Facing Facts

A new privacy nightmare; more advocacy tech; the case for digital public infrastructure and more.


This is civic tech: Cofacts, a collaborative online platform based in Taiwan where users verify the authenticity of content they share, gets profiled by Al-Jazeera’s Randy Mulyanto. He writes, “Set up in 2016, Cofacts is designed as a chatbot and receives approximately 250 questionable messages for verification each week. Each story or video is checked against the platform’s ever-growing database of similar articles or videos that have already been fact-checked, as well as online tools before the outcome is messaged back to the sender.”

New on our Civic Tech Field Guide: a whole fresh reorganization of its Advocacy Tech section, including tech for canvassing, event organizing, direct action, volunteer management, email tools, SMS tools, call campaigns, petitions and fundraising, and a slew of watchdogging and transparency tools as well. Let us know if we missed something!

Say hello to the Apologia Project, which is using “satirical AI-generated media” to increase awareness about the climate emergency.

Privacy, shmivacy: A start-up backed by libertarian VC Peter Thiel, Clearview AI, has built a massive database of publicly available photographs of people (likely by illegally scraping social network sites like Facebook) and has been selling its tool to police departments eager to match photos captured of people in public to their identities, Kashmir Hill reports in a blockbuster story for The New York Times. She notes that while big tech companies have so far avoided crossing this Rubicon, Clearview’s founder, Hoan Ton-That, apparently hadn’t considered the consequences, which she writes, could include: “Strangers would be able to listen in on sensitive conversations, take photos of the participants and know personal secrets. Someone walking down the street would be immediately identifiable — and his or her home address would be only a few clicks away. It would herald the end of public anonymity.” When asked about these implications, Ton-That told her, “I have to think about that,” he said. “Our belief is that this is the best use of the technology.” Oops!

Related: Writing for The New York Times’ Privacy Project, Bruce Schneier argues that banning facial recognition tech is the wrong way to address rising privacy concerns. That’s because our faces are only one way to identify us. People can be identified by their heart-beat, gait, fingerprint, iris patterns—all of which can be obtained remotely via tech. And they can be IDed by their smartphone, credit card or license plate. The issue, he says, is that we need rules protecting people’s privacy and requiring their consent before any of these means are used to remotely ID them and treat them differently from others.

Deep thoughts: Make time for “The Case for Digital Public Infrastructure,” a long essay by Ethan Zuckerman for the Knight First Amendment Institute, which sketches out a challenging but plausible path toward a new generation of public-serving, non-surveilling media.

Heavy smartphone use may not be causing higher levels of anxiety, depression and sleep deprivation among young people, Nathaniel Popper reports for the New York Times. While there may be a correlation, several meta-studies suggest that there isn’t a causal connection, he notes.

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