Start Up No.1277: Zoom get clobbered (but doesn’t care), consumers doubt personal data benefit, Apple buys Dark Sky, Covid-19 forecasts by US state, and more


what sort of SF novel are we really living through? The author of ‘Arrival’ can explain. CC-licensed photo by Patricia Wong 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.

Ted Chiang explains the disaster novel we all suddenly live in • Electric Literature

Halimah Marcus interviews science fiction writer Chiang, whose short story became the film Arrival:

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HM: Do you see aspects of science fiction (your own work or others) in the coronavirus pandemic? In how it is being handled, or how it has spread?

TC: While there has been plenty of fiction written about pandemics, I think the biggest difference between those scenarios and our reality is how poorly our government has handled it. If your goal is to dramatize the threat posed by an unknown virus, there’s no advantage in depicting the officials responding as incompetent, because that minimizes the threat; it leads the reader to conclude that the virus wouldn’t be dangerous if competent people were on the job. A pandemic story like that would be similar to what’s known as an “idiot plot,” a plot that would be resolved very quickly if your protagonist weren’t an idiot. What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also—and perhaps mostly—a grotesque political satire.

What we’re living through is only partly a disaster novel; it’s also—and perhaps mostly—a grotesque political satire.

HM: This pandemic isn’t science fiction, but it does feel like a dystopia. How can we understand the coronavirus as a cautionary tale? How can we combat our own personal inclinations toward the good/evil narrative, and the subsequent expectation that everything will return to normal?

TC: We need to be specific about what we mean when we talk about things returning to normal. We all want not to be quarantined, to be able to go to work and socialize and travel. But we don’t want everything to go back to business as usual, because business as usual is what led us to this crisis. COVID-19 has demonstrated how much we need federally mandated paid sick leave and universal health care, so we don’t want to return to a status quo that lacks those things. The current administration’s response ought to serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of electing demagogues instead of real leaders, although there’s no guarantee that voters will heed it. We’re at a point where things could go in some very different ways, depending on what we learn from this experience.

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Zoom meetings aren’t end-to-end encrypted, despite misleading marketing • The Intercept

Micah Lee and Yael Grauer:

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In Zoom’s white paper, there is a list of “pre-meeting security capabilities” that are available to the meeting host that starts with “Enable an end-to-end (E2E) encrypted meeting.” Later in the white paper, it lists “Secure a meeting with E2E encryption” as an “in-meeting security capability” that’s available to meeting hosts. When a host starts a meeting with the “Require Encryption for 3rd Party Endpoints” setting enabled, participants see a green padlock that says, “Zoom is using an end to end encrypted connection” when they mouse over it.

But when reached for comment about whether video meetings are actually end-to-end encrypted, a Zoom spokesperson wrote, “Currently, it is not possible to enable E2E encryption for Zoom video meetings. Zoom video meetings use a combination of TCP and UDP. TCP connections are made using TLS and UDP connections are encrypted with AES using a key negotiated over a TLS connection.”

The encryption that Zoom uses to protect meetings is TLS, the same technology that web servers use to secure HTTPS websites. This means that the connection between the Zoom app running on a user’s computer or phone and Zoom’s server is encrypted in the same way the connection between your web browser and this article (on https://theintercept.com) is encrypted. This is known as transport encryption, which is different from end-to-end encryption because the Zoom service itself can access the unencrypted video and audio content of Zoom meetings. So when you have a Zoom meeting, the video and audio content will stay private from anyone spying on your Wi-Fi, but it won’t stay private from the company.

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Everyone is crawling over Zoom in a way it never would have expected; years of technical debt are being exposed in days.
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Zoom is leaking peoples’ email addresses and photos to strangers • VICE

Joseph Cox:

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The issue lies in Zoom’s “Company Directory” setting, which automatically adds other people to a user’s lists of contacts if they signed up with an email address that shares the same domain. This can make it easier to find a specific colleague to call when the domain belongs to an individual company. But multiple Zoom users say they signed up with personal email addresses, and Zoom pooled them together with thousands of other people as if they all worked for the same company, exposing their personal information to one another.

“I was shocked by this! I subscribed (with an alias, fortunately) and I saw 995 people unknown to me with their names, images and mail addresses.” Barend Gehrels, a Zoom user impacted by the issue and who flagged it to Motherboard, wrote in an email.

Gehrels provided a redacted screenshot of him logged into Zoom with the nearly 1000 different accounts listed in the “Company Directory” section. He said these were “all people I don’t know of course.” He said his partner had the same issue with another email provider, and had over 300 people listed in her own contacts.

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Zoom is basically getting publicly red-teamed (attacked by hackers trying to break into every aspect of it). Mistakes like this though make you wonder how it can have pretended to be an enterprise offering.
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Zoom videoconferencing is very popular. It has bigger plans • Protocol

David Pierce with an oh-my-god-how-timely piece (which must have been researched just before everything got locked down):

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As the company got ready for its IPO roadshow last year, [cofounder Eric] Yuan made a decision: He wasn’t going on the roadshow. (Yuan said this, too, was hairier than it seems in retrospect: “Not only did I scare people, I even scared our board of directors.”) He did most of his investor meetings through Zoom, bringing in other employees to do virtual demos and betting the product would work well enough to convince the bankers. It did. Though it probably also helped Zoom’s case that it was the rare tech company that was both growing fast and already profitable.

Fast-forward a few months — more growth, rising stock — and here we are. There have been a few blips along the way, like last spring, when a security researcher found an issue in Zoom’s Mac app that would let any website add a user to a Zoom call and activate their camera without permission. The problem even affected users who had uninstalled Zoom from their computer, forcing Apple to release a patch to fix it. It was a core test of Zoom’s relentless focus on simplicity — the same feature that made it possible to click a link and suddenly be in a conference also made the system penetrable. Ultimately, Zoom tweaked the way it handled permissions and uninstalls going forward. And then kept growing.

Right now, Zoom is big, it’s profitable, and it’s growing like crazy. It cracked Okta’s list of the 15 most-used business tools in 2019, while also being one of the fastest-growing. According to one estimate, the company added more users in the first two months of 2020 than in all of 2019. In early March, it reported 61% more business customers than the year prior, with revenue up 88% year-over-year. More than 10 million people join a Zoom meeting every day. And, of course, the coronavirus bump has been significant: CFO Kelly Steckelberg recently told Yahoo Finance that at the end of January, Zoom was headed for 100 billion annual meeting minutes, “and that’s up pretty significantly since then.” For the last several days, it’s supplanted TikTok as the #1 free app in the iOS App Store.

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The challenge will be whether it wants to be business-facing or consumer-facing. They bring different demands: businesses want true security. Consumers aren’t that bothered; they like ease of use.
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Consumers don’t believe use of personal data leads to more relevant ads, report finds • Campaign US

Michael Heusner:

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While the use of consumer data is a widespread advertising and marketing tactic, the majority of people are still not okay with it and don’t believe it benefits them, according to a new GroupM report. 

The survey of nearly 14,000 middle income consumers in 23 countries found 61% of consumers are less inclined to use a product if their personal data is used for any purpose, while 56% of consumers want more control over their data.

“It is a staple of the advertising industry to claim that data collection benefits consumers because they are shown ads of greater relevance to them. In our study, only 18% of consumers believe that,” said Chris Myers, regional director, GroupM APAC.

But consumers are not powerless in this scenario. Many consumers are actively changing what they don’t like by adjusting privacy settings, deleting cookies and browser histories, and using extensions to mask their data.

Interestingly, the percentage of those who were okay with their data being used varied from as low as 38% in Indonesia to 75% in New Zealand, indicating a lack of uniformity on the issue across the world.

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I’m sure all the adtech companies will listen to this finding very, very carefully.
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What’s the smallest country that can fit everyone standing six feet apart? • Shrey Banga’s Blog

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Today’s xkcd got me wondering how much land would we need if everyone stood six feet apart.

Methodology: We are all but spherical cows

If we want everyone to keep a minimum distance of r from each other, the problem boils down to efficiently packing n circles of radius r in the smallest area possible.

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Have a guess. We’re talking about 7.77 billion people. (Clue: the most suitable two countries are both in Europe.) This is of course an update of British SF writer John Brunner’s postulation in 1968 that by 2010 the world population, then 3.5bn, would have grown to 7bn – he was correct, of course – and that you could fit them in standing-room-only fashion on Zanzibar.
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Kenyans spending most of their money on airtime • Kenya News Broadcast Service

Dominic Omondi:

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Airtime is now the single item that takes up the most income for Kenyans.

This is after the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) reviewed its Consumer Price Index (CPI).

After the review of the basket of goods and services used to compile CPI, KNBS gave airtime a weight of 5.496, the largest of any single consumer product.

Kenyans are putting more of their money in airtime than even rent, which had the heaviest weight three years ago from 2019. Kenyans, according to the review, are also spending more on airtime than on health or education.

Matatu fares and rent for a single room are the second and third consumer items respectively. Other expensive items that take a lot of money include white bread, milk, and beef with bones…

…Today, airtime is a need that most Kenyans can’t do without. Bitange Ndemo, a former Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of ICT and currently a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi, in an earlier interview, said airtime was no longer a luxury.

If anything, he observed, it was a matter of “life and death” for some individuals. “Airtime is so critical,” says Prof Ndemo. “Some people are using the airtime to call so they can find a kibarua (menial work).”

Between July 2016 and June last year, Kenyans spent a total of 75 billion minutes talking on their mobile phones, or 143,086 years. They sent a total of 55.2 billion SMSs during this period, according to the Communications Authority of Kenya.

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Dark Sky has a new home • Dark Sky

Adam Grossman:

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What happens to our existing products?

iOS App: There will be no changes to Dark Sky for iOS at this time. It will continue to be available for purchase in the App Store.

Android and Wear OS App: The app will no longer be available for download. Service to existing users and subscribers will continue until July 1, 2020, at which point the app will be shut down. Subscribers who are still active at that time will receive a refund.

Website: Weather forecasts, maps, and embeds will continue until July 1, 2020. The website will remain active beyond that time in support of API and iOS App customers.

API: Our API service for existing customers is not changing today, but we will no longer accept new signups. The API will continue to function through the end of 2021.

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Started, I believe, as a two-person $35,000 Kickstarter in October 2011. Always been terrific. There’s lots of chest-beating (especially among Android users) because lots of apps, on iOS and Android, use the API. They’ve got another 18 months, though, and there are other sources of weather data. It’s not clear whether Apple will make the data available after 2021; I’d guess not. Best guess, it gets rolled into iOS and Siri.

This does look like a late-stage consolidation: Apple and Google and smartphone OEMs (to a lesser extent) will try to buy up firms that make their platforms or products stand out.
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The long-term impacts of the pandemic on consumer purchasing preferences • Strategy Analytics

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The pandemic will have long-term impacts on what consumers want to purchase as well as how they purchase them. In addition to the inevitable increased use of delivery services for grocery and food, alternative shopping experiences such as Amazon Go’s contactless shopping experience – where consumers do not have to proceed through a checkout experience – will also see a boost in popularity.

For consumer electronics, where some devices such as smartphones are typically sold more on ‘in-hand’ experience, this pandemic presents a more challenging situation as consumers’ are less inclined to handle in-store displays.

Focus needs to shift to alternative ways of showcasing products. Previous Strategy Analytics research has shown that try-before-you-buy is a key use case for foldable phones and augmented reality. Consumers will need to be able to experience products and services outside the store as much as possible.

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Notable how Apple now lets you view its new products using augmented reality: could be an accidental must-have in the coming years.
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COVID-19: forecasts for the US and state-by-state • Healthdata.org

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The charts below show projected hospital resource use based on COVID-19 deaths.

The projections assume the continuation of strong social distancing measures and other protective measures.

To view the methods used to produce the projections click here.

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Visualisation and data collection by the University of Washington: currently forecasts a midrange of 84,000 deaths, with a range from 32,000 to 150,000.

A graphic showing how the 50 states’ trajectories will go would be good to see, but hard to produce, I guess.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1277: Zoom get clobbered (but doesn’t care), consumers doubt personal data benefit, Apple buys Dark Sky, Covid-19 forecasts by US state, and more

  1. I think there’s a small error in that headline about Kenya? Airtime is the single thing that Kenyans most spend their money on (if I read the story right), but that’s not the same as saying they spend most of their money – i.e. over half their money – on it (which is what the headline quoted says).

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