Start Up No.1370: the US defence group tracking your phone, how Cook made Apple his own, Gates on Covid and Facebook, and more


The hokey 1960s TV series “Time Tunnel” probably wouldn’t pass muster in China – because of its time-travel theme CC-licensed photo by James Vaughan on Flickr.

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A selection of 13 links for you. Well-baked. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

U.S. government contractor embedded software in apps to track phones • WSJ

Byron Tau:

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A small U.S. company with ties to the U.S. defense and intelligence communities has embedded its software in numerous mobile apps, allowing it to track the movements of hundreds of millions of mobile phones world-wide, according to interviews and documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

Anomaly Six LLC a Virginia-based company founded by two U.S. military veterans with a background in intelligence, said in marketing material it is able to draw location data from more than 500 mobile applications, in part through its own software development kit, or SDK, that is embedded directly in some of the apps. An SDK allows the company to obtain the phone’s location if consumers have allowed the app containing the software to access the phone’s GPS coordinates.

App publishers often allow third-party companies, for a fee, to insert SDKs into their apps. The SDK maker then sells the consumer data harvested from the app, and the app publisher gets a chunk of revenue. But consumers have no way to know whether SDKs are embedded in apps; most privacy policies don’t disclose that information. Anomaly Six says it embeds its own SDK in some apps, and in other cases gets location data from other partners.

…The company told The Wall Street Journal it restricts the sale of U.S. mobile phone movement data only to nongovernmental, private-sector clients.

Numerous agencies of the U.S. government have concluded that mobile data acquired by federal agencies from advertising is lawful.

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I’m sure that the security around it is absolutely rock solid and not at all at risk from Chinese state and other hackers.
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China bans time travel films and shows, citing disrespect of history • Hollywood Reporter

Jonathan Landreth:

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China’s media authorities have stopped the clock on time travel in film and television, saying the sci-fi notion “disrespects history.”

This would be odd for a country whose big and small screens have long been filled with historically porous period epics about scandalized courts of bygone eras, but not so when one considers that 2011 marks the 90th anniversary of China’s ruling political party.
 
“The rationale [for the time travel ban] is that whatever isn’t possible in the real world belongs to superstition,” said film critic and journalist Raymond Zhou Liming, who notes that time travel is untouched by censors in Chinese literature and theater.
 
In the electronic mass media, however, which in China reaches the world’s largest TV audience and the globe’s fastest growing movie market, the idea of time travel presents a clear and present danger.
 
In time-travel dramas such as Myth (Shen Hua), currently popular on Chinese TV, audiences seem to like the story of a modern man going back to ancient China where, after some adjustment, he finds love and happiness.
 
“Most time travel content that I’ve seen (in literature and theater, that is) is actually not heavy on science, but an excuse to comment on current affairs,” Zhou told The Hollywood Reporter.
 
Apparently unhappy with film and TV presenting even the fictional notion that China’s ability to provide happiness is a thing of the past for the average man, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television posted its guidance about time travel.

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The reason why this is in the Hollywood Reporter is that China is often a big source of funds, and viewers, for films. Or at least, it was. Speaking as someone who loves time travel films, I find this Chinese proscription a bit bonkers – but it makes sense in the context of an authority that doesn’t want to admit the possibility of the present being any different from how it is.
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How Tim Cook made Apple his own • WSJ

Tripp Mickle:

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Mr. Cook’s command of detail causes underlings to enter meetings with trepidation. He leads through interrogation, with a precision that has reshaped how Apple staff work and think.

“The first question is: ‘Joe, how many units did we produce today?’ ‘It was 10,000.’ ‘What was the yield?’ ‘98%.’ You can answer those and then he’d say, ‘Ok, so 98%, explain how the 2% failed?’ You’d think, ‘F—, I don’t know.’ It drives a level of detail so everyone becomes Cook-like,” said Joe O’Sullivan, a former Apple operations executive. He said Mr. Cook’s first meeting with staff the day he arrived in 1998 lasted 11 hours.

Middle managers today screen staff before meetings with Mr. Cook to make sure they’re knowledgeable. First-timers are advised not to speak. “It’s about protecting your team and protecting him. You don’t waste his time,” said a longtime lieutenant. If he senses someone is insufficiently prepared, he loses patience and says, “Next,” as he flips a page of the meeting agenda, this person said, adding, “people have left crying.”

In late 2012, Mr. Cook was absent when Apple’s senior leadership gathered at the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco to review an early prototype of the Apple Watch, its first new product after Mr. Jobs, according to people in attendance.

Such an absence from a new product discussion would have been unthinkable for Mr. Jobs, associates say. But as Apple continued to rake in record profits, Mr. Cook began to turn his focus toward investors who wanted to know what he would do with an ever-growing pile of cash.

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Lots of little details about what he does that’s different: hardly ever goes to the design shop, gets annoyed at little errors, isn’t one for the “how might the world look like in five or ten years?” questions (which is part of why the HomePod, for example, was late to market even though Apple had it internally for years).

Anyway, puts the 2014 book “Haunted Empire” by former WSJ reporter Yukari Iwatani Kane, which argued that Apple post-Jobs was doooooooomed, into perspective. (She’s now an adviser to San Quentin News, “the country’s only prisoner-run newspaper”.
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Snapdragon chip flaws put more than 1 billion Android phones at risk of data theft • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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A billion or more Android devices are vulnerable to hacks that can turn them into spying tools by exploiting more than 400 vulnerabilities in Qualcomm’s Snapdragon chip, researchers reported this week.

The vulnerabilities can be exploited when a target downloads a video or other content that’s rendered by the chip. Targets can also be attacked by installing malicious apps that require no permissions at all.

From there, attackers can monitor locations and listen to nearby audio in real time and exfiltrate photos and videos. Exploits also make it possible to render the phone completely unresponsive. Infections can be hidden from the operating system in a way that makes disinfecting difficult.

Snapdragon is what’s known as a system on a chip that provides a host of components, such as a CPU and a graphics processor. One of the functions, known as digital signal processing, or DSP, tackles a variety of tasks, including charging abilities and video, audio, augmented reality, and other multimedia functions. Phone makers can also use DSPs to run dedicated apps that enable custom features.

“While DSP chips provide a relatively economical solution that allows mobile phones to provide end users with more functionality and enable innovative features—they do come with a cost,” researchers from security firm Check Point wrote in a brief report of the vulnerabilities they discovered.

…Check Point is withholding technical details about the vulnerabilities and how they can be exploited until fixes make their way into end-user devices.

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That sounds easy enough to exploit. And could be a while before it’s sorted. (Thanks G for the link.)
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New ‘unpatchable’ exploit allegedly found on Apple’s Secure Enclave chip; here’s what it could mean • 9to5Mac

Filipe Esposito:

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Chinese hackers from the Pangu Team have reportedly found an “unpatchable” exploit on Apple’s Secure Enclave chip that could lead to breaking the encryption of private security keys. An unpatchable exploit means that the vulnerability was found in the hardware and not the software, so there’s probably nothing Apple can do to fix it on devices that have already been shipped.

We still don’t have further details on what exactly hackers can do with this specific vulnerability, but having full access to the Security Enclave could also mean having access to passwords, credit cards, and much more. The only thing we know so far is that this vulnerability in Secure Enclave affects all Apple chips between the A7 and A11 Bionic, similar to the checkm8 exploit that allows jailbreak for almost all iOS devices up to iPhone X.

Even though Apple has already fixed this security breach with the A12 and A13 Bionic chips, there are still millions of Apple devices running with the A11 Bionic or older chips that could be affected by this exploit. The impacts that this vulnerability found in the Security Enclave will have on users will likely be known in the coming months.

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New cars can stay in their lane—but might not stop for parked cars • Ars Technica

Timothy Lee:

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In recent years, a number of car companies have—like Tesla—begun offering driver assistance systems that offer lane-keeping as well as adaptive cruise control. This might seem like a big step toward a “self-driving car,” since a system like this can travel down the freeway for miles without human intervention. But a new report from AAA underscores the limitations of these systems.

Its most dramatic finding: the advanced driver-assistance systems (ADAS) on the latest cars still struggle to avoid collisions with parked vehicles. They tested cars from BMW, Kia, and Subaru; none consistently avoided running into a fake car partially blocking the travel lane.

The researchers also examined the ADAS in the Cadillac CT6 and the Ford Edge, but these cars’ systems weren’t included in the parked-vehicle test because their driver assistance systems wouldn’t engage on AAA’s closed course. They were included in other tests conducted on public highways.

“All test drivers reached a general consensus that combining adaptive cruise and lane-keeping functionalities in a single system did not consistently enhance the driving experience,” the report said. The vehicles made mistakes often enough that drivers often found the experience nerve-wracking rather than relaxing.

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Soooo you won’t really feel comfortable engaging them.
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Bill Gates on Covid: most US tests are ‘completely garbage’ • WIRED

Steven Levy speaks to billg:

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Q: As someone who has built your life on science and logic, I’m curious what you think when you see so many people signing onto this anti-science view of the world.

Gates: Well, strangely, I’m involved in almost everything that anti-science is fighting. I’m involved with climate change, GMOs, and vaccines. The irony is that it’s digital social media that allows this kind of titillating, oversimplistic explanation of, “OK, there’s just an evil person, and that explains all of this.” And when you have [posts] encrypted, there is no way to know what it is. I personally believe government should not allow those types of lies or fraud or child pornography [to be hidden with encryption like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger].

Well, you’re friends with Mark Zuckerberg. Have you talked to him about this?

After I said this publicly, he sent me mail. I like Mark, I think he’s got very good values, but he and I do disagree on the trade-offs involved there. The lies are so titillating you have to be able to see them and at least slow them down. Like that video where, what do they call her, the demon sperm woman? That got over 10 million views! [Note: It was more than 20 million.] Well how good are these guys at blocking things, where once something got the 10 million views and everybody was talking about it, they didn’t delete the link or the searchability? So it was meaningless. They claim, “Oh, now we don’t have it.” What effect did that have? Anybody can go watch that thing! So I am a little bit at odds with the way that these conspiracy theories spread, many of which are anti-vaccine things. We give literally tens of billions for vaccines to save lives, then people turn around saying, “No, we’re trying to make money and we’re trying to end lives.” That’s kind of a wild inversion of what our values are and what our track record is.

«

“He and I do disagree” is the gentlest possible phrase. Gates was famous, at Microsoft, for going ballistic at people who screwed up. Yet he respects Zuckerberg’s intelligence and instincts. The whole interview is excellent – though note that Gates is now very clever at saying his strong opinions in coded ways.
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Twitter, TikTok have held preliminary talks about possible combination • WSJ

Georgia Wells and Cara Lombardo:

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Twitter has had preliminary talks about a potential combination with TikTok, the popular video-sharing app that the Trump administration has declared a national-security threat due to its Chinese ownership, according to people familiar with the matter.

It is unclear whether Twitter will pursue a deal with TikTok, which would face significant challenges. A deal would involve TikTok’s U.S. operations, the people said.

Microsoft has been negotiating for weeks with TikTok’s owner, Beijing-based ByteDance Ltd., and is considered the front-runner for any possible deal, according to the people. Twitter is seen as a long-shot bidder, given that it is much smaller than Microsoft and would have a harder time paying for the deal—and the software giant is further advanced in negotiations.

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Here’s what it could look like right here, right now. Twitter TikTok. Fabulous.
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Facebook slams Apple’s App Store policies, launches Facebook Gaming on iOS without games • The Verge

Tom Warren:

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Facebook is joining Microsoft in condemning Apple’s App Store policies today. The social media company is launching its Facebook Gaming app for iOS — primarily an app used to watch streamers play video games — but has had to remove the app’s mini games feature to pass Apple’s strict App Store approval process. Facebook isn’t happy about the compromise.

“Unfortunately, we had to remove gameplay functionality entirely in order to get Apple’s approval on the standalone Facebook Gaming app — meaning iOS users have an inferior experience to those using Android,” said Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer in a press statement given to The Verge. “We’re staying focused on building communities for the more than 380 million people who play games on Facebook every month — whether Apple allows it in a standalone app or not.”

Facebook says it has had the Facebook Gaming app rejected multiple times by Apple in recent months. The company says Apple has cited App Store guideline 4.7 to justify the rejections, claiming the primary purpose of the Facebook Gaming app is to play games. Facebook says it shared usage data from its Android Facebook Gaming app that showed 95% of activity is watching streams, but this didn’t change Apple’s stance.

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“We’re only completely breaking your rules 5% of the time” isn’t the sort of excuse that washes with any sort of rulemaker, to be honest.
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To head off regulators, Google makes certain words taboo • The Markup

Adrianne Jeffries:

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In one of the documents, which appear to be written by the legal team, employees are advised to choose their words carefully and use only third-party data when referencing Google’s “position in search” in sales pitches. They are further cautioned never to print or hand out their slides.

“We use the term ‘User Preference for Google Search’ and never the term market share,” that document says.

Google Search is the company’s most profitable product and, as such, a large target for antitrust regulation. It’s estimated that nine in 10 web searches in the U.S. are completed on Google.

To take action against a company, antitrust regulators must establish that it has a dominant share in a market. The more broadly a market is defined, the easier it is for the company to argue that it has real competition. In the slides, employees are cautioned that defining a market is hard and best avoided.

“These are completely standard competition law compliance trainings that most large companies provide to their employees,” Google spokesperson Julie Tarallo McAlister said in an email. “We instruct employees to compete fairly and build great products, rather than focus or opine on competitors. We’ve had these trainings in place for well over a decade.”

One part of the presentation, subtitled “Communicating Safely,” advises employees on which terms are “Bad” and “Good.” Instead of “market,” employees may say “industry,” “space,” “area,” or simply cite the region, according to the presentation. Instead of “network effects,” the presentation suggests “valuable to users.” And instead of “barriers to entry,” substitute “challenges.”

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They learned from Microsoft. In place for a decade? It was 2009 when the first antitrust complaint was filed against Google – in Europe, by Foundem. Not surprising these are longstanding systems.
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The US declared war on TikTok because it can’t handle the truth • The Verge

Sarah Jeong:

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When it comes down to it, the thorniest privacy dispute of 2020 isn’t about privacy or technology at all — it’s about China. The question “Is Facebook better, worse, or the same as TikTok?” is more or less the same as “Is the United States better, worse, or the same as China?”

And in 2020, this is becoming a genuinely difficult question to answer. China is detaining over a million Uighurs in internment camps, citing national security issues. The United States detains migrants in its own internment camps, even going as far as to place children in cages. China is not a democracy; the American president has proposed to unconstitutionally delay this year’s election. China brutally represses its political dissidents; in America, law enforcement in military camouflage have grabbed protesters off the streets and shoved them into unmarked vans.

Earlier this summer, the American president decided to tweet “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in response to mass protests — only a few days before the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. I am writing this column from Portland, Oregon, with my gas mask hanging next to my desk. When I go to tie my shoes, my laces emit faint puffs of residual tear gas.

The protests in my city are the same protests happening elsewhere in the country — protests against police violence and racial discrimination. As these protests were raging, Secretary Pompeo gave a speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia where he attacked The New York Times’ 1619 Project, which originated as a special issue of The New York Times Magazine containing articles examining slavery and its lasting legacy in everything from mass incarceration to pop music.

“They want you to believe that Marxist ideology that America is only the oppressors and the oppressed,” said Pompeo. “The Chinese Communist Party must be gleeful when they see the New York Times spout this ideology.”

…I call this ideology information-nationalism. Here’s how I would describe its assumptions:

1. When your country acknowledges human rights abuses, you are made weak
2. You can weaken rival nation-states by exposing their human rights abuses

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TikTok and the Sorting Hat • Remains of the Day

Eugene Wei on the surprising success of TikTok, which managed to do what almost no other Chinese app managed – to break through the cultural barrier and resonate in the west:

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They say you learn the most from failure, and in the same way I learn the most about my mental models from the exceptions. How did an app designed by two guys in Shanghai managed to run circles around U.S. video apps from YouTube to Facebook to Instagram to Snapchat, becoming the most fertile source for meme origination, mutation, and dissemination in a culture so different from the one in which it was built?

The answer, I believe, has significant implications for the future of cross-border tech competition, as well as for understanding how product developers achieve product-market-fit. The rise of TikTok updated my thinking. It turns out that in some categories, a machine learning algorithm significantly responsive and accurate can pierce the veil of cultural ignorance. Today, sometimes culture can be abstracted.

…Bytedance has an absurd proportion of their software engineers focused on their algorithms, more than half at last check. It is known as the algorithm company, first for its breakout algorithmic “news” app Toutiao, then for its Musical.ly clone Douyin, and now for TikTok.

Prior to TikTok, I would’ve said YouTube had the strongest exploit algorithm in video, but in comparison to TikTok, YouTube’s algorithm feels primitive (the top creators on YouTube have long ago figured out how to game YouTube’s algorithm’s heavy dependence on click-through rates and watch time, one reason so many YouTube videos are lengthening over time, much to my dismay).

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Toshiba formally and finally exits laptop business • The Register

Simon Sharwood:

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As the PC market contracted and Lenovo, Dell and HP came to dominate PC sales in the 2010s, Toshiba just became a less likely brand to put on a laptop shopping list.

By 2018 the company saw the writing on the wall and sold its PC business unit to Sharp for a pittance – just $36m changed hands – but retained a 19.9% share of the company with an option in Sharp’s favour to buy that stock.

Sharp quickly renamed the business to “Dynabook”, a product name Toshiba had used in Japan, and set about releasing new models and reviving the brand. And it’s done rather well, as shown in our recent review of the new Portégé X30L-G.

Which brings us to June 30th, 2020, when Sharp exercised its option to acquire the 19.9% of Dynabook shares it did not already own. On Tuesday, Toshiba transferred those shares and announced the transaction on Thursday.

And thus ends Toshiba’s time as a PC vendor.

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35 years. Not bad. Though it’s rather like politics: all PC vendors end in failure.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1370: the US defence group tracking your phone, how Cook made Apple his own, Gates on Covid and Facebook, and more

  1. Charles Arthur is obviously a really fine name – but ‘Trip Mickle’! Such a far out name, maybe there is a ‘Stumble Someone’ out there?

    • It’s Tripp isn’t it? Though I thought there should be a series about a dynamic go-getting death-defying health and safety inspector called Trip Hazard.

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