Sunday, 19 Sep 2021

Opinion | Don’t get Bezosed

Unlucky 13, I guess.

Apple held a big event today to release its latest mobile device, the iPhone 13, and the Apple Watch Series 7.

But like a digital skunk at a garden party, news dropped yesterday from the well-regarded cybersecurity researchers at Citizen Lab in Canada that NSO Group, known for making invasive software, has exploited a flaw in Apple operating systems that could infect all of your Apple devices without so much as a click. I updated the emergency security patch that Apple released, and you should, too. (It took a while to complete.)

Here’s why, according to Nicole Perlroth of The New York Times:

The spyware, called Pegasus, used a novel method to invisibly infect Apple devices without victims’ knowledge. Known as a “zero click remote exploit,” it is considered the Holy Grail of surveillance because it allows governments, mercenaries and criminals to secretly break into someone’s device without tipping the victim off.

Using the zero-click infection method, Pegasus can turn on a user’s camera and microphone, record messages, texts, emails, calls — even those sent via encrypted messaging and phone apps like Signal — and send them back to NSO’s clients at governments around the world.

In other words, you could be Jeff Bezosed, and if you recall, that was not pretty.

The Elizabeth Holmes Conundrum

True story: I was at a Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in San Francisco in the fall of 2015, attending a lunch featuring Elizabeth Holmes onstage. How to put this kindly? Let’s just say the questions were softballs, and the whole thing felt too … celebratory.

Holmes was quite convincing that day, clad in her signature black turtleneck and slacks, looking every inch a wunderkind right at the height of the fervor around the company she founded, Theranos, which once was valued at $9 billion and promised a miraculous breakthrough in blood testing. At times, she was coy, shifting to passionate intensity and then crowd pleasing, noting people had more access to guns than their medical records. And then the coup de grâce:

“I felt like this was what I was put on this earth to do,” Holmes declared grandly, the very thing a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who styled herself as the next Steve Jobs might say.

Except Jobs would never have said anything like that, not without a giant smirk and an accompanying eye roll. Still, it worked for Holmes.

A mogul leaned over to me and said: “You always complain that you don’t have enough women at your events, so why not invite her onstage? She’s impressive.”

To which I replied, “She’s also a liar.”

Holmes had been pitched to me as a tech innovator, even though she was in the health care devices space, about which I had exactly zero expertise. Since I had to get frequent and onerous blood tests at the time, I had asked several doctors, including my brother, about Theranos, all of whom said it was laughable that Holmes could pull off what she said her Edison machine would do with just a drop of blood.

Last and perhaps most glaringly, in reading the many gushing profiles about her at the time, I realized that she had lied about a few seemingly small things, including that she did not date, and about where and how she lived. Silicon Valley is a small town in a lot of ways, and I knew several of her statements to be false, from multiple sources. Her little lies struck me as odd and troubling, since there was no reason to tell such mundane fibs, except as a bizarre marketing ploy.

I have been on the receiving end of a lot of such silly exaggerations from entrepreneurs over the years, but Holmes seemed to take the mendacity a step further, which I explained to the mogul, who then replied that I probably thought everyone lied. But I didn’t.

Holmes’s duplicity about Theranos was revealed in a series of articles by The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou weeks later.

Holmes is finally on trial now in California; she has been charged with 12 crimes, including wire fraud and defrauding patients and investors, and faces up to 20 years in prison. She is apparently offering the novel defense that … she is the victim.

This strategy means she will probably testify, a high-risk move that can result in high rewards or, in her case, more likely, in very high loss, according to the many lawyers I’ve spoken with. Holmes is claiming, among other things, that she was under the sway of her ex-boyfriend and a Theranos executive, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani. His trial starts early next year; he denies her allegations.

I typically believe the woman, but in this case, having seen Holmes in action when she was soaring, I have to believe him (I know, ugh), since she appears to be spinning the same kind of stories as before, this time to save her own skin.

In a future newsletter I’ll have 4 Questions for Carreyrou — who is doing an excellent podcast follow-up called “Bad Blood: The Final Chapter,” after his gripping book — to get his take on the trial.

Today my interrogation is focused on the political news in California.

4 Questions

My chat — by text — with the venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya, who helped fund the campaign to recall Gov. Gavin Newsom of California.

How do you feel now that it looks as though Newsom will win the recall election by a large margin? Was it worth it?

Exercising democracy is always worth it. It’s pretty incredible that in the most partisan state in the country, we are considering recalling our governor. The important question is “Why are we here?” The reason is that California is failing: in its response to the pandemic, in managing the impacts of climate change like wildfires and the water crisis, in fixing rising crime and homelessness. Despite having a one-party supermajority, in which any law could theoretically be passed, it’s not as if the governor has solved these issues. Throughout the pandemic, he put politics, entitlement and special interest groups ahead of science and common sense. The recall is showing that millions of people in California are really frustrated. My goal was to remind all of us that the power in politics should always be individual voters. In that way, I think it was a victory.

How did you look at the funding of Newsom by Reed Hastings? Where is tech now politically?

Everyone is allowed to support whomever they want. I am a strong supporter of the Democrats in general, but I also value levelheadedness. The truth is that we have major challenges facing our state right now, and the government of California seems either unwilling or unable to fix them. It actually pushes the responsibility even more to the private sector and tech entrepreneurs to develop the solutions we need to address climate change and inequality and deliver them at scale.

What are the important issues that Newsom has to deal with in the state?

I think he and all the politicians in Sacramento should see this recall election as a wake-up call. Even in California, we will vote along party lines for only so long. People want results and smart decisions that make their lives better. They want their kids in school, they want their water clean, they want jobs and economic security, they want the fires brought under control, and they want their streets safe. We have an abundance of wealth, talent and entrepreneurial spirit here — everything that’s needed to take big, bold action on these issues rather than just catering to the same old insiders.

Why didn’t you run? Shouldn’t you put your mouth where your money is?

I definitely thought about running, but it wasn’t the right time for my family or the work we are doing at Social Capital, but life is long. … I just committed $7 million to provide 1,000 families in the Central Valley with clean water. I’ll continue to find ways to help advance the work that the government can’t or won’t do.

My regular Facebook-screwed-up-again alert

Don’t miss this great investigation by Jeff Horwitz of The Wall Street Journal about Facebook’s XCheck program, in which the company gave a special pass to millions of celebrities, politicians and other grandees to post whatever they want. Say what you will about former President Donald Trump, but his misbehavior online has revealed a lot about the shoddy practices of the social media giants in dealing with their bad users.

The most devastating quote from an internal Facebook email (because these folks write down all their bad acts): “We are not actually doing what we say we are doing publicly.”

When it comes to Facebook, that’s a surprise to exactly no one.

How can you miss me if I won’t go away?

I hosted an event this afternoon with the Times reporter Maggie Haberman and Representative Cori Bush of Missouri. You can watch it here.

Have feedback? Send me a note at swisher-newsletter@nytimes.com.

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