Start Up No.1723: AirTags locate secret German agency, LG’s advertising TV, EU court reverses Intel fine, NSO seeks sale, and more

Prices of pasta and other staples have rocketed in the past few months, but the CPI doesn’t reflect that. So now there’s a new measure that does.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Paperback postcript done! I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Apple’s AirTag uncovers a secret German intelligence agency • AppleInsider

William Gallagher:


Apple’s AirTags have already been used for good and for bad in cases involving the tracking of individuals, but now a German researcher has used one in an expose of government secrets.

Activist Lilith Wittmann claims that she has uncovered how Germany’s little-known Federal Telecommunications Service is actually a “camouflage authority” for a secret intelligence agency. Initially she wrote how she “accidentally stumbled upon a federal authority that does not exist.”

Now Wittmann has detailed her subsequent and extremely thorough attempts to prove her suspicion. She has methodically gone through every step of learning what she can of the intelligence agency, including where it is.

Some of the steps she details are no longer possible to reproduce, such as her initial one of simply looking up a list of federal authorities online. Similarly, Wittmann includes transcripts of phone calls with an official whose cell number that she reports then ceased working.

Through calls like that, IP searches, and even driving to official buildings, Wittmann worked to track down the mysterious Bundesservice Telekommunikation, or Federal Telecommunications Service.

She establishes multiple reasons to believe it is part of the Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI), and ultimately concludes that there are actually two “camouflage” authorities. Both are allegedly a secret part of an intelligence agency named the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution.

Wittmann says that everyone she spoke to denied being part of this intelligence agency. But what she describes as a “good indicator,” would be if she could prove that the postal address for this “federal authority” actually leads to the intelligence service’s apparent offices.

“To understand where mail ends up,” she writes (in translation), “[you can do] a lot of manual research. Or you can simply send a small device that regularly transmits its current position (a so-called AirTag) and see where it lands.”


Question: is this use of AirTag(s) good or bad? (Thanks Wendyg for the link.)
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Terry Pratchett estate backs Jack Monroe’s idea for ‘Vimes Boots’ poverty index • The Guardian

Alison Flood:


Terry Pratchett’s estate has authorised Jack Monroe to use the “Vimes Boots Index” as the name of her new price index, which is intended to document the “insidiously creeping prices” of basic food products.

The author’s daughter, writer Rhianna Pratchett, said her father would have been proud to see his work used in this way by the anti-poverty campaigner. Monroe was prompted to create her index after inflation jumped to 5.4% last week, and she found herself “infuriate[d]” that the index (the consumer price index or CPI) used for this calculation “grossly underestimates the real cost of inflation as it happens to people with the least”. She laid out how the prices of “value” product ranges in supermarkets had soared over the last decade – rice in her local supermarket had increased in price from 45p for a kilogram bag last year, to £1 for 500g, a 344% increase – and how the number of value products has shrunk. She was soon working with economists, charities and analysts to compile her own index.

“One,” she wrote in the Observer, “that will document the disappearance of the budget lines and the insidiously creeping prices of the most basic versions of essential items at the supermarket” and “serve as an irrefutable snapshot of the reality experienced by millions of people”.


“Vimes Boots” because there’s a character called Vimes who observes that only the rich can afford the good boots that are economic to buy; the poor have to buy cheap ones which wear out more quickly. (A version of the saying that “only the rich can afford cheap shoes”.)
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Why Agatha Christie could afford a maid and a nanny, but not a car • Full Stack Economics

Timothy Lee:


Agatha Christie’s autobiography, published posthumously in 1977, provides a fascinating window into the economic life of middle-class Britons a century ago. The year was 1919, the Great War had just ended, and Christie’s husband Archie had just been demobilized as an officer in the British military.

The couple’s annual income was around around £700 ($50,000 in today’s dollars)—£500 ($36,000) from his salary and another £200 ($14,000) in passive income.

They rented a fourth-floor walk-up apartment in London with four bedrooms, two sitting rooms, and a “nice outlook on green.” The rent was £90 for a year ($530 per month in today’s dollars). To keep it tidy, they hired a live-in maid for £36 ($2,600) per year, which Christie described as “an enormous sum in those days.”

The couple was expecting their first child, a girl, and they hired a nurse to look after her. Still, Christie didn’t consider herself wealthy.

“Looking back, it seems to me extraordinary that we should have contemplated having both a nurse and a servant,” Christie wrote. “But they were considered essentials of life in those days, and were the last things we would have thought of dispensing with. To have committed the extravagance of a car, for instance, would never have entered our minds. Only the rich had cars.”

In 1919, Ford’s Model T cost  £170—around $12,000 in 2022 dollars. So a car was worth about three months of income for the Christie family—but almost five years of income for their maid!

By modern standards, these numbers seem totally out of whack. An American family today with a household income of $50,000 might have one or even two cars. But they definitely wouldn’t have a live-in maid or nanny. Even if it were legal today to offer someone a job that paid $2,600 per year, nobody would take it.


There are more humans, yet we’re more expensive to hire. Seems an odd interplay of supply and demand.
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LG announces new ad targeting features for TVs • Gizmodo

Shoshana Wodinsky:


On Wednesday, the television giant LG announced a new offering to advertisers that promises to be able to reach the company’s millions of connected devices in households across the country, pummeling TV viewers with—you guessed it—targeted ads. While ads playing on your connected TV might not be anything new, some of the metrics the company plans to hand over to advertisers include targeting viewers by specific demographics, for example, or being able to tie a TV ad view to someone’s in-store purchase down the line.

If you swap out a TV screen for a computer screen, the kind of microtargeting that LG’s offering doesn’t sound any different than what a company like Facebook or Google would offer. That’s kind of the point.

Online ad spending reached more than $490bn by the end of last year, and those numbers are only going to keep going up as more advertisers look for more ways to track and target more people online. Traditional TV ad spend, meanwhile, has tanked since its peak around 2016. In order to lure ad dollars back, folks in the television space, like LG, are using every tool at their disposal to claw back the ad dollars the internet’s taken away.

And it’s clearly working. While traditional TV ad spend has plummeted, there’s never been more money spent on advertising across the digitally connected TVs offered by companies like LG. Roku, for example, recently announced an upcoming Shopify integration that would let retailers target TV viewers with more ads for more of their products. Amazon rolled out a new beta platform that lets networks promote apps, movies, or TV shows to people right from the device’s home screen. And I don’t need to remind Samsung TV owners how their devices are getting absolutely plastered with ads from every conceivable angle.


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European court overturns 12-year-old €1.06 billion fine against Intel • Ars Technica

Eric Bangeman:


Sometimes the wheels of justice turn very slowly. A €1.06bn ($1.2bn) fine levied against Intel back in 2009 by the European Commission has been wiped out. In a press release announcing the ruling (PDF) handed down on Wednesday morning, the General Court of the European Union said the financial assumption underlying the fine was based on faulty economic analysis. 

“The (European) Commission’s analysis is incomplete and does not make it possible to establish to the requisite legal standard that the rebates at issue were capable of having, or likely to have, anticompetitive effects,” the court noted.

The “rebates at issue” were part of a program run by Intel between 2002 and 2007. The chipmaker offered rebates to OEMs that used Intel CPUs in at least 80% of their desktops. In one instance, Intel was found to have paid a manufacturer to delay shipment of AMD desktops, in turn hampering the ability of enterprise customers to buy AMD boxes. Another OEM turned down an offer of a million free CPUs from AMD so it could continue receiving rebates from Intel.

The EC found that while Intel’s market dominance wasn’t a problem on its own, essentially paying its customers to not build AMD machines was. 

In its initial appeal, Intel argued that the massive fine violated its human rights. The EU’s General Court was unimpressed by that line of reasoning, rejecting the appeal in 2014. The CPU maker then changed tack, arguing that the underlying economic analysis was faulty, resulting in today’s verdict.


I read the ruling. I don’t understand it.
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Exclusive: Microsoft’s product chief sees PC revival as durable • Axios

Ina Fried:


During COVID-19, the PC has taken on new life as a tool for remote work, distance learning and staying in touch with friends and family in a world where travel has been greatly curtailed.

That drove the global shipments of laptops and desktops for the last quarter to surpass 90 million for the second year in a row, and sales for the year reached a level not seen since 2012. Microsoft reported 25% growth in the revenue it gets from having Windows installed on new PCs.

Yes, but: [Windows chief Panos] Panay said Windows’ gains went beyond just riding the coattails of a rebounding PC market. The company said that Microsoft took market share last quarter, though it didn’t provide specifics.

People are using their PCs more as well, he says, especially those running the latest version, Windows 11, which came out in October. Microsoft says people are spending 40% more time on their Windows 11 PC compared to machines running Windows 10.

Gaming is a big piece of that, and Panay said he is excited about Microsoft’s plan to buy Activision Blizzard. “Gaming is so core to Windows,” he said.

Microsoft says it is getting its highest-ever customer satisfaction ratings with Windows 11, prompting the company to accelerate the pace at which it is upgrading existing machines.


Quietly hilarious, really. Of course people are spending more time on Windows 11 machines – they’re newer ones bought for the pandemic. Though as for Microsoft “taking market share” in Q4 2021 – I find that hard to believe, since Apple’s new MacBook Pros are sure to have juiced its sales. Maybe Chromebooks had a pause, which could be expected as that’s not their buying time, with the school year already started.
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Israel’s NSO Group in sale talks with company run by ex-US soldiers • Financial Times

Mehul Srivastava and James Fontanella-Khan:


Israel’s NSO Group, which manufactures the cyberweapon Pegasus, is in talks to be sold for roughly $300m to a company run by ex-US soldiers, counting on their connections to restore its flagging business, said two people familiar with the talks.

The possible sale to Integrity Partners could present an opportunity for the company, which has been blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce, to burnish its reputation.

According to a person close to NSO, there are other potential suitors, although discussions with Integrity are the furthest along. The US investment firm run by former US army officials plans to move NSO’s domicile to the US, where it would be regulated by American laws, said one person briefed on the matter.

The US agency accused NSO in November of selling its smartphone-hacking product to countries that used it for “transnational repression”. About the same time Apple informed American diplomats in east Africa that Pegasus had recently targeted their smartphones.

Pegasus works by infiltrating a target’s smartphone and mirroring its encrypted contents so that the customer can view them.

The Israeli government licenses the technology to be sold to its allies on the condition that it is only used to defend against terrorism and serious criminal actions.


…and the Israel attorney-general is currently launching an investigation into the abuse of those licences, as it was used against political activists inside Israel by police. Looks like a forced sale.
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iOS 15.3 is out now, and it fixes a nasty Safari bug – The Verge

Tom Warren:


Apple is releasing iOS 15.3 and iPadOS 15.3 for compatible devices today. It’s a fairly minor update, but it does come with an essential security fix to patch a nasty Safari browser flaw. Security researchers revealed earlier this month that websites could exploit a flaw in Apple’s Safari browser to access URLs visited recently by an iOS user and even obtain a Google user ID.

9to5Mac tested the iOS 15.3 release candidate that was released a few days ago and found it fixes this particular security problem. Apple’s quick fix will be useful for iOS and iPadOS users, as, unlike macOS, you can’t simply switch to another browser on iOS to avoid the security flaw. Apple allows third-party browsers on iOS, but they all have to use the same Safari rendering engine.

iOS 15.3 doesn’t appear to include any additional features or obvious fixes.


I linked to a piece about the bug a while back; you can test it on the safarileaks website.

Though I did have a long discussion trying to get security folk, who were very exercised about this bug, to explain how it could be used in reality against someone. “They could find out your Google ID” seemed to be the best offering. (The bug is fixed on Mac OS too.)
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Spotify to take down Neil Young’s music after his Joe Rogan ultimatum • WSJ

Anne Steele:


Spotify is removing Neil Young’s music, as the folk-rock star isn’t wavering in his objections to Joe Rogan’s podcast.

The “Heart of Gold” and “Harvest Moon” singer earlier this week penned an open letter to his manager and label asking them to remove his music from the service, saying it is spreading fake information about Covid-19 vaccines through Mr. Rogan’s show. “They can have Rogan or Young. Not both,” he wrote.

“We want all the world’s music and audio content to be available to Spotify users. With that comes great responsibility in balancing both safety for listeners and freedom for creators,” a Spotify spokesman said. The company has detailed content policies in place and has removed over 20,000 Covid-related podcast episodes since the start of the pandemic, he added.

“We regret Neil’s decision to remove his music from Spotify, but hope to welcome him back soon,” he said.

Spotify struck a deal with Mr. Rogan in 2020 worth more than $100 million, according to people familiar with the matter, bringing his popular and lucrative show exclusively to its service.


Young had 2.4 million followers and more than 6 million monthly listeners there. I think Spotify might survive.
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Mark Zuckerberg’s stablecoin ambitions unravel with Diem sale talks • Bloomberg

Liana Baker:


The controversial cryptocurrency project that Mark Zuckerberg once defended in front of Congress is unraveling after regulatory pressure.

The Diem Association, a cryptocurrency initiative once known as Libra backed by Meta Platforms Inc., is weighing a sale of its assets as a way to return capital to its investor members, according to people familiar with the matter. Diem is in discussions with investment bankers about how best to sell its intellectual property and find a new home for the engineers who developed the technology, cashing out whatever value remains in its once-ambitious Diem coin venture, said the people, asking not to be identified because the discussions aren’t public.

In 2019, when Meta’s Facebook first unveiled the idea of its stable digital currencies — stablecoins — aimed at revolutionizing global financial services, they did so in collaboration with dozens of other companies. But the consortium wasn’t enough to protect the project from worldwide regulatory scrutiny. After Zuckerberg was called to testify, some partners abandoned the project and it changed its name to Diem. Diem’s ambitions scaled back and its founder, David Marcus, left Meta last year. The association struck an arrangement with Silvergate Capital Corp. to issue Diem, but resistance from the US Federal Reserve dealt the effort a final blow, the people said.

Diem said in May that an affiliate of the firm, Silvergate Bank, was to be the issuer of the Diem USD stablecoin, a type of cryptocurrency pegged to the U.S. dollar that’s typically used to buy and sell other crypto. After a lengthy back-and-forth between the Diem advocates and regulators, Fed officials finally told Silvergate last summer that the agency was uneasy with the plan and couldn’t assure the bank that it would allow that activity, the people said.

Without a green light from the bank’s regulator, Silvergate was left unable to issue the new asset with confidence the Fed wouldn’t crack down, and so the Diem effort had no coin.


It’s dead, Jim. Huge sigh of relief – honestly, I did find the idea of Facebook creating its own internal transnational shadow currency very concerning, because of its potential to undermine normal intranational taxation, which is already strained enough. And Facebook, well, need I say more?
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• Why do social networks drive us a little mad?

• Why does angry content seem to dominate what we see?

• How much of a role do algorithms play in affecting what we see and do online?

• What can we do about it?

• Did Facebook have any inkling of what was coming in Myanmar in 2016?Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1723: AirTags locate secret German agency, LG’s advertising TV, EU court reverses Intel fine, NSO seeks sale, and more

  1. The humans we hire cheaply — at least as cheaply relative to our salaries as maids were — are all out of sight and half way round the world. And they tend not to work for us exclusively or directly. But if you took out of our lives everything built or maintained by people paid £2,600 a year after food and housing, a lot would vanish that we now take for granted. The electrification of the home abolished such an *enormous* amount of physical labour.

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