Saturday 9 May, 2020

A flood of coronavirus apps are tracking us. Now it’s time to keep track of them.

Given that the pandemic is global you’d expect that the world and his dog is writing contact-tracing apps. And you’d be right.

MIT’s Tech Review had the good idea of creating a database of those currently in existence. Find it here.

When we began comparing apps around the world, we realized there was no central repository of information; just incomplete, constantly changing data spread across a wide range of sources. Nor was there a single, standard approach being taken by developers and policymakers: citizens of different countries were seeing radically different levels of surveillance and transparency.

So to help monitor this fast-evolving situation, we’re gathering the information into a single place for the first time with our Covid Tracing Tracker—a database to capture details of every significant automated contact tracing effort around the world.

We’ve been working with a range of experts to understand what we need to look at, pulling sources including government documents, announcements, and media reports, as well as talking directly to those who are making these apps to understand the technologies and policies involved.

It’s work in progress. But work that’s well worth doing.

Facebook’s ‘supreme court’

Here we go again. Facebook, a toxic tech company that suffers from the delusion that it’s a nation-state, has had another go at pretending that it is. Originally, you will recall, it was going to create a global currency called Libra and in effect become banker to the world. Strangely, a world that normally seems hypnotised by Facebook didn’t think much of that idea (after all, who would trust Facebook with money?) and my guess is that the project is effectively evaporating until it becomes just another variant of PayPal, which is not quite what Facebook’s Supreme Leader, Mark Zuckerberg, had in mind.

Nothing daunted, though, Zuck has had another hubristic idea. On the grounds that Facebook is the world’s largest information-exchange Autocracy (population 2.4B) he thinks that it should have its own Supreme Court. (Yes, that’s the expression he originally used: later and wiser councils persuaded him that that might be just a tad too hubristic). So it’s now just an ‘Oversight Board for Content Decisions’, complete with its own Charter and a 40-strong Board of Big Shots who will, apparently, have the power “to reverse Facebook’s decisions about whether to allow or remove certain posts on the platform.” Sounds impressive, doesn’t it. But it looks rather less so when you realise what it will actually be doing. It’s actually a Board for Locking the Stable Door After the Horses Have Bolted.

The names of twenty of the 40 aforementioned Big Shots have just been announced. The big puzzle at the moment is why some apparently sane people with reputations to lose would have chained themselves to this particular Catherine Wheel. Apart from anything else, they have committed themselves to endorsing Zuckerberg’s hubristic delusions about the central importance of Facebook to the world.

One big surprise (for me, anyway) was that Alan Rusbridger, the sainted former Editor of the Guardian and a genuine, 24-carat journalistic hero, should have lent his name and reputation to this circus. In an essay on Medium he’s offered a less-than-convincing justification. “In the eyes of some”, he writes, the Oversight Board

is one of the most significant projects of the digital age, “a pivotal moment” in the words of Evelyn Douek, a young scholar at Harvard, “when new constitutional forms can emerge that will shape the future of online discourse.”

Others are unconvinced. Some, inevitably, will see it as a fig leaf.

Another Harvard academic, Dipayan Ghosh, believes the Oversight Board’s powers are too narrowly drawn. He thinks the Board’s authority should be expanded from content takedowns to the more critical concerns at the heart of the company itself. “We need oversight of the company’s data practices to promote consumer and citizen privacy,” he has written, adding: “oversight of the company’s strategic acquisitions and data governance to protect against anticompetitive practice; and oversight of the company’s algorithmic decision — making to protect against bias.”

I’m in the fig leaf camp. As Charles Arthur, a grizzled veteran of tech commentary observed on his website,

“I’d be wary of quite how overruled Zuckerberg can be. And how long he’ll tolerate it. What if the board says that any physical abuse video should be taken down? That factchecked-as-wrong content should be removed, not just downranked?”

Yep. Meanwhile the best antidote to being seduced by this preposterous charade is a simple mantra: Facebook is just a commercial company — like Exxon. And all it needs is to be cut down to size.

Why the porn industry has a lot to teach us about safety in the Covid-19 era

Well, well… Who’d have thought it?

As states and employers furiously develop plans to safely reopen workplaces in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, they’re grappling with what seems like an endless list of questions: where to test, who to test, and how often to test for the virus? Further complicating matters are issues of workers’ privacy, geography, politics, science, and cost. It’s a difficult mandate. But there is one place to look for guidance — the adult film industry.

Since the late 1990s, when an outbreak of HIV infections threatened to shutter the multibillion-dollar industry, the mainstream porn community has implemented procedures that require all performers to be tested for HIV and a host of other sexually transmitted infections every 14 days before they can be cleared to work. Any HIV-positive test leads to an immediate shutdown of all U.S. sets, followed by detailed contact tracing before sets can reopen. While not perfect, those in the industry say the nationwide PASS program works to protect thousands of performers, ensures safer workplaces, and curtails the spread of disease.

Wonder what SAGE makes of that?

Quarantine diary — Day 49


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