In Amazon and Google We Trust?

Is Amazon's new tech leading us from surveillance capitalism to surveillance authoritarianism?; Tim Cook's concerns over companies "knowing you better than you may know yourself"; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Matt Davey, the “chief operations optimist” of 1Password announced “1Password for Democracy,” a new company initiative that is offering free accounts to people “who are running for office, ensuring that elections are run fairly, or protecting people’s rights.” Click here to apply. (If you apply, please let me know if you get a free account—this is a great offer from 1Password but right now all it really is providing is free buzz for the company.)

  • Related: On Twitter, Julie Menter of New Media Ventures shares her growing list of creative, distributed and sometimes “political inefficient” ways in which people are working to increase turnout and an overall culture of voting. The obvious favorite: “Donuts for Democracy” where people with an “I Voted” sticker get a free donut on Election Day. See also: Pose to the Polls.

  • On our news-site Civicist, Kip Wainscott of the National Democratic Institute shares the news of the launch of the Design 4 Democracy Coalition, an international collaboration focused on ensuring that tech and social media do a better job of supporting democracy and human rights globally.

  • Here’s OpenGov Foundation/Article One CEO Seamus Kraft talking with Twilio CEO Jeff Lawson at Signal 2018 about how Kraft and his colleagues are working with Congress to improve how it communicates with (and listens to) the public. Article One’s pilot technology gives congressional offices the unlimited capacity to receive voicemails—which otherwise used to be capped at 300 messages, and it sends people a text message to let them know that their message has been registered. (Article One is a for-profit spin-off of OpenGov, and proceeds from its work go back to the foundation to do more user-centered research and sustain its work.)

  • The White House is working with representatives from many tech companies to “explore more ways to take a civic tour of duty,” Chris Liddell, the deputy chief of staff for policy coordination, says, as Tasha Chappellet-Lanier reports for FedScoop. The concept has its roots in pro bono lawyering, and also in early decisions by companies like Microsoft to make civic leave available to its employees. (Our pal Matt Stempeck took a civic leave from his Microsoft civic tech job back in 2016 to work on the Hillary Clinton campaign.)

  • SnapChat says it helped 400,000 people register to vote over the last two weeks, working in partnership with Turbovote, as Cecilia Kang reports for the New York Times.

  • Related: In the Atlantic, James Fallows reports on how the civic leaders of Dodge City are responding to a move by the county to shift its one voting site from the county civic center building not far from downtown to a more remote location not served by public buses, hurting voting access. You may be surprised by their response.

  • Georgia’s NAACP has filled a formal complaint with state election officials claiming that some voting machines are mistakenly showing votes cast for Democrat Stacey Abrams as registering for her opponent Republican Brian Kemp, Deborah Barfield Berry reports for USA Today. Kemp, who is currently secretary of state, has already stirred controversy by putting 53,000 voter registrations on hold because their information doesn’t precisely match driver’s license or social security records.

  • The Platform Cooperativism for Asia conference, which took place last month in Hong Kong, gets a rave review from Shareable’s Nithin Coca.

  • Personal Democracy Forum Ukraine gets underway today in Kharkiv. You can follow the conversation on the #PDFUA18 hashtag. And what an awe-inspiring location! (Reminds me a little of the ex-church in Barcelona where we did PDF Europe 2010.)

  • Apply: The Center for Technology and Civic Life is looking for a part-time research partner to do an impact study of its election toolkit.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Fact-checking organizations that are formal partners with Facebook now have the ability to rate stories or headlines as false, causing them to be demoted in users’ News Feeds, Daniel Funke reports for Poynter.

  • Apple CEO Tim Cook told European regulators in Brussels that he is worried about the rise of a “data industrial complex” that allows companies to “know you better than you may know yourself” and he expressed praise for Europe’s strengthened data privacy rules, as Tony Romm reports for The Washington Post. Cook added, “Now, more than ever — as leaders of governments, as decision-makers in business, and as citizens — we must ask ourselves a fundamental question: What kind of world do we want to live in?”

  • Indeed, what kind of world? Amazon has been pitching the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency on using its controversial Rekognition Video facial recognition technology, Jake Laperruque and Andrea Peterson report for The Daily Beast. While Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos claims to support more liberal immigration policies, employees of the company are upset that it is also exploring supporting ICE’s current efforts. Real-time facial recognition tools could be used by ICE to target people trying to enter or leave medical facilities or houses of worship, for example.

  • Hat tip to our friend Zeynep Tufekci for highlighting this news—she notes that “Amazon ‘Echo Show,’ which has video, is supposed to tell you which outfit looks better.  As I keep arguing, it’s a hop, skip and a jump from surveillance capitalism to surveillance authoritarianism. (Even if Amazon denies this allegation: this is where things are going).”

  • Well, if you are one of the half million American households using a Kinsa internet-connected thermometer, your data is being sold to advertisers like Clorox that want to pinpoint when people are getting sick in order to better sell them disinfecting wipes, as Sapna Maheshwari reports for The New York Times. Maheshwari notes that Amazon recently won a patent on how it could recommend chicken soup or cold medicine to people it hears sniffling or coughing.

  • Craig Silverman of BuzzfeedNews exposes a netherworld where fraudsters are making hundreds of millions of dollars in online advertising revenue by purchasing Android apps, and then creating bots that look and behave like those apps’ human users, and then targeting those bots at other apps, artificially inflating their audience, and thus dishonestly earning ad dollars.

  • STEM tide: According to a new paper by Matthew Motta of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, of the record number of 194 congressional candidates in 2018 with a background in science, tech, engineering or math, most have advanced degrees, are affiliated with the Democratic party and are male. About 1/3 have advanced to the general election. And nearly 3/4 are first-time candidates.

  • Tech and democracy: The 2018 American Institutional Confidence Poll, sponsored by the Knight Foundation and Georgetown’s Baker Center, finds declining levels of support for democracy in America, especially among young Americans and minority groups, as Sean Kates, Jonathan Ladd and Joshua Tucker report for The Washington Post. Only 53% overall say they are satisfied with American democracy, with a big partisan split between Republicans (76% satisfied), Democrats (44%) and independents (39%). Pluralities of both parties (35% of Dems and 32% of Reps) think members of the other party are a “threat to the United States and its people.”

  • One surprising finding of the poll: When offered the opportunity to rank 20 major institutions by what level of confidence, Democrats put Amazon #1 and Google #4 on their list (next to colleges #2 and the military #3), while Republicans ranked Amazon #3 and Google #12. Partisans on both sides put Facebook near the bottom of their list of institutions they had confidence in. Overall, the military has the most confidence of Americans, followed by Amazon and Google, then the local police, colleges and nonprofits.

  • One more useful finding: Increased social media usage is not associated with less support for democracy and democratic institutions, or less trust in the press, the FBI and political parties. Non-users of social media have the least support for those institutions, and heavy users express the greatest level of confidence in the FBI. So, while Americans overall have a very low opinion of Facebook, the fact that Americans are heavy users of Facebook isn’t correlated to them being less supportive of democracy, compared to other reasons. Go figure!

  • Among Republicans who identified as heavy users of social media, they were less likely than light users to deny that Russia tried to sway the 2016 election. And, even more squirrelly, Democrats who identified as high social media users were 50% more likely to give the wrong answer to that question. Heavy social media usage also didn’t correlate to people being more likely to believe that millions of people voted illegally in 2016. The full poll is here.