Start Up No.1756: Shenzhen in lockdown, iCloud Private Relay criticised, Ukraine goes for Clearview AI, ‘Studio’ or ‘Pro’?, and more


If there’s one thing Ukraine needs right now, it’s surface-to-air missile launchers such as the S-300P, which can be carried on the back of a truck. Quite a big truck. CC-licensed photo by Andrey Korchagin on Flickr.

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


China locks down Shenzhen as it battles biggest Covid surge since start of pandemic • Financial Times

Ryan McMorrow, Primrose Riordan, Gloria Li and Kathrin Hille:

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China is battling its biggest Covid surge since the start of the pandemic and has locked down multiple cities including Shenzhen, its technology hub, in a move that threatens already brittle global supply chains.

Apple supplier Foxconn and dozens of other factories in Shenzhen have stopped production after authorities imposed a lockdown on the city of 17.5mn.

Factories in the tech and manufacturing hub that borders Hong Kong have been ordered to close, residents have been told to stay home and public transport and restaurants shut after China reported more than 5,000 locally transmitted coronavirus cases across the country at the weekend.

Rapidly rising case counts were reported in the north-eastern province of Jilin, as well as in Shanghai, where some neighbourhoods have been put into lockdown, and many other cities around the country.

Authorities in Jilin are rushing to build four new hospital and quarantine facilities with 16,000 beds to separate those infected with coronavirus and their close contacts from the rest of the population. The construction has revived memories of similar steps taken at the start of the pandemic in Wuhan in 2020, and a live webcam is streaming progress online.

The lockdown in Shenzhen is scheduled to last for six days and could compound disruptions to global supply chains that have contributed to rising inflation in the US and Europe.

More than 30 Taiwanese companies, making everything from circuit boards to touchscreen modules, announced production stoppages at their factories in the city. Most of the manufacturers said the plants would be shut until March 20 pending further announcements by local authorities.

Foxconn said it had adjusted production at other plants to “minimise the potential impact”.

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On the assumption that this is the omicron variant, this will be a stop-start thing. Absent 100% triple-jab vaccination, cases will reduce and surge as the lockdowns begin and end. The supply chain problems are going to continue for a while.
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iCloud Private Relay under fire in the UK as a safety threat • Macworld

David Price:

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iCloud Private Relay is similar in effect and method to a VPN, but with certain differences. The idea is that, once the service is enabled by the user, Safari browsing activity is encrypted and diverted through two relays in such a way that no single party has access to the data. This frustrates ISPs because that data is valuable to them in numerous ways.

In the response, naturally, they focus on the ones that can theoretically benefit the user. By monitoring browsing data, for example, Mobile UK says providers can understand consumer trends and better predict and anticipate demand patterns. “Losing this information,” the group complains, “could compromise future network optimization and investment prioritization.”

And as always when a lobbyist group wishes to criticize the use of encryption, the specter of serious crime is invoked. “By preventing network providers and Apple from accessing information on traffic encrypted by the service, Private Relay impairs the insights available under the Government’s investigatory powers,” the statement warns. This will affect law enforcement’s ability to deal with terrorism, organized crime, child sexual abuse, and exploitation, it adds.

There are eight elements to Mobile UK’s complaint, including the somewhat speculative (“there are reports that…”) claim that browsing performance is impacted by Private Relay and more genuine-sounding concerns about competition and the diminished role of the ISP. Rather than attempting to sum up the group’s entire argument here, we would urge the reader to check out the statement themselves.

But it may not come as a surprise that we find the statement self-serving and disingenuous. Network operators dislike the use of privacy services like Private Relay for one reason and one reason only: because it cuts them out of the loop and prevents them from monitoring and monetizing user data. And the use of serious criminal activity as a pretext for wide-scale surveillance is as contemptible on the internet as it is in daily life.

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Interesting stat in the Mobile UK statement: Apple handsets now make up over 50% of the UK market. Really would not have expected that.

At least two claims that I think are wrong-ish: they say that “Customers are directed to more Apple services” (er, no), and “all traffic is now shipped through Apple”, which is true, but Apple can’t see both who you are and what you’re visiting.
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“It’s a mess”: How crypto mining went from boom to bust in Kazakhstan • Rest of World

Naubet Bisenov and Meaghan Tobin:

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On the windswept, freezing steppes of northern Kazakhstan, a set of buildings can signal only one thing: cryptocurrency miners.

…Inside, halls of ASIC mining units, entangled with cables, are attended by a few staff. Some of the equipment is sturdy enough to withstand temperatures of -15 degrees; other parts need heating to stay above freezing point. The system is drawing 1% of the electricity it would normally require, just enough to maintain a holding pattern.

When Rest of World visited in early February, Aibolat Balgozhin, the company’s chief power engineer, was helpless. “We have not been able to operate properly since October 13, when the first power cuts hit us,” he told Rest of World. “And we are kept in the dark as to when we would be able to work at full capacity or what solutions the power grid operator, KEGOC, is going to come up with.” 

In September 2021, when China banned all cryptocurrency-related activity, it reshaped an industry for which it had provided a haven. Miners scrambled into crypto-friendly Kazakhstan, propelling the country into world’s second-biggest Bitcoin production base, by one estimate.

But six months later, the industry is already being pushed out. Facing civil unrest and blackouts on the electricity grid, the government has throttled the power supply of the miners it once welcomed. As it buckles under infighting and government pressure, Kazakhstan’s significant mining base is preparing to move on, industry players and experts say. Smaller players can either flee somewhere like Russia — a risky jurisdiction, whose hostile politics would imply another temporary home — or, for bigger outfits, swallow higher costs to join the swelling ranks in the US, where the mining industry is clearly beginning to concentrate [with 41% of known power usage in December 2021].

“It’s a mess, essentially,” said Alejandro De La Torre, previously vice president at Bitcoin mining pool Poolin, “a big mess.”

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Why Ukraine needs ground-based air defenses way more than MiGs • The Drive

Tyler Rogoway and Thomas Newdick:

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When it comes to helping Ukraine continue to keep Russia from gaining air superiority over its skies — a miraculous achievement thus far in the conflict that is now in its third week — all the focus has been on providing the embattled country with a couple of dozen decades-old MiG-29 Fulcrums. This has been an unfortunate distraction. What Ukraine really needs more than anything else are ground-based air defense systems — surface-to-air missiles, or SAMs — especially the kind with medium or greater altitude engagement capabilities that are optimized for high mobility. And not just any SAM systems that fulfill the requirements, but Soviet-era systems that the Ukrainian military is fully trained on employing in combat and supporting in the field.

While providing additional fighters for Ukraine’s air arm, which remains under great pressure from Russia’s war machine, is one potential facet of bolstering its air defenses, it is far from the most important or convenient one. Fighters are the least of the Russian military’s counter-air worries at the moment. The presence of medium to higher-tier SAM threats keeps Russia’s combat aircraft from operating at medium altitudes or above, in effect pressing them right into the shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile (man-portable air defense systems or MANPADS) engagement envelope, which is roughly defined as anything under 15,000 feet. Thousands of MANPADS of different types have flooded into Ukraine and have been dispersed among troops across the country — and more are on the way. They have been brutally effective so far, but without the threat presented by more capable air defense systems, the opportunities to engage the enemy at lower altitudes will decline. In other words, the presence of one enables the other.

Highly unpredictable ground-mobile SAMs complicate the tactical threat picture even more for Russia. They are far more survivable than their less agile, largely static counterparts. They can appear out of virtually nowhere and then disappear before traditional counterattacks are possible. Leveraging radar guidance, they are also effective in any weather, day or night.

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They also provide a handy shopping list of SAM systems, in case you were thinking of buying some to defend a border near you from incursion any time soon. I mean, I like the S-300P truck-mounted launcher, but what other colours is it available in?

Meanwhile the forced shift of everyone on social media from virological epidemiologist to military strategist continues apace.
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Peloton got trapped in its trillion-dollar fantasy • Bloomberg Quint (via..)

Drake Bennett and Mark Gurman:

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If Peloton’s story thus far were a Peloton class, it would be a high-intensity one, perhaps even a Tabata ride. Everyone would pedal as fast as they could, recover for not long enough, then do it again, as a charismatic figure on the screen urged them on with promises of transformational personal growth and of the massiveness of the total addressable market of subscription fitness. Midway through, the instructor would announce that the 20-minute class would actually go for an hour. Here and there, riders would injure themselves. There would be technical issues with the machines. At the end, right after recommending a five-minute post-ride stretching class and intoning his mantra—“We’re not a stationary bike company, we’re not a treadmill company, we are an innovation company that is at the nexus of fitness, technology, and media!”—the instructor would announce his transition to a new role at the company. It would be exhilarating and entertaining, but perhaps not a ride you’d want to do every day.

…The bring-your-own-bike model holds evident appeal for [new CEO Barry] McCarthy, who’s less interested in the physical machines than in his company’s content. “The magic happens in the tablet,” he says. He muses that perhaps the Peloton screen should be an open platform where third-party programmers can place apps. Or maybe the company could try the inkjet printer business model, offering machines for cheap and making money through higher monthly subscription fees. At the moment, you can ride your bike even if you’re not paying for classes. McCarthy plans to experiment with making those payments mandatory. (On March 10, the company announced such a test, saying it would create a monthly subscription that combines the price of its hardware and content and lacks an upfront hardware payment.)

In all of this, McCarthy says he’ll let the data be his instructor. It’s a familiar narrative: Startup founder gives way to the bean counters and market researchers.

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A good roundup – Peloton is poised between success and disaster – and notable too for Mark Gurman’s name as a reporter, since he’s usually exclusively on the Apple beat.
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Exclusive: Ukraine has started using Clearview AI’s facial recognition during war • Reuters

Paresh Dave and Jeffrey Dastin:

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Ukraine’s defense ministry on Saturday began using Clearview AI’s facial recognition technology, the company’s chief executive told Reuters, after the U.S. startup offered to uncover Russian assailants, combat misinformation and identify the dead.

Ukraine is receiving free access to Clearview AI’s powerful search engine for faces, letting authorities potentially vet people of interest at checkpoints, among other uses, added Lee Wolosky, an adviser to Clearview and former diplomat under U.S. presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

…The Clearview founder said his startup had more than 2 billion images from the Russian social media service VKontakte at its disposal, out of a database of over 10 billion photos total.

That database can help Ukraine identify the dead more easily than trying to match fingerprints and works even if there is facial damage, Ton-That wrote. Research for the US Department of Energy found decomposition reduced the technology’s effectiveness while a paper from a 2021 conference showed promising results.

Ton-That’s letter also said Clearview’s technology could be used to reunite refugees separated from their families, identify Russian operatives and help the government debunk false social media posts related to the war.

The exact purpose for which Ukraine’s defense ministry is using the technology is unclear, Ton-That said. Other parts of Ukraine’s government are expected to deploy Clearview in the coming days, he and Wolosky said.

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I saw someone describe this as “Clearview being used as a weapon of war”, which seems absurdly overblown to me. Certainly there might be some potential for errors at checkpoints – but that’s not a weapon.
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QAnon, Ukraine and ‘biolabs’: Russian propaganda efforts boosted by US far right • NBC News

Ben Collins and Kevin Collier:

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The “biolabs” conspiracy theories were almost unheard of until the day of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

Pyrra Technologies, a cybersecurity and threat intelligence company, said the first mention of biolabs came on the far-right social network Gab on Feb. 14, 10 days before the invasion. The user included an awkwardly worded graphic, titled “Exclusive US biolabs in Ukraine, and they are financed at the expense of the US Department of Defense.”

The post largely sat idle for days. Welton Chang, the CEO of Pyrra, said posts about biolabs on the top 15 far-right social networks numbered in the single digits in the days before Russia’s invasion. But on Feb. 24, the day Russia began its invasion, the number of posts about biolabs on English-language far-right websites skyrocketed into the hundreds and only grew in the days after.

Boosted by far-right influencers on the day of the invasion, an anonymous QAnon Twitter account titled @WarClandestine pushed the “biolabs” theory to new heights, using the same “US biolabs” graphic initially included on the Gab post that went largely unshared the week before.

Twitter said the account and others that pushed the biolabs theory were banned for “multiple violations of our abusive behavior policy.”

The biolab conspiracy theory has taken over as the prevailing narrative on pro-Trump and QAnon websites like The Great Awakening and Patriots.Win.

Chang said the rhetoric on pro-Trump sites, which had largely been anti-Putin in the first days of the war, has shifted because of the biolab conspiracy theory.

“These communities already know what the rhythm and cadence of Covid conspiracies should be like to get people to buy it,” Chang said. “They had a lot of practice with QAnon. The kinds of things that get people excited, like any time you say ‘secret biolab,’ it gets people’s emotions up.”

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Politifact has done a debunking, and there’s an even better unravelling of the claims (which are also being echoed by professional attention-seeker Glenn Greenwald) in a Twitter thread, here on a single page. But the point is really about how these claims get pushed into the mainstream. For another of those, see Marc Owen-Jones’s thread about Chinese sources promoting it.
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‘Pro’ has lost all meaning, and Apple knows it • The Verge

Mitchell Clark:

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From the jump, Apple made it clear who the Mac Studio and Studio Display were for. It showed them being used by musicians, 3D artists, and developers in its presentation, and the message was clear: these are products for creative professionals or people who aspire to be creative professionals. You know, the same exact crowd it’s targeted with MacBook Pro commercials for years.

“My first thought was, ‘Oh, I wonder when the iPhone Studio comes out,” says Jonathan Balck, co-founder and managing director of ad agency Colossus, in an interview with The Verge. “Pro was exclusive, and it was about one way of doing things, but the whole culture is moving toward creativity,” he adds while musing whether we could see Apple’s Pro branding shift to become Studio branding instead.

I can hear people asking: “Isn’t it a bit early to predict that, given that we’ve only seen two products?” It’s a very fair question. But it definitely seems like a first step — to me, the Mac Studio line is a clear successor to Apple’s iMac Pro. Both computers are powered by monstrous CPUs and come standard with 10Gb Ethernet and a healthy crop of Thunderbolt and USB ports. I’m convinced that, had Apple released the new Studio even two years ago, it would’ve put “Pro” in the name. (Though, to play devil’s advocate, I’m not as sure it would’ve done so for the Studio Display.)

Some marketing experts tell me that the word “Pro” is starting to get long in the tooth, and not just from overuse. “The previous term Pro is, in my opinion, outdated and dry,” says Keith Dorsey, founder and CEO of the creative marketing group and management company YoungGuns Entertainment.

Balck agrees; “If you look at the word Pro, that is in many ways restrictive,” he says in an interview, explaining that when you say a product is “professional,” it evokes ideas like job interviews, portfolios, and standoffishness. Pro products, he says, come across as just for those who use creativity to get a paycheck.

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Arguably true; “Studio” comes across as hep and groovy compared to “Pro”. Though Apple first came out with a Studio Display brand in 2001, and that was on sale for three years, so this isn’t actually the newly minted brand it might seem to be. It’s just been resting, that’s all.
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Facebook parent says users can’t post calls to assassinate Putin • Bloomberg via Yahoo

Kurt Wagner:

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Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc. clarified on Sunday that it is against the company’s user rules to share a post that “calls for the death of a head of state” – likely a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Last week, Facebook temporarily relaxed its policies so that Ukrainian users could post threats of violence against the Russian military, which invaded its neighbor in late February. The change led to some public confusion as to what was allowed, and what was not, on Facebook and Instagram.

Meta’s President of Global Affairs Nick Clegg posted a statement Friday saying the move is aimed at protecting Ukrainian rights and doesn’t signal tolerance for “discrimination, harassment or violence towards Russians.” On Sunday, he tried to further explain the company’s stance to employees in an internal post.

“We are now narrowing the focus to make it explicitly clear in the guidance that it is never to be interpreted as condoning violence against Russians in general,” Clegg wrote in the internal post, which was reviewed by Bloomberg. He added that the revised policy only applies in Ukraine, and “only in the context of speech regarding the Russian military invasion of Ukraine.”

“We also do not permit calls to assassinate a head of state,” Clegg said, though he didn’t mention Putin by name.

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So it’s fine to call for the death of Russian soldiers, but not Russians in general, and not their leader? Is it OK to call for the death of the most senior general? This policy is all over the place.
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Asteroid half the size of a giraffe strikes Earth off coast of Iceland • Daily Mail

Sam Tonkin:

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A small asteroid struck the Earth above Iceland last Friday — just two hours after it was spotted by an astronomer.

The space rock, named 2022 EB5, is believed to have mostly burnt up in our planet’s atmosphere, but even if it had impacted the surface it would have done little to no damage because it was just 10ft (3 metres) wide, about half the size of a giraffe. 

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1) if it had hit the surface it could have made quite a dent. Especially if it had landed on a giraffe.
2) Which half of the giraffe is it the same size as? Left/right? Top/bottom?
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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: Switzerland has citizen military training, as well as Israel and Finland (thanks Wendy G). Any others?

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