Start Up No.1285: contact tracing examined, how Trump failed on the virus, IBM offers free Cobol tuition, Google rebrands Hangouts once again, and more

A dying breed? Newspaper sales are cratering because of the lockdown. CC-licensed photo by Harshil Shah on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Yes, even today. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Contact tracing in the real world • Light Blue Touchpaper

Professor Ross Anderson:


On Friday, when I was coming back from walking the dogs, I stopped to chat for ten minutes to a neighbour. She stood halfway between her gate and her front door, so we were about 3 metres apart, and the wind was blowing from the side. The risk that either of us would infect the other was negligible. If we’d been carrying bluetooth apps, we’d have been flagged as mutual contacts. It would be quite intolerable for the government to prohibit such social interactions, or to deploy technology that would punish them via false alarms. And how will things work with an orderly supermarket queue, where law-abiding people stand patiently six feet apart?

Bluetooth also goes through plasterboard. If undergraduates return to Cambridge in October, I assume there will still be small-group teaching, but with protocols for distancing, self-isolation and quarantine. A supervisor might sit in a teaching room with two or three students, all more than 2m apart and maybe wearing masks, and the window open. The bluetooth app will flag up not just the others in the room but people in the next room too.

How is this to be dealt with? I expect the app developers will have to fit a user interface saying “You’re within range of device 38a5f01e20. Within infection range (y/n)?” But what happens when people get an avalanche of false alarms? They learn to click them away. A better design might be to invite people to add a nickname and a photo so that contacts could see who they are. “You are near to Ross [photo] and have been for five minutes. Are you maintaining physical distance?”

When I discussed this with a family member, the immediate reaction was that she’d refuse to run an anonymous app that might suddenly say “someone you’ve been near in the past four days has reported symptoms, so you must now self-isolate for 14 days.” A call from a public health officer is one thing, but not knowing who it was would just creep her out. It’s important to get the reactions of real people, not just geeks and wonks! And the experience of South Korea and Taiwan suggests that transparency is the key to public acceptance.


I’ve no idea why anyone building any sort of app that’s going to be involved in this sort of potential privacy invasiveness wouldn’t call Ross Anderson up as their first step. If you can get his backing, then you’ve got it sewn up.
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UK government using confidential patient data in coronavirus response • The Guardian

Paul Lewis, David Conn and David Pegg on work by Palantir (Peter Thiel-funded) and another company called Faculty, using AI, to analyse NHS data:


The documents also suggest that:

• While anonymised, confidential 111 information in the Covid-19 datastore may include people’s gender, postcode, symptoms, the mechanism through which any prescription was dispatched to them, and the precise time they ended the call.
• The project appears to be using a “pseudo NHS number” to cross-match large datasets, including a master patient index, an existing NHS resource that uses “social marketing data” to segment the British population into different “types” at household level.
• While not a current priority, phone location data could be used in the datastore after it was “offered” to the government by two private companies for help with contact tracing. The NHS declined to say which companies had offered the location data or how it would be used.
• Faculty’s proposed simulation of a policy described as “targeted herd immunity” was part of an NHSX and Faculty planning document considered around 23 March, more than a week after ministers insisted the controversial policy was no longer being contemplated.
• Lawyers for Faculty suggested the proposed simulation was the result of entirely internal, preliminary discussions. The planning document listed potential analysis of the impact of “targeted herd immunity (only isolate most vulnerable parts of population)” alongside other possible government policies such as social distancing, school closures and household quarantines.


Faculty’s lawyers sure seem busy. Can nobody at Faculty speak for themselves?
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He could have seen what was coming: behind Trump’s failure on the virus • The New York Times

Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger, Maggie Haberman, Michael D. Shear, Mark Mazzetti and Julian E. Barnes:


The shortcomings of Mr. Trump’s performance have played out with remarkable transparency as part of his daily effort to dominate television screens and the national conversation.

But dozens of interviews with current and former officials and a review of emails and other records revealed many previously unreported details and a fuller picture of the roots and extent of his halting response as the deadly virus spread:

• The National Security Council office responsible for tracking pandemics received intelligence reports in early January predicting the spread of the virus to the United States, and within weeks was raising options like keeping Americans home from work and shutting down cities the size of Chicago. Mr. Trump would avoid such steps until March.

• Despite Mr. Trump’s denial weeks later, he was told at the time about a Jan. 29 memo produced by his trade adviser, Peter Navarro, laying out in striking detail the potential risks of a coronavirus pandemic: as many as half a million deaths and trillions of dollars in economic losses.

• The health and human services secretary, Alex M. Azar II, directly warned Mr. Trump of the possibility of a pandemic during a call on Jan. 30, the second warning he delivered to the president about the virus in two weeks. The president, who was on Air Force One while traveling for appearances in the Midwest, responded that Mr. Azar was being alarmist.

• Mr. Azar publicly announced in February that the government was establishing a “surveillance” system in five American cities to measure the spread of the virus and enable experts to project the next hot spots. It was delayed for weeks. The slow start of that plan, on top of the well-documented failures to develop the nation’s testing capacity, left administration officials with almost no insight into how rapidly the virus was spreading. “We were flying the plane with no instruments,” one official said.


Deeply researched. Of course, the way to get Trump to ignore something is to tell him about it, or have it in his daily briefing. And planning just isn’t part of the agenda. If you want him to notice it, you need it on Fox News.
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ACLU comment on Apple/Google COVID-19 contact tracing effort • American Civil Liberties Union


Apple and Google today announced a joint contact tracing effort using Bluetooth technology.

Below is comment from Jennifer Granick, ACLU surveillance and cybersecurity counsel, in response:

“No contact tracing app can be fully effective until there is widespread, free, and quick testing and equitable access to health care. These systems also can’t be effective if people don’t trust them. People will only trust these systems if they protect privacy, remain voluntary, and store data on an individual’s device, not a centralized repository. At the same time, we must be realistic that such contact tracing methods are likely to exclude many vulnerable members of society who lack access to technology and are already being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

“To their credit, Apple and Google have announced an approach that appears to mitigate the worst privacy and centralization risks, but there is still room for improvement…”


The ACLU has a whole white paper on the topic.
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Aircraft emissions fall sharply as pandemic grounds flights • Financial Times

Aleksandra Wisniewska, Leslie Hook and Tanya Powley:


Aeroplane emissions fell by almost a third last month as the coronavirus lockdown grounded flights around the world, a drop in emissions equivalent of taking about 6m cars off the road.

An FT analysis of more than 6m flights, using data from FlightRadar24, found that as much as 28m fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted in March as nearly 1m flights were cancelled globally. This is equivalent to a month of the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions and constitutes a drop of 31% from the comparable period last year.

Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a Finnish research group, pointed to previous shocks to commercial aviation, notably the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption a decade ago. “Neither of these events had as dramatic an impact on global aviation volumes on one-month or one-week basis as the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, making the current events unprecedented,” he said.

The number of scheduled flights in the last week of March was almost half that of the same period a year ago, according to OAG, a data consultancy, as governments around the world grounded air travel in an effort to contain the pandemic.


Going to be bigger this month. It’s now almost a surprise to see a plane in the sky.
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Coronavirus: the US has a collective action problem that’s larger than Covid-19 • Vox

Patrick Sharkey:


Containing the spread of the coronavirus requires collective, unified action, but data on social distancing makes it clear this isn’t happening everywhere. The question is why. In what kinds of places are residents deciding to move about as if they are immune to the virus that has paralyzed much of the world? What do they look like, and why are they ignoring the calls for social distancing?

To get some hints, I put together several sources of data from US counties focusing on economic and demographic characteristics, voting patterns, civic engagement and social capital, and even attitudes toward climate change from Yale’s Climate Change in the American Mind survey.

Analyzing the data reveals that social distancing behavior is related to education; to race and ethnicity; to political identity and social capital; and to the impact that this virus has already had on the residents of particular counties. And the various sources of data also reveal a larger pattern.

One of the strongest and most robust predictors of social distancing behavior is found in attitudes toward another major challenge facing the United States: climate change. Places where residents are less likely to agree that global warming is happening, that humans are the cause, and that we have an obligation to do something about it are the places where residents haven’t changed their behavior in response to coronavirus. The analysis makes clear that we have a collective action problem much larger than Covid-19.


The US is incapable of collective action against anything that doesn’t have its own tanks.
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Read my lips: how lockdown TV could boost children’s literacy • The Guardian

Vanessa Thorpe:


An urgent call is to go out to children’s television broadcasters this weekend, backed by major names in British entertainment, politics and technology. Writer and performer Stephen Fry, best-selling author Cressida Cowell and businesswoman Martha Lane Fox are joined by former children’s television presenter Floella Benjamin as signatories to a letter, carried in today’s Observer, that urges all leading streaming, network and terrestrial children’s channels to make one simple change to boost literacy among the young: turn on the subtitles.

If English-language subtitles were to be run along the bottom of the screen for all programming, they argue, reading levels across the country would automatically rise. Longstanding international academic research projects prove, they say, that spelling, grammar and vocabulary would all be enhanced, even if children watching TV are not aware they are learning.

The campaign aims to improve reading ability across the English-speaking world and has won backing from former President Bill Clinton, who said: “Same-language subtitling doubles the number of functional readers among primary school children. It’s a small thing that has a staggering impact on people’s lives.”


This is the terrific “Turn On The Subtitles” campaign. That’s quite the collection of people backing it.
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UK newspapers’ woes deepen as sales collapse during lockdown • Financial Times

Mark Di Stefano and Patricia Nilsson:


The newspaper industry is facing an unprecedented crisis with the sharp fall in advertising spending accelerating a long-term decline in revenue and forcing many groups to furlough staff and cut pay. But the government-imposed lockdown has created another challenge: how to sell daily print products with far fewer people leaving their homes.

National newspaper sales fell over a fifth between the middle and end of March, according to data from distributor Smiths News and seen by the Financial Times. 

Sales at major supermarkets fell as much as 48% in the week to March 24, while those at travel hubs and motorway stores fell as much as 67% and 70% respectively.

Many of the UK’s biggest print media groups have announced emergency measures to get them through the crisis. Local newspaper companies JPI Media and Newsquest are suspending titles and furloughing hundreds of journalists while Reach, which publishes the Daily Mirror, Express and Star tabloids, is also cutting pay and putting staff on leave.

Daily Mail and General Trust, which publishes the Daily Mail, Metro and Mail Online, is not putting journalists on leave but is asking higher earners to take pay cuts and accept shares in lieu. London-based freesheets Evening Standard and City AM, which have been badly affected as commuters stay at home, have also cut salaries.


This is going to be an extinction event for quite a few papers. If you’ve got a way to support one that you really appreciate, then do.
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IBM will offer free COBOL training to address overloaded unemployment systems • Input Mag

Tom Maxwell:


IBM is releasing a free training course next week to teach the 60-year-old programming language COBOL to coders. It is also launching a forum where those with knowledge of the language can be matched with companies in need of help maintaining their critical systems.

The moves come in response to desperate pleas by state governors for anyone with knowledge of COBOL to volunteer their time to help keep unemployment systems functioning, a critical need as the coronavirus has resulted in an unprecedented surge in people being laid off and having to claim unemployment benefits…

…The alternative — writing completely new software from scratch — would take time states don’t have. The surge in layoffs and furloughs has pushed the U.S. unemployment rate to a record-breaking 13%, from 4.4% only a month ago. Economists expect it to peak somewhere around 20% before the pandemic declines. As the situation continues to escalate, any delays with benefits could have serious consequences for many Americans.

The situation is so bad that Congress has decided to give all unemployed workers a flat $600 extra per week in unemployment insurance payouts instead of calculating their bonus as a percentage of lost wages, as they originally planned to. Why? Because state’s have said changing the reimbursement percentage in their legacy software would take an estimated five months (or longer).


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Cloudflare dumps reCAPTCHA as Google intends to charge for its use • ZDNet

Catalin Cimpanu:


Internet web infrastructure company Cloudflare announced plans to drop support for Google’s reCAPTCHA service and move to a new bot detection provider named hCaptcha.

Cloudflare co-founder and CEO Matthew Prince said the move was motivated by Google’s future plans to charge for the use of the reCAPTCHA service, which would have “added millions of dollars in annual costs” for his company – costs that Cloudflare would have undoubtedly had to unload on its customers.

“That is entirely within their right,” Prince said yesterday. “Cloudflare, given our volume, no doubt imposed significant costs on the reCAPTCHA service, even for Google.”

“If the value of the image classification training did not exceed those costs, it makes perfect sense for Google to ask for payment for the service they provide,” he added.


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Intelligence report warned of coronavirus crisis as early as November: sources • ABC News

Josh Margolin and James Gordon Meek:


Concerns about what is now known to be the novel coronavirus pandemic were detailed in a November intelligence report by the military’s National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI), according to two officials familiar with the document’s contents.

The report was the result of analysis of wire and computer intercepts, coupled with satellite images. It raised alarms because an out-of-control disease would pose a serious threat to US forces in Asia – forces that depend on the NCMI’s work. And it paints a picture of an American government that could have ramped up mitigation and containment efforts far earlier to prepare for a crisis poised to come home.

“Analysts concluded it could be a cataclysmic event,” one of the sources said of the NCMI’s report. “It was then briefed multiple times to” the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s Joint Staff and the White House. Wednesday night, the Pentagon issued a statement denying the “product/assessment” existed.


If the Pentagon was really spotting evidence of this in late November, that’s before the first patients were reported by Chinese hospitals in published papers (which was December 2). Possibility: the hospitals were lying. Alternate possibility: ABC News heard some chatter but its interpretation is miles off base. Phylogenetic analysis of the virus suggests it only emerged in the week of 22 November. I think ABC News got the wrong end of a stick and things got out of control – which can easily happen when you have two people trying to chase down two ends of a story. They don’t necessarily meet in the middle; sometimes they turn out to be unravelling different pieces of string.
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Google is rebranding Hangouts Chat as just Google Chat • The Verge

Nick Statt:


Google has officially removed the Hangouts brand from its enterprise G Suite offering with the rebranding of Hangouts Chat as Google Chat, the company confirmed to The Verge on Thursday. The rebranding follows a similar name change, confirmed yesterday, from the companion videoconferencing app Hangouts Meet to Google Meet.

This latest modification was first hinted at by an updated G Suite support document listing the Google Chat name alongside Google Meet. Of course, this version of Chat is not to be confused with the other version of Chat, the name Google inexplicably gave its relatively new RCS-based Android messaging protocol.


Perhaps it will just rebrand all of its many, many chat and messaging products as Chat and Messaging, and let people figure out which one they have.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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