Start Up No.1662: account recovery is hard on purpose, the echo chamber misconception, COP26’s empty promise, and more


Hotels and restaurants in the UK are contending with double-digit inflation on goods and services, which could feed through to retail – and households. CC-licensed photo by J Mark Dodds on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Recovering locked Facebook accounts is a nightmare. That’s on purpose • The Washington Post

Tatum Hunter:

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Hackers target social media accounts because they want to spread scams, phishing links or misinformation, said Jon Clay, vice president of threat intelligence at cybersecurity firm Trend Micro.

When bad actors get their hands on social media account credentials, it’s often through phishing attacks that trick people into entering their passwords or by buying stolen credentials in shady corners of the Internet, Clay said. But sometimes, they exploit the very tools that help people get back into hacked accounts. That’s why the account recovery process is so complex, according to Facebook head of security policy Nathaniel Gleicher.

“Any system that we build to help users get their accounts back, we also have to recognize that it becomes a threat vector for threat actors to exploit,” he said.

Facebook uses a combination of automated systems and actual people to help users when they get locked out, it said. As for its notoriously hard-to-navigate review process, Gleicher said, the company “needs to improve,” and that those improvements are in the works. The company would not share details or a timeline. “This is an industrywide problem,” Gleicher said.

But the difficulty of balancing security and recovery is only part of the story, said Bruce Schneier, a cybersecurity expert and public policy lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.

Schneier said that Facebook could solve its account recovery problems with additional security features. For example, if the company required people to set up two-factor authentication, hackers couldn’t take over accounts with just a stolen email-and-password combination. But mandatory security stops would introduce friction into the user experience, and that’s bad for Facebook’s data-harvesting business, Schneier said.

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New research shows social media doesn’t turn people into assholes (they already were), and everyone’s wrong about echo chambers • Techdirt

Mike Masnick:

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[Professor Michael Bang] Petersen makes a really fascinating point regarding echo chambers. I’ve been skeptical about idea of online echo chambers in the past, but Petersen says that people really have it all backwards – and that we’re actually much more likely to live in echo chambers offline than online, and we’re much more likely to come across different viewpoints online.

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One way to think about social media in this particular regard is to turn all of our notions about social media upside down. And here I’m thinking about the notion of ‘echo chambers.’ So we’ve been talking a lot about echo chambers and how social media creates echo chambers. But, in reality, the biggest echo chamber that we all live in is the one that we live in in our everyday lives.

I’m a university professor. I’m not really exposed to any person who has a radically different world view or radically different life from me in my everyday life. But when I’m online, I can see all sorts of opinions that I may disagree with. And that might trigger me if I’m a hostile person and encourage me to reach out to tell these people that I think they are wrong.

But that’s because social media essentially breaks down the echo chambers. I can see the views of other people — what they are saying behind my back. That’s where a lot of the felt hostility of social media comes from. Not because they make us behave differently, but because they are exposing us to a lot of things that we’re not exposed in our everyday lives.

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And then this upside down view of echo chambers also explains why people feel like the internet is a more hostile place full of assholes and trolls. It’s more that it’s because we’re now being exposed to these points of view and can respond. As he notes, this kind of hostility actually happens all the time, but it’s usually just not witnessed by more than a couple people at a time. Now, online, it’s witnessed by a much larger audience, and so we overcorrect and think that it’s making people worse.

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None of this, I’d point out, invalidates what I say in Social Warming. Exposure to more of this stuff bugs us in subtle ways, and makes things worse.
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For more on how social networks affect us (and our politicians and journalists, and the way they do their work), read Social Warming, my latest book.


Flooding could leave billions of US municipal debt under water • Financial Times

Kate Duguid:

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New York-based climate research firm First Street Foundation last week published data showing that US infrastructure — including roads, hospitals and power stations — is at a greater risk of flooding than has previously been estimated. This has serious implications for state and city coffers, for property values, and for mortgage-backed securities and municipal bonds.

Louisiana, Florida and West Virginia have some of the worst flood prospects in the contiguous US, the First Street Foundation data show. In Louisiana, 45% of all critical infrastructure facilities, a category which includes hospitals, fire stations, airports and power plants, are at risk of being rendered inoperable by flooding this year.

Also at risk of shutdown are 39% of roads and 44% of social infrastructure — schools, government buildings and houses of worship. In some cities in Louisiana, such as Metairie and New Orleans, the risk for all those categories is near 100%.

Municipal debt has long been a haven asset class, popular with long-term investors including pension funds and insurance companies. While the default rate on muni bonds has historically been low, it could rise as cash-strapped cities struggle to keep up with the costs of extreme weather damage.

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So what becomes a “haven asset class” when everything’s underwater, in both senses?
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Boris Johnson’s secret COP26 weapon may have to be shame • CNN

Luke McGee:

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For COP26 to be considered a success, Johnson and Alok Sharma, his COP26 President, will need to see delegates commit to limiting global warming to 1.5C above pre-industrialization temperatures, as opposed to the 2C upper limit stated in the 2015 Paris Agreement. He’ll also want dozens more pledges for net zero — where countries emit no more greenhouse gases than they remove from the atmosphere — which realistically requires halving emissions globally by 2030. Of particular importance will be commitments from countries who are growing their economies off the back of fossil fuels, such as Saudi Arabia, and China, which is using coal to power its pandemic comeback.

On top of that, he is hoping rich countries will also honor their commitment to transfer $100 billion annually to the Global South to help countries there deal with the crisis they had little hand in creating. Putting an end date on burning coal, boosting plans on electric vehicles and finalizing the Paris Agreement rulebook – which is still not finished six years after the landmark deal was struck – would also mean success.

Given the severity of the climate crisis, one might assume that agreement on these issues would be simple. Unfortunately, politics and science have a complicated relationship with one another and, in 2021, multilateralism relies as much on political self-interest as it does on indisputable facts.

“When it comes to climate policy, politics and physics are having an argument that physics will win,” says Tom Burke, chair of E3G, an independent climate think tank.

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But politics will think it has won. Unfortunately. Johnson spouts lines that sound exactly like you’d expect from a journalist used to banging out thousand-word columns to a deadline, rather than a subtle politician able to persuade people to agree with him.
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Restaurants and hotels facing ‘terrifying’ 18% inflation, MPs told • The Guardian

Joanna Partridge:

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Restaurants and hotels are wrestling with “terrifying” inflation running as high as 18%, bosses have warned, as supply chain disruption and labour shortages wreak havoc in the hospitality sector.

Ian Wright, chief executive of industry body the Food and Drink Federation, told MPs on the business, energy and industrial strategy committee that the rate bodes ill for the retail industry.

“In hospitality, which is a precursor of retail, inflation is currently running somewhere between 14% and 18%. That is terrifying,” he said.

“Inflation is a bigger scourge than almost anything else because it discriminates against the poor.”

Wright cautioned that the food and drink sector expects current challenges to last for several years.

“Six months ago, almost all our businesses thought it was transitory. Now every business I know is expecting this to last until 2023 and into 2024, every single one,” he said.

During a hearing about the impact of the supply chain crisis on consumers and business, Wright recalled high rates of inflation in the late 1970s, when he saw a supermarket employee change prices twice within an hour. “We really cannot go back to that. It took us 15 years to recover,” Wright said.

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Always salutary to be reminded that (a) inflation does exist after all (b) it isn’t evenly spread between sectors.
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Apple’s new $19 polishing cloth is sold out until late November • MacRumors

Juli Clover:

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Alongside the 14in and 16in MacBook Pro models, Apple introduced a $19 “Polishing Cloth” that’s designed to be used with Apple devices.

Made from a “soft, nonabrasive material,” the cloth is suitable for Apple displays, including the nano-texture glass of the Pro Display XDR. It’s also suitable for use with the mini-LED display of the new MacBook Pro models and all manner of iPhones, iPads, and Macs.

Those who were hoping to get a Polishing Cloth with their MacBook Pros and who have not already ordered may be out of luck, as initial supplies have sold out. If ordered today, the Polishing Cloth will not arrive until November 18 to November 24, which is quite a long wait for a piece of cloth.

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OK, ridiculous in isolation. But if you’re buying a new MacBook Pro with its fancy-schmancy screen (🙋‍♂️), you’re at least $1,999 in the hole, so this is just a single percentage point extra. (I didn’t know there was a cloth and haven’t ordered one.)
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Ex-minister predicts ‘huge battleground’ over UK’s plan to set internet content rules • TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

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In an interview with TechCrunch, Ed Vaizey — a former Conservative Party MP, now Lord Vaizey of Didcot, who was head of the culture, comms and creative industries department, as it was then, between 2010 and 2016 — predicted a huge tug-of-war to influence the scope of the Online Safety Bill, warning that parliamentarians everywhere will try to hang their own “hobby horse” on it.

The risk of over regulation or creating a disproportionate burden for startups vs tech giants is also real, Vaizey suggested, setting out several areas that he said would require a cautious approach.

“In theory it’s just going to be the big platforms that will be regulated,” he said of the scope of the Online Safety Bill, which was published in draft form back in May — and which critics are warning will be catastrophic for free speech.

“Some platforms that should be regulated could potentially not be be regulated. But you’re right that people are concerned that, in effect, there’s a paradox — that it could help the Facebooks of this world because the regulatory hurdles that get going might be too big. And if anyone is capable of being regulated it’s Facebook, as opposed to a startup. So I think that’s something we have to be very careful of.

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I’d overlooked that Vaizey had been peered. This interview was a week ago, before the stabbing to death of David Amess MP at his constituency surgery (a consultation with constituents, individually). Now people, especially MPs, are trying to hang all sorts of things onto the OSB: dubbing it “David’s Law” and suggesting killing anonymity. Kneejerk reactions produce bad laws.
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What does Google think the minimum wage is? • Terence Eden’s Blog

The man himself:

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Suppose you are worried that you are being under-paid. You go off to Google and search for “minimum wage uk”. Here’s what Google thinks is the appropriate thing to show you.

Let’s count all the ways this is useless:

• The UK doesn’t use the Euro as its currency – it uses the Pound
• Minimum wage is always expressed per hour – not per month
• Comparisons with other countries don’t take into account tax rates
• Historical wages might be of interest – but users often prefer recent information
• The “Explore More” link goes to a page which doesn’t feature the minimum wage.

In short, this is an utterly feeble attempt to surface knowledge. Google have misinterpreted the query, discovered irrelevant but authoritative data, and surfaced that.

But, perhaps we should blame the user. Why can’t they be more precise in their query? Why don’t they ignore Google’s hype about machine learning, big data, rockstar engineers, and knowledge graphs? Yes! The user is to blame! They should be more explicit in what they’re searching for…

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Inspired by a thread by Matthew Somerville, who reckons all that money spent on machine learning isn’t showing much benefit there. The post made it to Hacker News, where of course there were lots of uncomprehending Americans.
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Lawmakers give Amazon ‘final chance’ to clear up testimony • Associated Press

Matt Ott and Marcy Gordon:

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House lawmakers are threatening to seek a criminal investigation of Amazon, saying the tech giant has a “final chance” to correct its executives’ previous testimony on its competition practices.

The lawmakers sent a letter Monday to Amazon President and CEO Andy Jassy saying they were giving the company until Nov. 1 to “correct the record” and provide new documents and evidence. The missive marks an escalation in the bipartisan battle against Amazon by the House Judiciary Committee panel that has investigated the market dominance of Big Tech.

The letter says the antitrust subcommittee is considering referring the case to the Justice Department for criminal investigation. It accuses the world’s biggest online retailer of at least misleading Congress and possibly outright lying.

It cites recent media reports detailing Amazon’s alleged practice of undercutting the businesses that sell on its platform by making “knock-offs,” or very similar products, and boosting their presence on the site.

The reports directly contradict the sworn testimony of Amazon executives and other statements to Congress, the letter says. It was signed by Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., and the Democratic and Republican leaders of the antitrust panel.

“We strongly encourage you to make use of this opportunity to correct the record and provide the Committee with sworn, truthful and accurate responses to this request as we consider whether a referral of this matter to the Department of Justice for criminal investigation is appropriate,” the letter said.

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The Reuters report about Amazon India watching what sells and making its own knockoffs is probably a big part of this. Tricky for Amazon.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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