Start Up No.1609: row over Apple’s CSAM scanning, Mozilla slaps Facebook, Gulf Stream warning, will UK block ARM sale?, and more

Why haven’t all the people who lay bricks been replaced with machines, since it looks like a repetitive task they’re suited to? It’s complex. CC-licensed photo by Aquistbe on Flickr.

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A selection of 8 links for you. That’s a wrap. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

More than ever we need to understand the dynamics of social networks, and how they suck people in (and affect even those who don’t use them). Read
Social Warming, my forthcoming book, and find answers – and more.

Apple reveals new efforts to fight child abuse imagery • The Verge

Russell Brandom and Richard Lawler:


In a briefing on Thursday afternoon, Apple confirmed previously reported plans to deploy new technology within iOS, macOS, watchOS, and iMessage that will detect potential child abuse imagery, but clarified crucial details from the ongoing project. For devices in the US, new versions of iOS and iPadOS rolling out this fall have “new applications of cryptography to help limit the spread of CSAM [child sexual abuse material] online, while designing for user privacy.”

The project is also detailed in a new “Child Safety” page on Apple’s website. The most invasive and potentially controversial implementation is the system that performs on-device scanning before an image is backed up in iCloud. From the description, scanning does not occur until a file is getting backed up to iCloud, and Apple only receives data about a match if the cryptographic vouchers (uploaded to iCloud along with the image) for a particular account meet a threshold of matching known CSAM.

For years, Apple has used hash systems to scan for child abuse imagery sent over email, in line with similar systems at Gmail and other cloud email providers. The program announced today will apply the same scans to user images stored in iCloud Photos, even if the images are never sent to another user or otherwise shared.


There’s a ton of explanation in this story (though not in the very overheated FT one) about what Apple is and isn’t doing, and the pains it has taken to get cryptographers to look over its plans to see if they’re robust.

But no, people are Losing. Their. §hit. about it. Apparently Apple is now invading their privacy (by checking for hashes of known CSAM?). What’s overlooked is that Microsoft, Google (2008), Facebook (2011) and Twitter (2013) have been doing this sort of thing to email and cloud storage for ages. Yes, that’s a story I wrote in 2013. Nobody knew about it; everyone thought Apple was the first company to scan for CSAM, because there’s a certain tech bro mentality that only things Apple does are worth noticing.

Apparently though evil governments will break into the database, upload hashes of photos they want to find, and get journalists or dissidents arrested. This is the scenario laid out by at least one noisy cryptographer on Twitter, who apparently hasn’t noticed that authoritarian governments don’t need a pretext to arrest someone – they just do it – and hasn’t figured out that to know what the photo in question is, they’d need to have seen on the target’s phone already. It’s just idiotic.
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Why Facebook’s claims about the Ad Observer are wrong • Mozilla blog

Marshall Erwin is chief security officer at Mozilla (which makes Firefox), and weighs in on Facebook banning researchers collecting data about ads that users were being shown:


We decided to recommend Ad Observer because our reviews assured us that it respects user privacy and supports transparency. It collects ads, targeting parameters and metadata associated with the ads. It does not collect personal posts or information about your friends. And it does not compile a user profile on its servers. The extension also allows you to see what data has been collected by visiting the “My Archive” tab. It gives you the choice to opt in to sharing additional demographic information to aid research into how specific groups are being targeted, but even that is off by default.

You don’t have to take our word for it. Ad Observer is open source, so anybody can see the code and  confirm it is designed properly and doing what it purports to do.

Of course, companies like Facebook need to be proactive about third-parties that might be collecting data on their platform and putting their users at risk. Figuring out what third-parties to allow under what circumstances is certainly not an easy task. But in this case, the application of its policy is counterproductive.

…The truth is that major platforms continue to be a safe haven for disinformation and extremism — wreaking havoc on people, our elections and society.

…We need tools like Ad Observer to help us shine a light on the darkest corners of the web. And rather than standing in the way of efforts to hold platforms accountable, we all need to work together to support and improve these tools.


Facebook is going to brazen this out, though. It’s restricting access to CrowdTangle, which gave other insights into what sort of content is popular on the network.
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Climate crisis: scientists spot warning signs of Gulf Stream collapse • The Guardian

Damian Carrington:


The research found “an almost complete loss of stability over the last century” of the currents that researchers call the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC). The currents are already at their slowest point in at least 1,600 years, but the new analysis shows they may be nearing a shutdown.

Such an event would have catastrophic consequences around the world, severely disrupting the rains that billions of people depend on for food in India, South America and West Africa; increasing storms and lowering temperatures in Europe; and pushing up the sea level in the eastern North America. It would also further endanger the Amazon rainforest and Antarctic ice sheets.

The complexity of the AMOC system and uncertainty over levels of future global heating make it impossible to forecast the date of any collapse for now. It could be within a decade or two, or several centuries away. But the colossal impact it would have means it must never be allowed to happen, the scientists said.

“The signs of destabilisation being visible already is something that I wouldn’t have expected and that I find scary,” said Niklas Boers, from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, who did the research. “It’s something you just can’t [allow to] happen.”

It is not known what level of CO2 would trigger an AMOC collapse, he said. “So the only thing to do is keep emissions as low as possible. The likelihood of this extremely high-impact event happening increases with every gram of CO2 that we put into the atmosphere”.


Better get that ticket to New Zealand booked, folks, because I can’t honestly see emissions staying “as low as possible”.
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Electric vehicle sales outpace diesel again • BBC News


More electric vehicles were registered than diesel cars for the second month in a row in July, according to car industry figures. It is the third time battery electric vehicles have overtaken diesel in the past two years.

…In July, battery electric vehicle registrations again overtook diesel cars, but registrations of petrol vehicles far outstripped both.

Cars can be registered when they are sold, but dealers can also register cars before they go on sale on the forecourt.

People are starting to buy electric vehicles more as the UK tries to move towards a lower carbon future.
The UK plans to ban the sale of new petrol and diesel cars by 2030, and hybrids by 2035.

That should mean that most cars on the road in 2050 are either electric, use hydrogen fuel cells, or some other non-fossil fuel technology.

In July there was “bumper growth” in the sale of plug-in cars, the SMMT said, with battery electric vehicles taking 9% of sales. Plug-in hybrids reached 8% of sales, and hybrid electric vehicles were at almost 12%.
This is compared with a 7.1% market share for diesel, which saw 8,783 registrations.


Sales fell by nearly 30%, though. The new car market is incredibly liable to fluctuation (try taking the view out to “max”, which goes back to the 1960s), but the past two years are below the long-term trend.
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UK considers blocking Nvidia takeover of Arm over security • Bloomberg (via Yahoo)

Kitty Donaldson and Giles Turner:


Nvidia, the biggest US chip company by market capitalisation, announced in September a $40bn deal to acquire Arm from Japan’s SoftBank Group, as part of a push to spread its reach in the surging market for semiconductors. SoftBank has been selling assets to raise cash for buybacks and fresh investments in startups.

In April, UK Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden asked the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to prepare a report on whether the deal could be deemed anti-competitive, along with a summary of any national security concerns raised by third parties.

The assessment, delivered in late July, contains worrying implications for national security and the UK is currently inclined to reject the takeover, a person familiar with government discussions said. The UK is likely to conduct a deeper review into the merger due to national security issues, a separate person said.

No final decision has been taken, and the UK could still approve the deal alongside certain conditions, the people added. Dowden is set to decide on whether the merger needs further examination by the UK’s competition authorities.


What would the national security issues be that didn’t arise when Softbank bought it in July 2016? Why is an American company more of a risk than a Japanese one? Looking forward to hearing these answered.
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YouTube’s Neal Mohan on the algorithm, monetization, and the future for creators • The Verge

Transcript for the chief product officer’s interview with The Verge’s editor Nilay Patel:


NP: Your connection to the early days of YouTube and how you’d make “My Day at the Zoo” now, I buy it. I have a more cynical version of the story though, and I want you to clarify it for me.

The more cynical version is: Snapchat launched Stories, and then Instagram launched Stories, and then WhatsApp launched Stories, and then YouTube launched Stories, and then LinkedIn launched Stories, and now there’s Stories everywhere.

And then TikTok came out, and TikTok is a cultural phenomenon. And now there’s something that looks exactly like TikTok in Instagram, and there is Shorts, which looks exactly like TikTok in YouTube.

That feels like maybe an unfairly cynical reading, but it’s also definitely the correct timeline. Do you think of Shorts as a direct competitor to TikTok?

NM: I’ll put it in context from my perspective. Thinking about things from a creator standpoint — you’re a video creator or you’re a creator that’s looking to build an audience — personally, I believe that it’s really great that there’s lots of platforms, lots of choices, lots of different ways that you can build an audience. I would argue that all of these platforms, while they might seem similar in many ways, are fundamentally very, very different, but I actually think that’s great for creators because it gives them a diversity of options. That’s what I would say first and foremost.

I would just say that we look at the Shorts product through the lens of “simple, fast, easy, but powerful mobile creation.” Ten years ago, you would have a camera, you’d have a tripod, you’d set it up in your family room or in your backyard or in your bedroom, and you would start vlogging. I really think the world is very different [now]. And, as you know, many parts of the world are leapfrogging that generation completely with the prevalence of mobile phones and the power on those devices. I really do look at what we’re doing with Shorts through that lens, and I think the roadmap that we have will also prove out that we’re thinking about those pieces.


Translation: yup, TikTok is killing us for attention and we need something to compete.
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Scammers will ban anyone from Instagram for $60 • Vice

Joseph Cox:


Scammers are abusing Instagram’s protections against suicide, self-harm, and impersonation to purposefully target and ban Instagram accounts at will, with some people even advertising professionalized ban-as-a-service offerings so anyone can harass or censor others, according to screenshots, interviews, and other material reviewed by Motherboard.

It appears that in some cases, the same scammers who offer ban-as-a-service also offer or are at least connected to services to restore accounts for users who were unfairly banned from Instagram, sometimes for thousands of dollars.

“Me (and my friend’s) currently have the best ban service on-site/in the world,” one advertisement for a ban service on the underground forum OG Users reads. “We have been professionally banning since 2020 and have top-tier experience. We may not have the cheapest prices, but trust me you are getting what you are paying for.”

War, the pseudonymous user offering the ban service, told Motherboard in a Telegram message that banning “is pretty much a full time job lol.” They claimed to have made over five-figures from selling Instagram bans in under a month. War charges $60 per ban, according to their listing.


I’m always wary of claims about being able to ban and/or reinstate accounts, because there are tons of scammers around social networks who will claim to be able to do this or that, when in fact they can’t. Cox did show someone who was banned, and the claims to have got them banned by the people quoted. Even so, I’d be cautious of networks of people acting in concert to make it seem like they can do something.
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Where are the robotic bricklayers? • Construction Physics

Brian Potter:


Masonry seemed like the perfect candidate for mechanization, but a hundred years of limited success suggests there’s some aspect to it that prevents a machine from easily doing it. This makes it an interesting case study, as it helps define exactly where mechanization becomes difficult – what makes laying a brick so different than, say, hammering a nail, such that the latter is almost completely mechanized and the former is almost completely manual?

There seems to be a few factors at work. One is the fact that a brick or block isn’t simply set down on a solid surface, but is set on top of a thin layer of mortar, which is a mixture of water, sand, and cementitious material. Mortar has sort of complex physical properties – it’s a non-newtonian fluid, and it’s viscosity increases when it’s moved or shaken. This makes it difficult to apply in a purely mechanical, deterministic way (and also probably makes it difficult for masons to explain what they’re doing – watching them place it you can see lots of complex little motions, and the mortar behaving in sort of strange not-quite-liquid but not-quite-solid ways). And since mortar is a jobsite-mixed material, there will be variation in it’s properties from batch to batch.

Masonry machines have constantly struggled with the mortar aspect of masonry; many of them simply ignored the aspect of the problem. The academic studies of the late 80s and early 90s were often based on using mortarless walls, wall systems that don’t require mortar joints (such as surface bonded masonry), or mortar alternatives that behaved a little more predictably (which is what Hadrian ended up using). In his 1996 paper, Pritschow comes right out and says that trying to solve the problem of handling mortar is too difficult.


I had honestly been wondering about the robotic bricklayers (I vaguely think it was suggested by the Oxford team who predicted doooooom for middle managers a few years ago). But humans are more flexible, more easily replaced and easier to teach new tasks.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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