Start Up No.1301: lockdown poses problems for money launderers, Apple and Google block contact location tracking, bye bye butterfly (on laptops), and more


An Amazon vice-president has resigned in solidarity with workers concerned about the risks they faced from Covid-19. CC-licensed photo by Scottish Government on Flickr.

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A selection of 8 links for you. Fewer, but chewier. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Bye, Amazon • ongoing by Tim Bray

Tim Bray is pretty much a legend in the tech industry: used to work at Sun Microsystems, had a hand in XML, worked at Google on Android, and now worked – part tense – at Amazon:

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May 1st was my last day as a VP and Distinguished Engineer at Amazon Web Services, after five years and five months of rewarding fun. I quit in dismay at Amazon firing whistleblowers who were making noise about warehouse employees frightened of Covid-19.

What with big-tech salaries and share vestings, this will probably cost me over a million (pre-tax) dollars, not to mention the best job I’ve ever had, working with awfully good people. So I’m pretty blue…

…An announcement sent to internal mailing lists on Friday April 10th was apparently the flashpoint. Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa, two visible AECJ leaders, were fired on the spot that day. The justifications were laughable; it was clear to any reasonable observer that they were turfed for whistleblowing.

Management could have objected to the event, or demanded that outsiders be excluded, or that leadership be represented, or any number of other things; there was plenty of time. Instead, they just fired the activists.

Snap! · At that point I snapped. VPs shouldn’t go publicly rogue, so I escalated through the proper channels and by the book. I’m not at liberty to disclose those discussions, but I made many of the arguments appearing in this essay. I think I made them to the appropriate people. ¶

That done, remaining an Amazon VP would have meant, in effect, signing off on actions I despised. So I resigned.

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It’s an excoriating blogpost, and reminds you too how rare it is for someone to resign so publicly in the tech industry and to side with the low-paid people in the company. That’s what Bray did, and does. It’s easy to forget that your Amazon deliveries don’t arrive via magic drones; real humans are earning pittances doing it, while Jeff Bezos is so rich you can’t grasp it.
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Apple, Google ban use of location tracking in contact tracing apps • Reuters

Stephen Nellis and Paresh Dave:

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Both companies said privacy and preventing governments from using the system to compile data on citizens was a primary goal. The system uses bluetooth signals from phones to detect encounters and does not use or store GPS location data.

But the developers of official coronavirus-related apps in several U.S. states told Reuters last month it was vital that they be allowed to use GPS location data in conjunction with the new contact tracing system, to track how outbreaks move and identify hotspots.

Apple and Google said they will not allow use of GPS data along with the contact tracing systems. The decision will require public health authorities who want to use GPS location data to rely on unstable workarounds to detect encounters using Bluetooth sensors.

Privacy experts have warned that any cache of location data related to health issues could make businesses and individuals vulnerable to being ostracized if the data is exposed.

Authorities and their app developers could reject the Apple-Google restrictions and instead use a more basic Bluetooth-based system to log with whom users have crossed paths. But the system likely would miss some encounters because iPhones and Android devices turn off Bluetooth connections after some time for battery-saving and other reasons unless users remember to re-activate them.

Apple and Google also said Monday that they will allow only one app per country to use the new contact system, to avoid fragmentation and encourage wider adoption.

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Apparently this could be a problem for countries such as Norway. The “one per country” idea is a good one, at least.
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Exclusive: ‘wobbly’ NHS tracing app ‘failed’ clinical safety and cyber security tests • Health Service Journal

Jasmine Rapson:

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The government’s coronavirus contact tracing app has so far failed the tests needed to be included in the NHS app library, HSJ understands.

The app is being trialled on the Isle of Wight this week, ahead of a national rollout later this month. Senior NHS sources told HSJ it had thus far failed all of the tests required for inclusion in the app library, including cyber security, performance and clinical safety.

There are also concerns at high levels about how users’ privacy will be protected once they log that they have coronavirus symptoms, and become “traceable”, and how this information will be used.

Senior figures told HSJ that it had been hard to assess the app because the government was “going about it in a kind of a hamfisted way. They haven’t got clear versions, so it’s been impossible to get fixed code base from them for NHS Digital to test. They keep changing it all over the place”. 

HSJ’s source described the app as “a bit wobbly”, but added that it was not a “big disaster” the app will not be included in the official NHS store at this stage, because it is at an early development stage. However, they also expressed concern about whether it will be able to pass in the near future…

…A senior NHS national source told HSJ: “The real problem is the government initially started saying it was a ‘privacy-preserving highly anonymous app’, but it quite clearly isn’t going to be… When you use the app and you’re not [covid-19] positive in the early stages, you’re just exchanging signals between two machines… But the second you say, ‘actually I’m positive’, that has to go back up to the government server, where it starts to track you versus other people.”

A DHSC spokesman stressed there was not a plan for the app to track people’s location, for example with GPS, but to monitor who they have been near to, with Bluetooth.

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At a guess, the NHSX team started working on a contact tracing app a while back, but then had to tear a lot of that up when Apple and Google announced their joint API. It might be an unhappy hybrid of the former and the latter.
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Coronavirus slows Los Angeles money laundering, bringing seizures • Los Angeles Times

Matthew Ormseth:

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The shuttering of nonessential businesses has made a “tremendous impact” on a money laundering system dubbed the black market peso exchange, he said. In the fashion district in downtown Los Angeles — the exchange’s epicenter — drug trafficking groups from throughout the country use wholesalers to remit profits to Mexico, according to cases filed in federal courts in Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Steven Mygrant, a federal prosecutor in Oregon who charged six people with laundering heroin proceeds through Los Angeles businesses, said two primary factors drive the exchange: drug trafficking groups need to convert dollars to pesos, which is expensive to do legitimately, and they need to move money from the United States to Mexico, which is risky to transport in cash.

To accomplish this, Mygrant said, a broker pays pesos for the drug traffickers’ dollars. The traffickers deliver cash to an exporter in Los Angeles, who ships goods — commonly clothing, cosmetics, jewelry or sportswear — to a retailer in Mexico. The retailer sells the goods for pesos and pays the broker.

Developed by Colombian cocaine traffickers, Mexican cartels initially did not embrace the black market peso exchange, Bodner said, finding it easier to simply smuggle bulk cash across the border and launder it in Mexico. That changed about 10 years ago, he said, when the Mexican government tightened financial regulations and restricted the flow of dollars into its banks.

Recently, with storefronts closed and agents seizing millions in cash packaged for transport, it appears drug trafficking groups are resorting to older, riskier ways of repatriating profits, Bodner said.

The coronavirus has also cooled Chinese capital flight, he said, which before the pandemic was the primary driver of international money laundering.

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As one person remarked on Twitter, the speed with which some shops in those areas reopen will tell you which are the ones being used for money laundering.
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What the coronavirus crisis reveals about American medicine • The New Yorker

Siddhartha Mukherjee:

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A putative advantage of digital hospital records is to enable on-the-fly searches—not the kind of data project that the N.I.H. [National Institutes of Health] might fund (its grants take weeks to process even on an accelerated schedule) but the kind that might be completed in an hour. Perhaps, I thought, we should be advising covid-19 patients to call us if they suspected clots—if their breathing rate and heart rate increased suddenly, for instance. Perhaps our hospital system’s emergency department should be alerted.

Because clotting is a frequent issue among patients with cancers, I called my colleague Azra Raza, the director of Columbia’s Myelodysplastic Syndrome Center, to ask if we could search through the database of her patients for any who had reported being infected, and, if so, had experienced blood clots. She sighed. “I can’t think of a simple way to do this,” she told me. “And in any case, because of all the concerns around privacy, if you wanted to report the findings you would have to file with the institutional review board.”

“But that would take a month, at least,” I protested. (In recent weeks, many hospitals have accelerated their review process to deal with the pace of the pandemic.)

“It’s the way the system is,” she said. “If you want to report the number of times a patient has cut her nails in the last week, you would need approval. And it’s not easy at all to search the E.M.R. [electronic medical records] for any of this information. You’d have to hire someone specifically to look through it.”

A cardiologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, echoed this frustration on Twitter: “Why are nearly all notes in [the doctors’ notes filing system] Epic . . . basically *useless* to understand what’s happening to patient during hospital course?” Another doctor’s reply: “Because notes are used to bill, determine level of service, and document it rather than their intended purpose, which was to convey our observations, assessment, and plan. Our important work has been co-opted by billing.”

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Very sobering reading.
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Was the new coronavirus accidentally released from a Wuhan lab? It’s doubtful • The Washington Post

Meg Kelly and Sarah Cahlan:

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In Wuhan, at least two labs study coronaviruses that originate in bats — the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) and the Wuhan Center for Disease Control and Prevention (WHCDC). Both are close to the seafood market. The WIV is about eight miles away. The WHCDC is right around the corner.

Despite the overlap in research, what the two labs actually do is quite different. The WIV is home to China’s first laboratory to receive the highest level of international bioresearch safety (known as BSL-4). In addition, it houses lower-level (BSL-3 and BSL-2) labs. The WHCDC is home only to a BSL-2 lab.
“BSL-2 is what we normally think of when we think of a lab,” explained Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. It is a lab where “somebody is wearing a lab coat and gloves; they’re at a bench.” (BSL-4 is akin to what is seen in movies such as “Contagion.”)…

…So how did this virus end up 1,000 miles from the nearest known relative? There are any number of potential explanations. A wildlife trafficker might have brought an infected bat into the city. Another animal might have picked up the virus from bats years ago, allowing it to transform in just the right way to infect humans. There are thousands of bat viruses that scientists have not sampled and even more coronaviruses that circulate in other species, so there’s no guarantee it actually came from thousands of miles away.

But even if that virus from Shi’s lab is not the source for the virus, her lab is full of bat coronavirus variants. That left us wondering: could this virus have been the accidental product of an experiment gone awry? A 2015 paper cautioned against the “gain of function” experiments with which Shi’s team was involved. In this kind of experiment, the researchers mutate a virus strain to enhance a pathogen’s natural traits. Even though the most dangerous part of that experiment was not conducted at the WIV, the 2018 State Department cables referenced similar research by Shi and her team.

In 2017, Shi and her team published a study revealing that they had found a coronavirus from a bat that could be transmitted directly to humans. After reviewing the study, Rasmussen said via email that just because these viruses could attach to human cells, it “does not show that they are particularly effective at doing so.” Binding is only one part of the process. “It is not the sole determinant of viral fitness (the ability of the virus to replicate robustly in a given host) or pathogenicity (the ability of the virus to cause disease).” Moreover, genomic analysis reveals that none of the virus samples used to conduct these experiments were or could have been transformed to be the new coronavirus that causes covid-19.

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Trump and those seeking to placate his raging narcissism have confused the WIV and the WHCDC (well, that Chinese writing, it’s hard to tell). “Lab escape” is completely the Trump admin’s version of WMD: a story they desperately want to be true, so they’ll make up any old crap about it. It’s more easily explained by simpler, natural methods; that’s what has happened hundreds or thousands of times before.

I also highly recommend this article from Scientific American, which talks to the woman in charge of the WIV. I have a strong feeling that a lot of the “intelligence dossiers” about the WIV being put together rely very heavily on the Scientific American article, but heftily distorted with a “OMG 94% SIMILAR RNA” slant, which fools people who know nothing about science.
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Apple drops 13-inch MacBook Pro with monstrous 32GB of RAM, non-crap keyboard • Input Mag

Raymond Wong:

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The new 13-inch MacBook Pros are notable for one major reason: after five years of ignoring the flaws of its ill-fated butterfly keyboards, all of Apple’s MacBooks now have good keyboards again. The kind that has enough key travel, won’t break if dust gets stuck underneath, and sport inverted-T arrow keys.

The other notable thing about the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is that it can be configured with up to 32GB of RAM of fast LPDDR4X RAM. Previously, Apple reserved 32GB for the 15- and 16-inch MacBook Pros. Not anymore!

Back in 2016, Apple senior vice president of marketing Phil Schiller told one disgruntled customer who really wanted 32GB of RAM in a MacBook Pro this: “To put more than 16GB of fast RAM into a notebook design at this time would require a memory system that consumes much more power and wouldn’t be efficient enough for a notebook.” Looks like the time has finally come and it only took four years.

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The first laptop to get the butterfly keyboard was the MacBook, in March 2015. The last laptop to get the butterfly keyboard was the MacBook Air, at the end of October 2018. The first laptop to get the Magic Keyboard was the 16in MacBook Pro, in November 2019. (The MacBook Air followed in
March 2020.)

On that basis it’s only been about a year that you were obliged to buy a butterfly model, but if you wanted something better than the MacBook Air’s grotty screen (getting Retina was the deal you made for the butterfly keys) then it’s been a long time.

I wonder too how long the iPad Smart Keyboard (not the new Magic Keyboard) will keep its butterfly keys, which are protected under a layer of fabric and I find perfect.
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A security guard is shot and killed after telling customer to put on a face mask • CNN

Alec Snyder and Mirna Alsharif:

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A security guard at a Family Dollar store in Flint, Michigan, was shot and killed after telling a customer to wear a state-mandated face mask, police said.

Calvin Munerlyn, 43, died at a local hospital after he was shot in the head Friday, said Michigan State Police Lt. David Kaiser.

The shooter and a second suspect remain at large, Kaiser told CNN on Monday.

Witnesses at the store told police that Munerlyn got into a verbal altercation with a woman because she was not wearing a mask, said Genesee County prosecutor David Leyton. Surveillance video confirms the incident, Leyton said. Under an executive order from Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, all retail employees and customers have to wear a mask.

Footage also shows that immediately after the altercation, the woman left in an SUV. But about 20 minutes later, the SUV returned.

Two men entered the store and one of them yelled at Munerlyn about disrespecting his wife, Leyton said. The other man then shot the security guard.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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