Start Up No.1696: Life360’s data harvest, EU’s flatulent hydrogen policy, Rohingya sue Facebook, plastic man disarmed, and more


Hey, office nerd! You could earn six figures a day if you get onto TikTok and teach people how to use Microsoft Excel! CC-licensed photo by Microsoft Sweden on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Not gaseous. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The popular family safety app Life360 is selling precise location data on its tens of millions of users • The Markup

Jon Keegan and Alfred Ng:

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Life360, a popular family safety app used by 33 million people worldwide, has been marketed as a great way for parents to track their children’s movements using their cellphones. The Markup has learned, however, that the app is selling data on kids’ and families’ whereabouts to approximately a dozen data brokers who have sold data to virtually anyone who wants to buy it. 

Through interviews with two former employees of the company, along with two individuals who formerly worked at location data brokers Cuebiq and X-Mode, The Markup discovered that the app acts as a firehose of data for a controversial industry that has operated in the shadows with few safeguards to prevent the misuse of this sensitive information. The former employees spoke with The Markup on the condition that we not use their names, as they are all still employed in the data industry. They said they agreed to talk because of concerns with the location data industry’s security and privacy and a desire to shed more light on the opaque location data economy. All of them described Life360 as one of the largest sources of data for the industry. 

“We have no means to confirm or deny the accuracy” of whether Life360 is among the largest sources of data for the industry, Life360 founder and CEO Chris Hulls said in an emailed response to questions from The Markup. “We see data as an important part of our business model that allows us to keep the core Life360 services free for the majority of our users, including features that have improved driver safety and saved numerous lives.”

A former X-Mode engineer said the raw location data the company received from Life360 was among X-Mode’s most valuable offerings due to the sheer volume and precision of the data.

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Life360 in 2020 made $22m (about a quarter of its revenue) from selling that data, or from data partnerships. And does that get sold on? It doesn’t know.

This is the company that’s buying location tracker device maker Tile. Wonder if it will be able to sell the data about where your car is.
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How an Excel TikToker manifested her way to making six figures a day • The Verge

Nily Patel:

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Kat Norton is a Microsoft Excel influencer. She has over a million followers on TikTok and Instagram, where she goes by the name Miss Excel, and she’s leveraged that into a software training business that is now generating up to six figures of revenue a day. That’s six figures a day. And she’s only been doing this since June 2020.

Kat is a one-woman operation, with no staff or management layer. She uses her iPhone and consumer software to make her videos, and I’ve got to say, she has one of the healthiest relationships with the social platforms of maybe any creator I’ve ever talked to: she thinks of them purely as marketing channels for the video courses she sells elsewhere. That’s a big flip from the traditional creator business model, which is usually aimed at monetizing the platforms directly. Kat’s just not doing that.

But where this conversation really got me was when Kat said she firmly believed in manifestation and energetics, and that she draws a repeated connection between the work she’s done there and the success she’s had as a creator and entrepreneur. Just listen in this conversation how easily and quickly Kat can go back and forth between talking about her core business metrics and strategies and harnessing her energy to connect with viewers across devices and platforms. I have spoken to a lot of creators and a lot of executives on this show; I have never met one like Kat.

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The money that people at the top of these pyramids can make is just incredible. But is this increasing income for everyone, or increasing wealth disparity?
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New EU hydrogen policy: the good, the bad, and the expensive • CleanTechnica

Steve Hanley:

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According to the IEA, the world consumed about 90m tons of hydrogen in 2020 — virtually all of it made from methane, one of the most powerful of all greenhouse gases. The current market price of such “gray” hydrogen is around €2.00 ($2.28) per kilogram. Green hydrogen can be made by passing a strong electrical current through water to split it into its component molecules, hydrogen and oxygen, but the cost is roughly triple that of grey hydrogen.

In remarks in Brussels last week, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that by 2030, green hydrogen could be produced at a cost of around €1.80 per kilogram, which would make it less expensive than grey hydrogen. “This goal is within reach,” she said, according to Reuters.

“This new partnership builds on years of cooperation promoted by the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking,” she said, according to Euracitiv. “Clean hydrogen will have a central place in the climate-neutral economy of the future,” von der Leyen said, citing the EU’s leadership position in the manufacturing of new-generation electrolysers designed to be powered by renewable energy. “We have to scale up clean hydrogen production, expand its applications, and create a virtuous circle where demand and supply feed each other and bring the prices down,” she added.

There’s only one problem. To reach the goal of under €2 per kilogram hydrogen, Europe will need to have 80 GW of electrolyzers in place by 2030. Today, there are only 0.3 GW of electrolyzers available worldwide, according to the IEA. EU climate policy chief Frans Timmermans isn’t worried. “The stars are made of hydrogen, so let’s reach for the stars,” he said.

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Got to wonder what Timmermans is smoking. Not near the hydrogen store, Mr Timmermans!

If you leave it to the market, the market will never move to renewables (“green” hydrogen).
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Rohingya sue Facebook for £150bn over Myanmar genocide • The Guardian

Dan Milmo:

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Facebook’s negligence facilitated the genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar after the social media network’s algorithms amplified hate speech and the platform failed to take down inflammatory posts, according to legal action launched in the US and the UK.

The platform faces compensation claims worth more than £150bn under the coordinated move on both sides of the Atlantic.

A class action complaint lodged with the northern district court in San Francisco says Facebook was “willing to trade the lives of the Rohingya people for better market penetration in a small country in south-east Asia.”

It adds: “In the end, there was so little for Facebook to gain from its continued presence in Burma, and the consequences for the Rohingya people could not have been more dire. Yet, in the face of this knowledge, and possessing the tools to stop it, it simply kept marching forward.”

A letter submitted by lawyers to Facebook’s UK office on Monday says clients and their family members have been subjected to acts of “serious violence, murder and/or other grave human rights abuses” as part of a campaign of genocide conducted by the ruling regime and civilian extremists in Myanmar.

It adds that the social media platform, which launched in Myanmar in 2011 and quickly became ubiquitous, aided the process. Lawyers in Britain expect to lodge a claim in the high court, representing Rohingya in the UK and refugees in camps in Bangladesh, in the new year.

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This will be one to watch, because (as my book makes clear) Facebook was warned again and again and again that it was contributing to problems there. (Link via Doug Young, my agent. Hi Doug!)
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There’s an entire chapter about Facebook’s missteps in Myanmar in Social Warming, my latest book. There’s plenty more, about media, politics and other countries such as Ethiopia – plus favourites such as the US, UK and Brazil.


Twitter’s new privacy policy could clash with journalism • Columbia Journalism Review

Mathew Ingram on the potential impact of Twitter’s new policy about removing certain images:

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If Twitter determines the person in question is a public figure, it may still remove images or videos if it believes the content was shared in order to “harass, intimidate, or use fear to silence them”—though, once again, how Twitter will determine whether the images were posted in order to harass, intimidate, or silence an individual is unclear. The company says it will “try to assess the context in which the content is shared,” including whether the image is publicly available, whether it is being covered by traditional media, and whether it adds value to the public discourse or is “relevant to the community.” The policy adds that media shared about private individuals is acceptable provided it “contains eyewitness accounts or on the ground reports from developing events.”

The latter appears to be an attempt to create an exception for journalism, but how the company will balance newsworthiness and the public interest with its desire to protect individual privacy is unknown. Some photojournalists say they are concerned that the new policy, and the lack of clarity around its terms, could make their jobs even more difficult. Mickey Osterreicher, general counsel for the National Press Photographers Association, said the policy change shows a lack of understanding that “a person photographed in a public place has NO reasonable expectation of privacy.” If the company chooses to enforce the new rules, Osterreicher said, it will be “undermining the ability to report newsworthy events by creating nonexistent privacy rights.”

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It’s a strange new non-judicial minefield, given how Twitter is used as an outlet for journalism. But the policy was weaponised within days by right-wingers claiming photos of them that journalists had taken in public places (eg roads) were somehow harassing, intimidating or silencing them.

The bigger problem is that unlike a court case, there’s no public forum where Twitter’s reason for doing it can be aired and tested and explained.
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52 things I learned in 2021 • Fluxx Studio Notes

Tom Whitwell:

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4. 10% of US electricity is generated from old Russian nuclear warheads. [Geoff Brumfiel]

5. Some South African students sell school Wi-Fi passwords for lunch money. Residents walk up to 6km to connect to schools because 4G data is so expensive. [Kimberly Mutandiro]

6. Productivity dysmorphia is the inability to see one’s own success, to acknowledge the volume of your own output. [Anna Codrea-Rado]

7. The world’s second most popular electric car (after the Tesla Model 3) is the Wuling HongGuang Mini, which costs $5,000 and outsells vehicles from Renault, Hyundai, VW and Nissan. [Brad Anderson & José Pontes]

8. Airline Food is a programming language whose programs look like Jerry Seinfeld stand-up routines. [Jamie Large]

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Every year, this list is amazing. Meant to include it on Monday, but it’s so worth bookmarking (or even – gasp! – printing out) and poring over.
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Inside Tesla as Elon Musk pushed an unflinching vision for self-driving cars • NY Times

Cade Metz and Neal E. Boudette:

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some who have long worked on autonomous vehicles for other companies — as well as seven former members of the Autopilot team — have questioned Tesla’s practice of constant modifications to Autopilot and F.S.D. [full self driving], pushed out to drivers through software updates, saying it can be hazardous because buyers are never quite sure what the system can and cannot do.

Hardware choices have also raised safety questions. Within Tesla, some argued for pairing cameras with radar and other sensors that worked better in heavy rain and snow, bright sunshine and other difficult conditions. For several years, Autopilot incorporated radar, and for a time Tesla worked on developing its own radar technology. But three people who worked on the project said Mr. Musk had repeatedly told members of the Autopilot team that humans could drive with only two eyes and that this meant cars should be able to drive with cameras alone.

They said he saw this as “returning to first principles” — a term Mr. Musk and others in the technology industry have long used to refer to sweeping aside standard practices and rethinking problems from scratch. In May of this year, Mr. Musk said on Twitter that Tesla was no longer putting radar on new cars. He said the company had tested the safety implications of not using radar but provided no details.

Some people have applauded Mr. Musk, saying that a certain amount of compromise and risk was justified as he strove to reach mass production and ultimately change the automobile industry.

But recently, even Mr. Musk has expressed some doubts about Tesla’s technology.

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OK, people have only two eyes, but they can’t see through fog, while radar can. And they don’t have 360º vision either. Plus humans are better at this than machines, usually.
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As the Lock Rattles · London Review of Books

John Lanchester reviews five books about the pandemic:

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What the UK needed in early 2020, more than anything else, was for the pandemic to be taken seriously. We needed someone willing to look at what had happened in Wuhan and Lombardy, and make the most of the few weeks’ notice the UK had providentially been granted.

Unfortunately, in Johnson it had a prime minister whose entire personality and philosophy are based on not taking things seriously. This was to have tragic consequences. In the early months of 2020, when the news about Sars-CoV-2 was emerging and getting rapidly, frighteningly worse, Johnson failed to chair five consecutive meetings of Cobra, the government’s crisis committee. It is almost unknown for the prime minister not to chair Cobra when he or she is in London. According to David King, the former government chief scientific adviser, Blair and Brown never failed to chair a Cobra meeting. Johnson failed five times in a row, always on the subject of Covid.

The reason isn’t far to seek: he didn’t understand it and didn’t take it seriously. In the early months of 2020, the UK government had 25,000 civil servants working on Brexit, which Johnson was well aware lay somewhere on the spectrum between a mistake and a disaster. His private life was on the same spectrum. In the months after becoming prime minister, Johnson became the first holder of that office to get divorced, get married and have a baby, more or less simultaneously. Covid was not a priority. It’s amazing he showed up to any Cobra meetings at all.

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(Via John Naughton. Always interesting, when great pieces like these get handed around, to see which extracts one chooses. I’m sure someone smarter than me could tease out all sorts of insights from them. He picked an earlier one, which points out that the All England Club, aka Wimbledon, had learned the lessons of SARS in 2002 and got pandemic insurance. I bet the underwriter for that laughed a bit at the easy millions they were raking in from 2003 to 2019.)
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Italian man tries to avoid getting Covid jab with fake silicone arm • Vice

Carlo Casentini and Sophia Smith Galer:

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A man in northern Italy brought a silicone arm to his COVID-19 vaccination in an attempt to obtain a green pass without actually getting the vaccine.

A green pass is Italy’s digital COVID-19 certificate which allows the holder, who has been vaccinated, has recently tested negative for the virus or has recently recovered, to enter busy indoor spaces as well as workplaces. 

The 50-year-old, who arrived at the clinic in Biella, Piemonte, was questioned after a healthcare worker became immediately suspicious about the colour and feel of his arm. 

He was asked to show his entire arm – and then promptly reported to the carabinieri, the Italian police, for fraud.

“This case borders on being ridiculous, were it not for the fact that we’re talking about an extremely serious act,” said the president of the Piemonte Region Alberto Cirio and the councillor for health Luigi Genesio Icardi in a joint statement, calling it “unacceptable in light of the sacrifice that the pandemic is making everyone in our community pay.” 

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Points for effort, sir. None for, well, anything else.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

2 thoughts on “Start Up No.1696: Life360’s data harvest, EU’s flatulent hydrogen policy, Rohingya sue Facebook, plastic man disarmed, and more

  1. Fog they can cope with, snow on the other hand…… And processing all this data can take a resources. A talk I went to in the before times by the head of Google’s autonomous car program said when Google’s servers processed the data they collected (I can’t remember if it was in real time or afterwards) it caused a spike in server use, so much so it was noticeable to the other google engineers. Pretty amazing when you think how many servers they have, and how few cars are in the program.

    On a slightly similar note I think a lot of this is barking up the wrong tree. We shouldn’t be trying to build autonomous vehicles for use as taxies in cities, we should be building it for trains and long distance trucks on specific city to city routes. It has the advantage of providing most of the benefits, and little of the complexity of dealing with pedestrians etc….

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