Deceptive Acts and Practices

Civic tech in Gaza; The Not-So-Great Hack; geo-fencing and 2020; and much more.


  • This is civic tech: Palestinian-Canadian Dr. Tarek Loubani is furious that doctors and nurses in Gaza have to pay $200 for a stethoscope that can be 3-D printed for $3, and so he has set up a factory in his basement in Ontario to print more affordable scopes as part of his Glia Project, which is making generic versions of medical hardware and working to get them, and more crucially the means of their production, to people in Gaza, as Logic Magazine reports. Not only that, the project is helping build a vibrant open-source culture there, where the Israeli blockade on goods makes 3-D printers incredibly useful. Who knew?!

  • CBC News’ Julie Ireton reports on how Code for Canada is “embedding tech brains in government offices.”

  • New York’s city council has passed a new law requiring business owners to register storefronts, in order to build a database of retail spaces and their vacancy status, which will make it possible to track the changing fortunes of street-level retail, Rosemary Feitelberg reports for WWD.

  • The “How Do We Fix It” podcast, hosted by Jim Meigs (former editor in chief of Popular Mechanics) and Richard Davies (longtime ABC News reporter), had me on last week to talk about how we use tech for the public good. Give it a listen.

  • This is not civic tech: Mijente reports that the U.S. Marine Corps has awarded a $13.5 million contract for Anduril Industries for “fully autonomous surveillance capabilities” at four military bases including one in Yuma, Arizona near the border. The company was launched two years ago by Oculus founder Palmer Luckey and former employees of Palantir, and it says it is developing a “bespoke border wall surveillance system” called Lattice.

  • Tech and politics: Darian Rafie, one of the principals at ActRight, a “clearinghouse for conservative action,” told an undercover reporter working with OpenDemocracy that the Trump campaign is making assiduous use of the data that leaks out of people’s mobile phones connected to their geographic location. He explained: “Say there’s a rally somewhere, one of these big Trump campaign rallies. What we’ll do is we’ll draw a Polygon around that event and then we’ll register all the phones that were there. Then we follow those phones home, then we know who they are, and what they do, and now I know what your Netflix unique ID is, and I’ve got your Facebook unique ID, so then I can communicate with you through a whole variety of ways.” He added that “you can do that in Europe” too, though “it’s a little more limited… because the privacy laws are better, for the consumer.”

  • The Federal Trade Commission is suing Cambridge Analytica for “deceptive acts and practices to harvest personal information from Facebook,” Oscar Gonzalez reports for CNet.

  • Speaking of Cambridge Analytica, today marks Netflix’s release of The Great Hack, a documentary about the company and its impact on the Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential election. From the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw to Wired’s Emily Dreyfuss to FastCompany’s Joe Berkowitz, many reviewers are falling hook, line and sinker for the film. Berkowitz writes that it “makes an airtight case for why everyone should care” about data rights, while Bradshaw offers this scenario for the supposed power of CA’s ability to target vulnerable voters:

    The data attackers could go all in, using their underhand knowledge to bombard these psycho-profiled targets, to push these persuadables’ buttons and tip them over the edge with Facebook ads that popped up intimately on their smartphones, miraculously confirming their prejudices, playing on their insecurities, magnifying and warping their worries: people who didn’t realise that their private data-identity had been sold to people who as a result could now personally solicit them without their knowing.

  • These reviewers are all really gullible, but given the high production values of this documentary, it’s easy to see how people who know little to nothing about the actual challenges with political persuasion methods or the tendencies of tech vendors to sell snake-oil would fall for The Great Hack. Having seen the film at an advance screening during the Netroots Nation conference, I think it is best understood as an expensive piece of misinformation about the real problem of weaponized misinformation. At least the folks at The Economist aren’t fooled; check out this critical review of the film, which called it “over-the-top” and noted, “Large chunks of the film are made up of Cambridge Analytica sales decks, which the directors appear to take as gospel truth about how sophisticated and successful the company was. So credulous is ‘The Great Hack’ that if Cambridge Analytica had not shut down, its bosses would be using the movie as a testimonial.”

  • Life in Facebookistan: Both Democratic appointees on the FTC board, Rebecca Slaughter and Rohit Chopra, voted against the agency’s settlement deal with Facebook, with Slaughter explaining that she didn’t believe that it would insure accountability or changes in how Facebook uses data, and Chopra emphasizing that “it doesn’t fix the incentives causing these repeat privacy abuses” and blasting the government for giving the company’s top executives “blanket immunity for their role in the violations,” saying that “sets a terrible precedent.” Independent technologist Ashkan Soltani also blasted the settlement, calling it a “terrible outcome for our leading privacy regulator and a very sweet deal for Facebook.”

  • It’s important to note that the SEC has documented that as early as June 2016, several dozen Facebook employees, including senior managers, knew that Cambridge Analytica had obtained profile data for about 30 million of its users, but continued to deny until two years later that it had any evidence of wrongdoing. Jason Kint of Digital Content Now has more details.

  • Internet of shit: Wrist-based heart-rate trackers like the Fitbit Surge and Samsung Gear rely on technology that results in more inaccurate readings for people with darker skin, Ruth Hailu reports for Stat News.

  • Food for thought: Why do microloans to people with no collateral, Wikipedia’s anyone-can-make-an-edit policy, and Netflix’s employee policy all work? Because they operate according to the principle of Design From Trust, which our longtime friend Jerry Michalski explains here. Trust me, read the whole thing.

  • End times: Or not…quite.

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