The Register reports on a paper that aims to show how Big Tech has adopted similar strategies similar to Big Tobacco to influence AI ethics research, policy, and generally spreading doubts about the harms of AI:

The analogy “is not perfect,” the two brothers acknowledge, but is intended to provide a historical touchstone and “to leverage the negative gut reaction to Big Tobacco’s funding of academia to enable a more critical examination of Big Tech.” The comparison is also not an assertion that Big Tech is deliberately buying off researchers; rather, the researchers argue that “industry funding warps academia regardless of intentionality due to perverse incentive.

In an article at The Atlantic Ian Bogost comments on a recent episode of Amazon’s use of social media in a campaign to influence opinion regarding criticisms of the company’s exploitative labour and business practices. Interestingly, he notes a change in the corporations communicate:

Previously, companies could speak only through formal messages on billboards; by mail, radio, or television; or via media coverage of their actions. The web had shifted that control a bit, but websites were still mostly marketing and service portals. Social media and smartphones changed everything. They made corporate speech functionally identical to human speech. Case law might have given companies legal personhood, but the internet made corporations feel like people.

It also allowed companies to behave like people. As their social-media posts were woven into people’s feeds between actual humans’ jokes, gripes, and celebrations, brands started talking with customers directly. They offered support right inside people’s favorite apps. They did favors, issued giveaways, and even raised money for the downtrodden. Brands became #brands.

Apparently rare user names on big social media platform have become so valuable that there is even a marketplace for such names that have been obtained by hackers. As an article at The Verge details:

These usernames tend to be single words — in rare cases, individual letters or numbers — and they can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on underground markets for stolen digital goods. And because platforms like Instagram and Twitter have rules barring the buying and selling of accounts, the hackers interested in procuring one of these coveted handles often resort to illegal means to obtain them.

Rich Mogull writes at TidBITS (a blog focusing on Apple products and technologies) about Apple’s latest Platform Security user guide. He notes how the emphasis for increasing security is on vertical integration, which he defines as “the combination of hardware, software, and cloud-based services to build a comprehensive ecosystem.” This of course has other effects which he notes:

But with great power comes great lock-in. Relying on a particular vendor’s cloud service means that if the service goes down or the vendor decides to discontinue the service, you are the proud owner of a useless hunk of plastic and electronic components. While Apple isn’t going out of business anytime soon, we saw issues earlier this year when the company’s certificate server was overwhelmed and responded slowly to integrity checks, preventing some users from being able to launch apps.

Read the full article here.

Ben Thomas on Stratchery.com writes why he considers Tesla a “meme company”:

It turned out, though, that TSLA was itself a meme, one about a car company, but also sustainability, and most of all, about Elon Musk himself. Issuing more stock was not diluting existing shareholders; it was extending the opportunity to propagate the TSLA meme to that many more people, and while Musk’s haters multiplied, so did his fans. The Internet, after all, is about abundance, not scarcity. The end result is that instead of infrastructure leading to a movement, a movement, via the stock market, funded the building out of infrastructure.

Interesting new article from Shoshana Zuboff at The New York Times. She recaps some of her arguments on surveillance capitalism, but also links it with more recent events related to the US elections and the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an information civilization, societies are defined by questions of knowledge — how it is distributed, the authority that governs its distribution and the power that protects that authority. Who knows? Who decides who knows? Who decides who decides who knows? Surveillance capitalists now hold the answers to each question, though we never elected them to govern. This is the essence of the epistemic coup. They claim the authority to decide who knows by asserting ownership rights over our personal information and defend that authority with the power to control critical information systems and infrastructures.

This Bloomberg article deals with an interesting controversy surrounding the introduction of a feature called “App Tracking Transparency,” which aims to give users the option to opt-out of tracking in apps. The article reports on newspaper full-page ads which Facebook published in response. Furthermore, Mozilla has joined the debate by publicly applauding Apple for the feature.

The Markup reviews reviewed different examples of controversial uses of machine learning algorithms in 2020:

Every year there are myriad new examples of algorithms that were either created for a cynical purpose, functioned to reinforce racism, or spectacularly failed to fix the problems they were built to solve. We know about most of them because whistleblowers, journalists, advocates, and academics took the time to dig into a black box of computational decision-making and found some dark materials.

The Register reported on the announcement of Apple to introduce “privacy ‘nutrition labels’” (https://web.archive.org/web/20201109184222/https://www.theregister.com/2020/11/06/apple_privacy_advice/):

“For food, you have nutrition labels; you can see if it’s packed with protein or loaded with sugar, or maybe both, all before you buy it,” he said. “So we thought it would be great to have something similar for apps. We’re going to require each developer to self-report their practices.”

From the announcement by Apple:

Later this year, the App Store will help users understand an app’s privacy practices before they download the app on any Apple platform. On each app’s product page, users can learn about some of the data types the app may collect, and whether that data is linked to them or used to track them.

In article from the Financial Time on how Big Tech can “best tackle conspiracy theories,” the author shares some interesting insights from research done by a group of ethnographers called Ethnographic Praxis in Context. Apparently these researchers observed that people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to “believe information that comes from scruffier, amateurish sites, since these seem more ‘authentic’":

Anyone hoping to debunk these ideas also needs to think hard about cultural signals. Take website design. Twenty-first century professionals typically give more credibility to information that comes from sites that look polished.

Conversely, the ethnographers discovered that conspiracy theorists are more likely to believe information that comes from scruffier, amateurish sites, since these seem more “authentic”. This point may not be obvious to techies at places such as Google — and is not the type of insight that big data analysis will reveal. But it is crucial.

Read the full article here.

An article from CNET reports on the use of “keyword warrants” in police investigations the US:

Typically, probable cause is needed for search warrants, which are associated with a suspect or address. The demands for information are narrowly tailored to a specific individual. Keyword warrants go against that concept by giving up data on a large group of people associated with searching for certain phrases.

From an article The New York Times titled “Big Tech’s Domination of Business Reaches New Heights”:

The tech companies’ dominance of the stock market is propelled by their unprecedented reach into our lives, shaping how we work, communicate, shop and relax. That has only deepened during the pandemic, and as people shop more frequently on Amazon, click on a Google or Facebook ad or pay up for an iPhone, the companies receive a greater share of spending in the economy and earn ever larger profits. This is why investors have flocked to those stocks this year at the expense of the scores of companies struggling in the health crisis, and are betting that their position will be unassailable for years.