Start Up No.1639: Facebook’s many moderation failures, Instagram chief dinged over car analogy, the coming energy revolution, and more


The ZX Spectrum was the late Sir Clive Sinclair’s huge contribution to home and personal computing in 1982, inspiring a generation to get into related jobs – including games. CC-licensed photo by Alessandro Grussu on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Safely through another one. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Facebook employees flag drug cartels and human traffickers. The company’s response is weak, documents show • WSJ

Justin Scheck, Newley Purnell and Jeff Horwitz:

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In January, a former cop turned Facebook Inc. investigator posted an all-staff memo on the company’s internal message board. It began “Happy 2021 to everyone!!” and then proceeded to detail a new set of what he called “learnings.” The biggest one: A Mexican drug cartel was using Facebook to recruit, train and pay hit men.

The behavior was shocking and in clear violation of Facebook’s rules. But the company didn’t stop the cartel from posting on Facebook or Instagram, the company’s photo-sharing site.

Scores of internal Facebook documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show employees raising alarms about how its platforms are used in some developing countries, where its user base is already huge and expanding. They also show the company’s response, which in many instances is inadequate or nothing at all.

Employees flagged that human traffickers in the Middle East used the site to lure women into abusive employment situations in which they were treated like slaves or forced to perform sex work. They warned that armed groups in Ethiopia used the site to incite violence against ethnic minorities. They sent alerts to their bosses on organ selling, pornography and government action against political dissent, according to the documents.

Facebook removes some pages, though many more operate openly, according to the documents.

In some countries where Facebook operates, it has few or no people who speak the dialects needed to identify dangerous or criminal uses of the platform, the documents show.

When problems have surfaced publicly, Facebook has said it addressed them by taking down offending posts. But it hasn’t fixed the systems that allowed offenders to repeat the bad behavior. Instead, priority is given to retaining users, helping business partners and at times placating authoritarian governments, whose support Facebook sometimes needs to operate within their borders, the documents show.

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This is another long article with multiple examples of utter institutional failure. The work the WSJ has done with this series ought to lead to some sort of serious crackdown. Yet the blizzard of platitudes has begun again. Mark Zuckerberg’s Eternal Apology tour goes on. And so does the social warming his product causes.
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Facebook’s Instagram head gets slammed for comparing Instagram to cars • CNBC

Salvador Rodriguez:

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[Instagram CEO Adam] Mosseri’s comparison of Instagram to cars came after podcast host Peter Kafka asked the executive if the service should be pulled or restricted if there’s a chance it could really harm people in the same way that cigarettes can harm people.

“Absolutely not, and I really don’t agree with the comparison to drugs or cigarettes, which have very limited, if any, upsides,” Mosseri said. “Anything that is going to be used at scale is going to have positive and negative outcomes. Cars have positive and negative outcomes.”

Numerous Twitter users criticized Mosseri for the comparison and pointed out that, unlike social media, the automobile industry is heavily regulated. Among those critics was former Facebook executive Brian Boland.

“We also have regulations and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for cars. Maybe @mosseri should read Unsafe At Any Speed?” Boland tweeted.

Kafka asked about the regulation surrounding cars, to which Mosseri responded he does believe that some social media regulation is needed.

“We think you have to be careful because regulation can cause more problems,” Mosseri said on the podcast. “But I do think we are a big enough industry that it’s important, and we need to evolve it forward.”

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Here’s the full podcast. (Or on Spotify.) The problem with cars, as readers of Social Warming will have been reminded, is that they contribute to the climate crisis – every time, just a little bit. You have to either dramatically reduce the number of cars on the road, or dramatically change how they work.
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Given all the WSJ’s work this week, why not read Social Warming, my latest book, and find out more of the background?


Apple’s best iPhone 13 features are the trade-in offers, not the specs • CNET

Eli Blumenthal:

»

Apple’s new iPhone 13 and 13 Pro phones have lots of new features that are welcome upgrades over earlier iPhone models. Battery life is longer, and there are nifty camera tricks, better displays, a slimmer notch and even some new color options. While this stealth “S year” upgrade isn’t as significant as last year’s redesign and inclusion of 5G, there is enough here that Apple will still likely move many, many millions of iPhones. 

Especially when you consider the carrier pricing here in the US. 

All three of the major wireless providers have introduced new iPhone offers to get people to upgrade their older devices to these 5G-capable iPhones. As has been the trend in recent years, these offers are available to both new and existing customers, offering significant discounts on all versions of the new iPhone 13 if you’re willing to upgrade and commit to staying with a carrier for several years. 

The deals represent a push by the carriers to not just pick off new customers from each other, but to lock in their current customers with longer deals. The floodgates of deals opened last year, when the companies were eager to get people on their 5G networks, and they’re continuing with the iPhone 13 launch. While it’s a good time for those looking for a good deal, consumers should be aware that terms can stretch out as far as three years. 

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I expect the same sort of incentives will get pushed in the UK, and other countries. Still haven’t noticed any benefit from 5G, personally.
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Road user fees explored as a way to fund repairs, manage traffic • Axios

Joann Muller:

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Electric vehicles might be good for the environment, but they’re terrible for state budgets, which depend on fuel taxes to pay for road maintenance. So states like Oregon and Utah are experimenting with new road user fees — known as “vehicle mileage taxes” or VMTs — that reflect changing mobility trends.

By charging drivers for the miles they drive — instead of taxing the gas they use — states can ensure that everyone pays their fair share for public roads. But some drivers might wind up paying more than they do now, and the preliminary technology involved is raising privacy concerns.

In Utah and Oregon — where EVs and increased fuel efficiency are blowing a hole in road repair budgets — drivers are being asked to enroll in voluntary experiments in pay-as-you-go tolling. 

Under a VMT system, drivers report their mileage electronically, using a plug-in device in their cars or a smartphone app.

Per the Deseret (Utah) News: “Users are given the option to pay 1.5 cents per mile traveled or an annual flat fee of $120 for electric vehicles or $20 for gas hybrids.”

Oregon is testing several potential funding models based on the time of day and other factors.

Under one potential scenario, a driver could pay a statewide 1.8-cents-per-mile fee, plus a 20-cent metropolitan Portland surcharge, plus a virtual toll on Interstate 5 and another fee for entering downtown Portland.

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Precisely the scenario I forecast (for Britain) in a recent article I wrote on Medium. The problem is that it’s visibly unfair on rural drivers, who need to drive further in order to reach anywhere. (Of course, they presently pay the extra in fuel tax, but people don’t perceive that.)
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Home computing pioneer Sir Clive Sinclair dies aged 81 • The Guardian

Haroon Siddique:

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In the early 1970s he invented a series of calculators designed to be small and light enough to fit in the pocket at a time when most existing models were the size of an old-fashioned shop till. “He wanted to make things small and cheap so people could access them,” his daughter said.

His first home computer, the ZX80, named after the year it appeared, revolutionised the market, although it was a far cry from today’s models. At £79.95 in kit form and £99.95 assembled, it was about one-fifth of the price of other home computers at the time. It sold 50,000, units while its successor, the ZX81, which replaced it, cost £69.95 and sold 250,000. Many games industry veterans got their start typing programs into its touch-based keyboard and became hooked on games such as as 3D Monster Maze and Mazogs. The ZX80 and ZX81 made him very rich: in 2010 Sinclair told the Guardian: “Within two or three years, we made £14m profit in a year.”

In 1982, he released the ZX Spectrum 48K. Its rubber keys, strange clashing visuals and tinny sound did not prevent it being pivotal in the development of the British games industry. Much-loved games – now in colour – that inspired a generation included Jet Set Willy, Horace Goes Skiing, Chuckie Egg, Saboteur, Knight Lore and Lords of Midnight.

Sinclair became a household name as his products flew off the shelves and was awarded a knighthood in 1983. But he would also become synonymous with one of his less successful inventions – the Sinclair C5 – which would cost him financially. The C5, a battery-powered electric trike, was launched in January 1985, with Sinclair predicting sales of 100,000 in the first year.

But it flopped, and Sinclair Vehicles found itself in receivership by October of the same year.

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Sinclair really did have the vision to create small, usable electronic devices: there were calculators, then watches, then computers and TVs. He only really came unstuck when he tried to make something bigger, with the electric trike/car thing. Best known afterwards for playing poker. A true British trailblazer.
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Did the coronavirus jump from animals to people twice? • Nature

Smriti Mallapaty:

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SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, could have spilled from animals to people multiple times, according to a preliminary analysis of viral genomes sampled from people infected in China and elsewhere early in the pandemic.

If confirmed by further analyses, the findings would add weight to the hypothesis that the pandemic originated in multiple markets in Wuhan, and make the hypothesis that SARS-COV-2 escaped from a laboratory less likely, say some researchers. But the data need to be verified, and the analysis has not yet been peer reviewed.

The earliest viral sequences, taken from people infected in late 2019 and early 2020, are split into two broad lineages, known as A and B, which have key genetic differences.

Lineage B has become the dominant lineage globally and includes samples taken from people who visited the Huanan seafood market in Wuhan, which also sold wild animals. Lineage A spread within China, and includes samples from people linked to other markets in Wuhan.

A crucial question is how the two viral lineages are related. If viruses in lineage A evolved from those in lineage B, or vice versa, that would suggest that the progenitor of the virus jumped just once from animals to people. But if the two lineages have separate origins, then there might have been multiple spillover events.

The latest analysis — posted on the virological.org discussion forum — adds weight to the second possibility by questioning the existence of genomes linking the lineages.

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The “different genome” idea has been around for a little while – I think I first saw it in this preprint by what I think is a Chinese group. It does provide a strong pointer to separate strands of development.
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Hacking CloudKit: how I accidentally deleted your Apple Shortcuts • Detectify Labs

Frans Rosén did some digging around in CloudKit and found he could masquerade as an authorised user:

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This confirmed to me that I could delete any channel or article, including stock entries, in the container com.apple.news.public being used for the Stock and Apple News iOS-apps. This worked due to the fact that I could make authenticated calls to CloudKit from the API being used for the Notes-app on http://www.icloud.com and due to a misconfiguration of the records added in the com.apple.news.public-container.

I made a proof of concept to Apple and sent it as a different report on the 17th of March.

Apple replied with a fix in place on the 19th of March by modifying the permissions of the records added to com.apple.news.public, where even the forceDelete-call would respond with:

{
“records” : [ {
“recordName” :”TtVkjIR3aTPKrWAykey3ANA”,
“reason” :”delete operation not allowed”,
“serverErrorCode” :”ACCESS_DENIED”
} ]
}
I also notified Apple about more of their own containers still having the ability to delete content from, however, it wasn’t clear if those containers were actually using the Public scope at all.

Another app that was using the Public scope of CloudKit was Shortcuts. With Apple Shortcuts you can create logical flows that can be launched automatically or manually which then triggers different actions across your apps on iOS-devices. These shortcuts can be shared with other people using iCloud-links which creates an ecosystem around them. There are websites dedicated to recommending and sharing these Shortcuts through iCloud-links.

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At this point you should imagine the DUN-DUN-DUNNNN music. He managed to delete everyone’s Shortcuts stored in iCloud.
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This US company sold iPhone hacking tools to UAE spies • MIT Technology Review

Patrick Howell O’Neill:

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When the United Arab Emirates paid over $1.3m for a powerful and stealthy iPhone hacking tool in 2016, the monarchy’s spies—and the American mercenary hackers they hired—put it to immediate use.

The tool exploited a flaw in Apple’s iMessage app to enable hackers to completely take over a victim’s iPhone. It was used against hundreds of targets in a vast campaign of surveillance and espionage whose victims included geopolitical rivals, dissidents, and human rights activists. 

Documents filed by the US Justice Department on Tuesday detail how the sale was facilitated by a group of American mercenaries working for Abu Dhabi, without legal permission from Washington to do so. But the case documents do not reveal who sold the powerful iPhone exploit to the Emiratis.

Two sources with knowledge of the matter have confirmed to MIT Technology Review that the exploit was developed and sold by an American firm named Accuvant. It merged several years ago with another security firm, and what remains is now part of a larger company called Optiv. News of the sale sheds new light on the exploit industry as well as the role played by American companies and mercenaries in the proliferation of powerful hacking capabilities around the world.

Optiv spokesperson Jeremy Jones wrote in an email that his company has “cooperated fully with the Department of Justice” and that Optiv “is not a subject of this investigation.” That’s true: the subjects of the investigation are the three former US intelligence and military personnel who worked illegally with the UAE. However, Accuvant’s role as exploit developer and seller was important enough to be detailed at length in Justice Department court filings.

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Notice the price on the exploit: more than a million dollars. How do you price something like that, which lets you take over a phone?
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New rules to protect ‘distinctively British’ public service broadcasting • GOV.UK

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Media Minister John Whittingdale has announced new measures today to protect the creation of uniquely British TV, and help public service broadcasters (PSBs) compete with the US streaming giants in the digital age.

Shows such as Dr Who, Downton Abbey, Great British Bake Off, Top Gear, The Bodyguard and Planet Earth have been huge international hits but also reflect Britain and British values.

In his keynote speech to the Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention, Mr Whittingdale announced plans to expand the types of programmes the nation’s PSBs are required to produce and air to include ‘distinctively British’ content.

In the face of increased foreign investment and competition, the move will ensure the UK continues to be a creative powerhouse for unique, high-quality TV shows which showcase British culture and are enjoyed the world over.

The Media Minister also announced new plans to legislate to ensure PSB content is always carried and discoverable to UK audiences on connected devices and major online platforms – including smart TVs, set-top boxes and streaming sticks – as more and more viewers turn to them over traditional TV.

Proposals for these measures will be included in a Broadcasting White Paper to be published this autumn.

UK PSBs currently have requirements in their remits to broadcast ‘original’ content. This was previously considered sufficient to ensure their programming had a characteristically British dimension.

However, the globalisation of broadcasting means that more of the content we watch is set in non-specific locations or outside the UK, with an international cast, communicating in US English. This risks TV made in the UK becoming indistinguishable from that produced elsewhere and less relevant for UK audiences, as well as minimising its proven soft power abroad.

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Very weird. (The technological link? I dunno, streaming? That’s the competition.) The non-specific locations stuff is because making good content is expensive, so you get co-productions with foreign companies, which leads to locations that could be in either country. Solution to that is to fund the PSBs better so they can make their content more easily unaided. But John Whittingdale, arch-privatiser (and since this speech, fired), would never consider that.
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Why I’m so excited about solar and batteries • Noahpinion

Noah Smith:

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More expensive energy makes physical innovation harder in every way. You need electricity to run your washer, your dryer, your heater, your air conditioner, your oven, your stove — and many other newfangled appliances innovators might want to sell to you in the future. And oil is responsible for powering cars, trucks, ships, planes etc., not to mention backhoes, bullzoders, and cranes. And lots of manufacturing is very energy-intensive. Without ever-cheaper sources of energy, physical innovation is certainly still possible, but it just gets harder.

This stagnation in energy technology almost certainly contributed to the productivity slowdown of the 1970s. The economist William Norhaus wrote a paper in 2004 breaking down productivity growth by industry, and looking at the timing relative to the oil shocks of the 70s.

…The cost declines in solar and batteries — and to a lesser extent, in wind and other storage technologies — comprise a true technological revolution. Once again, I shall post the amazing graphs: [they are on his site, and are indeed amazing in showing the plummeting cost of solar and wind compared to other fuels].

And there’s no end in sight to this revolution. New fundamental advances like solid state lithium-ion batteries and next-generation solar cells seem within reach, which will kick off another virtuous cycle of deployment, learning curves, and cost decreases.

These technologies will, of course, make it far easier to fight climate change. And that itself is a form of future productivity, since climate change will probably cause big productivity losses if we don’t stop it. Also, the fact that solar and batteries are a far less finite resource than fossil fuels mean that they will allow industrial society to be sustained for much longer — another form of future productivity growth.

But in addition to these future benefits, renewables and storage will do something else — something big. For the first time since the advent of oil, humanity might get a new source of cheaper, more plentiful energy.

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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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