Start Up No.1689: Nigeria’s pandemic-fuelled cybercrime boom, the US trust deficit, Ofgem’s failure, NSO faces new bans, and more


Samsung’s iconic Galaxy Note – which forged the way for “phablets” – won’t be made any more, reports suggest. CC-licensed photo by Kārlis Dambrāns on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. On the correct day this time. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


How the pandemic pulled Nigerian university students into cybercrime • The Record

Olatunji Olaigbe:

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even now [Kayode’s] descent into cybercrime can sound rational given the nightmare of trying to stay afloat amid the pandemic in Nigeria. 

“I needed to do something. I needed to survive,” Kayode said. “I’m not justifying my decision, but there’s something in being at home, doing nothing, but paradoxically doing everything in your capacity to stay alive, yet you are kind of dying, that makes you care less about others.” 

Nigeria represents one of the largest economies in the world and the largest in Africa. Although oil and agriculture are still the country’s largest industries, its tech ecosystem is one of the world’s fastest growing.

But according to Trading Economics, the average Nigerian salary is 43,200 naira (about $105) a month, still far behind that of many other countries with strong tech sectors. Meanwhile, the country’s jobless rate is the second highest in the world—quadrupling in the last five years and surging to 33.3% from 27.1% amid the pandemic, Bloomberg reported in March.

Young Nigerians have been hit the hardest by the epidemic’s unemployment crisis—driving many to online crime and forcing cultural re-evaluation of its morality, according to Oludayo Tade.

“It creates this orientation that this society does not take care of us, so we have to take care of ourselves,” said Tade, who researches and teaches sociology and criminology at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria. 

Kayode seems like an unlikely criminal at first glance. 

In high school, he says, he was an A student and served as his school’s social prefect, while also representing his school in academic competitions. And he scored well enough on the Nigerian equivalent of the SAT’s to land a spot at the University of Ilorin, one of the country’s most elite educational institutions—where I also attend.

But as Kayode was in the middle of first semester exams for his sophomore year in March 2020, the Academic Staff Union of University embarked on a two-week warning strike—citing unmet demands and disagreement with the federal government. Then the pandemic struck Nigeria, and the federal government imposed an indefinite nationwide lockdown. University students were encouraged to leave their dorms and go home until education resumed.

That wasn’t so easy for Kayode. 

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Doesn’t have to be cybercrime: plenty got work as essay writers, for richer but less capable people in other countries.
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A trust recession is looming over the American economy – The Atlantic

Jerry Useem:

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The economists Paul Zak and Stephen Knack found, in a study published in 1998, that a 15% bump in a nation’s belief that “most people can be trusted” adds a full percentage point to economic growth each year. That means that if, for the past 20 years, Americans had trusted one another like Ukrainians did, our annual GDP per capita would be $11,000 lower; if we had trusted like New Zealanders did, it’d be $16,000 higher. “If trust is sufficiently low,” they wrote, “economic growth is unachievable.”

…Add to the disruption and isolation of the pandemic a political climate that urges us to meditate on the distance—ethnic, generational, ideological, socioeconomic—separating us from others, and it’s not hard to see why many Americans feel disconnected.

What has suffered most are “weak ties”—relationships with acquaintances who fall somewhere between stranger and friend, which sociologists find are particularly valuable for the dissemination of knowledge. A closed inner circle tends to recycle knowledge it already has. New information is more likely to come from the serendipitous encounter with Alan, the guy with the fern in his office who reports to Phoebe and who remembers the last time someone suggested splitting the marketing division into three teams, and how that went.

Some evidence suggests that having more weak ties can shorten bouts of unemployment. In a famous 1973 survey, the Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter discovered that, among 54 people who had recently found a new job through someone they knew, 28% had heard about the new position from a weak tie, versus 17% from a strong one. When the weak ties fall away, our “radius of trust”—to borrow Fukuyama’s term—shrinks.

That’s a problem for individual employees, as much as they may appreciate the flexibility of working anywhere, anytime. And it’s a problem for business leaders, who are trying to weigh the preferences of those employees against the enduring existence of the place that employs them. They don’t want to end up like IBM. It saved $2bn making much of its workforce remote as early as the 1980s, only to reverse course in 2017, when it recognised that remote work was depressing collaboration. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella recently wondered whether companies were “burning” some of the face-to-face “social capital we built up in this phase where we are all working remote. What’s the measure for that?”

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Poor regulation, not price cap, to blame for energy market mayhem • Financial Times

Helen Thomas:

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Bulb [which went bust earlier this week, leaving 1.7 million customers in the lurch] wasn’t a “tease and squeeze” merchant, attracting customers with low fixed rates before flipping them close to the price cap. It had one variable tariff. But it had grown very quickly and was perennially lossmaking, thinly-capitalised and in effect sold energy at cost. Its gross margin in the year to March 2019 was 1%.

Its position had looked precarious for some time. The going-concern statement in its March 2020 accounts implied it was reliant on a letter from parent company Simple Energy Limited (which only holds Bulb) guaranteeing support for another 12 months.

It had a £55m loan facility (again guaranteed by its parent). Compare that to Octopus Energy, which at the time had a similar number of customers, with its £340m of committed funding in its April 2020 accounts. While Octopus’s risk discussion of wholesale prices provides details on a “strict and sophisticated” hedging policy, the word “hedging” doesn’t even feature in Bulb’s similar disclosure.

The reality is Bulb probably didn’t have the balance sheet to follow the paint-by-numbers template provided by the regulator for protection consistent with the assumptions in the price cap. It wasn’t required to do so and it’s not clear how much it did hedge.

…The mistake [in regulation] was capping retail prices while allowing companies chasing growth at any cost to take huge amounts of commodity price risk that was in effect backstopped by the state. Recent moves in power prices would have probably meant some failures under most regimes, reckons Peter Atherton, a sector consultant. But the politics of energy mean ultimately “the government is the supplier of last resort — always has been, always will be”, he said.

A regulatory environment that priced in that risk to the taxpayer would have policed existing rules more vigorously. It would have set a much higher bar for new entrants, much earlier. And it would have set tougher requirements on hedging wholesale price risk.

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The energy market will look different – less choice, for sure – next year. Shows how important it is not just to regulate, but to do it well.
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Amid NSO scandal, Israel said to ban cyber tech sales to 65 countries • The Times of Israel

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The [Israel] Defense Ministry has dramatically scaled back the number of countries to which Israeli companies can sell cyber technologies amid global fallout over Israeli spyware firm NSO Group, according to a report Thursday.

The updated November list consists of 37 countries, down from 102, according to the Calcalist business news daily.

Countries with questionable human rights records, including Israel’s new allies Morocco and the UAE, have been removed, the report said.

Other dropped countries include Saudi Arabia and Mexico. The Saudis allegedly used NSO’s Pegasus spyware to monitor Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. Mexico has also been said to use the surveillance technology on journalists and activists.

However, India — which was also accused of using NSO technology on journalists, opposition politicians, and activists — remains on the updated list.

The new rules are expected to deal a serious blow to Israel’s cyber technology industry, according to the report.

NSO Group has faced a torrent of international criticism over allegations it helps governments spy on dissidents and rights activists. NSO insists its product is meant only to assist countries in fighting crime and terrorism.

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How your product is “meant” to be used and how it’s actually used tend to be two different things. This is going to put NSO in a really tough spot. Imagine a fire sale, though: who would buy Pegasus? Who would oversee the bidding? Increasingly, Pegasus looks like one of the most valuable single pieces of software in the world. You have to hope they’ve got fantastic security, bot computing and physical.
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Galaxy Note 20 production to end, killing the series for good • 9to5Google

Ben Schoon:

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2021 marked a big year for the Galaxy Note series, but not in a good way. Rather, it was the beginning of the end as Samsung prioritized its foldables over the Galaxy Note line. Now, the death of the Note seems set in stone, as Samsung reportedly has no plans for a 2022 Galaxy Note, and is also planning to end production of the Galaxy Note 20. [There was no new Note released in 2021.]

ET News reports that Samsung has pretty much confirmed the end of the Galaxy Note series through two actions. Firstly, Samsung apparently has no plans for a Galaxy Note device in its 2022 roadmap. Likely, that means the only flagship-tier Galaxy smartphones coming next year will be the Galaxy S22 series and new foldables.

On top of that, Samsung will also apparently end production on its Galaxy Note 20 series entirely by the end of 2021. Until now, production on the Galaxy Note 20 has continued as the device has still been selling. In 2021, the series reportedly sold around 3.2 million devices, around a third the number of Note devices sold in 2020.

Of course, we know well at this point that the Galaxy S22 Ultra will act as a spiritual successor to the Galaxy Note series, with the device adopting a design closer to the Note 20 series as well as using the same built-in stylus. The Galaxy Fold series also inherits the S Pen, but still lacks a good place to store it.

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Iconic in its time, but the exploding batteries in autumn 2016 were very much the beginning of the end.
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Will glow-in-the-dark materials someday light our cities? • Knowable

Kurt Kleiner:

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These materials that glow strongly for hours open possibilities, such as “glow-in-the-dark” cities lighted by luminescent pavements and buildings. Since 19% of all global energy use is for lighting, and in Europe about 1.6% specifically for street lighting, the potential energy savings are large, write building engineer Anna Laura Pisello and colleagues in the 2021 Annual Review of Materials Research.

One problem with the approach is that most luminescent material won’t glow all the way through the night. Better materials could help solve that problem, says Pisello, of the University of Perugia, who studies energy-efficient building materials. In the meantime, existing materials could be combined with electric lighting that would come on long enough to recharge the road markings before switching off again.

Luminescent paint could also provide outdoor area lighting. Pisello’s lab developed such a glow-in-the-dark paint and in a 2019 report, simulated what would happen if they painted a public path near a railway station with it. By glowing throughout the night, the paint would reduce energy needed for lighting by about 27% in the immediate area, the scientists found.

If this conjures worries of entire cities glaring throughout the night and adding to harmful light pollution, Pisello says that is unlikely. Luminescent materials would likely only replace existing lighting, not add to it. The colour of the glowing materials could be chosen to avoid the blue frequencies that have been found especially harmful to wildlife.

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Tempted to say “no” reflexively to the headline, but the story is more persuasive.
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Tolkien estate blocks JRR Token crypto-currency • BBC News

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Lord of the Rings creator JRR Tolkien’s estate has successfully blocked a crypto-currency called JRR Token.

Lawyers representing the estate said the product, launched in August, infringed the author’s trademark, with websites selling and promoting the crypto-currency, jrrtoken.com and thetokenofpower.com, featuring rings, hobbit holes and a wizard like Gandalf.

The US-based developer paid the estate’s legal costs, which the lawyers said were “significant”.
The estate filed a complaint with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), one day after tokens for the crypto-currency ($JRR) went on sale aiming to “organise the people towards a common goal of making JRR Token ‘The One Token That Rules Them All'”.

This was very similar to the “one ring to rule them all” line from The Lord of The Rings book, the lawyers said.

And the domain name jrrtoken.com, registered in February 2021, was “specifically designed to mislead” people into believing it had a legitimate commercial connection with the author.

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As TV producer Willard Foxton Todd quipped: he’s a non-fungible Tolkien.
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Scientists call for travel ‘code red’ over Covid variant found in southern Africa • The Guardian

Hannah Devlin and Ian Sample:

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The variant, which was only identified on Tuesday, initially sparked concern because it carries an “extremely high number” of mutations that could allow it to evade immunity. The latest data, presented by South African scientists on Thursday, revealed the variant also appears to be more transmissible and is already present in provinces throughout the country.

Ewan Birney, the deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and a member of Spi-M, which advises the UK government, called for urgent “code red” – or “red list-type” – travel restrictions to be placed on southern Africa while the new variant’s transmissibility is investigated, saying it posed a risk of the pandemic regaining momentum.

He urged countries not to repeat the mistake of failing to act quickly. “What we’ve learnt from the other situations like this – some have turned out OK and some haven’t – is that whilst we’re [investigating] you have to be reasonably paranoid,” he said.

The new strain, B.1.1.529 [now dubbed “nu” by the WHO], was identified after a surge of cases in Gauteng, an urban area containing Pretoria and Johannesburg. Initially the cluster of cases, centred on a university, was assumed to be due to an increase in socialising.

However, this week the variant was identified as a potential, more ominous, cause of the increase. The first detected cases of the variant were collected in Botswana on 11 November and a case has also been found in Hong Kong – a 36-year-old man who tested positive while in quarantine after a trip to South Africa.

In the past 48 hours, South African scientists reviewed PCR test data from the Gauteng region and discovered the new variant appeared to be behind the increase in cases, having risen to account for around 90% of cases in a matter of weeks.

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When have travel restrictions ever prevented these variants from spreading, though? Endemic, pandemic, this virus spreads. The concern is if this is even more infectious than delta. The UK government put South Africa on the “red list” – quarantine required – on Thursday evening. With that in mind, the next question is…
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Has the UK reached herd immunity? • Unherd

Tom Chivers:

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here’s the note of caution. Herd immunity isn’t a fact about the virus: it’s an interaction between the virus and our behaviour. As an epidemiologist told me the last time I wrote about Covid case numbers, it’s much harder to predict the course of a pathogen when R is near 1. You can get unpredictable outbreaks in local patches, sub-populations with lower vaccination levels. Minor behaviour changes (more people socialising indoors as it gets colder? Christmas?) can push R up and alter things significantly. 

In response to that piece of mine, the forecasting site Metaculus put together some predictions for what was going to happen in the coming months — will we have further restrictions like Plan B or something more extreme; how high will the number of people in hospital get over winter, that sort of thing. 

Metaculus’s forecasts have a pretty good record in the pandemic so far. They think that Plan B-style restrictions are more likely than not before February 2022, and that there’s a good chance (≈25%) of more stringent ones, including a ban on household mixing at Christmas (≈20% chance). They also think that hospitalisations are likely to go up fairly significantly from their current level. (You can see their other relevant predictions here and here.)

So while we may be at or near herd immunity, we’re also in a knife-edge situation where changes in behaviour could change things quite a lot, and change the threshold for what counts as herd immunity.

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My most dangerous climb 🧗🏽‍♀️climbing an E9 with next to no trad experience • YouTube

Anna Hazelnutt:

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Once Upon a Time in the Southwest is a beautiful, 50 meter slab on the Devonshire coast in England. It’s a benchmark E9 (6c) trad climb known for its exposure, world-class techy slab movements, and of course, its flakey holds!

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The grade – E9 – essentially means “this is Olympics-style difficult, but also with a risk of serious injury if you get things wrong”. And she does get things wrong, because it’s only her second or third time where she isn’t just clipping to bolts drilled into the rock. She’s hand-placing the “gear” into cracks in the rock, from which it can be prone to fall out if you mishandle the rope. As she does.
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Christmas shopping? Let me recommend Social Warming, my latest book, about the creeping effects of social media on society, politics and journalism.


Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

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