Start Up No.1606: how NSO’s Pegasus targeted women, Belarus heavies v sprinter, Theranos heads to trial, medals tabled, and more


The Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier on manoeuvres: but if you see it on radar, not a photo, can you be sure it’s there? CC-licensed photo by British High Commission%2C New Delhi on Flickr.

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


‘I will not be silenced’: women targeted in hack-and-leak attacks speak out about spyware • NBC News

Olivia Solon:

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Ghada Oueiss, a Lebanese broadcast journalist at Al-Jazeera, was eating dinner at home with her husband last June when she received a message from a colleague telling her to check Twitter. Oueiss opened up the account and was horrified: A private photo taken when she was wearing a bikini in a jacuzzi was being circulated by a network of accounts, accompanied by false claims that the photos were taken at her boss’s house.

Over the next few days she was barraged with thousands of tweets and direct messages attacking her credibility as a journalist, describing her as a prostitute or telling her she was ugly and old. Many of the messages came from accounts that appeared to support Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud, known as MBS, including some verified accounts belonging to government officials.

“I immediately knew that my phone had been hacked,” said Oueiss, who believes she was targeted in an effort to silence her critical reporting on the Saudi regime. “Those photos were not published anywhere. They were only on my phone.”

“I am used to being harassed online. But this was different,” she added. “It was as if someone had entered my home, my bedroom, my bathroom. I felt so unsafe and traumatized.”

Oueiss is one of several high-profile female journalists and activists who have allegedly been targeted and harassed by authoritarian regimes in the Middle East through hack-and-leak attacks using the Pegasus spyware, created by Israeli surveillance technology company NSO Group. The spyware transforms a phone into a surveillance device, activating microphones and cameras and exporting files without a user knowing.

For Oueiss and several other women whose phones were allegedly targeted, a key part of the harassment and intimidation is the use of private photos. While these photos may seem tame by Western standards, they are considered scandalous in conservative societies like Saudi Arabia and were seemingly used to publicly shame these women and smear their reputations.

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Huge methane cloud spotted near gas pipeline that supplies China • Yahoo

Akshat Rathi and Naubet Bisenov:

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A massive methane plume detected last month over Kazakhstan occurred near a major pipeline that supplies natural gas to China.

The cloud was observed roughly 100 kilometers (62 miles) west of the largest Kazakh city of Almaty on July 24, and had an emissions rate of more than 200 tons of methane an hour, according to an estimate from geoanalytics firm Kayrros SAS. That amount of the super-warming greenhouse gas would have roughly the same short-term climate warming impact as the annual emissions of 10,000 cars in the UK.

“This large emission event matches the pattern of methane release observed from gas infrastructure,” said a spokesperson for Kayrros. “A pipeline and compressors are in close proximity, and based on information Kayrros has access to there are no other candidates for the observed release.”

KazTransGas JSC, which operates the Kazakh portion of the Central Asia-China pipeline, said it didn’t have any leaks and the country’s energy ministry didn’t immediately provide a response to queries about the plume.

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All the effort that individuals make, wiped out by this sort of supply mistake. One of my (adult) children told me that on global warming, he decided long ago that it can only be sorted by action on supply; that for individuals to change their demands will simply never add up to enough to effect change.
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How Olympic surfing is trying to ride the machine learning wave • WSJ

Daniela Hernandez:

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South African surfer Bianca Buitendag uses some apps and websites to gauge wind and wave conditions before she competes, but she doesn’t consider surfing a high-tech sport. It’s mostly about trying to gauge the weather. 

“That’s about it,” she said this week. 

Carissa Moore, who on Tuesday faced off with Buitendag for the sport’s first-ever Olympic gold medal, takes a different approach. She loads up on performance analytics, wave pools and science. The American, who beat Buitendag by nearly 6.5 points to win the gold medal on Tuesday, has competed on artificial waves and uses technology such as a wearable ring that tracks her sleep and other vitals to help her coaches fine-tune her training and recovery. 

Their different approaches go to the heart of a long-running tension in surfing: dueling images of the spiritual, naturalist wave rider versus the modern, techie athlete. 

“There’s this illusion that you’re trying to sustain, even if you’re aware of all the stuff that’s gone into [surfing],” said Peter Westwick, a University of Southern California surfing historian. He’s talking about the use of advanced polymer chemistry-enabled products in surfboards and wetsuits and complex weather modeling that helps govern where and how competitions like this Olympic event are held. The tech has roots in military research and development, he said. 

 “It’s now the basis of this billion-dollar industry,” Westwick said.

The latest iteration of that loaded conflict involves software that’s invisible but powerful, like the wind that helps propel the waves the sport relies on. Machine learning algorithms could further shape surfing in years to come, helping to improve wave forecasting, and making inroads into training, injury prevention, and recruitment of top athletes, according to researchers and coaches.       

“We’ve been really trying to figure out ways to get our athletes to perform. There’s so many variables you can’t control, like wind and tides,” said Kevyn Dean, USA Surfing’s medical director. “Taking a deeper dive into analytics and data was our roadmap…We really want to follow the data.” 

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One day we have machine learning being useless (in Covid diagnosis), the next Olympic athletes are relying on it. No wonder nobody can decide what to trust.
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‘That’s how suicide cases end up’: transcript of Belarusian sports officials caught on tape trying to pressure sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya into quitting Tokyo Olympics after she criticized them publicly • Meduza

Transcribed by Olga Korelina and Dmitry Kartsev, translation by Kevin Rothrock:

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Hours after the dramatic events at Tokyo’s airport, the anonymous Telegram channel “Nick and Mike” published an audio recording on YouTube that allegedly captures an exchange between [Krystsina] Tsimanouskaya and two Belarusian sports officials: national team head coach Yuri Moisevich and Belarusian Republican Track and Field Training Center deputy director Artur Shumak. About 19 minutes long, the tape is clearly part of a conversation where the two men drive Tsimanouskaya to tears, trying to persuade her to drop out of the Olympics and leave Tokyo immediately. Meduza presents a translation of this recording (with a few minor redactions).

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I can’t honestly tell you if this is true. But it rings really true, and it’s transcribed from the embedded YouTube video which would be a hell of a piece of acting if that’s the case.

On balance I’m prepared to believe this is real. In which the way that the two heavies use every possible tactic, from sympathy to mild threats to bigger threats to appeals to “reason”, is an insight into how Mafiosi work.
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Jihadists flood pro-Trump social network with propaganda • Politico

Mark Scott and Tina Nguyen:

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Just weeks after its launch, the pro-Trump social network GETTR is inundated with terrorist propaganda spread by supporters of Islamic State, according to a Politico review of online activity on the fledgling platform.

The social network — started a month ago by members of former President Donald Trump’s inner circle — features reams of jihadi-related material, including graphic videos of beheadings, viral memes that promote violence against the West and even memes of a militant executing Trump in an orange jumpsuit similar to those used in Guantanamo Bay.

The rapid proliferation of such material is placing GETTR in the awkward position of providing a safe haven for jihadi extremists online as it attempts to establish itself as a free speech MAGA-alternative to sites like Facebook and Twitter.

It underscores the challenges facing Trump and his followers in the wake of his ban from the mainstream social media platforms following the Jan. 6 Capitol Hill riots.

Islamic State “has been very quick to exploit GETTR,” said Moustafa Ayad, executive director for Africa, the Middle East and Asia at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, a think tank that tracks online extremism, who first discovered the jihadi accounts and shared his findings with Politico.

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Censorship for thee, but not for me. Is that how it works?
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Alternative Olympics Medal Table

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What would happen if we re-ranked Olympic medals based on other factors? If we took account of population size, wealth or even search interest, how would the medal table look? Click the buttons below to find out.

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It’s a Google product, and they do seem to be updating it regularly. Of course any reordering tends to enormously favour the smaller countries which have been able to get a medal.
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Theranos patients are the emerging wild card in the trial of Elizabeth Holmes • WSJ

Christopher Weaver and Sara Randazzo:

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After three back-to-back miscarriages, Brittany Gould said she turned to Theranos Inc. to know if her latest pregnancy was on track.

Then, one of the company’s trademark finger-prick tests indicated she was losing another baby, Ms. Gould said. The Mesa, Ariz., medical assistant recalled dreading the moment when she would have to tell her 7-year-old daughter, who was waiting for a sibling.

“Mommy is not having a baby,” Ms. Gould said she told her.

Like those of other patients slated as potential witnesses in the criminal trial of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes , Ms. Gould’s test was wrong. Prosecutors have accused Ms. Holmes of defrauding patients and investors by falsely claiming her invention could accurately perform lab tests on just a few drops of blood.

The repeatedly delayed trial—postponed once because Ms. Holmes was due to have a baby herself—is expected to be one of the most widely watched corporate-fraud cases in years.

…[But] Prosecutors will be hampered in trying to prove Theranos’s technology wasn’t reliable because they can’t access a company database that tracked millions of test results. A copy of the database given to the government on an encrypted hard drive turned out to be unusable when prosecutors belatedly learned they didn’t have a passcode needed to access it. The company, meanwhile, dismantled the original database around the time Theranos dissolved in 2018.

Prosecutors say they aim to call to testify 11 patients and around the same number of medical providers who recall faulty tests from Theranos. Most of their stories have never been reported.

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John Carreyrou, who originally uncovered it all, is still listed as a WSJ reporter, but in fact left it in 2019 for “paid speaking events that are banned by the paper”.
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The shadow of the chip shortage is looming over tech’s big quarter • The Verge

Chaim Gertenberg:

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Apple had already warned that part shortages could impact its iPad and Mac businesses at its Q2 earnings to the tune of $3bn to $4bn. CFO Luca Maestri said on last week’s Q3 earnings call that it was able to keep those losses mainly limited to iPads and under $3bn, in what was definitely a win for Apple. But it came at the same time as a warning from CEO Tim Cook that supply constraints could impact the iPhone — the most important and lucrative part of Apple’s product lineup — in the coming quarter, which could be a far more concerning factor for the company.

Microsoft, too, called out a decline in Windows OEM revenue (a drop of 3 percent) as being directly caused by supply chain constraints, even as its cloud revenue continued to soar. And of course, while Microsoft’s next-gen Xbox Series X and Series S consoles continue to sell every unit Microsoft can make, there’s just simply not enough supply to go around yet.

It was a similar story at Samsung, which posted increased revenue and operating profit year over year, carried by massive demand from its semiconductor business (which accounts for over a third of its revenue and more than half its profit). But Samsung was also weighed down by less overall demand and revenue for its mobile phone business, which declined compared to last quarter due to a combination of supply shortages and the seasonal buying cycle.

Other companies, like Tesla, have taken more drastic steps to face the shortage: the company had to develop new firmware for whatever chips it could get its hands on, but CEO Elon Musk was blunt about the fact that semiconductors would be a big concern for the company. “The global chip shortage situation remains quite serious,” he said, highlighting difficulties Tesla experienced getting chips that power essential parts of its cars — specifically the airbags and seatbelt modules.

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Phantom warships are courting chaos in conflict zones • WIRED

Mark Harris:

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On September 17 last year, the largest ship in the UK’s Royal Navy, the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth, steamed majestically towards the Irish Sea. The 283-meter-long fleet flagship was flanked by an escort of destroyers and smaller ships from the UK, Dutch, and Belgian navies. The six vessels moving in close formation would have made an awe-inspiring spectacle—if they had actually been there.

In fact, satellite imagery of their supposed locations shows nothing but deep blue sea, and news reports suggest the warships were actually scattered in distant ports at the time. The Queen Elizabeth and its flotilla were previously unreported victims of a disturbing trend: warships having their positions—and even entire voyages—faked using the automatic identification system, a wireless radio technology designed to prevent collisions at sea.

According to analysis conducted by conservation technology nonprofit SkyTruth and Global Fishing Watch, over 100 warships from at least 14 European countries, Russia, and the US appear to have had their locations faked, sometimes for days at a time, since August 2020. Some of these tracks show the warships approaching foreign naval bases or intruding into disputed waters, activities that could escalate tension in hot spots like the Black Sea and the Baltic. Only a few of these fake tracks have previously been reported, and all share characteristics that suggest a common perpetrator.

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The perpetrator is not any of the European countries; instead, it’s one that would like to claim that the European countries have been aggressors. As fast as we come up with schemes to record where things are, people come up with schemes to fake them.
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Twitter social distancing • One Man And His Blog

Adam Tinworth:

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On Saturday night, I deleted Twitter from my phone. This morning, I removed it from my iPad. For the rest of August, if I want to interact with Twitter, I’ll either have to open it on the web, or use my MacBook. August is going to be my month of Twitter social distancing.

A decade ago (I’m approaching my 15th anniversary as a Twitter user) I loved Twitter. It was a great place to maintain low level regular contact with interesting people I knew. Even now, I have some great conversations on there from time to time. But something has changed. My Twitter timeline is more performative, more hostile, more aggressive. The journalism part of it is particularly bad. And I need a break from it.

I’ll dig into some of my thoughts behind the reasons why in a later post — it’s partially drafted, but keeps growing, so I’ll use some of the time saved by not doom-scrolling through my feed to finish writing that. But the key point here is that Twitter has been having a notable deleterious effect on my mood and — occasionally — my self-confidence and even mental health.

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Wondering when I can start diagnosing people as suffering from the effects of social warming. Increased heat, or the excess rainfall of unwanted tweets, or…
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It’s always a good time to buy a book. How about
Social Warming, my latest book?


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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