Start Up No.1794: “kill passwords” say Apple/Google/Microsoft, Facebook’s Australia blowup, tracked by drones, and more


You can imagine Bugs Bunny without a background, but have you ever considered the Looney Tunes backgrounds without the characters? CC-licensed photo by coyote521coyote521 on Flickr.

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A selection of 9 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


Apple, Google, and Microsoft want to kill the password with “Passkey” standard • Ars Technica

Ron Amadeo:

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The first Thursday of May is apparently “World Password Day,” and to celebrate, Apple, Google, and Microsoft are launching a “joint effort” to kill the password. The major OS vendors want to “expand support for a common passwordless sign-in standard created by the FIDO Alliance and the World Wide Web Consortium.”

The standard is being called either a “multi-device FIDO credential” or just a “passkey.” Instead of a long string of characters, this new scheme would have the app or website you’re logging in to push a request to your phone for authentication. From there, you’d need to unlock the phone, authenticate with some kind of pin or biometric, and then you’re on your way. This sounds like a familiar system for anyone with phone-based two-factor authentication set up, but this is a replacement for the password rather than an additional factor.

There’s a graphic showing the user interaction.

Some push 2FA systems work over the internet, but this new FIDO scheme works over Bluetooth. As the whitepaper explains, “Bluetooth requires physical proximity, which means that we now have a phishing-resistant way to leverage the user’s phone during authentication.” Bluetooth has a terrible reputation for compatibility, and I’m not sure “security” has ever been a real concern, but the FIDO alliance notes that Bluetooth is just “to verify physical proximity” and that the actual sign-in process “does not depend on Bluetooth security properties.”

Of course, that means both devices will need Bluetooth on board, which is a given for most smartphones and laptops but could be a tough ask for older desktop PCs.

…The FIDO blog post says: “These new capabilities are expected to become available across Apple, Google, and Microsoft platforms over the course of the coming year.” Apple, which seems to have started the whole “passkey” trend, already has a system up and running in iOS 15 and macOS Monterey, but it’s not compatible with other platforms yet.

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Promising? Yet these things always have a Zeno’s Arrow feel to them. Plus there’s always the question of how you set up an account on some password-demanding service in the first place, and so on: the ouroboros of security authentication.
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Elon Musk hates ads. Twitter needs them. That may be a problem • The New York Times

Tiffany Hsu and Kate Conger:

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numerous advertising executives say they’re willing to move their money elsewhere, especially if Mr. Musk removes the safeguards that allowed Twitter to remove racist rants and conspiracy theories. An advertiser exodus would weaken the company, underscoring the difficulty of balancing Mr. Musk’s vision of Twitter as a haven for free speech with the business relationships that keep it going.

But Twitter’s co-founder and at least some investors who joined Mr. Musk’s bid have rejected the need for advertising and insisted that the company needs to break away from it. Twitter’s status as “a public company solely reliant on the advertising business model” added to its problems with bots, abuse and censorship, said Ben Horowitz, a general partner at the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which is investing $400m in the effort to take Twitter private.

Jack Dorsey, the company’s co-founder, agreed. “This is true. It needs cover for a while,” Mr. Dorsey said in a tweet responding to Mr. Horowitz.

Advertisers said such a shift would hurt Twitter. “At the end of the day, it’s not the brands who need to be concerned because they’ll just spend their budgets elsewhere — it’s Twitter that needs to be concerned,” said David Jones, a longtime advertising executive and the chief executive of the Brandtech Group, a marketing technology company. “If you said to me that TikTok went away, that would be a disaster. But Twitter going away? Yeah, whatever.”

…Twitter representatives have also noted that it would probably be months, if not more than a year before any serious changes would go into effect, advertising executives said.

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I disagree with the headline. Twitter’s present revenue is about $4.8bn annually. Now, imagine that Twitter charges the world’s 200-odd governments $2m per month to tweet on the service. Tweet what you like, won’t be interfered with (hello, China). That’s $4.8bn there, for what is a tiny running cost to a government. And if they don’t pay, then their government reps can’t be on it. (He’s said it should remain free to “casual” users, but ministers etc wouldn’t be “casual”.) That would focus minds. What government would want to look so cheap? Or grade the subscription by GDP per capita.

Or find governments and big businesses – 2 million of them – who you charge $200 per month. Or 4 million who you charge $100 per month. It’s peanuts to them. And he wouldn’t need the advertising. Though he might need to keep the content moderation to keep the businesses happy.

Equally, Twitter is so, so terrible at targeting ads. It could do that so, so much better.

(Americans can’t see past adverts, can they? Such a strange myopia.)
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Twitter’s bubbles are a blight on British politics • Financial Times

Sebastian Payne:

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For members of parliament, Twitter has become a constant focus group on what (allegedly) matters: more immediate than scavenging through postbags, far less time-consuming than knocking on doors. Finding out what colleagues, journalists and voters think has never been easier. Yet Twitter is phenomenally unrepresentative. According to the London School of Economics, Twitter has 16mn UK users and the largest demographic is 18 to 29 year olds. During the last election, the Hansard Society reckoned Twitter skewed significantly towards pro-Remain Labour party supporters.

Its immediacy, however, is one of the chief reasons politics has such a shrunken horizon. Issues come and go within hours. When a controversy or gaffe starts trending, parties are forced to react. Take the government’s rail plan published last November: nearly £100bn, the biggest investment in British railways in decades. Twitter cried betrayal because the eastern leg of High Speed 2 was paused; the rest of the announcement was lost.

Serious policy debate is futile. Shouting produces the most clicks. And the damage is clear. Twitter convinced Labour MPs they should nominate Jeremy Corbyn to contest the leadership to “widen the debate”. After last year’s Hartlepool by-election, Twitter prompted a crisis for current leader Sir Keir Starmer, whose reshuffle could be seen collapsing in real time. The vicious army of “cybernats” — extreme online Scottish secessionists — are a poor advert for the independence cause.

…In conversations with party insiders who will run the next general election campaigns, I was struck that strategists cited Twitter as the biggest impediment to their team winning. One figure close to Starmer says, “If I could just do one thing in the party, I would get every Labour MP off Twitter.”

…On the Tory side, the party has discounted Twitter for winning votes. One aide said, “It’s only useful to shape the media conversation.”

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Very much what I found with Social Warming: politicians with the largest social media followings tended to be the most extreme, and do the least in terms of passing laws, etc (certainly in the US).
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Looney Tunes without Looney Tunes: existential, surreal, and creepy backgrounds • Design You Trust

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Many of us enjoyed watching Looney Tunes when we were kids – they were funny, interesting, and unbelievably groovy.

But sometimes, because of the madness on the screen, we didn’t have time to see even a fifth of the important component of “Looney Tunes” – the backdrops, painstakingly and meticulously drawn by artists for each episode. And therein lies a substantial part of the fun!

The Instagram account Looney Tunes Backgrounds has compiled over 900 backdrops from the legendary cartoon, going all the way back to the ’30s, so now we can all take a thoughtful look at them. What’s interesting is that without the flickering back and forth of cartoons, these painted locations look like creepy, existential spaces, empty though colorful graveyards where someone’s childhood died.

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They are indeed surreal and creepy. There’s a particular quality about them I can’t quite put my finger on. Partly it’s the bleakness: the only populated one (on this page) has a lone robot. It’s not as bleak as Garfield minus Garfield, but it’s definitely strange.
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Facebook deliberately caused havoc in Australia to influence new law, whistleblowers say • WSJ

Keach Hagey, Mike Cherney and Jeff Horwitz:

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Last year when Facebook blocked news in Australia in response to potential legislation making platforms pay publishers for content, it also took down the pages of Australian hospitals, emergency services and charities. It publicly called the resulting chaos “inadvertent.”

Internally, the pre-emptive strike was hailed as a strategic masterstroke.

Facebook documents and testimony filed to U.S. and Australian authorities by whistleblowers allege that the social-media giant deliberately created an overly broad and sloppy process to take down pages—allowing swaths of the Australian government and health services to be caught in its web just as the country was launching Covid vaccinations.

The goal, according to the whistleblowers and documents, was to exert maximum negotiating leverage over the Australian Parliament, which was voting on the first law in the world that would require platforms such as Google and Facebook to pay news outlets for content.

Despite saying it was targeting only news outlets, the company deployed an algorithm for deciding what pages to take down that it knew was certain to affect more than publishers, according to the documents and people familiar with the matter.

It didn’t notify affected pages in advance they would be blocked or provide a system for them to appeal once they were.

…People familiar with Facebook’s thinking said executives knew its process for classifying news for the removal of pages was so broad that it would likely hit government pages and other social services. They decided to take that route because Facebook was afraid a narrower definition might lead it to run afoul of the law, which contained a nondiscrimination clause barring platforms from carrying links to some news publishers but not others, the people said.

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So Facebook has a just-about excuse, but knew things would be bad. A company out of control.
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Chromebook market share hits lowest point in five years • Strategy Analytics

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Chirag Upadhyay, industry analyst said, “ChromeOS shipments suffered as education demand continued to slow down and consumer upgrades for Chromebook were at the lowest point, even compared to pre-pandemic levels. The Chromebook business is very small but remains very important for top vendors, as they are keeping good inventory before education demand kicks off in Q2 2022 in main markets. Chromebook is still making an impact in new markets albeit slowly as the public sector look to spend towards cheaper devices for education.”

Eric Smith, director, Connected Computing added, “The total notebook market was only down 7% compared to last year, demand for commercial business stayed strong for Windows 11 PCs and MacBooks powered by M1 chipset, as most enterprise and SMB clients are still choosing hybrid work options and spending extra for quality products. Dell and Apple were good examples of the growth segments of the market: premium Windows notebooks and MacBooks with the M1 chipset.”

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Only looks at laptops, where it says Apple shipped 6.1m (which suggests total shipments of 7.6m, based on 80% of its shipments being laptops). No surprise that Chrome is in retreat: schools are going back and people have bought their children all the laptops they’ll need. Yet another of those left exposed when the pandemic tide went out. (Hello Zoom, Peloton..)
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Watch a swarm of drones autonomously track a human through a dense forest • The Verge

James Vincent:

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Scientists from China’s Zhejiang University have unveiled a drone swarm capable of navigating through a dense bamboo forest without human guidance.

The group of 10 palm-sized drones communicate with one another to stay in formation, sharing data collected by on-board depth-sensing cameras to map their surroundings. This method means that if the path in front of one drone is blocked, it can use information collected by its neighbors to plot a new route. The researchers note that this technique can also be used by the swarm to track a human walking through the same environment. If one drone loses sight of the target, others are able to pick up the trail.

In the future, write the scientists in a paper published in the journal Science Robotics, drone swarms like this could be used for disaster relief and ecological surveys.

“In natural disasters like earthquakes and floods, a swarm of drones can search, guide, and deliver emergency supplies to trapped people,” they write. “For example, in wildfires, agile multicopters can quickly collect information from a close view of the front line without the risk of human injury.”

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Sure, you could use it in natural disasters. I feel it might instead get used for surveillance and tracking – of criminals, the accused, the suspected.

But, also, this is inevitable.
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Every Bay Area house party • Astral Codex Ten

Scott Alexander:

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A man with a buzz-cut. His shirt had an incomprehensible symbol – his favorite band’s symbol? His company’s logo? A chaos magic sigil? and he was carrying a half-decayed slice of pizza.

“I’m Ramchandra,” he said. “I’m working for a fintech startup. Love to hear from anyone else in the business!”

“I’m Bob, good to meet you. Who do you work for?”

“You know ViraCoin?”

“No, tell me about them.”

“New crypto. You mine it by promoting about it. Once every eight minutes, a decentralized algorithm searches for tweets containing the word ‘ViraCoin’ with a positive sentiment score, weights them by number of likes, and then picks one at random to award a ViraCoin to.”

“Sounds…awful.”

“No, you don’t understand. This is just the first step. Once we make it super-big, we’ll introduce other things into the algorithm. Charities. Political causes. We’ll have millions of people competing to praise UNICEF in order to get that next million-dollar ViraCoin drop. If you think about it, all problems are caused by lack of awareness. We’re an at-scale solution to awareness. Solve that, and you solve poverty, inequality, racism…”

You wander off.

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But that is only the second annoying guest, and there are plenty more of them (they aren’t all crypto, don’t worry.)
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How much data does iPlayer use? More than BBC says! • The Big Tech Question

Barry Collins:

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The BBC has a support page for watching BBC iPlayer on mobile data. On that, it claims that “an hour-long TV programme will typically use 225MB of data.”

In my tests, that is a woeful underestimate.

I streamed a 30-minute episode of Here We Go over a 4G connection using the BBC iPlayer app for Android. In that short time, it used 411MB of data, which is around four times as much data as the BBC website suggested.

Therefore, be careful if you’re on a mobile data plan with a tight data cap, because you could find that watching shows on iPlayer whilst you’re out and about eats through a lot more data than you might expect.

It’s also worth noting that (on Android, at least) I couldn’t find any way of adjusting the streaming quality, so you’re pretty much stuck with whichever rate the iPlayer app decides. In my tests, the bitrate looked adaptive, which means the quality of the video is automatically altered depending on the available mobile data bandwidth. So, it is possible that some streaming sessions will use less data than I observed.

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Forewarned is forearmed. For a lot of people, that single program would be a significant proportion of their monthly data allowance.
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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: none notified

1 thought on “Start Up No.1794: “kill passwords” say Apple/Google/Microsoft, Facebook’s Australia blowup, tracked by drones, and more

  1. The kids may have gone back to school, but in the US it looks like all their work is now done on chrome books for better or worse (I think worse) simply because it’s easier for teachers to mark the work.

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