Cutting It

How easy it is to locate your cellphone; Mothership's profits; and more.


  • This is civic tech: User experience researcher/designer and former Code for America Fellow Kavi Harshawat reflects on what he learned from spending last summer in McAllen, Texas as part of New America’s effort “to bring technology to bear on the immigration crisis swelling at the border.” He writes, “When we arrived we had high hopes of improving the way lawyers communicated with those who sat in detention centers; centralizing the way various non-profits shared information with one another; making an easy digital tool for separated children and parents to be reunited; and much more. But like every digital service effort I’ve ever seen, the facts on the ground were infinitely more complicated.” Read the whole thing.

  • Code for Australia is launching an annual Digital Maturity survey for local, state and federal governments there, using a framework developed by David Eaves of Harvard’s Kennedy School, Alvaro Maz blogs.

  • Apply: Submissions for speaking proposals for this year’s TICTec (The Impact of Civic Technology) conference are due tomorrow.

  • Apply: It’s also last call for submissions for session ideas for NYC Open Data Week.

  • Apply: ActionNetwork is looking to hire a VP of finance and operations.

  • Volunteer: Civic Hall member organization the NYC Veterans Alliance is looking for a communications and marketing team member.

  • Privacy, shmivacy! It only took a payment of $300 to a private bounty hunter to get a the location of a specific cell phone, Joseph Cox reports for Motherboard, in a fresh expose of the shadowy world of information brokerage. In this case, Microbilt, a company that provides cell phone location data to low level enforcement customers like bail bondsmen and property managers (without a warrant) was the source. Several Democratic Senators, including Kamala Harris (D-CA), Mark Warner (D-VA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) are now calling for more government scrutiny of telco’s data practices.

  • Cell phone makers have long made deals with companies like Google and Facebook to include their apps pre-installed on the phones they sell, in some cases making them undeletable, and now Bloomberg’s Sarah Frier reports that some owners of Samsung Galaxy 8 phones are complaining that they can’t delete Facebook.

  • Tech and politics: The Washington Post’s Philip Bump points out that while Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort may have shared polling data with Russian operatives, there’s little evidence as yet that the Russian-directed social media campaigns on Facebook in late 2016 focused on swing states. Most of the ads purchased didn’t specify a state and the two states where the most ran were Texas and New York.

  • Democratic digital firm Mothership Strategies is just four years old, but by perfecting the use of catastrophic language in fundraising emails—”Trump is INCHES away from firing Robert Mueller”—it earned roughly $15 million off the $150 million it helped its clients raise in the 2018 cycle, Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Anu Narayanswamy report for The Washington Post. The firm’s founding partners Jake Lipsett, Greg Berlin and Charles Starnes, learned the ropes at the DCCC, which is also known for its “churn and burn” email tactics. Lots of digital strategists despise Mothership, both because of how much it charges and for how its messaging erodes trust among small donors.

  • You can’t buy political ads online in Washington state anymore, because Google and Facebook have decided that they can’t meet the state’s tough transparency requirements, Eli Sanders of The Stranger reports. Sanders explains how the state’s Attorney General decided to crack down on the companies, largely as a result of his own initial inquiries.

  • Life in Facebookistan: CEO Mark Zuckerberg announces a personal challenge for himself at the beginning of every year. In 2009 it was “wear a neck tie every day.” How grown up. Last year it was “fix Facebook’s problems.” This year it’s “host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society.”

  • I guess that means that last year was a success. Here’s where Zuck reviews what he sees as the advances Facebook made in 2018 on issues like election interference and stopping the spread of hate speech and misinformation. While Zuckerberg touts the development of a host of systems to automatically identify and remove harmful content, it’s worth noting that he doesn’t mention Facebook’s role in exacerbating ethnic and religious conflict in places like Myanmar, or its relationship to the murderous Duterte government in the Philippines or the new Bolsanaro government in Brazil. Providing election advice to authoritarians is not an algorithmic decision, by the way.

  • Zuckerberg also writes, “I’m an engineer, and I used to just build out my ideas and hope they’d mostly speak for themselves. But given the importance of what we do, that doesn’t cut it anymore. So I’m going to put myself out there more than I’ve been comfortable with and engage more in some of these debates about the future, the tradeoffs we face, and where we want to go.”

  • TechCrunch’s Josh Constine offers Zuckerberg a list of suggestions for formats and speakers that he could include in his 2019 plans.

  • CNBC’s Salvador Rodriguez reports that Facebook’s internal culture is “cult-like” where dissent is discouraged and employees feel pressure to pretend to be happy all the time. (Honestly, how many big corporations don’t have similar internal cultures?)

  • Older Americans are more likely to share fake news on Facebook, a new study from NYU and Princeton finds. As Casey Newton summarizes for The Verge: “11 percent of users older than 65 shared a hoax, while just 3 percent of users 18 to 29 did. Facebook users ages 65 and older shared more than twice as many fake news articles than the next-oldest age group of 45 to 65, and nearly seven times as many fake news articles as the youngest age group (18 to 29).” (I would bet that a similar study would find that older Americans are also far more likely to respond to hysterical fundraising emails from Democratic digital firms like Mothership.)

  • People who report that they spend a lot of time on Facebook also make worse decisions playing gambling games, Cat Zakrewski reports for The Washington Post, citing a new study.

  • End times: I’m pretty sure that Foldimate, the $1000 “laundry folding robot” featured at CES that will fold your laundry for you comes with an extra component, a human, it appears.