Start Up No.1267: US considers smartphone tracking, meet Mr ‘Invoice Barr’, Windows 10 passes 1 billion active, and more (coronavirus)


Will coronavirus make events like this – Times Square on New Year’s Eve – a forgotten idea? CC-licensed photo by Bill Larkin on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Wash your hands again. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Location data gathered by Facebook, Google, other tech companies could be used to battle coronavirus spread • The Washington Post

Tony Romm, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg :

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The U.S. government is in active talks with Facebook, Google and a wide array of tech companies and health experts about how they can use location data gleaned from Americans’ phones to combat novel coronavirus, including tracking whether people are keeping one another at safe distances to stem the outbreak.

Public-health experts are interested in the possibility that private-sector companies could compile the data in anonymous, aggregated form, which they could then use to map the spread of the infection, according to three people familiar with the effort, who requested anonymity because the project is in its early stages.

Analyzing trends in smartphone owners’ whereabouts could prove to be a powerful tool for health authorities looking to track coronavirus, which has infected more than 180,000 people globally. But it’s also an approach that could leave some Americans uncomfortable, depending on how it’s implemented, given the sensitivity when it comes to details of their daily whereabouts. Multiple sources stressed that -— if they proceed — they are not building a government database.

In recent interviews, Facebook executives said the U.S. government is particularly interested in understanding patterns of people’s movements, which can be derived through data the company collects from users who allow it. The tech giant in the past has provided this information to researchers in the form of statistics, which in the case of coronavirus, could help officials predict the next hotspot or decide where to allocate overstretched health resources.

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First China, then Iran, then Israel. This stuff creeps in, always just to help, then won’t get rolled back.
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‘Invoice Barr’ and the ‘second modification’: how article spinning works • Lead Stories

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Have you ever encountered an article that just seemed a little off? The structure of the article moves along normally, with sentences and paragraphs. But every once in a while, you stumble on a strange word or an idiom that seems out of place? Readers might assume that these articles were written by people who learned English as a second language or that someone made a typo. Sometimes, the strange words come along with such frequency, the reader can barely make sense of anything. They might assume that the article originated in another language and was translated to English by a computer program rather than a person.

These hard-to-read articles are typically the result of a process called “article spinning.” They were not composed by a writer struggling with English, but began as perfectly legible prose, and the stories were then modified (or mangled) with an automated plagiarism helper tool. It used to be that click-baiters limited the spinning to the body of the article, but recently, there has been a trend to include the headlines as well.

Things get really confusing when the article spinner substitutes other words for people’s names. This spun article reposted by TECHLABS.CLUB was taken from NewsThud. The word “invoice” has been showing up in many recent headlines replacing the word or name, Bill. Here’s another. This one, as the photo’s watermark attests, was lifted from the ALLOD network. Smileings.com, one of the fly-by-night clickbait sites from Pakistan, first appeared with links on Facebook on February 18, 2020.

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Hilarious, if it weren’t so desperate and unsettling. People click on this stuff.
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A critical internet safeguard is running out of time • WIRED

Lily Hay Newman:

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Shadowserver scans more than 4 billion IP addresses—almost the entire public internet—every day and puts together activity reports based on the findings for more than 4,600 network operators, as well as the national computer security incident response teams of 107 countries. Shadowserver also hosts a repository of 1.2 billion malware samples, similar to Google’s VirusTotal, that’s freely accessible. In all, the organization hosts more than 11.6 petabytes of threat intelligence and malware-related data. But all of that is just for starters.

The real ghost-escape potential comes from the fact that Shadowserver doesn’t just monitor incidents, it also actively works to contain them. The organization has a vast “honeypot” and “sinkholing” infrastructure. The former lures attackers and records details about them, while the latter diverts malicious traffic into a sort of digital black hole and away from its intended target.

Shadowserver says it sinkholes up to 5 million IP addresses per day, neutralizing malicious firehoses of data that would otherwise spew from botnets and disruptive malware. More than four years after researchers exposed the iOS and macOS malware known as XcodeGhost, for example, Shadowserver still has more than half a million devices connecting to its sinkhole in an attempt to talk to the malware’s command and control infrastructure. The organization also runs what it calls a “registrar of last resort,” which takes control of malicious domain names to disrupt criminal infrastructure, so malware can’t phone home to follow a hacker’s commands.

On top of all of this, Shadowserver collaborates very actively with law enforcement groups all over the world to use its own infrastructure and expertise in massive coordinated operations. In recent years, for example, Shadowserver participated in 2016’s Avalanche takedown and 2019’s Goznym takedown. The organization says its goal is always to help law enforcement make arrests and remediate damage to victims.

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Funded by Cisco for 15 years; now the funding is being cut. Needs about $400k in the next few weeks; $1.7m after that to survive the year. Seems like some internet billionaire could find that.
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Facebook plans $1,000 bonuses to help employees during coronavirus crisis • The Information

Jessica Toonkel and Alex Heath:

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Facebook will pay a $1,000 bonus to every employee, one of the first big companies to offer workers cash to help them during the coronavirus outbreak. It follows a similar move by enterprise software firm Workday on Monday.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made the announcement early Tuesday in an internal company notice, saying that the company wants to support employees working remotely because of the pandemic, said two people familiar with the matter.

The company, which employed nearly 45,000 full-time employees at the end of last year, also said it would give all employees an “exceeds” rating for their first six-month review of 2020. That means all full-time employees also could earn significant bonuses for the period, the people said. In 2019, the median compensation for Facebook employees was $228,651.

…Facebook on Tuesday also announced in a blog post that it is offering $100 million in cash grants and ad credits to small businesses to help them during the pandemic. Up to 30,000 small businesses around the world will be eligible for the grants and ad credits, the company said.

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SoftBank-owned patent troll, using monkey selfie law firm, sues to block Covid-19 testing, using Theranos patents • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

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Irell & Manella has now filed one of the most utterly bullshit patent infringement lawsuits you’ll ever see. They are representing “Labrador Diagnostics LLC” a patent troll which does not seem to exist other than to file this lawsuit, and which claims to hold the rights to two patents (US Patents 8,283,155 and 10,533,994) which, you’ll note, were originally granted to Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos — the firm that shut down in scandal over medical testing equipment that appears to have been oversold and never actually worked. Holmes is still facing federal charges of wire fraud over the whole Theranos debacle.

However, back in 2018, the remains of Theranos sold its patents to Fortress Investment Group. Fortress Investment Group is a SoftBank-funded massive patent troll. You may remember the name from the time last fall when Apple and Intel sued the firm, laying out how Fortress is a sort of uber-patent troll, gathering up a bunch of patents and then shaking down basically everyone. Lovely, right?

So, this SoftBank-owned patent troll, Fortress, bought up Theranos patents, and then set up this shell company, “Labrador Diagnostics,” which decided that right in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic it was going to sue one of the companies making Covid-19 tests, saying that its test violates those Theranos patents, and literally demanding that the court bar the firm from making those Covid-19 tests.

A bit more background here: the company they’re suing, BioFire, recently launched three Covid-19 tests built off of the company’s FilmArray technology. And that’s what “Labrador” (read: SoftBank) is now suing over.

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It’s like a game of Consequences, written by a lunatic.
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We’re not going back to normal • MIT Technology Review

Gideon Lichfield, on the implications of the Imperial College paper which has persuaded the US and UK governments to radically alter their plans about social distancing:

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This isn’t a temporary disruption. It’s the start of a completely different way of life.

In the short term, this will be hugely damaging to businesses that rely on people coming together in large numbers: restaurants, cafes, bars, nightclubs, gyms, hotels, theaters, cinemas, art galleries, shopping malls, craft fairs, museums, musicians and other performers, sporting venues (and sports teams), conference venues (and conference producers), cruise lines, airlines, public transportation, private schools, day-care centers. That’s to say nothing of the stresses on parents thrust into home-schooling their kids, people trying to care for elderly relatives without exposing them to the virus, people trapped in abusive relationships, and anyone without a financial cushion to deal with swings in income.

There’ll be some adaptation, of course: gyms could start selling home equipment and online training sessions, for example. We’ll see an explosion of new services in what’s already been dubbed the “shut-in economy.” One can also wax hopeful about the way some habits might change—less carbon-burning travel, more local supply chains, more walking and biking.

But the disruption to many, many businesses and livelihoods will be impossible to manage. And the shut-in lifestyle just isn’t sustainable for such long periods.

So how can we live in this new world? Part of the answer—hopefully—will be better healthcare systems, with pandemic response units that can move quickly to identify and contain outbreaks before they start to spread, and the ability to quickly ramp up production of medical equipment, testing kits, and drugs. Those will be too late to stop Covid-19, but they’ll help with future pandemics.

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We have barely begun to comprehend the extent of this. For years our healthcare systems have been run closer and closer to the margins, because we thought a pandemic, while possible, just wouldn’t have that big an effect; that it would look like the flu, not a totally novel virus.
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Meeting virtually is the new reality • The Star

Arthur Cockfield:

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In the shorter term, a remote society promotes greater use of more mundane videoconferencing technologies like Skype, Zoom, WebX and GoToMeeting. For teachers, these technologies form part of “learning management systems” that allow for live or taped lectures. They can also be used for online meetings.

A few years ago, I chaired a committee that reviewed a large-scale research project at the University of Montreal. The whole thing took place online via Skype with forty participants scattered about the world. Everything ran seamlessly. And there was a bonus: because only my head was visible on everyone’s computer screens, I was able to type tricky French sentences into Google Translate without anyone noticing.

Beyond scary viruses, international travellers also increasingly question the value of travelling due to carbon emissions from jet fuel. Governments, schools and workplaces may additionally embrace a remote society to promote cost-savings.

Once we learn to live in a remote society, there may be no going back.

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Covid-19: ibuprofen should not be used for managing symptoms, say doctors and scientists • The BMJ

Michael Day:

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Scientists and senior doctors have backed claims by France’s health minister that people showing symptoms of covid-19 should use paracetamol (acetaminophen) rather than ibuprofen, a drug they said might exacerbate the condition.

The minister, Oliver Veran, tweeted on Saturday 14 March that people with suspected covid-19 should avoid anti-inflammatory drugs. “Taking anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen, cortisone . . .) could be an aggravating factor for the infection. If you have a fever, take paracetamol,” he said.

His comments seem to have stemmed in part from remarks attributed to an infectious diseases doctor in south west France. She was reported to have cited four cases of young patients with covid-19 and no underlying health problems who went on to develop serious symptoms after using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) in the early stage of their symptoms. The hospital posted a comment saying that public discussion of individual cases was inappropriate.

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Just so you know. If you’re actually able to find any paracetamol.
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Sonos will release a new app and operating system for its speakers in June • The Verge

Chris Welch:

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Switching to a new OS will result in expanded capabilities, according to Sonos. Sonos S2 will allow for higher-resolution audio, whereas right now the company’s speakers are limited to CD-quality lossless audio. The revamped software underpinnings could let Sonos go hi-fi in the same way as Amazon’s Echo Studio. It could also finally result in Sonos adopting Dolby Atmos for home theatre sound in the next Playbar, Playbase, or Beam.

Sonos S2 will also allow for usability enhancements (there will be improved room groups functionality in June) and “more connected and personal experiences,” according to the company. There aren’t many details on the latter just yet, but in past conversations with Sonos employees, they’ve hinted at a future in which your Sonos speakers might automatically start playing a certain playlist or podcast when you arrive home (or wake up in the morning) based on your listening patterns…

This forward-looking plan requires making a break from legacy Sonos products. The company has said that these devices will no longer receive new features as of May since they lack the necessary processing power, though they’ll still get bug fixes and security patches. “We will work with our partners to keep your music and voice services working for as long as we can,” Sonos reiterated today.

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Legacy products: the original Sonos Play:5, Zone Players, and Connect / Connect:Amp devices manufactured between 2011 and 2015. A mixed network will only be able to be controlled on the “old” app, which will be renamed S1.

I’ve never felt the need for higher-resolution audio from Sonos, but can believe that being able to put Atmos on the box is an important marketing thing.
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Windows 10 surpasses 1 billion monthly active devices worldwide • Windows Central

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Microsoft has today announced that Windows 10 is now in use on over one billion devices across the globe, finally hitting a milestone that it has been striving to achieve ever since Windows 10 first launched back in 2015. Initially, the company wanted to reach a billion devices by 2017, but the death of Windows Phone and the fact that many Windows 7 users didn’t take the free upgrade to Windows 10 meant it was unable to reach that goal.

Windows 10 is the number one desktop platform in the world, and has been for some time. It’s in use on more devices than Windows 7, which is estimated to have around 300 million users still using it, even after support has ended. Users across 200 different countries are using Windows 10 today on PCs, IoT, HoloLens, Xbox, and Server…

There are over 80,000 different models and configurations of laptops and 2-in-1’s that run Windows 10, from over 1,000 different PC manufacturers ranging from Dell to Chuwi…

Even with a billion devices, Microsoft has had trouble getting developers to build apps using its modern app platform exclusive to Windows 10. Now that Windows 7 is out of support, and Windows 10 has hit a billion, perhaps that will change over the next decade.

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I doubt it will change significantly unless some sort of AR- or VR-enabled desktop becomes hugely important. The odds of that happening have shortened dramatically, though.
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Top five notebook vendors see shipments plunge in February • Digitimes Research

Jim Hsaio:

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Global top-five notebook brands saw their combined shipments nosedive nearly 40% on month and 38% on year in February as the notebook supply chain, which has over 90% of production capacity in China, was seriously disrupted in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, according to Digitimes Research.

Among the global top-5 brands, only Dell and Lenovo shipped over one million notebooks in February. Dell, which had its ODM partners keep some workers at plants to work during the Lunar New Year holidays, had an on-month shipment decline only larger than those of Lenovo and Asustek, and was the largest brand worldwide for the second consecutive month in February, Digitimes Research’s numbers show.

Lenovo’s in-house production lines in Hefei achieved a production resumption rate of nearly 60% in February, allowing its shipment to be above par.

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Then again, might be an abrupt pull in demand in the west with everyone suddenly working from home.
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How epidemiologists understand the novel coronavirus • The New Yorker

Isaac Chotiner (whose telephone interviews are the most probing you’ll ever read) talking to Justin Lessler of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health :

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JL: I don’t think we have a great sense of exactly why children are not getting sick. We have some good ideas of why older adults may be dying at higher rates than younger adults and children. But why children may not be getting sick at all or getting seriously enough ill to ever show up in the data is a little less clear.

IC: Are there theories for why this is the case with older adults?

JL: In terms of the older adults, I think there are three main theories. The first is that one of the receptors involved in this virus is also associated with cardiovascular disease, and that it might be exacerbating cardiovascular disease, which tends to be very present in older adults. A second is that older adults are just more frail, and that the populations that have been impacted have a high concentration of frailty. We will have a sense of how true that is as the disease enters populations where frailty is more evenly distributed across the population. But I think people think it’s a little more than that. A third theory is that it could be some sort of immunological priming. The idea is that somehow people above a certain age have been exposed to a version of coronavirus early in their lives that somehow immunologically primed them to have a more severe reaction to the current virus. I think evidence is still unclear around those theories, but they may be starting to form around one or the other.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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