Start Up No.1283: the 5G conspiracy theory’s origins, Google bans Zoom, life in the ICU, Foxconn’s pricey ventilator factory, and more


New facial recognition systems can pick out who you are even when you’re wearing a mask. CC-licensed photo by Zadi Diaz on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Another day done. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How the 5G coronavirus conspiracy theory tore through the internet • WIRED UK

James Temperton:

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Almost all of the conspiracy theory posts linking 5G to coronavirus make use of tired, debunked tropes about non-ionising radiation, chemtrails and “deep state” plots to use vaccines to control people and remotely shut down their organs. Most of the time, such unsubstantiated and outlandish claims remain more or less hidden inside the communities that believe in them. But with coronavirus as a peg, they were always bound to go viral.

“The coronavirus has created the perfect environment for this message to spread,” says Josh Smith, senior researcher at Demos, a think tank. “Like many conspiracy theories, the idea that 5G is to blame for the uncertain, frightening situation we find ourselves in is a comfort. It provides an explanation, and a scapegoat, for the suffering caused by this pandemic; as well as – cruelly – suggesting a way we might stop it: take down the masts and the virus will go away.” If only it were that simple. And, worryingly, the conspiracy theories themselves aren’t as simple as they first appear.

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Terrific piece by Temperton, who traces a major link of the “5G coronavirus” nonsense back to a local article in a Dutch Belgian newspaper on January 22 quoting a Dutch Belgian GP talking the usual nonsense about “radiation”. Though I think this would have happened anyway; if not him, someone else would have made it up, because the link was too tempting. 5G: in China! Coronavirus: in China!
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Google bans Zoom videoconferencing software from employees’ computers • Buzzfeed News

Pranav Dixit:

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Google has banned the popular videoconferencing software Zoom from its employees’ devices, BuzzFeed News has learned. Zoom, a competitor to Google’s own Meet app, has seen an explosion of people using it to work and socialize from home and has become a cultural touchstone during the coronavirus pandemic.

Last week, Google sent an email to employees whose work laptops had the Zoom app installed that cited its “security vulnerabilities” and warned that the videoconferencing software on employee laptops would stop working starting this week.

“We have long had a policy of not allowing employees to use unapproved apps for work that are outside of our corporate network,” Jose Castaneda, a Google spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News. “Recently, our security team informed employees using Zoom Desktop Client that it will no longer run on corporate computers as it does not meet our security standards for apps used by our employees. Employees who have been using Zoom to stay in touch with family and friends can continue to do so through a web browser or via mobile.”

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There are about 293 Google messaging apps, aren’t there? But none of those quite cuts it. The security point is reasonable enough. But it’s telling that people aren’t using Google Duo (its video messaging app – I had to look it up), isn’t it?
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Wearing a mask won’t stop facial recognition anymore: the coronavirus is prompting facial recognition companies to develop solutions for those with partially covered faces • Abacus

Masha Borak:

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If you’ve been walking around your city recently believing that the face mask you wear to protect you from the coronavirus is also fooling facial recognition cameras, then we have bad news for you: Facial recognition is evolving.

New forms of facial recognition can now recognize not just people wearing masks over their mouths, but also people in scarves and even with fake beards. And the technology is already rolling out in China because of one unexpected event: the coronavirus outbreak.

Over the last several weeks, the deadly Covid-19 disease has forced millions of people across China to don surgical masks and N95 respirators. This has led China’s AI champion SenseTime to adapt its facial recognition product to identify people wearing these masks, according to an announcement from the company last week.

But this technology isn’t exactly new. Stanford University postdoctoral fellow Amarjot Singh and his team published research on disguised face identification (DFI) in 2017. Their algorithm made a breakthrough in recognizing people wearing eyeglasses, fake beards, scarves and hard hats.

“Face recognition identifies a person by locating several key points on the face and connecting them together to form a unique person-specific signature,” Singh explained.

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Now it depends on detecting hundreds of points around the eyes and nose. But it’s only going to have the eyes to work with.
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Watchsmith review: create your own Apple Watch complications • MacStories

Ryan Christoffel:

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Watchsmith, the latest app from David Smith, was birthed from the inability to create third-party watch faces on the Apple Watch. As Smith has previously explained, while third-party faces may never be possible, several first-party faces already offer significant room for customization. The Infograph face, for example, contains eight different complication slots; if a rich array of third-party complications were available, you could build a highly customized watch face using the existing faces provided by Apple.

Watchsmith exists to provide that rich set of complications. The app offers 37 types of complications, each adaptable to different watch faces and complication slots, and all fully customizable so they can look exactly the way you prefer. Additionally, Watchsmith offers scheduling functionality to cause different complications to appear on your Watch at different times throughout the day.

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Very neat idea. Haven’t tried it myself yet, but the illustrations are very promising.
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Foxconn will produce ventilators at its controversial Wisconsin plant • The Verge

Jon Porter:

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Foxconn’s Wisconsin plant, the controversial recipient of billions of dollars in tax subsidies and the focus of multiple Verge investigations, will produce ventilators with medical device firm Medtronic. The partnership was announced by Medtronic CEO Omar Ishrak in an interview with CNBC, who said that Foxconn will be manufacturing ventilators based on its PB-560 design in the next four to six weeks.

Foxconn’s Wisconsin plant was first announced way back in 2017 as a $10bn LCD factory. It was labeled the “eighth wonder of the world” by President Trump, but Foxconn’s plans for the site appear to have changed repeatedly over the years. At various points, Foxconn has said that it would build a smaller LCD factory, no factory at all, or that it would produce other items like a robot coffee kiosk. Now, it appears the factory will, in part at least, produce ventilators, after its planned opening next month.

Medtronic’s CEO was unable to share the numbers of ventilators that Foxconn will produce during his interview with CBNC.

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Never lived up to any of its promises. The most incredible boondoggle.
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How to look your best on a video call • The Verge

Becca Farsace:

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I’ve been on enough video calls this week to know that everyone could use a little help looking their best. From virtual weddings to work meetings, we all suddenly have to be on camera in our homes, and as a Verge video director and host, I’m no stranger to having to be camera-ready at all times and in imperfect spaces.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been optimizing my own video chat setup: from knowing where to sit to get the best light, to choosing the right microphone, to just staying comfortable. Here are my tips and tricks to becoming the video call MVP you were meant to be.

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All good tips (lighting, camera height, testing and so on) which are worth noting, even for these AL (after-lockdown) times. It’s all BC (before coronavirus) and AL, isn’t it.
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Fingerprint cloning: myth or reality? • Cisco Talos Intelligence Group

Paul Rascagnere:

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Fingerprint authentication became commonly available on phones with the launch of Apple TouchID in the iPhone 5S in 2013. That technology was bypassed shortly after being released. Since then, the technology evolved into three main kinds of sensors: optic, capacitance and ultrasonic.

Our tests showed that — on average — we achieved an ~80% success rate while using the fake fingerprints, where the sensors were bypassed at least once. Reaching this success rate was difficult and tedious work. We found several obstacles and limitations related to scaling and material physical properties. Even so, this level of success rate means that we have a very high probability of unlocking any of the tested devices before it falls back into the pin unlocking. The results show fingerprints are good enough to protect the average person’s privacy if they lose their phone. However, a person that is likely to be targeted by a well-funded and motivated actor should not use fingerprint authentication.

We developed three threat models use cases to match real world scenarios. As a result the reader should compare the result to a home security system. If you want it to stop well funded actors like national security agencies from spying on your house, this may not provide enough resistance to be effective. For a regular user, fingerprint authentication has obvious advantages and offers a very intuitive security layer. However, if the user is a potential target for funded attackers or their device contains sensitive information, we recommend relying more on strong passwords and token two-factor authentication.

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Basically, don’t worry about it. The lengths they had to go to make the process seem like something out of Mission Impossible.
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Fears of crisis in UK car finance market as owners seek payments help • The Guardian

Patrick Collinson:

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Around nine out of 10 of the 2.3m new cars sold in a typical year in Britain are paid for using some sort of financing provided by an FLA (Finance and Leasing Association) member. The most common purchase method has been personal contract plans (PCP), where a buyer puts down a deposit and then rents the vehicle for two to three years at a monthly cost, typically around £250.

Volkswagen and Ford said they have already introduced emergency measures to help customers. VW, whose brands include Audi, Seat and Skoda, said it is taking “exceptional steps” to help lease-buyers keep hold of their vehicle.

It said customers will be offered a “breathing space” of up to 60 days in which it won’t chase the driver for payment or rack up fees. It said it will also consider extending the period of time for the buyer to pay off the debt.

The FLA said other forbearance measures may include payment breaks, payment reductions or waiving interest…

…Problems in the UK car loans market may pale into insignificance compared with the colossal scale of auto lending in the US, which totals $1.3tn (£1tn). Some of it has been securitised into bonds that bear echoes of “subprime” lending common before the financial crisis of 2007-08.

Around $30bn of new subprime vehicle loans were issued in 2019, and there have been reports of some lenders verifying the income of just 8% of borrowers – whose loans are then bundled into bonds sold on Wall Street as an income stream for investors. However, the US Federal Reserve has already stepped in with a programme to support “asset-backed securities”, including bonds holding auto loans.

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Wonder if Americans will get the same holidays on their car loans.
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As an ICU doctor, I see the crisis unfold one person at a time. Here’s what it looks like • The Guardian

Shaan Sahota is a junior doctor working in London, who was redeployed from surgery to critical care, and now looks after patients who have been intubated:

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We talk about coronavirus all the time, but it’s often in terms of a bigger picture. I find it hard to make sense of that bigger picture from the frontline. In a crisis of scale I want to tell the story I’ve seen – the story of a pandemic unfolding one person at a time.

The expanded ICU is a surreal world. I don layers of stifling PPE to enter into “Covid zones” – zip-entry plastic marquees within converted hospital bays. I enter a ward full of unconscious patients. There’s no chatter, just beeping monitors over the rhythmic hiss of pressured air. I spend every 12-hour shift caring for two or three patients. It’s humbling, often manual work. I’m adjusting their anaesthesia agents and checking their urine hourly to balance their fluids. I’m placing pillows under pressure points so they don’t end up with lasting damage during their paralysis. I suction secretions from their airways.

I’m working the hardest I can, delaying toilet breaks, for a patient who I have never seen open their eyes, let alone breathe for themselves. It’s a difficult environment to work in.

I trawl through medical notes to find my patients in a time before they were paralysed and sedated and put on to a ventilator, to catch a glimpse of the person they are. I try to get to know them through the jewellery they used to wear, now safe in a tray at their sides. I conjure them up from sketched details in their past medical notes.

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A deeply moving piece.
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Special report: Johnson listened to his scientists about coronavirus – but they were slow to sound the alarm • Reuters

Stephen Grey and Andrew MacAskill:

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With Brexit done [on January 31], [Boris] Johnson had the chance to focus on other matters the following month, among them the emerging virus threat. But leaving the European Union had a consequence.

Between February 13 and March 30, Britain missed a total of eight conference calls or meetings about the coronavirus between EU heads of state or health ministers – meetings that Britain was still entitled to join. Although Britain did later make an arrangement to attend lower-level meetings of officials, it had missed a deadline to participate in a common purchase scheme for ventilators, to which it was invited. Ventilators, vitally important to treating the direst cases of COVID-19, have fallen into short supply globally. Johnson’s spokesman blamed an administrative error…

…According to emails and more than a dozen scientists interviewed by Reuters, the government issued no requests to labs for assistance with staff or testing equipment until the middle of March, when many abruptly received requests to hand over nucleic acid extraction instruments, used in testing. An executive at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford said he could have carried out up to 1,000 tests per day from February. But the call never came.

“You would have thought that they would be bashing down the door,” said the executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity. By April 5, Britain had carried out 195,524 tests, in contrast to at least 918,000 completed a week earlier in Germany.

Nor was there an effective effort to expand the supply of ventilators.

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Thorough piece; so many missed opportunities, but also so much institutional inertia against doing anything. Mix in a little bit of dogma around Brexit, and you have a recipe for calamity.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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