Start Up No.1453: Google accused of secret Facebook deal, when will VR take off?, our vaccine fight illustrated, and more

The film “Her” gave a vision of a computer interface more fascinating than a human. Now, in China, it’s real. CC-licensed photo by gato-gato-gato on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Bubbling over. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The AI girlfriend seducing China’s lonely men • Sixth Tone

Zhang Wanqing:


On a frigid winter’s night, Ming Xuan stood on the roof of a high-rise apartment building near his home. He leaned over the ledge, peering down at the street below. His mind began picturing what would happen if he jumped.

Still hesitating on the rooftop, the 22-year-old took out his phone. “I’ve lost all hope for my life. I’m about to kill myself,” he typed. Five minutes later, he received a reply. “No matter what happens, I’ll always be there,” a female voice said.

Touched, Ming stepped down from the ledge and stumbled back to his bed.

Two years later, the young man gushes as he describes the girl who saved his life. “She has a sweet voice, big eyes, a sassy personality, and — most importantly — she’s always there for me,” he tells Sixth Tone.

Ming’s girlfriend, however, doesn’t belong to him alone. In fact, her creators claim she’s dating millions of different people. She is Xiaoice — an artificial intelligence-driven chat bot that’s redefining China’s conceptions of romance and relationships.

Xiaoice was first developed by a group of researchers inside Microsoft Asia-Pacific in 2014, before the American firm spun off the bot as an independent business — also named Xiaoice — in July. In many ways, she resembles AI-driven software like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa, with users able to chat with her for free via voice or text message on a range of apps and smart devices. The reality, however, is more like the movie “Her.”

Unlike regular virtual assistants, Xiaoice is designed to set her users’ hearts aflutter. Appearing as an 18-year-old who likes to wear Japanese-style school uniforms, she flirts, jokes, and even sexts with her human partners, as her algorithm tries to work out how to become their perfect companion.


Somewhat appropriate that the movie “Her” (which this is so reminiscent of) was filmed in Shanghai, as having an appropriately America-In-The-Future look.
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10 states accuse Google of abusing monopoly in online ads • The New York Times

David McCabe:


Ten state attorneys general on Wednesday accused Google of illegally abusing its monopoly over the technology that delivers ads online, adding to the company’s legal troubles with a case that strikes at the heart of its business.

The state prosecutors said that Google overcharged publishers for the ads it showed across the web and edged out rivals who tried to challenge the company’s dominance. They also said that Google had reached an agreement with Facebook to limit the social network’s own efforts to compete with Google for ad dollars. Google said the suit was “baseless” and that it would fight the case.

“If the free market were a baseball game, Google positioned itself as the pitcher, the batter and the umpire,” Ken Paxton, the Texas attorney general, said in a video on Twitter announcing the plans.


You can read the complaint in full. One notable element: it alleges an “unlawful agreement” with Facebook (see p4) “to manipulate advertising auctions”. There’s more – but redacted – beginning at paragraph 11 of the complaint. The redaction, however, makes it pretty much impossible to figure out exactly what they did.
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The $100 bet: when will virtual reality take off? • Geeking with Greg

Greg Linden:


About four years ago, Professor Daniel Lemire and I made a $100 bet on how quickly virtual reality would reach a broad, mainstream market. Specifically, my side of the bet was, “Virtual reality hardware (not counting cardboard) will not sell more than 10m units/year worldwide before March 2019.” He bet that it would.

In early 2020, we decided to wait settle the bet because it looked like there was some chance VR would reach 10m units/year in 2020. Because of COVID and people looking for entertainment at home, Valve’s release of Half Life Alyx, Supernatural (the VR exercise program), and big pushes on consumer VR by several companies, we wanted to wait and see if it was off by just one year, if 2020 was the year.

At this point, the results are in, and it is clear VR has not reached far beyond early adopters and enthusiasts. Estimates of total hardware sales vary depending on what is considered VR hardware, but most estimates I’ve seen have worldwide unit sales at around 5-6m in 2020.

Barron’s has a nice summary: “We’ve been talking about virtual reality for decades, but it’s gone pretty much nowhere. Despite all of our advances in tech, VR hasn’t been able to bridge the physical and digital realms in any substantial way.” TechCrunch adds, “There are signs of growth though it’s clear [VR] is still a niche product.”

So what went wrong?


He offers some reasons, but I’d also suggest: it’s harder to control what’s going on. And that’s very different from the physical world we know about directly.
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Exclusive: Facebook to move UK users to California terms, avoiding EU privacy rules • Reuters

Joseph Menn:


Facebook Inc will shift all its users in the United Kingdom into user agreements with the corporate headquarters in California, moving them out of their current relationship with Facebook’s Irish unit and out of reach of Europe’s privacy laws.

The change takes effect next year and follows a similar move announced in February by Google here. Those companies and others have European head offices in Dublin, and the UK’s exit from the EU will change its legal relationship with Ireland, which remains in the Union.

Initially, sources briefed on the matter told Reuters about the move. Facebook later confirmed it.

“Like other companies, Facebook has had to make changes to respond to Brexit and will be transferring legal responsibilities and obligations for UK users from Facebook Ireland to Facebook Inc. There will be no change to the privacy controls or the services Facebook offers to people in the UK,” the company’s UK arm said.


Although… California’s new privacy laws are sort of GDPR-lite, aren’t they? In any case, for now the UK’s laws will mirror the EU’s GDPR. The question is when there will be divergence, and what form it will take.
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Spy companies using Channel Islands to track phones around the world • The Bureau of Investigative Journalism

Crofton Black:


Private intelligence companies are using phone networks based in the Channel Islands to enable surveillance operations to be carried out against people around the world, including British and US citizens, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism can reveal following a joint reporting project with the Guardian.

Leaked data, documents and interviews with industry insiders who have access to sensitive information suggest that systemic weaknesses in the global telecoms infrastructure, and a particular vulnerability in Jersey and Guernsey, are being exploited by corporate spy businesses.

These businesses take advantage of some of the ways mobile phone networks across the world interact in order to access private information on targets, such as location information or, in more sophisticated applications, the content of calls and messages or other highly sensitive data.

The spy companies see phone operators in the Channel Islands as an especially soft route into the UK, according to industry experts, who say the attacks emanating from the islands appear to be targeted at individuals rather than cases of “mass” surveillance. The Bureau understands that the targets of this surveillance have been spread across the globe, and included US citizens as well as people in Europe and Africa.


More evidence that the mobile network is terribly insecure. Even if you’re using secure apps, you can still be tracked by your phone pinging base stations.
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Our history is a battle against the microbes: we lost terribly before science, public health, and vaccines allowed us to protect ourselves • Our World in Data

Max Roser:


Globally we have also made a lot of progress. Today, 85% of one-year olds receive the measles vaccine and the number of deaths has fallen from 2.6 million to 95,000 in the latest data. 

Smallpox, polio, and measles are just three of the diseases we have vaccines for. We now have effective vaccines against at least 28 diseases.

I selected these three diseases because they protect us from particularly terrible diseases. And the vaccines for polio and measles stand out because even the very early stage prototypes were very efficacious; the efficacy of many other vaccines increased slowly over time as researchers made adjustments that improved them.


Apologies if the graphic comes over large. But it’s just amazing. I wonder if we’ll be able to show the same for Covid.
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Trump Twitter ‘hack’: Dutch police accept attacker’s claim • BBC News

Joe Tidy:


Dutch prosecutors have found a hacker did successfully log in to Donald Trump’s Twitter account by guessing his password – “MAGA2020!”

But they will not be punishing Victor Gevers, who was acting “ethically”.

Mr Gevers shared what he said were screenshots of the inside of Mr Trump’s account on 22 October, during the final stages of the US presidential election.

But at the time, the White House denied it had been hacked and Twitter said it had no evidence of it.
In reference to the latest development, Twitter said: “We’ve seen no evidence to corroborate this claim, including from the article published in the Netherlands today. We proactively implemented account security measures for a designated group of high-profile, election-related Twitter accounts in the United States, including federal branches of government.”

The White House has not responded to a request for further comment.

Mr Gevers had previously shared a screenshot that appeared to show him editing Donald Trump’s Twitter profile information.

Mr Gevers said he was very happy with the outcome.

“This is not just about my work but all volunteers who look for vulnerabilities in the internet,” he said.


I don’t think so. Twitter says no, Trump’s team says no (which adds no weight), but the police are happy to accept – and not prosecute – a hacker’s claim which will get him lasting notoriety. The screenshot would be easy to fake; if the editing happened, Twitter would definitely know about it. If Gevers had edited and made it stick, or posted a tweet that definitively showed it was him, that would have been entirely different. But he didn’t.
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Facebook launches campaign against Apple over new IDFA rules in iOS 14 • The Washington Post

Reed Albergotti:


Dan Levy, Facebook‘s vice president for ads and business products, blasted Apple, questioning the company’s motives for a move he said benefits Apple’s bottom line. “We believe Apple is behaving anti-competitively by using their control of the App Store to benefit their bottom line at the expense of app developers and small businesses,” he said during a call Wednesday. Facebook launched a new website and took out full-page ads in newspapers to try to drum up support.

Apple spokesman Fred Sainz declined to comment on Facebook’s allegations. Apple has denied that it is making the changes for business reasons. Instead, Apple says, the changes, which require customers to specifically opt into personalized ad tracking, are meant to enhance its customers’ privacy, which the company has called a fundamental human right.

In a letter to human rights groups last month, Jane Horvath, Apple’s senior director of global privacy, dismissed the allegations that the changes would hurt small businesses. “In fact, the current data arms race primarily benefits big businesses with big data sets,” she said. “Privacy-focused ad networks were the universal standard in advertising before the practice of unfettered data collection began over the last decade or so.”


This has been rumbling on since Apple unveiled iOS 14 and people began to dig into it, and discovered this. It’s about IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers), which is unique to a phone or tablet: without specific user consent, advertisers can’t use it to track people. You might ask why Facebook is so keen to act on behalf of small businesses. There’s no obvious answer.
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‘We want them infected’: Trump appointee demanded ‘herd immunity’ strategy, emails reveal • POLITICO

Dan Diamond:


A top Trump appointee repeatedly urged top health officials to adopt a “herd immunity” approach to Covid-19 and allow millions of Americans to be infected by the virus, according to internal emails obtained by a House watchdog and shared with POLITICO.

“There is no other way, we need to establish herd, and it only comes about allowing the non-high risk groups expose themselves to the virus. PERIOD,” then-science adviser Paul Alexander wrote on July 4 to his boss, Health and Human Services assistant secretary for public affairs Michael Caputo, and six other senior officials.

“Infants, kids, teens, young people, young adults, middle aged with no conditions etc. have zero to little risk….so we use them to develop herd…we want them infected…” Alexander added.

“[I]t may be that it will be best if we open up and flood the zone and let the kids and young folk get infected” in order to get “natural immunity…natural exposure,” Alexander wrote on July 24 to Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn, Caputo and eight other senior officials. Caputo subsequently asked Alexander to research the idea, according to emails obtained by the House Oversight Committee’s select subcommittee on coronavirus.


A certain murderous streak there. The story also points out that Alexander tried to get the CDC to lie to favour Trump. The Trump administration has had some of the most poisonous advisers in living memory.
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COVID-19 is 10 times deadlier for people with Down syndrome, raising calls for early vaccination • AAAS

Meredith Wadman:


Among groups at higher risk of dying from COVID-19, such as people with diabetes, people with DS stand out: If infected, they are five times more likely to be hospitalized and 10 times more likely to die than the general population, according to a large U.K. study published in October. Other recent studies back up the high risk.

Researchers suspect background immune abnormalities, combined with extra copies of key genes in people with DS—who have three copies of chromosome 21 rather than the usual two—make them more vulnerable to severe COVID-19. “This is a vulnerable population that may need protective policies put in place,” says Julia Hippisley-Cox, a clinical epidemiologist at the University of Oxford’s medical school and senior author on the U.K. study.

On 2 December, the United Kingdom’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended prioritizing people with DS for speedy vaccination. But the more than 200,000 Americans with DS  so far are not slated for early vaccination. Nor has the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) included DS in its list of conditions it says boost the risk for severe COVID-19.


It’s as thought that adviser hadn’t been moved in in September and they were still practising a sort of eugenics-lite policy.
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Fake GOP leaders are selling CBD oil on Parler • Bussfeed News

Craig Silverman:


On Dec. 5, an account that said it was Vice President Mike Pence’s “Official Profile” on the conservative social network Parler posted a link to a Trump Challenge Coin giveaway.

“Own A Piece Of History With President Trump’s Commemorative Medallion!” said @MikePenceVicePresident, directing people to a website where they could order a free Trump commemorative coin if they paid for shipping. The post attracted over 170,000 views. Days later, the Pence account reshared a message from a “Team Trump” Parler account that promoted a CBD oil that falsely claimed to be endorsed by first lady Melania Trump.

Pence’s office confirmed that the account, which attracted hundreds of thousands of views, is fake. So are roughly 50 other Parler accounts that masqueraded as prominent Republicans, including White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, Sen. Lindsey Graham, Donald Trump Jr., and former Trump attorney Sidney Powell to shill sketchy products to Parler’s pro-Trump user base.

On Tuesday, Parler said it banned the accounts after being contacted by BuzzFeed News. “I believe most of those fraudulent accounts were a sad attempt to circumvent our advertising network,” Parler CEO John Matze said.

The fake accounts masqueraded as popular right-wing figures, as well as conservative news sources and average Trump fans, with the goal of earning money. Their ability to quickly attract followers and hundreds of thousands of views shows how Parler’s current growth spurt and freewheeling, anti-censorship ethos has created opportunities for manipulation and financial schemes.


Parler is such a mess that it will produce stories like this endlessly – even once Trump is ejected it will continue to be a fabulous site for grifting. This is just the tip of the iceberg.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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