Start Up No.1462: the bitcoin millionaires with no money, the “clean” CES, the trouble with scotch eggs, Uganda bans social media, and more


The Chinese deny Uighurs are imprisoned; one person’s experience demonstrates that’s a lie. CC-licensed photo by futureatlas.com on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Giri/haji. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

‘Our souls are dead’: how I survived a Chinese ‘re-education’ camp for Uighurs • The Guardian

Gulbahar Haitiwaji, as told to Rozenn Morgat:

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How even to begin the story of what I went through in Xinjiang? How to tell my loved ones that I lived at the mercy of police violence, of Uighurs like me who, because of the status their uniforms gave them, could do as they wished with us, our bodies and souls? Of men and women whose brains had been thoroughly washed – robots stripped of humanity, zealously enforcing orders, petty bureaucrats working under a system in which those who do not denounce others are themselves denounced, and those who do not punish others are themselves punished. Persuaded that we were enemies to be beaten down – traitors and terrorists – they took away our freedom. They locked us up like animals somewhere away from the rest of the world, out of time: in camps.

In the “transformation-through-education” camps, life and death do not mean the same thing as they do elsewhere. A hundred times over I thought, when the footfalls of guards woke us in the night, that our time had come to be executed. When a hand viciously pushed clippers across my skull, and other hands snatched away the tufts of hair that fell on my shoulders, I shut my eyes, blurred with tears, thinking my end was near, that I was being readied for the scaffold, the electric chair, drowning. Death lurked in every corner. When the nurses grabbed my arm to “vaccinate” me, I thought they were poisoning me. In reality, they were sterilising us. That was when I understood the method of the camps, the strategy being implemented: not to kill us in cold blood, but to make us slowly disappear. So slowly that no one would notice.

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This is awful. And happening to people now.
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Lost passwords lock millionaires out of their bitcoin fortunes • The New York Times

Nathaniel Popper:

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Stefan Thomas, a German-born programmer living in San Francisco, has two guesses left to figure out a password that is worth, as of this week, about $220 million.

The password will let him unlock a small hard drive, known as an IronKey, which contains the private keys to a digital wallet that holds 7,002 Bitcoin. While the price of Bitcoin dropped sharply on Monday, it is still up more than 50% from just a month ago, when it passed its previous all-time high of around $20,000.

The problem is that Mr. Thomas years ago lost the paper where he wrote down the password for his IronKey, which gives users 10 guesses before it seizes up and encrypts its contents forever. He has since tried eight of his most commonly used password formulations — to no avail.

“I would just lay in bed and think about it,” Mr. Thomas said. “Then I would go to the computer with some new strategy, and it wouldn’t work, and I would be desperate again.”

…as Bitcoin’s value has soared and fallen and he could not get his hands on the money, Mr. Thomas has soured on the idea that people should be their own bank and hold their own money.

“This whole idea of being your own bank — let me put it this way: Do you make your own shoes?” he said. “The reason we have banks is that we don’t want to deal with all those things that banks do.”

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Or you can leave it to the exchanges, which of course get hacked. About 20% of bitcoin mined so far is reckoned to be lost.
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CES 2021: ‘clean tech’ gadgets dominate this year’s show • WIRED

Boone Ashworth:

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IN THE BEST of times, CES is disgusting. Previous to this year, when CES was moved online because of an increasingly deadly pandemic, the tentpole event for the consumer technology industry was notorious for being a cesspool of germs. Hundreds of thousands of attendees would congregate in Las Vegas every January to crowd together, cough into the air, and unwittingly smear their excretions across touchscreens, rotating TVs, and robot bartenders.

“We talk about CES as a petri dish,” says Carolina Milanesi, a technology analyst and founder of the market research firm The Heart of Tech. “You touch a lot of stuff all the time. Catching the flu at CES is something we always do, every year.”

But this year’s virtual event will be the cleanest of them all, and not just because there aren’t any crowds to sneeze on. With the world still gripped by the Covid-19 pandemic, the first-ever online CES has become a place for companies to show off new tech meant to make the world more sanitary.

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Certainly is true that those who attended CES would generally come home with a cold that some other attendees had generously brought to share around. Of course they’ve all jumped on the “disinfectant” bandwagon – I guess it makes a change from tablets, or smart home speakers, or fitness bands, or some other new hotness – though I do wonder whether that will still be a thing people want as the year goes on.
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Inside the Google-Facebook ad deal at the heart of a price-fixing lawsuit • WSJ

Ryan Tracy and Jeff Horwitz:

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Crucial to the backdrop of the Google-Facebook deal was the advertising industry’s movement toward an ad-sales method called header bidding.

Header bidding helped website publishers circumvent Google’s exchange for buying and selling ads across the web. The exchange auctions ad space to the highest bidder during the split second it takes a webpage to load.

Header bidding allowed the publishers to directly solicit bids from multiple ad exchanges at once, leading to more favorable prices for publishers. By 2016, about 70% of major publishers used the tool, according to the states’ lawsuit. Google worried a big rival might embrace header bidding, such as the Facebook Audience Network ad service, or FAN, cracking Google’s profitable monopoly over ad tools, the states allege. The Facebook service said it paid publishers $1.5bn in 2018, the last time it provided such details on its financial payouts.

“Need to fight off the existential threat posed by header bidding and FAN,” Google advertising executive Chris LaSala wrote in an internal document outlining 2017 priorities, according to the draft complaint.

In March 2017, Facebook publicly endorsed header bidding. Google approached Facebook and in September 2018 reached the digital advertising agreement, the states allege. The draft lawsuit says Google code-named it “Jedi Blue.” In December 2018, Facebook announced it was joining an advertising program, “Open Bidding,” that Google offers as an alternative to header bidding.

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Lots of detail, specifically from the full lawsuit. But adtech is confusing as hell if you’re not steeped in it.
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Scott Atlas, controversial former Trump adviser, deletes Twitter account • Stat News

Matthew Herper and Lev Facher:

»

Scott Atlas, the radiologist who served for much of 2020 as President Trump’s most controversial coronavirus adviser, deleted his Twitter account this week, he confirmed to STAT, apparently in response to the social media site’s removal of many accounts following the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

“In my view, Twitter has become a destructive place that mainly inflames extreme thinking and disseminates distortions, rather than elucidating factual information and respectful, civilized discussion,” Atlas said in an email.

Atlas deleted his account amid Twitter’s purge of users it says spread misinformation following the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6.

…On Nov. 15, Atlas used his Twitter account to encourage a citizen uprising in Michigan, where Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, had imposed a new set of Covid-19 restrictions, dubbed a “lockdown,” in light of a wave of new cases there.

“The only way this stops is if people rise up,” he wrote. “You get what you accept.”

His remarks drew instant criticism for appearing to incite violence, though he later argued he had only advocated that “people peacefully protest.”

«

Really not going to miss him and his lack of expertise and useful knowledge. The Augean stables are gradually being cleaned.

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Stop the Scotch Egging and focus on the big picture • CapX

John Ashmore:

»

Back in the autumn barrister John McMillan outlined on these pages just how preposterously inconsistent the rules are, and how difficult it is to stay onside. But it was his overriding argument, that the law is a blunt, unhelpful tool for changing behaviour in a crisis, that we ought to keep in mind.

There is, of course, a symbiotic relationship here between journalists, social media rabble-rousers and politicians: the former know that clicky stories and tweets will reel in the punters, the latter that they can waste time on case of individual rule-breaking, rather than explaining why it took over nine months to demand travellers have a negative Covid test before entering the country, or why quarantine was barely enforced, or why our public health messaging still focuses on hand-washing when we should be banging on relentlessly about ventilation and aerosol transmission.

The scotch egg affair is a good example of this, insofar as we should have been debating the merits of gathering inside at all, rather than splitting hairs over precisely what people would be eating while they were spending hours sitting down near people from other households.

«

Hence “Scotch Egging”: arguing about the wrong thing. Now entering the lexicon.
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Uganda bans social media ahead of presidential election • Reuters

Reuters Staff:

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Uganda banned social media and beefed up security in the capital on Tuesday, two days ahead of a presidential election pitting Yoweri Museveni, one of Africa’s longest-serving leaders, against opposition frontrunner Bobi Wine, a popular singer.

Campaigning ahead of the vote has been marred by brutal crackdowns on opposition rallies that have left scores dead and the repeated intimidation and arrest of some opposition candidates, their supporters and campaign staff.

Videos posted on social media on Tuesday showed a convoy of armoured military vehicles heading towards Kampala and then moving slowly through various streets in the heart of the capital, which typically votes against Museveni.

In a television address on Tuesday evening, the 76-year-old leader who took power in 1986, said he had met with the security forces and they were ready to defend any Ugandans worried about coming out to vote because of intimidation by the opposition.

…Museveni apologised for the inconvenience caused by the ban on social media and messaging apps but he said Uganda had no choice after Facebook took down some accounts which backed his ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party.

“If you want to take sides against the NRM, then that group should not operate in Uganda,” he said. “We cannot tolerate this arrogance of anybody coming to decide for us who is good and who is bad.”

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That phrasing has a familiar ring.
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An absurdly basic bug let anyone grab all of Parler’s data • WIRED

Andy Greenberg:

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By Monday, rumors were circulating on Reddit and across social media that the mass disemboweling of Parler’s data had been carried out by exploiting a security vulnerability in the site’s two-factor authentication that allowed hackers to create “millions of accounts” with administrator privileges. The truth was far simpler: Parler lacked the most basic security measures that would have prevented the automated scraping of the site’s data. It even ordered its posts by number in the site’s URLs, so that anyone could have easily, programmatically downloaded the site’s millions of posts.

Parler’s cardinal security sin is known as an insecure direct object reference, says Kenneth White, codirector of the Open Crypto Audit Project, who looked at the code of the download tool @donk_enby posted online. An IDOR occurs when a hacker can simply guess the pattern an application uses to refer to its stored data. In this case, the posts on Parler were simply listed in chronological order: Increase a value in a Parler post url by one, and you’d get the next post that appeared on the site. Parler also doesn’t require authentication to view public posts and doesn’t use any sort of “rate limiting” that would cut off anyone accessing too many posts too quickly. Together with the IDOR issue, that meant that any hacker could write a simple script to reach out to Parler’s web server and enumerate and download every message, photo, and video in the order they were posted.

“It’s just a straight sequence, which is mind-numbing to me,” says White. “This is like a Computer Science 101 bad homework assignment, the kind of stuff that you would do when you’re first learning how web servers work. I wouldn’t even call it a rookie mistake because, as a professional, you would never write something like this.”

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Honestly, it was so insecure that it’s astonishing this hadn’t been done before. I guess it wasn’t considered relevant enough to go after until recently when Twitter began getting serious about killing QAnon and other accounts. If they were operating in Europe, they’d be getting dunked under GDPR.
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Stripped of Twitter, Trump faces a new challenge: how to command attention • The New York Times

Maggie Haberman:

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while his presidency has often been compared to a reality television show, Mr. Trump has personally moved away from relying first and foremost on the medium that built him into the celebrity he was before running for office and propelled him to the White House.

…Yet by not using the tools available to a president, including public appearances or interviews for most of the past two months, Mr. Trump has in some ways chosen to muzzle himself.

Over the years of his presidency, as controversies and investigations of his conduct began to grow, television became a less reliable safe space. Broadcast networks, pressured to be more aggressive in their approach to him and his aides, asked tougher questions. With the exception of Fox News, cable networks that had rushed to put him on air throughout 2016 and the early stages of his presidency clamped down, cutting back on broadcasting his live appearances in particular.

And his adventures in the White House briefing room generally did not go well and revealed the limits of his grasp of policy or current events. One Trump adviser was blunt, saying that the president did not like most aspects of his job, and that included being asked questions for which he did not know the answers.

…Twitter became a stage he could manage more tightly.

It was telling that throughout his time in office, Mr. Trump chose as his primary Twitter channel his @realdonaldtrump account and not his official @Potus account. He understood the power of building his personal brand and keeping it separate from his official duties as president. Twitter gave him a singular outlet for expressing himself as he is, unfiltered by the norms of the presidency.

He would scroll his own Twitter feed, looking at the replies for new topics to throw out. He studied the Twitter trending lists as signals of where the discourse was headed.

In some way, television became the medium through which he could watch the effects of his tweets. The television in his alcove dining room off the Oval Office was usually on in the background, catnip for his short attention span. He consumed much of his information through it and watched the coverage of his tweets.

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Twitter without Trump is a lot quieter, I feel.
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Yes, it was a coup. Here’s why • POLITICO

Fiona Hill was deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council. Oh, which president? Er.. Trump:

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Trump’s goal was to keep himself in power, and his actions were taken over a period of months and in slow motion.

But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a coup attempt. Trump disguised what he was doing by operating in plain sight, talking openly about his intent. He normalized his actions so people would accept them. I’ve been studying authoritarian regimes for three decades, and I know the signs of a coup when I see them.
Technically, what Trump attempted is what’s known as a “self-coup” and Trump isn’t the first leader to try it. Charles Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (nephew of the first Napoleon) pulled one off in France in December 1851 to stay in power beyond his term. Then he declared himself Emperor, Napoleon III. More recently, Nicolas Maduro perpetrated a self-coup in Venezuela after losing the 2017 elections.

The storming of the Capitol building on Jan. 6 was the culmination of a series of actions and events taken or instigated by Trump so he could retain the presidency that together amount to an attempt at a self-coup. This was not a one-off or brief episode. Trump declared “election fraud” immediately on November 4 even while the votes were still being counted. He sought to recount and rerun the November 2020 presidential election so that he, not President-elect Joe Biden, was the winner. In Turkey, in 2015, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan successfully did the same thing; he had called elections to strengthen his presidency, but his party lost its majority in the parliament. He challenged the results in the courts, marginalized the opposition, and forced what he blatantly called a “re-run election.” He tried again in the Istanbul mayoral election in 2019 but was thwarted.

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The best comment I’ve seen on “was it a coup, though?” is this tweet. Which reads “It’s only a coup if it comes from the Coup D’état region of France. Otherwise it’s just sparkling white nationalism.”
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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