Sniff, Sniff

More bad facial recog tech; civil rights and Facebook; and much more.


  • This is civic tech: In the Boston Review, Ruth Miller explains why author Ben Green’s new book called The Smart Enough City is a useful corrective to overblown hype about smart cities without smart citizens. She notes, “As Green warns, the search for ‘objective, technical solutions to social issues is dangerous,’ but by centering race and equity in our data infrastructure discourse we can achieve not only atonement, but also our only strategy for being resilient against the challenges of the future.”

  • BetaNYC’s Noel Hidalgo reports on the results of the second annual student Hack League, the first ever hackathon held inside City Hall.

  • Code for Australia’s founder Alvaro Max is stepping down after almost six years; here’s his goodbye post.

  • Microsoft is offering election administrators a free and open source tool called ElectionGuard, which enables voters to track their votes securely and privately while allowing authorities to tabulate, store and audit them, Devin Coldewey reports for TechCrunch.

  • New research suggests that the air we breathe indoors, especially when stuck in small conference rooms, may be bad for our decision making abilities, Veronique Greenwood reports for The New York Times health section.. Now they tell us! (Civic Hall friend Simone Rothman‘s startup Future Air is working on a solution!)

  • Apply: Harvard’s Kennedy School Ash Center is taking applications for its 2019-2020 Technology and Democracy Fellows.

  • Privacy, shmivacy: Alexa records a lot more than just its owners directly addressing it, and The Washington Post’s tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler has penned a healthy corrective, calling it “an invasion” and a “bold data grab.” And he even updated Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land to illustrate the point.

  • Whoever came up with the primary names in Joseph Cox’s new expose in Motherboard of a facial recognition technology company pushing law enforcement agencies that it was hoping to profit from to hand over sensitive public drivers license records and vouch for it on grant applications in exchange for free access to its tech, well that person gives things away too easily. The name of the company (which billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban is a major investor in) is Suspect Technologies. The co-founder pushing his wares on local police: Jacob Sniff. And yes, Suspect Technologies is pushing tools that could, among other things, “each people by age, gender, ethnicity.” Lovely. (Facial recognition tech has been shown to been highly prone to error when identifying the gender of darker skinned and female faces.)

  • Tech and politics: Anne Applebaum reports for The Washington Post on how Vox, a new rightwing party in Spain that just went from zero to 10% of the vote in recent parliamentary elections, has leveraged the Internet to fuel its rapid rise. She writes, that while Vox rose in part as a response to the left’s resurgence in Spain, “the story of Vox also belongs to a larger global story about the online and offline campaign tactics developed by the American alt-right and the European far right, which are now used throughout the world. The use of social media marketing to exacerbate polarization; of websites created especially to feed polarized narratives; of private fan groups that pass around conspiracy theories; of language that deliberately undermines trust in ‘mainstream’ politicians and journalists: Fans of the party that wants to ‘Make Spain Great Again’ used all of these tactics to move its message from the fringes to the mainstream.”

  • She adds:

    Like some other new (and not necessarily “right-wing”) European parties, most notably the Five Star Movement in Italy, Vox also picked up on a series of underrated issues and themes whose adherents had begun to find one another, and to organize themselves, online. Whereas successful political movements used to have a single ideology, they can now combine several. Think about how record companies put together new pop bands: They do market research, they pick the kinds of faces that match, and then they market the band by advertising it to the most favorable demographic. New political parties can now operate like that: You can bundle together issues, repackage them and then market them, using exactly the same kind of targeted messaging — based on exactly the same kind of market research — that you know has worked in other places.
  • Two organizations that use AI to analyze public data and hunt for anomalous behavior in the public arena, Alto and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, found a set of conspiratorial websites and networks of “abnormal, high-activity” users pushing content from the sites in tandem with the Spanish election and other recent high-profile events, Applebaum notes.

  • Life in Facebookistan: The Federal Trade Commission is getting close to a decision to fine Facebook $5 billion for violating its privacy consent degree, but appears to be bowing the company’s insistence that its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who owns 57.7% of its governing stock, not be held legally responsible for the actions of his employees, Cecilia Kang reports for The New York Times.

  • Color of Change and Majority Action have launched a campaign to oust Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg from the company’s board of directors, The Hill’s Emily Birnbaum reports. They say that Zuckerberg’s absolute control of the company “is a threat to the civil rights of its Black users and to the financial interests of its shareholders.

  • Deep thoughts: All the reasons why AirPods “are a tragedy,” by Caroline Haskins in Motherboard. You may not look at people with those silly white wireless things hanging from their ears the same after reading this essay.

You are reading First Post, a twice-a-week digest of news and analysis of the world of civic tech, brought to you by Civic Hall, NYC’s community center for civic tech. If you are reading this because someone forwarded it to you, please consider joining Civic Hall as a network member and supporting our work.