Start Up No.1366: the impatient media election, a teen hacker’s trajectory, Iran’s coronavirus coverup, Tim Maughan interview, and more


“And from here you can see the Russian hackers downloading all your email, Dr Fox.” CC-licensed photo by British High Commission, New Delhi on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not available on TikTok. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Exclusive: Papers leaked before UK election in suspected Russian operation were hacked from ex-trade minister – sources • Reuters

Jack Stubbs and Guy Faulconbridge:

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Classified U.S.-UK trade documents leaked ahead of Britain’s 2019 election were stolen from the email account of former trade minister Liam Fox by suspected Russian hackers, two sources with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity because a law enforcement investigation is underway, said the hackers accessed the account multiple times between July 12 and Oct. 21 last year.

They declined to name which Russian group or organisation they believed was responsible, but said the attack bore the hallmarks of a state-backed operation.

The Kremlin did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday.

Among the stolen information were six tranches of documents detailing British trade negotiations with the United States, which Reuters first reported last year were leaked and disseminated online by a Russian disinformation campaign.

British foreign minister Dominic Raab confirmed that report last month, saying that “Russian actors” had sought to interfere in the election “through the online amplification of illicitly acquired and leaked Government documents”.

Reuters was not able to determine which of Fox’s email accounts was hacked and when it was first compromised. It is not clear if Fox, who is still a member of parliament but stood down as trade minister on July 24 last year in a cabinet reshuffle, was a minister at the time.

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“Which of his accounts”? That’s a worrying sentence: either it was his government account, which you would pray would be hack proof; or it was his personal account, in which case why are highly sensitive documents on there? The suspicion therefore is also that he didn’t use two-factor authentication, and that there wasn’t any network monitoring to see if there were connections to suspicious networks. All in all, a very concerning incident, far more than the simple contents of the emails.

If they were on his personal account, might there be grounds for prosecution under the Official Secrets Act?
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How the media could get the election story wrong • The New York Times

Ben Smith on how TV and social networks are trying to prepare for an election which could well be decided by postal votes that will take days to count:

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what the moment calls for, most of all, is patience. And good luck with that.

Nobody I talked to had any real idea how cable talkers or Twitter take-mongers would fill hours, days and, possibly, weeks of counting or how to apply a sober, careful lens to the wild allegations — rigged voting machines, mysterious buses of outsiders turning up at poll sites — that surface every election night, only to dissolve in the light of day.

Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, told me in a brief interview on Saturday that he’s planning to brace his audience for the postelection period. He said the site planned a round of education aimed at “getting people ready for the fact that there’s a high likelihood that it takes days or weeks to count this — and there’s nothing wrong or illegitimate about that.” And he said that Facebook is considering new rules regarding premature claims of victory or other statements about the results. He added that the company’s election center will rely on wire services for definitive results.

It’s possible, of course, that Joe Biden will win by a margin so large that Florida will be called for him early. Barring that, it’s tempting to say responsible voices should keep their mouths shut and switch over for a few days to Floor Is Lava, and give the nice local volunteers time to count the votes. That, however, would just cede the conversation to the least responsible, and conspiratorial, voices.

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Facebook is possibly the most important player here, but it’s totally predictable too that it’s going to be too pusillanimous about preventing people posting content that will cause real unrest. Maybe if it could just be shut down for a few days? Would anyone notice?
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From Minecraft tricks to Twitter hack: a Florida teen’s troubled online path • The New York Times

Nathaniel Popper, Kate Conger and Kellen Browning:

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For Graham Ivan Clark, the online mischief-making started early.

By the age of 10, he was playing the video game Minecraft, in part to escape what he told friends was an unhappy home life. In Minecraft, he became known as an adept scammer with an explosive temper who cheated people out of their money, several friends said.

At 15, he joined an online hackers’ forum. By 16, he had gravitated to the world of Bitcoin, appearing to involve himself in a theft of $856,000 of the cryptocurrency, though he was never charged for it, social media and legal records show. On Instagram posts afterward, he showed up with designer sneakers and a bling-encrusted Rolex.

The teenager’s digital misbehavior ended on Friday when the police arrested him at a Tampa, Fla., apartment. Florida prosecutors said Mr. Clark, now 17, was the “mastermind” of a prominent hack last month, accusing him of tricking his way into Twitter’s systems and taking over the accounts of some of the world’s most famous people, including Barack Obama, Kanye West and Jeff Bezos.

His arrest raised questions about how someone so young could penetrate the defences of what was supposedly one of Silicon Valley’s most sophisticated technology companies.

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Because… the defences were crap?
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Coronavirus: Iran cover-up of deaths revealed by data leak • BBC News

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The number of deaths from coronavirus in Iran is nearly triple what Iran’s government claims, a BBC Persian service investigation has found.

The government’s own records appear to show almost 42,000 people died with Covid-19 symptoms up to 20 July, versus 14,405 reported by its health ministry.

The number of people known to be infected is also almost double official figures: 451,024 as opposed to 278,827.

The official numbers still make Iran the worst-hit in the Middle East. In recent weeks, it has suffered a second steep rise in the number of cases.

The first death in Iran from Covid-19 was recorded on 22 January, according to lists and medical records that have been passed to the BBC. This was almost a month before the first official case of coronavirus was reported there.

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Why the pandemic is so bad in America • The Atlantic

Ed Yong:

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A pandemic can be prevented in two ways: Stop an infection from ever arising, or stop an infection from becoming thousands more. The first way is likely impossible. There are simply too many viruses and too many animals that harbor them. Bats alone could host thousands of unknown coronaviruses; in some Chinese caves, one out of every 20 bats is infected. Many people live near these caves, shelter in them, or collect guano from them for fertilizer. Thousands of bats also fly over these people’s villages and roost in their homes, creating opportunities for the bats’ viral stowaways to spill over into human hosts. Based on antibody testing in rural parts of China, Peter Daszak of EcoHealth Alliance, a nonprofit that studies emerging diseases, estimates that such viruses infect a substantial number of people every year. “Most infected people don’t know about it, and most of the viruses aren’t transmissible,” Daszak says. But it takes just one transmissible virus to start a pandemic.

Sometime in late 2019, the wrong virus left a bat and ended up, perhaps via an intermediate host, in a human—and another, and another. Eventually it found its way to the Huanan seafood market, and jumped into dozens of new hosts in an explosive super-spreading event. The COVID‑19 pandemic had begun.

…Being prepared means being ready to spring into action, “so that when something like this happens, you’re moving quickly,” Ronald Klain, who coordinated the U.S. response to the West African Ebola outbreak in 2014, told me. “By early February, we should have triggered a series of actions, precisely zero of which were taken.” Trump could have spent those crucial early weeks mass-producing tests to detect the virus, asking companies to manufacture protective equipment and ventilators, and otherwise steeling the nation for the worst. Instead, he focused on the border.

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TL;DR: inevitability and incompetence.
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The man whose science fiction keeps turning into our shitty cyberpunk reality • OneZero

Brian Merchant interviews Tim Maughan, whose SF book “Infinite Detail” was called the best of 2019 by The Guardian:

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Tim Maughan: Before Infinite Detail came out, I was at a workshop incubator thing in Brooklyn. And there was a couple of kids there — this is before Infinite Detail — and they said, “Oh, yeah, we’re making a smart trash can.”

And I had started working on the recycling bit in Intimate Detail. I had written that chapter at the time, and my heart just fell. I said, “Right, so what is that? How does it work?” And they were like, “Well, it’s got a screen on the side. And when you put a can in, it thanks you for putting it in.” And I said, “Well, what’s the point? Why?” And they said, “Well, because it would encourage kids to recycle more. It’d be like little video games they can play.” And I’m thinking, “Okay, is it really that hard to get kids to recycle? I don’t feel like it is, but, anyway, whatever.”

I said, “What’s your business model?” He said, “Well, hopefully, we’ll get cities invested in it.” And I said, “Yeah, but…” And I knew exactly what his answer was going to be, and I kept pushing him on it. He said, “Well, yeah, eventually we do want to monetize the data it collects. Yeah, eventually we could be monitoring who’s walking past from the IDs on the phone or the footfall.” And that’s it. People are not even interested in fixing these problems. They’re interested in finding “solutions.” They’re finding other trajectories, other vectors to get data collection, that’s it because they literally have all been told data is new oil, and they fully fucking bought into this.

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I finished Infinite Detail yesterday. It’s the flip side of Shockwave Rider, by another (sadly deceased) British SF writer John Brunner: Infinite Detail is a hyperconnected world that becomes disconnected, Shockwave Rider is a hyperconnected world that becomes overconnected. Container ships play a large part in this interview, and it’s fascinating. Recommended. (Infinite Detail might also feel familiar to anyone who has read John Lanchester’s The Wall.)
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‘This is a new phase’: Europe shifts tactics to limit tech’s power • The New York Times

Adam Satariano:

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European Union leaders are pursuing a new law to make it illegal for Amazon and Apple to give their own products preferential treatment over those of rivals that are sold on their online stores.

In Britain, officials are drawing up a law to force Facebook to make its services work more easily with rival social networks, and to push Google to share some search data with smaller competitors.

And in Germany, authorities are debating a rule that would let regulators essentially halt certain business practices at the tech companies during an antitrust investigation.

Europe’s lawmakers and regulators … are drafting at least half a dozen new laws and regulations to aim at the heart of how those tech companies’ businesses work.

…“We have crossed a line,” said Andrea Coscelli, the head of Britain’s antitrust agency, the Competition and Markets Authority, which published a 400-plus-page report this month accusing Google and Facebook of anticompetitive behavior in online advertising. “Something needs to happen sooner rather than later, and it needs to be done in an intelligent way.”

Mr. Coscelli said the lack of specific tech regulation reminded him of the lax oversight of banks before the 2008 financial crisis. Regulators should treat the tech giants more like formerly state-owned enterprises such as British Telecom and Deutsche Telekom, he said.

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I tried to live without the tech giants. It was impossible • The New York Times

Kashmir Hill:

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When I blocked Google, the entire internet slowed down for me, because almost every site I visited was using Google to supply its fonts, run its ads, track its users, or determine if its users were humans or bots. While blocking Google, I couldn’t sign into the data storage service Dropbox because the site thought I wasn’t a real person. Uber and Lyft stopped working for me, because they were both dependent on Google Maps for navigating the world. I discovered that Google Maps had a de facto monopoly on online maps. Even Google’s longtime critic Yelp used it to tell computer users where businesses could be found.

I came to think of Amazon and Google as the providers of the very infrastructure of the internet, so embedded in the architecture of the digital world that even their competitors had to rely on their services.

Facebook, Apple and Microsoft came with their own challenges. While Facebook was less debilitating to block, I missed Instagram (which Facebook owns) terribly, and I stopped getting news from my social circle, like the birth of a good friend’s child. “I just assume that if I post something on Facebook, everyone will know about it,” she told me when I called her weeks later to congratulate her. I tried out an alternative called Mastodon, but a social network devoid of any of your friends isn’t much fun.

Apple was hard to leave because I had two Apple computers and an iPhone, so I wound up getting some radical new hardware in order to keep accessing the internet and making phone calls.

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Cannot escape any of them.
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Pixel 4A review: Google’s smartphone camera for $349 • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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The specs are a good news / worrisome news kind situation. The good news is that Google has put in enough RAM (6GB) to run Android well and put in enough storage (128GB) to accommodate most users without hassle or annoyance. That 128GB of storage is especially notable because it’s double what the base iPhone SE offers — meaning an equivalent iPhone SE with 128GB of storage is $100 more than the Pixel 4A.

That all seems great, but the iPhone SE has a ridiculous advantage over the Pixel: its processor. Where Apple can use its economies of scale to put the fastest mobile processor ever made into its low-cost iPhone SE, Google has to make do with the options Qualcomm offers at this price point. That means the Pixel 4A uses the midtier Snapdragon 730G, which is the worrisome news.

It is fast enough for day-to-day use. Out of the box (and after Android gets over the usual first-day sync chug), it’s the kind of phone I would be happy to use every day. It takes a beat longer to open apps, and there’s some wonky scrolling in Chrome and Twitter, but it’s not slow.

What I worry more about is longevity. Android phones have a reputation for not lasting as many years as iPhones — and the processor is a big part of that. There’s just not as much headroom for future software complexity here. Google promises at least three years of software updates and says last year’s Pixel 3A (which also has a lower-tier processor) is aging well, but it’s something to think about. I would say if you want a phone that’s sure to last four or more years, look elsewhere.

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Good camera, doubts about the longevity of the support.
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Trump says US should get slice of TikTok sale price • WSJ

Alex Leary:

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President Trump confirmed Monday he is open to a deal in which Microsoft or another US company buys the video-sharing app TikTok, but said the government should receive payment for clearing a purchase.

Speaking to reporters at the White House, Mr. Trump described the Sunday conversation he had with Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella over the company’s interest in buying TikTok from its Chinese owner, Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd.

“I said, ’Look it can’t be controlled for security reasons by China,’” Mr. Trump said. “Here’s the deal, I don’t mind whether it’s Microsoft or somebody else—a big company, a secure company, a very American company buy it.”

But the president, who on Friday floated banning TikTok, also said there would be conditions to a sale and he did not see how only part of the company could be purchased. Microsoft has said it is interested in buying TikTok operations in the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia, leaving other parts of the business in Chinese ownership.

“I did say that ‘If you buy it…a very substantial portion of that price is going to have to come into the Treasury of the United States, because we’re making it possible for this deal to happen.’ Right now they don’t have any rights unless we give it to them.”

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I’m hoping for “Microsoft to Trump: Drop Dead”. There’s absolutely no legal basis on which Microsoft or TikTok would owe any part of a sale price to the US government. This is just another part of the ongoing Trump corruption; except he now says it out loud, in front of cameras, rather than on phone calls or in the Oval Office. It could only be worse if one of Trump’s children or in-laws was buying or selling the company, and was getting a kickback. If by some opposite of a miracle Trump gets back in, that’ll be what you’ll see: it’ll be as corrupt as Zimbabwe.

Also, Microsoft can’t buy all of the company outside China: there are elements which are non-US and are expected to remain under control of ByteDance.
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Worldwide tablet PC market grew 26% in Q2 2020 • Canalys

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Worldwide tablet shipments hit 37.5 million units in Q2 2020, a remarkable 26% year-on-year increase. Tablets, part of the PC market, had faltered in recent years, but demand in Q2 2020 was boosted by consumers and businesses wanting affordable access to basic computing power and larger screens to facilitate remote work, learning and leisure. Vendors were able to ramp up production to meet this renewed demand. At the same time, retailers and carriers in various markets provided financial incentives on devices and data to encourage tablet purchases.

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Pretty dramatic: 37.5m for the quarter, of which Apple (predictably enough) had just under 40%. There still isn’t a tablet market beyond Apple and Samsung, which together have nearly 60% of the whole market.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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