Start Up No.1804: the US’s desperate need for data privacy, writing about pedestrian deaths, ‘bionic reading’?, GOP v Google, and more

The minister responsible for media, Nadine Dorries, admitted illicitly sharing her Netflix password outside her house. Will she get cut off? CC-licensed photo by Stock Catalog on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. No, you’re on mute. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

We need to take back our privacy • The New York Times

The indispensable Zeynep Tufekci:


Surveillance made possible by minimally-regulated digital technologies could help law enforcement track down women who might seek abortions and medical providers who perform them in places where it would become criminalized. Women are urging one another to delete phone apps like period trackers that can indicate they are pregnant.

But frantic individual efforts to swat away digital intrusions will do too little. What’s needed, for all Americans, is a full legal and political reckoning with the reckless manner in which digital technology has been allowed to invade our lives. The collection, use and manipulation of electronic data must finally be regulated and severely limited. Only then can we comfortably enjoy all the good that can come from these technologies.

…Protections you think you have may not be as broad as you think. The confidentiality that federal health privacy law provides to conversations with a doctor doesn’t always apply to prescriptions. In 2020, Consumer Reports exposed that GoodRX, a popular drug discount and coupons service, was selling information on what medications people were searching or buying to Facebook, Google and other data marketing firms. GoodRX said it would stop, but there is no law against them, or any pharmacy, doing this.

That data becomes an even more powerful form of surveillance when it is combined with other data. A woman who regularly eats sushi and suddenly stops, or stops taking Pepto-Bismol, or starts taking vitamin B6 may be easily identified as someone following guidelines for pregnancy. If that woman doesn’t give birth she might find herself being questioned by the police, who may think she had an abortion. (Already, in some places, women who seek medical help after miscarriages have reported questioning to this effect.)

…our digital infrastructure has become the infrastructure of authoritarianism.

When I started saying this awhile back, many people would tell me that I was conflating the situation in China with that of Western countries where such surveillance is usually undertaken for commercial purposes and we have limits to what governments would want to do. I always thought: If you build it they will come for it. Criminalization of abortion may well be the first wide-scale test of this, but even if that doesn’t come to pass, we’re just biding our time.


In 1998 the US passed the DMCA – Digital Millennium Copyright Act – to protect copyright holders, but it has never passed anything to protect the online privacy of individuals.
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Why the media keeps botching car crash coverage • Slate

David Zipper:


On the evening of Nov. 13, Roy Saravia Alvarez was walking home along the sidewalk of West Glebe Road in Alexandria, Virginia. At around 8 p.m., the driver of a truck jumped the sidewalk while turning left, striking Saravia Alvarez and pinning the 46-year-old underneath the vehicle. The driver, later identified by authorities as Fredy Ortiz-Dominguez, remained in the truck, spinning its wheels and rocking it back and forth for nearly five minutes. A passerby stopped and told Ortiz-Dominguez to get out of his vehicle, but he did so only when police arrived. By then, Saravia Alvarez was dead.

We know these details because a television journalist chose to investigate. “I saw the Alexandria police tweet about it,” says Julie Carey, the Northern Virginia bureau chief of local TV station NBC4. But “the police report was terrible,” she says. The report stated that “the incident involved a single vehicle striking a pedestrian,” and that while the pedestrian died, “the driver of the vehicle remained at the scene and sustained no injuries.”

Faced with that vague report, Carey went to the crash site. “I could see skid marks on the sidewalk. When we found out that Saravia Alvarez wasn’t crossing the street, that changed the whole complexion of the story.” She said the police report “gave no indication that the driver was at fault, that the victim was just a pedestrian walking on the sidewalk.” Carey approached a nearby vape store, which offered her security camera footage of the collision. “He played it for us on a big screen in the store,” she says.

NBC4’s story about the crash aired on Nov. 15, two days after it happened. In a follow-up segment, Carey noted that an autopsy indicated that Saravia Alvarez had survived the initial impact of the collision, and that the rocking of the truck likely killed him.

This reporting is notable because it was exceptional. To find out the basics of what happened, Carey had to examine skid marks and obtain security footage, because that information existed nowhere else.


This is a terrific piece about the framing of pedestrians being killed by car and truck drivers: how the implication tends to be the vehicle took on a life of its own, and/or the foolish pedestrian erred in being there.
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This viral ‘Bionic Reading’ tool for iPhone and Mac will blow your mind • iMore

Stephen Warwick:


new viral ‘Bionic Reading’ tool is taking the internet by storm because it could completely change the way you read and consume content.

Bionic Reading was created by Swiss developer Renato Casutt. The tool is described as “a new method facilitating the reading process by guiding the eyes through text with artificial fixation points.” In short, this tool makes different parts of words stand out, only highlighting the initial letters and letting your brain do the rest.

Still don’t get it? Let the picture below explain, reading first the left side, then the right. If the tool works for you, you should find the right-hand side much easier to read.

Source: Bionic Reading

Understandably, Bionic Reading is going absolutely rival on the web right now, a Tweet of the above picture has nearly more than 10,000 retweets and more than 56,000 likes in less than 24 hours.

The Bionic Reading API already exists online as a tool you can use to convert text, but it’s also already available on both the iPhone and the Mac. Two iPhone apps, Reeder 5 and lire, as well as the Mac app Fiery Feeds (also an RSS reader) have incorporated the technology on both Mac and iPhone, giving developers a look at how Bionic Reading could completely revolutionize the way we read content on devices like Apple’s best iPhones, the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13, as well as Macs and iPads.


One certainly feels like it’s easier to read the tweaked text than normal one. I’d love to see a proper examination of this.
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GOP-led legislation would force breakup of Google’s ad business • WSJ

Keach Hagey:


A bipartisan group of senators led by Utah Republican Mike Lee introduced legislation Thursday that would take aim at conflicts of interest in the advertising technology industry and force Google to break up its dominant online-ad business.

The bill, co-sponsored by Sens. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), is among the most aggressive of the legislative proposals circulating in Congress that aim to rein in the power of Big Tech.

The Competition and Transparency in Digital Advertising Act would prohibit companies processing more than $20bn in digital ad transactions annually from participating in more than one part of the digital advertising ecosystem.

That would directly impact Google, a unit of Alphabet, which is the dominant player at every link in the chain that connects buyers and sellers of online advertising. Google operates tools that help companies sell and purchase ads, as well as the auction houses, or exchanges, where transactions happen in split seconds.

Under the legislation, Google wouldn’t be able to stay in all those businesses.

Similar legislation is expected to be introduced in the House as soon as Thursday, led by Republican Ken Buck of Colorado and Democrat Pramila Jayapal of Washington, congressional aides said.

“When you have Google simultaneously serving as a seller and a buyer and running an exchange, that gives them an unfair, undue advantage in the marketplace, one that doesn’t necessarily reflect the value they are providing,” said Mr. Lee in an interview. “When a company can wear all these hats simultaneously, it can engage in conduct that harms everyone.”


Google’s 2021 advertising network revenues was $31.7bn, so this looks very carefully targeted. Facebook would also be affected. No guarantee this will make any progress, but it would be a hell of a change to US antitrust law interpretation to say that because a company’s big in multiple parts of the same ecosystem, that it can’t be big any more.
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GOP senators’ private meeting with Google turns tense over email bias claims • POLITICO

Emily Birnbaum and Marianne Levine:


The Senate Republican Steering Committee, the policy arm of the Senate GOP, had invited Google’s chief legal officer, Kent Walker, to discuss a recent study that found the company has disproportionately filtered Republican lawmakers’ emails into hidden spam folders compared to emails from Democratic lawmakers. Walker said there is no bias in how Google deals with spam.

The group lunch grew unusually tense, according to three people familiar with the meeting, granted anonymity to discuss private matters. “The lunch was spirited,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), one of the more vocal attendees. “Google deflected, refused to provide any data, repeatedly refused to answer direct questions.”

The senators’ furor is part of the broader conservative crusade against the major tech companies, who they claim routinely stifle right-wing speech. The companies, including Facebook and Google, have denied these allegations, while researchers have found that there is no evidence that the social media platforms disproportionately take action against content from conservatives.

The meeting’s host was Republican Florida Sen. Rick Scott, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. Several NRSC staffers and Republican political strategists were in attendance, an unusual dynamic given the traditional Capitol Hill separation between policymaking and politics.

One senator who attended the meeting, granted anonymity to describe the gathering, said it was “short of hostile, but confrontational.” GOP lawmakers have laid into Google at public hearings, but the senator said the private meeting was even more heated. “They want to come and explain and dispute and do a tutorial, just as I expected they would do,” the senator said. “But their problem was that we weren’t confined to five minutes or congeniality.”

The researchers behind the North Carolina State University study have denied that Google’s filtering is related to political discrimination, concluding it has more to do with factors like past user behaviour.


Everything becomes a point of leverage, whether or not it’s related to the truth.
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Justice Department pledges not to charge security researchers with hacking crimes • The Verge

Adi Robertson:


The US Department of Justice says it won’t subject “good-faith security research” to charges under anti-hacking laws, acknowledging long-standing concerns around the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). Prosecutors must also avoid charging people for simply violating a website’s terms of service — including minor rule-breaking like embellishing a dating profile — or using a work-related computer for personal tasks.

The new DOJ policy attempts to allay fears about the CFAA’s broad and ambiguous scope following a 2021 Supreme Court ruling that encouraged reading the law more narrowly. The ruling warned that government prosecutors’ earlier interpretation risked criminalizing a “breathtaking amount of commonplace computer activity,” laying out several hypothetical examples that the DOJ now promises it won’t prosecute. That change is paired with a safe harbor for researchers carrying out “good-faith testing, investigation, and/or correction of a security flaw or vulnerability.” The new rules take effect immediately, replacing old guidelines issued in 2014.

“The policy clarifies that hypothetical CFAA violations that have concerned some courts and commentators are not to be charged,” says a DOJ press release.

…The policy doesn’t settle all criticisms of the CFAA, like its potential for disproportionately long prison sentences. It doesn’t make the underlying law any less vague since it only affects how prosecutors interpret it. The DOJ also warns that the security research exception isn’t a “free pass” for probing networks. Someone who found a bug and extorted the system’s owner using that knowledge, for instance, could be charged for performing that research in bad faith. Even with these limits, though, the rulemaking is a pledge to avoid slapping punitive anti-hacking charges on anyone who uses a computer system in a way its owner doesn’t like.


Overdue. But welcome.
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More subprime borrowers are missing loan payments • WSJ

AnnaMaria Andriotis:


Consumers with low credit scores are falling behind on payments for car loans, personal loans and credit cards, a sign that the healthiest consumer lending environment on record in the U.S. is coming to an end.

The share of subprime credit cards and personal loans that are at least 60 days late is rising faster than normal, according to credit-reporting firm Equifax Inc. In March, those delinquencies rose month over month for the eighth time in a row, nearing their prepandemic levels.

Rising delinquencies were inevitable following their decline during the pandemic, many lenders and analysts said. Even so, the increase is getting attention from investors partly because the Federal Reserve, facing the highest inflation since the early 1980s, is embarking on what is expected to be the sharpest series of interest-rate rises in years. Higher loan delinquency figures can indicate stress on the part of consumers whose spending is a significant driver of economic activity.

Fears that rising rates will throw the economy into recession have fueled the worst start of the year for stocks in decades. A poor earnings season for major US retail chains has intensified those concerns this week, prompting large declines in major retail shares and sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average to its steepest drop of the year Wednesday.

Delinquencies on subprime car loans and leases hit an all-time high in February, based on Equifax’s tracking that goes back to 2007.

Many people, including those with less-than-perfect credit, paid off debts and built up savings during the pandemic, a surprising outcome considering that lenders at first thought borrowers would default en masse when Covid-19 hit. The government’s response, including stimulus payments and child tax credits, boosted many families’ financial health.

But now many of those benefits have run out. Subprime borrowers, who sometimes have lower incomes or less savings, are being hit hard. Inflation, running near its highest point in four decades, is also forcing many households to choose between paying for essentials and paying their monthly loans.


Subprime was the canary in the coalmine for the Great Recession, but this feels different. Possibly it’s the vehicle loans business – and hence the car business – that’s going to get hit.

And in the US they won’t even try a windfall tax on the oil companies, which looks inevitable in the UK some time in the next few weeks.
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A new Omicron variant, BA.2.12.1, has taken over in Massachusetts. Here’s what you need to know • The Boston Globe

Kay Lazar:


The virus that causes COVID-19 didn’t change much in the early days of the pandemic. Then the number of mutations started increasing, and scientists began using an alphabet soup of letters and numbers to distinguish them.

But nothing prepared them for the dizzying array of strains that the mighty Omicron variant has been spitting out.

As one of the newest Omicron variants, BA.2.12.1, overtakes its predecessors, here’s what you need to know.

Q: What is this BA.2.12.1 that is racing across the country?
First things first. The original Omicron variant, called B.1.1.529, emerged in South Africa last year and spread quickly around the world. By late January, another Omicron subvariant, BA.1.1, already was dominant in the United States.

Fast forward to this spring. The BA.2.12.1 subvariant from the fast-moving Omicron lineage was first detected in New York in March, along with its sibling, BA.2.1. These two subvariants are estimated to spread 23% to 27% faster than their predecessor, the BA.2 variant. Consider that in early March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that BA.2 accounted for about 26% of all cases in the US, and BA.2.12.1 accounted for less than 1 percent. By May 7, BA.2 had roughly doubled its prevalence, to about 56% of all cases — but BA.2.12.1 had exploded and now accounts for 43% of the country’s COVID cases. (It’s about 40% of New England cases, and the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard estimates that it has taken over in Massachusetts, accounting for nearly 70% of cases.)

Q: Will BA.2.12.1 elbow out its sibling for top spot?
Scientists tracking Omicron say that’s already happening. Yet its extraordinary speed, fueling another rapid rise in cases, is puzzling researchers because its structure is not all that different from its predecessor’s. “It’s almost like having somebody who runs a 2:30 marathon changing their sneakers and all of a sudden running a two-hour marathon. It doesn’t make sense,” said Dr. Jacob Lemieux, an infectious disease specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital, who is also coleader of the viral variants program at the Massachusetts Consortium on Pathogen Readiness.


The increasing infectivity of SARS-Cov-2 is stunning; it’s gone from very ordinary to extraordinary in the course of a couple of years. In the UK, BA.2 is a long way behind Omicron.
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Nadine Dorries admits to sharing her Netflix password with four other households • Mirror Online

Aletha Adu:


Nadine Dorries admitted to sharing her Netflix account password with four other households in a bizarre Commons hearing.

The Culture Secretary said four other people including her mum have access to her account in breach of its terms and conditions.

Netflix prohibits users from password sharing. But she only learned of this today, speaking to the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee.

She told MPs: “My mum has access to my account, the kids do. I have Netflix but there are four other people who can use my Netflix account in different parts of the country.” Laughing, she added: “Am I not supposed to do that?”

The DCMS permanent secretary Sarah Healey, sitting next to her in front of MPs added: “So many people watch it in my house I had to pay for the more expensive one.”

Ms Healey reportedly later told the Culture Secretary password sharing was not allowed on the service.

The Commons committee also quizzed the Culture Secretary on the future of Channel 4 after the Government announced plans to go ahead with its privatisation.


Netflix is blunt that “people who do not live in your household will need to use their own account to watch Netflix”. It can then demand that devices outside the household are “verified” (details on the same page). Healey is referring to the higher-tier account which allows five different profiles, but that’s not about location.

So yes, it looks like Dorries is indeed breaching the T&Cs for Netflix. Who’d like to be the brave person from customer relations making the phone call to tell her? Or are we in Elon Musk territory here?
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Defiant Chinese netizens skirt lockdown censorship using blockchain • Financial Times

Eleanor Olcott and Gloria Li:


In late April, Shanghai’s Tongji University students found rotting pork inside a meal box delivered several weeks into the city’s Omicron outbreak.

The maggot-infested meal struck a chord with the disgruntled Shanghai public weeks into an indefinite lockdown without access to basic food and medical supplies.

One student penned an angry response that quickly became a symbol of silent resistance, spreading across social media platforms. Censors deleted reposts of his outburst on the microblogging site Weibo, but the expletive-laden message was immortalised online after being turned into a small piece of digital art preserved on the blockchain.

The incident spawned a series of non-fungible tokens, a form of digital artwork, which have spread during the Shanghai lockdown as a way to preserve criticism of the city’s Omicron outbreak beyond the reach of censors.

China’s censors have been at the forefront of the information battle during the country’s worst coronavirus outbreak in two years. They have systematically erased critical articles and posts on mainstream social media sites about the heavy burden of the strict lockdown measures.

But the growing popularity of blockchain technology has presented a fresh challenge to the country’s censorship regime. Once data is sent to a blockchain network, it cannot be deleted or altered by higher authorities.

…“Censors cannot delete information from the blockchain,” said Barney Tan, head of the school of information systems and technology management at UNSW Sydney.


A real use for the blockchain to get around censorsh—


But Tan noted that even though censors cannot scrub out information from the blockchain, “they can still block access to it” by preventing people from sharing links on social media.


Oh well. But: it’s better than nothing, and it might at least exist outside the censorship space.

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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

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