Ambient Awareness

Why privacy matters, Facebook's new currency, KidTube; and much more.


  • This is civic tech: CivicMakers is turning five this month and they’re celebrating with a design panel, a fair and a party next Tuesday in San Francisco.

  • Speaking of long-time work in civic tech, NYC techie Mark Gorton, the founder of LimeWire and longtime backer of OpenPlans and Transportation Alternatives, gets profiled by Ade Adeniji Gorton for Inside Philanthropy. OpenPlans is hitting its 20th year focusing on sustainable transport and livable streets.

  • Also happening out in SF next week, one of our favorite speakers from this year’s PDF, Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, is giving a talk next Wednesday at Galvanize on “Big Tech and the Starfish Problem: Why Antitrust Alone Won’t Save Us.”

  • Apply: Stand Up America is looking to hire a digital director.

  • Tech and democracy: Two million people marched Sunday in Hong Kong in protest of a proposed extradition law with China—that’s literally two-seventh’s of the island’s population. (Imagine if 94 million Americans marched for something, like, um, democracy.) And here’s more evidence that protesters are getting savvier about how they both use and avoid certain kinds of tech, courtesy of Shibani Mahtani in the Washington Post. He reports, “Protesters used only secure digital messaging apps such as Telegram and otherwise went completely analogue in their movements: buying single-ride subway tickets instead of prepaid stored-value cards, forgoing credit cards and mobile payments in favor of cash and taking no selfies or photos of the chaos. They wore face masks to obscure themselves from CCTV, fearing facial-recognition software, and bought fresh pay-as-you-go SIM cards.”

  • According to this report by Elaine Yu in the Hong Kong Free Press, since key leaders of past pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong are stuck in jail, the young people at the heart of these protests have “switched to small, leaderless cells in a bid to evade capture.”

  • Here’s a drones-eye view of the protests.

  • Life in YouTubistan: Back in the land of the free and home of the brave, people who work at Google don’t let their kids watch YouTube unsupervised, Mark Bergen and Lucas Shaw report for Bloomberg News, while children between the ages of 5 and 12 spend more time on YouTube than anywhere else. “Basically, every kid who doesn’t live in Amish country [is using YouTube],” Sarah Chumsky of the market research firm Insight Strategy Group told them.

  • Life in Facebookistan: Today the giant social network is unveiling Libra, its cryptocurrency payments system, and stock analysts are bullish, CNBC’s Michael Bloom reports. If you’re going to be a country, you might as well have a currency, right?

  • Here’s a useful explainer for what Facebook appears to be planning with Libra, by Nick Statt of The Verge. At best, Facebook’s new cryptocurrency may help hundreds of millions of people in poorer countries take advantage of digital money transfers at lower rates than at present.

  • Tech diversity: Speaking earlier this month at Personal Democracy Forum, Cheryl Contee noted that there were more people who had gone to the moon than had, like her, an African-American woman, built and successfully sold her tech startup for seven figures. That’s the troubling reality to keep in mind as you read this excellent in-depth review of the one-step-forward, two-steps-back evolution of diversity and inclusion in Silicon Valley written by Megan Rose Dickey for TechCrunch.

  • Cyberwar, continued: The United States has been placing the equivalent on digital land mines inside Russia’s power grid as part of an effort to deter possible Russian cyber-attacks against the US, David Sanger and Nicole Perlroth report for The New York Times. Not explained, how either country would know if the other had attacked it, given the difficulty tracing cyber-attacks. Let’s say power goes out in a few American cities–how will we know it was Russia and not, say, Iran?

  • Maciej Ceglowski makes the case for “ambient privacy—the understanding that there is value in having our everyday interactions with one another remain outside the reach of monitoring, and that the small details of our daily lives should pass by unremembered. What we do at home, work, church, school, or in our leisure time does not belong in a permanent record. Not every conversation needs to be a deposition.” And more important:
    My own suspicion is that ambient privacy plays an important role in civic life. When all discussion takes place under the eye of software, in a for-profit medium working to shape the participants’ behavior, it may not be possible to create the consensus and shared sense of reality that is a prerequisite for self-government. If that is true, then the move away from ambient privacy will be an irreversible change, because it will remove our ability to function as a democracy.
  • Food for thought: What if women designed cities? Lara Stephenson of Outpost for Good makes a case for feminist design.

  • Organizing in rural America is hindered by physical isolation, but public libraries—and the free internet access they offer users—may turn out to be the easiest way to reach people, Gary Abernathy writes for the Washington Post.

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