Start Up No.1857: Twitter hit by ex-security chief’s claims, why Google research is a bad idea, Europe’s spyware boom, and more

The pitch-shifted sound of a black hole in the Perseus cluster truly is the spookiest thing you’ll hear this week. CC-licensed photo by NASA Hubble Space Telescope on Flickr.

You can sign up to receive each day’s Start Up post by email. You’ll need to click a confirmation link, so no spam.

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

Twitter whistleblower Peiter “Mudge” Zatko raises concerns over security threats at platform • CNN

Donie O’Sullivan, Clare Duffy and Brian Fung:


Twitter has major security problems that pose a threat to its own users’ personal information, to company shareholders, to national security, and to democracy, according to an explosive whistleblower disclosure obtained exclusively by CNN and The Washington Post.

The disclosure, sent last month to Congress and federal agencies, paints a picture of a chaotic and reckless environment at a mismanaged company that allows too many of its staff access to the platform’s central controls and most sensitive information without adequate oversight. It also alleges that some of the company’s senior-most executives have been trying to cover up Twitter’s serious vulnerabilities, and that one or more current employees may be working for a foreign intelligence service.

The whistleblower, who has agreed to be publicly identified, is Peiter “Mudge” Zatko, who was previously the company’s head of security, reporting directly to the CEO. Zatko further alleges that Twitter’s leadership has misled its own board and government regulators about its security vulnerabilities, including some that could allegedly open the door to foreign spying or manipulation, hacking and disinformation campaigns.

The whistleblower also alleges Twitter does not reliably delete users’ data after they cancel their accounts, in some cases because the company has lost track of the information, and that it has misled regulators about whether it deletes the data as it is required to do. The whistleblower also says Twitter executives don’t have the resources to fully understand the true number of bots on the platform, and were not motivated to.


Bet there were a few champagne bottles popping in Elon Musk’s office at this news. Though it doesn’t materially fit into their dispute – about how many bots there are on Twitter – it’s obvious that any halfway competent lawyer will be able to wrangle Zatko’s complaint into a narrative about a badly run company. Which isn’t hard, because Twitter famously is a badly run company.
unique link to this extract

Google search is quietly damaging democracy • WIRED

Francesca Tripodi:


If one were to look up “Washington Times Antifa Evidence,” the top return (as of the time of this writing) is the original article with the headline “Facial Recognition Identifies Extremists Storming the Capitol.” Underneath, Google summarizes an inaccurate argument, highlighting that the ones identified as the extremists were antifa. Perpetuating these falsehoods has long-lasting effects, especially since those in my study described Google as a neutral purveyor of news and information. According to an April 2021 poll, more than 20% of Republican voters still blame antifa for the violence that transpired that day.

The trouble is, many users still rely on Google to fact-check information, and doing so might strengthen their belief in false claims. This is not only because Google sometimes delivers misleading or incorrect information, but also because people I spoke with for my research believed that Google’s top search returns were “more important,” “more relevant,” and “more accurate,” and they trusted Google more than the news—they considered it to be a more objective source. Many said the Knowledge Graph might be the only source they consult, but few realized how much Google has changed—that it is not the search engine it once was. In an effort to “do their own research,” people tend to search for something they saw on Facebook or other social media platforms, but because of the way content has been tagged and categorized, they are actually falling into an information trap .

This leads to what I refer to in my book, The Propagandists’ Playbook, as the “IKEA effect of misinformation.” Business scholars have found that when consumers build their own merchandise, they value the product more than an already assembled item of similar quality—they feel more competent and therefore happier with their purchase. Conspiracy theorists and propagandists are drawing on the same strategy, providing a tangible, do-it-yourself quality to the information they provide.


Explains why “do your own research” is so dangerous.
unique link to this extract

The spookiest sound in astronomy • The Atlantic

Marina Koren:


Ah, the sounds of late summer. Pass a pool, and hear the happy yelps of kids splashing around. Sit outside at night, and bask in the soothing buzz of cicadas hidden in the trees. Open the internet, and hear the terrifying howling of outer space.

Thank NASA for that last one. The space agency recently shared a clip online of sound coming from a cluster of galaxies about 250 million light-years from Earth. NASA, always eager to show off its capacity to produce cosmic wonder, presented the audio enthusiastically, as if to say, Wow, check out this cool thing! And although the transformation of space phenomena into something detectable by our human ears certainly seems like an exciting exercise, the reality is—well, have a listen.

The noise sounds like a ghostly wail, or the horror-movie music just before a jump scare, or, as several people have pointed out, the cries of countless souls trapped in eternal darkness. Just nothing good; less awe-ful, and more awful. Does space really sound this scary?

The answer is, sort of. And there is a perfectly horror-free explanation for it. Some parts of space are full of hot gas, including the medium between the distant, sparkly galaxies huddled together. In 2002, when a NASA space telescope named Chandra studied the Perseus cluster, it detected wavelike movements in the gas, propagating outward like ripples in water. The ripples, scientists determined, were produced by the supermassive black hole in the cluster’s central galaxy. When the black hole sucks in cosmic material, it burps some out—explosive behavior that pushes around the gas nearby. The resulting waves, astronomers concluded, were sound waves, with a frequency much too deep for any of us to hear.

It wasn’t until recently that Kimberly Arcand, Chandra’s visualization scientist, decided to shift those impossibly low cosmic notes into the audible range. She wanted the public, and particularly those who are blind or have reduced vision, to be able to experience the wonder of the Perseus cluster with senses besides sight. Arcand told me she was inspired by Wanda Díaz-Merced, a blind astrophysicist who developed a program to convert sunlight into sound so that she could hear a solar eclipse sweeping across the United States in 2017. Arcand extracted the sound data from Chandra’s observations and then, with some mathematical work and sound editing, brought them into the range of human hearing, a couple hundred quadrillion times higher than the original frequency. The result: a spooky, cosmic wail.


It truly is like she says – souls trapped in a weird hellhole.
unique link to this extract

Right-wing groups are exploiting OSINT to spread propaganda in India • Rest of World

Nilesh Christopher:


A scan of @thehawkeyex’s viral tweets includes several unsubstantiated claims and conspiracy theories. For instance, @thehawkeyex has claimed that the music-streaming app Spotify is a leftist propaganda platform in India, based on the cherry-picked interpretation of podcast titles. The account also shared conspiratorial threads citing a belief that the Ford Foundation is a plant by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operating and funding anti-India organizations. In some threads, @thehawkeyex cites documents, pamphlets, speeches, or tweets, presenting them as indisputable evidence of a grand conspiracy to destabilize the country. They have targeted Alt News, a prominent Indian fact-checking organization, and claimed to trace the organization’s public corporate filings, lobbing an allegation that its founders were involved in tax evasion. The account alleged that Pieter Friedrich, an activist and author critical of Hindu nationalism, was “running a non-stop unrest [campaign] in India.” Friedrich was reached for comment but did not respond.

Joyojeet Pal, a professor at the University of Michigan, and Aditya Kadam, a research intern, ran a forensic analysis of the reach and engagement of @thehawkeyex and found that all the quoted mentions of the tweets from the handle are from pro-BJP sources that appear to be making an effort to sway public opinion.


Not clear whether this is paid for in some way by the BJP. Probably not; with just under 100k followers, this account probably isn’t making much difference in the real world. And yet, it can feel like it’s making a difference online.
unique link to this extract

Snap scraps development on flying selfie Pixy drone • WSJ

Meghan Bobrowsky:


Snap Chief Executive Evan Spiegel recently told staff during a regular question-and-answer session of the decision around the Pixy drone. The effort to halt further development of the project is part of broader reprioritization of company resources, Mr. Spiegel told staff, the people said.

Pixy is a small drone that takes off and lands in the user’s hand. It was introduced at the end of April during Snap’s annual partner summit with a $230 starting price. When it launched, Mr. Spiegel said it planned to sell a limited quantity of them.

Snap will continue to sell the current iteration of Pixy, according to a person familiar with the matter. As of [last] Thursday morning, it was available for online purchase.

The company behind the social-media platform Snapchat has been particularly hard hit in recent months from disruptions in the digital advertising market, posting its weakest-ever quarterly sales growth in July. Shares tumbled almost 40% on those results.

The company also still is grappling with changes Apple Inc. introduced to its privacy policy, denting Snap’s ad business and that of other social-media companies. Snap shares have slumped more than 80% over the past year.


Just collecting some missed links, for completeness: Snap keeps trying hardware (glasses, drone) and then keeps giving up. Is the idea that it’ll achieve liftoff at some point? Perhaps if it focussed on something that’s a rising and popular space, in the way that Apple did with the iPod in 2001 (music = popular, MP3 players = emerging space)? Drones only seem to be good for war. A lot of money has been lost trying to get consumers interested in them.
unique link to this extract

Spyware scandals are ripping through Europe • WIRED

Morgan Meaker:


Over the past 13 months, it has been revealed that spyware had targeted opposition leaders, journalists, lawyers and activists in France, Spain, Hungary, Poland and even staff within the European Commission, the EU’s cabinet-style government, between 2019 and 2021. The bloc has already set up an inquiry into its own use of spyware, but even as the 38-person committee works toward producing a report for early 2023, the number of new scandals is quickly mounting up.

What sets the scandal in Greece apart is the company behind the spyware that was used. Until then the surveillance software in every EU scandal could be traced back to one company, the notorious NSO Group. Yet the spyware stalking Koukakis’ phone was made by Cytrox, a company founded in the small European nation of North Macedonia and acquired in 2017 by Tal Dilian—an entrepreneur who achieved notoriety for driving a high-tech surveillance van around the island of Cyprus and showing a Forbes journalist how it could hack into passing people’s phones. In that interview, Dilian said he had acquired Cytrox and absorbed the company into his intelligence company Intellexa, which is now thought to now be based in Greece. The arrival of Cytrox into Europe’s ongoing scandal shows the problem is bigger than just the NSO Group. The bloc has a thriving spyware industry of its own.

As the NSO Group struggles with intense scrutiny and being blacklisted by the US, its less well-known European rivals are jostling to take its clients, researchers say. Over the past two months, Cytrox is not the only local company to generate headlines for hacking devices within the bloc. 

In June, Google discovered the Italian spyware vendor RCS Lab was targeting smartphones in Italy and Kazakhstan. Alberto Nobili, RCS’ managing director, told WIRED that the company condemns the misuse of its products but declined to comment on whether the cases cited by Google were examples of misuse. “RCS personnel are not exposed, nor participate in any activities conducted by the relevant customers,” he says.

More recently, in July, spyware made by Austria’s DSIRF was detected by Microsoft hacking into law firms, banks, and consultancies in Austria, the UK, and Panama. DSIRF did not reply to WIRED’s request for comment.


unique link to this extract

Janet Jackson had the power to crash laptop computers • The Old New Thing

Raymond Chen:


A major computer manufacturer discovered that playing the music video for Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” would crash certain models of laptops. I would not have wanted to be in the laboratory that they must have set up to investigate this problem. Not an artistic judgement.

One discovery during the investigation is that playing the music video also crashed some of their competitors’ laptops.

And then they discovered something extremely weird: Playing the music video on one laptop caused a laptop sitting nearby to crash, even though that other laptop wasn’t playing the video!

What’s going on?

It turns out that the song contained one of the natural resonant frequencies for the model of 5400 rpm laptop hard drives that they and other manufacturers used.

The manufacturer worked around the problem by adding a custom filter in the audio pipeline that detected and removed the offending frequencies during audio playback.

And I’m sure they put a digital version of a “Do not remove” sticker on that audio filter. (Though I’m worried that in the many years since the workaround was added, nobody remembers why it’s there. Hopefully, their laptops are not still carrying this audio filter to protect against damage to a model of hard drive they are no longer using.)


As he says, it’s a Tacoma Narrows thing.
unique link to this extract

Court documents confirm Xbox One sold less than half as many as PS4 • GameLuster

Bobby Kent:


A high-profile case is ongoing in Brazil, as Microsoft attempts to defend its Activision Blizzard acquisition from CADE, the Brazilian competition authority. Official court documents have revealed a lot of juicy details so far. The latest court papers from Microsoft have confirmed that the Xbox One sold less than half of Sony’s PlayStation 4 throughout its lifetime.

Microsoft has been refusing to release console sales information since 2015, claiming it isn’t the “key metric of success” they like to focus on. Microsoft prefers to focus on engagement, a key factor for the creation of the Xbox Game Pass. The hesitation to release sales figures never stopped business analysts from coming up with some accurate estimations of sales. Ampere Analysis data predicted 51m sales of the Xbox One line of consoles in 2020, and it appears they were right.

The information can be found on page 18 of the Microsoft court papers dated Aug. 9, 2022. The translated line reads “Sony has surpassed Microsoft in terms of console sales and install base, having sold more than twice as many [than] Xbox in the last generation”, from a rough Google translation. A member of GameLuster staff who can read Spanish was able to partially read the Portuguese, and concurs with this translation.

Sony recently released their final PS4 sales figures, confirming 117.2m sales of the console line, making it the second biggest home console of all time. This means the Xbox One consoles must have sold less than approximately 58.5m units, which is in line with former industry analysts predictions. This places the Xbox One right below the NES, and just above the SNES.


We always focus on consoles and the games that appear on them, but phone gaming is easily an order of magnitude bigger in sheer numbers. Then again, Microsoft’s argument that it’s not about sheer numbers but about engagement (and selling those Xbox Passes) is reasonable.
unique link to this extract

Does the whole world hate Liz Truss? • POLITICO

Cristina Gallardo and Leonie Kijewski:


Around the world, governments are slowly waking up to a new reality: Liz Truss is about to become U.K. prime minister.

London-based diplomats are scrambling to report back to their capitals with intelligence on the Conservative leadership front-runner, as every new poll offers further evidence that — barring some last-minute disaster — Truss is headed to 10 Downing Street.

In truth, few foreign powers much like what they’ve seen.

More than a dozen conversations with senior diplomats and insiders from power centers around the world suggest Truss is not exactly a popular choice on the global stage. She will be met with deep skepticism across much of western Europe, and within the Biden White House. There are questions about relations with the new Australian government. She is despised in Moscow and Beijing.

On the other hand, Truss is quite popular in eastern European states, and parts of the Indo-Pacific. So it’s not all bad.

Supporters say Truss’ expected emergence on the world stage is just poorly-timed, with potential conservative allies in the US, Germany and Australia all ousted in national elections over the past two years.

But her relations with EU countries are undoubtedly clouded by the bitter row over how to trade across the Irish Sea after Brexit while keeping both the Northern Irish unionists and republicans happy.

Hopes in Brussels and other EU capitals that the new UK foreign secretary would prove an amicable interlocutor evaporated last spring when she unveiled controversial legislation to allow U.K. ministers to switch off parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, a key element of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, leading to accusations that Britain is preparing to breach international law.


Truss is walking into a situation that would challenge the most competent PM who had a highly skilled team of ministers backing them up: rampant inflation, energy shortages, strikes on railways and docks and in courts, an NHS in utter crisis. She might work harder than Johnson (wouldn’t be hard), but she lacks his charm. It’s hard to see how the next two years won’t be utterly calamitous.
unique link to this extract

• 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.1857: Twitter hit by ex-security chief’s claims, why Google research is a bad idea, Europe’s spyware boom, and more

  1. I disbelieve that hard disk resonance story. I can’t disprove it, but it sounds too much like a too-good-to-check Urban Legend. It even starts out suspiciously like “a friend of a friend …”, to wit: “A colleague of mine shared a story from …”. This happened when, at least a decade ago? And nobody ever mentioned it until now? Moreover, there were no posts on public forums about this weird event, with people trying to reproduce it? There’s no documentation from the time? (surely someone would want a publication somewhere out of this!) There’s so many reasons to be skeptical.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.