Start Up No.1976: how the FBI hid its Pegasus purchase, Tim Cook profiled, deepfakes v establishment media, and more

The peculiar encoding of DNA may be due to a sort of genomic parasite which breaks up gene sequences. CC-licensed photo by MIKI Yoshihito on Flickr.

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There’s another post coming this week at the Social Warming Substack on Friday at about 0845 UK time. Free signup.

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

How the US came to use the NSO spyware it was trying to kill • The New York Times

Mark Mazzetti and Ronen Bergman:


The secret contract was finalized on Nov. 8, 2021, a deal between a company that has acted as a front for the United States government and the American affiliate of a notorious Israeli hacking firm.

Under the arrangement, the Israeli firm, NSO Group, gave the US government access to one of its most powerful weapons — a geolocation tool that can covertly track mobile phones around the world without the phone user’s knowledge or consent.

If the veiled nature of the deal was unusual — it was signed for the front company by a businessman using a fake name — the timing was extraordinary.

Only five days earlier, the Biden administration had announced it was taking action against NSO, whose hacking tools for years had been abused by governments around the world to spy on political dissidents, human rights activists and journalists. The White House placed NSO on a Commerce Department blacklist, declaring the company a national security threat and sending the message that American companies should stop doing business with it.

The secret contract — which The New York Times is disclosing for the first time — violates the Biden administration’s public policy, and still appears to be active. The contract, reviewed by The Times, stated that the “United States government” would be the ultimate user of the tool, although it is unclear which government agency authorized the deal and might be using the spyware. It specifically allowed the government to test, evaluate, and even deploy the spyware against targets of its choice in Mexico.

Asked about the contract, White House officials said it was news to them.

…In a 2018 letter to the government of Israel, the Justice Department authorized “Cleopatra Holdings” to purchase Pegasus on behalf of the FBI. The Times has reviewed a copy of the letter, and a redacted version was produced as part of The Times’ Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the FBI.

For Novalpina, the fact that the FBI had purchased a license to use Pegasus was significant. Getting the bureau’s validation — and that of other US government agencies — was an essential step toward convincing a US investor to purchase the weapons.


Left hand and right hand. Certainly embarrassing.
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Tim Cook on shaping the future of Apple • GQ

Zach Baron:


Cook is content to let you believe about him whatever you’d like to believe, even that he’s mean, even if he’s pretty sure he isn’t. (The other thing Cue tells people about Cook is this: “You have to engage first. And so if you’re sitting around, and you’ve never met him, and you’re waiting for Tim to call you, you might wait a long time.”)

Cook’s general lack of interest in the stories other people tell about him has not just made him unusually impervious to criticism; it has also, on occasion, allowed him to deal with whoever he needs to deal with to get his job done. “I think he’s incredibly human,” Jackson says. “But I think he’s also recognized that that doesn’t need to be brought to every situation.”

When I ask Cook about a couple of notorious moments in his tenure—his dealings with then president Donald Trump, who described Cook as a “great executive, because he calls me and others don’t,” and then more recently, Cook’s elegant handling of Elon Musk, who last year went from criticizing Apple on Twitter to touring the campus with Cook in under a week—Cook returns to this idea, that he is comfortable being in places where others might worry about being seen. “The philosophy is engagement,” Cook says. “I feel very strongly about engaging with people regardless of whether they agree with you or not. I actually think it’s even more important to engage when there’s disagreement.”

Cook smiles. “I’m used to being in a [room] with someone who has a different view than I do,” he says. “This is not a unique thing for me.”


He sort of responds to the headset stuff in a roundabout way:


“Pretty much everything we’ve ever done, there were loads of skeptics with it,” Cook says. “If you do something that’s on the edge, it will always have skeptics.”


(With Apple, you should always ask: why agree to this interview now? Answers on a postcard.)
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How a DNA ‘parasite’ may have fragmented our genes • Quanta Magazine

Jake Buehler:


All animals, plants, fungi and protists — which collectively make up the domain of life called eukaryotes — have genomes with a peculiar feature that has puzzled researchers for almost half a century: Their genes are fragmented.

In their DNA, the information about how to make proteins isn’t laid out in long coherent strings of bases. Instead, genes are split into segments, with intervening sequences, or “introns,” spacing out the exons that encode bits of the protein. When eukaryotes express their genes, their cells have to splice out RNA from the introns and stitch together RNA from the exons to reconstruct the recipes for their proteins.

The mystery of why eukaryotes rely on this baroque system deepened with the discovery that the different branches of the eukaryotic family tree varied widely in the abundance of their introns. The genes of yeast, for instance, have very few introns, but those of land plants have many. Introns make up almost 25% of human DNA. How this tremendous, enigmatic variation in intron frequency evolved has stirred debate among scientists for decades.

Answers may finally be emerging, however, from recent studies of genetic elements called introners that some scientists regard as a kind of genomic parasite. These pieces of DNA can slip into genomes and multiply there, leaving profusions of introns behind them. Last November, researchers presented evidence that introners have been doing this in diverse eukaryotes throughout evolution. Moreover, they showed that introners could explain why explosive gains in introns seem to have been particularly common in aquatic forms of life.


Just in case you wanted something explaining why your DNA is such a mess yet works so well.
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Deepfakes will make the establishment stronger • Hanania’s Newsletter

Richard Hanania:


In the era of deepfakes, people will know deepfakes exist, meaning that individuals will become much less likely to believe random audio and video they see online. If you hear Biden making a gaffe, whether you believe it or not will depend on if it came from a credible reporter with backing from a well-respected institution. I find myself already beginning to doubt less reputable Twitter accounts showing embarrassing footage of their political enemies without outside confirmation.

What if you’re an independent journalist who happens to get exclusive audio of a world leader plotting a coup? Without a way to verify that the audio is legitimate, your work will be ignored.

Prestige journalists will themselves have to be more cautious. Before, one could send an anonymous video to a reporter and they would broadcast it to the world. Now, with credible deepfakes, major news outlets only believe what people they know tell them, or what they hear or see themselves. Official campaigns and government agencies will become more important as sources of information. Again, the power of independent journalists will decline. This is not simply because fewer people will be able to trust their work, but also because more established outlets will be less likely to rely on non-traditional sources of information.

In sum, cheap and easily available deepfakes will cause most people to adopt a reasonable prior of “everything I see or hear on the internet is fake, unless it comes from a credible news source.” That’s already the standard for text, so there’s no reason it can’t also apply to audio and video.


But then he undermines his case somewhat by pointing to a (junk) site called Real Raw News:


The RRN crowd tends to be composed of those that are low IQ and have low levels of trust in institutions. This is Trump’s base, in case you are wondering why they dislike [Florida governor Ron] DeSantis so much. With education polarization being what it is, fake news tends to be a right-wing problem. Liberals can of course buy into false narratives, but they tend to be stupid in the way smart or at least moderately intelligent people are, which is through being blinded by ideology. Dumb people, in contrast, don’t have the mental tools to distinguish between real events and what they find in the National Enquirer, or a story about Fauci being executed at Gitmo, and this is why anti-vaxx, QAnon, and election denial are all found among Republicans, or to be more precise, the Trumpist base of the party.


Just a note: being blinded by ideology can be just as straitjacketing as just having low levels of trust. It’s the same thing, in the opposite direction: trust set too high.
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We spoke to the guy behind the viral AI image of the Pope • Buzzfeed News

Chris Stokel-Walker:


Pablo Xavier, a 31-year-old construction worker from the Chicago area who declined to share his last name over fears that he could be attacked for creating the images, said he was tripping on shrooms last week when he came up with the idea for the image.

“I’m trying to figure out ways to make something funny because that’s what I usually try to do,” he told BuzzFeed News. “I try to do funny stuff or trippy art — psychedelic stuff. It just dawned on me: I should do the Pope. Then it was just coming like water: ‘The Pope in Balenciaga puffy coat, Moncler, walking the streets of Rome, Paris,’ stuff like that.”

He generated the first three images around 2 p.m. local time last Friday. (He first took up using Midjourney after one of his brothers died in November. “It pretty much just all started with that, just dealing with grief and making images of my past brother,” he said. “I fell in love with it after that.”)

When Pablo Xavier first saw the Pope images, he said, “I thought they were perfect.” So he posted them to a Facebook group called AI Art Universe, and then on Reddit. He was shocked when the images quickly went viral. “I was just blown away,” he said. “I didn’t want it to blow up like that.”

Pablo Xavier, who grew up in a Catholic family but doesn’t feel part of the religion today, said he felt “no ill will toward” the pontiff: “I just thought it was funny to see the Pope in a funny jacket.” He said he was banned from Reddit hours after posting the image there. “I figured I was going to get backlash,” he said. “I just didn’t think it was going to be to this magnitude.”

He said it was “definitely scary” that “people are running with it and thought it was real without questioning it.” He said he’s already seen posts in which his images have been co-opted by those looking to criticize the Catholic Church for lavish spending. “I feel like shit,” he said of his images being used in such ways. “It’s crazy.”


I do feel like historical footnotes should be obliged to mention that the first properly viral world-fooling AI image was created by a construction worker who was tripping. It says everything that needs be said about the ease of use of these tools.
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When is Apple announcing its mixed-reality headset? June 5 at WWDC 2023 • Bloomberg

Mark Gurman, in the latest edition of his newsletter:


The showcase at WWDC, the Worldwide Developers Conference, will likely include the headset itself, but also its onboard xrOS operating system, accompanying services, and — perhaps most critically — a software development kit and platform that will let developers write new types of apps. 

As is usual for invitations to WWDC, the artwork alongside the announcement doesn’t do much to confirm Apple’s plans. But I still see some likely hints.

One WWDC 2023 graphic is clearly an outline of the Apple Park spaceship campus, which relates to the first day of the conference being held at the company’s headquarters. No surprise there.

But the second graphic is more interesting. On its surface, it’s simply the outline of the rainbow structure on Apple’s campus. (You can see that structure behind chief executive officer Tim Cook in the photo at the top [of the newsletter].) But it also looks similar to the curved shape of the Apple headset facing upward.


Oh come on. I spent years attempting to decode Apple invitations. The lesson was always that you had no hope of getting it right ahead of time; that you were always imposing your own expectations on things that were usually far less exciting than you thought. (The Verge did a good writeup last September.)

Honestly, though, I’ll laugh like a drain if Apple doesn’t release a headset, after all Gurman’s windup. It’s been the equivalent of that analyst who was sure – SURE – that Apple was going to release a TV, and saw it coming in every little thing Apple did.
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Man shot and killed by truck owner after stealing vehicle on Southeast Side • KSAT

Ivan Herrera, John Paul Barajas, Matthew Craig:


A man in his 40s who stole a vehicle from a North Side home on Wednesday was shot and killed after the owners of the pickup truck tracked it down on the Southeast Side and took matters into their own hands, according to San Antonio police.

SAPD said they received a stolen vehicle report around 1 p.m. from a home on Braesview.

The owners were able to track the vehicle by using an Apple Airtag that was in the truck when it was stolen. That led them to a shopping center in the 3200 block of Southeast Military Drive.

SAPD said the owners contacted police to report the missing vehicle but decided to confront the suspect before police arrived.

One person got out of the car and attempted to contact the suspect on the side of the truck. It’s unclear what happened next, but police say the suspect may have pulled out a firearm before the other man shot and killed him while in the stolen truck.


An update to the story says the man in the truck was killed by a single shot to the head. The police are still considering whether to press charges. I get the feeling that the truck owners were not the sort to engage in polite discussion about decamping.

Sure, a GPS tracker would have done the same job of letting the truck be tracked down. But AirTags have democratised that, for good or ill.
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Rival lawsuits vie to represent publishers in Google class action • Press Gazette

Bron Maher:


A second collective lawsuit seeking to claim damages from Google on behalf of UK online publishers has launched – apparently in direct competition with the first.

The new lawsuit, filed on Thursday by former Guardian technology editor Charles Arthur and law firm Hausfeld, claims publishers are collectively entitled to compensation of up to £3.4bn.

Both claims want to be opt-out – meaning relevant publishers will be automatically represented in the suit. But first the Competition Appeal Tribunal will need to choose a class representative and certify the suit as opt-out.

The first claim was filed in November by law firms Geradin Partners and Humphries Kerstetter and has former Ofcom director Claudio Pollack as the class representative.

That claim alleges that Google’s dominance and abuse of each part of the online ad market diminished digital ad revenue for UK publishers since 2014 by up to 40%. It is seeking up to £13.6bn in damages from the tech giant.

The details of the Humphries Kerstetter claim are not yet public, but a partner there, Toby Starr, told Press Gazette earlier in March that a certification hearing – at which the CAT decided whether the claim could proceed as opt-out – would likely happen “towards the end of this year”.

“After that, there will be a process which is more familiar to most litigation lawyers: going through exchanges of documents, exchanges of witness statements and expert reports. And then a trial and those steps are expected to take another two to three years after the certification hearing.”


*record scratch* *freeze frame* Yup that’s me. The claim against Google is on the same behaviour that earned it a €220m fine – unopposed – from the French competition authority in June 2021, and which the US Department of Justice is seeking to prosecute. The UK suits are what would be known in the US as “class actions”, seeking reparation on behalf of a large group that has lost out by a large amount cumulatively, but for whom seeking action individually wouldn’t make sense financially.

As that last paragraph suggests, this might not be resolved in the sort of timescale familiar in the world of technology, but very familiar to the legal world.
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Cruise passengers allege they weren’t protected from sexual assault • Buzzfeed News

Tom Warren and Anna Betts:


In dozens of court documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News, cruise ship passengers say they have been dragged into cabins and raped, pushed into janitors’ closets and assaulted, and even attacked in the public corridors of ships. Likewise, parents and guardians have alleged that their children were molested by other passengers or crew members, plied with alcohol, and in some instances, abused by daycare staffers at onboard activity centers. As recently as two weeks ago, the parents of a 17-year-old passenger filed a civil suit alleging she was raped by a fitness instructor onboard a Carnival cruise ship.

In fact, sexual assaults are the most prevalent reported crime on cruise ships, according to the FBI. Since 2015, there have been 454 reported allegations of sex crimes on cruise ships. Experts believe that the actual numbers are far higher, as many sexual assaults often go unreported. (For reference, more than two-thirds of all sexual assaults in the US are not reported to law enforcement, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.)

And many of the major cruise lines have been told — even by their own security staffers — that more could be done to protect passengers, such as installing more surveillance cameras and hiring additional security personnel. But according to court records, including a deposition from this February in a lawsuit alleging the gang rape of a minor on a Carnival Cruise ship, senior executives have opted not to implement the changes, claiming they’re too expensive.


I’ll remind of the oh-that’s-too-improbable plot line from Succession season 1, which appeared in 2018 and so was probably written in 2016 for filming in 2017: a catalogue of unadmitted sexual assault on the Waystar Royco cruise ships. (Via John Naughton for the Buzzfeed 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

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