Covid Alert pros & cons, Skeptech, and a flamethrower
By Mark Hurst • October 22, 2020

A short note today, as it's show day. In a few hours we'll get together on Zoom (and you're invited) for Skeptech: Smile for the Camera, an interactive event I'm hosting - covering drones, cameras, and surveillance - as well as a Zoom-magic show. Starts at 7pm Eastern (4pm Pacific) today, Thursday. It's for a good cause, too: 100% of the proceeds go to independent non-commercial WFMU, where I broadcast my show Techtonic.

Now for a pressing question that I've been asked by listeners and readers.

Should we be using a Covid Alert app?

New contact-tracing apps have arrived, like New York's Covid Alert NY and New Jersey's Covid Alert NJ, as well as similar apps elsewhere in the U.S. and worldwide.

Covid Alert enables an automated form of contact tracing. Here's how it works: the app continuously checks for people nearby also running Covid Alert. If and when someone tests positive for Covid, all the Covid Alert users who were in proximity to the Covid-positive person over the previous 24 hours will then see an alert on their phone.

When this contact tracing protocol was first announced back in the spring, I spoke on the April 27 Techtonic with Daniel Kahn Gillmor, senior staff technologist at the ACLU. (You can jump straight to the interview.) Gillmor pointed out that smartphone contact-tracing relies on Bluetooth, which is both unreliable - the range varies depending on the environment - and can bring back false positives. Imagine if you live in an apartment and your next-door neighbor tests positive for Covid. The app sends up the proximity alert, which is unnecessary here. (Bluetooth sees you as a few feet away from each other, but there's a wall in between, preventing Covid transmission.)

This week, I invited Gillmor back to Techtonic. Apart from Bluetooth's challenges, what are the pros and cons of the new Covid Alert apps? It was an illuminating discussion. Short story: it's mixed, and largely depends on how much you trust the corporate and government authorities not to misuse your data. But you should listen to Gillmor and draw your own conclusions:

Listen to the whole show here. Or you can jump to the interview.

Finally, near the end of the show as I read out the listener comments from the playlist and comments, I included Henry Lowengard's idea for a BTLE (Bluetooth Low Energy) device that would enable privacy-conscious contact tracing. Gillmor, who was on the live chat board, pointed out that Bunnie Huang is already thinking about just such a device. This is sort of digital tech that we should be investing in, rather than the latest tweak of Apple's or Google's handheld surveillance devices (which, soon enough, will be face-mounted surveillance devices).

Speaking of surveillance...

Presenters for Skeptech: Smile for the Camera

As I mentioned above, it's showtime this evening, Thursday, starting 7pm Eastern (4pm Pacific). This will be the third Skeptech event - the first two held in 2017 at WFMU's Monty Hall in Jersey City - and, for obvious reasons, we'll be conducting this one via Zoom.

It's shaping up to be a great event, with these presenters:

• Faine Greenwood, consumer drone expert (see her work at

• Vicki Bennett, aka People Like Us, multimedia artist (see her work at, whose short film "Wait Stop Wait" we'll be screening

• Andy Deemer, Zoom magician (see his work at

• I'll be hosting with a short talk about cameras and possibly a surprise or two.

I hope you'll join us - especially for anyone who remembers my Gel conference (2003-2016). Techtonic and Skeptech are, essentially, what Gel evolved into. So tonight's event is our newest chance to "get the band back together."

Sign up here for Skeptech: Smile for the Camera - today, Thursday, 7pm Eastern (4pm Pacific).

Finally, a flamethrower

I wrote the following in a burst yesterday. It's a long Twitter thread but maybe easier to read here. Enjoy.

- - -

Big Tech: [turns on flamethrower]

Rest of us: hey HEY stop burning down my house!

Big Tech: shut up, it's a meritocracy

Rest of us: are you insane?! turn it off!

Big Tech: let's not restrict the free flow of innovation


Rest of us: the front porch is on fire! turn it OFF

Big Tech: you Luddites are always complaining about new technology

Rest of us: my. house. is. on. fire.

Big Tech: it's called "disruption" - you should get used to it


Rest of us: you're not listening to me.

Big Tech: [turns up flamethrower]

Rest of us: HEY, hello there, could you please look at what you're doing, you're shooting flame onto my house

Big Tech: [singing] groooowth, at any cossssssst


Big Tech: oh. did you say something a minute ago?

Rest of us: yes, TURN THE-

Big Tech: no, a minute before that - did you say, like, something's on fire?

Rest of us: my house is on fire, because of-

Big Tech: so, like, you need a fire extinguisher?


Rest of us: i need you to stop-

Big Tech: so wait, i'm feeling innovative

Rest of us: no, no, we don't need more of your innovation. we need the fire OUT-

Big Tech: so i have a new rapid prototype, see, like design thinking tells me, like, reimagine fire extinguishers


Big Tech: [steeples fingers in front of mouth, thoughtful look in eyes]

Rest of us: HEY, do you mind addressing my house, which you're burning down

Big Tech: what if i told you... today's fire extinguishers are completely stupid

Rest of us: stop the TED talk, you jackass


Big Tech: i remember growing up as a poor farm boy, wondering when the world would recognize my genius

Rest of us: this isn't about you, it's about my house, which you are burning down

Big Tech: see, it's just like Ayn Rand said, people always take aim at the great man


Rest of us: OK, the front porch is ashes, and the fire is inside the living room.

Big Tech: tech always has downsides. invent the ship and get the shipwreck.

Rest of us: yes but burning down my house is all downside

Big Tech: maybe for you. i just made another billion dollars


Rest of us: wha- you're making MONEY burning down my house?

Big Tech: oh yes. it's called "monetization," probably a little too complicated for you to understand

Rest of us:

Big Tech: i know, it's not fair. not everyone gets to go to Stanford to learn these things


Rest of us: you burn my house down, AND you're arrogant about it

Big Tech: all you do is complain. meanwhile there are people like me and my bros who really know how to allocate capital


Rest of us: my living room is a smoking ruin because of you and your capital allocation

Big Tech: at least i don't work in a stupid place like the government



(Whole thread is here.)

Until next time, and maybe see you later today,

- Mark Hurst
Subscribe to my email newsletter
Sign up for my to-do list with privacy built in, Good Todo
Twitter: @markhurst
Podcast/radio show:

- - -