Start Up No.1504: Apple sues former staffer over media leaks, Netflix to stop password sharing, Facebook’s AI problem, and more


Some British internet connections are being surveilled in a secret Home Office trial. Who decides if it goes nationwide? CC-licensed photo by Nenad Stojkovic on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. So far, not subject to a public inquiry. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

The UK is secretly testing a controversial web snooping tool • WIRED UK

Matt Burgess:

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For the last two years police and internet companies across the UK have been quietly building and testing surveillance technology that could log and store the web browsing of every single person in the country.

The tests, which are being run by two unnamed internet service providers, the Home Office and the National Crime Agency, are being conducted under controversial surveillance laws introduced at the end of 2016. If successful, data collection systems could be rolled out nationally, creating one of the most powerful and controversial surveillance tools used by any democratic nation.

Despite the National Crime Agency saying “significant work” has been put into the trial it remains clouded in secrecy. Elements of the legislation are also being challenged in court. There has been no public announcement of the trial, with industry insiders saying they are unable to talk about the technology due to security concerns.

The trial is being conducted under the Investigatory Powers Act 2016, dubbed the Snooper’s Charter, and involves the creation of Internet Connection Records, or ICRs. These are records of what you do online and have a broad definition. In short, they contain the metadata about your online life: the who, what, where, why and when of your digital life. The surveillance law can require web and phone companies to store browsing histories for 12 months – although for this to happen they must be served with an order, approved by a senior judge, telling them to keep the data.

The first of these orders was made in July 2019 and kickstarted ICRs being trialled in the real world, according to a recent report from the Investigatory Powers Commissioner. A second order, made to another internet provider as part of the same trial, followed in October 2019. A spokesperson for the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office says the trial is ongoing and that it is conducting regular reviews to “ensure that the data types collected remain necessary and proportionate”. They add that once the trial has been fully assessed a decision will be made on whether the system will be expanded nationally.

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Apple sues former employee leaking trade secrets to media • AppleInsider

Wesley Hilliard:

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The former materials lead at Apple has been sued by the company, with the complaint addressing alleged misappropriation of trade secrets that were then sold to an unnamed publication in exchange for favorable coverage of a startup.

The leaks and rumors industry built around Apple can be a dangerous one. Simon Lancaster, former materials lead at Apple, has been accused of accessing data outside of his job’s scope then selling it to a media outlet.

A court document made public on Thursday describes the accusation:

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Despite over a decade of employment at Apple, Lancaster abused his position and trust within the company to systematically disseminate Apple’s sensitive trade secret information in an effort to obtain personal benefits. He used his seniority to gain access to internal meetings and documents outside the scope of his job’s responsibilities containing Apple’s trade secrets, and he provided these trade secrets to his outside media correspondent.

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Apple claims that the media venue published the stolen trade secrets in assorted articles, citing a “source” at Apple. The suit also alleges that Lancaster traded the information for benefits, including positive coverage of his new company.

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We’re all wondering who the mysterious correspondent is, aren’t we. The court document alleges that the first contact was November 29 2018, so that’s a date to conjure with. Stories beginning from December 2018?
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Let’s redesign the laptop for a work-from-home era • WSJ

Dan Weil:

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What developments are coming to laptops to make remote work easier? And what developments should be coming? Here’s what a variety of experts had to say about that.

1. Improve the way we look on camera…

The better we get at videoconferencing, the more we notice bad videoconferencing and poor camera angles. Innovation in software will make us all look better on camera.

There’s already software to edit the view of the pupil of your eye so it looks like you’re focused on the camera. It’s not a big leap to think software will scan our faces and present a virtual camera view that shows us at our most flattering angle with a little motion thrown in for realism.

Going a step further, more workers who are in continuous meetings don’t want to stare into a camera or at a single screen all day. Having more than one camera—think a production studio for the home office—could enable meeting software to smoothly switch automatically from one camera to another depending on where you focus your eyes.

We should also see an evolution of tablet and laptop design to improve the way we look on camera. If you have a device with a detachable keyboard, you can already position your screen and its camera on a stand to get a better angle. Separating the laptop camera so you can put it anywhere is a logical step.

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Improving the camera quality and positioning alone would make a huge difference. Better noise cancellation, better wireless and more security are all among the suggestions. But with cameras making such a difference now, that’s what we need. If Apple’s next new laptops have the crummy old cameras, it’ll be a big swing-and-miss.
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He got Facebook hooked on AI. Now he can’t fix its misinformation addiction • MIT Technology Review

Karen Hao:

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I began video-calling [one of Facebook’s AI directors,] Joaquin Quiñonero regularly. I also spoke to Facebook executives, current and former employees, industry peers, and external experts. Many spoke on condition of anonymity because they’d signed nondisclosure agreements or feared retaliation. I wanted to know: what was Quiñonero’s team doing to rein in the hate and lies on its platform?

But [Facebook’s AI communications director Ari] Entin and Quiñonero had a different agenda. Each time I tried to bring up these topics, my requests to speak about them were dropped or redirected. They only wanted to discuss the Responsible AI team’s plan to tackle one specific kind of problem: AI bias, in which algorithms discriminate against particular user groups. An example would be an ad-targeting algorithm that shows certain job or housing opportunities to white people but not to minorities.

By the time thousands of rioters stormed the US Capitol in January, organized in part on Facebook and fueled by the lies about a stolen election that had fanned out across the platform, it was clear from my conversations that the Responsible AI team had failed to make headway against misinformation and hate speech because it had never made those problems its main focus. More important, I realized, if it tried to, it would be set up for failure.

The reason is simple. Everything the company does and chooses not to do flows from a single motivation: Zuckerberg’s relentless desire for growth. Quiñonero’s AI expertise supercharged that growth. His team got pigeonholed into targeting AI bias, as I learned in my reporting, because preventing such bias helps the company avoid proposed regulation that might, if passed, hamper that growth. Facebook leadership has also repeatedly weakened or halted many initiatives meant to clean up misinformation on the platform because doing so would undermine that growth.

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The lets-not-talk-about-that-we-want-to-discuss-this approach is completely familiar to every journalist who has spoken to Facebook, Google, Apple. This is a super-long feature, so allow some time.
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How Google’s new Career Certificates could disrupt the college degree • Inc.com

Justin Bariso:

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This morning, Google is announcing the next steps in its plan to disrupt the world of education, including the launch of new certificate programs that are designed to help people bridge any skills gap and get qualifications in high-paying, high-growth job fields–with one noteworthy feature: 

No college degree necessary.

The new tools could be a game changer for a growing number of people who consider the current educational system broken, or for the millions of Americans who are currently unemployed, much due to fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The pandemic has led to a truly horrible year,” Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai tells Inc. in an interview. “But it has also created profound shifts along the journey to digital transformation in ways no one could have imagined.”

The plan includes:
• The release of three new Google Career Certificates on Coursera in project management, data analytics, and user experience (UX) design
• A new Associate Android Developer Certification course
• Over 100,000 need-based scholarships
• Partnerships with more than 130 employers working with Google to hire graduates of its certificate program
• A new Google Search feature that makes it easier for people to find jobs for their education level, including no degree and no experience

Most enrollees will finish in six months or less, putting the cost at about $240 for U.S. students. Some may need only three months, cutting that cost in half. Google is offering 100,000 need-based scholarships in the U.S.

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We’ll know this is a success when Google hires someone who has completed this rather than a college degree, I guess.
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Google Maps will soon let you draw on a map to fix it • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

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If you’ve ever been frustrated by a road simply not existing on Google Maps, the company’s now making it easier than ever to add it. Google will be updating its map editing experience to allow users to add missing roads and realign, rename or delete incorrect ones. It calls the experience “drawing,” but it’s closer to using the line tool in Microsoft Paint. The updated tool should be “rolling out over the coming months in more than 80 countries,” according to a blog post.

Currently, if you try to add a missing road, you can only drop a pin where the road should be and type in the road’s name to submit that information to Google. The new tool should make it easier to not only add missing roads, but to make corrections such as fixing a road’s name or its direction (for example, if the road is one-way but Google Maps says it isn’t).

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Gosh, it’s like being able to make the map. You could become a map maker. With Google. A Google Map Maker. Except they shut that down four years ago, after someone added “an Android robot urinating on the Apple logo and a separate feature saying “Google review policy is crap”.

I’m sure it’ll all be completely fine this time though.
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Beeple NFT Everydays sells at Christies auction for $69m in Ether • Bloomberg

James Tarmy and Olga Kharif:

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When Christie’s announced the sale last month, it made waves when it revealed that it would accept cryptocurrency as payment; the caveat was that the buyer’s premium had to be in a traditional currency. 

But as the days went on and people continued to push the price even higher, that policy changed.

“We are accepting [a buyer’s premium of] Ethereum for this purchase,” Davis says. “I feel like that’s actually the biggest deal of this whole thing, secretly.”

Speaking a day before the sale closed, Davis said he was “90% sure” that the final buyer would be paying in cryptocurrency. Christie’s didn’t immediately confirm if that was the case once the sale concluded.

Given the wild volatility of cryptocurrencies, Christie’s may be taking a risk accepting its premium in Ethereum. The second-biggest digital coin lost 50% of its value on Feb. 22, sinking as low as $700. As of 10:11 a.m. EST on Mar. 11, Ether was trading at $1,815 to the dollar, a roughly 160% growth over the prior week.

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So basically they paid in Monopoly money. Going to be fun watching Christie’s trying to turn that into hard cash. Or maybe it will pass-the-parcel, buying other digital things with the pretend-money.
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The past, present, and future of Google’s Chrome OS • Fast Company

JR Raphael:

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Right now, the reality is that Chromebooks can do an awful lot—the vast majority of what most typical computer users need, I’d contend—but figuring out which of Chrome OS’s many available tools is appropriate for any given purpose isn’t always easy. With the platform’s power and versatility has come a level of complication that’s at direct odds with the simplicity it initially set out to achieve. It’s a struggle I hear about from Chromebook owners constantly, and it’s a critical challenge for Google to address.

Let’s say, for instance, you wanted to use the task management app Todoist on your Chrome OS computer. You could simply go to the Todoist website or create a shortcut to that website on your desktop—or, if you know how to find it, you could use the Todoist progressive web app, which turns the Todoist website into a more neatly packaged, offline-capable program.

You could also install the similarly offline-capable Todoist Android app from the Google Play Store—or you could find the Todoist Chrome extension in the Chrome Web Store (which, like the Play Store, is preinstalled and serves as a de facto Chromebook app market).

That’s the kind of confusion Chromebook users face daily with app selection, and countless similar examples exist. Even people who might not explicitly realize such overlapping options are available often end up stumbling onto the limitations that come up when they pick an app type that isn’t entirely optimal for performing the task at hand on a Chromebook. It frequently takes thought and research to figure out which version of a program is best for which purpose, and that’s a lot to ask of a typical computer owner.

[VP of ChromeOS John] Solomon and [UX lead John] Maletis acknowledge this challenge. They say they’re working to address it, in a way that (ahem) a certain astute writer observed as a likely-seeming progression last April: by turning the Play Store into an all-purpose discovery tool where Chromebook owners can go to find whatever programs they need without having to think about the type of app they’ll end up getting.

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ChromeOS is big: about 65% of them go to education, 20% to consumers, but they were 27% of US computer sales in 2020.
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Amazon takes lead as connected TV device sales reach new peak • Strategy Analytics

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Global sales of connected TV devices soared to a new record in Q4 2020, reaching 109.1m units, according to the latest research from Strategy Analytics’ TV Streaming Platforms service. According to the report, Amazon became market leader for the first time with sales of 13.2m devices and a market share of 12.1%. Samsung slipped into second place while Sony remained third after the launch of its new PS5 games console.

Overall in 2020 sales of connected TV devices (smart TVs, streamers, games consoles) reached 305.3m units, an annual increase of 7.6%, as locked down residents sought comfort in big screen entertainment. Strategy Analytics predicts further growth in 2021 as TV viewers continue to migrate towards internet-based video platforms and away from traditional broadcast and pay TV services.

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That must be heading for an installed base of around a billion units: nearly 600 million sold in the past two years, and these gadgets have been going for nearly a decade. The real war is between the makers of smart TVs and the makers of these devices: TV makers want to avoid becoming completely replaceable, device makers want to make them replaceable. Samsung, Sony, LG, Hisense and TCL, of course, are playing both sides.
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Netflix begins test to crack down on password sharing outside your household • The Streamable

Jason Gurwin:

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Earlier this week, some Netflix subscribers began to notice that it might be a bit harder to “borrow” someone’s password.

In the prompt, customers are told that “If you don’t live with the owner of this account, you need your own account to keep watching.” In order to continue, they need to verify the account with a E-mail or Text Code, or create a new account with a 30-Day Free Trial.

We’ve heard the test right now is only on TV devices. A Netflix spokesperson told The Streamable, “This test is designed to help ensure that people using Netflix accounts are authorized to do so.” It isn’t clear if users in the test all need to be on the same IP address to be considered in the same household.

According to Netflix terms, an account can only be shared with members of your household: “The Netflix service and any content viewed through our service are for your personal and non-commercial use only and may not be shared with individuals beyond your household.”

Until now, Netflix has not done anything to police this except to set limits on simultaneous streaming. Their Basic plan ($8.99) allows streaming on a single device, while the Standard plan ($13.99) offers streaming on up to 2 devices, and the Premium plan ($17.99) on up to 4 devices. However, they don’t limit you on the number of devices a single account can be logged into.

There has been talk that companies will be become more aggressive on password sharing, as the industry becomes more mature.

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In parallel, Alex Hern was accidentally included in a test Spotify has been running to see if how sensitive people are to higher prices if it offers various different account configurations.

Hey, fellow frogs: is this water getting warmer?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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