Start Up No.1261: Sensor Tower’s VPN data grab, Apple Watch to aim at kids, Twitter averts Dorseypocalypse, Google finds fish faces, and more


Guess where the big growth is in the music instrument business. CC-licensed photo by steve_cx on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Now wash your hands, using your face. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Sensor Tower secretly owns ad blocker and VPN apps that collect user data • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

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Sensor Tower, a popular analytics platform for tech developers and investors, has been secretly collecting data from millions of people who have installed popular VPN and ad-blocking apps for Android and iOS, a BuzzFeed News investigation has found. These apps, which don’t disclose their connection to the company or reveal that they feed user data to Sensor Tower’s products, have more than 35 million downloads.

Since 2015, Sensor Tower has owned at least 20 Android and iOS apps. Four of these — Free and Unlimited VPN, Luna VPN, Mobile Data, and Adblock Focus — were recently available in the Google Play store. Adblock Focus and Luna VPN were in Apple’s App Store. Apple removed Adblock Focus and Google removed Mobile Data after being contacted by BuzzFeed News. The companies said they continue to investigate.

Once installed, Sensor Tower’s apps prompt users to install a root certificate, a small file that lets its issuer access all traffic and data passing through a phone. The company told BuzzFeed News it only collects anonymized usage and analytics data, which is integrated into its products. Sensor Tower’s app intelligence platform is used by developers, venture capitalists, publishers, and others to track the popularity, usage trends, and revenue of apps.

Armando Orozco, an Android analyst for Malwarebytes, said giving root privileges to an app exposes a user to significant risk.

“Your typical user is going to go through this and think, Oh, I‘m blocking ads, and not really be aware of how invasive this could be,” he said.

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The advertising around VPNs is so deceptive. For the vast majority of users, there’s no risk in using public Wi-Fi. This story demonstrates that using a VPN might be more risky.
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Apple Watch Series 6 and watchOS 7 to include ‘Infograph Pro’ with tachymeter, Schooltime and kids mode, sleep tracking, more • 9to5Mac

Zac Hall:

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9to5Mac exclusively reported over the weekend that Apple Watch will gain the ability to detect blood oxygen saturation, a critical vital for maintaining heart and brain health. The new health feature isn’t the only change coming to Apple Watch Series 6 and watchOS 7…

…Apple appears to be developing the ability to set up and manage Apple Watches for kids using a parent’s iPhone. A single iPhone can already activate and pair with multiple Apple Watches, but only one watch can be used at a time and each watch is tied to the same account as the iPhone.

Under the new model, a parent could activate and manage an Apple Watch for a child without requiring a second iPhone. This method will also offer parental controls including managing trust contacts and available music.

Apple Watch parental controls go even further in iOS 14 and watchOS 7. A new feature called Schooltime will allow parents to manage which apps and complications can be used during certain hours like class time.

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Smart move to aim to get the kids connected. Of course they’ll have figured out that you don’t want to pass on the parent’s messages to the kids.
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Twitter reaches deal with activist fund that wanted Jack Dorsey out • The New York Times

Kate Conger and Michael de la Merced:

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Twitter said on Monday that it had reached a deal with Elliott Management, the activist investor that called for ousting the social media company’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey.

The agreement will keep Mr. Dorsey atop Twitter — at least for now — at a crucial time for the social network. It also avoids a potentially costly fight with Elliott, the $40bn hedge fund that has successfully shaken up many corporate boardrooms.

It also brings on board Silver Lake, one of Silicon Valley’s biggest investors in technology companies. Silver Lake agreed to invest $1bn in Twitter, money that would help finance the buyback of $2bn worth of stock.

As part of the agreement, both Egon Durban, Silver Lake’s co-chief executive, and Jesse Cohn, the Elliott executive who oversaw the Twitter campaign, will take seats on Twitter’s board. The board will search for a third independent director, with an emphasis on finding an expert in artificial intelligence and other technologies…

…But the settlement also lays the groundwork for eventually replacing Mr. Dorsey. Twitter agreed to create a new committee of five directors, including Mr. Durban and Mr. Cohn, that would study the company’s succession planning and leadership structure and recommend any changes by the end of the year.

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Timed it perfectly for a buyback, then. Among the aims: grow “monetizable daily active users” by 20% or more. Gulp. But neither of the hedge funds may “comment on or influence, or attempt to influence, directly or indirectly, any Twitter policies or rules, or policy or rule enforcement decisions, related to the Twitter platform.”
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The music industry’s smash hit: heavy metal sounds from tiny metal boxes • WSJ

Ryan Dezember:

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The pedals have earned the Akron, Ohio, company a passionate following among musicians, as well as applause from the federal government. Earthquaker Devices was named the U.S. Small Business Administration’s 2019 exporter of the year.

Guitar pedals have been a bright spot in the music business. Gibson Brands and Guitar Center Holdings—a storied guitar maker and a ubiquitous retailer, respectively—have struggled with debt and weak sales. Sales of effects pedals were $125.5m in 2019, double what they were a decade earlier, according to Music Trades magazine.

Like craft-brewed beers, the pedals are produced by an eclectic mix of small and large makers. Buyers include pro musicians, weekend amateurs and stay-at-home guitar nerds. Like beer, one pedal usually leads to another.

“There are guys I know that have 60 overdrive pedals,” said Justin Norvell, executive vice president of products at Fender Instruments Corp., maker of the iconic Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars.

Some musicians string together a dozen or more effects pedals when they play. Mr. Stillman used 17 pedals, plus a tuner. The most popular pedals replicate the sustain and gritty texture of a vacuum-tube amp turned up to 10. Others make a guitar sound like an organ or replicate particular amps.

Avant-garde New York groups Uniform and Show Me the Body use so many pedals that they are arranged on tables and manipulated by hand as instruments. In many bands, including Mr. Stillman’s Relaxer, guitarists do a lot of toe-tapping and mid-song squatting to twist knobs for fine-tuning.

Fender CEO Andy Mooney was backstage at a U2 concert in 2017 and noticed the Irish rock group’s guitarist, The Edge, had 21 guitars, four amplifiers and too many effects pedals to count. Maybe 150 of them, he said.

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If you want to see someone demonstrating what can be done with effects pedals, Steve Bullock will take you through it. (It does also call to mind Bill Bailey’s sketch about what U2’s music would sound like without effects pedals.)
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Pro-Trump climate denial group lays off staff amid financial woes, ex-employees say • HuffPost UK

Alexander Kaufman:

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The Illinois-based Heartland Institute ― which captured headlines last month for promoting a German teenager with ties to neo-Nazis as the climate denier’s alternative to acclaimed youth activist Greta Thunberg ― pink-slipped at least 10 staffers Friday, shedding what one former employee described as “more than half” the organization’s staff.

“Heartland is broke,” Nikki Comerford, the nonprofit’s events coordinator on staff for nearly 21 years, told a former colleague in a text message, a screenshot of which HuffPost reviewed.

Comerford blamed Frank Lasée, the former Wisconsin Republican state lawmaker who took over as Heartland’s president last July, for squandering the organization’s budget during his nascent tenure and leaving the group in dire financial straits. Another former employee accused Lasée of mismanaging the budget, and private Facebook posts from other current staffers expressed dismay over the state of the organization, but HuffPost could not independently verify the state of Heartland’s finances because the nonprofit’s tax filings for 2019 are not yet due.

“Frank Lasee spent all of our money in six months including the savings,” she wrote in a text. “They had to lay off more than half the staff today and more coming. What an asshole.”

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So treating an important but finite resource as though it’s infinite has bad effects in the medium-to-long term? I feel as though there might be an underlying lesson here for the staff and former staff at the Heartland Institute, if only they were able to tease it out.
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Even mask-wearers can be ID’d, China facial recognition firm says • Reuters

Martin Pollard:

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Hanwang Technology Ltd, which also goes by the English name Hanvon, said it has come up technology that can successfully recognize people even when they are wearing masks.

“If connected to a temperature sensor, it can measure body temperature while identifying the person’s name, and then the system would process the result, say, if it detects a temperature over 38 degrees,” Hanwang Vice President Huang Lei told Reuters in an interview.

The Beijing-based firm said a team of 20 staff used core technology developed over the past 10 years, a sample database of about 6 million unmasked faces and a much smaller database of masked faces, to develop the technology,

The team began work on the system in January, as the coronavirus outbreak gathered pace, and began rolling it out to the market after just a month.

It sells two main types of products that use the technology. One performs “single channel” recognition that is best used at, for example, entrances to office buildings.

The other, more powerful, product is a “multi-channel” recognition system that uses “multiple surveillance cameras”.

It can identify everyone in a crowd of up to 30 people “within a second”, Huang says.

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Time between this getting tested, and it being used against Hong Kong protesters…
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Google parent Alphabet invents fish recognition system • Financial Times

Tim Bradshaw and Leslie Hook:

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The three-year-old project, dubbed Tidal, is working with farms in Europe and Asia. It pairs underwater cameras with AI techniques such as computer vision to track species including salmon and yellowtail. 

The hope, according to Astro Teller, the director of X, is to reduce the world’s dependence on land-based proteins, such as beef, and to free the oceans from damaging fishing practices. 

“The oceans are falling apart thanks to us, thanks to humanity. So something has to change,” he said, discussing Tidal publicly for the first time. “No more [eating] fish isn’t really on the cards any time soon. What can we do to make it as good for the planet as possible?”

Grace Young, a research engineer on Tidal, added: “Developing technology for the underwater environment is really hard: it’s dark, it’s cold, it’s unforgiving, saltwater kills electronics, the pressure is crushing, the temperature can shift from above boiling to below freezing in a matter of metres.” 

The team of around a dozen X staff had to build a fresh data set of fish to train its algorithms, initially by filming in a paddling pool at its Silicon Valley headquarters. Its stereo camera rig, which is lowered into a farming enclosure, is able to track fish through their development, using their particular shapes and movements. 

“Some of these signals are happening in milliseconds,” said Neil Davé, who leads the Tidal project. “You’d be unable to see it with the human eye.”

Data and insights collected from Tidal’s system are sent to farmers to help them optimise feeding, reduce waste and maintain healthy fish, in the hopes of easing some environmentalists’ concerns about overuse of antibiotics. 

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But of course you’d have Leslie Hook writing your story about fish recognition.
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This neural net knows what smells good • AI Weirdness

Janelle Shane:

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Last week I trained a neural net on 1000 candles, and soon it was producing scents like Frozen Styrofoam, Volcanoes Comfort, Lemon Lime Decay, and Friendly Wetsuit. We have to just imagine what these would smell like (or in some cases, try not to imagine). But what if the neural net could describe them?

Amy Pollien offered to help out, developing a web scraping tool that could browse candle sites and collect the candle names and descriptions. After just 72 descriptions, though, she had to admit defeat. “The tool can’t tell the difference between the product description and hordes of enthused human users gushing about how “the scent of seagulls takes them back to fantasies of fresh wash hanging on the line” and I guess I’m OK with how I couldn’t anticipate that.”

I trained GPT-2 on this ridiculously tiny list of candle descriptions, but let it learn for only a few seconds before halting – if I let it go longer, it might memorize the examples. I didn’t expect much of a neural net trained under these circumstances, but when I asked it to generate text, I got things that – well, they WERE candle descriptions.

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After seeing this, I don’t know why they still bother with human copywriters.
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Huawei projects big drop in smartphone sales amid US sanctions • The Information

Juro Osawa:

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Huawei is projecting that its annual smartphone shipments will fall around 20% this year, in what would be its first year-on-year decline, as a result of US sanctions on its business. The rapidly spreading coronavirus, which has hurt manufacturing and retail sectors in China, could worsen that outlook.

Huawei shared its internal projection for 2020 in January among a limited number of managers in its consumer electronics division. The projection hasn’t previously been reported. The decline in Huawei’s shipments, after nearly a decade of rapid growth, stems from expected weak sales in Europe and other overseas markets. This decrease is a result of US sanctions that block the Chinese company from using Google’s mobile services, people familiar with the matter said. 

Last year, Huawei managed to grow its smartphone shipments to more than 240m units, despite the US sanctions put in place in May. As a result, it surpassed Apple, which shipped 198m phones, for the first time. That made Huawei the world’s second-largest smartphone maker after Samsung.

Huawei’s overseas smartphone sales didn’t collapse last year in part because the company could keep selling some of its old models that the Google ban didn’t affect. But this year, Huawei expects its shipments to fall to around 190m to 200m smartphones, according to these people. It’s hard to predict how many smartphones Apple will ship this year, as the virus has disrupted manufacturing of the iPhone, the company has said.

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The ban on Google services really bit hard outside China at the end of last year, but it had China to keep it going. Now coronavirus has double-decimated sales there, and the rest of the world isn’t helping either.

My initial reaction was that Samsung will be the winner, but Covid-19 is hitting South Korea hard, so maybe not. Have to wonder how some of the smaller OEMs will fare in the cashflow squeeze they’re sure to feel: sales will be down, but when demand ramps up they might not have the product (or cash on hand) to meet it.
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Personal perspective on coronavirus: reflections from an angry Wuhan resident : goats and soda • NPR

Anonymous (you’ll understand why):

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The younger generations, born after 1995 and in the 2000s, have good impressions about the Chinese system, putting the nation before all because they have been living in an era of prosperity and have yet to experience adversity.

The things that happened during this outbreak have greatly surprised those kids. For example, a young man scolded others on Weibo in the early days of the outbreak. He accused them of spreading rumors and argued that if we don’t trust the government, there is nothing we can trust. Later, he said, when a member of his family was infected with the coronavirus but was unable to get treatment in the overcrowded hospital, he cursed and called for help.

When Li Wenliang, one of the doctors who first reported a mysterious SARS-like illness, died of the disease himself, a student commented on the internet: “It was just the virus that killed him, so we should focus on the epidemics.” But then the student’s dormitory was appropriated for quarantine patients — and he was shocked and dismayed.

This is the lesson these young people are learning. When someone says we can accomplish something but we must pay a price, do not rush to applaud.

One day you may become the price that is paid.

There is a saying in Chinese that has taken on new meaning in this coronavirus era: “When the stick hits my own head, I finally understand the pain — and why some others once cried out of pain.”

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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