Start Up No.1781: the trouble with NSO Group, the killer robots are (nearly?) here, how Twitter could make money, InfoWars bust?, and more

A few months after he went into hospital with Covid, Boris Johnson’s phone was hacked with NSO’s Pegasus software, apparently by the UAE. CC-licensed photo by Steam Pipe Trunk Distribution VenueSteam Pipe Trunk Distribution Venue on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Back so soon? I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

No 10 suspected of being target of NSO spyware attack, Boris Johnson ‘told’ • The Guardian

Stephanie Kirchgaessner:


A report released by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto said the United Arab Emirates was suspected of orchestrating spyware attacks on No 10 in 2020 and 2021.

Pegasus is the hacking software – or spyware – developed, marketed and licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli firm NSO Group. It has the capability to infect phones running either iOS or Android operating systems.

Citizen Lab added there had also been suspected attacks on the Foreign Office over the same two years that were also associated with Pegasus operators linked to the UAE – as well as India, Cyprus and Jordan.

The researchers, considered among the world’s leading experts in detecting digital attacks, announced they had taken the rare step of notifying Whitehall of the attack as it “believes that our actions can reduce harm”.

However, they were not able to identify the specific individuals within No 10 and the Foreign Office who are suspected of having been hacked.

In a statement, Citizen Lab said: “We confirm that in 2020 and 2021 we observed and notified the government of the United Kingdom of multiple suspected instances of Pegasus spyware infections within official UK networks. These included: the prime minister’s office (10 Downing Street) [and] the Foreign and Commonwealth Office …

“The suspected infections relating to the FCO were associated with Pegasus operators that we link to the UAE, India, Cyprus and Jordan. The suspected infection at the UK prime minister’s office was associated with a Pegasus operator we link to the UAE.”


Johnson was most recently in UAE in March, asking for more oil and gas. Doubt this topic came up. His phone number was available on the internet for 15 years. It would be astonishing if the UAE was the only country that was hacking him and his associates.
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How democracies spy on their citizens • The New Yorker

Ronan Farrow:


NSO Group is perhaps the most successful, controversial, and influential firm in a generation of Israeli startups that have made the country the center of the spyware industry. I first interviewed Shalev Hulio, NSO Group’s C.E.O., in 2019, and since then I have had access to NSO Group’s staff, offices, and technology.

The company is in a state of contradiction and crisis. Its programmers speak with pride about the use of their software in criminal investigations—NSO claims that Pegasus is sold only to law-enforcement and intelligence agencies—but also of the illicit thrill of compromising technology platforms. The company has been valued at more than a billion dollars.

But now it is contending with debt, battling an array of corporate backers, and, according to industry observers, faltering in its long-standing efforts to sell its products to US law enforcement, in part through an American branch, Westbridge Technologies. It also faces numerous lawsuits in many countries, brought by Meta (formerly Facebook), by Apple, and by individuals who have been hacked by NSO.

The company said in its statement that it had been “targeted by a number of politically motivated advocacy organizations, many with well-known anti-Israel biases,” and added that “we have repeatedly cooperated with governmental investigations, where credible allegations merit, and have learned from each of these findings and reports, and improved the safeguards in our technologies.”

Hulio told me, “I never imagined in my life that this company would be so famous. . . . I never imagined that we would be so successful.” He paused. “And I never imagined that it would be so controversial.”


Might have wanted to be a bit more careful about the client list there, buddy. Farrow’s story includes the detail about the No.10 hack. He’s the journalist, you’ll recall, who got the story about Harvey Weinstein into print when multiple papers quailed. Didn’t go well for Weinstein afterwards. Wonder how it’s going to go for NSO Group now.
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Kamikaze drones in Russia’s war against Ukraine point to future “killer robots” • Last Week in AI

Andrey Kurenkov:


Concerns about Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS), aka ‘Killer Robots’ that can participate in warfare without human control, have been expressed for decades. Many weapons today are semi-automated, but semi automated non-LAWS weapons are either “human-in-the-loop” – a human has to make the decision to use lethal force – or are “human-on-the-loop” – a human is supervising the system’s decisions and can override them in real time. In contrast, once deployed, LAWS could conceivably use AI to perceive targets, categorize them as enemies, and take lethal action against them without human involvement.

Unmanned drones and remotely controlled tanks have come into existence over the past decades, with drones being used extensively in the Russia-Ukraine War, but these are still fundamentally human controlled. However, drones that act as autonomous “loitering munitions,” meaning they fly over an area until they detect a target below them and then dive-bomb to hit it, have – in a few cases – possibly been used under AI control. In 2021, a UN report about the end of the second Syrian Civil War The Kargu-2 included the following quote:


Logistics convoys and retreating HAF were subsequently hunted down and remotely engaged by the unmanned combat aerial vehicles or the lethal autonomous weapons systems such as the STM Kargu-2 (see annex 30) and other loitering munitions. The lethal autonomous weapons systems were programmed to attack targets without requiring data connectivity between the operator and the munition: in effect, a true “fire, forget and find” capability.


…It is only a matter of time until loitering munitions strike targets under AI control – particularly given that this may have already happened. Development of AI-powered weaponry has been a priority for Russia for years, including such capabilities for drones.


You always thoughts killer robots would be on the ground, didn’t you? (I did.) Turns out, not at all.
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The future of the web is marketing copy generated by algorithms • WIRED

Tom Simonite:


Generating marketing lines has proven to be one of the first large-scale use cases for text-generation technology, which took a leap forward in 2020 when OpenAI announced the commercial version of GPT-3. [Copywriting service] Jasper alone claims more than 55,000 paying subscribers, and OpenAI says one competitor has more than 1 million users. WIRED counted 14 companies openly offering marketing tools that can generate content like blog posts, headlines, and press releases using OpenAI’s technology. Their users talk of algorithm-propelled writing as if it will quickly become as ubiquitous as automatic spell-checking.

“I’m a terrible writer, and this makes it a lot easier to put together relevant content for Google,” says Chris Chen, founder of InstaPainting, which uses a network of artists to turn photos into low-cost paintings. He uses a copywriting service called ContentEdge to help write pages on topics like how to commission portraits of pets. The service uses technology from OpenAI and IBM combined with in-house software and describes its product as “fast, affordable, and nearly human.”

ContentEdge, like many of its rivals, functions like a conventional online text editor but with added features you won’t find in Google Docs. In a sidebar, the software can suggest keywords needed to rank highly on Google for a chosen title. Clicking a button marked with a lightning bolt generates complete paragraphs or suggested outlines for an article from a title and a short summary. The text includes terms drawn from pages ranked highly by Google.

Chen likes the way the resulting paragraphs sometimes sprinkle in information drawn from the billions of words of online text used to train OpenAI’s algorithms. That it does so in ways that can be garbled or contradictory doesn’t faze him. “You shouldn’t use the output outright, but it’s a starting point to edit and does the boring work of researching things,” he says.


Throw this forward 10 or 15 years, and do you think he’ll still have a job after some adversarial networks have been to work on the marketing copy Jasper produces?
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Back to the Future of Twitter • Stratechery

Ben Thompson:


This is all build-up to my proposal for what Musk — or any other bidder for Twitter, for that matter — ought to do with a newly private Twitter.

• First, Twitter’s current fully integrated model is a financial failure
• Second, Twitter’s social graph is extremely valuable
• Third, Twitter’s cultural impact is very large, and very controversial.

Given this, Musk (who I will use as a stand-in for any future CEO of Twitter) should start by splitting Twitter into two companies.
• One company would be the core Twitter service, including the social graph
• The other company would be all of the Twitter apps and the advertising business.

TwitterAppCo would contract with TwitterServiceCo to continue to receive access to the Twitter service and social graph; currently Twitter earns around $13/user/year in advertising, so you could imagine a price of say $7.50/user/year, or perhaps $0.75/user/month. TwitterAppCo would be free to pursue the same business model and moderation policies that Twitter is pursuing today (I can imagine Musk sticking with TwitterServiceCo, and the employees upset about said control being a part of TwitterAppCo).

However, that relationship would not be exclusive: TwitterServiceCo would open up its API to any other company that might be interested in building their own client experience; each company would:
• Pay for the right to get access to the Twitter service and social graph
• Monetize in whatever way they see fit (i.e. they could pursue a subscription model)
• Implement their own moderation policy.

This last point would cut a whole host of Gordian Knots:
• Market competition would settle the question about whether or not stringent moderation is an important factor in success; some client experiences would be heavily moderated, and some wouldn’t be moderated at all
• The fact that everyone gets access to the same Twitter service and social graph solves the cold start problem for alternative networks; the reason why Twitter alternatives always fail is because Twitter’s network effect is so important
• TwitterServiceCo could wash its hands of difficult moderation decisions or tricky cultural issues; the U.S. might have a whole host of Twitter client options, while Europe might be more stringent, and India more stringent still. Heck, this model could even accommodate a highly-censored China client (although this is highly unlikely).


It’s a radical, but in many ways sensible, suggestion. Twitter’s problem is that it just doesn’t monetise in its current form.
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Why does Elon Musk’s potential Twitter takeover scare the media so much? • Reason

Robby Soave:


More transparency would be a massive improvement: It’s critical for users to know why and how the platform decides to reward and punish certain tweets. The ultimate goal should be to devolve content moderation to users. Instead of Twitter deciding for users what it thinks they ought to see—what it thinks is dangerous, or true, or safe—the platform should give individuals more options to curate their Twitter experiences.

Musk appears to share this vision. Yet many progressive critics are acting as if him taking control of the company would be the most horrible thing to ever happen. Literally.

Here’s a Salon writer saying Elon Musk’s takeover could cause a death blow to the free world. [“If Elon Musk allows Trump back on Twitter, it will be a death blow to the free world. Trump’s Big Lie will spread like a virus. I discussed the danger of Trump’s Big Lie for Salon. Like Hitler’s Big Lie, it must not be normalised, lest fascism return” wrote Matthew Rozsa.]

Axios writes that Musk has gone into “full goblin mode” and is acting like a super villain.

City University of New York journalism professor Jeff Jarvis implied that Musk’s takeover would be akin to the rise of Nazi Germany. [“Today on Twitter feels like the last evening in a Berlin nightclub at the twilight of Weimar Germany”, Jarvis tweeted.]

These people are desperately scared by the mere possibility that a wealthy person with somewhat different politics—and a somewhat more favourable disposition to unfiltered speech—is going to tweak their favorite toy.


Strange, isn’t it, how the people putting these views forward are always well-off white guys who live in America. I don’t see it coming from George Floyd’s relatives, say, though they’re a group who won some sort of benefit from social networks. Or from people in Ukraine or Russia.

I can tell Soave how Twitter decides to reward and punish certain tweets: the algorithm(s) look at how much engagement the tweets produce. Not much? Doesn’t get pushed further. A lot? Gets pushed. I explained this in Social Warming.

And Twitter did its own research which was published in December 2021: the algorithm amplifies right-wing, not left-wing [by American standards] content.
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Shanghai targets lockdown turning point by Wednesday, sources say • Reuters via CNBC


Shanghai has set a target to stop the spread of Covid-19 outside of quarantined areas by Wednesday, two people familiar with the matter said, which would allow city to further ease its lockdown and start returning to normal life as public frustrations grow.

The target will require officials to accelerate Covid testing and the transfer of positive cases to quarantine centers, according to a speech by a local Communist Party official dated Saturday, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.

Ending community-level transmission has been a turning point for other Chinese localities that locked down, such as Shenzhen city which last month reopened public transport and let businesses go back to work shortly after achieving that target.

Shanghai has become the epicentre of China’s largest outbreak since the virus was first identified in Wuhan in late 2019, and has recorded more than 320,000 Covid infections since early March when its surge began.

Frustrated Shanghai residents have taken to social media to vent their anger at local authorities over difficulties sourcing food, lost income, separated families and poor conditions at central quarantine centres. Tensions have on occasion erupted into public protests or scuffles with police.

…China’s definition of “zero-Covid status at the community level” means that no new cases emerge outside quarantined areas.


I still don’t see how this works, except by defining larger and larger quarantine centres, as seems to be happening. Omicron doesn’t care about your policies; remember, it’s as infectious as measles, and it spreads in the air. All you need is one slightly positive person and you’ve got a spreading event. China’s going to go through this again and again.
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Facebook Papers on Donald Trump, the 2020 Election, and Jan. 6 • Gizmodo

Dell Cameron, Shoshana Wodinsky and Mack DeGeurin:


In the hours following the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, employees at Facebook tasked with preventing “potential offline harm” found themselves under siege by a mob of a different sort. Reports of abusive content from users were flooding in. As one employee put it in an internal forum, many of the flagged posts “called for violence, suggested the overthrow of the government would be desirable, or otherwise voiced support for the protests.” The same day, Instagram employees reported that there were “no existing” protections against an onslaught of inciting content in places like the app’s list of most widely used hashtags.

Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer called on his staff to “Hang in there.” In response, employees began to openly accuse the company of fomenting the insurrection. One wrote, “We’ve been fueling this fire for a long time and we shouldn’t be surprised it’s now out of control.”

“Schrep, employees are tired of ‘thoughts and prayers’ from leadership,” another response read. “We want action.”

Screenshots of Meta employees’ reactions to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot were part of the Facebook Papers, a trove of documents that offer an unprecedented look inside the most powerful social media company in the world. The records were first provided to Congress last year by Frances Haugen, a Facebook product manager-turned-whistleblower, and later obtained by hundreds of journalists, including those at Gizmodo. Haugen testified before Congress about Facebook’s harms in October 2021.

“We’ve been fueling this fire for a long time and we shouldn’t be surprised it’s now out of control.”
As part of an ongoing project to make these once-confidential records accessible to the general public, Gizmodo is today—for the first time—publishing 28 of the documents previously exclusively shared with Congress and the media. Meta declined to comment on the release. 

We have undertaken this project to help better inform the public about Facebook’s role in a wide range of controversies, as well as to provide researchers with access to materials that we hope will advance general knowledge of social media’s role in modern history’s most troubling crises. Less than two weeks after Donald Trump’s mob attacked the Capitol, the results of a poll commissioned by Facebook itself showed what already felt anecdotally true to many: that a majority of Americans believed Facebook at least partly responsible for the events of Jan. 6.


Gizmodo is working with a number of academics. The link of the responses to Schroepfer shows that some in Facebook were heartily sick of inaction. (Note too that for its internal discussion, Facebook uses.. Facebook.)
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Alex Jones’ InfoWars files for bankruptcy in US court • Reuters

Reuters Staff:


Far-right wing website InfoWars on Sunday filed for voluntary Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the US Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of Texas in the face of multiple defamation lawsuits.

Chapter 11 bankruptcy procedures put a hold on all civil litigation matters and allow companies to prepare turnaround plans while remaining operational.

Alex Jones, founder of InfoWars, was found liable for damages in a trio of lawsuits last year filed after he falsely claimed that the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre was a hoax.

Jones claimed the shooting, in which 20 children and six school employees were shot dead at the school in Newtown, Connecticut, was fabricated by gun-control advocates and mainstream media.

Sandy Hook families in late March rejected Jones’ offer to settle their defamation lawsuit and reopened the case. Jones had offered to pay $120,000 to each of the 13 plaintiffs to settle the case.

Each of the plaintiffs turned down the settlement offer in court documents, saying, “The so-called offer is a transparent and desperate attempt by Alex Jones to escape a public reckoning under oath with his deceitful, profit-driven campaign against the plaintiffs and the memory of their loved ones lost at Sandy Hook.”

According to Sunday’s court filings, InfoWars listed its estimated assets in the range of $0-$50,000 and estimated liabilities in the range of $1m to $10m.


This is a transparent attempt to evade all consequence for the lies he told. I hope they’re suing him personally as well: making him, not just the company, bankrupt would make a big difference.
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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?

Read Social Warming, my latest book, and find answers – and more.

Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: 1: Tim Harford is the undercover economist, not Hardford. 2: Monday’s illustration looked like a Zen garden, but was instead of a frozen puddle with some rocks. Hope this didn’t disrupt your meditation.

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