Start Up No.1334: Facebook takes down Trump ads, US police in graphs, Google clones Pinterest, Chrome spyware campaign shut down, and more


The UK government is making a dramatic U-turn on its track-and-trace app. CC-licensed photo by duncan c on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. You get there eventually. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

UK abandons contact-tracing app for Apple and Google model • The Guardian

Dan Sabbagh and Alex Hern:

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The government has been forced to abandon a centralised coronavirus contact-tracing app after spending three months and millions of pounds on technology that experts had repeatedly warned would not work.

In an embarrassing U-turn, Matt Hancock said the NHS would switch to an alternative designed by the US tech companies Apple and Google, which is months away from being ready.

At the Downing Street briefing, the health secretary said the government would not “put a date” on when the new app may be launched, although officials conceded it was likely to be in the autumn or winter.

…Ministers had insisted on using a centralised version of the untested technology in which anonymised data from people who reported feeling ill was held in an NHS database to enable better tracing and data analysis. This version was not supported by Apple and Google.

Work started in March as the pandemic unfolded, but despite weeks of work, officials admitted on Thursday that the NHS app only recognised 4% of Apple phones and 75% of Google Android devices during testing on the Isle of Wight.

…The Department of Health and Social Care refused to say how much had been spent on the effort, although official records show three contracts worth £4.8m were awarded to the developer VMWare Pivotal Labs for work on the app.

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Back in April:

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“Engineers have met several core challenges for the app to meet public health needs and support detection of contact events sufficiently well, including when the app is in the background, without excessively affecting battery life,” said a spokeswoman for NHSX, the health service’s digital innovation unit.

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Germany, Poland, Saudi Arabia, Italy, Latvia, Switzerland and 16 others had already gone with the Google-Apple API. Again and again, the British government insists that it knows what to do better than everyone else. Again and again, it’s completely and utterly wrong.
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Facebook removes Trump ads for using Nazi imagery • The Verge

Russell Brandom:

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Facebook has removed more than 80 ads placed by the Trump campaign for use of imagery linked to Nazism. The ads used the imagery of an inverted triangle, which the Trump campaign has argued is a “symbol widely used by antifa.” The same symbol was used to identify political prisoners in Nazi death camps, leading Media Matters to call it an “infamous Nazi symbol” with no place in political rhetoric.

Facebook agreed, ultimately removing the ads because of the Nazi-linked imagery. “Our policy prohibits using a banned hate group’s symbol to identify political prisoners without the context that condemns or discusses the symbol,” said Facebook’s Andy Stone in a statement.

Spread across official pages for President Trump, Vice President Pence, and campaign manager Brad Parscale, among others, the ads warned of “dangerous MOBS of far-left groups” causing “absolute mayhem” across America.

The extreme language is an extension of Trump’s weeks-long campaign against antifa, which has coincided with a spate of bizarre hoaxes claiming that violent agitators were bussing into rural areas to wreak havoc.

…The inverted red triangle has sometimes been adopted by anti-fascist groups, most notably by the UK’s Anti-Fascist Action group in the 1980s, in what historian Mark Bray referred to as a “reclamation … of the symbol used by the Nazis to label communists.” But among US anti-fascists, the symbol has been largely displaced by the dual-flag symbol and is rarely seen among contemporary groups.

As a result, many observers saw the Trump ads as a direct reference to the symbols used by Nazis to identify imprisoned political dissidents. In a statement to The Washington Post, Anti-Defamation League president Jonathan Greenblatt called the ads “offensive and deeply troubling.”

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Second lot of Trump ads they’ve taken down; the first one over a census. And now it gets written about, so it becomes free advertising. Maybe Facebook should just make them invisible.
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American policing explained in a few graphs • Jerry Ratcliffe

Ratcliffe is a former British police officer who is now a professor at Temple University, Philadelphia :

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Graph no. 1. This is from the second edition of my book “Intelligence-Led Policing“. The area of each box represents the volume of incidents in 2015 in the City of Philadelphia (about 1.5m in total). These incidents can come from verified calls for service from the public (something really took place as confirmed by a police officer), or from officer-initiated events (such as drug incidents). 

What is clear from the graphic is that violent crime plays such a small part in the day-to-day demands on police departments, even in Philadelphia, one of the more troubled cities in the U.S. While the media frets over homicide, it can be seen in the lower right as one of the least noticeable boxes in the graph. The majority of the police department’s workload is the day-to-day minutiae of life in a big city.

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The violence graph further down the article is amazing, and really makes one thing there must be something to the lead in air/water theory.
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Google’s latest experiment is Keen, an automated, machine-learning based version of Pinterest • TechCrunch

Sarah Perez:

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A new project called Keen is launching today from Google’s in-house incubator for new ideas, Area 120, to help users track their interests. The app is like a modern rethinking of the Google Alerts service, which allows users to monitor the web for specific content. Except instead of sending emails about new Google Search results, Keen leverages a combination of machine learning techniques and human collaboration to help users curate content around a topic.

Each individual area of interest is called a “keen” — a word often used to reference someone with an intellectual quickness.

The idea for the project came about after co-founder C.J. Adams realized he was spending too much time on his phone mindlessly browsing feeds and images to fill his downtime. He realized that time could be better spent learning more about a topic he was interested in — perhaps something he always wanted to research more or a skill he wanted to learn.

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“Keen”? Come on. It’s like Google – you know, you search for something, find out more – but a bit extra. They could call it, I don’t know, Google Plus.

And let’s not forget Knol, Google’s answer to Wikipedia, which somehow survived for four years. (It’s dead now.) Google Keep has survived, so it’s not just K-prefixed things that are doomed. Though I don’t see this coming close to the gazillion other networks out there.
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Huawei delays production of flagship phone after US crackdown • Nikkei Asian Review

Lauly Li, Cheng Ting-Fang and Naoki Watanabe:

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Huawei has asked for halts to production of some components for its latest Mate series of phones, and has also trimmed orders of parts for the coming quarters, as it tries to assess the impact on its smartphone business of Washington’s tightening export controls, sources said.

The unveiling of the latest Mate series, usually in the second half of the year, is Huawei’s answer to Apple’s new generation of iPhones. Huawei, the world’s second-largest smartphone maker, usually adopts its most advanced processor designs for the Mate lineup, using chips from its own HiSilicon semiconductor design unit.

But the Trump administration’s action in May further restricting Huawei’s access to U.S. technology has left the Chinese company uncertain about HiSilicon’s ability to supply parts such as mobile processors, communication chips and artificial intelligence accelerator chips. The U.S. has issued orders to prevent non-U.S. suppliers from using U.S. equipment to produce chips to specifications drawn up by Huawei and HiSilicon.

That has forced the Chinese telecom equipment maker to reassess its inventory of HiSilicon chips and look at alternative suppliers for the Mate, as it tries to balance production of the smartphone with expected demand next year.

Huawei has delayed its mass-production schedule for the Mate series, according to two supply-chain sources familiar with Huawei’s smartphone manufacturing plan.

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Chrome might not eat all your RAM after adopting this Windows feature • ExtremeTech

Ryan Whitwam:

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Chromium Edge rolled out to almost all Windows 10 computers in the recent May 2020 update. According to Microsoft, this update also implemented a new memory management feature in Edge known as SegmentHeap. In the latest version of Windows, developers can opt into SegmentHeap to lower the RAM usage of a program. Microsoft says it already added support to the new Edge browser, and it has seen a 27% drop in the browser’s memory footprint. 

As anyone who’s used Chrome regularly can confirm, Google’s browser has a way of running away with all your RAM once you get past a handful of tabs. However, Google has taken note of the new SegmentHeap functionality in Windows. A new comment in the Chromium open source project suggests the addition of SegmentHeap support on Windows. The comment notes that devices with higher numbers of processor threads will benefit the most, but everyone should get some RAM back. Testing individual machines with modified Chrome executables shows that SegmentHeap could save several hundred megabytes at least.

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Given that Chrome gobbles as many gigabytes as happen to be free, that’s not such a great promise.
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Chrome spyware extensions exposed, millions affected • Android Authority

C Scott Brown:

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In yet another instance of Google dropping the ball when it comes to Chrome spyware, a security research team called Awake Security found a ring of extensions all working together that compromised the security and privacy of millions of users.

After informing Google of the problematic Chrome spyware, Google removed over 70 extensions from the platform (via Reuters). However, those extensions and others that were part of the focused and organized attacks have already been downloaded over 32 million times.

Awake Security estimates this is the most far-reaching Chrome spyware effort to date. However, Google declined to verify that claim. It also declined to explain why it did not catch the activity itself.

These Chrome spyware extensions were usually disguised as tools that would, ironically, protect users from malicious sites. Some were also legitimate tools that would convert files from one format to another. However, while running, all the extensions could secretly siphon data from the user’s internet activity.

Using this data, the attackers could then obtain credentials for accessing both personal and corporate information. With so much business software usage happening in browsers nowadays, personal email accounts are no longer a big prize for attackers. Instead, Chrome spyware can obtain things like payroll records, corporate credit card accounts, and other highly sensitive information.

To avoid detection, the extensions would only transmit data from one server to another when the user was not using security software. In other words, the Chrome spyware was smart enough to know if security protocols were in place and then kill its illegal activity in response.

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A lot of attention on the registrar which let 15,000 domains be registered by whoever did this (the source isn’t known); the suggestion is the registrar should have thought something was fishy.
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Book review: John Bolton’s ‘The Room Where It Happened’ • The New York Times

Jennifer Szalai:

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Bolton, who refused to testify at the House impeachment hearings, may be the last person many Americans wish to hear from right now — not that he would ever deign to make any concessions to what a reader might want. “The Room Where It Happened,” an account of his 17 months as Trump’s national security adviser, has been written with so little discernible attention to style and narrative form that he apparently presumes an audience that is hanging on his every word.

Known as a fastidious note taker, Bolton has filled this book’s nearly 500 pages with minute and often extraneous details, including the time and length of routine meetings and even, at one point, a nap. Underneath it all courses a festering obsession with his enemies, both abroad (Iran, North Korea) and at home (the media, “the High-Minded,” the former defense secretary Jim Mattis). The book is bloated with self-importance, even though what it mostly recounts is Bolton not being able to accomplish very much. It toggles between two discordant registers: exceedingly tedious and slightly unhinged.

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In a comment here yesterday, regular reader Seth made this observation about Bolton:

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Bolton’s position strikes me as fundamentally pragmatic. I see him as saying that he thinks Trump should be removed from office – and IF the Establishment was extremely serious about it, then he’d be happy to join the barricades. However, if this isn’t a committed effort, but just a show, he’s not going to immolate himself for the entertainment of the crowd. That’s his point about it being necessary to be subpoenaed. He wants the ability to say that his participation was legally compelled, even if he signals he was willing to be compelled. He’s not a Democrat. He’s a thorough Republican, and he’s willing to go against his own party’s President under certain conditions. But that’s not something he’s going to do for a futile gesture of moralizing. He’s a war-monger, not an opinion columnist.

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All of which is true. None of which makes him, to me, any less of a coward in not speaking in front of Congress under oath.
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Death of Arizona man from chloroquine ruled an accident • Washington Free Beacon

Alana Goodman:

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The death of an Arizona man who ingested a lethal dose of fish tank treatment in March has been ruled an accidental overdose by the county medical examiner’s office, according to a copy of the report obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

Gary Lenius, 68, passed away on March 22, after he and his wife drank a fish tank additive that contained the drug chloroquine. The story drew national attention after the man’s wife, Wanda Lenius, said she and her husband ingested the substance because President Trump had praised chloroquine as a promising treatment for coronavirus. She subsequently told the Free Beacon that she had added a teaspoon of non-medicinal chloroquine powder, which is used to treat parasites in fish tanks, into glasses of soda that she and her husband drank.

The Mesa Police Department’s homicide unit has been investigating Lenius’s death since March. Detective Teresa Van Galder, who is handling the case, said the investigation is ongoing, but she does not expect that her findings will differ from the medical examiner’s office.

“I am still waiting on some other things to return prior to the investigation being officially completed,” Van Galder told the Free Beacon. “Unless I come across something I do not already have, I do not foresee the finding of the OME changing.”

…Lenius’s toxicology tests showed he had 17,000 nanograms per milliliter of chloroquine in his blood at the time of his death, indicating that he had ingested around 20 times the typical treatment dose.

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Seems like this is the end of the road for this mystery. (A puzzle is something that anyone can solve; a mystery is something only one or two people can solve.)

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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