Start Up No.1588: China harvests genetic data, US states to sue Google?, let’s go geothermal!, the Vivace mystery, and more


Staff in Japanese government offices are resisting moves to ban fax machines. CC-licensed photo by Mike Licht on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Friday! One of the best days in the week to
order Social Warming, my latest book.


Special report: China’s gene giant harvests data from millions of women • Reuters

Kirsty Needham and Clare Baldwin:

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A Chinese gene company selling prenatal tests around the world developed them in collaboration with the country’s military and is using them to collect genetic data from millions of women for sweeping research on the traits of populations, a Reuters review of scientific papers and company statements found.

US government advisors warned in March that a vast bank of genomic data that the company, BGI Group, is amassing and analysing with artificial intelligence could give China a path to economic and military advantage. As science pinpoints new links between genes and human traits, access to the biggest, most diverse set of human genomes is a strategic edge. The technology could propel China to dominate global pharmaceuticals, and also potentially lead to genetically enhanced soldiers, or engineered pathogens to target the US population or food supply, the advisors said.

Reuters has found that BGI’s prenatal test, one of the most popular in the world, is a source of genetic data for the company, which has worked with the Chinese military to improve “population quality” and on genetic research to combat hearing loss and altitude sickness in soldiers.

BGI says it stores and re-analyses left-over blood samples and genetic data from the prenatal tests, sold in at least 52 countries to detect abnormalities such as Down’s syndrome in the foetus. The tests – branded NIFTY for “Non-Invasive Fetal TrisomY” – also capture genetic information about the mother, as well as personal details such as her country, height and weight, but not her name, BGI computer code viewed by Reuters shows.

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I think the US government advisors are getting a bit overheated. You can’t engineer pathogens to target a population – nor even a “race”, because genes don’t recognise the idea. (There’s more genetic variation within what we call a race than between different races.) I’ve heard variations of this “genetically engineered weapons!” story for about 20 years. It’s a nope. But the gathering of all the data is still something to look at sidelong.
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Google set to be sued by states in Play Store antitrust case • Bloomberg

Naomi Nix, David McLaughlin, and Mark Bergen:

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Dozens of states are poised to sue Google alleging that the company illegally abused its power over developers that distribute apps through the Google Play store on mobile devices, according to people familiar with the situation.

State attorneys general are preparing to file an antitrust lawsuit that targets the fees Google takes from developers for purchases and subscriptions inside apps, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified discussing the case. The lawsuit could be filed as soon as Wednesday in California, a second person said.

It would mark a new attack by government officials in the US against the search engine’s business practices. The Justice Department and a group of states filed separate complaints over Google’s search business last year, while another state coalition sued over Google’s digital advertising business.

Google and Apple Inc. are a duopoly dominating the app economy of the Western world. The companies have come under intense pressure from regulators and some developers who complain that high app store fees and complex rules raise costs for consumers. A total of $143bn was spent in mobile app stores in 2020, a 20% jump from the previous year, according to analytics firm App Annie.

«

This seems a weird one. Google lets companies essentially take payments outside the store, except for games. Is the complaint about that? Hard, too, to know whether this is just some sort of prelude to a federal case that these complaints will be wrapped up into. The suit was filed, but there wasn’t a copy of the complaint available last night.
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Google’s unfair performance advantage in Chrome • Ctrl blog

Daniel Aleksandersen:

»

I recently poked around in the Chromium project source code; the open-source foundation for Google’s Chrome web browser. The Chromium project is co-developed by Google, and other corporate and individual contributors. The project is managed and controlled by Google, however. I was looking for something else when I stumbled upon a feature called PreconnectToSearch. When enabled, the feature preemptively opens and maintains a connection to the default search engine.

The preconnection feature resolves the domain name, and negotiates and sets up a secure connection to the server. All these things take time and they must happen before the search engine can receive the users’ search queries. Preempting these steps can save a dozen seconds on a slow network connection or half a second on a fast connection.

This optimization can yield a nice performance boost for Google’s customers. Assuming the connection only requires a trivial amount of processing power and network bandwidth, of course. Setting up the connection early can be wasteful or slow down the loading of other pages if the user isn’t going to search the web.

There’s just one small catch: Chromium checks the default search engine setting, and only enables the feature when it’s set to Google Search. This preferential treatment means no other search engine can compete with Google Search on the time it takes to load search results. Every competitor must wait until the user has started to type a search query before Chrome will establish a connection.

The feature gives Google Search an 80% head start towards delivering its search results compared to a non-preconnected competitor.

«

Microsoft can fork Chromium, so it could do the same for Bing presumably? But it’s a subtlety in all this which you wouldn’t know about, yet might notice, even subconsciously.
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Bhima Koregaon case: forensics report finds that evidence was planted on lawyer Surendra Gadling’s computer • The Washington Post

Niha Masih and Joanna Slater:

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A hacker planted evidence on the computers of two activists jailed in 2018 accused of plotting an insurgency against the Indian government, a new forensic report concludes.

The finding raises fresh doubts about a case that rights groups consider an effort to crack down on critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. More than a dozen activists have been imprisoned without trial under a stringent anti-terrorism law that rarely results in convictions.

Arsenal Consulting, a Massachusetts-based digital forensics firm, examined electronic copies of the computers, as well as email accounts belonging to two of the activists, Surendra Gadling and Rona Wilson, at the request of defense lawyers.

An unidentified attacker used malicious software to infiltrate the two computers and deposited dozens of files in hidden folders on the devices, Arsenal said. Investigators later cited the documents as incriminating evidence linking the activists to a banned Maoist militant group that aims to overthrow the government.

Tuesday’s report is the third that Arsenal has released in the case. The previous reports concluded that Wilson’s laptop was hacked, and that more than 30 files, including an explosive letter mentioning a plot to assassinate Modi, were deposited on the computer. The Washington Post was the first to report that a hacker had planted evidence in the case.

Experts say the information in the new report points to an extensive and coordinated malware campaign that targeted and probably compromised other computers beyond those belonging to the two activists.

«

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The state of next-generation geothermal energy • Eli Dourado

Dourado is “an economist and regulatory hacker”:

»

A benefit of climate change is that lots of smart people are rethinking energy, but I fear they aren’t going far enough. If we want not just to replace current energy consumption with low-carbon sources, but also to, say, increase global energy output by an order of magnitude, we need to look beyond wind and solar. Nuclear fission would be an excellent option if it were not so mired in regulatory obstacles. Fusion could do it, but it still needs a lot of work. Next-generation geothermal could have the right mix of policy support, technology readiness, and resource size to make a big contribution to abundant clean energy in the near future.

Let’s talk about resource size first. Stanford’s Global Climate and Energy Project estimates crustal thermal energy reserves at 15 million zetajoules. Coal + oil + gas + methane hydrates amount to 630 zetajoules. That means there is 23,800 times as much geothermal energy in Earth’s crust as there is chemical energy in fossil fuels everywhere on the planet. Combining the planet’s reserves of uranium, seawater uranium, lithium, thorium, and fossil fuels yields 365,030 zetajoules. There is 41 times as much crustal thermal energy than energy in all those sources combined. (Total heat content of the planet, including the mantle and the core, is about three orders of magnitude higher still.)

Although today’s geothermal energy is only harvested from spots where geothermal steam has made itself available at the surface, with some creative subsurface engineering it could be produced everywhere on the planet. Like nuclear energy, geothermal runs 24/7, so it helps solve the intermittency problem posed by wind and solar. Unlike nuclear energy, it is not highly regulated, which means it could be cheap in practice as well as in theory.

«

All the various methods seem pretty good, though you might have to drill 20km down to get to the stuff you want, though typical depths for these projects are more like 7.5km. The deepest drilled holes so far are about 12km max.
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Vivace: what’s this government-funded tech consortium got to hide? • Medium

Barry Collins:

»

A mysterious consortium of tech companies isn’t keen to talk about its work with the UK government.

Vivace describes itself as “a consortium of the best and brightest in the security industry”. Odd, then, that this publicly-funded brains squad seems remarkably reluctant to tell us who’s in it.

Vivace first came to my attention last week, when it was named as one of the expert technologists consulted as part of the NSPCC’s hugely unbalanced report into end-to-end encryption. I’d never heard of Vivace before, and so did a little digging to find out what this organisation actually does.

Its sparse one-page website offers few clues, beyond the “best and brightest” claim made above. There’s no list of members, no named executives, no physical address, nothing but a bland set of mission statements.

A few days later, someone claiming to be Vivace’s media representative replied to the email I sent them asking for further information. It turns out Vivace is a consortium of private tech companies that is behind ACE — the Accelerated Capability Environment — which is described in press releases as “a Home Office capability within the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism that rapidly delivers solutions to challenges facing frontline security and public safety missions”.

Vivace is “a community of companies led by QinetiQ which won the contract to deliver ACE for the Home Office in 2017”. That contract was renewed for a further two years in 2020.

«

This article is from April. Since then Collins has put in an FOI request, and the Home Office has dithered and delayed. Something is going on here.
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Trump sues Twitter, Google and Facebook alleging ‘censorship’ • BBC News

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Former US president Donald Trump has filed a lawsuit against tech giants Google, Twitter and Facebook, claiming that he is the victim of censorship.

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The lawsuit is a complete garbage fire, so don’t bother reading the linked story; read US lawyer Mike Dunford’s analysis of it. He calls it a “LOLsuit”, and his analyses of the absurd lawsuits in the wake of the US election were always correct. (Not a high bar, I agree.)

But Trump used the occasion of the lawsuit to text his supporters to scam raise money from them. Should cover the lawyers’ fees, if they ever get paid.
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From K-Pop stan to keyboard warrior: meet the activists battling Myanmar’s military junta • Rest of World

Nu Nu Lusan and Emily Fishbeing contacted a number of activists, who are using social media to try to push the message out to the world about what’s going on:

»

I copy a lot of my tweets and hashtags from Telegram channels, such as 2021 Revolution Tweets. I also retweet articles that I read, such as articles about how we can create a federal democratic union, which brings peace and harmony between our diverse ethnic people. I don’t share toxic posts.

To help identify misinformation, I use fact-checking pages on Facebook, and Telegram channels, which warn us if posts are fake. We can also check images on Google Lens to make sure they are what they say they are.  If I am not sure about a post, I don’t share it, because if I make a mistake, everyone who follows will copy the mistake. I only share from pages I trust, and if I find out a post is incorrect, I delete it immediately.

I only have one Facebook account, but I have three Twitter accounts, because accounts can be suspended when I tweet too much. I use my real name on Facebook, but I don’t use my real name or photo on Twitter. As a fangirl, I use nicknames. Currently, I use a Save Myanmar photo, so that when people see my profile, they may get awareness.

In February, I protested, but later on there were shootings, so I decided to become a keyboard fighter to raise awareness to the international community. There are many people resisting the coup, but the regime is trying to cover it up. To post about the protests and news in real time, keyboard fighters play a vital role. I want the international community to know that there is no peace in Myanmar, and people are still resisting and facing danger every day.

«

No doubt they’re all passionately doing it. But is anyone listening, and of those who are can anyone do anything about it?
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Japanese fax fans rally to defence of much-maligned machine • The Guardian

Justin McCurry:

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A [government] cabinet body that promotes administrative reform said in June it had decided to abolish the use of fax machines “as a rule” by the end of the month and switch to emails at ministries and agencies in the Tokyo district of Kasumigaseki, Japan’s bureaucratic nerve centre.

The move would enable more people to work from home, it said, citing concerns that too many people were still going to the office during the coronavirus pandemic to send and receive faxes.

Exceptions would be made for disaster response and interactions with the public and businesses that had traditionally depended on faxes.

Instead of embracing the digital age, however, hundreds of government offices mounted a defence of the much-maligned machine, insisting that banishing them would be “impossible”, according to the Hokkaido Shimbun newspaper.

The backlash has forced the government to abandon its mission to turn officialdom into a digital-only operation, the newspaper said on Wednesday.

Members of the resistance said there were concerns over the security of sensitive information and “anxiety over the communication environment” if, as the government had requested, they switched exclusively to email.

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Why not switch to messaging apps? And how is a fax more secure than an email? I wonder if the opponents of the switch are older, and resistant to using keyboards.
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Audacity fork maintainer quits after alleged harassment by 4chan losers who took issue with ‘Tenacity’ name • The Register

Gareth Halfacree:

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Since the introduction of telemetry, the Audacity project has been forked more than 50 times – including into the Tenacity project, created by pseudonymous programmer “cookiengineer.” It’s this fork which attracted the attention of notorious anonymous forum 4chan, resulting in what cookiengineer claims is real-world harassment – and his abandoning of the project.

“I really thought long about this, and I haven’t slept in two days due to ongoing harassments of 4chan,” cookiengineer claimed in a post to the Tenacity GitHub Issues page some 13 hours ago. “As the first people were literally arriving at my place of living, where they knocked on my doors and windows to scare us, I am hereby officially stepping down as a maintainer of this project.

“The safety of my family is worth more than an open source project. They found out my address via a YouTube video where someone was posting my nickname combined with my real legal name (which meanwhile got taken down due to my asking). The incident happened shortly 23:00 CEST [21:00 UTC], today; and the police took over this case.”

The cause of the alleged harassment? A disagreement over the project’s name. Being unable to use the Audacity trademark, now owned by Muse Group, cookiengineer ran a poll to find a new name for the fork. Those on 4chan who can never pass up an opportunity to influence the outcome of a poll took it into their hands to ensure Sneedacity, a reference to a throwaway Simpsons gag in which a store is signposted “Sneed’s Feed & Seed, formerly Chuck’s”, won.

When cookiengineer deleted the poll and picked Tenacity as the project’s name instead, it didn’t go over well.

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Nothing more entitled than anonymous 4chan users; or more liable to produce at least one rando who will take things too far.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1588: China harvests genetic data, US states to sue Google?, let’s go geothermal!, the Vivace mystery, and more

  1. I wonder whether geothermal energy will have issues regarding the large number of holes already drilled into the crust? Nearly all these new drilling technologies assume they are drilling in virgin territory, but that’s not true in a lot of places. I’m thinking specifically of West Virginia which has thousands of unregistered holes all over the place, which is why fracking keeps polluting the local water supplies (same in TX and CA).

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