The Download: an “unhackable” phone, and Ring’s TV show

This is today’s edition of The Download, our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

Erik Prince wants to sell you a “secure” smartphone that’s too good to be true

Erik Prince’s pitch to investors was simple, but certainly ambitious: pay just €5 million and cure the biggest cybersecurity and privacy plagues of our day.

The American billionaire—best known for founding the notorious private military firm Blackwater—was pushing Unplugged, a smartphone startup promising “free speech, privacy, and security” untethered from dominant tech giants like Apple and Google.

But these bold claims are undercut by a previously unreported pitch deck obtained by MIT Technology Review. It’s a messy mix of impossible claims, meaningless buzzwords, and outright fiction.

Almost every attempt to build this kind of phone has failed. This try is likely to be no different. Read the full story.

—Patrick Howell O’Neill

Ring’s new TV show is a brilliant but ominous viral marketing ploy

Footage from Ring’s camera devices, which customers install to protect their homes, keep an eye on deliveries, and see or interact with who’s at the door, has become a common sight across social media in recent years.

Such videos will underpin new TV show Ring Nation when it starts next month, featuring funny animals, marriage proposals, and heartwarming neighborhood interactions.

As well as an extended viral marketing campaign, it’s a clever attempt to launder the image of Ring—a company that has been continuously criticized for its often-lax approach to customer data, and especially for allowing law enforcement to access user videos without consent. Read the full story.

—Eileen Guo & Abby Ohlheiser

The fight for “Instagram face”

Through beauty filters, platforms like Instagram are helping users achieve increasingly narrowing beauty standards—though only in the digital world—at a stunningly rapid pace. There is evidence that excessive use of these filters online has harmful effects on mental health, especially for young girls.

“Instagram face” is a recognized aesthetic template: ethnically ambiguous and featuring the flawless skin, big eyes, full lips, small nose, and perfectly contoured curves made accessible in large part by filters. And while Instagram has banned filters that encourage plastic surgery, massive demand for beauty augmentation on social media is complicating matters. Read the full story.

—Tate Ryan-Mosley

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The US is trying to get more monkeypox vaccines
By moving production to Michigan and splitting existing doses into fifths. (WP $)
+ It wants to provide 50,0000 vaccines for Pride events across the country. (CNBC)
+ Everything you need to know about the monkeypox vaccines. (MIT Technology Review)

2 A Chicago city sensor project has gone global
It tracked everything from air quality to flooding. (MIT Technology Review)

3 How a predatory CEO’s internet fame allowed him to hide in plain sight
Dan Price used social media to shamelessly rehabilitate his image and control the narrative around his actions. (NYT $)
+ Price has resigned from his company, Gravity Payments. (WP $)

4 An Apple security flaw leaves devices vulnerable to hacking
Hackers could seize full admin access to iPhones, iPads and Macs if users fail to update to the latest software. (The Verge)

5 Google workers urged the company to stop collecting abortion data
The union is also asking Alphabet to cease its political lobbying post-Roe. (The Guardian)
+ An adtech firm that reveals trips to abortion clinics has attracted the ire of the FTC. (WP $)
+ It’s still unclear how employer policies covering workers’ abortions will work. (The Atlantic $)
+ Big Tech remains silent on questions about data privacy in a post-Roe US. (MIT Technology Review)

6 What getting back to nature can teach us about the future 🍃
A ‘hunter-gatherer’ attitude could come in handy as the climate crisis intensifies. (Neo.Life)
+ Bioacoustics is a useful, if limited, way to keep an eye on wildlife. (Fast Company $) 

7 Google’s quantum computer has been cracked
By an algorithm running on a standard machine. (New Scientist $)

8 How much meat should we eat? 🥩
We ought to be both reducing our intake and farming more sustainably. (Knowable Magazine)
+ Giving up just half your hamburgers can really help the climate. (MIT Technology Review)

9 Meet the musicians connecting with fans over email
Forget TikTok and Instagram, Substack’s where it’s at these days. (The Guardian)

10 TikTokers are stealing cars now
The Kia Boyz trend has fueled a car crime wave across the US. (NY Mag $)
+ The platform has reversed its decision to ban the hashtag schizophrenia. (Input)

Quote of the day

“People are begging for monkeypox vaccines, and we’ve just pissed off the one manufacturer.”

—An anonymous health official describes how the Biden administration’s decision to split monkeypox vaccines into fifths did not go down well with its maker, Bavarian Nordic, to the Washington Post.

The big story

Inside Singapore’s huge bet on vertical farming

October 2020

It’s taken decades for Singapore to wake up and realize that—as far as food goes—it is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world.

This risk simply hadn’t occurred to authorities back in the 1970s, when they ripped up the crops of tapioca, sweet potatoes, and vegetables flourishing across more than 15,000 hectares of the country’s land and replaced them with high-rise office buildings and condos. The focus back then was finance, telecoms, and electronics, not food. 

But while this strategy successfully swelled Singapore’s economy (it’s now the fourth richest country in the world, per capita), it left the country with only 600 hectares of farmland. Consequently, the country has pinned its hopes on technology, with  high-output urban farms hailed as its best bet. But vertical farming is not without its skeptics. Read the full story.

—Megan Tatum

We can still have nice things

A place for comfort, fun and distraction in these weird times. (Got any ideas? Drop me a line or tweet ’em at me.)

+ Who doesn’t love the Beach Boys?
+ The evocado is a more environmentally friendly avocado, apparently.
+ A great question—why *do* so many bikes end up at the bottom of canals and lakes?
+ Here’s a brief look at just some of the weird and wonderful creatures lurking in the ocean depths.
+ How amazing does the world dog surfing championship look? (thanks Charlotte!)

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