Start Up No.1526: how Facebook slow-walked whistleblower complaints, the mistaken peat bog murderer, Microsoft buys Nuance, and more


an update to the English NHS Covid tracing app was blocked by Apple and Google for seeking users’ location data. CC-licensed photo by G Witteveen on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Authentically behaved. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

How Facebook let fake engagement distort global politics: a whistleblower’s account • The Guardian

Julia Carrie Wong with a long read about the actions of Sophie Zhang, a whistleblower inside Facebook who was eventually fired (before she could leave in disgust):

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Facebook initially resisted calling the Honduran activity CIB [coordinated inauthentic behaviour; essentially a bot network] – in part because the network’s use of Pages to create false personas and fake engagement fell into a serious loophole in the company’s rules. Facebook’s policies to ensure authenticity focus on accounts: users can only have one account and it must employ their “real” name. But Facebook has no such rule for Pages, which can perform many of the same engagements that accounts can, including liking, sharing and commenting.

Zhang assumed that once she alerted the right people to her discovery, the Honduras network would be investigated and the fake Pages loophole would be closed. But it quickly became clear that no one was interested in taking responsibility for policing the abuses of the president of a poor nation with just 4.5m Facebook users. The message she received from all corners – including from threat intelligence, the small and elite team of investigators responsible for uncovering CIB campaigns – was that the abuses were bad, but resources were tight, and, absent any external pressure, Honduras was simply not a priority.

“It’s not for threat intel to investigate fake engagement,” an investigator from that team told Zhang. Katie Harbath, Facebook’s then public policy director for global elections, expressed interest in a “scaled way to look for this and action on other politician Pages” but noted that it was unlikely the case would get much attention outside Honduras, and that she didn’t “feel super strongly” about it. Other executives and managers Zhang briefed included Samidh Chakrabarti, the then head of civic integrity; David Agranovich, the global threat disruption lead; and Rosen, the vice-president of integrity.

“I don’t think Honduras is big on people’s minds here,” a manager from the civic integrity team told Zhang in a chat.

Frustrated and impatient after months of inaction, Zhang took her concerns semi-public – within the confines of the company’s internal communication platform.

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Zhang’s complaint was previously reported by Buzzfeed News back in September. This, however, is more detailed.
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NHS Covid-19 app update blocked for breaking Apple and Google’s rules • BBC News

Leo Kelion:

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An update to England and Wales’s contact tracing app has been blocked for breaking the terms of an agreement made with Apple and Google.

The plan had been to ask users to upload logs of venue check-ins – carried out via poster barcode scans – if they tested positive for the virus. This could be used to warn others.

The update had been timed to coincide with the relaxation of lockdown rules.

But the two firms had explicitly banned such a function from the start.

Under the terms that all health authorities signed up to in order to use Apple and Google’s privacy-centric contact-tracing tech, they had to agree not to collect any location data via the software. As a result, Apple and Google refused to make the update available for download from their app stores last week, and have instead kept the old version live.

When questioned, the Department of Health declined to discuss how this misstep had occurred.

Scotland has avoided this pitfall because it released a separate product – Check In Scotland – to share venue histories, rather than trying to build the functionality into its Protect Scotland contact-tracing app.

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Just when you think that “Covid certificates” could be nice and harmless, they try to sneak in something like that. And with all the money spent on Track & Trace too.
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A man confessed to murdering his wife, but the body turned out to be 1,600 years old • IFLScience

James Felton:

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In 1959, portrait artist and travel enthusiast Malika de Fernandez met the man who would become her murderer. Within two hours, Peter Reyn-Bardt, an airline employee, asked her to marry him – and she said yes. Within four days, they were married.

A few months later, the marriage broke down, and Fernandez began to travel the world again, now using her new husband’s airline travel discount. Reyn-Bardt remained at his cottage in Cheshire, England. 

Two years later, Fernandez disappeared completely, and Reyn-Bardt became suspect number one. Despite thorough searches of his property – including digging up his garden in search of her remains – the police weren’t able to find any evidence of Malika or any wrongdoing.

The case remained unsolved for two decades when events took an odd twist: part of a body was discovered within a peat bog near the home of Reyn-Bardt’s cottage.

At this point, Reyn-Bardt’s embarrassing lack of knowledge of peat bogs came back to bite him, and ended with his conviction for her murder. 

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Not that I have any plans to commit murder, but I’d probably qualify as having an embarrassing lack of knowledge about what happens to bodies in them.
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The Wayback Machine’s Save Page Now is new and improved • Internet Archive Blogs

Mark Graham:

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Every day hundreds of millions of web pages are archived to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. Tens of millions of them submitted by users like you using our Save Page Now service. You can now do that in a way that is easier, faster and better than ever before.

Save Page Now (SPN) just got a major upgrade as a result of a total code rewrite, adding a slew of new and awesome features, with more on the way.  

Let’s explore what’s new with Save Page Now. You can now save all the “outlinks” of a web page with a single click. By selecting the “save outlinks” checkbox you can save the requested page (and all the embedded resources that make up that page) and also all linked pages (and all the embedded resources that make up those pages). Often, a request to archive a single web page, with outlinks, will cause us to archive hundreds of URLs.  Every one of which is shown via the SPN interface as it is archived.

The new and improved SPN is based on the modern, server-side Brozzler software, which is capable of running web page JavaScript when saving a URL. With this new approach, we can replay the original more faithfully than was possible before.  And, because this software is actively supported by several developers, bugs are quickly fixed, and new features added at a rapid pace. 

When users are logged in with their free Archive.org account, SPN-generated archives can be saved to that user’s “My web archive” public gallery of archived pages.

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Why it’s easier to move country than switch social media • WIRED UK

Cory Doctorow:

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When we talk about social media monopolies, we focus too much on network effects, and not enough on switching costs. Yes, it’s true that all your friends are already stuck in a Big Tech silo that doesn’t talk to any of the other Big Tech silos. It needn’t be that way: interoperable platforms have existed since the first two Arpanet nodes came online. You can phone anyone with a phone number and email anyone with an email address.

The reason you can’t talk to Facebook users without having a Facebook account isn’t that it’s technically impossible – it’s that Facebook forbids it. What’s more, Facebook (and its Big Tech rivals) have the law on their side: the once-common practice of making new products that just work with existing ones (like third-party printer ink, or a Mac program that can read Microsoft Office files, or an emulator that can play old games) has been driven to the brink of extinction by Big Tech. They were fine with this kind of “competitive compatibility” when it benefited them, but now that they dominate the digital world, it’s time for it to die.

To restore competitive compatibility, we would need reform to many laws: software copyright and patents, the anti-circumvention laws that protect digital rights management, and the cybersecurity laws that let companies criminalize violations of their terms of service.

New proposals from the UK Competition and Markets Authority, as well as the EU’s Digital Services and Digital Markets Act and the US ACCESS Act of 2020, all contemplate some form of interoperability mandate – forcing the dominant platforms to open up the APIs they already use to let various parts of their own business talk to one another.

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That point about the APIs is a good one. Early in the days of social media, as I point out in my forthcoming book, there was a service called FriendFeed which aggregated the feeds from all the *other* social media. It was, very briefly, a huge risk to the nascent platforms (despite information overload).

Then Facebook bought it and almost everyone forgot about it.
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Three questions that will decide the Epic Games case against Apple • The Verge

Russell Brandom:

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nOn May 3rd, Fortnite publisher Epic Games will finally have its day in court, forcing Apple to defend kicking Fortnite off the iOS App Store last year. Epic’s antitrust lawsuit is bigger than a single game; it’s a direct challenge to the App Store model, the most significant legal challenge Apple has faced since the Xerox days.

Last night, both sides filed a document called a “proposed findings of fact,” essentially laying out every factual claim they’ll rely on in their arguments. The documents run more than 650 pages in total, giving a detailed roadmap of how each side sees the case — from the early days of the iPhone to Epic’s specific preparations for picking this fight with Apple. But the filings also bring the case into focus, raising three questions that will be central to the trial over the coming months.

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Brandom offers:
• Is the exclusive app store a necessary part of iOS?
How is the iPhone different from a PlayStation?
• How much control can Apple exert over its hardware?

Quite how these get answered is going to determine the court case. Though that will probably be argued back and forth through the appeal courts, and perhaps right up to the Supreme Court. It took 10 years for Oracle-Google to reach a resolution. There’s an outside chance this will take as long.

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Microsoft buys Nuance Communications in a $16bn deal • CNBC

Steve Kovach:

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Microsoft announced Monday that it will buy speech recognition company Nuance Communications for $56 per share, about 23% above its closing price Friday. The deal is worth about $16bn and about $19bn including debt.

It’s the latest sign Microsoft is hunting for more growth through acquisitions. The company is also reportedly in talks to buy the chat app Discord for about $10bn. On top of that, Microsoft made an effort to buy TikTok’s US business last year for about $30bn before the deal was derailed.

The Nuance acquisition represents Microsoft’s largest acquisition since it bought LinkedIn for more than $26bn in 2016. Last month, Microsoft completed its $7.6bn acquisition of gaming company Zenimax.

Shares of Nuance ended the trading day up 15.95% Monday. Microsoft shares were up slightly.

Nuance would be aligned with the part of Microsoft’s business that serves businesses and governments. Nuance derives revenue by selling tools for recognizing and transcribing speech in doctor office visits, customer-service calls and voicemails. In its announcement, Microsoft said Nuance’s technology will be used to augment Microsoft’s cloud products for health care, which were launched last year.

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Speech transcription is a very obvious fit for the makers of Microsoft Office. The surprise is that it has taken this long.
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Tui plane in ‘serious incident’ after every ‘Miss’ on board was assigned child’s weight • The Guardian

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A software mistake caused a Tui flight to take off heavier than expected as female passengers using the title “Miss” were classified as children, an investigation has found.

The departure from Birmingham airport to Majorca with 187 passengers on board was described as a “serious incident” by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB).

An update to the airline’s reservation system while its planes were grounded due to the coronavirus pandemic led to 38 passengers on the flight being allocated a child’s “standard weight” of 35kg as opposed to the adult figure of 69kg.

This caused the load sheet – produced for the captain to calculate what inputs are needed for take-off – to state that the Boeing 737 was more than 1,200kg lighter than it actually was.

Investigators described the glitch as “a simple flaw” in an IT system. It was programmed in an unnamed foreign country where the title “Miss” is used for a child and “Ms” for an adult female.

Despite the issue, the thrust used for the departure from Birmingham on 21 July 2020 was only “marginally less” than it should have been, and the “safe operation of the aircraft was not compromised”, the AAIB said.

The same fault caused two other Tui flights to take off from the UK with inaccurate load sheets later that day.

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There’s not much more detail in the full report. Any informed guesses for the country where the programming was done?
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There’s another Facebook phone number database online • Vice

Joseph Cox:

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An online tool lets customers pay to unmask the phone numbers of Facebook users that liked a specific Page, and the underlying dataset appears to be separate from the 500 million account database that made headlines this week, signifying another data breach or large scale scraping of Facebook users’ data, Motherboard has found.

Motherboard verified the tool, which comes in the form of a bot on the social network and messaging platform Telegram, outputs accurate phone numbers of Facebook users that aren’t included in the dataset of 500 million users. The data also appears to be different to another Telegram bot outputting Facebook phone numbers that Motherboard first reported on in January.

“Hello, can you tell me how you got my number?” one person included in the dataset asked Motherboard when reached for comment. “Omg, this is insane,” they added. Another person returned Motherboard’s call and, after confirming their name, said “If you have my number then yes it seems the data is accurate.”

A description for the bot reads “The bot give [sic] out the phone numbers of users who have liked the Facebook page.”

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Cox cross-compared it with the big leak that has been put onto Have I Been Pwned, and found that the numbers he did get weren’t there. So this is a parallel leak.
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Global PC market swells by 55% in Q1 2021 to 82.7 million • Canalys

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The latest data from Canalys shows continued strength in the worldwide PC market in the first quarter of 2021, with shipments of desktops and notebooks, including workstations, up 55% year on year.

Though this growth rate was buoyed by a weak Q1 2020, total shipments of 82.7m units is still impressive, and the highest Q1 shipment number since 2012. Backlogs on orders from 2020, particularly for notebooks, were a key driver, though new demand is also a factor as smaller businesses begin their recoveries.

Shipments of notebooks and mobile workstations increased 79% year on year to reach 67.8m units. Desktops improved slightly at the start of 2021 after a string of poor quarters in 2020, with the level of shipment decline easing. Shipments of desktop and desktop workstations fell 5% year on year to 14.8m units.

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That puts notebooks at 81% of the market. Canalys reckons Apple doubled its total sales which, if correct, would be astonishing; the closest I can find to that is a 48% rise in the July-September quarter of 2005 – which just happens to be when Apple last had a processor architecture transition, that time from RISC to Intel. This time, it’s gone in the other direction.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1526: how Facebook slow-walked whistleblower complaints, the mistaken peat bog murderer, Microsoft buys Nuance, and more

  1. It seems strange that airline passengers aren’t weighed before boarding – as was the case in the early days of air travel. It would be pretty easy to incorporate weighing scales into one of the places you have to stand still as part of the interminable boarding process.

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