Justifications

NYC launches new cybersecurity initiative; top Facebook employee said the ends justify the means; and more.


  • This is civic tech: Madina Toure reports for The Observer on yesterday’s announcement (here at Civic Hall) by NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio of NYC Secure, a new cybersecurity initiative. It will include a free city-sponsored smartphone protection app that will issue warnings to users when suspicious activity is detected, as well as new protections for the city’s public Wi-Fi networks. Said de Blasio, “the positives and the possibilities of life online exemplified by the good work that happens at Civic Hall have to be juxtaposed against the new challenges and dangers….We’re the safest big city in America, and now we have to extend that concept to the lives of our people in terms of everything that they do online.”

  • Bianca Wylie reports on Sidewalk Toronto’s first public meeting, and says that key issues ranging from the project’s business model to where the data it collects will be stored, remain unresolved.

  • Dominic Campbell, founder and CEO of FutureGov, has a new job: chief digital officer of Homes England.

  • Attend: The Sunlight Foundation is holding an online workshop April 18 for city open data staff interested in learning more about best practices to support community open data use.

  • Apply: Public Lab is looking to hire a development and communications manager; cool opportunity if you love New Orleans (and who doesn’t?).

  • Life in Facebookistan: In case you still think the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal (which I sometimes call #Facebooklytica) is still mainly about nefarious data targeting by the latter company, read this new story by Ryan Mac, Charlie Warzel, and Alex Kantrowitz in BuzzFeed. It’s based on a frank 2016 internal memo written by company VP Andrew “Box” Bosworth, a longtime employee who co-invented News Feed, Facebook Messenger, and Groups, and ran its Ads division before taking over its augmented reality/virtual reality division. In it, he justifies the company’s many questionable growth tactics, arguing that as long as they contribute to connecting people they are de facto good. Here’s a snippet:

    We connect people. Period. That’s why all the work we do in growth is justified. All the questionable contact importing practices. All the subtle language that helps people stay searchable by friends. All of the work we do to bring more communication in. The work we will likely have to do in China some day. All of it.

  • In response, company CEO Mark Zuckerberg told BuzzFeed “we’ve never believed the ends justify the means.” On Twitter, Bosworth said that, “Having a debate around hard topics like these is a critical part of our process and to do that effectively we have to be able to consider bad ideas, if only to eliminate them. To see this post in isolation is rough because it makes it appear as a stance that I hold or that the company holds when neither is the case.”

  • The leak of Bosworth’s memo has generated a lot of discussion at Facebook, but mostly along the lines of “how dare someone violate the sanctity of our ‘inner culture'” and not “how did we get to a point where this kind of memo from a top leader could be viewed as normal,” as Casey Newton reports for the Verge. Also, note the irony of Facebook employees complaining about their privacy being violated.

  • Here’s the correct link for Michael Simon’s post on Crooked Media that we cited yesterday, where he argues that political targeting isn’t inherently bad.

  • Are cell phones really safe? Or is their usage causing an increase in brain tumors? Veteran investigative reporters Mark Hertsgaard and Mark Dowie report for The Nation on the long-time efforts of the wireless industry to convince users to ignore the science. (The World Health Organization says that cell-phone radiation is a “possible carcinogen.”)

  • Katrin Verclas, the longtime director of MobileActive, has been indicted by a federal grand jury on a charge of defrauding the U.S. Department of State of $1.23 million. The grant was to support global internet freedom efforts, but the indictment states that she spent much of the money on personal expenses and expenses unrelated to the grant. As the Daily Beast’s Julia Arciga notes, Verclas is a longtime leader in the nonprofit tech sector. Many of her friends, including me, are shocked by this news. Let’s remember that an indictment is not a conviction.