Newsletter 26 – Breaking Encryption in a Specific and Limited Way

November 13, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

You’ve probably seen the encryption notice in the little yellow box on a Whatsapp chat.

Messages are end-to-end encrypted. No one outside of this chat, not even Whatsapp, can read or listen to them.”

This level of encryption and privacy has never been available to the average citizen before now. It was traditionally the tool of government spies and big banks, but now every global citizen with a smartphone is starting to get privacy and encryption by default in all of their daily communications tools.

On the whole this is a positive development, but it won’t be without its drawbacks and costs. Compared to unencrypted channels like email, text-message and phone calls, modern end-to-end encrypted tools give everyone the same level of privacy – whether their actions are good or evil.

Encrypted messages help activists organise against authoritarian regimes, help journalists and whistleblowers communicate and stops employees in big companies reading our messages, or the companies themselves selling or leaking our message data. Equally, however, it renders invisible the communications of criminals, terrorists and traffickers, to name just a few.

So you can understand why law enforcement agencies are constantly seeking ways to weaken encryption, to legislate that it must only be 99% impenetrable, with the 1% reserved for their access. As Karlin Lillington reports in the Irish Times, “Garda Commissioner Drew Harris has increasingly been floating an argument for back doors. Noting the growing use of encrypted phones by gangs, he said a few times over this year that gardaí need (and expect) legislation that will supply a mysterious “electronic key” to break encrypted devices.”

This effort is, unfortunately, completely misguided. There is no possible way to make end-to-end encryption breakable by one group and not by others. If my government can access my messages, so can foreign governments. If it’s possible for law enforcement to access it, it will inevitably be accessed by criminals.

It is against this backdrop that the European Council of Minister publish a draft resolution calling for a a balance between the security encryption provides to individuals and the wider public security it removes. Many tech and privacy advocates have reacted very negatively to the resolution, seeing this as a call to find ways to break encryption (in a specific and limited way) which could ultimately make us all less safe.

I’m less pessimistic. I was surprised that this is the first resolution from any western Government I’ve seen that doesn’t call for some kind of back-door. The tenor of the resolution seems to recognise that they don’t actually know what to do and are suggesting that groups from industry, academia, law enforcement and industry should be assembled to explore it.

There’s a few interesting approaches that don’t involve breaking encryption, which should definitely be supported and explored. If someone sends you a message containing something illegal, for example, it may have been encrypted in transit from them to you, but now that you have it there’s no reason you can’t share it with authorities. Tools can be made available to make that reporting process easier and more secure.

On the other hand, my optimism could be misplaced. The resolution calls for “technical solutions for gaining access to encrypted data,” which could be the start of a discussion that ends with proposals for breaking encryption, in which case the proposals should be resisted.

Either way, as encrypted messaging becomes the de-facto option for most of the worlds population over the coming years, expect this debate to become a prominent and recurring one.

📰 News

Trump’s next move. Assuming the US courts hold strong and Joe Biden becomes president in January, what does Trump do next? Ezra Klein makes a compelling case that the next step is an “autocracy-in-exile”. No defeat and retreat. 10s of millions of Americans believe the election was stolen from him and them, so we should expect that he will build a media ecosystem to keep this alternative-reality alive. In the ongoing saga of Trump and Trumpism the challenge for social media companies is that they don’t become the place where this reality is created, and for traditional media companies that they cover it without enhancing it. Link.

Spice Bag By Drone. On a lighter note, Irish drone delivery company Manna are launching a trial of delivery by drone in Oranmore, Galway. Order something (small) from Tesco, Just Eat or Camille Thai and it’ll be dropped in your garden minutes later. Link.

Nutrition labels. Apple will be displaying privacy “nutrition labels” on all apps in their app store from next month. These are simplified, standardised notices on what data an app collects and how it uses it. Link.

Move slow, don’t break things. After Twitter changing the way re-tweets work and Whatsapp limiting the number of times a message can be forwarded, Facebook has now announced another feature attempting to add friction and slow the pace of misinformation spreading. The people who run Facebook groups (which are “in probation”) will have to manually approve each new post. Link.

The New York Times is now earning more from digital revenue than print. A significant milestone. Link.

💡 Interesting Links

The Pope is praying for AI to be kind. It’s funny, but he’s not wrong Link.

Whatsapp are launching a disappearing text feature. You can send a message to someone and it’ll delete off their phone after a set amount of time. Could have saved a local politician some recent bother. Link.

Surveillance. Another good reason not to build a city-wide factial recognition system. In Moscow you can pay hackers $200, give them someone’s picture and they’ll give you their movements over the previous month. Link.

Newsletter 25 – It Worked?

November 6, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

In many senses, the sequence of results in the US election have been the worst case scenario we could have imagined. An early vote too close to call, counting protracted over many days, with Trump leading in early days and each subsequent batch of votes counted shifting towards Biden. It’s the exact scenario we thought would lead to the least stability, that would provide fertile ground for conspiracy, false claims, outrage, riots and violence.

And yet, so far, the worst of those fears haven’t happened.

As predicted, Trump has been calling the process rigged and claiming widespread fraud. But the effect has been more muted than you might expect when the US president calls an election rigged. All media organisations have behaved exactly as one would have hoped, reporting not just on his statements, but also, in the headline, pointing to the baselessness of his claims.

Social media companies have been doing their part too. By my count, 50% of Trump’s tweets on Wednesday were restricted or carried fact-check warnings. Facebook has been doing similar, suppressing or labelling the most egregious of all the posts. YouTube, as usual, has been doing very little.

Probably the most important piece in all this has been Fox news, the most important media platform for American conservatives, which as far as I have seen, has been responsibly reporting as false these claims by the president.

With these approaches combined, the president’s avenues for spreading disinformation – his social media accounts and popular media gatekeepers – have been substantially diminished. I’m personally happy about this, but I can see why some would be concerned about this power being in the hands of non-democratic institutions.

It’s a fair concern, but I actually think this power is less concentrated than ever. In the past this power was available to a small number of TV stations and newspapers, but now a response like this has to be co-ordinated among 3 major tech companies, several TV networks and half a dozen media organisations, all of whom with different political leanings and commercial interests. They’re all acting in unison because it is obviously and overwhelmingly the right thing to do, and something they have been preparing for for months.

The effect of grassroots disinformation is harder to gauge now too, with a lot of “Stop the Steal” type Facebook groups popping up since Tuesday. New York Times reporter Davey Alba has a good running list of all the misinformation being spread, the effect of which will probably take a while to discern.

My early optimism may be proven wrong in the coming days and weeks as Trump continues play his strategy out, but for now I’m impressed that, given an unprecedented scale of the attempt to undermine the election, things are holding up reasonably well. How you can standardise and apply these policies to all other democratic elections outside the US, or where the candidate hasn’t announced their plans to undermine the election months in advance like a bad bond villain, are the next challenge.

📰 News

RTE Player. An FOI request from solicitor Simon McGarr revealed that, in the last 2 years, the RTE board has only been given one briefing about the RTE player. Which doesn’t seem like a good number of times for something that should be more strategically important. On the other hand, am I the only one who doesn’t think the RTE player is that bad? Link.

UK Covid App. The NHS’ Covid app had the wrong settings applied and didn’t warn close contacts when it should have. Link.

Steve Bannon, two days after appearing on RTE radio, had his Twitter and Youtube accounts suspended for calling for the beheading of Dr Fauci and the FBI director. Link.

YouTube. The Trump campaign bought the YouTube homepage for election day. Boris Johnson did the same thing in their last election and it was very effective. Link.

Home testing. The Irish company LetsGetChecked has launched home covid-19 tests, with results available within 3-4 days. Link.

💡 Interesting Links

Eye tracking. From the dystopian future category, college students are doing their tests in their bedrooms due to Covid, so some universities are deploying eye-tracking technology so the students’ own web cams can spy on them to try prevent cheating. Grim. Link.

Myanmar. “Weeks before an election, Burmese social media are awash with fake news and vitriol.Link.

Aerosols. Some useful visualisations of how Covid is spread in different scenarios, like restaurants, bars and schools. Link.

One for the runners. Spotify will soon let you stream directly from your watch, without needing your phone nearby. Link.

Newsletter 24 – Should Companies Be Political?

October 30, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

Two weeks ago the CEO of coinbase, a tech company with about 1,000 staff, publicly shared a new internal policy about their company mission, which explicitly excludes talking about political issues that aren’t specifically related to their product or industry.

It has become common for Silicon Valley companies to engage in a wide variety of social activism, even those unrelated to what the company does, and there are certainly employees who really want this in the company they work for. So why have we decided to take a different approach? The reason is that while I think these efforts are well intentioned, they have the potential to destroy a lot of value at most companies, both by being a distraction, and by creating internal division.

This came after many employees expressed frustration that the company wasn’t expressing public support for Black Lives Matter. The post generated a lot of discussion among tech leaders and ultimately resulted in 60 employees leaving the company.

On the other end of the spectrum, Expensify, an expense tracking tool for small businesses, sent an email to their 10 million customers imploring them to vote for Joe Biden!

Many praised the Coinbase CEO’s memo, attempting to pull the company out of the weeds of politics. Others, like Twitter’s ex-CEO, criticised it as an abdication of leadership.

I can certainly see the merit of much of the criticism. If your employees face discrimination on the basis of their gender, religion, race or sexuality, advocating for their rights is distinctly different from endorsing political candidates. Supporting a local pride festival, making statements in support of racial equality or gender-pay-parity don’t strike me as incompatible with the mission of most companies, or their duty of care to their employees.

On the other hand, I also see the logic in some of his argument. A company is a group of people who come together to build a product or deliver a service, with responsibility to follow the law, make customers happy and generate shareholder return. If people want to advocate for other political change, should they not join different groups of people who come together for those purposes? Like campaigns, political parties and trade unions?

Popular conceptions of capitalism are shifting, with many people considering a company’s responsibility to a wider group of stakeholders, like employees, local communities, the environment and the wider economy.

My personal politics likes a lot of this. In particular, the increasing acknowledgment that environmental sustainability is a responsibility of corporations too. However, I don’t think we acknowledge the trade-off we’re making and the risk we’re creating if we advocate a multi-stakeholder approach.

Often the winner in this move is the CEO and senior management. In a more 1980’s version of capitalism, when we measured CEOs against a single goal of maximising shareholder value, it was a crude yardstick, and didn’t produce ideal societal outcomes, but it had the distinct advantage of being simple and measurable.

Whereas before the CEO could get fired when the share price dropped, they now have the flexibility to argue that they’re doing a good job because they were balancing shareholder value against the interest of some other group of stakeholders. It’s a lot of extra wiggle room, which reduces accountability and concentrates power.

We can hope they use this increased power for good, but I’m not sure we should trust that they will.

If you’re supportive of companies engaging in social activism specifically, or just wider stakeholder-serving in general, Matt Levine succinctly describes the power shift that will accompany it. “It is productive—not 100% accurate, but a useful heuristic—to assume that all corporate governance debates in the U.S. are about whether shareholders or managers should have more power to control the corporation. There are other stakeholders, sure, but they are mostly tools in the shareholder/manager fight, not power centers in themselves.”

That’s why the Expensify CEO was able to justify a Biden support email to 10 million customers – because “Expensify depends on a functioning society and economy; not many expense reports get filed during a civil war,” – while the CEO of Soylent said he was voting for Kanye, and, if we’re not holding them to the singular goal of profit-maximising, what is the new rule set that constrains either of them?

📰 News

Section 230. The big tech CEOs were in front of US congress again this week, officially to discuss “Section 230”, the piece of US law that makes tech companies immune from liability for what their users post, upload or tweet. It’s an important and difficult ongoing debate – should we treat them more like telecoms companies, who aren’t responsible for the content of a text message they deliver, or more like newspapers, whose editors are wholly responsible for the information they publish? Unfortunately, after all the questioning, we’re none the wiser.

As the New York Times reported “The theatrics, which often devolved into shouting, meant that the topic of the hearing — the future of a legal shield for online platforms — was barely debated.

In Ireland, in every election or referendum I’ve been involved in, a daily activity of most Communications Managers is to argue with RTE that your side isn’t being treated fairly or getting enough coverage. Even if that’s not entirely true, the theory goes that at least they’ll think twice about anything that could advantage the opposition, because they’ll get an earful for it. That happens behind closed doors mostly, because you can sound like a crank calling RTE or the BBC biased publicly. People have less sympathy for tech CEOs being shouted at, which is fine, I guess, but it still results in a cycle of politicians shouting at the referee trying to pressure them on specific decisions, rather than engaging in the more important debate about what rules these refs should be following. Link.

Arrested for posts. 10 people have been charged with sharing, on Facebook and Twitter, the names of the two boys who murdered Ana Kriegel. As both were 13 at the time, it is illegal to share information about them. Without commenting on the law itself, if it is to be prosecuted this seems to me like the right approach. Many disagree, with journalists like Matt Cooper and Tom Lyons calling for Facebook and Twitter to face punishments for allowing the posts to be published in the first place. Link.

In both the US and Irish case, this is a difficult debate but one we need to be having more. I worry about laws that mandate pre-screening of content will result in companies being over-cautious and prohibiting much speech and expression that we don’t want to stop. Stricter rules will also disproportionately hurt the smaller tech companies. Facebook, Google and (probably) Twitter have the resources to implement more restrictive rules, but most of their smaller competitors don’t.

Some positive next steps here would be laws that mandate transparency for content moderation policies and processes, to set targets for how quickly offending content is removed and to ensure people have a fair right of appeal if they feel their posts have been removed unfairly. There’s a difference between hosting content and amplifying it too, which could be regulated in different ways. Beyond that it gets more difficult to weight the trade-offs.

Oversight. The Facebook Oversight Board (aka the “supreme court”) is starting to hear cases. Select content moderation policies will be discussed and debated in public. I’m optimistic about this one. Link.

Whatsapp. In the last week of the US presidential campaign misinformation campaigns are ramping up on messaging platforms like Whatsapp and SMS. We probably won’t get a full sense of their scale and impact until months after the election, if at all. Link.

💡 Interesting Links

AOC. US Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar live-streamed themselves playing to new hit game “Among Us” to get young people to vote. Over 400k people watched it live, and millions since. Here’s the highlight reel – link.

Tables Turned. Activists are using facial recognition to identify police. Link.

Spam Bias. Someone decided to audit the algorithms that decide which emails should go into spam folders, with surprising results. Outlook, for example spammed a job application containing the word “Nigeria”, but didn’t when the word was removed. Link.


Newsletter 23 – The Moderation Wars Escalate

October 22, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

As we enter the final weeks in the run up to the US election, actions, tensions and rhetoric are all escalating in the ongoing cat-and-mouse saga of content moderation online.

A big step-change happened last week when the NY Post published an article about supposed leak of hacked emails relating to Biden. If you haven’t read the details, it seems to be a largely invented story pushed by the Trump campaign to try re-create the email scandal story that hurt Clinton in 2016. Once they story was published, each Social Media company and indeed each media company had a choice to make in how they handled it.

Facebook tweaked their algorithm to dampen the viral spread of the article and added a warning notice. Twitter blocked it completely, prohibiting users from sharing a link to the article, and in some cases blocking users who do. YouTube, as it often does, did nothing.

Twitter’s action was the most extreme and caused a huge reaction from the republican party (who, as a reminder, are currently in power). Twitter back-tracked fairly quickly, stating that the article had been blocked under their standard policy to block articles that contain hacked or leaked personal information, but now that they see how “newsworthy” it is, they’ll let it run with warning labels. Republicans, including the president, are accusing Twitter and the others of election interference and promising hash sanctions.

There are lots of questions we’re all struggling with, which this event re-hashes. We want platforms to block fake news, but what about real news orgs running (probably) fake stories? Freedom of speech, freedom of press. What rules should apply to a story like this? Should the same rules apply to newspapers covering the story?

It’s impossible to know the counter-factual of what would have happened if Twitter hadn’t made such a move – would everyone now be talking about the details of the “leak”, like they did in 2016? Or would it have had much less impact in general, lasting one media cycle before fading without excitement?

Difficult to know, and therefore difficult to know exactly what the right call is to make in cases like this. One thing for certain is that more unique, norm-destroying events will keep happening between now and election day.

📰 News

Electoral Reform. Cabinet agreed to a draft electoral reform bill this week, which will set up an Electoral Commission in Ireland for the first time. This will cover things like creating a modern register of electors (e.g. registering to vote online) and better regulation of political advertising online. I didn’t think they’d keep moving fast on this, but it looks like they might be on schedule to establish it by next summer, which is great. Link.

Driverless Cars. In a big move for the industry, Waymo have just started offering their driverless car taxi service to the public one US city. Link. Tesla started rolling out it’s self-driving software to a small number of customers yesterday, with plans to have it in all cars by the end of the year. Link.

Re-Org RTE. I’ve mentioned a few times in this newsletter that I think RTE could benefit from a move away from being channel-focused and towards a model where we have a distribution organisation (digital & broadcast) and content production (written, video and audio). In a digital age we need a “state broadcaster” a little bit less, and a “state content producer” (or funder of content production) even more – in particular local content and journalism. This week Disney announced a similar re-org, separating production and distribution. I think it will be an interesting one for the state broadcaster to watch. Link.

Antitrust. In ongoing antitrust news this week, the EU commission has drawn up a hit-list of 20 big tech companies that they want to face tougher regulations than their smaller competitors (link) and the US department of Justice is about to file against Google for anti-competitive behaviour (link).

GroupWatch. Disney+ has introduced a new feature which lets up to 7 people watch a synced stream of a movie or show, and pop emoji reactions on each other’s screens. Another nice example of technology helping us be together, apart. Link.

💡 Interesting Links

Buy Local. I don’t know about you, but I find Amazon incredibly difficult to browse. It’s good when I know exactly what I want, but terrible for perusing. Just one of the many reasons I’m going to be doing as much of my Christmas shopping as I can in Irish shops online, which could use the boost after a tough year. If you’re considering similar, Conor Pope in the Irish Times has a great list of 100 Irish retailers. Link.

Coronatime. “The days blend together, the months lurch ahead, and we have no idea what time it is. The virus has created its own clock.” Link.

NYT Business Model. This is a great presentation on the New York Times’ digital business model, and how it’s now financially thriving, just a decade after it neared financial collapse. Link.

Government as a Platform. “Reorganizing the work of government around a network of shared APIs, open-standards and canonical datasets, so that civil servants, businesses and others can deliver radically better services to the public, more safely, efficiently and accountably.Link.

🎧 Podcasts

The Daily did a great summary of the NY Post story about Biden and the ensuing fallout. Link.

Newsletter 22 – Antitrust

October 16, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

There has been a string of news stories in the last few weeks that all fit under the heading of “breaking up big tech.”

The US, the EU, the UK and many others have published reports and draft regulating “big tech”, in particular Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google.

The more simplistic, and probably less effective, recommendations make calls to “break them up.” There’s probably a few cases where spinning some services out as separate companies might make a positive impact, but in most cases it doesn’t seem to address the actual problems we’re all trying to solve.

If the problem is hate speech and content moderation, it’s not clear that Facebook and Instagram would tackle that better as separate companies, or Google separate from YouTube. I’m not sure if Whatsapp would be any less dominant in messaging if it had remained independent.

The more promising approaches aren’t trying to regulate “tech” as a single concept, but taking a more surgical approach to each problem and each vertical. This is much harder, of course, and much less catchy than “break them up”, but probably more successful in the long run.

We’ve taken this more surgical approach in the past too, with good results. In Telecoms, for example, it used to be that if your number was 087, you were Vodafone, and 086 meant you were O2. Moving networks meant you had to change number. So EU and Irish regulation brought in FMNP (full mobile number portability) to allow you to switch network and keep your number, which improved competition in the market. Similar EU regulation reduced roaming rates in the last decade.

Likewise, in the Insurance industry, we introduced specific regulation to ensure people can keep their no-claims bonus when they move insurers, to help make the market more competitive.

This level of detailed, case-specific, regulation is what we need in tech. And there’s lots of areas ready for some good rules. App stores (in particular Google Play and Apple’s App Store) are a very positive development, but present a big imbalance of power when companies like Spotify try compete against Apple Music. Google’s verticals, like shopping and traffic, which they integrate as service offerings into their dominant search engine are other obvious places where power imbalances could be abused.

Other areas seem less obvious. Many of the reports mention Amazon selling its own brand products, and promoting them above other brands – like the Amazon Basics batteries over Energizer and Duracell. But if we stop that, does the same apply to Tesco own brand or Aldi label products?

As a recent Economist piece noted, “it would be a historical anomaly if tech were not to be robustly regulated, as other systemically important industries such as banking and food were before it.” This is coming down the tracks, let’s just hope we’re specific and purposeful about it, rather than wasting time and energy on wide-sweeping, ineffective approaches.

Further reading: The Economist on How Best To Regulate Tech. Feds may target Google’s Chrome browser for breakup. Wired asks Should Google’s Ad Market Be Regulated Like the Stock Market?. Would breaking up ‘big tech’ work? by Ben Evans.

📰 News

Public Algorithms. Amsterdam and Helsinki jointly launched public registers of the AI algorithms used by their municipal administrations. “Both registers provide an overview of each system, as well as further details on the data they use, their operating logic, and the governance of the applications.” Link

Microsoft App Store. With Apple and Google under increasing pressure, Microsoft released “10 app store principles to promote choice, fairness and innovation,” as a bit of a swipe. In some ways, it just reminds me of what it was like downloading apps before app stores (or programmes, as we called them). No trust, difficult payments, piracy and viruses. Also, it’s hard to take them seriously when they don’t apply their enlightened principles to the Xbox store, which is big and profitable. Link.

QTube. Now that Facebook and Twitter have banned QAnon, all eyes (should) turn to YouTube. In a recent interview, YouTube CEO has said that they have made algorithm tweaks to reduce viewership, but won’t say they’ll ban them outright. Link.

Breaking Encryption. The Governments in big anglosphere countries have called on tech companies to weaken their end-to-end encryption to allow government access. This will be a big debating point in the next few years. If encryption is weakened on messaging (e.g. Whatsapp) then governments (good and bad) can see what people are talking about and punish activity (good and bad). But if any backdoor exists for governments, it can, in theory, be exploited by others too. Link.

Prejudice in AI. This week the BBC reported that “UK passport photo checker shows bias against dark-skinned women” and face-tracking software used by colleges to track that students are taking exams remotely is failing to recognise dark skinned students. As these technologies increase in adoption, these stories will keep coming. BBC story. College story.

💡 Interesting Links

Spotify. An in-depth interview with Daniel Ek, founder of Spotify. He has an interesting observation on the cultural differences of European (Swedish in Spotify’s case) company culture vs. US.

“I find many times it takes the average American at least a year to be productive within Spotify’s culture. Its ambiguity is just so foreign to them. When Americans typically say, “Well, I thought you, Daniel, were supposed to make the decision.” And I’m like, “No, I mean, you can make it if you want to.” Some people don’t like that ambiguity; that’s not for them. They think it’s slower and it is. But the flipside is, even if we do take longer to agree on some things, once we’ve decided, we move with a lot of velocity and magnitude. Because everyone’s bought in.” Link

Virtual Idol. “This New TV Talent Contest is for Virtual Idols Only” 😕  Link.

Fake Artists. As someone who regularly searches “chill Sunday bruch” or “saturday night dinner with friends” in Spotify to find the perfectly specific playlist, I enjoyed this piece about people uploading music under artist names like “Relaxing Therapy Music” and “Nature Sounds for Sleeping” to collect the royalty payments. Link.

Seeking Oblivion. Many of the pieces I share here look at the addictive nature of social media, but this piece takes a different perspective, looking not at the faults in our algorithms, but in ourselves. Thinking about our newsfeeds as addictive slot machines, “such techno-determinism renders all of us passive objects, our very brain chemistry at the mercy of a small handful of Harvard dorks with admin privileges. Are we really captive to our devices in quite so direct or helpless away? Seymour doesn’t buy it, and worries that just-so stories about addiction are disempowering and limiting. His rejection of determinism isn’t a recourse to personal responsibility, but a warning: regulation will not cure us, and reform won’t save us. If we live in a “horror story, the horror must partly lie in the user.” Link.

AI Zoom Calls. Nvidia have release a spooky/cool new tech concept. When you’re on a video call, instead of trying to transmit full visual info about your face in every frame of the video, they could just transmit a much smaller number of data points about key features on your face, like how your mouth is moving, then the graphics chip on your friend’s device would use AI to re-create a realistic animation of what your face probably looks like in each frame. It can even make enhancements, if needed, like bringing your gaze from your screen to the camera, to give the impression of eye contact. Link. [Video 2mins]

🎧 Podcasts

Radiolab updated their Post No Evil episode from a few years ago, exploring the trade-offs made in content moderation online. Link.

Planet Money explored the world of online advertising in the 2020 presidential race in Political Ad Nauseam. Link.

Newsletter 21 – National Genome Project

October 8, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter


📰 News

DNA Data. The Sunday Business Post and The Journal collaborated on an excellent piece on Genomics Medicine Ireland (now “Genuity Science”) a private company doing huge amounts of work that is usually done by, or at least lead by, state-run genomics entities in other countries. They frequently offer to sequence DNA for free, which is always a dead giveaway that there’s huge value in the underlying database they’re building. Private companies should probably play a role in executing this work, but the ownership of the underlying Intellectual Property (data on the DNA of our citizens) should probably be state owned, or well regulated at the very least. Links: The Journal. SBP.

QAnon Banned. Big news as Facebook announced a ban on all QAnon related groups. The conspiracy theory has had severely negative impacts on its followers and the danger it posed to the wider public was growing, promoting anti-mask and anti-vaccination, as well as shootings and real-life violence. It started in shady parts of the internet like 8chan, but it reaches average people on Facebook, YouTube and Reddit, so this move is a very significant one. Link.

Content Moderation. In an interesting illustration of tradeoffs, here’s two different approaches to the same problem – posting terrorist content on a social network. Facebook have decided to ban depictions of terrorism that are supportive or glorifying, but allow depictions used to condemn it. Twitch, the video streaming site, on the other hand, have decided to ban all extremist content, “even for the purposes of denouncing such content”. Link.

Excel woes. In a story that will send shivers down the spine of anyone who has worked on data projects in large organisations, the UK under-reported 16,000 Covid cases because they were moving data around in CSV files, but when opened in Excel it maxxed out at 1million rows (1 row per test) and nobody noticed. I’m not saying it’s best practice, or even good practice, but it’s certainly very common practice. Link.

Cambridge Analytica. The UK’s ICO has issued an update on their investigation of CA. In summary, it paints a picture of CA as an organisation full of bad practices, but significantly over-selling their own effects and influence. The scary things they claimed they did were mostly an overblown sales-pitch. However, “the whole ecosystem of personal data in political campaigns” was pretty bad in 2016, but much work has been done to clean up practices in political parties, platforms and legislation. At least on this side of the Atlantic. Link.

EU Spy Free Zone. “The European Court of Justice (ECJ), the EU’s highest legal authority, ruled Tuesday that member states cannot collect mass mobile and internet data on citizens.” Link.

💡 Interesting Links

Cluster Busting. This is the best new information I’ve read on the science of Covid in months. I’d recommend reading it in full, but to give you the quick summary, the article suggests we stop thinking about a linear progression of the virus, where person A infects B, B infects C, and so on. Instead, this virus seems to move in clusters, where A, B and C all get the virus, infect no-one, but then D infects 50 people in a night club or at choir practice. Covid Clusters emerge when 3 Cs come together – “crowds in closed spaces in close contact” – and countries should consider “cluster busting” as a key approach. Read More.

Outliers. What type of reward system produces the most radical innovation? This study found that “Providing sizable rewards for only the very top performers appears to inspire the sort of risk-taking required to encourage the requisite creativity that delivers scientific and technological novelty.” There’s a metaphor for modern (US) capitalism in there – producing outsized results, but also lots of losers, which can work if everyone gets to benefit from the innovations, but that’s not been happening as much as it used to. Link.

Colourised Past. Have you seen the video of the snowball fight in France 124 years ago? It’s wonderful, you can see it here. There’s a growing community on YouTube using machine learning techniques to add colour and fill in missing frames to modernise these very old videos. There’s lots more here. Some Historians are complaining that the process distorts understanding, but I think they’re a powerful way to collapse the distance between then and now.

Newsletter 20 – A Fractured Internet

October 1, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

I wrote a piece for the Irish Times this week about the fracturing of the global internet. In the last few weeks we’ve seen TikTok be split up because the US worries that they will be used as a vehicle for Chinese foreign policy. The EU is worried that companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Microsoft and hundreds more will be a vehicle for US security policy, giving the US intelligence agencies unfettered access to European citizen’s private data.

These are big skirmishes in the battle to shape the future of the internet. We’ll see many more of them in the next decade. It’s happening all over the world too – India recently banned Chinese appsRussia has banned some services for not storing their data in Russia, and Turkey is bringing in a new law with data localisation provisions

Many of the EU battles are going to play out in Ireland. They’re high stakes, but I think they’re fights worth having. Read More.

📰 News

eAuth. EC President Ursula Van der Leyen, in her recent state of the Union address, announced a plan for a European digital identity. The idea centres around a “European single-sign-on”. If you’ve ever used “Sign In With Facebook” on Netflix or Spoitfy, or used the Google, Linkedin, Twitter or Microsoft equivalents, you’ll get the rough idea. But this would be an EU service that would let you log in to all your public services “to do anything from paying your taxes to renting a bicycle.” I think Ireland should continue developing our own version of this, but there’s also merit to it being done at a European level. Not just for technical competency, but also because national ids often become local political football, and something coming in from a European level could help remove many of those difficulties. Link.

European Startups. Daniel Ek, the founder of Spotify, has committed to investing €1bn of his fortune in European deeptech ”moonshot projects”. Tech ecosystems tend to grow in generations, with one big success generating many others. Nokia spawned many mobile app companies in Finland (including Angry Birds!) and the Skype team in Estonia did similar, so it’s great to see another big European success story looking to do the same. I’m looking forward to the future generation of startups created by the alumni of Intercom, Stripe and others here. Link.

eGovernment. The EU released their eGovernment Benchmark, measuring how it easy it is to do several key life stage events online, like opening a business, getting a passport or registering a marriage. Ireland ranks really high for businesses, but not so great for people, landing us somewhere in the middle of the pack. Link. PDF.

Hate Speech. Following on from the ads boycott earlier this year, the tech platforms, marketing agencies and big advertisers are coming together to define hate speech and how to stop it. I get that the platforms should be involved (they have to implement the new rules after all), but it seems strange that it’s driven by advertisers and not even involving Governments or relevant NGOs. Link

Revolut. If you have a Revolut account, your money is in a bank account in the UK. From January the UK won’t be in the EU any more, so Revolut are going to move your money to a bank in Lithuania and you’ll get a new IBAN. Link

💡 Interesting Links

Portland passed a ban on all forms of automated face recognition, including in private businesses. A lone outlier in US cities. Link.

Gendered Language. When translating between two gender-inflected languages, Google Translate almost always changes the gender of occupations to fit stereotypes. Female “die Präsidentin” in German becomes male “le président” in French. Google says it’s because it pivots all translations through English, which is mostly gender-neutral. This is as much an Anglo-centric story as it is a gender one. Link.

Poverty Lawgorithms” takes a look at the negative effects of automated decision making on low income communities. For example, automated timekeeping software allows employers to automatically round down work hours and deduct break time even if employees did not take one. In one instance, casino workers were cheated an average of €380 each in unpaid wages. Link.

On our behalf. When NGOs decide to advocate to change public policy, do they hire people who look like the powerful, or those who they’re advocating for? Link.

How the Australian PM got hacked from an Instagram pic. A funny, cautionary tale about posting pics of your boarding pass online. Link

19 – Not Just A Tech Problem

September 24, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

This week we were reminded that many of the problems we’re seeing emerge with tech are just new iterations of problems we’ve always faced.

Alexis Magrigal in the Atlantic looked a series of killings widely reported as “caused by WhatsApp”.

“This year has been presented as an epidemic of violence, aided and abetted, even caused, by WhatsApp. The narrative slotted neatly into the broader discussion of Big Tech’s failures, the corrosiveness of social media, and the crises of misinformation across the world. After all, WhatsApp usage has exploded in India over the past few years, across city and country, rich and poor. Two hundred million Indians now use WhatsApp. Communal violence has been on the rise, going from 751 incidents resulting in 97 deaths in 2015 to 822 incidents and 111 deaths in 2017”

He makes a compelling case that many are just bad humans doing what they’ve always done, just now on WhatsApp.

Another paper published in Science points to the fact that “fake news” constitutes just 0.14% of an average American’s daily media diet.

Closer to home we had several reminders that disinformation and sensationalism is a wider societal problem, with 2FM looking for a debate on the efficacy of masks, and RedFM broadcasting advice that Vitamin C can cure Covid.

I don’t highlight these to encourage us to treat tech related (or tech enhanced) problems any less seriously or urgently, but just to remind that a narrow focus on just the tech involved can blind us to the deeper root cause, making our diagnoses and ultimately our solutions less effective.

📰 News

Are Twitter’s Images Biased? People can upload images of any shape or size to Twitter, but Twitter crops a small section of the image to use as a preview. In 2018 they introduced “smart auto-cropping“, a machine learning algorithm that tries to use the most interesting part of the image in the preview. Several users noticed this week that, in images with black people and white people, the algorithm seems to always focus on the white person. EG 1. EG 2.

Twitter responded fairly quickly, saying that they did test for bias when they launched, but they’ll investigate again. Another person did a test with a random sample and couldn’t recreate the effect, so it may be a case that the only examples becoming popular are the ones that seem to show bias, rather than the ones that don’t.

The whole incident is a great example for why we need more frameworks for auditing the results of automated processes. Their effect matters far more than their intent. In this case Twitter’s engineers just wanted to know “what’s interesting?” in the image, but some checks for “Is this automating racism?” “Is this automating sexism?” would still have been useful. Link.

Co-working. Apparently there’s no 400 remote working spaces in Ireland, mostly in rural areas. Rachel Lavin profiled a few of them in the Business Post. Link.

Brexit. The Johnson Government are detailing their post-Brexit plans to pick the future winners in emerging technologies, give them state-aid and create a world-leading British tech sector. Besides the difficulty this will cause in reaching a trade agreement with the EU, and the fact that all of us would love the clairvoyance necessary to pick the next Google, there’s some merit in direct funding of new technologies with public benefit. The US tech sector benefits from a lot of R&D done as publicly funded military funding, so they could achieve similar effects here, if done through the NHS for example. Then again, you probably don’t need to leave the EU to do that. Link.

💡 Interesting Links

Misinformation. An interview with Bill Gates about misinformation online. Over 20 mins he highlights many of the areas where we know the problems, but don’t yet have many concrete solutions. Link [YouTube].

Fixing bias. Algorithms can help us uncover and address systemic bias. Here’s one good example from France, where the allocation of daycare places is in the gift of local politicians, who are fighting against the algorithm that will do this more fairly. Link.

Oldspiracy. Forget 5G, in 1890 the New York Herald reported a theory that Russian Influenza was caused by the newfangled electricity. Link.

The first death sentence over zoom. As if 2020 couldn’t get more grim. Link.

Buying myself back” Model Emily Ratajkowski talks about what it means to own your own image. An excellent read. Link.

Newsletter 18 – The Fracturing Internet

September 18, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

Image via NYT.

Two big international stories this week might seem quite disparate, but have the same underlying cause. It looks like Chinese owned TikTok will be bought by Oracle, to placate the Trump administration. Nearer to home the Irish Data Protection Commissioner has ordered Facebook to stop sending private data from the EU to the US, in a move that might break much of how the internet currently works.

Both are indicators that we have moved out of the “beginning” stage of the internet, where every country’s goal was just to get people and businesses “online”. Now we are embarking on the stage where, given that everyone is connected, governments try mould the global internet to match their local cultural norms and legal frameworks.

Because the Us Government can snoop on any US server it wishes, Europe is worried that Facebook and others will be a vector for US security policy, to the detriment of EU citizens. The US is worried that TikTok will be a vector for Chinese foreign policy, to the detriment of US national security.

All of these moves tread a difficult line, trying to impose your worldview to shape a single global internet, without fracturing the internet into different regional versions. China went first many years ago, intentionally fracturing the internet in their region with their “Great Firewall.” Other countries are ramping up their efforts too. India has banned many Chinese companies over the last few months. Australia has released a draft digital news bill that includes mandating 28 day notice before any algorithm changes (the kind that are often deployed on a daily basis).

This has been an emerging trend over the last few years, but in 2020 it has really accelerated. I think it will be a dominant trend for the 2020s, where we struggle with the tension between keeping the benefits of an open, global internet and the desire to make it conform to the norms and rules in our own different parts of the world.

Stories: Oracle likely to buy TikTokFacebook Ireland vs DPCAustralia’s media regulation billIndia bans 118 chines apps.

📰 News

An Post has announced it will be launching its own “Revolut-like” app in October. I saw a lot of Irish techies laugh about this on Twitter, at the notion that the Irish postal service could beat a digital-native like Revolut, but An Post is a fairly serious personal finance organisation. They have Credit Cards, Loans, insurance products and a mobile MVNO. In all of these they’ve been quite smart about how they partner with technical experts to build the product and leverage their own branding and network, so I wouldn’t write them off just yet. Link.

Journalistic privilege. An interesting case – a local journalist filmed some footage of a house on fire. Gardaí suspect fowl play and want to see the contents off his phone. He refused, invoking journalistic privilege, but a judge ruled that there’s no such thing. Link.

The Dublin Inquirer has an excellent piece on Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS) which several groups are pushing for in Dublin. Once you strip back the technical language, they’re mostly talking about a Leap Card with a monthly subscription, which covers public and private transport, including the likes of Free Now taxis and bleeper bikes. The technical challenge of that sounds fun and interesting, but I’m skeptical about the public benefit of deeply integrating private transport options into a system like this. Link.

TikTok recently switched their legal European HQ to Dublin, which means we have the burden and cost of regulating them, so thankfully we might also be getting some jobs along with that too. The Irish Times reports that they’re looking for property here that could hold up to 5,000 workers. Google employs 8,000 after 15 years here, so take TikTok’s number with a pinch of salt, but it does add weight to the IDA’s claim that getting a company to locate their Data Centre here anchors them, then frequently leads to job creation. I wonder where they’ll all live? Link.

🤔 Interesting Links

Facebook often talk about their platform as a mirror for reality, but Shida Ovide illustrates the many ways that social media platforms shape reality, instead of passively reflecting it. Link.

Rethinking Rocket Internet. I always thought of Rocket Internet, the German startup builder, as a company that just copies others. And it is, but maybe that’s a good thing? It doesn’t have the romantic flair of some startup stories, and as a business owner they scare me, but it’s hard to argue that they’re a net-negative for creating competitive markets. Link.

“Another experiment showing how influential Wikipedia is on the real world: Adding two paragraphs of text & nice pictures to randomly selected articles about small European cities led to an over 9% increase in hotel stays; the edit is worth $190k per year!” Link.

Newsletter 17 – Dublin’s Fair(ly empty) City

September 10, 2020 in Weekly Newsletter

Was 2019 the peak of city-centre office working? Or will 2020 be remembered as a temporary blip when we all go back to the office after Covid?

6 months into the pandemic Google’s decision to abandon plans for a new 2,000 person office in Dublin feels like a strong signal that this may a trend that continues after the pandemic ends. This mirrors similar developments in cities all over the world, with the most notable one being Pinterest’s decision to cancel their lease and pay an $89.5m fine to do so.

“As we analyze how our workplace will change in a post-COVID world, we are specifically rethinking where future employees could be based,” their CFO said. At $89m, it’s a serious bet against the future of the city centre office.

If companies like Google and Pinterest are right, that poses two big questions – Where do people chose to live, when they can work anywhere? And what happens to cities if the office workers don’t return?

On the first question, for now at least, many office workers are getting out of the city. If you can work anywhere, you might as well work somewhere beautiful.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard that the co-working spaces in places like Skibbereen and Tralee are fully booked out these days. Airbnb have had such a strong resurgence over the summer that revenues are now 75% higher than they were at this time in 2019. Hotels are still way down.

It’s hard to know if this trend will hold or if it’s just a fun thing to do during an odd year. Cities are still where people do much more than work – where they socialise, meet romantic partners, have a wider variety of entertainment and food, etc.

Which leads to the second question… what do cities look like if office workers don’t return? In one of the best pieces I read this week, Paul Kearns writes about Dublin that “A capital that prioritises suburban shoppers, commuters and international tourists is now reaping the rewards of its anti-urban living policies.” The pandemic has revealed just how little we’ve invested in Dublin as a city to live in, rather than just one we commute and travel to. Other cities are worrying about the long term emptiness of their business districts, but we might have to worry about the whole city centre.

There’s also the knock on effects. Steve Levine points to the trillion dollar “office economy” that is being killed by remote work. Nobody is queueing in Starbucks. Business travel made up 60% of all airline revenue and (fingers crossed) may not ever be back to those levels (although I’m not sure about this one). I got a sad goodbye email from the barista in our office building last week and I can’t imagine the cleaning staff have been too busy over the last few months.

If the trend holds, those who “feed, transport, clothe, entertain, and shelter people when they are not in their own homes” — will risk losing their jobs, according to Elisabeth Reynolds at MIT. Another indicator that the pandemic is affecting those on lowest incomes the hardest.

I’m not sure that we should spring into action with any long-term plans while the ultimate outcome is still so uncertain, but it certainly gives us opportunity to re-imagine what we should want from our cities, and indeed our suburbs and towns too.

National Digital IDs.

The Economist has a pair of interesting articles this week. In the first they look at how the pandemic is spurring the digitisation of Government. Lots of interesting case studies of public services shifting dramatically online – from wedding registrations, unemployment claims and doctor’s appointments. We have some stellar examples in Ireland – Revenue Online is mostly excellent (just don’t lose your cert), and the Passport application app is a delight.

They also argue, because of this, that Covid-19 strengthens the case for digital ID cards. I’d broadly agree, with all of the caveats they list, including strict legal protections of the data, giving citizens ownership and control of their data and investing heavily in security.

Two of the best practices they recommend – 1) be transparent about it (i.e. call it national id, don’t try sneak it in as something else) and 2) don’t make it mandatory – are of course the exact opposite of what we did here, claiming the Public Services Card wasn’t a national id, then making it mandatory.

Hopefully we learn from the success of initiatives like the Covid Tracker app, which prioritised our data privacy, promoted the benefits of use and invested in building trust, and got very high levels of voluntary adoption as a result.


Mobile data is getting cheap. When I worked in Vodafone, I managed the launch of Prepay mobile broadband in 2008. If memory serves, we made a massive price drop from €5 per mb to €0.5 per mb. This week 48 (Three’s youth brand) launched 100GB (and free calls and text) for €7.99 per month. That’s €0.0000799 per mb! Link.

In news that will make a small number of people very happy, the BlackBerry is back! Coming next year. Link.

The first bit of science on whether or not Contact Tracking apps actually help reduce the spread of Covid has been published by Oxford, which seems to suggest that they have a positive impact at any level of uptake, not just when most people have it installed. Link.

Interesting Links

Abeba Birhane, a cognitive science PhD student at UCD, has published a paper on the “Algorithmic Colonization of Africa”. Link.

On a topic close to my heart – the battle for the future of young men online. “‘Queer Eye’, Jordan Peterson and the battle for depressed men.” Link

A good series of Tweets from Stephen McIntyre at Irish VC Frontline, about why the Google office announcement doesn’t mean Google are pulling out of Ireland. He makes two interesting points: 1) Engineering and Sales are the important jobs at tech companies, the ones with the biggest salaries and the ones least likely to get automated or outsourced. We have lots of them here. 2) We’ve always done well at attracting Inside Sales teams here – the ones that make sales over the phone and close deals with an email. We’ve done less well on the sales teams that do in-person pitches and end deals with a handshake. They go to London. But that’s an opportunity for us, now that business travel and hand-shakes no longer exist. Link.

Election interference guns for hire. A US PR firm was running large scale, coordinated inauthentic behaviour online to influence the elections in Venezuela and Bolivia. Link.

“Should Google’s Ad Market Be Regulated Like the Stock Market?” Link.

Future crimes. A county sheriff in the US implemented a “futuristic program to stop crime before it happens.” Of course, it just lead to innocent people being monitored and harassed. Bad police can just be bad at scale now. Link.