Start Up No.1382: Amazon’s desperate drivers, Facebook zaps IRA (but not fake video), mask safety data, Apple… Search?, and more


Liu Caixin’s Three-Body Problem is being adapted into a TV series for Netflix. Before the end of the universe. CC-licensed photo by Philip Pace on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Back in the swing. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Amazon drivers are hanging smartphones in trees to get more work • Bloomberg

Spencer Soper:

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A strange phenomenon has emerged near Amazon.com Inc. delivery stations and Whole Foods stores in the Chicago suburbs: smartphones dangling from trees. Contract delivery drivers are putting them there to get a jump on rivals seeking orders, according to people familiar with the matter.

Someone places several devices in a tree located close to the station where deliveries originate. Drivers in on the plot then sync their own phones with the ones in the tree and wait nearby for an order pickup. The reason for the odd placement, according to experts and people with direct knowledge of Amazon’s operations, is to take advantage of the handsets’ proximity to the station, combined with software that constantly monitors Amazon’s dispatch network, to get a split-second jump on competing drivers.

That drivers resort to such extreme methods is emblematic of the ferocious competition for work in a pandemic-ravaged U.S. economy suffering from double-digit unemployment. Much the way milliseconds can mean millions to hedge funds using robotraders, a smartphone perched in a tree can be the key to getting a $15 delivery route before someone else.

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The gig economy was presented as a way to mobilise assets that weren’t being used. Instead it’s fast becoming a way of squeezing every asset up to and beyond its breaking point.

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GoT’s Benioff & Weiss and Netflix team for sci-fi epic Three-Body Problem • Polygon

Matt Patches:

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After striking up a development deal with the streamer last August, reportedly to the tune of $200m, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss departed HBO and ditched an assignment to write their own Star Wars trilogy. On Tuesday, Netflix VP of Original Series, Peter Friedlander unveiled the first fruits of the deal: a new live-action series inspired by Chinese author Liu Cixin’s acclaimed science fiction novel The Three-Body Problem.

“Liu Cixin’s trilogy is the most ambitious science-fiction series we’ve read, taking readers on a journey from the 1960s until the end of time, from life on our pale blue dot to the distant fringes of the universe,” Benioff and Weiss said in a news release for the announcement. “We look forward to spending the next years of our lives bringing this to life for audiences around the world.”

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The Three-Body Problem is an amazing trilogy. It would make a terrific, say, 64-hour series. You’d just about get the nuance in there, as it spans the time from the Cultural Revolution to the heat death of the universe.
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Facebook removes Russian disinformation network • The Washington Post

Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg:

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Facebook removed a network of fake accounts and pages created by Russian operatives who had recruited US journalists to write articles critical of Democratic nominee Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, an apparent bid to undermine their support among liberal voters.

Facebook said it caught the network of 13 fake accounts and two pages early, before it had a chance to build a large audience — an action that the company said was evidence of its growing effectiveness at targeting foreign disinformation operations ahead of the 2020 election. The takedown emerged as a result of a tip from the FBI and was one of a dozen operations tied to the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) or individuals affiliated with it that Facebook has disrupted since the last presidential election, when IRA-backed pages amassed millions of views on the platform. The pages had about 14,000 followers.

…One of the journalists who wrote columns for Peace Data, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his career, said that an editor reached out to him through a direct message on Twitter in July offering $200 per article.

He pursued the opportunity in part because he had lost his job in the pandemic. He wrote articles about the conspiracy movement QAnon, covid, and on US militarism driving climate change.

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Used AI-faked photos, the whole nine yards. Small but still determined.
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Republicans are flooding the internet with deceptive videos and Big Tech isn’t keeping up • CNN

Donie O’Sullivan and Daniel Dale:

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A series of deceptively edited and misleading videos shared by prominent Republicans have run up millions of views across Facebook and Twitter in just the past few days. And while both companies have pledged to combat misinformation, their responses to these videos followed a familiar pattern: often they act too late, do too little, or don’t do anything at all.

Between Sunday and Monday, high-profile Republicans, including President Donald Trump, shared at least four misleading videos online.

One that circulated widely was a false video about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden posted to the Twitter account of House Minority Whip Steve Scalise. After an outcry, including from a person in the video who had words put in his mouth in order to distort what Biden was saying, Twitter took the action it takes in such instances, labelling the video as “manipulated media.”

The manipulated media label is just that, however – a label appearing below the video when people look at the specific tweet to which it has been applied. It’s small and potentially missed by users, and though it may potentially make some users pause before sharing a given video, it does not actually stop them if they decide to go ahead anyway.

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The latter point is always what amazes me. If the platform has decided that something is misleading and a problem, then why allow it to keep spreading around your platform? It’s bizarre.
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Stolen Fortnite accounts earn hackers millions per year • Threatpost

Lindsey O’Donnell:

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Hackers are scoring more than a million dollars annually selling compromised accounts for the popular Fortnite video game in underground forums.

With Fortnite’s immense popularity skyrocketing over the past few years – it currently has more than 350 million global players – the game is a lucrative target for cybercriminals. After tallying the auction sales for several high-end and low-end Fortnite account sellers over a three month period, researchers found that on the high end, sellers averaged $25,000 per week in account sales — roughly $1.2m per year.

“The market for stolen account sales is much larger than just the gaming industry…However, from our research, the black market for the buying and selling of stolen Fortnite accounts is among the most expansive, and also the most lucrative,” said researchers with Night Lion Security in a report last week.

The value of a hacked Fortnite account is centralized around a character’s in-game “skin” (essentially a digital costume), researchers said.

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Yeah, well figured out, researchers. I guess it’s not really in Epic’s interests to enforce two-factor authentication or anything, because the people who get hacked will just… create a new account and spend the money again. Win-win for Epic.
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Mask wearers are “dramatically less likely” to get a severe case of Covid-19 • The Conversation

Monica Gandhi:

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I am an infectious disease doctor and a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. As governments and workplaces began to recommend or mandate mask-wearing, my colleagues and I noticed an interesting trend. In places where most people wore masks, those who did get infected seemed dramatically less likely to get severely ill compared to places with less mask-wearing.

It seems people get less sick if they wear a mask.

When you wear a mask – even a cloth mask – you typically are exposed to a lower dose of the coronavirus than if you didn’t. Both recent experiments in animal models using coronavirus and nearly a hundred years of viral research show that lower viral doses usually means less severe disease.

No mask is perfect, and wearing one might not prevent you from getting infected. But it might be the difference between a case of Covid-19 that sends you to the hospital and a case so mild you don’t even realize you’re infected.

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Feels like common sense; illness is all about the viral load, after all. (Thanks G for the link.)
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Facebook threatens to block Australians from sharing news in battle over landmark media law • The Guardian

Amanda Meade:

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Tuesday’s statement [by Facebook] marked the company’s first comment since Google also took an aggressive approach to the looming legislation, although the search giant has stopped short of saying it would block search functions in Australia.

The director of the the Australia Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology, Peter Lewis, said Facebook is prepared to remove trusted journalism from its site but will allow disinformation and conspiracy theories to flourish.

“As a big advertising company, Facebook would do well to realise its success is only as strong as its network of users,” Lewis said. “Bullying their elected representatives seems a strange way to build long-term trust.

The announcement blindsided Australian media following a long silence from Facebook in Australia. Facebook chose to brief American journalists ahead of the release of the news about the ban, while ignoring Australian media. Sources said the targeting of the US media indicated Facebook’s main concern was that the mandatory code set an “international precedent”.

…[Facebook Australia manager Will] Easton denied the ACCC’s claim that the digital giants make money from news, saying “the reverse is true” in the case of Facebook.

He said in the first five months of 2020 Facebook sent two billion clicks from Facebook’s News Feed back to Australian news websites “at no charge”, traffic that was worth an estimated $200m to Australian publishers.

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Trump ban on Chinese drone parts risks worsening wildfires • Financial Times

Kiran Stacey:

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The US interior department’s decision not to buy more drones with Chinese parts has made it more difficult to fight wildfires, according to an internal departmental memo, which lays bare one cost of the Trump administration’s crackdown on Chinese technology.

The memo, which was written by the department’s Office of Aviation Services earlier this year, found that by the end of the year, the department will have carried out only a quarter of the controlled burning it might otherwise have done had it gone ahead with planned drone purchases.

The US is experiencing one of its worst years for wildfire outbreaks thanks to hot weather and a lack of firefighters. And while none of those appear to have happened on federal land, government insiders warn the de facto ban on buying drones with Chinese components risks making the situation worse.

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Unintended consequences.
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Apple showing signs it may soon launch a search engine to compete against Google Search • Coywolf

Jon Henshaw:

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Based on Apple’s numerous search engineer job descriptions, and the continued consolidation of web and app results in Spotlight Search, an Apple search engine will likely function as a highly personalized data hub. It will be similar to Google Assistant on Android, but different since it (initially) won’t have ads, will be completely private, and have significantly deeper integrations with the OS.

One can imagine getting easy buy-in from users if they benefit from privacy, coupled with the seamless integration and personalization of their iCloud data. Apple can leverage AI and ML to deliver search results based on their email, messages, maps, events, reminders, notes, photos, files, contacts, music, news, TV shows and movies, third-party apps, documents, and more. And they can do it without ads and with the promise of real data privacy.

Apple has a lot to gain from this model. Some of the main benefits include:

• The promotion of apps in search results that will benefit Apple’s services and detract from Google’s push towards PWAs• A weakening of Google’s monopoly on search and a significant blow to its ad revenue and data mining• The promotion of Apple products and services. Including struggling services like Apple News+ and Apple TV+• Continued control and lock down of the Apple ecosystem. Users will become dependent on personalized search results with deep service and product integrations that are only possible via their search engine• The extension of their ad serving platform will allow app developers to promote their apps in search results.

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Certainly rational. But can Apple turn down the $20bn or so Google pays for its special place in the Safari search bar?

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Chinese-made smartphones are secretly stealing money from people around the world • Buzzfeed News

Craig Silverman:

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Mxolosi, an unemployed 41-year-old, became frustrated with his Tecno W2. Pop-up ads interrupted his calls and chats. He’d wake up to find his prepaid data mysteriously used up and messages about paid subscriptions to apps he’d never asked for.

“It was expensive for me, and at some point I ended up not buying data because I didn’t know what was eating it up,” he said.

He thought it might be his fault, but according to an investigation by Secure-D, a mobile security service, and BuzzFeed News, software embedded in his phone right out of the box was draining his data while trying to steal his money. Mxolosi’s Tecno W2 was infected with xHelper and Triada, malware that secretly downloaded apps and attempted to subscribe him to paid services without his knowledge.

…Along with South Africa, Tecno W2 phones in Ethiopia, Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Indonesia, and Myanmar were infected.

…Michael Kwet, a visiting fellow of the Information Society Project at Yale Law School who received his doctorate in South Africa, called the idea of Chinese-made phones extracting data and money from people living in poverty “digital colonialism.”

“If you have no disposable income, you’re basically left with people preying on your data,” he told BuzzFed News. “The problem we have here is that we don’t have a rational business model for a digital society.”

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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