All posts in “TC”

Twitter puts Infowars’ Alex Jones in the ‘read-only’ sin bin for 7 days

Twitter has finally taken action against Infowars creator Alex Jones, but it isn’t what you might think.

While Apple, Facebook, Google/YouTube, Spotify and many others have removed Jones and his conspiracy-peddling organization Infowars from their platforms, Twitter has remained unmoved with its claim that Jones hasn’t violated rules on its platform.

That was helped in no small way by the mysterious removal of some tweets last week, but now Jones has been found to have violated Twitter’s rules, as CNET first noted.

Twitter is punishing Jones for a tweet that violates its community standards but it isn’t locking him out forever. Instead, a spokesperson for the company confirmed that Jones’ account is in “read-only mode” for up to seven days.

That means he will still be able to use the service and look up content via his account, but he’ll be unable to engage with it. That means no tweets, likes, retweets, comments, etc. He’s also been ordered to delete the offending tweet — more on that below — in order to qualify for a fully functioning account again.

That restoration doesn’t happen immediately, though. Twitter policy states that the read-only sin bin can last for up to seven days “depending on the nature of the violation.” We’re imagining Jones got the full one-week penalty, but we’re waiting on Twitter to confirm that.

The offending tweet in question is a link to a story claiming President “Trump must take action against web censorship.” It looks like the tweet has already been deleted, but not before Twitter judged that it violates its policy on abuse:

Abuse: You may not engage in the targeted harassment of someone, or incite other people to do so. We consider abusive behavior an attempt to harass, intimidate, or silence someone else’s voice.

When you consider the things Infowars and Jones have said or written — 9/11 conspiracies, harassment of Sandy Hook victim families and more — the content in question seems fairly innocuous. Indeed, you could look at President Trump’s tweets and find seemingly more punishable content without much difficulty.

But here we are.

The weirdest part of this Twitter caning is one of the reference points that the company gave to media. These days, it is common for the company to point reporters to specific tweets that it believes encapsulate its position on an issue, or provide additional color in certain situations.

In this case, Twitter pointed us — and presumably other reporters — to this tweet from Infowars’ Paul Joseph Watson:

WTF, Twitter…

“Unhackable” BitFi crypto wallet has been hacked

The BitFi crypto wallet was supposed to be unhackable and none other than famous weirdo John McAfee claimed that the device – essentially an Android-based mini tablet – would withstand any attack. Spoiler alert: it couldn’t.

First, a bit of background. The $120 device launched at the beginning of this month to much fanfare. It consisted of a device that McAfee claimed contained no software or storage and was instead a standalone wallet similar to the Trezor. The website featured a bold claim by McAfee himself, one that would give a normal security researcher pause:

Further, the company offered a bug bounty that seems to be slowly being eroded by outside forces. They asked hackers to pull coins off of a specially prepared $10 wallet, a move that is uncommon in the world of bug bounties. They wrote:

We deposit coins into a Bitfi wallet
If you wish to participate in the bounty program, you will purchase a Bitfi wallet that is preloaded with coins for just an additional $10 (the reason for the charge is because we need to ensure serious inquiries only)
If you successfully extract the coins and empty the wallet, this would be considered a successful hack
You can then keep the coins and Bitfi will make a payment to you of $250,000
Please note that we grant anyone who participates in this bounty permission to use all possible attack vectors, including our servers, nodes, and our infrastructure

Hackers began attacking the device immediately, eventually hacking it to find the passphrase used to move crypto in and out of the the wallet. In a detailed set of Tweets, security researchers Andrew Tierney and Alan Woodward began finding holes by attacking the operating system itself. However, this did not match the bounty to the letter, claimed BitFi, even though they did not actually ship any bounty-ready devices.

Then, to add insult injury, the company earned a Pwnies award at security conference Defcon. The award was given for worst vendor response. As hackers began dismantling the device, BitFi went on the defensive, consistently claiming that their device was secure. And the hackers had a field day. One hacker, 15-year-old Saleem Rashid, was able to play Doom on the device.

The hacks kept coming. McAfee, for his part, kept refusing to accept the hacks as genuine.

Unfortunately, the latest hack may have just fulfilled all of BitFi’s requirements. Rashid and Tierney have been able to pull cash out of the wallet by hacking the passphrase, a primary requirement for the bounty. “We have sent the seed and phrase from the device to another server, it just gets sent using netcat, nothing fancy.” Tierney said. “We believe all conditions have been met.”

The end state of this crypto mess? BitFi did what most hacked crypto companies do: double down on the threats. In a recently deleted Tweet they made it clear that they were not to be messed with:

The researchers, however, may still have the last laugh.

StarVR’s One headset flaunts eye-tracking and a double-wide field of view

While the field of VR headsets used to be more or less limited to Oculus and Vive, numerous competitors have sprung up as the technology has matured — and some are out to beat the market leaders at their own game. StarVR’s latest headset brings eye-tracking and a seriously expanded field of view to the game, and the latter especially is a treat to experience.

The company announced the new hardware at SIGGRAPH in Vancouver, where I got to go hands-on and eyes-in with the headset. Before you get too excited, though, keep in mind this set is meant for commercial applications — car showrooms, aircraft simulators, and so on. What that means is it’s going to be expensive and not as polished a user experience as consumer-focused sets.

That said, the improvements present in the StarVR One are significant and immediately obvious. Most important is probably the expanded FOV — 210 degrees horizontal and 130 vertical. That’s nearly twice as wide as the 110 degrees wide that the most popular headsets have, and believe me, it makes a difference. (I haven’t tried the Pimax 8K, which has a similarly wide FOV.)

On Vive and Oculus sets I always had the feeling that I was looking through a hole into the VR world — a large hole, to be sure, but having your peripheral vision be essentially blank made it a bit claustrophobic.

In the StarVR headset, I felt like the virtual environment was actually around me, not just in front of me. I moved my eyes around much more rather than turning my head, with no worries about accidentally gazing at the fuzzy edge of the display. A 90 Hz refresh rate meant things were nice and smooth.

To throw shade at competitors, the demo I played (I was a giant cyber-ape defending a tower) could switch between the full FOV and a simulation of the 110-degree one found in other headsets. I suspect it was slightly exaggerated, but the difference really is clear.

It’s reasonably light and comfortable — no VR headset is really either. But it doesn’t feel as chunky as it looks.

The resolution of the custom AMOLED display is supposedly 5K. But the company declined to specify the actual resolution when I asked. They did, however, proudly proclaim full RGB pixels and 16 million sub-pixels. Let’s do the math:

16 million divided by 3 makes around 5.3 million full pixels. 5K isn’t a real standard, just shorthand for having around 5,000 horizontal pixels between the two displays. Divide 5.3 million by that and you get 1060. Rounding those off to semi-known numbers gives us 2560 pixels (per eye) for the horizontal and 1080 for the vertical resolution.

That doesn’t fit the approximately 16:10 ratio of the field of view, but who knows? Let’s not get too bogged down in unknowns. Resolution isn’t everything — but generally, the more pixels the better.

The other major new inclusion is an eye-tracking system provided by Tobii. We knew eye-tracking in VR was coming; it was demonstrated at CES, and the Fove Kickstarter showed it was at least conceivable to integrate into a headset now-ish.

Unfortunately the demos of eye-tracking were pretty limited (think a heatmap of where you looked on a car) so, being hungry, I skipped them. The promise is good enough for now — eye tracking allows for all kinds of things, including a “foveated rendering” that focuses display power where you’re looking. This too was not being shown, however, and it strikes me that it is likely phenomenally difficult to pull off well — so it may be a while before we see a good demo of it.

One small but welcome improvement that eye-tracking also enables is automatic detection of intrapupillary distance, or IPD — it’s different for everyone and can be important to rendering the image correctly. One less thing to worry about.

The StarVR One is compatible with SteamVR tracking, or you can get the XT version and build your own optical tracking rig — that’s for the commercial providers for whom it’s an option.

Although this headset will be going to high-end commercial types, you can bet that the wide FOV and eye tracking in it will be standard in the next generation of consumer devices. Having tried most of the other headsets, I can say with certainty that I wouldn’t want to go back to some of them after having experienced this one. VR is still a long way off from convincing me it’s worthwhile, but major improvements like these definitely help.

Cytera CellWorks aims to bring cell culture automation to your dinner plate

Cytera CellWorks hopes to revolutionize the so-called “clean meat” industry through the automation of cell cultures — and that could mean one day, if all goes to plan, the company’s products could be in every grocery store in America.

Cytera is a ways off from that happening, though. Founded in 2017 by two college students in the U.K., Ignacio Willats and Ali Afshar, Cytera uses robotic automation to configure cell cultures used in things like growing turkey meat from a petri dish or testing stem cells.

The two founders — Willats, the events and startups guy and Afshar the scientist, like to do things differently to better configure the lab, as well — like strapping GoPros to lab workers’ heads, for instance. The two came together at the Imperial College of London to run an event for automation in the lab and from there formed their friendship and their company.

“At the time, lab automation felt suboptimal,” Afshar told TechCrunch, further explaining he wanted to do something with a higher impact.

Cellular agriculture, or growing animal cells in a lab, seems to hit that button and the two are currently enrolled in Y Combinator’s Summer 2018 cohort to help them get to the next step.

There’s been an explosion in the lab-made meat industry, which relies on taking a biopsy of animal cells and then growing them in a lab to make the meat versus getting it from an actual living, breathing animal. In just the last couple of years startups like Memphis Meats have started to pop up, offering lab meat to restaurants. Even the company known for its vegan mayo products, Hampton Creek (now called Just), is creating a lab-grown foie gras.

Originally, the company was going to go for general automation in the lab, but had enough interest from clients and potential business in just the cell culture automation aspect they changed the name for clarity. Cytera already has some promising prospects, too, including a leading gene therapy company the two couldn’t name just yet.

Of course, automation in the lab is nothing new and big pharma has already poured billions into it for drug discovery. One could imagine a giant pharma company teaming up with a meat company looking to get into the lab-made meat industry and doing something similar, but so far Willats and Afshar says they haven’t really seen that happening. They say bigger companies are much more likely to partner with smaller startups like theirs to get the job done.

Obviously, there are trade-offs at either end. But, should Cytera make it, you may find yourself eating a chicken breast one day built by a company who bought the cells made in the Cytera lab.

Twitter is purging accounts that were trying to evade prior suspensions

Twitter announced this afternoon it will begin booting accounts off its service from those who have tried to evade their account suspension. The company says that the accounts in question are users who have been previously suspended on Twitter for their abusive behavior, or for trying to evade a prior suspension. These bad actors have been able to work around Twitter’s attempt to remove them by setting up another account, it seems.

The company says the new wave of suspensions will hit this week and will continue in the weeks ahead, as it’s able to identify others who are “attempting to Tweet following an account suspension.” 

Twitter’s announcement on the matter – which came in the form of a tweet – was light on details. We asked the company for more information. It’s unclear, for example, how Twitter was able to identify the same persons had returned to Twitter, how many users will be affected by this new ban, or what impact this will have on Twitter’s currently stagnant user numbers.

Twitter was not able to answer our questions, when asked for comment.

The company has been more recently focused on aggressively suspending accounts, as part of the effort to stem the flow of disinformation, bots, and abuse on its service. The Washington Post, for example, said last month that Twitter had suspended as many as 70 million accounts between the months of May and June, and was continuing in July at the same pace. The removal of these accounts didn’t affect the company’s user metrics, Twitter’s CFO later clarified.

Even though they weren’t a factor, Twitter’s user base is shrinking. The company actually lost a million monthly active users in Q2, with 335 million overall users and 68 million in the U.S. In part, Twitter may be challenged in growing its audience because it’s not been able to get a handle on the rampant abuse on its platform, and because it makes poor enforcement decisions with regard to its existing policies.

For instance, Twitter is under fire right now for the way it chooses who to suspend, as it’s one of the few remaining platforms that hasn’t taken action against conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

The Outline even hilariously (???) suggested today that we all abandon Twitter and return to Tumblr. (Disclosure: Oath owns Tumblr and TC. I don’t support The Outline’s plan. Twitter should just fix itself, even if that requires new leadership.)

In any event, today’s news isn’t about a change in how Twitter will implement its rules, but rather in how it will enforce the bans it’s already chosen to enact.

In many cases, banned users would simply create a new account using a new email address and then continue to tweet. Twitter’s means of identifying returning users has been fairly simplistic in the past. To make sure banned users didn’t come back, it used information like the email, phone and IP address to identify them.

For it to now be going after a whole new lot of banned accounts who have been attempting to avoid their suspensions, Twitter may be using the recently acquired technology from anti-abuse firm Smyte. At the time of the deal, Twitter had praised Smyte’s proactive anti-abuse systems, and said it would soon put them to work.

This system may pick up false positives, of course – and that could be why Twitter noted that some accounts could be banned in error in the weeks ahead.

Reached for comment, Twitter declined to answer our specific questions and said it could also not go into further details as that would give those attempting to evade a suspension more insight into its detection methods.

“This is a step we’re taking to further refine our work and close existing gaps we identified,” a spokesperson said. “This is specifically targeting those previously suspended for abusive behavior. Nothing to share on amount of accounts impacted since this work will remain ongoing, not just today.”

Updated, 8/14/18, 3:51 PM ET with Twitter’s comment.