Start Up No.1660: facial recognition reaches UK schools, Facebook v hate speech, LinkedIn exits China, the end of cheap British chicken?, and more


The best-known observation from Scotty of Star Trek explains why we’ve made so little progress with carbon capture and storage. CC-licensed photo by Pineapples101 on Flickr.

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


Facial recognition cameras arrive in UK school canteens • Financial Times

Cynthia O’Murchu:

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Facial recognition computers have found an unlikely new niche: scanning the faces of thousands of British pupils in school canteens.

On Monday, nine schools in North Ayrshire will start taking payments for school lunches by scanning the faces of pupils, claiming that the new system speeds up queues and is more Covid-secure than the card payments and fingerprint scanners they used previously.

“It’s the fastest way of recognising someone at the till — it’s faster than card, it’s faster than fingerprint,” said David Swanston, the managing director of CRB Cunninghams, the company that installed the systems.

“In a secondary school you have around about a 25 minute period to serve potentially 1,000 pupils. So we need fast throughput at the point of sale.” He said the average transaction time was cut to five seconds per pupil.

Many British schools have used other biometric systems, such as fingerprint scanners, to take payments for years, but privacy campaigners said there was little need to normalise facial recognition technology, which has been criticised for often operating without explicit consent.

“It’s normalising biometric identity checks for something that is mundane. You don’t need to resort to airport style [technology] for children getting their lunch,” said Silkie Carlo of the campaign group Big Brother Watch.

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Facial recognition use ebbs and flows, like the tide, except that it inches higher and higher every time it flows in.
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How Facebook hides how terrible it is with hate speech • WIRED

Noah Giansiracusa is an assistant professor of mathematics and data science at Bentley University and the author of “How Algorithms Create and Prevent Fake News: Exploring the Impacts of Social Media, Deepfakes, GPT-3, and More”:

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In testimony to the US Senate in October 2020, Mark Zuckerberg pointed to the company’s transparency reports, which he said show that “we are proactively identifying, I think it’s about 94% of the hate speech we ended up taking down.” In testimony to the House a few months later, Zuckerberg similarly responded to questions about hate speech by citing a transparency report: “We also removed about 12 million pieces of content in Groups for violating our policies on hate speech, 87% of which we found proactively.” In nearly every quarterly transparency report, Facebook proclaims hate speech moderation percentages in the 80s and 90s like these. Yet a leaked a document from March 2021 says, “We may action as little as 3-5% of hate … on Facebook.”

Was Facebook really caught in an egregious lie? Yes and no. Technically, both numbers are correct—they just measure different things. The measure that really matters is the one Facebook has been hiding. The measure Facebook has been reporting publicly is irrelevant. It’s a bit like if every time a police officer pulled you over and asked how fast you were going, you always responded by ignoring the question and instead bragged about your car’s gas mileage.

There are two ways that hate speech can be flagged for review and possible removal. Users can report it manually, or AI algorithms can try to detect it automatically. Algorithmic detection is important not just because it’s more efficient, but also because it can be done proactively, before any users flag the hate speech.

The 94% number that Facebook has publicly touted is the “proactive rate,” the number of hate speech items taken down that Facebook’s AI detected proactively, divided by the total number of hate speech items taken down. Facebook probably wants you to think this number conveys how much hate speech is taken down before it has an opportunity to cause harm—but all it really measures is how big a role algorithms play in hate-speech detection on the platform.

…It’s a bit like if every time a police officer pulled you over and asked how fast you were going, you always responded by ignoring the question and instead bragged about your car’s gas mileage.

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Want to understand social networks, and our interactions with them, better? Read Social Warming, my latest book, for the explanation of how tribalism, outrage and algorithms interact to make us all a bit angrier.


LinkedIn closes down China site • Financial Times

Eleanor Olcott and Demetri Sevastopulo:

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The Microsoft-owned company announced on Thursday it was closing the localised version of its popular networking website after “facing a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements in China”.

LinkedIn has 53m users in the country, making up about 7% of its total user base. Microsoft does not disclose how much China contributes to LinkedIn’s revenues, which Microsoft recently said had passed an annual level of $10bn.

LinkedIn said it would replace the Chinese version of its website with a new job-board service called “InJobs”, without any of the social media functions of the full LinkedIn site. On this stripped-back version, Chinese users will not be able to share posts or news articles.

LinkedIn was called in by the country’s internet regulator in March and ordered to clean up its online content. In the same month, the company said it was “temporarily pausing new member sign-ups for LinkedIn China” as it tried to become compliant “with local law”.

Several human-rights activists and writers who focus on China have had their profiles blocked in the country in recent months for posting “prohibited content”, according to the company.

The Biden administration welcomed LinkedIn’s move and accused Beijing of forcing companies to be “complicit in its repression and authoritarian practices”.

A senior US official said: “We welcome this news by LinkedIn to not play into the PRC’s [People’s Republic of China] hand. The private sector and the international community should oppose PRC’s weaponising of its markets to stifle free expression and support human rights.”

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Looked inevitable once the profile-blocking began.
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Britain’s chicken king says the 20-year binge on cheap food is over • Reuters

Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Macaskill:

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Britain’s 20-year binge on cheap food is coming to an end and food price inflation could hit double digits due to a tidal wave of soaring costs that are crashing through the supply chain, Britain’s biggest chicken producer said.

As it emerges from the twin crises of Brexit and Covid, the world’s fifth largest economy is facing an acute shortage of truckers, butchers and warehouse workers that has exacerbated global supply chain strains.

“The days when you could feed a family of four with a £3 ($4) chicken are coming to an end,” Ranjit Singh Boparan, owner of the 2 Sisters Group and known as the “Chicken King” said in a statement.

“In relative terms, a chicken today is cheaper to buy than it was 20 years ago. How can it be right that a whole chicken costs less than a pint of beer? You’re looking at a different world from now on where the shopper pays more.”

Boparan, who produces around a third of all poultry products consumed in the United Kingdom, said he didn’t think the British government could fix all the problems or control inflation. He said the constriction of labour supply would lead to wage inflation and that he would invest in automation.

“Less labour means less choice, core ranges, empty shelves and wage inflation, and this isn’t going to change,” he said. “Right now I need to be honest about what this means for the consumer as inflation could reach double digits.”

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Only 20 years? Feels like we’re heading back to 1973 and the pre-Common Market membership. Blaming it on Covid isn’t going to wash when the country’s being encouraged to think there’s nothing to fret about.
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Cybersecurity experts sound alarm on Apple and EU phone scanning plans • The New York Times

Kellen Browning:

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More than a dozen prominent cybersecurity experts on Thursday criticized plans by Apple and the European Union to monitor people’s phones for illicit material, calling the efforts ineffective and dangerous strategies that would embolden government surveillance.

In a 46-page study, the researchers wrote that the proposal by Apple, aimed at detecting images of child sexual abuse on iPhones, as well as an idea forwarded by members of the European Union to detect similar abuse and terrorist imagery on encrypted devices in Europe, used “dangerous technology.”

“It should be a national-security priority to resist attempts to spy on and influence law-abiding citizens,” the researchers wrote.

The technology, known as client-side scanning, would allow Apple — or, in Europe, potentially law enforcement officials — to detect images of child sexual abuse in someone’s phone by scanning images uploaded to Apple’s iCloud storage service.

When Apple announced the planned tool in August, it said a so-called fingerprint of the image would be compared against a database of known child sexual abuse material to search for potential matches.

But the plan sparked an uproar among privacy advocates and raised fears that the technology could erode digital privacy and eventually be used by authoritarian governments to track down political dissidents and other enemies.

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The list of authors for the paper is like a Who’s Who of cryptographers and security experts – Whitfield Diffie (of Diffie-Hellman), Matt “Clipper killer” Blaze, Bruce Schneier, Cambridge University’s Ross Anderson, Ronald Rivest, and more. One notable comment in the paper: that companies want more end-to-end encryption to avoid the cost of content moderation of content on their messaging servers.
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April 2021: Carbon capture’s litany of failures laid bare in new report • RenewEconomy

Ketan Joshi:

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Carbon capture, an attempt to stop the release of carbon dioxide at the point of generation when fossil fuels are burned, has developed a well-earned reputation of false promise over the past few decades.

As RenewEconomy reported last year, there are a litany of predictions from the past few decades suggesting carbon capture – particularly for burning coal to make electricity – would be ascendant, and that was always just around the corner.

paper focusing on America’s carbon capture and storage industry has just been released that paints roughly the same picture, while carving out some possible future roles for CCS, even among the hype of the previous decades. “While many projects essential to commercializing the technology have been proposed, most (over 80%) end in failure”, the authors wrote in December 2020.

By gathering up data and conducting a systematic and empirical analysis of CCS projects, the largest analysis to date, the paper creates a database of CCS plants that were proposed and never built, along with plants that eventually did get built and are operational:


Figure 1. Global proposed vs. implemented annual CO2 sequestration (main figure), and global implemented annual CO2 sequestration by type (inset). Both are in million tons of CO2 per annum (Mtpa). More than 75% of proposed gas processing projects have been implemented. The corresponding figures for other industrial projects and power plant projects are approximately 60% and 10%, respectively

It’s buried in the caption, but that’s a measly 10% of carbon capture plants completed, for power generation.

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Rather like fusion, CCS is always just around the corner, constantly evasive because of the physics involved: it’s very dispersed in the atmosphere, and lots of energy is needed to tear the carbon from each carbon dioxide molecule.

Even so, the COP26 meeting is probably going to be in denial of one of Scotty’s most famous aphorisms. (Random fact: James Doohan, who played Scotty, lost one finger – the middle right – when he stormed Juno Beach on D-Day.)
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US Treasury said it tied $5.2bn of BTC transactions over ten years to ransomware payments • The Record by Recorded Future

Catalin Cimpanu:

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The financial crimes investigation unit of the US Treasury Department, also known as FinCEN, said today it identified [a total of] approximately $5.2bn in outgoing Bitcoin transactions potentially tied to ransomware payments.

FinCEN officials said the figure was compiled by analyzing 2,184 Suspicious Activity Reports (SARs) filed by US financial institutions over the last decade, between January 1, 2011, and June 30, 2021.

…FinCEN report included some historical data on past ransomware attacks, most of the organization’s investigation focused on the first half of 2021 and the analysis of recent trends.

According to FinCEN:

• Financial institutions filed 635 SARs in the first half of 2021 related to suspected ransomware activity
• The SARs referenced 458 suspicious transactions amounting to $590m
• The H1 2021 figure exceeds the value reported for the entirety of 2020, which was $416m, showing an uptick in ransomware activity
• The average amount of reported ransomware transactions per month in 2021 was $102.3m
• Based on SARs data, FinCEN said it identified 68 different ransomware variants active in H1 2021.

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See? Bitcoin is used for real-world transactions!
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Porsche Taycan EV outsells flagship 911 sports car • CNBC

Lora Kolodny:

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In a sign that drivers are increasingly embracing battery electric models, sales of the Porsche Taycan surpassed those of the company’s influential, high performance 911 series, according to numbers the company released Friday.

The Taycan is Porsche’s first battery electric vehicle, and was introduced in the fall of 2019. The company launched its 911 high-performance sports car in 1964.

…Deliveries of the Taycan hit 28,640, and deliveries of the 911 sports car hit 27,972 during the same period.

The Taycan, a four-door, dual motor sports car, was seen as a high-priced competitor to Tesla’s newer Model S sedans at the time of its debut.

…In its statement on Friday, Porsche (which is part of the Volkswagen Group) also revealed its Cayenne series of mid-size, luxury crossover sport utility vehicles remained best-sellers for the company.

Cayenne deliveries hit 62,451 in the first three quarters of 2021, followed by the Macan which hit deliveries of 61,944 vehicles. Besides the fully electric Taycan, Porsche sells a number of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, but the company did not break out sales numbers for each model.

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So the fuel-driven SUV is still outselling it by a factor of about two. Interesting psychology question: are the buyers set on having a Porsche, but want to be green(er) and get an electric one, even though its charging network (a key factor) is significantly worse than Tesla’s? Or do they decide to go electric, and eventually land on Porsche after examining the options?
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New MacBook Pro features breakdown: everything rumors say we can expect • MacRumors

Hartley Charlton lists what’s expected from Apple’s “not the iPhone or iPad” event (10am Pacific, 6pm UK):

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• 14in and 16in models with the same performance across both machines
• Slimmer bezels and no MacBook Pro logo below the display
• Mini-LED displays with ProMotion and resolutions of 3024 x 1964 and 3456 x 2234, resulting in higher contrast and brightness, as well as smoother on-screen motion. A camera and sensor notch at the top edge of the display is also a possibility
• 1080p webcam for improved video calls, up from 720p on the current models
• Flatter design, more akin to the design of the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13
• Six ports, including two Thunderbolt ports and a MagSafe charging port on the left side of the machine, and an HDMI port, a Thunderbolt port, and SD-card reader on the right side of the machine. This means that there are three Thunderbolt ports expected, one less than on current high-end MacBook Pros
• No OLED Touch Bar, with full-size physical function keys instead
• “M1X” chip with a 10-core CPU that features eight high-performance cores and two energy-efficient cores, along with 16-core and 32-core GPU options, and support for up to 64GB of RAM
• Improved thermal design for the 14in model, mirroring the improvements that came to the 16in model in 2019, including a larger heat pipe and heat sink, as well as added thermal pads
• High-Power Mode to optionally boost performance when not connected to power
• 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage as standard with the base configurations
• Larger battery for the 14in model and a slightly smaller battery for the 16in model, relative to the current models
• MagSafe charging like older MacBook Pro models, now featuring faster charging speeds and a redesigned power brick.

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For real Apple enthusiasts, the appearance of new MacBook Pros is a form of Christmas. Which, given how supply chains are behaving just now, might be when the machines start arriving if you order them straight away.
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Left to rot: collapsed Surfside condo born of botched construction and evidence of money laundering • USA Today

Monique O. Madan, Pat Beall, Katie Wedell, Erin Mansfield, Sudiksha Kochi and Dan Keemahill:

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early condo sales exhibit telltale signs of a money laundering scheme. Experts said cutting corners on construction often accompanied money laundering. At Champlain South, engineers noted an incorrectly designed pool deck and improperly constructed support columns. Money laundering might have meant that some early buyers weren’t living in the condo building or concerned with its long-term maintenance.   

“The era we’re talking about is when Miami suddenly came out of the ashes. So how do you rush to fulfill the demand? You cut corners. You attached roofs with paper clips. You bribe the inspectors,” said Jorge Valdes, who was not involved in Champlain South but helped build dozens of homes, apartment complexes and high-rises in the Miami region as a chief money launderer for the Medellin Cartel.

The reporting reveals that troubling evidence of the building’s decay emerged earlier and was ignored longer than previously known. Residents noted flooding in the garage in 1981, the year the tower opened. By 1996, they were making repairs to the concrete in the garage ceiling. In 2016, as construction rumbled on a new condo next door, a Champlain South resident was shaken off a treadmill.   

Homeowner association records and interviews with residents show that these problems were addressed in isolation, a series of seemingly small problems that no one connected until 2018, when an engineering report laid out construction errors that investigators are examining to determine if they contributed to the collapse.

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If they have to knock down (or even examine) every Florida condo suspected of being built with drug money, there’s going to be nothing left. Mr Valdes might be able to help pinpoint them?
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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