Start Up No.1809: who does mass surveillance really protect?, fusion’s quixotic quest, Madonna’s NFT flops, and more


To absolutely nobody’s surprise, Britain’s government announced a windfall tax on oil and gas producers – and may do the same for electricity generators. CC-licensed photo by Richard Child on Flickr.

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A selection of 11 links for you. Ready, steady, go. I’m @charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.


The Buffalo attack is a reminder that mass surveillance doesn’t protect us • Jacobin

Branko Marcetic:

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We know that under the NSA’s mass surveillance, the US government can look at almost everything you and I do on the Internet. We know the FBI has rampantly and illegally tapped into this database as part of its vast domestic spying operation often targeting black activists, partnering as well with private data brokers to amass a vast trove of geolocation and social media data on the US public. We know the CIA has its own legally dubious mass surveillance program that it’s operating at home. And we’ve just found out ICE has now become a de facto domestic spying agency through its access to the many, many public and business records we rack up in our daily lives. This is all really just the tip of the iceberg.

Yet once again, we have another horrific attack, this one in Buffalo where a white supremacist shot to death ten people just days after posting his racist manifesto online on Google Docs.

The devil’s bargain we were forced into demanded we trade away our privacy for the sake of security. Yet the massive database of intimate details about our lives that government agents can track and comb through seems yet again to have failed to guarantee the latter — even though this attacker had recently taunted and threatened law enforcement online and made threats to his school, prompting a visit from state police.

It’s a serious question about what purpose exactly mass surveillance programs serve. Take the NSA’s unfathomably vast mass surveillance system, for example. When the NSA’s spying powers were under threat following the Edward Snowden leaks, its former chief Keith Alexander famously claimed its surveillance had foiled fifty-four terrorist attacks, a claim soon uncritically repeated by a host of congresspeople and media outlets.

Yet when pressed, the only example the government would give of the program’s controversial phone metadata collection program actually being central to foiling a terrorist plot was that of a Somali cab driver in San Diego sending $8,500 to terrorist group al-Shabaab. Alexander soon admitted under oath that not all of those fifty-four plots were actually plots, they weren’t all thwarted, and only thirteen were actually connected to the United States.

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For clarity, Marcetic is writing about the previous mass shooting, which targeted black shoppers. The latest one targeted children. It’s hard to keep up.
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North Sea oil and gas producers hit back at Sunak’s £5bn windfall tax • Financial Times

George Parker, Nathalie Thomas, Chris Giles and Jim Pickard:

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After having repeatedly rejected Labour’s call for a windfall tax, Sunak announced a 25% “energy profit levy” that will increase the rate paid by North Sea producers from 40% to 65%, raising £5bn this year.

The chancellor caused dismay in the sector by announcing in the small print that the windfall tax would remain until December 2025 — unless oil and gas prices “return to historically more normal levels” in the meantime.

“Today’s announcement is not a one-off tax — it is a multiyear proposal,” BP said. “Naturally we will now need to look at the impact of both the new levy and the tax relief on our North Sea investment plans.”

One senior government figure said Bernard Looney, BP chief executive, was partly to blame for the move, after he said this month that a windfall levy would not affect his company’s investment plans.

The government official argued that Johnson felt he could no longer hold the line against a windfall tax after the BP boss’s comments. “It was a game-changer.”

Meanwhile the chancellor also said he was considering “appropriate steps” to target “extraordinary profits” made by electricity generators. A windfall tax on that sector could bring in a further £3bn-£4bn.

…Samuel Tombs of Pantheon Macroeconomics described the package as “hefty” and said it gave the Bank of England more reason to raise interest rates this year.

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Told you this was coming. You could see it on the way from space. But an interest rate rise would not be good news for anyone, given that this is not demand-driven inflation.
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DuckDuckGo browser allows Microsoft trackers due to search agreement • Bleeping Computer

Lawrence Abrams:

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DuckDuckGo is a search engine that prides itself on its privacy by not tracking your searches or your behaviour while performing searches. Furthermore, instead of building user profiles to display interest-based advertisements, DuckDuckGo will use contextual advertisements from partners, like Ads by Microsoft.

While DuckDuckGo does not store any personal identifiers with your search queries, Microsoft advertising may track your IP address and other information when clicking on an ad link for “accounting purposes” but it is not associated with a user advertising profile.

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Included by popular request. I’m puzzled, though perhaps not surprised, by all the online noise about this. The tracking that everyone’s doing their nut about is not off the search engine – as the above makes clear. Instead, it’s in DDG’s separate, optional browser, which I’d wager only a tiny number of people use. If you click an advert in the search results, Microsoft gets some details, but it’s not for an advertising profile – Microsoft sold its ad business years ago.

Conclusion: not everything discovered by a security researcher is momentous.
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The quest for fusion energy • Inference

Daniel Jassby:

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In recent years, a steady flow of press releases from nuclear fusion research projects has hailed breakthrough advances and new record yields. Despite the relentlessly optimistic tone of these announcements and the repeated claims that the prospects for commercialization have never looked brighter, the stark reality is that practical fusion-based electric power remains a distant prospect. It is likely unachievable anytime in the next half a century.

Even then, it may still remain beyond our grasp.

…the fusion energy gain, Q, of a reacting plasma configuration is commonly described as the ratio of the fusion energy output released in a pulse, Ef, to the external heating energy deposited in the plasma during that pulse, Eh.

…Scientific feasibility, or fusion energy breakeven, is most often described as the demonstration of Q = 1 or greater. Net electric power production requires a Q of at least 5.

«

The best reported Q by “torus” fusion is perhaps 0.67. “Laser” systems which blast tiny pellets have perhaps produced Q = 3, but nobody’s quite sure, and it didn’t last.

I think this might be the last time I need to link to anything about fusion. (OK, it probably won’t be, but it should be.) Jassby is a retired research physicist who worked at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory. We’re stuck with renewables and fission, it seems.
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Amazon Astro review: living with Amazon’s home robot • The Verge

Jennifer Pattison Tuohy:

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Amazon’sAmazon’s household robot is exactly what I expected, but it’s not what I wanted and it definitely isn’t what anyone asked for. Instead of a multitasking mimicry of me that can empty the dishwasher, pick up my kids’ shoes, feed the dog, and clean the house, Amazon’s first attempt at a home bot is simply a souped-up Echo Show on wheels.

Granted, the $1,449.99 (or $999.99 for early adopters who get invites for the chance to buy it) Astro has some impressive wheels, which let the 17-inch tall robot nimbly follow you around the house while playing music or streaming your favorite show. It also has two cameras that it uses to find people and places in your home to deliver items, reminders, or timers. It can act as a security guard and patrol your home when paired with a Ring subscription, and it can fart and burp. In short, the Astro does everything Amazon’s smart home products and services already do — only on wheels.

…Like a regular Echo smart display, you can ask Astro to play music, set timers, stream an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer on Hulu, lock the front door, or call mom for a video chat (Amazon’s own Alexa calling only — there’s no Zoom support). What’s different is that it can do all of these things on the move. As I’m roaming around the house picking up shoes, making dinner, and feeding the dog, the Astro can come with me, keeping me entertained or chatting to my mom on a video call. It was also surprisingly handy to have it roll up beside me when I was sitting on the couch, giving me easy access to music or movies on a hands-free, somewhat personal device.

But if you already have a few Echo speakers and displays in your home, the utility of one following you around is more novelty than necessity.

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A face search engine anyone can use is alarmingly accurate • The New York Times

Kashmir Hill:

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For $29.99 a month, a website called PimEyes offers a potentially dangerous superpower from the world of science fiction: the ability to search for a face, finding obscure photos that would otherwise have been as safe as the proverbial needle in the vast digital haystack of the internet.

A search takes mere seconds. You upload a photo of a face, check a box agreeing to the terms of service and then get a grid of photos of faces deemed similar, with links to where they appear on the internet. The New York Times used PimEyes on the faces of a dozen Times journalists, with their consent, to test its powers.

PimEyes found photos of every person, some that the journalists had never seen before, even when they were wearing sunglasses or a mask, or their face was turned away from the camera, in the image used to conduct the search.

PimEyes found one reporter dancing at an art museum event a decade ago, and crying after being proposed to, a photo that she didn’t particularly like but that the photographer had decided to use to advertise his business on Yelp. A tech reporter’s younger self was spotted in an awkward crush of fans at the Coachella music festival in 2011. A foreign correspondent appeared in countless wedding photos, evidently the life of every party, and in the blurry background of a photo taken of someone else at a Greek airport in 2019. A journalist’s past life in a rock band was unearthed, as was another’s preferred summer camp getaway.

Unlike Clearview AI, a similar facial recognition tool available only to law enforcement, PimEyes does not include results from social media sites. The sometimes surprising images that PimEyes surfaced came instead from news articles, wedding photography pages, review sites, blogs and pornography sites. Most of the matches for the dozen journalists’ faces were correct.

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All these powerful technologies are coming more and more into the realm of the everyday. And they’ll become routine for police forces and others. This genie is long out of the bottle.
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Twitter rescinded job offer points to turmoil as Musk deal nears • Bloomberg

Kurt Wagner:

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Last Thursday, a tech worker in Palo Alto woke up in the morning thinking that in just four days, he’d start his dream job. The man had recently accepted an offer from Twitter for a media partnerships position based out of an office in Mexico.

In preparation for the new gig, he quit his job in the Bay Area, gave up his Palo Alto lease and arranged six months of temporary housing in Mexico City. That afternoon he got a call from Twitter HR. He thought it was about the delivery of a new, company-issued laptop.

Instead, the Twitter rep told him his job offer was being rescinded due to the company’s “current situation.”

“My whole world just got destroyed in 25 seconds,” said the man, who asked not to be identified, citing concerns over future job prospects. “It wasn’t just any random job. I celebrated. I called my dad.” He said that before getting the offer, he had been applying to work at Twitter for years.

The “current situation” at Twitter is not good. The company is bracing for a takeover from Elon Musk, the world’s richest man and the service’s most polarizing user, whose $44bn deal to acquire the social media site was approved by the board but is still far from closing. In the interim, Musk has been openly criticizing Twitter’s product, its executives and its business. At times, it has looked like Musk wants to torpedo his own deal, and many Twitter employees have been publicly vocal about their disdain for the billionaire and his rabid followers.

…The man who accepted the Twitter position in Mexico was able to get his old job back from his previous employer, but he admitted that he’s still trying to “reshape” his life, which includes figuring out what to do with a six-month lease in another country.

“I told [Twitter’s] lawyers ‘don’t talk to me for the future. Don’t consider me for anything for the future,’” he said. “I don’t ever want to hear the word Twitter.”

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“Tough to forge” Australian digital driver’s license is… easy to forge • Ars Technica

Dan Goodin:

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Australia’s DDLs [digital driving licences] require an iOS or Android app that displays each person’s credentials. The same app allows police and venues to verify that the credentials are authentic. Features designed to confirm the ID is authentic and current include:

• Animated NSW Government logo
• Display of the last refreshed date and time
• A QR code expires and reloads
• A hologram that moves when the phone is tilted
• A watermark that matches the license photo
• Address details that don’t require scrolling.

The technique for overcoming these safeguards is surprisingly simple. The key is the ability to brute-force the PIN that encrypts the data. Since it’s only four digits long, there are only 10,000 possible combinations. Using publicly available scripts and a commodity computer, someone can learn the correct combination in a matter of a few minutes, as this video, showing the process on an iPhone, demonstrates.

Once a fraudster gets access to someone’s encrypted DDL license data—either with permission, by stealing a copy stored in an iPhone backup, or through remote compromise—the brute force gives them the ability to read and modify any of the data stored on the file.

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A four-digit encryption PIN in the 21st century? Four? Digits?
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NFT auctions from Beeple, Madonna flop amid crypto crash • NY Post

Lydia Moynihan:

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Last spring, the little-known crypto artist Beeple sold an NFT for an eye-popping $69m. This month, he revealed he’d been working with Madonna for a year to create a trio of racy NFTs that depicted the “Material Girl” giving birth to a tree, a centipede, and butterflies.

They sold for $135,000, $346,000 and $146,000, respectively.

“It was unexpectedly low,” Nick Rose, founder and CEO of NFT platform Ethernity Chain, told The Post.

The flop wasn’t unusual, however, amid the carnage that lately has engulfed so-called NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, which are unique digital assets on the blockchain that are often used for art. Last March, Bridge Oracle CEO Sina Estavi bought an NFT of Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey’s first tweet for $2.9 million, calling it the “Mona Lisa of the digital world.” Last month, he scrapped an auction to resell it after the highest bid came in below $14,000.

“This has been fueled by ridiculously inflated cryptocurrency prices and hysterical bidding,” Jeff Bell, CEO of LegalShield, a legal protection firm for consumers, told The Post. “This is no different than the Gold Rush or the dot-com bubble where people get ahead of themselves — everyone wants to get rich quick.”

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Forget it Jake, it’s ChiNFTown.
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What is the meaning of the line ‘Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown’? • Quora

Ben Austin:

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the key to the plot is the line just before the titular line that everyone quotes, “forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Most people can barely hear it, even though it is the last line in the movie by our fallen hero, Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes, because it’s said in a whisper.

JAKE GITTES: (under his breath): “As little as possible.”

Took me a long time to figure it out, but this is why Robert Towne is such a great writer, and Chinatown considered his best screenplay. You get new meanings to the film each time you see it, and I’ve seen it at least 20 times.

So back to our show – why “forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown”? And what does “as little as possible” mean?

It all relates to Jake Gittes, long before he was in his current job as “private detective,” when he worked for the Los Angeles Police in Chinatown. He worked with Lou Escobar, the police captain who takes control at the end of the film.

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Now then: I quoted the “forget it, Jake, it’s Chinatown” line yesterday in relation to NFTs, and in order to make sure I quoted it correctly, I looked it up, and found myself at this Quora page. (You know Quora. Answers to questions.)

If you’ve seen the film, I highly recommend this explanation of what that line means, and how it ties together with what we’ve seen earlier. I haven’t watched the film 20 times, but it might be getting into double digits, and I still hadn’t picked up on the point Austin makes.

If you haven’t seen Chinatown – it’s on the streaming services. Rectify your mistake at once.
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Tom Cruise runs. But is he any good at it? • ESPN

Ryan Hockensmith:

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In 2018, Tom Cruise finally joined Instagram, and fans sure felt the need for speed: He picked up 550,000 followers in less than an hour. Now he’s up to 6.5 million followers, and they’re greeted by the actor’s self-assessment of his own career in his bio. He could have gone with “Three-time Oscar nominee,” or “Sold $10 billion worth of movie tickets.”

But instead, he picked: “Actor, producer, running in movies since 1981.”

It’s a winking, self-aware nod to this much-memed chapter of his Hollywood career. He always gets the rogue bad guy with the rogue nuclear codes from the rogue country, and he does it in a sprint. By one running blog’s count, he’s run in 44 of his 52 movies, and that includes two running scenes in his newest movie, “Top Gun: Maverick,” which opens this week nationwide. A quick reminder: Tom Cruise is 59 years old, the same age as Wilford Brimley when he was chasing Mitch McDeere in “The Firm.”

But that raises the question… Is Tom Cruise actually a good runner?

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You might think it’s movie trickery. But.. what if it isn’t? ESPN convenes an amazing panel of real runners who analyse how his film running has changed over the years, and whether he’s just a slow person being made to look fast, or.. someone who is actually fast?

Can confirm, by the way, that he runs in the most recently released film, Top Gun: Maverick. (Thanks Ravi for the link.)
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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.1809: who does mass surveillance really protect?, fusion’s quixotic quest, Madonna’s NFT flops, and more

  1. I understand and respect what you say about the difference between Duck Duck Go’s browser and search engine. They may well be separate products and the browser may be relatively inconsequential.

    But when your product… your entire reason for being is all about privacy, to offer an adjacent commercial product which undermines that message is bordering on reckless.

    Trust in this context is such a fragile thing.

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