Start Up No.1414: GOP subpoenas Twitter, thousands of Robinhood accounts hacked, GM to test driverless cars on SF streets, and more


You’ll never guess which animal the next coronavirus outbreak is coming from. CC-licensed photo by angieandsteve on Flickr.

A selection of 10 links for you. Not stood up. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

As Twitter and Facebook clamp down, Republicans claim ‘election interference’ • The New York Times

Mike Isaac and Kate Conger:

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On Thursday, simmering discontent among Republicans over the power that Facebook and Twitter wield over public discourse erupted into open acrimony. Republicans slammed the companies and baited them a day after the sites limited or blocked the distribution of an unsubstantiated New York Post article about Hunter Biden, the son of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

The criticism did not stop the companies. Twitter locked the personal account of Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, late Wednesday after she posted the article, and on Thursday it briefly blocked a link to a House Judiciary Committee webpage. The Trump campaign said Twitter had also locked its official account after it tried promoting the article. Twitter then doubled down by prohibiting the spread of a different New York Post article about the Bidens.

The actions brought the already frosty relationship between conservatives and the companies to a new low point, less than three weeks before the Nov. 3 presidential election, in which the social networks are expected to play a significant role. It offered a glimpse at how online conversations could go awry on Election Day and underlined how the companies have little handle on how to consistently enforce what they will allow on their sites.

“There will be battles for control of the narrative again and again over coming weeks,” said Evelyn Douek, a lecturer at Harvard Law School who studies social media companies. “The way the platforms handled it is not a good harbinger of what’s to come.”

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None of the major papers has been able to stand the Hunter Biden story up – not surprising, because it’s Swiss cheese with a Möbius twist which makes no sense, no matter where you start; the more you read the less it hangs together. So of course the noise is all about the cackhanded approach Twitter took. They must envy Facebook’s ability to simply turn the volume down.
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Robinhood hack: almost 2,000 accounts infiltrated, more widespread than known • Bloomberg

Sophie Alexander:

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Almost 2,000 Robinhood Markets accounts were compromised in a recent hacking spree that siphoned off customer funds, a sign that the attacks were more widespread than was previously known.

A person with knowledge of an internal review, who asked not to be identified because the findings aren’t public, provided the estimated figure.

When Bloomberg first reported on the hacking spree last week, the popular online brokerage disclosed few details. It said “a limited number” of customers had been struck by cyber-criminals who gained access by breaching personal email accounts outside of Robinhood, an assertion that some of the victims acknowledge and others reject.

The attacks unleashed a torrent of complaints on social media, where investors recounted futile attempts to call the brokerage, which doesn’t have a customer service phone number. Robinhood, which has more than 13 million customer accounts, is now considering whether to add a phone number along with other tools, the person said.

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A phone number. All your money is siphoned off and there’s no way to call anyone. Amazing anyone is still with Robinhood after that. Some of the accounts were access despite having two-factor authentication – which suggests someone getting very deep into the system (as happened with Twitter.)
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FCC chairman says he will move forward with plans to ‘clarify’ Section 230 • Deadline

Ted Johnson:

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The chairman of the FCC issued a statement on Thursday saying that he plans to move forward with efforts to clarify Section 230, the provision of a 1996 law that gives immunity to internet companies like Facebook and Twitter over the way that they moderate content.

Chairman Ajit Pai issued a statement as President Donald Trump and his allies have blasted Twitter and Facebook for steps they have taken to restrict the sharing of a New York Post story on Hunter Biden. Twitter has disabled links to the story, and the Trump campaign said that its account was briefly locked after it tried to share it.

“As elected officials consider whether to change the law, the question remains: What does Section 230 currently mean?” Pai said in a statement. “Many advance an overly broad interpretation that in some cases shields social media companies from consumer protection laws in a way that has no basis in the text of Section 230. The Commission’s General Counsel has informed me that the FCC has the legal authority to interpret Section 230. Consistent with this advice, I intend to move forward with a rulemaking to clarify its meaning.”

He added, “Throughout my tenure at the Federal Communications Commission, I have favored regulatory parity, transparency, and free expression. Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech.  But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”

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The thing is, the FCC doesn’t have the power to regulate companies in this way. Section 230 is completely unambiguous, despite the tortured attempts by Clarence Thomas on the Supreme Court to suggest that it isn’t. (Looking forward, by the way, to learning what the writers of the US Constitution knew about the internet.) Any attempt the FCC makes to regulate social media companies (and what would that even look like?) will end up tangled in the courts for years, by which time Pai will have been replaced. Or, alternatively, the US will be in flames and it won’t matter anyway.
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Cruise gets the green light to test fully driverless cars in California • The Verge

Andrew Hawkins:

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Cruise, the self-driving company owned by General Motors, has been approved to test its driverless cars on public roads in California. The company says it plans to test vehicles without a human safety driver behind the wheel before the end of 2020.

Cruise is the fifth to receive a driverless permit from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, the others being Waymo, Nuro, Zoox, and AutoX. Currently, 60 companies have an active permit to test autonomous vehicles with a safety driver in California.

Dan Ammann, CEO of Cruise, said in a blog post that the company may not have been the first to receive a driverless permit, but it intends to be the first to test fully driverless cars in San Francisco.

“Before the end of the year, we’ll be sending cars out onto the streets of SF — without gasoline and without anyone at the wheel,” Ammann said. “Because safely removing the driver is the true benchmark of a self-driving car, and because burning fossil fuels is no way to build the future of transportation.” (Cruise’s fleet of vehicles is composed of 200 electric Chevy Bolts.)

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This is a pretty good time to do it: roads are going to be emptier than usual. Though maybe a lot more cyclists?
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YouTube bans coronavirus vaccine misinformation • Reuters

Elizabeth Culliford and Paresh Dave:

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Alphabet Inc’s YouTube said on Wednesday it would remove videos from YouTube containing misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, expanding its current rules against falsehoods and conspiracy theories about the pandemic.

The video platform said it would now ban any content with claims about COVID-19 vaccines that contradict consensus from local health authorities or the World Health Organization.

YouTube said in an email that this would include removing claims that the vaccine will kill people or cause infertility, or that microchips will be implanted in people who receive the vaccine.

A YouTube spokesman told Reuters that general discussions in videos about “broad concerns” over the vaccine would remain on the platform.

YouTube says it already removes content that disputes the existence or transmission of COVID-19, promotes medically unsubstantiated methods of treatment, discourages people from seeking medical care or explicitly disputes health authorities’ guidance on self-isolation or social distancing.

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Remarkable how the platforms are all doing this almost in lockstep. It’s not quite coordinated, but it’s certainly as if they’re looking at each other and following each other. Holocaust denial next to go from YouTube? (It’s already going after QAnon.)
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The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust • BBC Future

Tim Maughan:

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From where I’m standing, the city-sized Baogang Steel and Rare Earth complex dominates the horizon, its endless cooling towers and chimneys reaching up into grey, washed-out sky. Between it and me, stretching into the distance, lies an artificial lake filled with a black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge.

Dozens of pipes line the shore, churning out a torrent of thick, black, chemical waste from the refineries that surround the lake. The smell of sulphur and the roar of the pipes invades my senses. It feels like hell on Earth.

Welcome to Baotou, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia. I’m here with a group of architects and designers called the Unknown Fields Division, and this is the final stop on a three-week-long journey up the global supply chain, tracing back the route consumer goods take from China to our shops and homes, via container ships and factories.

You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories here help to keep our modern lives ticking. It is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of “rare earth” minerals. These elements can be found in everything from magnets in wind turbines and electric car motors, to the electronic guts of smartphones and flatscreen TVs. In 2009 China produced 95% of the world’s supply of these elements, and it’s estimated that the Bayan Obo mines just north of Baotou contain 70% of the world’s reserves. But, as we would discover, at what cost?

…You can see the lake on Google Maps, and that hints at the scale. Zoom in far enough and you can make out the dozens of pipes that line the shore. Unknown Fields’ Liam Young collected some samples of the waste and took it back to the UK to be tested. “The clay we collected from the toxic lake tested at around three times background radiation,” he later tells me.

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A new coronavirus that could be even more dangerous was just discovered in China • BGR

Mike Wehner:

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As the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage many parts of the world, researchers have been working hard to develop a safe and effective vaccine that could bring life back a bit closer to normal. Of course, the development of a vaccine and the good it could do for humanity assumes that another, separate strain of the virus isn’t poised to make a jump to humans and start the process all over again.

Now, researchers are warning that a type of coronavirus seen in pigs may indeed be capable of jumping to humans, and if it does, it could cause even more problems. It’s called SADS-CoV, which is short for “Swine Acute Diarrhea Syndrome Coronavirus” and, yeah, it’s as bad as it sounds.

As you might have gathered from the virus’s name, the SADS-CoV virus infects pigs, but it originated in bats. It’s been found in China, and it appears to be taking a similar route to the virus that causes COVID-19. Humans and pigs are shockingly close when it comes to genetics, making it easier for a virus to jump from pigs to humans.

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I’m reminded of the cascading environmental collapses of John Brunner’s “The Sheep Look Up”.
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Fifth of countries at risk of ecosystem collapse, analysis finds • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:

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Natural “services” such as food, clean water and air, and flood protection have already been damaged by human activity.

More than half of global GDP – $42tn (£32tn) – depends on high-functioning biodiversity, according to the report, but the risk of tipping points is growing.

Countries including Australia, Israel and South Africa rank near the top of Swiss Re’s index of risk to biodiversity and ecosystem services, with India, Spain and Belgium also highlighted. Countries with fragile ecosystems and large farming sectors, such as Pakistan and Nigeria, are also flagged up.

Countries including Brazil and Indonesia had large areas of intact ecosystems but had a strong economic dependence on natural resources, which showed the importance of protecting their wild places, Swiss Re said.

“A staggering fifth of countries globally are at risk of their ecosystems collapsing due to a decline in biodiversity and related beneficial services,” said Swiss Re, one of the world’s biggest reinsurers and a linchpin of the global insurance industry.

“If the ecosystem service decline goes on [in countries at risk], you would see then scarcities unfolding even more strongly, up to tipping points,” said Oliver Schelske, lead author of the research.

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There’s still no good news on this front. Emissions are down, but that doesn’t mean there’s less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere; just that we’re not adding to it as quickly.
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Students are rebelling against eye-tracking exam surveillance tools • Vice

Todd Feathers and Janus Rose:

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Students’ and educators’ objections to exam proctoring software go beyond the privacy concerns around being watched and listened to in their bedrooms while they take a test. As more evidence emerges about how the programs work, and fail to work, critics say the tools are bound to hurt low-income students, students with disabilities, students with children or other dependents, and other groups who already face barriers in higher education.

Every day for the last week, Ahmed Alamri has opened ExamSoft and attempted to register for the practice version of the California state bar exam. Every time, the software’s facial recognition system has told him the lighting is too poor to recognize his face. Alamri, who is Arab-American, has attempted to pass the identity check in different rooms, in front of different backgrounds, and with various lighting arrays. He estimates he’s attempted to verify his identity as many as 75 times, with no success. “It just seems to me that this mock exam is reading the poor lighting as my skin color,” he told Motherboard.

Alamri isn’t alone. Law students around the country are organizing to fight against the use of any kind of digital proctoring software like ExamSoft on bar exams. In California, two students have filed an emergency petition with the state supreme court requesting that it cancel the exam entirely and institute a new form of assessment. A similar effort is underway in Illinois, while Louisiana, Oregon, and Wisconsin have already scrapped their upcoming bar exams as a result of student pressure. Other states, including New York, are fumbling for solutions as deadlines for the exams quickly approach; at one point, New York’s test proctor announced it was going to ban the use of “desktop computers” to take the test.

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Nightmarish. You can see that organisations that rely on exams are going to be concerned about the possibility of people cheating now they’re working from home. But how do you monitor those fairly? If you give up entirely, that doesn’t seem ideal either.
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Google Pixel 5 review: new phone, old tricks • The Verge

Dieter Bohn:

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TheThe clearest signal that Google isn’t trying to compete directly with top-tier phones isn’t the $699 price; it’s the Snapdragon 765G processor. For all of 2020, the best Android phones have had Qualcomm’s fastest chip, but Google has chosen to go with something a little slower in the Pixel 5G.

I don’t disagree with this choice. Although it doesn’t have the raw power of Qualcomm’s fastest chip, it’s still fast enough to not feel slow. I can detect a bit of a lag in rendering complex webpages or opening heavy apps like big games, but that’s mainly because I’ve reviewed so many flagship Android phones. In day-to-day use, I have had no problems with speed. There’s also 8GB of RAM for multitasking, which is enough to keep apps from closing in the background — a problem that frequently plagued older Pixel models.

There is one processor decision I do disagree with, though: removing the Pixel Neural Core processor for image processing. It means I’m waiting for photos to process way more often than I did with the Pixel 4. There’s a lag between shots when in portrait mode, which keeps me from shooting as quickly as I’d like, and I frequently have to wait for the HDR processing to finish when I review a shot after the fact.

…It may be disappointing to see Google shy away from the big leagues this year, but I think sticking to making a premium midrange phone is more true to the Pixel’s whole ethos. The Pixel 5 is not an especially exciting phone, but instead of overreaching, Google focused on the fundamentals: build quality, battery life, and, of course, the camera.

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I’ll admit, I don’t understand Google’s smartphone strategy. What is it aiming to do with the Pixel? It’s not competing at the high end. Fine. So what is it demonstrating? That it can make a middling phone with a really good machine learning-powered camera? Perhaps the imaging ML, not the phone, is the real point.

Plus, as Bohn also points out, things like Soli (wave your hand to control the phone!) and the squeeze-to-click and face unlock are gone. After one outing. That makes it feel like the designers are just throwing things at the wall. Contrast with Apple, which only drops features such as 3D Touch after years, once completely certain developers and users aren’t using it. (Mumble mumble Touch Bar.)
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: the headline about polling in yesterday’s edition should have said people want to “rein in” tech companies. We all know the difference.

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1 thought on “Start Up No.1414: GOP subpoenas Twitter, thousands of Robinhood accounts hacked, GM to test driverless cars on SF streets, and more

  1. I like the touch bar 🙂 The problem with the Touch Bar though is the assumption you’ll use the laptop keyboard all the time, when more likely, you’ll use an external keyboard. I’ll be sad to see it go if they drop it.

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