FOXTROT/ALFA: COVID-19 Tracking, Meeting Hell, Economic Collapse

Welcome to FOXTROT/ALFA for Tuesday, 14 April 2020. Well, here we are. Issue 100 of my little newsletter! How time flies… I’m really happy that I have more than a hundred people reading these things every single workday. I hope you are getting something from my irreverent rambles about the technology news. Remember: You can always reply to this email and let me know what you think.

And with that, let’s get to the business at hand. Today is a day of absolute COVID-19 madness – once again. It’s amazing to behold how quickly fear, uncertainty and doubt can change all our lives. So, let us, once more, jump unflinchingly into the brink!

Apple and Google Are Building COVID-19 Tracking into Their Operating Systems

So Apple and Google have teamed up to build coronavirus tracing into their damn operating systems. Let that sink in for a moment. They call it “privacy-preserving”, but still. That’s Bluetooth tracking being coded right into the OS!

Looking at the specs, it seems like they saving the tracing data on your device and are doing a lot to make it hard to track individual devices across the data graph, but who knows. This is all completely new technology. Normally, a standard like this would undergo years of RFCs and testing. Now, they’re designing it and rolling it out in a matter of weeks. Anybody who knows a bit about software development and/or IT security can’t help but shudder at this, I feel.

Yahoo Japan to Share Tracking Data with the Government

In Japan, Yahoo is now sharing tracking data with the government.

As announced on Monday by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, the government has struck a deal with Yahoo! Japan to source “statistical information created by analyzing the location information of users of its services.”

Exactly what data Yahoo! Japan will share hasn’t been disclosed. However the Ministry’s initial request mentioned “data that statistically aggregates and analyzes user movement and service usage history” along with all the right caveats about preserving individuals’ privacy. As it happens, Yahoo! Japan has already published that sort of thing, in the form of graphs depicting the number of people present in certain areas of Japan.

Right. And you don’t find this worrying why exactly??

The Register had a great commentary piece on all of this phone tracking that seems to be so hip right now. Well worth a read.

The world seems set to adopt smartphone-driven contact tracing to help detect COVID-19 carriers but regulators need to plot an exit strategy from this new form of deeply personal and intensive surveillance.

The need for that exit strategy is plain because whenever businesses or governments get us all to sign up for data collection, the assumption is that it’s for the greater good and giving up a little privacy is worth it in the end. Then, whether sooner or later, that data is always criminally and cynically abused, usually in utterly predictable ways.

That last sentence I quoted there is right on the money.

Meeting Hell

Of course, everyone #StayingTheFuckAtHome and meeting online these days. So much, in fact, that Microsoft Teams alone clocked 2.7 billion meeting minutes in one day recently. 2.7 billion! That’s roughly 5137 years of meetings. In a single day! Shoot me. Now. Before all of this unimaginable pain and suffering opens a vortex to the Warp or that Event Horizon dimension…

Speaking of meetings, over 500,000 Zoom accounts have been discovered for sale on the web. Sorry, the “dark web”… Ohhhh, spooky!

These credentials are gathered through credential stuffing attacks where threat actors attempt to login to Zoom using accounts leaked in older data breaches. The successful logins are then compiled into lists that are sold to other hackers.

Some of these Zoom accounts are offered for free on hacker forums so that hackers can use them in zoom-bombing pranks and malicious activities. Others are sold for less than a penny each.

I doubt Zoom doesn’t care much. They are bathing in cash. And are rolling out amazing security features like this one:

Zoom’s security catch-up sprint has seen it announce its users will soon be able to choose where their traffic goes. Zoom’s security catch-up sprint has seen it announce its users will soon be able to choose where their traffic goes.

The change means that administrators of paid Zoom users can opt in or out of traffic passing through the videoconferencing company’s data centres in United States, Canada, Europe, India, Australia, China, Latin America, and Japan/Hong Kong.

Free users will be locked to their nearest data centre and never, ever, routed through China.

Sorry, what? How was traffic not going through China not the default from the beginning? I mean, they do have that huge firewall. You’d think you’d actually have to go out of your way to route your data through Chinese networks. Did Zoom actually want to send their traffic through a dictatorship?

The Curfew Doesn’t Work

And amid all of that, Heise is reporting on a new study by the Robert-Koch-Institut on SARS-CoV-2 cases in Germany that seems to suggest that there is absolutely no statistically relevant impact the curfew is having on the spread of the disease. Closing schools seems to have worked somewhat – no wonder, those things are Nurgle’s own breeding pools when it comes to diseases – and maybe banning events did its share. But the curfew hasn’t done jack shit.

If you combine that with a recent study by a virologist from Bonn who very closely analysed the worst early outbreak area within Germany and comes up with a SARS-CoV-2 mortality rate of 0.37%, maybe the reaction we’re having is a tad overblown? That mortality rate is much closer to bad strains of influenza than to SARS-CoV. And its pretty much in line with what I reported at the very beginning of February and late January when I said the media reaction to this was overblown.

Softbank Expects to Lose $16.7 Billion During the Coming Depression

But hey, better safe then sorry. But is it safe to completely trash our economy and with that all our livelihoods?

One of Softbank’s slogans is that it “invests in human progress.” If its latest forecasts are anything to go by, the returns are disappointing, to say the least. Its legendary $100bn Vision Fund, which has been behind major investments in Uber, WeWork and British chip designer Arm Holdings, says it expects to lose JPY 1.8 trillion ($16.7bn) in FY2019.

The Japanese company said the losses would be the result of “a decrease in the fair value of investments due to the deteriorating market.”

The International Monetary Fund is now forecasting the worst recession since the 1930s will hit the global economy, which could shrink by 3 per cent during 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 virus outbreak and related social lockdowns. By way of comparison, the global economy fell 0.7 per cent in 2009 following the credit crunch.

I’m far from an expert on the economy, but I do have a background in studying the history of Europe in the early 20th century. And I do believe this will be worse than the Great Depression. And remember: The Great Depression contributed significantly to the failure of the Weimar Republic. With all that entailed.

Maybe it’s for the better that the IT systems of the Frankfurt Stock Exchange decided to take a day off.

Conway Loses Game of Life

Statistics aside, COVID-19 is a serious health issue, of course. Among the people we recently lost to it is the inventor of the Game of Life, Jon Conway.

Mathematician John Conway has died after suffering from COVID-19. Conway, 82, had most recently served as a Professor Emeritus at Princeton University, earning the John Von Neumann emeritus title. According to the local Planet Princeton, Conway took ill with the virus last week and died on Saturday following a brief struggle.

Best known amongst the eggheads for devising the “Game Of Life”, Conway holds a special place in computer science, creating a self-sustaining “cellular automaton” program way back in 1970. Most of Conway’s achievements were in the field of game theory and cutting-edge mathematics, however.

“Perhaps his greatest achievement (certainly his proudest achievement) is the invention of new system of numbers, the surreal numbers,” Conway’s Princeton bio reads. Born in Liverpool in 1937, Conway would gain a BA from Cambridge in 1959 and get a doctorate by 1964. Six years later, he would devise the Game of Life, an achievement in both computer science and mathematics. The program, a self-sustaining zero-player game, operated on a grid of black and white cells.

“Forever the showman, always seeking the center of attention, he gained a reputation for carrying on his person ropes, pennies, coat hangers, cards, dice, games, puzzles, models, sometimes a Slinky – props deployed to extend his winning and charismatic imagination,” Princeton said of the star boffin.

Rest in peace. May you always live on in the minds of those who follow!

Some Good News

With all this doom and gloom, there are some good news, however. A surprise new XCOM game, for one.

XCOM: Chimera Squad isn’t a direct continuation of XCOM 2, but a smaller, standalone spin-off that puts you in control of a fixed set of developer-created, human and human-alien hybrid characters within a branching campaign about 20 hours in length. Interestingly, it’ll be half-price on Steam ($10) until May 1, after which it will go up to its regular price of $20.

I’m gonna be getting that! I love XCOM.

Also, after more than 16 years of development, Inkscape will finally reach the vaunted version 1.0 status soon.

The plan is for Inkscape 1.0 to be released on 1 May.

The Register has an interview with one of the devs that’s well worth a read.

Man, I’ve created so much art with Inkscape in the last decade and a half. Pretty much all the logos and designs you see on this page were done in Inkscape. What a fantastic tool!

Also Noteworthy

Some other stories I’ve been reading today:

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