some of the misinformation exhibited “evidence of inauthentic and coordinated activity,” according to the report, raising the specter that foreign governments or other malicious actors may have deliberately tried to sow fear and discord about the international health emergency — much as Russian agents had done during the 2016 presidential election in the United States.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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