Start up: UK encryption doubletalk, Netflix VPN crackdown, Apple’s iAd retreat, and more


A Nest thermostat: malfunctioning, but what about privacy? Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

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A selection of 10 links for you. Use them wisely. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

No backdoors but UK government still wants encryption decrypted on request… » TechCrunch

Natasha Lomas:

During the committee session [in the UK Parliament] [home secretary Theresa] May was asked to clarify the implications of the draft bill’s wording for encryption. Various concerns have been raised about this — not least because it includes a clause that communications providers might be required to “remove electronic protection of data”.

Does this mean the government wants backdoors inserted into services or the handing over of encryption keys, May was asked by the committee. No, she replied: “We are not saying to them that government wants keys to their encryption — no, absolutely not.”

However the clarity the committee was seeking on the encryption point failed to materialize, as May reiterated the government’s position that the expectation will be that a lawfully served warrant will result in unencrypted data being handed over by the company served with the warrant.

“Where we are lawfully serving a warrant on a provider so that they are required to provide certain information to the authorities, and that warrant has been gone through the proper authorization process — so it’s entirely lawful — the company should take reasonable steps to ensure that they are able to comply with the warrant that has been served on them. That is the position today and it will be the position tomorrow under the legislation,” said May.

Completely contradictory.
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Evolving proxy detection as a global service » Netflix

If all of our content were globally available, there wouldn’t be a reason for members to use proxies or “unblockers” to fool our systems into thinking they’re in a different country than they’re actually in. We are making progress in licensing content across the world and, as of last week, now offer the Netflix service in 190 countries, but we have a ways to go before we can offer people the same films and TV series everywhere.

Over time, we anticipate being able to do so. For now, given the historic practice of licensing content by geographic territories, the TV shows and movies we offer differ, to varying degrees, by territory. In the meantime, we will continue to respect and enforce content licensing by geographic location.

Shorter version: we’re going to block your VPN.
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Five years later, Thunderbolt is finally gaining some traction in PCs » Ars Technica UK

Andrew Cunningham:

For many years, it looked like Thunderbolt was destined to be a modern version of FireWire: faster and smarter than contemporary USB interfaces, but so rare outside of Macs that there isn’t a very wide range of accessories beyond adapters and external hard drives. Thunderbolt versions 1 and 2 are available in most Macs sold between 2011 and now, but it has been included in just a handful of PC laptops and high-end motherboards.
Thunderbolt 3 is turning that around. The port is suddenly beginning to show up in high-end offerings from just about every major PC OEM, starting with some Lenovo workstation laptops and Dell’s new XPS lineup and continuing in laptops and convertibles from HP, Acer, Intel, and others.

We’ve been talking to the PC companies at CES about this sudden turnaround, and their answers have all been in more or less the same vein. The increased speed of Thunderbolt 3 combined with all the benefits of USB Type-C (including driving displays via Alternate Mode and charging laptops via Power Delivery) has finally made Thunderbolt convenient enough to be worth the trouble.

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David Maisel’s geometric geographies » The New Yorker

Marcia Bjornerud:

David Maisel’s aerial photographs of Toledo, Spain, and the surrounding La Mancha region, some of which will be on view at Haines Gallery, in San Francisco, through March 12th, can make Earth’s surface look more alien than terrestrial. Parts of the area that Maisel focussed on are underlain by light-colored alkaline rocks, which formed through the evaporation of an ancient body of water. The silvery soil of plowed fields almost shimmers, like a ghostly memory of that long-vanished sea.

Things like this, and more, in the gallery of images.


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Germany launches smartphone app to help refugees integrate » The Verge

Amar Toor:

The German government has launched a new smartphone app to help asylum seekers integrate in their new country. Known as Ankommen (“Arrive”), the Android app is available for free on the Google Play Store, and will launch on iOS soon, according to its website. Ankommen was jointly developed by the Federal Office for Migration and Refugees, the Federal Employment Agency, the Goethe Institute, and Bayerischer Rundfunk, a public radio and TV broadcaster.

The app is available in Arabic, English, Farsi, French, and German, and does not require an internet connection. It includes a basic German language course, as well as information on the asylum application process and how to find jobs or vocational training. The app also provides information on German values and social customs, with tips from other non-Germans who live in the country.

Note the underlying assumption: refugees will have a smartphone. So far the app has fewer than 1,000 downloads.
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Apple to disband iAd sales team » BuzzFeed News

John Paczkowski:

six years after launching iAd, Apple is stepping back from it. Multiple sources familiar with the company’s plans tell BuzzFeed News that Apple is getting out of the advertising-sales business and shifting to a more automated platform.

While iAd itself isn’t going anywhere, Apple’s direct involvement in the selling and creation of iAd units is ending. “It’s just not something we’re good at,” one source told BuzzFeed News. And so Apple is leaving the creation, selling, and management of iAds to the folks who do it best: the publishers.

Apple is phasing out its iAd sales force entirely and updating the iAds platform so that publishers can sell through it directly. And publishers who do so will keep 100% of the revenue they generate. It’s not clear what this means for Rubicon Project, MediaMath, and the other ad tech companies that had been overseeing programmatic, or automated, demand-side ad buying on the platform, but it doesn’t look good. Since everything can be done directly through the updated iAd platform, it’s likely that most of it will. “The big publishing groups will just fold programmatic buys into the stuff they’re selling across all their properties,” one source explained. iAd sales team members will be offered buyouts and released into the wild. The move is coming soon, perhaps as early as this week.

Advertising industry sources familiar with Apple’s new self-serve plan for iAds seem intrigued by it. “I think this is going to be great for publishers,” said one. “It gives them direct dialogue with their customers as opposed to forcing them to go through an Apple middleman. Access will be more plentiful and easier to manage — theoretically.”

How long will it be until the first malvertising via iAd? And what happens after that? I still feel iAd is a bad fit for Apple’s business model.
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Developing for wearables: from shrunken smartphone to wearable-first and beyond » VisionMobile

Stijn Schuermans:

In a previous post, we called the Internet of Things the peace dividend of the smartphone wars, and IoT developers the baby boomers of that period. In other words, smartphone innovation made hardware technology abundant. It’s no longer the bottleneck. IoT breakthroughs will happen not by making more powerful processors or larger memories, but by identifying new applications for the sensors, devices and connectivity. This certainly seems to be the case for wearables, which arguably started with the first Fitbit in 2008 and boomed after the launch of the Pebble and Android Wear in 2013 and 2014. Those were the days of the wearables hype.

That hype has now died down. Developers in particular are getting more cautious about wearables. Between Q4 2014 and Q2 2015, the percentage of IoT developers targeting wearables dropped from 28% to 21%. Developers have not turned their back on wearables entirely – many still plan to develop for wearables in the future – but the initial enthusiasm is making way for realism, and a search for truly valuable uses for these new devices.

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New study highlights privacy gap between consumers and tech vendors » WSJ Digits blog

Elizabeth Dwoskin:

The Pew Research Center has found in recent years that users of mobile and desktop computers are anxious about online privacy. The nonprofit’s latest study, published on Thursday, aimed to learn whether consumer anxiety waxed or waned in specific scenarios.

Conclusion: It does.

Although users often accept the implicit bargain of the online world — receiving free services in exchange for personal data — service providers can’t take users’ comfort with the arrangement for granted. Privacy concerns are more “case-by-case than driven by broad principles,” said Lee Rainie, Pew’s director of Internet, Science, and Technology Research.

The report revealed a gulf between the public and the tech industry, Mr. Rainie said, judging by the plethora of data-gathering gadgets on display at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. For instance, Nest seeks to connect items in the home–smart thermostats, light bulbs, garage doors and so on — into a system that would collect data to coordinate their operations; switching on lights, for instance, when the garage door indicates that an occupant has returned home in the evening.

The January 2016  report suggests that public attitudes could limit such plans.

Sure that Paul Graham will get right onto this and set the tech industry straight.
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Nest thermostat glitch leaves users in the cold » The New York Times

Nick Bilton:

“Woke up to a dead nest and a very cold house,” a commenter wrote on the company’s forum. “Not good when you have a baby sleeping!”

“Mine is offline,” another customer tweeted. “Not enough battery (?) I’m traveling. Called nest. Known problem. No resolution. #nest #fail.”

Admittedly, this may strike some as a quintessential first-world problem: a thermostat that can’t connect to the web. But for some users, it posed genuine issues.

For those who are elderly or ill, or who have babies, a freezing house can have dire health consequences. Moreover, homeowners who installed a Nest in a weekend home, or who were on vacation, were also concerned that their pipes could freeze and burst, causing major damage.

Matt Rogers, the co-founder and vice president for engineering at Nest, blamed a software update from December. “We had a bug that was introduced in the software update that didn’t show up for about two weeks,” Mr. Rogers said apologetically. In January, devices went offline, and “that’s when things started to heat up.”

The question is, will we look back on events like this as just teething problems – a bit like some of the cloud outages of, say, 2007 – or will they just multiply as more systems interact with slightly jury-rigged ones?

And as Bilton also points out, the contracts these gizmos/services are provided under use “arbitration” clauses which hugely favour the company, not the consumer; one lawyer tells him that Nest’s terms of service “are inherently unfair to consumers”. Not biased; inherently unfair.
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Google scamming consumers and screwing publishers with “Contributor” » LinkedIn

Mike Nolet is former CTO of AppNexus:

When I first heard of Google Contributor in early November I thought… this is exactly what the ad-industry should be doing, go Google! For those not familiar with the service, Contributor allows users to contribute a certain sum of money and opt-out of bandwidth hogging ads. The service “bids” on the users behalf, and if successful the user can choose to either collapse the unused space or upload their own messages – ingenious!

I immediately signed up, dialed my contribution up to$15/mo and started browsing. I configured my contributor account to show me messages from the new wellbeing starutp I’m working on and instead of ads I started seeing all sorts of positive messages. Cool!

A few months have since past and I figured it was time to review where my money was going. Boy, did my opinion change.

Looking at reports, it turns out I contributed $4.77 to remove 977 ads on websites since I signed up and Google charged me $29.67. The ~$5-CPM paid out seems generous, but I’ll accept that.  

The  $30 CPM and whopping 83% margin is downright theft. Google is keeping 83% of the money.

Who knows, maybe something is broken, but as it stands this is a service is a scam.

But he could dial down his contribution, surely? In a world though where adblockers are free, it seems somewhat worthy. Also, I calculated how much news sites (well, The Guardian) probably gets per browser per year from ads: $1.14.
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Errata, corrigenda and ai no corrida: SATs (Standard Aptitude Tests) are very useful, apparently.

Start up: Apple’s AI hires, Spotify’s smart music, why refugees have smartphones, and more


What’s the motive for downloading the top 40 every week from a torrent site? Completism? Photo by DigitalTribes on Flickr.

A selection of 8 links for you. Handle with care. I’m charlesarthur on Twitter. Observations and links welcome.

Exclusive: Apple ups hiring, but faces obstacles to making phones smarter » Reuters

Apple has ramped up its hiring of artificial intelligence experts, recruiting from PhD programs, posting dozens of job listings and greatly increasing the size of its AI staff, a review of hiring sites suggests and numerous sources confirm.

The goal is to challenge Google in an area the Internet search giant has long dominated: smartphone features that give users what they want before they ask.

As part of its push, the company is currently trying to hire at least 86 more employees with expertise in the branch of artificial intelligence known as machine learning, according to a recent analysis of Apple job postings. The company has also stepped up its courtship of machine-learning PhDs, joining Google, Amazon, Facebook and others in a fierce contest, leading academics say.

But some experts say the iPhone maker’s strict stance on privacy is likely to undermine its ability to compete in the rapidly progressing field.

It’s certainly the case that Apple’s privacy stance is, as Sameer Singh says, its “strategy tax” (a strategy tax is an approach to a business area that prevents you exploiting it to the maximum: “Windows everywhere” was Microsoft’s strategy tax that prevented it doing mobile really well, Google’s is the need to collect data). The question is how much you do need that pooled personal information (as opposed to anonymous information) to do this well.
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Field Notice: FN – 63697 – Protective Boot on Certain Network Cables Might Push the Mode Button and Cause an Unexpected Reset on the 48-Port Models of Cisco Catalyst 3650 and 3850 Series Switches » Cisco

“Certain” network cables being “pretty much every Ethernet cable you buy”. Like this:

Design screwups like this deserve their own Tumblr. Of note: the Cisco 3650 was released on October 10 2013; this note is dated October 30 2013. Of course it wasn’t caught in testing, but one suspects that customers discovered this pretty much on day one.
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Inside Spotify and the future of music » Tech Insider

Alex Heath:

Spotify’s progress in sorting its library of 35 million songs can be traced back to The Echo Nest, a music intelligence company that was created within the MIT Media Lab a decade ago. Spotify bought The Echo Nest last March in what was reported to be a $100m deal.

Jim Lucchese, CEO of The Echo Nest, tells Tech Insider that his team of about 70 people are focused on delivering “the right listening experience at the right time” within Spotify.

They do this by analyzing the makeup of every song, how people are talking about music online, and how people are listening to it. While the company continues to work with clients like Rdio, Microsoft, Sirius, and Vevo, as it did before it was sold, its most cutting-edge work is developed and honed for Spotify.

One of The Echo Nest’s first projects for Spotify, reported last September on FiveThirtyEight, was developing dossiers of every user’s listening habits, which are now called “taste profiles.”

Ajay Kalia, who oversees the project, tells us they realized early on that there’s an important distinction between the music you listen to and music you actually like.

For example, just because I play a lot of instrumental, ambient music while I’m at work doesn’t mean that I have a particular affinity for those kinds of artists. And just because your significant other plays a lot of country music while you’re both in the car doesn’t mean you want a bunch of country playlists shoved at you.

This “listen to but not like” has often been the problem about music. This makes it sound as though Echo Nest is human-curated, which it really isn’t.
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Google nears re-entry to mainland China » The Information

Amir Efrati:

As part of its broader China push, Google is expected to offer new incentives to phone makers to upgrade Android phones to the latest versions of the operating system, says one person briefed on its plans. The company wants more phones to run the advanced version of Android so that the software platform and experience can be more consistent for app developers and consumers.

As more Chinese app developers look to extend their apps beyond China’s borders and more non-Chinese app makers try to tap the Chinese market, Google wants to ensure all the apps work well across Android devices globally. Thus, hardware partners that will distribute Android Wear or Google Play in China will need to adhere to certain global compatibility standards, says the person familiar with the plan.

For its app store, Google has promised authorities that it will follow local laws and block apps that the government deems objectionable, say the people familiar with Google’s plans. In some parts of the world and among Internet policy wonks, this move will be viewed as a back-tracking from Google’s posture following its departure from China in 2010. At that time Google ended its engineering operations in China and moved its Chinese-language Web-search engine to a Hong Kong-based Web domain, out of reach of mainland China officials, after being breached from a cyber attack that it linked to the Chinese government.

Authorities denied involvement in the attack, which successfully breached many American companies and is known as Operation Aurora. At the time, though, Google co-founder Sergey Brin publicly compared China to the totalitarian Soviet Union in which he grew up. (Mr. Brin is now part of Alphabet, Google’s soon-to-be parent company, and isn’t involved in Google’s day-to-day affairs.)

Some forces within Google always believed that the company’s and Mr. Brin’s response was rash. It should have viewed the China-based hacking, which occurred in late 2009, as a natural consequence of being a major tech company in an age of increasing cyber attacks by all governments.

A long extract (but it’s a long article). That last paragraph is telling; Eric Schmidt was the pro-China voice, Brin the no-to-China voice, and Larry Page effectively had the casting vote back in 2010. Sundar Pichai clearly leans towards Eric Schmidt’s stance: better to deal than to stand on principle.
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Police raid fails to dent UK Top 40 music piracy » TorrentFreak

Police arrested a Liverpudlian who was a determined uploader of the top 40 releases to torrent sites:

Yet again it appears that the arrest last week was a case of rightsholders and police targeting low-hanging fruit. Using widely available research tools we were able to quickly uncover important names plus associated addresses, both email and physical. It seems likely that he made close to no effort to conceal his identity.

Due to being in the police spotlight it will come as little surprise that there was no weekly upload of the UK’s Top 40 most-popular tracks from OldSkoolScouse last Friday, something which probably disappointed the releaser’s fans. However, any upset would have been very temporary indeed.

As shown below, at least four other releases of exactly the same content were widely available on public torrent sites within hours of the UK chart results being announced last Friday, meaning the impact on availability was almost non-existent.

But who, seriously, actually wants to listen to all the top 40 tracks week after week? It would be pretty numbing even if you worked in the business. I bet this guy barely listened to the music. He, and the downloaders who waited avidly for the songs, strike me as more like stamp collectors: uninterested in what is conveyed, obsessed with completing sets.
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iPhone supply chain makers set to see strong sales in September, say sources » Digitimes

Monica Chen and Steve Shen:

Incoming parts and components orders for the new iPhones are even stronger than orders for the iPhone 6 devices in the corresponding period of a year earlier, indicated the sources, adding that shipments of updated iPhones will once again squeeze sales of other vendors including Samsung Electronics, Sony Mobile Communications and LG Electronics, commented the sources.

Thus, sales of the new iPhones are expected to dominate smartphone sales globally in the fourth quarter of 2015 as current sales of LG Electronics’ G4, HTC’s One M9/M9+ series products and Sony Mobile’s Xperia Z3+ have been lower than expected, indicated the sources.

To lessen the impact of the release of the new iPhones, Samsung has been implementing a “Ultimate Test Drive” program that encourages current iPhone users to pay US$1 to test its Galaxy Note 5 or Galaxy S6 Edge+ for one month.

Good luck with that, Samsung.
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Academic study reveals urban and rural broadband speed gaps » ISPreview UK

Mark Jackson:

The study (‘Two-Speed Britain: Rural Internet Use‘) claims that more than 1 million people in Britain are “excluded or face challenges in engaging in normal online activities because they live in remote rural areas“, where slow or non-existent Internet connectivity is still a serious problem.

The report separated areas into several groups and examined each separately: Deep Rural (remote), Shallow Rural (less remote) and Urban internet users. It reveals that just 5% of those in Urban areas had an average broadband speed below 6.3Mbps, but in Deep Rural areas only 53% could achieve this “modest speed“.

Furthermore the gap is unsurprisingly found to be most pronounced in upland areas of Scotland, Wales and England, but also in many areas in lowland rural Britain. It affects 1.3 million people in deep rural Britain, and 9.2 million people in less remote areas with poor internet connection (or ‘shallow’ rural areas).

The report itself isn’t available for download (yet?) because neither Oxford University nor dot.rural has actually put a usable link up.
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Surprised that Syrian refugees have smartphones? Sorry to break this to you, but you’re an idiot » The Independent

James O’Malley, in somewhat straightforward mood:

So we know that Syria isn’t dirt poor and we know that there’s a lot of mobile phones: but why smartphones? Well, why not? In the West many people own desktop computers, laptops and tablets as well as smartphones. But if you had to give up many of your possessions and live on $1850/year, after clothes and food, what would you buy next? It is hard to think of a more useful thing to own than a smartphone, especially if you’re fleeing your home.

Even when utility isn’t considered, the reason Syrians are using smartphones and not old Nokia 3210s is the same reason that benefits claimants have (gasp!) “flatscreen” TVs… have you tried buying any other kind lately? Budget Android smartphones can be picked up for well under £100, and come with cameras, large screens and everything you would expect from a modern phone. As we’re now in the habit of replacing our phones with a new model every year or two the price of slightly older phones also drops significantly.

The headline certainly falls into the “no mimsy hedging here” bucket.
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