Start Up No.1338: Apple fixes another antitrust problem, Google offers to wipe old data about you, how OSINT beat the GRU, fashion v ML, and more

Excellent social distancing: perhaps that’s why BLM protests didn’t spike Covid-19 cases. CC-licensed photo by quinn norton on Flickr.

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A selection of 12 links for you. Le8.. elated? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Trump campaign weighs alternatives to big social platforms • WSJ

Emily Glazer and Michael C. Bender:


The Trump campaign, known for its social media savvy, is hitting digital roadblocks.

Facebook’s decision to remove Trump campaign political ads and posts last week, citing its policy against organized hate, surprised campaign officials. It added urgency to internal discussions about devising workaround plans if some of the world’s largest social media companies continue to remove or block content from the campaign and President Trump, people familiar with the matter said.

The campaign is unlikely to pull advertising on Facebook, campaign officials said, since it can reach around 175 million U.S. users. The campaign has spent $19.6m on Facebook ads so far this year. But the rebuke from the social media giant, following restrictions from Twitter and Snap’s Snapchat, has top campaign officials considering alternatives, such as moving to another, lesser known company, building their own platform or doubling down on efforts to move supporters to the campaign’s smartphone app, according to people familiar with the discussions.

But there is disagreement internally over what—if anything—to do next, the people said. No other platforms offer the reach of Facebook or Twitter, and with about five months until Election Day, time is running out. The situation has been described internally as “code red,” a person familiar with the matter said.

Still, while some content by Mr. Trump or the campaign has recently been flagged or taken down, nearly all gets through on social media outlets.

Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale and others in the campaign have talked for months about building up audiences on alternative platforms, including social media platform Parler, a person familiar with the conversations said.


The “blocks” are hardly dramatic. Twitter makes people click on an overlay, and prevents the tweet being replied to, Liked or retweeted. (The latter must make quite a difference.) They can quote-tweet it. Facebook has taken down a couple of egregious Trump ads. How many egregious ones does it have lined up, exactly?

As for Parler – that’s hilarious. If Trump wants to vanish from view, that’s a great idea. Ditto for the smartphone app.
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Biden campaign continues to pressure Facebook and Twitter over Trump’s false voter fraud claims – CNNPolitics

Sarah Mucha and Donie O’Sullivan:


Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s campaign is calling on Facebook and Twitter to remove false posts sent this week by President Donald Trump about foreign-backed voter fraud and stoking fears of a ‘rigged election.’

“Our campaign has sent letters to Twitter and Facebook demanding that this disinformation, which seeks to undermine faith in our electoral process, gets taken down immediately,” Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said in a statement.

In the campaign’s letter to Twitter, obtained by CNN, the campaign’s general counsel Dana Remus scolds the company for not taking action and argues the President’s tweets “creates the misimpression that the tens of millions of Americans who will vote by mail may have their votes drowned out by fraud.”

Twitter said Monday it would not take action on the President’s tweets.

CNN has repeatedly debunked Trump’s comments, and his primary allegation – that voting-by-mail leads to “massive fraud” – is completely untrue.


Biden clearly just trying to get a thumb on the scale here; to make enough noise that Facebook and Twitter will start getting an institutional “wait, though, what if” response when weighing up whether to do something about a tweet or an ad. Though I’d imagine the response might actually turn into “let’s just annoy them both”.
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Cities that had Black Lives Matter Protests have not seen spikes in COVID-19 • Buzzfeed News

Peter Aldhous:


More than three weeks after hundreds of thousands of Americans started taking to the streets to protest the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, anticipated surges in COVID-19 cases have not shown up in the cities with the biggest protests.

Some commentators are already speculating that the lack of protest-related spikes in coronavirus cases means that social distancing rules are not so important if people are outside and wear masks — as many protesters did. Slate went so far as to suggest that “a much wider range of outdoor activities — sports events, beaches, swimming pools, playgrounds, and so forth — could be safely permitted much sooner than currently scheduled.”

But some experts say that leaping to this conclusion could be a serious mistake. “I do think it’s good news that we haven’t seen enormous outbreaks at this time,” Kate Grabowski, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins University, told BuzzFeed News. “But everything that we’ve learned from the epidemiology of this virus tells us that people who are in close proximity with people who are infected are at risk.”

What’s more, a new analysis based on cellphone tracking data suggests a surprising reason for the lack of protest-related spikes in COVID-19: in the cities with large protests, the wider population actually spent more time at home during the demonstrations — suggesting that any surge caused by virus transmission at the protests themselves would have been countered by an increase in social distancing among the rest of the cities’ populations.

New cases per day for selected counties with protests

Peter Aldhous / BuzzFeed News / Via New York Times / USAFacts
Numbers plotted for any day reflect the average for the preceding seven days. Protests began on May 26 in Minneapolis and spread to other cities over the next few days.


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As fashion resets, its algorithms should too • Vogue Business

Maghan McDowell:


In 2018, futurist and academic Karinna Nobbs worked with a major cosmetics brand on an augmented reality try-on tool. During user testing, Nobbs noticed that some of the technology worked more effectively on white and Asian faces. For darker skin tones and older users, it was not able to track and place the content on the face, and lipstick would “wobble” on lips.

The brand solved the problem by training the algorithm to recognise more types of people, which also enabled the tool to better calibrate colour cosmetics. This experience demonstrated the importance of inclusivity to build an effective product, Nobbs says. It also shows that artificial intelligence and algorithms can be flawed.

Just like the humans that design it, AI can have bias. In fashion and beauty, this might manifest as online searches showing only certain types of models, or an image-matching engine mistaking legs for dark jeans. It might mean missing out on an entire customer segment or reinforcing harmful stereotypes. So as brands undergo a reckoning to be more inclusive and diverse, their data and algorithms are due for a closer look as well.

“Brands have come under fire for using creative that is offensive and discriminatory. If your AI has seen that in the data set and thinks it’s acceptable, it will most likely reproduce some of that offensive design,” says Ashwini Asokan, CEO of retail automation platform, which works with Thredup and Zilingo. “This is why there is no ‘one size fits all’ in AI. AI must adapt to your business, your goals, your aspirations as a company.”


Plenty more examples, too – often those ML systems are trained from clothes catalogues, and guess what? Those catalogues aren’t representative either. If those then feed into apps that “recommend” clothes, you can see that the problem can quickly become systemic.
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‘A chain of stupidity’: the Skripal case and the decline of Russia’s spy agencies • The Guardian

Luke Harding on Bellingcat, which used (mostly) open source intelligence to unmask the GRU’s poisoners:


Bellingcat revealed the identity of poisoner No 1 in a message on its website. Having unmasked one assassin, it seemed likely that Bellingcat would succeed in identifying Petrov, too. Sure enough, in late September I received an invitation to a press conference. It was to be held in an illustrious location: the Houses of Parliament, in an upstairs committee room, number nine. Its subject was Petrov’s real identity.

By the time I arrived, the room was full. I spotted a reporter from the New York Times, Ellen Barry, together with leading representatives from the British and US media. It was hard to escape the conclusion that power in journalism was shifting. It was moving away from established print titles and towards open-source innovators. The new hero of journalism was no longer a grizzled investigator burning shoe leather, à la All the President’s Men, but a pasty-looking kid in front of a MacBook Air.

Higgins and Grozev were there, as well as a Conservative MP, Bob Seely. I found a spot on a bench and sat down. The mood was expectant. Seely set the scene. He described Bellingcat as a “truly remarkable group of digital detectives”. Their success was due to an explosion of digital technology and a rise in digital activism, he said.

Grozev explained how Bellingcat had identified that Petrov’s real name was Alexander Mishkin. The search involved methods new and old. It found Mishkin in a car insurance database, as the owner of a Volvo XC90. The car was registered to the GRU’s Moscow headquarters at Khoroshevskoye Shosse. Next, they used Russian social media to get in touch with Mishkin’s student contemporaries. Did any of them remember him from their St Petersburg days?

Most didn’t answer. But two did. One said Mishkin had been in a different class – and that Russia’s security services had been in touch two weeks previously and instructed graduates not to divulge any information about Mishkin under any circumstances.


Britain’s love of CCTV effectively burnt the two GRU heavies, who then had to give media interviews. Remember, you’ve never ever seen James Bond give a media interview in a Bond film, for good reasons.

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Apple Silicon Mac mini dev kit looks like a desktop iPad Pro • Appleinsider

Daniel Eran Dilger:


Apple also detailed that its developer transition kit provides USB 3 connectivity over USB-C, as well a legacy USB-A ports and HDMI. This looks a bit like a Mac mini, but its really iPad Pro connectivity. New Mac minis support Thunderbolt 3, which can drive up to four 4K DisplayPort screens and support devices such as RAID storage and eGPU expansion. Thunderbolt 3 is an Intel specification that effectively works like a PCIe slot in the form of a cable. Supporting Thunderbolt 3 connectivity requires an Intel controller chip.

Most iOS devices only support USB 2, as well as support for a single 1080p HDMI video output, USB storage, and networking, all though Apple’s proprietary Lightning port using a dongle or a special cable. The newest iPad Pro models sport a USB C port which can handle the faster USB 3 specification and up to 4K video output using a USB-C DisplayPort monitor— as long as the display doesn’t also require Thunderbolt 3.

This makes it pretty clear that the developer transition kit isn’t a Mac mini outfitted with an Apple Silicon SoC, but rather an iPad Pro logic board hooked up to multiple USB ports, Ethernet, and HDMI for convenience. It sports the same Bluetooth 5.0 and 802.11ac WiFi, and can attach to an SSD for storage using USB-C.


Makes sense. Going to be really fascinating to see all the benchmarks in a few weeks when the kits arrive with developers. Apple has said that people aren’t allowed to run benchmarks on it or discuss it on social media. Let’s try to imagine how many seconds that’s going to survive.
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Keeping your private information private • Google blog

Sundar Pichai:


We believe that products should keep your information for only as long as it’s useful and helpful to you—whether that’s being able to find your favorite destinations in Maps or getting recommendations for what to watch on YouTube. 

That’s why last year we introduced auto-delete controls, which give you the choice to have Google automatically and continuously delete your Location History, search, voice and YouTube activity data after 3 months or 18 months. We continue to challenge ourselves to do more with less, and today we’re changing our data retention practices to make auto-delete the default for our core activity settings. 

Here’s how it works: Starting today, the first time you turn on Location History—which is off by default—your auto-delete option will be set to 18 months by default. Web & App Activity auto-delete will also default to 18 months for new accounts. This means your activity data will be automatically and continuously deleted after 18 months, rather than kept until you choose to delete it. You can always turn these settings off or change your auto-delete option. 


I’m going to be cynical and say that the half-life of usefulness for that data that they collect is a lot less than 18 months, so that this is a sort of “strategy credit” (or “strategy neutral”): it has no impact on their business, but makes it sound like they’re being nice to you. On YouTube, however, the default-delete period is 36 months, which shows you that it digs a lot deeper there.
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Tech firms face a stark choice between China and the United States in new cold war • Foreign Policy

Jacob Helberg used to work as a policy advisor at Google:


Chinese Christians who joined a Sunday worship service via Zoom were later arrested by the CCP. How long will Zoom’s American employees be content to cite compliance with “local laws” as their platforms are used to not only suppress free speech but also to enable the oppression of dissidents and minorities?

At Google, the answer was “not long.” Many of the company’s own employees turned against Project Dragonfly in an open letter to management.

Other firms could soon face similar quandaries. Amazon and Microsoft each operate cloud storage services in China. What would happen if the CCP pressured Microsoft to turn over information on a Chinese dissident if it wanted to keep operating in China? Ever since 2004, when Yahoo divulged to the Chinese government the email account of a newspaper editor named Shi Tao—who was subsequently sentenced to a decade of forced labor—this dilemma has haunted Silicon Valley. And what would happen if the CCP requested information on a user outside of China under the same conditions?

Finally, the most harmful weakness of “one company, two systems” is also the most overlooked: geopolitics.

Zoom’s recent takedowns are likely to intensify a broader reckoning within the technology industry, which is being caused not by market pressures but by strategic pressures. The coronavirus pandemic has amplified and accelerated the thrum of a new cold war between an autocratic China and a democratic United States.


Helberg reckons that tech companies will have to choose: China or the US?
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The App Store is a monopoly: here’s why the EU is correct to investigate Apple • ProtonMail

Andy Yen:


Apple’s iOS controls 25% of the global smartphone market (the other 75%, is largely controlled by Google’s Android). This means that for over a billion people (particularly in the US where their market share approaches 50%), the only way to install apps is through the App Store. This gives Apple enormous influence over the way software is created and consumed around the world.

Perhaps the most harmful expression of this power is Apple’s exorbitant 30% tax on developers, which is now the subject of antitrust investigations in both the United States and the European Union. To be clear, this is an enormous fee and would be intolerable in normal market conditions, but it’s particularly damaging if you offer a product that competes with Apple. It is hard to stay competitive if you are forced to pay your competitor 30% of all of your earnings…

…In January 2020, ProtonVPN submitted an update of its iOS app description in the App Store. The new description highlighted ProtonVPN’s features, including the ability to “unblock censored websites” with the app.

Even though ProtonVPN had been in the App Store since 2018 and the basic functionality of our VPN has not changed, Apple abruptly rejected the new app version and threatened to remove ProtonVPN entirely. They demanded that we remove this language around anti-censorship on the grounds that freedom of speech is severely limited in some countries.


It would be great if Yen didn’t overstate his case so badly. Apple has about 15% of the global market, and that’s pretty consistent down the years. The 30% charge is about the same as you see in bookshops – though most retailers add a 40% markup from wholesale. Plus the person who’s getting affected there is the customer. The app developer is free to set their own price to make up for the 30%; just pick a space where you’re not competed into the ground.

On the censorship point, that’s tricky. Apple knows that. The options are: make it possible for people to buy a device that’s really secure while they live in countries with onerous censorship, or stay out of those countries. Apple gets the sales, and dissidents get security. Difficult balance, but there’s more than one interpretation.
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Apple’s new ARM-based Macs won’t support Windows through Boot Camp • The Verge

Tom Warren:


Apple will start switching its Macs to its own ARM-based processors later this year, but you won’t be able to run Windows in Boot Camp mode on them. Microsoft only licenses Windows 10 on ARM to PC makers to preinstall on new hardware, and the company hasn’t made copies of the operating system available for anyone to license or freely install.

“Microsoft only licenses Windows 10 on ARM to OEMs,” says a Microsoft spokesperson in a statement to The Verge. We asked Microsoft if it plans to change this policy to allow Boot Camp on ARM-based Macs, and the company says “we have nothing further to share at this time.”

Apple has been working closely with Microsoft to ensure Office is ready for ARM-based Macs later this year, but the company didn’t mention its lack of Boot Camp support at WWDC. It’s possible that both companies are still working toward some sort of support, but that would require Microsoft to open up its Windows 10 on ARM licensing more broadly.

Other methods to run Windows on ARM-based Macs could include virtualization using apps like VMWare or Parallels, but these won’t be supported by Apple’s Rosetta 2 translation technology. Virtual machine apps will need to be fully rebuilt for ARM-based Macs, and it’s not immediately clear if that’s even a workable solution for Windows on ARM or whether VMWare, Parallels, and others will commit to building these apps with Windows support.


Raises the question of why Microsoft only licences Windows on ARM to OEMs. Although as Warren points out, the number of Boot Camp users is pretty small. They’ll probably rush to buy Intel machines right up to the last minute, which will see them through the next four or five years, by which time there should be more clarity.

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Microsoft president swipes at rivals like Apple in urging scrutiny of app stores • POLITICO

Steven Overly:


Microsoft President Brad Smith called Thursday for greater antitrust scrutiny of the app stores run by rivals like Apple and Google, suggesting they have made it too difficult for small developers to build applications for their smartphones and other devices without agreeing to onerous rules.

“I do believe the time has come, whether we’re talking about Washington, D.C., or Brussels, for a much more focused conversation about the nature of app stores, the rules that are being put in place, the prices and the tolls that are being extracted and whether there is really a justification in antitrust law for everything that has been created,” Smith said during a POLITICO Live interview.

While he did not explicitly mention Apple and Google, the two companies whose operating systems run on almost all smartphones, Smith expressly criticized several practices true of their platforms.

Apple and Google both take a sizable cut of app sales and subscriptions through their platforms, and Apple in particular offers few ways to reach customers without going through its app store. Those practices have long been decried by certain app developers and they have now begun attracting the attention of antitrust officials on both sides of the Atlantic.


A dish served very cold for Smith, given that some of Apple’s top people testified against Microsoft 20-odd years ago in the antitrust case. (Specifically, Avie Tevanian over Quicktime.)
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Third-party accessories can now be integrated into the Find My app with iOS 14 • 9to5Mac

Filipe Espósito:


Apple has announced iOS 14 with several new features, including redesigned home screen, built-in translation, and more. And now, the company has just confirmed during the “Platforms State of the Union” keynote that third-party accessories can now be integrated into the Find My app with iOS 14.

Apple calls this feature the “Find My network.” Here’s how the company describes it:


Introducing a new program that will let customers locate your products using the power of the vast Find My network. With hundreds of millions of Apple devices around the world, advanced end-to-end encryption, and industry-leading security, users can locate their items within the Find My app with the peace of mind that their privacy is protected.


In other words, this basically means that any tracking accessory maker can sign up to use Apple’s technology, allowing those accessories to be monitored by the Find My app. Third-party accessories can benefit from Apple’s Find My infrastructure, including the ability to find them offline.

Although the company hasn’t provided further details, this has probably been changed due to Tile’s accusations of Apple’s anti-competitive practices ahead of the alleged Apple’s AirTags launch later this year.


So that’s another antitrust issue knocked away (though I expect Tile will complain about the details – there will be all sorts of privacy demands). I make that three antitrust issues down, and counting.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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