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August 06, 2021

Welcome to your summer Friday — may it lead to a fine summer weekend.

Today's newsletter is 1,075 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Tech that measures Olympic greatness

A referee at women's basketball uses an Omega timing device to restart the game clock after the ball is inbounded.
A referee at women's basketball uses an Omega timing device to restart the game clock after the ball is inbounded. Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

With each new sport added to the Olympics comes a new challenge: how to time and score the event. For 89 years, that responsibility has fallen to Swiss watchmaker Omega, Axios' Ina Fried reports from Tokyo.

The big picture: What was once a job done by hand is an increasingly automated task, handled entirely, or aided by, technology.

What's new: Omega has added several new technologies for the Tokyo Games, including touch pads at speed climbing that use the athletes' own hands to stop the clock. (Speed climbing becomes the second sport, after swimming, to be directly controlled by the athletes.)

  • Omega has also added positioning sensors inside the bibs for some running disciplines to allow greater visibility into the performance that leads up to the finish.
  • A different type of wearable transponder will be used to track open water swimming.
  • An RF transmitter will help with rowing, allowing measurement of boat speed, but also the number of strokes being taken by the athletes.

Between the lines: The primary goal is always getting the most accurate results, but Omega's technology also enables new views and data for spectators watching on TV (and in-person most years).

"We're going to be able to tell the story of how great the athlete's performance actually is," said Alain Zobrist, who heads the unit responsible for Omega's Olympic work.

Flashback: Omega started its role as official time keeper in 1932 by providing one watchmaker and 30 stopwatches, one of which was on display at an exhibit they had here in Tokyo.

  • Manual stopwatches were in wide use through 1968.
  • Photo finish cameras started being used in the 1940s.
  • For Tokyo, Omega has 530 timekeepers and 400 tons of equipment to track all the athletes and sports.

Yes, but: Almost no one got to see Omega's exhibit in Tokyo as it was part of a "fan park" that never opened to the public because of efforts to limit the spread of COVID-19.

The big picture: The lack of in-person spectators at this year's Games has made technology's role even more critical.

  • For example, Olympics organizers set up a separate video chat system to allow athletes to connect with family, friends and supporters immediately after their event.

2. iPhones to scan for images of child sexual abuse

Illustration of the shadow of a hand over a cell phone.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Apple announced new iPhone features Thursday that it said would enable the detection and reporting of illegal images of child sexual abuse while preserving users' privacy.

Driving the news: One new system will use cryptographic hashes to identify illegal images that users are uploading to Apple's iCloud without Apple directly snooping in users' troves of photos, which can be encrypted.

  • If Apple's system flags enough such images in any one account, it will have human moderators review the case for possible referral to law enforcement.
  • Apple says it's confident its system's error rate is one in a trillion.

Another feature will flag sexually explicit photos sent via Apple's Messages service by or to users with family accounts. This system uses on-device machine learning to warn users of potentially problematic content.

Details: The features will begin rolling out for testing in the U.S. immediately and will arrive in final form as part of an update to iOS 15.

What they're saying: An Apple spokesperson at a background press briefing emphasized that the iCloud screening feature is similar to steps many cloud providers already take to comply with the law, but takes additional measures to preserve users' privacy.

  • The Financial Times first reported the news, along with questions from security researchers concerned that Apple's systems might become vehicles for broader surveillance.

Between the lines: Apple is winning plaudits from organizations that fight child abuse. But some experts fear that the systems Apple is now using in a good cause could be redirected by authoritarian governments or other bad actors to flag other kinds of content.

3. FCC unveils new mobile service maps

The Federal Communications Commission has released a new set of maps today showing mobile service coverage and availability as reported by the major wireless providers.

The FCC says these new maps represent a step towards complying with a 2020 law that mandated better public reporting of broadband and wireless service information.

The maps use a new data specification that will "improve the uniformity and consistency of broadband availability data," according to an FCC release.

The big picture: The FCC's previous broadband availability mapping efforts have long faced criticism for overstating the services available to consumers.

  • In June, the Biden White House released its own maps in an effort to demonstrate the broad need for better service in underserved areas.

Why it matters: Billions of dollars are about to be spent on boosting broadband access for underserved Americans. The better the data that directs that spending is, the more effective the dollars will be.

4. Alibaba's digital twist on Olympic trading pin

Alibaba’s digital pin as seen near some of the traditional fare from the Tokyo Olympics
Alibaba’s digital pin as seen near some of the traditional offerings from the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: Ina Fried/Axios

One of the most beloved Olympic traditions is the collecting and trading of pins emblazoned with Olympic mascots, sponsors and media. This year, Alibaba offered attendees of the Games a modern take with its digital pin, Ina reports from Tokyo.

Why it matters: The NFT craze is one indication of a broad move by the collectibles world to digital. One of the big challenges, though, is creating a physical object that can still be enjoyed.

How it works:

  • Alibaba's digital pin has a small display that shows one's name and a variety of different sport images. A built-in pedometer tracks its owner's steps.
  • The pin required users to download an app to their phone to set it up, as well as frequent use of an included USB-C charger to keep it from becoming a wearable paperweight.
  • Pinholders could become friends by tapping the pins back to back, sharing social media information.
  • Alibaba rewarded those who collected enough friends or took enough steps with prizes, including dolls, notebooks and old-fashioned Olympic pins.

My thought bubble: This was a decent first try for Alibaba, but more work is needed to really have a medal-worthy pin.

  • Needed improvements to win the gold would be longer battery life and more utility once the games have ended. (The device can basically only display one's name and sport logo of choice.)

5. Take note


  • Bill Gates told CNN his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein was "a huge mistake." (Axios)
  • The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency announced a new partnership with Amazon, Microsoft, Google and other tech firms, called the Joint Cyber Defense Collaborative, to combat ransomware attacks and attacks on cloud computing systems. (Wall Street Journal)

6. After you Login

Artist James Cook makes visual images using manual typewriters. Only. (Courtesy @mrstrangefact.)