Vergecast: iCloud encryption, Sonos’ apology, and folding phones

The Vergecast is back in the studio to talk about the location of math. The Verge’s Nilay Patel, Dieter Bohn, and Paul Miller are joined by Russell Brandom to dig into the issues surrounding encryption on the iPhone, the Jeff Bezos phone hack, and more.

A big theme this week is a lot of people realizing things about technology that seemed like changes but, in fact, were not. Apple’s system for what is and isn’t accessible on iCloud and iMessage backups hasn’t changed, but everybody’s awareness of how complicated it can be has. Luckily, Russell has a handle on all of it.

We also discussed the apology from Sonos CEO Patrick Spence over the end-of-life announcement for some old products. Same situation: the apology didn’t change Sonos’ plans, but what has changed is the company finally stopped making face-palming mistakes when it tried to communicate to its customers about them.

Paul also bought back his completely consistent and never-missed segment, and we talked a bit about how we’re getting more excited about folding phones than we expected to be at this point in the year. Pull your car over, update your podcast app, and give it a listen.

Stories discussed in this episode:

  • Trump demands Apple unlock iPhones: ‘They have the keys to so many criminals and criminal minds’
  • How to FBI-proof your encrypted iPhone backups
  • The FBI has asked Apple to unlock another shooter’s iPhone
  • Apple rejects AG Barr’s claim that it didn’t assist with Pensacola shooting probe
  • Can Apple live up to Apple’s privacy ads?
  • Saudi Arabian prince reportedly hacked Jeff Bezos’ phone with malicious WhatsApp message
  • Senator asks Jeff Bezos for more information on Saudi-linked hack
  • PSA: Never open a WhatsApp message from the crown prince of Saudi Arabia
  • Here’s a first look at Android on Microsoft’s dual-screen Surface Duo
  • Microsoft’s software plan for the Duo Android phone is surprisingly realistic
  • Motorola’s foldable Razr will launch on February 6th after delay
  • Cruise driverless taxi: no steering wheel, no pedals
  • Sonos will stop providing software updates for its oldest products in May
  • Comcast plans price hikes for cable customers as it looks ahead to streaming Peacock launch
  • Google’s ads just look like search results now

Aurora is finally ready to show the world what it’s been up to

Aurora, the self-driving car company founded by former Waymo engineer Chris Urmson, doesn’t do dog and pony shows. It doesn’t trot out its vehicles just to prove they exist or take journalists for test drives to demonstrate that the technology actually works. In fact, in the three years since Aurora launched, the public has heard very little about how Aurora plans to compete against Waymo, Ford, and General Motors.

After months of announcements — the company acquired a LIDAR sensor maker, hired a VP of hardware, and took an investment from Amazon — that finally appears to be changing. Just before the New Year, Urmson’s co-founders Sterling Anderson and Drew Bagnell hosted a rare media event to talk about their technology and take journalists for test drives. It was, in other words, a dog and pony show.

“These vehicles look like garbage because they’re test vehicles,” Anderson said, before ushering us outside to try them out. The vehicles, a fleet of Lincoln MKZs, did not look like garbage; they looked functional and exceedingly clean. Inside, screens mounted on the backs of the front seats displayed a dynamic map with moving blocks and blinking lights. It was the world around us, interpreted through the “eyes” of the car.

“It’s the main line of our software,” Urmson tells me in a phone call the following week. (He missed the event because of a cold.) “It wasn’t some kind of weird, pulled off to the side, polished for demo. It was our core developer branch.”

It was this software that powered me along at about 20 miles per hour, accompanied by two of Aurora’s safety drivers and a journalist from NPR. As we pulled away from the venue, an oncoming vehicle nudged into our lane, prompting Aurora’s car to brake abruptly. The safety drivers seemed unperturbed. While their hands stayed on the wheel, they were observing the car in a relaxed manner, and they didn’t seem to need to take control. After successfully completing multiple left-hand turns near distracted pedestrians — the gold standard, I am told, for autonomous vehicles — the car seemed to recover its dignity, depositing us back at the venue without incident.

To date, Aurora has raised $690 million in funding, and Urmson has been hailed as the “Henry Ford of autonomous vehicles,” thanks to his work helping to pioneer Google’s self-driving car initiative. His co-founders have equally prestigious backgrounds: Sterling Anderson helped lead Tesla’s Model X project, while Bagnell ran a research lab at Carnegie Mellon then left to work on autonomous vehicles at Uber.

The result has been a team and company that self-driving car enthusiasts are eager to hear from. Yet, in an industry characterized by lofty predictions and flashy demonstrations, Urmson has been a voice of restraint and reason, particularly over the last couple of years.

Back in 2015, Urmson said that his goal for autonomous vehicles was that things would progress so rapidly that his 11-year old son would not need to get a driver’s license. Now, he has a more measured prediction: over the next five years, we’ll start to see commercial fleets of autonomous vehicles piloting people and goods. After that, we could start to see broad adoption.

Waymo, for its part, has been testing autonomous vehicles in Phoenix since 2017. In 2018, the company launched a limited ride-hailing service using its self-driving cars. The program is available in the neighboring towns of Chandler, Gilbert, Mesa, and Tempe in Arizona. More recently, it began offering rides to people in its fully driverless vehicles without safety drivers.

Urmson, whose son just turned 16 and is finally in the process of getting his driver’s license, says that his original goal isn’t actually that far-fetched, given these rapid developments. “In my defense, if we happened to have moved to Chandler, there’s a neighborhood where he could conceivably get a ride around in a self-driving car without having to drive,” he said.

Aurora’s core product is called the Aurora Driver, a combination of software and hardware that can be installed in different types of cars to make them drive autonomously. (This echoes his old employers who call their product the “Waymo Driver.”) So far, the system has been integrated into six different types of vehicles, including sedans, SUVs, minivans, commercial vans, and Class 8 freight trucks — none of which have been deployed commercially.

Notably, these developments won’t mean Aurora will spend a lot more time test-driving cars. “We’re going to drive about half as many miles this year,” Sterling said at the event, adding that the company is focused on testing the vehicles in simulated environments. That strategy allows Aurora to test the car in unique situations that rarely come up in the real world: a fallen tree blocking the road, for example, or a severe car crash obstructing traffic. As the car learns how to respond to those situations in a simulated environment, it gets better at reacting on the road.

To that end, Aurora has developed a proprietary system for executing these types of test drives, ultimately increasing simulating driving experiences by a factor of 100, as reported by Automotive News. It’s also doubling down on a teleoperation program that will allow specialists to remotely monitor the cars through its cameras and provide assistance in a pinch.

When Aurora does test-drive cars this next year, it’ll likely be the specially designed Chrysler Pacifica minivans — a model that is also used by Urmson’s old employer Waymo. The company recently announced that it’ll begin driving these vehicles in “complex urban environments” using the latest version of the Aurora Driver and an updated version of its LIDAR.

The company also said that it plans to integrate the Aurora Driver with a tractor-trailer, thanks to this new LIDAR sensor. Previously, they said, “a sensor necessary for safe freeway driving for trucks did not exist.” Now, happily, it does, and the company plans to use it to quickly move forward in trucking.

Self-driving technology is expensive and time-consuming to develop, which is why many of Aurora’s competitors are owned by or aligned with big auto manufacturers and tech companies. Aurora, in contrast, plans to stay an independent supplier. “To have the biggest impact, we’ll work across a bunch of different automotive companies and truck companies and support their businesses,” Urmson says. “Whether they are public transit agencies or the Ubers and Lyfts of the world or logistics companies like Amazon or FedEx or UPS. We think about building a driver that can support all of those opportunities.”

Whether the company will be able to do that without a buyout from Big Auto is an open question. But Urmson seems confident that it will happen. “It’s the kind of technology that captures peoples’ imaginations,” he says, adding that he doesn’t plan to make media events a regular occurrence. “We would much rather spend the time building something we’re proud of and then see that impact the world than spend a whole lot of time on superficial demonstrations.”

Controversial facial recognition firm Clearview AI facing legal claims after damning NYT report

Clearview AI, an artificial intelligence firm providing facial recognition technology to US law enforcement, may be overstating how effective its services are in catching terrorist suspects and preventing attacks, according to a report from BuzzFeed News.

The company, which gained widespread recognition from a New York Times story published earlier this month, claims it was instrumental in identifying a New York suspect from video footage who had placed three rice cookers disguised as explosive devices around New York City last August, creating panic and setting off a citywide manhunt. BuzzFeed News found via a public records request that Clearview AI has been claiming in promotional material that law enforcement linked the suspect to an online profile in only five seconds using its database. But city police now say this is simply false.

“The NYPD did not use Clearview technology to identify the suspect in the August 16th rice cooker incident,” an NYPD spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. “The NYPD identified the suspect using the Department’s facial recognition practice where a still image from a surveillance video was compared to a pool of lawfully possessed arrest photos.”

The NYPD now says it has no formal relationship with Clearview, despite the company’s claims otherwise both in the promotional material it’s using to pitch its technology around the country and even publicly on its website. Clearview CEO Hoan Ton-That now says the NYPD is using its technology “on a demo basis,” BuzzFeed reports.

In a blog post published on Thursday responding to criticism, Clearview claims it has rejected the idea it produce a public, consumer-facing facial recognition app that could be accessed by anyone.

“Clearview’s app is not available to the public. While many people have advised us that a public version would be more profitable, we have rejected the idea,” the post reads. “Clearview exists to help law enforcement agencies solve the toughest cases, and our technology comes with strict guidelines and safeguards to ensure investigators use it for its intended purpose only.”

Clearview has quickly risen to the forefront of the national conversation around facial recognition technology — in particular, growing concern among activists and politicians over how it may be used to violate civil rights and whether it’s being adopted too quickly based on false or misleading claims about its effectiveness. Amazon, which makes a cloud-based facial recognition product called Rekognition, has also faced similar criticism for selling its technology to law enforcement despite repeated concerns from academics and activists who say it is flawed when used to try to identity darker-skinned and female individuals.

Clearview is also facing challenges from platforms in the wake of the NYT report. Twitter has sent Clearview a cease-and-desist letter demanding that the company stop scraping its platform for photos to include in its database. Twitter also demanded the company delete any existing data it may have obtained from the platform because using it to fill out a third-party database without user consent is against Twitter’s policies. Clearview has acknowledged publicly that it built out its database in part by scraping social media profiles.

Additionally, the New Jersey Office of the Attorney General has barred the state’s police departments from using Clearview, and sent a cease-and-desist to Clearview on Friday after the Department of Law and Public Safety discovered that a photo fo New Jersey AG Gurbir S. Grewal was being used on Clearview’s website to falsely promote its product as having been used in a 2019 child predator sting.

Members of Congress are also expressing concerns over the product. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), a vocal critic of Silicon Valley privacy practices and overreach, also sent a letter to Ton-That earlier this month demanding the company provide crucial information about its practices and technology. The list of questions includes information on which law enforcement agencies Clearview is working with, results of internal bias and accuracy tests if there are any, whether the company plans to market its technology to individuals or third-party companies beyond law enforcement, and its child privacy protections, among other info.

“The ways in which this technology could be weaponized are vast and disturbing. Using Clearview’s technology, a criminal could easily find out where someone walking down the street lives or works. A foreign adversary could quickly gather information about targeted individuals for blackmail purposes,” reads Markey’s letter. “Clearview’s product appears to pose particularly chilling privacy risks, and I am deeply concerned that it is capable of fundamentally dismantling Americans’ expectation that they can move, assemble, or simply appear in public without being identified.”

In one particularly dystopian twist, The New York Times reported that Clearview had identified and reached out to police officers who may have been talking with journalists by checking logs of which officers uploaded photos of those journalists into Clearview’s app. “It’s extremely troubling that this company may have monitored usage specifically to tamp down on questions from journalists about the legality of their app,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) tweeted last Sunday.

Update January 25th, 2:30PM ET: Added new information regarding a cease-and-desist from the New Jersey Attorney General’s Office, and that New Jersey police have been barred from using the app.

Android’s AirDrop competitor demonstrated in new hands-on video

A new hands-on video from XDA Developers has given us our best look yet at Android’s upcoming AirDrop-style sharing feature called Nearby Sharing. The video of the unannounced feature shows a number of photos and a video file being sent between a Pixel 2 XL and a Pixel 4, although XDA notes that the feature has also been seen working on a OnePlus device.

Despite how useful AirDrop is, so far, Android has struggled to find much success with its own alternative. Its NFC-based take on the feature was discontinued in Android 10, and although Google’s Files app includes similar functionality, it’s not quite the same as having it baked it at the OS level. There have been reports that Google is working on an AirDrop competitor for Android for a little while, but this is the first time we’ve had the chance to see it in action.

In the video, Nearby Sharing is shown built right into Android’s quick settings menu. It doesn’t seem to be in a finished state just yet — the video shows it failing at least once when trying to send a video file — but once the transfer starts, it’s a fairly quick transfer over Wi-Fi. The feature says that it’s designed to work best when the two devices are within one foot of each other, but there are also options to restrict your device’s visibility if you don’t want strangers to be able to send you files using the feature.

Google isn’t the only player in the Android ecosystem that’s thought to be working on an AirDrop competitor. Just this morning XDA-Developers reported that Samsung has a file-sharing standard of its own called Quick Share, and last year, a trio of China’s biggest smartphone manufacturers — Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo — announced that they were working on their own protocol.

The advantage Nearby Sharing has is that it should eventually be available on phones from every Android manufacturer, rather than being limited to just a small group of them, or even just one in the case of Samsung. There’s no word on when the feature might be officially released (or even announced), but given it’s already in a working state, it can’t be too far away.

Beats’ new Solo Pro wireless noise-canceling headphones are $50 off

The Beats Solo Pro are $50 off at Best Buy, taking the price down to $249.99. This matches the lowest price we’ve seen yet. And to our knowledge, this is only the second time they’ve been discounted. If you haven’t read our review, these are the best Beats headphones yet, according to The Verge’s Chris Welch, with a noise cancellation effect and sound quality that are inarguably great.

Those gifted with large noggins, be warned: you might find that these on-ear headphones clamp down too hard on your ears. Another warning, this time for people with heads of all sizes, is that these charge via Apple’s Lightning connector, not USB-C. Best Buy’s deal includes several colors, and you have through Monday, January 27th, to take advantage of this price drop.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verg

Google’s Pixel 3A and Pixel 4 are cheaper than usual right now. The discounts ($50 and $100, respectively) are decent, but the real reason to consider buying one now is for the free gift card that you’ll get with purchase. Here’s the full list of offers happening now:

Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Google Nest Mini smart speakers usually cost $49.99 (you can commonly find them for less), but Daily Steals is offering Verge readers a special deal for a limited time on a two-pack of new Nest Mini speakers. After you’ve added them to your cart, enter the code VERGENEST at checkout to get two for $56.99.

I reviewed this model when it released in late 2019, and I found that it’s a worthy successor to the Home Mini in terms of improved sound quality and touch controls. (They light up to make it easier to see the capacitive buttons.) It can also hang on the wall out of the box, which is a novel feature you won’t find in other affordable smart speakers — that is, unless you buy additional accessories to make it possible.

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

Logitech’s G903 wireless ambidextrous gaming mouse is steeply discounted at Best Buy. Usually $149.99, you can get it for $59.99 right now. Unlike most both-handed gaming mice on the market, the G903 has side buttons on each side of the mouse. It’s also compatible with Logitech’s PowerPlay wireless charging mouse pad.

The best wireless earbuds to buy right now

It’s 2020, and by now, you’ve probably owned your first pair of true wireless earbuds. It’s not until you use them that you can truly appreciate the freedom that comes with shedding all cables. Even earbuds with a neckband (aka “neckbuds”), though they offer longer battery life, can snag on things and be uncomfortably yanked from your ears. True wireless earbuds, meanwhile, continue to make advances in sound quality, comfort, connection stability, and ease of use. Above all else, they’re inherently convenient and freeing — as long as you don’t lose them, anyway.

But a downside of these earbuds can be longevity. If you were an AirPods early adopter or got a pair of Galaxy Buds with your Samsung phone, they might not hold a charge like they used to, and you’re probably on the hunt for a replacement set. This feeling of disposability and planned obsolescence is frustrating, but from a product perspective, the benefits and disentanglement that come with true wireless earbuds still make them a worthwhile buy.

You’ll know you’ve found the right wireless earbuds when they can sit comfortably and securely in your ears for hours on end, sound like something worthy of their price, and last long enough (with case recharges) that you’ll only occasionally have to stress about charging them up with a cable.

Best wireless earbuds: Apple AirPods Pro

Photo by Chris Welch / The Verge

Apple finally came up with a solution for the many people with ears that were never a good match for regular AirPods: spend more money. Thanks to their revamped in-ear design and silicone tips, the AirPods Pro can fit a wider assortment of people compared to the standard AirPods and are the best Apple-branded earbuds yet. And since they now seal in your ears, Apple also added a noise cancellation feature.

The AirPods Pro remain ideally suited for iPhone owners and, because the competition has gotten so good, they’re harder to recommend if you have an Android phone. Setting them up is child’s play: just open the case next to your phone and follow the prompts, after which they automatically sync with all of your Apple devices. Their noise-canceling powers are no match for over-ear headphones like the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 (or other recommended picks), but they’re competent at muting office chitchat and deadening the raucous sounds of the subway. Apple’s natural-sounding transparency mode does a fantastic job of piping in outside noise when you want to hear it.

You can expect a significant upgrade over previous AirPods in terms of sound quality, with the in-ear seal helping to amplify bass response for a clean, well-balanced listening experience. And the AirPods remain the best choice if you make a lot of voice calls on the go, with excellent microphone performance aided by the noise cancellation, which helps you hear the person you’re talking to more clearly.

But the AirPods Pro aren’t a flawless product; with 4.5 hours of battery life when noise cancellation is enabled, they won’t last through a cross-country flight. I still regularly take both earbuds out of the case only to find that audio is coming from just one of them. This can only be resolved by putting them back in the case and trying again. Despite three included sizes of ear tips, some people still can’t get a perfect fit and have come up with clever ways of adding memory foam to the mix. Separately, complaints have recently emerged about Apple’s noise cancellation taking a step down in effectiveness after firmware updates. Last, though they’re water and sweat resistant, the AirPods Pro aren’t quite as impervious to those elements as other fitness-focused earbuds on the market.

Best if you’ve got an Android phone: Jabra Elite 75t

Photo by Avery White / The Verge

The Jabra Elite 75t earbuds are a terrific sequel to the company’s well-reviewed 65t buds. Now featuring a smaller, lighter, and far more comfortable design, the new Jabras also extend battery life over their predecessors and make a leap in sound quality. They roundly outperform the AirPods Pro when it comes to bass (so much so that you’ll probably want to turn down the low end in Jabra’s app), and they last longer, too: up to 7.5 hours of continuous listening on a charge. The 75t earbuds lack active noise cancellation, which undoubtedly helps extend endurance, but they at least give you very decent noise isolation.

You can pair the 75t earbuds with two devices at once, seamlessly switching between music on your laptop or tablet and taking a call on your phone. There’s no noticeable mismatch between audio and video when watching Netflix, YouTube, or other apps. And though it takes some memorization, Jabra’s control scheme (just a single button on each earbud) works well once you’ve got it down and lets you adjust volume without grabbing your phone or asking a voice assistant to do it.

There’s a lot to like about Jabra’s latest earbuds, and they work equally well on both Android and iOS. If you’ve got an iPhone, I still think the AirPods Pro are a better match because they’re so interwoven into the software, but if you want rumbling bass, consider saving quite a few dollars and going with the Jabra Elite 75t.

Other contenders

With a bigger field than ever before, you’ve got plenty of other options if neither of our recommended picks are what you’re looking for. The Powerbeats Pro take many of the best attributes of AirPods and put them in a form factor that’s better suited for the gym or running; they also have vastly better battery life but lack the active noise cancelation and come in a chunky case. If you’re mainly looking for a pair of fitness buds, I like the Jaybird Vistas for that scenario, as they fit snugly and come in a wonderfully compact case.

Amazon’s Echo Buds are a terrific first effort from the company, offering good sound quality that’s made better by Bose’s noise reduction technology. Sony’s 1000XM3 earbuds outperform the AirPods Pro at noise cancellation, but they lack any official rating for water or sweat resistance. And if you can’t bring yourself to spend $150 or more on earbuds, Anker’s Soundcore products continue to impress at a price point that’s easier to stomach. There are more picks to come this year, with new Pixel Buds from Google, Surface Buds from Microsoft, and new wireless earbuds from Bose all on the way in 2020.

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YouTube moderators are being forced to sign a statement acknowledging the job can give them PTSD

Content moderators for YouTube are being ordered to sign a document acknowledging that performing the job can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to interviews with employees and documents obtained by The Verge. Accenture, which operates a moderation site for YouTube in Austin, Texas, distributed the document to workers on December 20th — four days after The Verge published an investigation into PTSD among workers at the facility.

“I understand the content I will be reviewing may be disturbing,” reads the document, which is titled “Acknowledgement” and was distributed to employees using DocuSign. “It is possible that reviewing such content may impact my mental health, and it could even lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I will take full advantage of the weCare program and seek additional mental health services if needed. I will tell my supervisor/or my HR People Adviser if I believe that the work is negatively affecting my mental health.”

The PTSD statement comes at the end of the two-page acknowledgment form, and it is surrounded by a thick black border to signify its importance. It may be the most explicit acknowledgment yet from a content moderation company that the job now being done by tens of thousands of people around the world can come with severe mental health consequences.

“The wellbeing of our people is a top priority,” an Accenture spokeswoman said in an email. “We regularly update the information we give our people to ensure that they have a clear understanding of the work they do — and of the industry-leading wellness program and comprehensive support services we provide.”

Accenture said it shares information about potentially disturbing content with all of the content moderators it employs, including those who work on its contracts with Facebook and Twitter. But it would not answer questions about whether it specifically informs Facebook and Twitter moderators that they are at risk for PTSD. The Verge has previously interviewed Facebook moderators working for Accenture competitor Cognizant in Phoenix, Arizona, and Tampa, Florida, who have been diagnosed with PTSD after viewing violent and disturbing content.

In a statement, Facebook said it did not review or approve forms like the one Accenture sent. A Twitter spokeswoman said that both full-time and contract Twitter employees receive information when they join the company that acknowledges they might have to view sensitive material as part of their jobs. It is not clear whether contract workers for Facebook or Twitter have been asked to sign the PTSD acknowledgment form. (If you’re a contract worker for either company and have been asked to sign one, please email casey@theverge.com.)

The PTSD form describes various support services available to moderators who are suffering, including a “wellness coach,” a hotline, and the human resources department. (“The wellness coach is not a medical doctor and cannot diagnose or treat mental health disorders,” the document adds.)

It also seeks to make employees responsible for monitoring changes in their mental health and orders them to disclose negative changes to their supervisor or HR representative. It instructs employees to seek outside help if necessary as well. “I understand how important it is to monitor my own mental health, particularly since my psychological symptoms are primarily only apparent to me,” the document reads. “If I believe I may need any type of healthcare services beyond those provided by [Accenture], or if I am advised by a counselor to do so, I will seek them.”

The document adds that “no job is worth sacrificing my mental or emotional health” and that “this job is not for everyone” — language that suggests employees who experience mental health struggles as a result of their work do not belong at Accenture. It does not state that Accenture will make reasonable accommodations to employees who become disabled on the job, as required by federal law. Labor attorneys told The Verge that this language could be construed to suggest that employees may be terminated for becoming disabled, which would be illegal.

“I’m acknowledging that if I disclose my mental health to you, you may be able to fire me. That isn’t allowed,” said Alreen Haeggquist, an employee rights attorney based in California.

Accenture says signing the document is voluntary. But two current employees told The Verge that they were threatened with being fired if they refused to sign. The document itself also says that following its instructions is required: “Strict adherence to all the requirements in this document is mandatory,” it reads. “Failure to meet the requirements would amount to serious misconduct and for Accenture employees may warrant disciplinary action up to and including termination.”

Employment law experts contacted by The Verge said Accenture’s requirement that employees tell their supervisor about negative changes to their mental health could be viewed as an illegal requirement to disclose a disability or medical condition to an employer.

“I would think it’s illegal to force an employee to disclose any sort of disability to you,” Haeggquist said.

Accenture said employees are not being asked to disclose disabilities or medical conditions, and it framed the document as a general disclosure that it has been providing new employees for years. But it would not say why the PTSD disclosure was distributed mere days after The Verge’s investigation.

Accenture refused to disclose when it became aware that its workers were getting PTSD from exposure to YouTube content, how many workers have been affected so far, or whether it intended to use employees’ signatures as a legal defense against the current and future class action lawsuits it faces.

Google also would not answer questions about the prevalence of PTSD among its workforce of moderators. Instead, it issued this statement:

Moderators do vital and necessary work to keep digital platforms safer for everyone. We choose the companies we partner with carefully and require them to provide comprehensive resources to support moderators’ wellbeing and mental health.

Google would not comment on its vendor’s explicit warning to YouTube moderators that the job is harmful to workers’ mental health.

The Verge’s investigation last month into Accenture’s Austin site described hundreds of low-paid immigrants toiling in what the company calls its violent extremism queue, removing videos flagged for extreme violence and terrorist content. Working for $18.50 an hour, or about $37,000 a year, employees said they struggled to afford rent and were dealing with severe mental health struggles. The moment they quit Accenture or get fired, they lose access to all mental health services. One former moderator for Google said she was still experiencing symptoms of PTSD two years after leaving.

It’s unclear how common it is for content moderators to get PSTD. From my own interviews with more than 100 moderators over the past year, it appears to be a significant number. And many other employees develop long-lasting mental health symptoms that stop short of full-blown PTSD, including depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

Accenture’s PTSD disclosure comes as class action lawsuits are gathering steam around the world targeting tech platforms and their vendors. Facebook alone currently faces lawsuits that are seeking class action status in California and in Ireland.

Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA), employers are required to provide a workplace that is free of hazards that can cause serious harm or death. The act was designed to acknowledge that most employees cannot avoid unsafe conditions that are created by their employers, said Hugh Baran, a staff attorney with the nonprofit National Employment Law Project.

Baran, who reviewed the document for The Verge, said it read as “reverse psychology” — getting workers to blame themselves for any mental health struggles they have as a result of working in content moderation.

“It seems like these companies are unwilling to do the work that’s required by OSHA and reimagine these jobs to fit the idea that workers have to be safe,” Baran said. “Instead they’re trying to shift the blame onto workers and make them think that there’s something wrong in their own behavior that is making them get injured.”

Baran said forcing workers to sign PTSD acknowledgments could make them less likely to sue in the event that they become disabled. But companies like Accenture would still be liable for harm caused on the job, he said. “Under most understandings of OSHA, it doesn’t matter what you make people sign,” Baran said. “You can’t [eliminate] your burden to provide your employees with safe working conditions.”

Meanwhile, employees I spoke with expressed shock that only recently — after they had been doing the job for more than a year — did Accenture acknowledge that the work could scar them deeply and perhaps permanently.

“If I knew from the beginning how this job would impact our mental health, I would never have taken it,” one said.

Save on the Google Pixel 3A and Pixel 4, and get a free gift card with purchase

Google’s most recent phones, the Pixel 3A and Pixel 4, are discounted and include a free (generous) gift card with purchase at a few retailers. Neither amounts to the lowest price that we’ve seen, but still, it’s another chance to get in on the savings if you missed out on the Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals.

Starting with Google’s more affordable phone, the Pixel 3A (shown above), a $50 discount brings it down to $349.99. You’ll also get a $100 Best Buy gift card with your order at checkout. This offer also applies to the larger Pixel 3A XL with 64GB of storage that usually sells for $479.99 (now $429.99).

B&H Photo is offering the same deal, knocking $50 off of the Pixel 3A and including a $100 B&H Photo gift card with purchase. However, you won’t find the same deal available for the Pixel 3A XL there.

If you have your mind set on Google’s 2019 flagship phone, the Pixel 4, you can save there, too. Best Buy has knocked $100 off the prices of the black-colored 64GB Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL (now costing $699.99 and $799.99, respectively). What’s appealing about this deal is that each phone includes a huge $200 Best Buy gift card with purchase.

To get these savings on the Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL, make sure to select “Activate Later” under the price listed on Best Buy’s product page.

Now, you can use generative placeholder images for your web project

Generative Placeholders is a new tool that lets you embed autogenerated placeholder art into a website that changes with every page refresh. It only requires a brief bit of embedded code. The key word here is “placeholder,” which suggests that the tool’s creator, Stefan Bohacek, sees it as the visual equivalent of a Lorem Ipsum text generator (or the far superior Hipster Ipsum), designed to fill a prototype website with something while it’s under construction.

The code works by specifying how tall and wide a placeholder image should be, and it also lets you tweak the style and color of each image. There are eight different styles available, ranging from geometric layouts of circles or triangles to designs that are inspired by existing works of art like Joy Division’s Unknown Pleasures album cover (embedded below) or the abstract art of Piet Mondrian (above). You can also tweak other settings, such as color palette and pattern density.

(Note: Refresh the page to see the image regenerate.)

Before you set about filling your own site with autogenerated images, you should know that the copyright rules surrounding machine-generated works are still emerging. When it comes to music, US law is struggling to deal with art that’s not created by humans, and there are arguments that copyright can belong to either the human that created the AI, the AI itself, or even the public domain. For what it’s worth, Generative Placeholders is provided under the MIT License, which generally only places limited restrictions on how you can use the software.

You can check out how to implement the images on the project’s webpage.

Update January 24th, 11:11AM ET: Updated to include generative placeholder image.

The transforming Xbox 360 D-pad is proof that bad buttons can get better

In today’s digital age, it sometimes feels like hardware has taken a back seat to the software that drives our devices. Button of the Month will look at what some of those buttons and switches are like on devices old and new to appreciate how we interact with them on a physical, tactile level.

The Xbox 360 controller is considered to be one of the best video game controllers ever made — except for one thing: the D-pad. It’s conversely one of the worst directional inputs ever put on a controller.

Microsoft knew it had to fix things, and in 2010 — a full five years after it launched the Xbox 360 — it tried to do so in a singularly impressive fashion with the Xbox 360 Limited Edition controller, which featured a transforming D-pad. With a quick twist, the new controller could switch between the (terrible) eight-way rocker that the original model shipped with and a variant mode that raised up the plus-shaped part of the D-pad for more distinct buttons to push.

It was a creative attempt to fix what was broken, even if it wasn’t entirely successful. An IGN review from the time notes that the base rocker mechanism for the buttons remained largely the same in terms of design and overall resistance, making it more of a surface change.

That said, as someone who played an irresponsible amount of Xbox 360 games over the years with both controllers, I do prefer the transforming D-pad. By making the four-way plus buttons more usable in any respect — even if just to make it easier to blindly switch between the distinct directions through the raised plus component — you’ve already made a big stride over the original rocker.

More importantly, it’s the creative compromise that the transforming D-pad represents that makes it fascinating. Instead of just switching the design entirely, Microsoft recognized that there were likely players and developers who had grown used to the eight-way rocker. And rather than leaving them with nothing, it tried to appease the groups that liked the rocker and the groups that hated it. It’s a recognition that not all players like to play the same way, an ethos that Microsoft would later establish even further with the completely customizable Xbox One Elite controller.

Like many things related to video game controllers, the heritage of the Xbox 360 controller (and its bad D-pad) is one of gradual growth. It starts with the original Xbox controller, affectionately called “the Duke” due to its uncomfortably large size. Microsoft fixed that with the Xbox Controller S, which offered a more reasonably sized model. That controller would serve as the basis for the Xbox 360 controller, albeit with more changes, like secondary trigger buttons and the Xbox guide button in the center (one of its best innovations).

It wouldn’t be until the Xbox One controller that Microsoft would have a good D-Pad, and it would take another two years for the Xbox One Elite Controller to offer a proper modular D-pad system that allowed players to switch between an eight-way pad and a four-pad plus without sacrificing quality on either option.

Of course, controllers constantly change: the Xbox Series X is around the corner, and Microsoft is already showing off a new controller that features yet another D-pad design. Even if it turns out to be worse than the current model, the Xbox 360’s transforming D-pad is emblematic of the fact that things eventually get better.