Start Up No.1407: Big Tech gets monopoly slap, Facebook zaps Trump Covid post, Apple tips iPhone date, sex app lock-in, and more


Guess what contact tracers calling potentially infected Americans keep being treated as? CC-licensed photo by heath_bar on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. No, you’re gasping for breath. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

House lawmakers condemn big tech’s ‘monopoly power’ • The New York Times

Cecilia Kang and David McCabe:

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To amend the inequities, the lawmakers recommended restoring competition by restructuring many of the companies, emboldening the agencies that police market concentration and throwing up hurdles for the companies to acquire start-ups. They also proposed reforming antitrust laws, in the biggest potential shift since the Hart-Scott-Rodino Act of 1976 created stronger reviews of big mergers.

“The totality of the evidence produced during this investigation demonstrates the pressing need for legislative action and reform,” the report said. “These firms have too much power, and that power must be reined in and subject to appropriate oversight and enforcement.”

The House report is the most significant government effort to check the world’s largest tech companies since the government sued Microsoft for antitrust violations in the 1990s. It offers lawmakers a deeply researched road map for turning criticism of Silicon Valley’s influence into concrete actions.

The report is also expected to kick off other actions against the tech giants. The Justice Department has been working to file an antitrust complaint against Google, followed by separate suits against the internet search giant from state attorneys general. Antitrust investigations of Amazon, Apple and Facebook are also underway at the Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission and four dozen state attorneys general.

But the House antitrust subcommittee split along party lines on how to remedy and corral the power of the tech companies, pointing to an uphill battle for Congress to curtail them.

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(Here’s the story on how and why the subcommittee split; here’s the full PDF of the report, though not searchable.)

This is almost sure to fall to the Democrats to do. They may well have the will to do it, since unlike the Republicans they’re not just enraged about whether posts get deleted on social media.
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Largest COVID-19 contact tracing study to date finds children key to spread, and evidence of superspreaders • Princeton University

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A study of more than a half-million people in India who were exposed to the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 suggests that the virus’ continued spread is driven by only a small percentage of those who become infected.

Furthermore, children and young adults were found to be potentially much more important to transmitting the virus — especially within households — than previous studies have identified, according to a paper by researchers from the United States and India published Sept. 30 in the journal Science.

Researchers from the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley, worked with public health officials in the southeast Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to track the infection pathways and mortality rate of 575,071 individuals who were exposed to 84,965 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by SARS-CoV-2. It is the largest contact tracing study — which is the process of identifying people who came into contact with an infected person — conducted in the world for any disease.

Lead researcher Ramanan Laxminarayan, a senior research scholar in PEI, said that the paper is the first large study to capture the extraordinary extent to which SARS-CoV-2 hinges on “superspreading,” in which a small percentage of the infected population passes the virus on to more people. The researchers found that 71% of infected individuals did not infect any of their contacts, while a mere 8% of infected individuals accounted for 60% of new infections.

“Our study presents the largest empirical demonstration of superspreading that we are aware of in any infectious disease,” Laxminarayan said. “Superspreading events are the rule rather than the exception when one is looking at the spread of COVID-19, both in India and likely in all affected places.”

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That 8% of individuals accounting for 60% of infections is a hell of a number. The trouble is we don’t know who they are. But: lockdown works to forestall them.
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Facebook removes Trump post over false Covid-19 claim for first time • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong:

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Facebook has removed a post from Donald Trump’s page for spreading false information about the coronavirus, a first for the social media company that has been harshly criticized for repeatedly allowing the president to break its content rules.

The post included video of Trump falsely asserting that children were “almost immune from Covid-19” during an appearance on Fox News. There is evidence to suggest that children who contract Covid-19 generally experience milder symptoms than adults do. However, they are not immune, and some children have become severely ill or died from the disease.

“This video includes false claims that a group of people is immune from Covid-19 which is a violation of our policies around harmful Covid misinformation,” a Facebook spokesperson said.

The Twitter account for Trump’s re-election campaign, @TeamTrump, also posted the video, which Twitter said violated its rules. “The account owner will be required to remove the Tweet before they can Tweet again,” a company spokesperson said of @TeamTrump.

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Twitter also locked Trump’s account for tweeting a claim that flu kills more than 100,000 people a year (did he just mean the US? Miles wrong if so) and that “in many populations less lethal” (than the flu? That’s the obvious implication). Only when the tweet was removed was the account unlocked. Twitter also locked the accounts of journalists who had screenshotted the claim until they deleted it.

Notable muscle-flexing by both Twitter and Facebook.
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Nvidia says its AI can fix some of the biggest problems in video calls • The Verge

James Vincent:

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Nvidia has announced a new videoconferencing platform for developers named Nvidia Maxine that it claims can fix some of the most common problems in video calls.

Maxine will process calls in the cloud using Nvidia’s GPUs and boost call quality in a number of ways with the help of artificial intelligence. Using AI, Maxine can realign callers’ faces and gazes so that they’re always looking directly at their camera, reduce the bandwidth requirement for video “down to one-tenth of the requirements of the H.264 streaming video compression standard” by only transmitting “key facial points,” and upscale the resolution of videos. Other features available in Maxine include face re-lighting, real-time translation and transcription, and animated avatars.

Not all of these features are new of course. Video compression and real-time transcription are common enough, and Microsoft and Apple have introduced gaze-alignment in the Surface Pro X and FaceTime to ensure people keep eye contact during video calls (though Nvidia’s face-alignment features looks like a much more extreme version of this).

But Nvidia is no doubt hoping its clout in cloud computing and its impressive AI R&D work will help it rise above its competitors. The real test, though, will be to see if any established videoconferencing companies actually adopt Nvidia’s technology.

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All very desirable, especially the reduction in bandwidth requirement. But where is Nvidia going to find the leverage to persuade companies to adopt it? If this all happens on its cloud platform, who’s going to trust both that it’s secure, and that it can scale when demand suddenly spikes?
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Spam calls are hindering efforts to contact trace and track Covid-19 • CNN

Faith Karimi, CNN:

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many people wary of spam calls and phishing scams are not answering calls from unknown numbers, undermining efforts by contact tracers to reach people exposed to Covid-19. And some states such as Louisiana are sending letters to those people who don’t answer – not the most effective way when time is of the essence.

Without a federal contact tracing program, health departments have set up a patchwork of procedures. Some have worked with phone companies to ensure the name of the health department shows up on caller ID. For example, in Washington, DC, it shows up as DC Covid 19 Team.

Still, others appear as unknown numbers and are getting mistaken for spam calls. And even when they show up with the specific departments, some are still going unanswered.

“Hello? Yes, it’s you we’re looking for,” Mayor Muriel Bowser tweeted, echoing the Lionel Richie song. “Contact tracing is a critical tool in getting our city back on its feet. Answer the call.”

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When a failure to police spammers comes back and bites the people who are the target of the spammers, that’s not irony. It’s some sort of cosmic joke. There seems to be a lot of that going on.
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Apple’s iPhone 12 lineup will be announced on October 13th • The Verge

Jay Peters:

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The rumored iPhone 12 lineup is expected to have a new design with squared-off edges (perhaps similar to the iPad Pro) and support for 5G networks. It’s also supposed to come in four different models, including a new 5.4-inch size (which would be smaller than the iPhone 11 Pro) and a 6.7-inch size (which would be the largest iPhone ever). But if you were hoping that the new iPhones would have buttery-smooth 120Hz refresh rates, well, you might have to wait for another year. If you want to know more about what’s rumored for the new iPhones, we’ve got a full roundup of everything we think we know right here.

Apple is rumored to have a number of other products in the works, including new over-ear headphones, a smaller and more affordable HomePod, and a competitor to Tile’s location tracking tags that are apparently called AirTags.

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Notably, Apple has taken all the third-party speakers and headphones off its site and from its shops. Quite an aggressive move, particularly against Sonos.
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Apple’s iPhone Covid-19 delay ripples through tech supply chain • Bloomberg

Tim Culpan:

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“Weakening demand for premium smartphone lenses and order cuts from Huawei are the two major factors weighing on product prices and lens shipments,” Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Charles Shum wrote this week of Largan. “Huawei, Xiaomi and other smartphone makers are expected to focus on selling more mid- and low-end models to maintain sales volume during the pandemic crisis.”

…With the iPhone to be revealed next week, and the sales launch likely to be absent the ritual queues outside Apple retail stores, we won’t know how well it’s doing until press releases (to be glowing, of course) and news reports (fawning, perhaps) roll in during subsequent weeks. Market researchers may be able to give us hints by late October.

One of the comforting aspects of a September iPhone release was how it allowed revenue at suppliers to be broken into two distinct phases: ramp-up, reveal, and release in the third quarter; followed by momentum and holiday-season demand in the fourth. This year, it will be crammed into just one period.

The first weeks of November and December will be critical for the analysts, traders and investors who parse supply-chain data to get a handle on the world’s biggest tech company. Well before firms report quarterly revenue, Taiwanese companies are required to announce monthly sales. 

If October numbers, to be reported by Nov. 10, don’t show massive spikes, then expect an overreaction in tech stocks.

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Apple’s financial quarter ended with September, so it’s under less pressure to push out big numbers. Given the circumstances, it would never be able to match up to earlier years, so it may well not bother.

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Security flaw left ‘smart’ chastity sex toy users at risk of permanent lock-in • TechCrunch

Zack Whittaker:

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as security researchers recently found out, the consequences of having a major security flaw in one popular sex toy could have been catastrophic for tens of thousands of users.

UK-based security firm Pen Test Partners said the flaw in the Qiui Cellmate internet-connected chastity lock, billed as the “world’s first app controlled chastity device,” could have allowed anyone to remotely and permanently lock in the user’s penis.

The Cellmate chastity lock works by allowing a trusted partner to remotely lock and unlock the chamber over Bluetooth using a mobile app. That app communicates with the lock using an API. But that API was left open and without a password, allowing anyone to take complete control of any user’s device.

Because the chamber was designed to lock with a metal ring underneath the user’s penis, the researchers said it may require the intervention of a heavy-duty bolt cutter or an angle grinder to free the user.

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I do wonder a couple of things. First, wouldn’t they have found the idea that *anyone* could do it vaguely… exciting? Isn’t that sort of the point of these things in the first place? Second, wouldn’t the threat of bolt cutters and the, um, high stakes generally make this more of a feature than a bug? Even though it very definitely is a bug.

Oh, reading on:

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The unsecured API also allowed access to the private messages and the precise location from the user’s app.

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Hmm, possibly less good. Also: first time “permanent lock-in” has been used and not applied to a technology platform.
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John McAfee arrested, indicted on tax evasion charges, sued for fraud • Ars Technica

Kate Cox:

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Noted cybersecurity eccentric John McAfee is under arrest in Spain awaiting extradition to the United States after being indicted on federal tax evasion charges.

The Department of Justice unsealed the indictment on Monday following McAfee’s arrest by Spanish authorities at Barcelona’s airport over the weekend.

The filing alleges that McAfee deliberately not only avoided paying federal taxes from tax years 2014 through 2018 but also tried to hide considerable assets from the IRS. He allegedly hid those assets—including a yacht, a vehicle, real estate, bank accounts, and cryptocurrency—by purchasing and titling them under “the name of a nominee.”

McAffee in the past has effectively dared the IRS to come get him. In 2019, he went on a Twitter screed calling taxes “illegal” and claiming he had not filed a federal tax return in eight years. “I am a prime target for the IRS,” he concluded. “Here I am.”

Neither the DOJ’s press release nor the indictment specify how much McAfee made or owed, saying only he “earned millions” from “promoting cryptocurrencies, consulting work, speaking engagements, and selling the rights to his life story for a documentary.” Another regulator, however, alleges that at least $23m of that income came from committing fraud.

The US Securities and Exchange Commission filed a lawsuit against McAfee on Monday, alleging that he fraudulently promoted multiple initial coin offerings. According to the SEC, McAfee and his bodyguard, Jimmy Watson Jr., promoted ICOs on Twitter “pretending to be impartial and independent even though he was paid more than $23m in digital assets” to make those promotions.

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I do like “cybersecurity eccentric”. It’s pretty much the perfect descriptor. I guess that “cryptocurrency eccentric” would be tautologous.
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Partisan differences in physical distancing predict infections and mortality during the Coronavirus pandemic • PsyArXiv

A group from Yale and New York universities:

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Few things bind disparate groups together like a common challenge. Yet numerous polls suggest that the current COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. is subject to a partisan divide.

Using the geotracking data of 15 million smartphones per day, we show that counties that voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 exhibited 14% less physical distancing between March and May, 2020. Partisanship was a stronger predictor of physical distancing than numerous other factors, including counties’ median income, COVID-19 cases, and racial and age make-up.

Contrary to our predictions, this finding strengthened over time and remained when stay-at-home orders were active. Additionally, counties’ consumption of conservative media (Fox News) predicted reduced physical distancing.

Finally, reduced physical distancing in pro-Trump counties was associated with subsequently higher COVID-19 infection and fatality growth rates. Taken together, these data suggest that U.S. responses towards COVID-19 are subject to a deep partisan divide.

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The full paper is going to be published in Nature Human Behaviour. The change in distancing was measured through reduction in movement and use of nonessential services (barbers, restaurants, clothing stores).

It’s not quite “Vote Trump and die”. The question is, just what are they correlating?
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GOP elites thought they could buy exemption from a pandemic. Guess what? • NY Mag

Eric Levitz:

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I can’t look inside Mike Lee’s mind and wouldn’t have the stomach to peer into Bill Barr’s even if I could. But I have a theory (one that I first saw articulated by the policy researcher Will Stancil): Elite Republicans have trouble accepting that they cannot purchase a reprieve from this pandemic — in part because a foundational premise of the elite Republican worldview is that the wealthy can always buy immunity from whatever befalls the herd.

This notion isn’t necessarily conscious. Foundational ideas rarely are (it’s probably been a while since you subjected the premise, “the grass is green” to conscious scrutiny). But the conservative movement’s theory of government is not compatible with the concept of human interdependence. Although the movement is eager to circumscribe sexual freedom in the name of the collective good, it demands that (moneyed) individuals enjoy a nigh-absolute degree of liberty in the economic realm. And justifying that laissez-faire philosophy requires ignoring the myriad ways that individual assertions of economic liberty can impinge on the freedom of collectives. For example, it is hard to deride restrictions on the freedom of coal plants to spew sulfur dioxide unless one ignores that such plants share a sky with the communities in their vicinity. Otherwise, one would need to explain why a coal magnate’s right to maximize profits takes precedence over the right of children in Thompsons, Texas, to breathe air that won’t shave years off their life expectancy.

…On the White House lawn, Donald Trump and Co. were safe from the particulates they’d fought to keep in the air above East Texas and the neurotoxins they sought to keep in the lungs of farmworkers. They were safe from the police violence they’d worked to abet and the hunger they’d declined to alleviate; safe from the gangs they’d delivered Central American migrants back to, and the shrill cries of the families they’d helped separate. They were at no risk of having to explain themselves to any of the people whose deprivation their “liberty” demanded.

But no bouncer could stop COVID-19 at the gate.

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I overuse the word “excoriating”, but this one really does deserve it.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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