Tech going sideways, and a song about surveillance
May 21, 2018

Is it just me, or are things with tech these days going a little sideways?

Just a month ago people were shocked, shocked that Facebook would allow third-party vendors to make off with their private data. "Trust us," Facebook responded, "from now on we'll keep all your data secure [that our surveillance gained and will continue to collect]." Facebook's share price has since recovered and people are using Facebook more than ever.

I wonder if most people are paying attention. Or want to.

I spoke with someone last week who wasn't aware, until I told her, that Instagram is owned by Facebook. "You might like my radio show," I said. "No," my acquaintance said, "I might be too scared of what I'd learn."

Who can blame people for wanting to ignore what's happening? The reality seems too big to grasp, and the necessary change - breaking up Facebook and Google, for starters - seems out of reach.

But! There's good news. Consider:

• Both left-leaning organizations and some right-leaning politicians are looking at breaking up Facebook, a rare glimmer of bipartisan agreement.

• Guests on 60 Minutes last night argued that Google is a monopoly in several industries. Google needs to be broken up: our best hope to get the ball rolling is EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

• I've featured several guests on my Techtonic radio show with good news about change in tech. Listen to the shows on WFMU or via podcast. David Sax ("The Revenge of Analog" author), Anya Kamenetz ("The Art of Screen Time" author and NPR reporter), Corey Pein ("Live Work Work Work Die" author), and Len Sherman (Columbia Business School professor) all suggest ways we can live better in - and make change to - a world dominated by Big Tech.

• Finally, with a nod to Bruce Schneier ("The primary business model of the internet is built on mass surveillance" - source), I present you with a song I wrote about surveillance, set to "Camptown Races."

"Building a Surveillance State"

Listen to the song here. I played it during a recent episode of Techtonic.

Lyrics, for your sing along:

Building a surveillance state
Google, Google
Privacy is what they hate
All Google day

It's Facebook, too
They're spying on you
We've got to change before it's too late
All Google day

For more reading about Google...

How to Keep Google From Owning Your Online Life, by David Pierce in the WSJ (May 8). Interesting that the Wall Street Journal is offering alternatives to Google services.

Who Has More of Your Personal Data Than Facebook? Try Google, writes Christopher Mims in the WSJ.

Google's New Voice Bot Sounds, Um, Maybe Too Real (NPR, May 9): "On the first day of Google's annual conference for developers, the company showed off a robot with a voice so convincingly human that it was able to call a salon and book a haircut - never revealing that it wasn't a real person making the call. CEO Sundar Pichai demonstrated the new AI technology on Tuesday at the Google I/O conference."

Google insiders claim that "the final version of Duplex, the stunning AI bot that sounded so real it fooled humans, may be purposefully made less scary." (Business Insider)

What Google is doing with your data, by John Rolfe in the Queensland Times (May 14): "Experts from Oracle claim Google is draining roughly one gigabyte of mobile data monthly from Android phone users' accounts as it snoops in the background, collecting information to help advertisers. . . . The information fed back to Google includes barometric pressure readings so it can work out, for example, which level of a shopping mall you are on. By combining this with your coordinates Google knows which shops you have visited. . . . Only turning off a phone prevents monitoring."

Don't forget Facebook...

Jaron Lanier speaking about Facebook and Google as "behavior modification empires" that "rely on behavior modification and spying" for their business models. It's cheaper to pay them to ruin things than to make positive change. Perhaps, Lanier says, it's time for subscription fees. (Hey, it worked for HBO and Netflix!) "I don't believe our species can survive unless we fix this," Lanier concludes. "In the meantime, if the companies won't change, delete your accounts."

Interview with Jaron Lanier in New York Magazine: "A lot of the rhetoric of Silicon Valley that has the utopian ring about creating meaningful communities where everybody's creative and people collaborate and all this stuff I don't wanna make too much of my own contribution, but I was kind of the first author of some of that rhetoric a long time ago. So it kind of stings for me to see it misused. Like, I used to talk about how virtual reality could be a tool for empathy, and then I see Mark Zuckerberg talking about how VR could be a tool for empathy while being profoundly nonempathic, using VR to tour Puerto Rico after the storm, after Maria. One has this feeling of having contributed to something that's gone very wrong."

Techno-Fundamentalism Can't Save You, Mark Zuckerberg, by UVA professor Siva Vaidhyanathan

The New Octopus, by K. Sabeel Rahman in Logic mag.

Where Countries Are Tinderboxes and Facebook Is a Match, by Amanda Taub and Max Fisher in the NYT, about Facebook's effects in Sri Lanka. "Time and again, communal hatreds overrun the newsfeed the primary portal for news and information for many users unchecked as local media are displaced by Facebook and governments find themselves with little leverage over the company. Some users, energized by hate speech and misinformation, plot real-world attacks. ... 'You report to Facebook, they do nothing,' one of the researchers, Amalini De Sayrah, said. 'There's incitements to violence against entire communities and Facebook says it doesn't violate community standards.'"

Searching for a Future Beyond Facebook, by Jacob Silverman: "Facebook has accomplished a neat trick in the last fourteen years, draping itself in humanitarian intent while establishing a globe-straddling monopoly. In the name of connecting people, it has built the world's largest surveillance apparatus, rivaled only by Google."

• ...oh, and Facebook had its earnings call. Here's the summary, below, from Jason Kint:

• Nonetheless, Facebook's share price has recovered. "Facebook wiped out all of its losses following the Cambridge Analytica data scandal. Shares hit an intraday high of $185.99 on Thursday."

More on that consent decree: NPR, March 2018: "The Federal Trade Commission is looking into whether Facebook violated a [2011] consent decree by enabling third parties to access users' information without their permission." ($40,000 per violation.)

...and in other tech news:

Ticketmaster to trial facial recognition technology at live venues (VentureBeat; see also the WSJ article.) Don't worry, says the article, it's purely for the "'development of deeper customer relationships' between fans, artists, venues, and teams. Moreover, Ticketmaster touts the technology as boosting safety and security."

Satellite Project Draws Airbus, SoftBank, Bill Gates as Investors: investors "propose to build and launch some 500 small satellites intended to provide unmatched video coverage of the globe."

Silicon Valley Can't Be Trusted With Our History, by Evan Hill. "We create almost everything on the internet, but we control almost none of it."

Megan McArdle's thread explaining "just how bad the economics of the media industry are" (see also the unrolled thread). "Subtitle: why you can't have all the awesome free journalism you want and have come to expect."

There will be little privacy in the workplace of the future, from The Economist's March 2018 issue. Excerpt: "'Every aspect of business is becoming more data-driven. There's no reason the people side of business shouldn't be the same,' says Ben Waber, Humanyze's boss. The company's staff are treated much the same way as its clients. Data from their employees' badges are integrated with information from their e-mail and calendars to form a full picture of how they spend their time at work. Clients get to see only team-level statistics, but Humanyze's employees can look at their own data, which include metrics such as time spent with people of the same sex, activity levels and the ratio of time spent speaking versus listening."

Code Red: Organizing the tech sector, by Alex Press in the spring 2018 issue of n+1, surveying the state of union-organizing in the tech space.

The Internet's 'Original Sin' Endangers More Than Privacy, by Brendan Eich and Brian Brown (who run the privacy-minded Brave browser). "As much as half the data consumed on mobile plans goes to downloading ads and trackers, adding significantly to fixed mobile data plans. . . As much as 50% of mobile battery life is consumed by ads while browsing. . . The internet need not be characterized by predation and parasitism. It can once again be a place of infinite possibility. Innovation got us into this situation; it can get us out."