Start Up No.1324: hackers target US presidential campaigns, questions deepen over Lancet HCQ paper, a new form of nitrogen, and more


Twitter’s latest dig at Trump revolves around who first gave this guy the sobriquet ‘Mad Dog’. CC-licensed photo by, er, the US Secretary of Defense on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Look, we got through another one. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Presidential campaigns targeted by suspected Chinese, Iranian hackers • WSJ

Robert McMillan:

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Campaign staffers working on the presidential campaigns of Donald Trump and Joe Biden have been targeted with online attacks coming from Iran and China respectively, Google said Thursday.

These so-called phishing attacks are often an attempt to gain access to online email accounts. They raise the specter of a repeat of the 2016 campaign, during which Russian hackers stole information from Democratic staffers and posted them online.

The attacks don’t appear to have been successful, Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., said. The company has notified federal authorities and the targeted users of the attacks, said Shane Huntley, who runs Google’s in-house counterespionage group, known as the Threat Analysis Group.

The Biden campaign was targeted by a China-based group, known as APT 31, Mr. Huntley said. This group has been linked by security firms to the Chinese government. The Trump campaign was targeted by an Iranian group called APT 35, he said. APT stands for advanced persistent threat, a shorthand used by cybersecurity professionals for sophisticated adversaries that are backed by nation-states.

These were “recent attempts and we saw a couple of targets on each campaign,” a Google spokeswoman said, while declining to provide further details on the incidents.

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*looks at watch* They’re about four months late compared to 2016. Though we won’t know until October whether they were successful, I guess.
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A mysterious company’s coronavirus papers in top medical journals may be unraveling • Science

Kelly Servick and Martin Enserink follow up on the unravelling story of the company that provided hydroxychloroquine data:

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Surgisphere’s sparse online presence—the website doesn’t list any of its partner hospitals by name or identify its scientific advisory board, for example—have prompted intense skepticism. Physician and entrepreneur James Todaro of the investment fund Blocktown Capital wondered in a blog post why Surgisphere’s enormous database doesn’t appear to have been used in peer-reviewed research studies until May. Another post, from data scientist Peter Ellis of the management consulting firm Nous Group, questioned how LinkedIn could list only five Surgisphere employees—all but Desai apparently lacking a scientific or medical background—if the company really provides software to hundreds of hospitals to coordinate the collection of sensitive data from electronic health records. (This morning, the number of employees on LinkedIn had dropped to three.) And Chaccour wonders how such a tiny company was able to reach data-sharing agreements with hundreds of hospitals around the world that use many different languages and data recording systems, while adhering to the rules of 46 different countries on research ethics and data protection.

Desai’s spokesperson responded to inquiries about the company by saying it has 11 employees and has been developing its database since 2008. Desai, through the spokesperson, also said of the company’s work with patient data: “We use a great deal of artificial intelligence and machine learning to automate this process as much as possible, which is the only way a task like this is even possible.”

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This is transparent flim-flam. Collecting that sort of data from hospitals requires solid, grinding, talking to hospitals. It’s surely labour-intensive. Surgisphere looks like a con, and any papers that uses its data now looks likely to be withdrawn.

A reminder: this apparent con was found by ordinary journalists looking at anomalies in data, not by the peer reviewers at The Lancet or NEJM.
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Google search a target of U.S. antitrust probes, rival says • Bloomberg

Gerrit De Vynck:

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US federal and state authorities are asking detailed questions about how to limit Google’s power in the online search market as part of their antitrust investigations into the tech giant, according to rival DuckDuckGo Inc.

Gabriel Weinberg, chief executive officer of the privacy-focused search engine, said he has spoken with state regulators, and talked with the U.S. Justice Department as recently as a few weeks ago.

Justice Department officials and state attorneys general asked the CEO about requiring Google to give consumers alternatives to its search engine on Android devices and in Google’s Chrome web browser, Weinberg said in an interview.

“We’ve been talking to all of them about search and all of them have asked us detailed search questions,” he added.

Weinberg’s comments shine a light into how the inquiry is examining Google’s core business – online search. Bloomberg has reported that the Justice Department and Texas are already examining Google’s dominance of the digital advertising market. The Justice Department and a coalition of states led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have been investigating the company for a year, and the DOJ has begun drafting a lawsuit, which could be filed in the coming months. It would kick off one of the most significant antitrust cases in the U.S. since the government sued Microsoft Corp. in 1998.

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They’re going to have to recast a whole chunk of US antitrust law to make this stick. It’s not an antitrust breach to have a monopoly, for example in search, so “how to limit Google’s power in the online search market” is a non-starter unless they can also demonstrate that consumers are losing out because of it. They seem to be trying to construct the same case that the EU did, except the EU’s antitrust laws include a “competitive market” clause. The US antitrust ones don’t.
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Twitter accuses President Trump of making ‘false claims’ • BBC News

Rory Cellan-Jones:

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Twitter has accused the US president of making false claims, in one of the app’s own articles covering the news.

The move – which effectively accuses the leader of lying – refers to a tweet by Donald Trump about his first defence secretary.

Mr Trump had tweeted that he had given James Mattis the nickname “Mad Dog” and later fired him. But Twitter’s article says that the former general resigned, and his nickname preceded Trump’s presidency.

It follows last week’s explosive confrontation, which saw Twitter fact-check two of President Trump’s tweets and label another as glorifying violence. The latest confrontation was prompted by a strongly-worded statement issued by General Mattis last night, in which he criticised the president’s handling of the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd.

Gen Mattis described Donald Trump as “the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people – does not even pretend to try. Instead, he tries to divide us.”

The president fired back quickly in a tweet saying that the one thing he and predecessor Barack Obama had in common was “we both had the honour of firing Jim Mattis, the world’s most overrated general. I asked for his letter of resignation and felt good about it”.

“His nickname was ‘Chaos’, which I didn’t like, and changed it to ‘Mad Dog’,” he added.

Twitter later published what it calls a Moment, a summary of a news story that you can see when you press the platform’s search button. It has also been promoted within the What’s Happening box that appears on Twitter’s website.

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This is getting to be quite the regular thing. (Though you can’t be absolutely certain Trump was lying; he might just be incredibly stupid or forgetful.)
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Facebook removes ‘inauthentic’ George Floyd groups • BBC News

Marianna Spring:

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Facebook has removed a number of Justice for George Floyd groups for exhibiting “inauthentic behaviour”.

BBC News had highlighted some suspicious groups had switched their focus to call for justice for the black man killed in police custody.

Some, run by accounts seemingly based in Vietnam or Bangladesh, had posted misleading images. And others had previously focused on coronavirus, 5G conspiracies and support for US President Donald Trump.

A Facebook spokesman said it had “removed the vast majority of them, for violating our policies”.

There has been a surge in membership for Facebook groups supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, following the protests sparked by Mr Floyd’s death, on 25 May.

But for some it is unclear what the motives of their administrators are.

In some cases, they could be exploiting the movement to gain followers and/or stoke tensions.

Some of the profiles based outside the US had frequently posted inflammatory images and videos before Facebook intervened.

One group, Justice for George Floyd, had almost 2,000 members. Set up in March, it originally focused on the coronavirus but later that month switched to “US breaking news”, featuring stories sympathetic to the US president, before turning to Black Lives Matter.

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This is now like internet weather: event happens, fake Facebook groups form trying to exploit it. Marianna Spring, by the way, is the BBC’s “specialist disinformation reporter”, and pretty busy with it.
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Facebook employees pushed to remove Trump’s posts as hate speech • WSJ

Deepa Seetharaman, writing back in October 2016:

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In a statement provided Wednesday evening, a Facebook spokeswoman said its reviewers consider the context of a post when assessing whether to take it down. “That context can include the value of political discourse,” she said. “Many people are voicing opinions about this particular content and it has become an important part of the conversation around who the next U.S. president will be.”

On Friday, senior members of Facebook’s policy team posted more details on its policy. “In the weeks ahead, we’re going to begin allowing more items that people find newsworthy, significant, or important to the public interest—even if they might otherwise violate our standards,” they wrote.

The internal debates shed light on how Facebook has grappled with its position as one of the biggest sources of political information during a particularly contentious election cycle.

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So, nearly four years ago. This has been going on for so long; but we overlooked it somehow because back then, we didn’t know how important Facebook would turn out to have been as a megaphone and an amplifier for Trump.

However: at least you can’t accuse Zuckerberg of changing his principles. His insistence to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in testimony to Congress last October that if a politician incited violence their post would be taken down probably seemed pretty easy. Then that came to pass, and guess what? He reverted to his longstanding position.
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Solving online events • Benedict Evans

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it’s often struck me that networking events are pretty inefficient and random. If you’re going to spend an hour or two in a room with 50 or 500 people, then you could take that as a purely social occasion and enjoy yourself. But if your purpose is to have professionally useful conversations, then what proportion of the people in the room can you talk to in an hour and how likely is it that they’ll be the right ones? Who’s there? I sometimes suggest it would be helpful if we all wore banners, as in the image at the top, so that you could look across the room and see who to talk to. (First Tuesday did something like this in 1999, with different coloured badges.)

This might just be that I’m an introvert asking for a machine to manage human connections for me (and I am), but there is also clearly an opportunity to scale the networking that happens around events in ways that don’t rely on random chance and alcohol tolerance. A long time ago Twitter took some of that role, and the explosion of online dating also shows how changing the way you think about pools and sample sets changes outcomes. In 2017, 40% of new relationships in the USA started online.

…every time we get a new tool, we start by forcing it to fit the old way of working, and then one day we realise that it lets us do the work differently, and indeed change what the work is. I do expect to get on planes to conferences again in the future, but I also hope to have completely different ways to communicate ideas, and completely different ways to make connections, that don’t rely on us all being in the same city at the time time – or pretending that we are.

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How to hide Google Meet in Gmail • The Verge

Aliya Chaudhry:

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Google recently rolled out Google Meet, a revamped version of its video chatting program Hangouts Meet, and made the app available to anyone with a Google account. You can start or join a Meet videoconference right from your Gmail inbox, using the buttons that Google has placed on the left-hand side of the page.

But what if you don’t intend to use Meet, or even if you just don’t want it to be there all the time? No worries — you can hide the buttons. (Note: if you’re on a corporate G Suite account, you may not be able to change this, depending on your administrator’s settings.)

Here’s how to hide Google Meet in Gmail:
• Open Gmail
• Click on the cog icon in the top-right corner
• Click on “Settings” in the drop-down menu
• Click on the “Chat and Meet” tab
• Next to the “Meet:” label, select “Hide the Meet section in the main menu.”
• Click “Save changes.”

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So it takes six steps to stop Google bothering you with meetings you probably don’t want to do through the renamed version of one of its 596 different messaging apps. In this era, a lot of people have been annoyed by Google adding Meets meetings to other online meetings that people had planned using different apps.
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Dropbox is working on its own password manager • Android Police

Ryne Hager:

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Dropbox just unceremoniously dumped a brand new app on the Play Store with no fanfare or formal announcement. The new Dropbox Passwords app, according to its listing, is a password manager available exclusively in an invite-only private beta for some Dropbox customers.

Based on screenshots and description, the app seems pretty barebones — or “minimal,” depending on your tastes. Dropbox seems to intentionally avoid calling it a “password manager,” though its functionality otherwise appears about the same as other solutions. Like other password managers, Dropbox Password can generate passwords for new accounts as required and sync them remotely so you can access all your passwords on multiple devices. It also uses zero-knowledge encryption to store those passwords remotely.

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I suspect this is Dropbox realising a while back that it was going to be under assault from all sorts of companies: that its file-sharing feature isn’t such a defensive moat. So it needs to add other things to make people pay money. Password managers are an obviously underpopulated space.
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Never-before-seen “black nitrogen” plugs puzzle in periodic table • New Atlas

Michael Irving:

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Researchers at the University of Bayreuth have created a form of nitrogen that’s never been seen before. Nicknamed “black nitrogen,” the new substance is crystalline, occurs in two-dimensional sheets, and could one day be useful in advanced electronics.

Strangely enough, the idea that black nitrogen didn’t exist has long been considered a mystery. The periodic table is arranged in recurring “periods” where each column is made up of elements with similar properties. Those at the top have the fewest protons and the lowest weight, and each successive element in the group gains protons and weight.

Under high pressure, elements on the top of a column usually take on structures similar to elements further down the group. These different forms are known as allotropes. Ozone is an allotrope of oxygen, for example, while graphite and diamond are both allotropes of carbon.

But nitrogen only has one allotrope – dinitrogen (N2) – and doesn’t have any that resemble heavier elements in its group. This was always considered a bit weird, but now a new study has found a previously-unknown allotrope that shows that nitrogen isn’t an exception to the rule, as has long been believed.

To create the new form, the team exposed nitrogen to extreme heat and pressure. It was pressed together between two diamonds to 1.4 million atmospheres of pressure, and over 4,000 °C (7,232 °F). Under those extreme conditions, the nitrogen took on a structure that had never been seen before – but which still looked familiar.

When imaged using X-rays, the nitrogen atoms formed crystalline two-dimensional layers, cross-linked in a zigzag pattern. It appears to have good conductivity, much like that of graphene, which could make it useful in future electronic devices.

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Confidently expecting “black nitrogen” to turn up as the McGuffin in some future TV or film script. It vanishes once you release the pressure, but that’s unimportant to the script. I’m thinking Chris Pratt or Chris Evans as the hero, the megabomb is triggered by black nitrogen, a terrorist group (have to decide later which country they’re from) has stolen the trigger… see, chemistry can be exciting as long as you don’t look too closely.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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