Start Up No.1651: Facebook whistleblower speaks out, Clearview adds AI to face-finding tools, why you don’t need a VPN, and more


A speech had been prepared for Richard Nixon in case Apollo 11 crashed on the Moon in 1969. Now you can hear him read it – sort of. CC-licensed photo by GPA Photo Archive on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Not surly at all. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


With all that’s going on, you’d be making a mistake not to buy Social Warming, my book about the inevitably deleterious effects of Facebook, Twitter and other social networks.


The Facebook whistleblower, Frances Haugen, says she wants to fix the company, not harm it • WSJ

Jeff Horwitz:

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Ms. Haugen resigned from Google at the beginning of 2014. Two months later, a blood clot in her thigh landed her in the intensive care unit.

A family acquaintance hired to assist her with errands became her main companion during a year she spent largely homebound. The young man bought groceries, took her to doctors’ appointments, and helped her regain the capacity to walk.

“It was a really important friendship, and then I lost him,” she said.

The friend, who had once held liberal political views, was spending increasing amounts of time reading online forums about how dark forces were manipulating politics. In an interview, the man recalled Ms. Haugen as having unsuccessfully tried to intervene as he gravitated toward a mix of the occult and white nationalism. He severed their friendship and left San Francisco before later abandoning such beliefs, he said.

Ms. Haugen’s health improved, and she went back to work. But the loss of her friendship changed the way she thought about social media, she said.

“It’s one thing to study misinformation, it’s another to lose someone to it,” she said. “A lot of people who work on these products only see the positive side of things.”

When a Facebook recruiter got in touch at the end of 2018, Ms. Haugen said, she replied that she might be interested if the job touched on democracy and the spread of false information. During interviews, she said, she told managers about her friend and how she wanted to help Facebook prevent its own users from going down similar paths.

She started in June 2019, part of the roughly 200-person Civic Integrity team, which focused on issues around elections world-wide. While it was a small piece of Facebook’s overall policing efforts, the team became a central player in investigating how the platform could spread political falsehoods, stoke violence and be abused by malicious governments.

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More coverage at the NY Times; plus a transcript of her 60 Minutes interview.

Every week is Facebook week, isn’t it?
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It’s time to stand up to Facebook • The Washington Post

Jennifer Rubin:

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Haugen’s claims follow similar warnings from others. In a viral TED talk last year, Yaël Eisenstat, who worked on elections integrity at Facebook and is currently a fellow at Berggruen Institute, said “social media companies like Facebook profit off of segmenting us and feeding us personalized content that both validates and exploits our biases.” She explained, “Their bottom line depends on provoking a strong emotion to keep us engaged, often incentivizing the most inflammatory and polarizing voices, to the point where finding common ground no longer feels possible. And despite a growing chorus of people crying out for the platforms to change, it’s clear they will not do enough on their own.”

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Eisenstat was hired by Facebook in autumn 2018 – she thought, as a former CIA officer, that she’d be working on election integrity. Instead she got sidelined and found herself doing something around ads. She left within months, frustrated and angry. So it’s not only using Facebook that creates those emotions.
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Facebook is weaker than we knew • NY Times

Kevin Roose:

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there’s another way to read the series [of leaked documents printed in the WSJ], and it’s the interpretation that has reverberated louder inside my brain as each new installment has landed.

Which is: Facebook is in trouble.

Not financial trouble, or legal trouble, or even senators-yelling-at-Mark-Zuckerberg trouble. What I’m talking about is a kind of slow, steady decline that anyone who has ever seen a dying company up close can recognize. It’s a cloud of existential dread that hangs over an organization whose best days are behind it, influencing every managerial priority and product decision and leading to increasingly desperate attempts to find a way out. This kind of decline is not necessarily visible from the outside, but insiders see a hundred small, disquieting signs of it every day — user-hostile growth hacks, frenetic pivots, executive paranoia, the gradual attrition of talented colleagues.

…if these leaked documents proved anything, it is how un-Godzilla-like Facebook feels. Internally, the company worries that it is losing power and influence, not gaining it, and its own research shows that many of its products aren’t thriving organically. Instead, it is going to increasingly extreme lengths to improve its toxic image, and to stop users from abandoning its apps in favor of more compelling alternatives.

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There has certainly been a sort of desperation about how Facebook keeps trying new things which reminds me rather of how Google kept trying more things after its big hit of search. Google isn’t going away, but its presence in the rest of our lives feels more residual than expected, say, ten years ago.
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Clearview AI has new tools to identify you in photos • WIRED

Will Knight:

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The company’s cofounder and CEO, Hoan Ton-That, tells WIRED that Clearview has now collected more than 10 billion images from across the web—more than three times as many as has been previously reported.

Ton-That says the larger pool of photos means users, most often law enforcement, are more likely to find a match when searching for someone. He also claims the larger data set makes the company’s tool more accurate.

Clearview combined web-crawling techniques, advances in machine learning that have improved facial recognition, and a disregard for personal privacy to create a surprisingly powerful tool.

Ton-That demonstrated the technology through a smartphone app by taking a photo of the reporter. The app produced dozens of images from numerous US and international websites, each showing the correct person in images captured over more than a decade. The allure of such a tool is obvious, but so is the potential for it to be misused.

Clearview’s actions sparked public outrage and a broader debate over expectations of privacy in an era of smartphones, social media, and AI. Critics say the company is eroding personal privacy. The ACLU sued Clearview in Illinois under a law that restricts the collection of biometric information; the company also faces class action lawsuits in New York and California. Facebook and Twitter have demanded that Clearview stop scraping their sites.

The pushback has not deterred Ton-That. He says he believes most people accept or support the idea of using facial recognition to solve crimes. “The people who are worried about it, they are very vocal, and that’s a good thing, because I think over time we can address more and more of their concerns,” he says.

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Taking a picture of a reporter is, generally, an easy win – journalists are terribly vain. Though I wonder if there will be more support if Clearview is used to solve a really awful crime; CCTV is hard to argue against after it was used to detect the killer of Sarah Everard.
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How Ozy Fest was about to become the next Fyre Festival — until a heat wave (and insurance claim) bailed them out • Forbes

Jemima McEvoy:

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One day before the July 2019 kickoff to “Ozy Fest,” a strange amalgam of speeches, panels and entertainment scheduled to be held on arguably the biggest stage in America, Central Park’s Great Lawn, Ozy Media founder Carlos Watson was all smiles: “I’ve heard people describe it as TED meets Coachella,” Watson told the audience on CNBC’s Squawk Box, as he sat across from one of his board members, hedge fund billionaire Marc Lasry, and baseball superstar turned Shark Tank mogul Alex Rodriguez, who had been positioned as co-host. More than 100,000 people had already been billed to attend — Watson boasted that a brunch event alone with chef Marcus Samuelsson would draw 10,000 people — putting it into the rarified air of South-by-Southwest and Art Basel, except that rather than just tech, music or art, Ozy Fest would feature, well, a bit of everything.

Or, in reality, nothing. Hours later, the event had been cancelled, with a sudden heat wave as the ostensible culprit. That masked something far more fundamental. “Things were not ready in every aspect,” says one employee involved with the festival. “It was going to be Fyre Fest.”

…What follows is an account of an event that devolved into a financial and logistics nightmare, from wildly-inflated ticket sales to exaggerated celebrity appearances, with a twist ending: the last-minute cancelation that turned what would have publicly exposed Ozy’s untruths into a large insurance windfall.

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It’s possible you can overdose on schadenfreude, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take.
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Britain seeks views on plugging back into European power market • Reuters

Nora Buli:

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Britain began a consultation on Thursday on how to realign its electricity market more closely to Europe and improve cross-border trading after Brexit decoupled it from a common system, leading to discrepancies in market prices.

Interconnecting cables increase the ability of Britain’s electricity market to trade with others, enhance energy system flexibility and aid decarbonisation, the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said.

“We’re seeking views on the current arrangements for trading electricity on power exchanges in the GB wholesale electricity market and our proposals to support efficient cross-border trading,” BEIS added in a statement.

The British electricity market previously operated a uniform day-ahead price which was settled through shared order books on exchanges Nord Pool and Epex Spot.

But when Britain’s EU exit was completed on Jan. 1, it left the bloc’s internal energy market and its market-coupling system, leading the exchanges to run fully separated auctions, settling and clearing at different and independent prices.

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Oh, suddenly realised there might be some effects, did we? (The consultation is here.)
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In Event of Moon Disaster

Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund:

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In July 1969, much of the world celebrated “one giant leap for mankind.” Fifty years later, nothing is quite so straightforward.

In Event of Moon Disaster illustrates the possibilities of deepfake technologies by reimagining this seminal event. What if the Apollo 11 mission had gone wrong and the astronauts had not been able to return home? A contingency speech for this possibility was prepared for, but never delivered by, President Nixon – until now.

In Event of Moon Disaster is an immersive art project inviting you into an alternative history, asking us all to consider how new technologies can bend, redirect and obfuscate the truth around us.

To construct the story a variety of techniques of misinformation were used – from simple deceptive editing to more complex deepfakes technologies.

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Utterly stunning. A brilliant choice of material – because it’s about an old event, you’re not surprised by the audio quality. Completely worth six minutes of your time. And if you’ve got an extra four and a half, compare Ronald Reagan’s real address after the loss of seven Challenger astronauts, with its famous “slipped the surly bonds of Earth” phrase. For my money, the Nixon speech soars above it. (Via John Naughton.)
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Google is scrapping its plan to offer bank accounts to users • WSJ

Peter Rudegeair, David Benoit and Andrew Ackerman:

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Google is abandoning plans to pitch bank accounts to its users, marking a retreat from an effort to make the tech giant a bigger name in finance.

The Alphabet unit announced almost two years ago that users of its Google Pay digital wallet would be able to sign up for enhanced checking accounts and debit cards at a handful of financial institutions large and small, including Citigroup and Stanford Federal Credit Union.

The new offerings, called Plex accounts, would sync with Google Pay, carry both Google and bank branding and provide a digital dashboard of where and how users spent and saved. Plex was billed as a new way to bank, with an emphasis on simplicity and financial wellness and without monthly or overdraft fees.

The project was initially expected to debut in 2020. A series of missed deadlines, along with the April departure of the Google Pay executive who championed the project, prompted Google to pull the plug on Plex, people familiar with the matter said.

A Google spokeswoman said the company would now focus primarily on “delivering digital enablement for banks and other financial services providers rather than us serving as the provider of these services.”

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Apparently there were about 10,000 people per week joining the waiting list, which had reached 400,000. The attraction of a Google-operated bank account to American users is obvious to anyone who has ever had the misfortune of tangling with the American banking system. To anyone outside the US, the idea that you’d hand over your finances to a search company seems weird, of course. (Ron Amadeo at Ars Technica says the root problem is upheaval at the Google Pay division.)
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Do Americans know what a massive ripoff American life really is? • Eudaimonia and Co

umair haque:

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I’ve recently moved to the States — shudder — for a year or two. And I’m shocked at how expensive just life is. For no good reason at all.

When I put my economist hat on, a fact becomes clear to me. American life is a gigantic rip-off, one of the world’s biggest, and that’s why America is now effectively a country of poor people, and that makes it a nation of angry, cruel, and selfish ones, too.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start over. American life is the biggest ripoff in the world. Or at least one of the biggest, in the top five, certainly. Just…existing. It costs way, way more than it should. So much so that America cannot ever move forward as a society. So, trapped in a cycle, which economists call a “poverty trap,” Americans now stay poor.

Americans don’t quite get this, though. Why would they? They’ve never lived anywhere else. So let me give you a few examples which, especially if you’re American, might be illuminating. We’ll begin with basic bills, and then zoom out from there.

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Poverty traps are hardly unique to America. But this piece includes the shocking (and novel, to me) statistic that the average American dies $60,000 in debt. It also makes you realise where the impetus for globalisation came from: if prices couldn’t be brought down, the country would collapse under its own prices.
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You probably don’t need a VPN • Vice

Joseph Cox:

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You probably don’t need a VPN. Despite all the marketing from VPN companies that you should pay them for a virtual private network to use from your home internet and, especially, from public wifi, most Americans may be better off not paying for a commercial VPN, according to multiple security experts.

The underlying reason: The internet is a very different landscape in 2021 than it was 10 or even five years ago. Although of course some people will still benefit from a VPN, and particularly those with a higher degree of threat against them, most Americans can probably save that $5 or so a month.

“It’s time we retire the stock advice to get a personal VPN,” Bob Lord, former chief security officer at the Democratic National Committee, told Motherboard in an email. “Most people do not need personal VPNs today because the internet is much safer than it was in 2010. Personal VPNs create additional risks. Giving everyone advice that only pertains to some people misdirects them from the steps that will actually help them secure their digital lives.”

…Security researcher Kenn White added that “for the vast majority of consumers, commercial VPN services add very little value and frankly most incur more security risk for the user.”

One risk is some VPN providers use self-signed root CAs [certificate authorities], which allow the creator to read encrypted traffic coming from a computer. White said this is done in the pursuit of malware prevention, but that “is just a different way of saying ‘intercepting your (otherwise) encrypted web and mail traffic.'”

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So the service to prevent people reading your web traffic is… reading your web traffic? I’ve been saying this for absolutely ages: VPNs are useful only for a tiny number of jobs (usually, pretending to be in another country).
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What investors saw in Ozy Media • The New York Times

Ben Smith has the body on the slab:

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nobody I spoke with over the last week was more piqued than Roland Martin and Todd Brown, two members of a group led by the mogul Byron Allen that shook the advertising industry this year, with a campaign meant to persuade marketers to spend more money with Black-owned media companies. The effort led to a wave of meetings and the hope that serious ad dollars would start flowing to companies like Mr. Martin’s Black Star Network, a streaming channel.

Instead, the giant ad agencies that steer much of the digital ad business “had found a safe Black space, a comfortable medium — and we were shocked that it was Ozy,” said Mr. Brown, a former head of ad sales of Ebony and Jet magazines whose company, Urban Edge Networks, owns a streaming service for sporting events at historically Black colleges and universities. “It was a story and not a business — but the story is what people wanted to buy,” he said in a telephone interview last week.

Mr. Martin said the campaign he had helped start didn’t wind up driving more advertising dollars to his channel. Particularly galling, he said, in light of the revelations that Ozy had exaggerated the size of its audience, was the reason the advertising agencies gave him when they turned him down: They were not confident that he was measuring his audience rigorously enough.

“I look at the demands they made on me — my metrics, numbers,” he said of the advertising agencies. “Now I’m sitting there going, ‘Y’all made me jump through all these hoops? It was that easy just to lie and make up this stuff?’”

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Yup. They prefer the lie than the reality. Maybe, after WeWork and Theranos and now this, there will be a realisation that diligence is required. Also: if you read the story, Carlos Watson is still lying and lying and lying.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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