Churning Times

Post-pandemic may look like a return to normal, but it's not.

As Americans emerge from the pandemic, with states like California ending their mask mandates today, fans packing baseball and basketball stadiums, live audiences cheering the return of Stephen Colbert to late night TV and (soon) Bruce Springsteen to Broadway, keep an eye out for the undertow. At one level, there are signs that many people—anywhere from a quarter to a half—are planning to look for a new job once the pandemic ends. And at a deeper level, many are pondering the questions raised vividly by this short video called “The Impossible Train Story.” Give it five minutes of your time. (For more on it, check out The last year-plus has piled stress on top of stress and also given tens of millions a taste of radical change. Things we were told weren’t possible—like a moratorium on evictions or hotel housing for the homeless—suddenly became conventional. If you think people will just go back to what was and forget these times…well, we’ll see.

Meanwhile, the second 100 days of the Biden Administration are starting to remind me of Barack Obama’s first term. National Republican leaders are stymieing major infrastructure bills, while a new kind of white backlash that has echoes of the Tea Party gets whipped up at the local level. As I noted a few issues ago, the explosion of opposition to the teaching of “critical race theory” that is now flaring around the country, charging up school board meetings in many states, is hardly an organic grassroots phenomenon. Now a pseudonymous researcher who goes by the handle z3dster has dug into a group called Prep School Accountability that the New York Post had described as a grassroots effort of an anonymous network of concerned parents who “plan to troll elite NYC schools with anti-billboards.” Using a bunch of ingenious open-source methods, z3dster finds that the people behind that website are actually affiliated with DC lobbyist Rick Berman, who has a long history of creating front groups on behalf of wealthy interest groups. Berman confirmed his company’s role to Vice’s Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai. As education reformer Diane Ravitch said recently, “When an alleged ‘grassroots, family-led group of ‘ordinary moms’ begins their existence with a budget of more than $1 million, you can be certain there were no bake sales.”

But yes, they are tech savvy! In Nevada, where the Reno school board is considering expanding the K-5 curriculum to include more teaching about equity, diversity and racism, one conservative group is suggesting that teachers be required to wear body cameras to ensure that they aren’t teaching children to hate the United States. "Creating a record that could be viewed by appropriate parties, if necessary, might be the best way to urge teachers to stick to traditional teaching," Karen England, executive director and founder of the Nevada Family Alliance, said in a statement. "We expect that the teachers' unions will reject this proposal immediately," England continued. "But we should ask, what they have to hide? If police do a better job interacting with the public when they are wearing body cameras, how much more important is it for teachers to do the same?" (This is a reactionary messaging three-fer, bashing teachers unions while praising cops and lauding surveillance tech.)


Democracy in Peril

-Election officials in Georgia are living with regular death threats, Linda So reports for Reuters. Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, who stood up to the Former Guy’s intimidation, and his family continue to receive constant threats, and went into hiding for nearly a week last November after intruders broken into their daughter-in-law’s home. Gabriel Sterling, another top election official who publicly bucked Trump, says he keeps getting late night calls harassing him at home. Don’t forget folks: This period is our Phoney War; it may seem “normal” but it’s not.

-It’s time for an end to gag orders on government requests for personal information from tech companies that store their users’ communications in the cloud, Microsoft President Brad Smith writes in a timely oped in the Washington Post. He writes: “While there are times when secrecy is needed, prosecutors too often are exploiting technology to abuse our fundamental freedoms. Just consider the targets of the latest investigations: reporters at CNN, the New York Times and The Post. Members of the House Intelligence Committee; their aides and family members. These are not investigations of terrorism or international narcotics that threaten the nation’s safety.”

Reining in Big Tech?

If House Judiciary Democrats get their way, a new slate of five bills just introduced would empower the Justice Department or the FTC to break up some tech companies, bar them from privileging their own services over rivals, block them from buying up nascent competitors, make their data interoperable so users can more easily move from one service to another, and raise needed funds for antitrust enforcement, Makena Kelly reports for The Verge.

Privacy, Shmivacy

-Otonomo, an Israeli company that collects location data from vehicles, which claims to have an installed base of 40 million vehicles, collecting 4.3 billion data points a day, is selling granular location data that it claims is anonymized. But as Joseph Cox reports for Motherboard, it’s fairly easy to determine which locations are most frequently visited by specific vehicles, allowing anyone to figure a potential home location for a car. "Most consumers don't know that when they purchase, lease, or rent a car, they inadvertently consent to their data being collected and shared with third parties, and the third parties of the third parties, and so on,” Andrea Amico, the founder of Privacy4 Cars, told Cox. “Even when they do, it is very uncommon for vehicle manufacturers to publicly disclose the individual names of any parties with whom they share personal data."

-Lip-reading AI is starting to emerge as a commercially viable product, and while it could certainly assist health care providers supporting patients with speech challenges, the privacy implications are also worrisome, Todd Feathers reports for Motherboard. Liopa, an Irish startup making one product aimed at health care is also working with a British defense research agency to help law enforcement agencies search through silent CCTV footage and supposedly identify when people say certain keywords. The good news is that most of the cutting edge tech now in development can only read single words or very short phrases. That said, I’m betting that when journalists start using lip-reading AI to decipher what politicians are saying to each other, then we’ll finally get some real privacy protection legislation passed.

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Odds and Ends

-As residents of New York City start voting for mayor and a host of lower ballot offices, Reuven Blau of TheCity, the nonprofit newsite, takes a critical look at how progressive champion Maya Wiley struggled to expand broadband access to low-income neighborhoods, a job that Mayor Bill de Blasio gave her back in 2014 when she was his legal counsel. Seven years later, there’s been little progress towards that goal, though the truth—which is submerged in Blau’s report—is that no single city agency or leader has ever had the authority or budget to get the job done (and the incumbent internet service providers, along with LinkNYC, the upstart that promised to expand access by building new street kiosks, have proven far more adept at milking the city for benefits while making promises that they don’t keep).

-Speaking of the incumbents, internet service providers in New York state have won a court injunction blocking the implementation of new legislation aimed at mandating affordable broadband, Bryan Menegus reports for The Verge.

-Hunter Walker reports in The Atlantic that the NYC mayoral race is getting attention in the political industrial complex for an interesting reason: “Democratic strategists around the country watched the spectacle of young workers marching on their own [candidate Dianne Morales’] office, and some saw it as a clear indicator of the dangers of trying to bring Generation Z into the fold of grueling campaign work. One veteran Democratic operative who has worked on presidential campaigns articulated these fears to me via text message. ‘It seems like many of these kids would be shocked and upset at just normal boring office jobs and the expectations there. And campaigns are so much harder than that,’ wrote the operative, who requested anonymity because of professional concerns.” Given that many of the people doing those “normal boring” jobs have been the backs on which a very white, male elite of campaign managers have stood, maybe instead it’s time those managers realized the times are changing and old campaign playbook is being rewritten.

Deep Thoughts

While we are fed a daily blur of hype about artificial intelligence programs that can think for themselves, it’s chastening to discover that animatronic robots that simulate the behavior of cats or dogs in a way that is just “real enough” can win the affection of humans and help ease their loneliness. As Katie Englehart reports for The New Yorker, New York State Office for the Aging has given away 2,260 animatronic pets, with another thousand on order, and more than 20,000 such toys have been distributed as part of formal initiatives to help lonely older people in 21 states. Should we celebrate? Or rue how the isolation and warehousing of elderly people is being addressed with a $99 pile of fake fur, sensors and sound effects? I guess a fake dog is better than this: “One study found that lonely people are more likely to form attachments to their Roomba vacuum cleaners. When the vacuums break, some owners do not want a replacement Roomba; they want their Roomba fixed.”