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Washington Monthly | 06.13.17

Code of Silence

Rebecca Wexler

D&S lawyer-in-residence Rebecca Wexler unpacks how private companies hide flaws in software that the government uses to convict and exonerate people in the criminal justice system.

What’s alarming about protecting trade secrets in criminal cases is that it allows private companies to withhold information not from competitors, but from individual defendants like Glenn Rodríguez. Generally, a defendant who wants to see evidence in someone else’s possession has to show that it is likely to be relevant to his case. When the evidence is considered “privileged,” the bar rises: he often has to convince the judge that the evidence could be necessary to his case—something that’s hard to do when, by definition, it’s evidence the defense hasn’t yet seen.


D&S affiliate Mimi Onuoha states that discarded and sold hardware often has data still on it.

It’s not just individuals who are lax about removing data, companies around the world are at fault as well. In a 2007 study researchers in Canada obtained 60 secondhand drives that had previously belonged to health care facilities. They were able to recover personal information from 65% of the drives. The data included, in the words of the researchers, “very sensitive mental health information on a large number of people.”


Julia Angwin, Jeff Larson, Lauren Kirchner, and Surya Mattu complete the Black Box series with an analysis of premiums and payouts in California, Illinois, Texas and Missouri that shows that some major insurers charge minority neighborhoods as much as 30 percent more than other areas with similar accident costs.

But a first-of-its-kind analysis by ProPublica and Consumer Reports, which examined auto insurance premiums and payouts in California, Illinois, Texas and Missouri, has found that many of the disparities in auto insurance prices between minority and white neighborhoods are wider than differences in risk can explain. In some cases, insurers such as Allstate, Geico and Liberty Mutual were charging premiums that were on average 30 percent higher in zip codes where most residents are minorities than in whiter neighborhoods with similar accident costs.


D&S artist-in-residence Heather Dewey-Hagborg’s work was profiled in this piece by Do Savannah.

In a related piece, artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg has created facial portraits based on the DNA profile of leftover genetic material found in discarded trash, like chewing gum and cigarette butts. The results are both fascinating and deeply creepy.


D&S advisor Anil Dash asserts that business leaders have to stand up against proposed abuses and violations from the Trump administration.


Tampa Bay Times | 11.11.16

How data failed us in calling an election

Steve Lohr, Natasha Singer

D&S affiliate Natasha Singer and Steve Lohr discuss the role of data in the 2016 election.

Virtually all the major vote forecasters, including Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight site, the New York Times‘ Upshot and the Princeton Election Consortium, put Clinton’s chances of winning in the 70 percent to 99 percent range. The election prediction business is one small aspect of a far-reaching change across industries that have increasingly become obsessed with data, the value of it and the potential to mine it for cost-saving and profitmaking insights. It is a behind-the-scenes technology that quietly drives everything from the ads that people see online to billion-dollar acquisition deals.


D&S affiliate Natasha Singer profiles how high school students are encouraged to develop their social media personas for college admissions – particularly Linkedin.

Now some social media experts are advising high school seniors to go even further. They are coaching students to take control of their online personas — by creating elaborate profiles on LinkedIn, the professional network, and bringing them to the attention of college admissions officers.


D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington provides an analysis comparing statements from Hannah Arendt’s writings to today’s election climate.

Considered one of the most important works of political philosophy of its time, today Origins reads more like a contemporary analysis of this election cycles’s post-fact landscape—the one driven, mostly, by Donald Trump’s candidacy. While we don’t have the horrors of concentration camps and gulags yet, the political propagandizing and systematic organizing behind the genocidal totalitarian regimes that Origins describes could have been ripped from this year’s election headlines.


D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington analyzes the infrastructure factor of the Oct. 21 internet outage.

The locations of internet exchanges tend to follow population hubs because the routes of internet connectivity often follow older routes of telephone connectivity (which themselves often follow telegraph routes, railways, and highways). In turn, internet exchanges attract data centers and more network infrastructure. For dense coastal areas, some internet exchanges are also key switch points for data traveling across transoceanic submarine cables, as in the case of Manhattan’s 60 Hudson Street or Los Angeles’ One Wilshire. In all likelihood, devices used for Friday’s DDoS attack located across the Atlantic or Pacific probably passed through or possibly connected to Dyn’s network through these buildings.

That being said, some of the overlaps between population centers and network outages are more a reflection of the number of connections in an area than the number of humans living there. The Portland, Oregon metro area has six IXes. So does Manhattan, which is surrounded by nine additional IXes in the surrounding metro areas of New Jersey and Long Island. Dallas, Silicon Valley, and Seattle were all areas that were subsumed by the grim red cloud of No Tweets For You in outage maps yesterday.


The New York Times | 10.24.16

Next Job for Obama? Silicon Valley Is Hiring

Michael D. Shear, Natasha Singer

D&S affiliate Natasha Singer with Michael D. Shear co-wrote this piece discussing President Obama’s legacy in technology and how he could continue to contribute in the future.


ProPublica | 10.12.16

Breaking the Black Box: When Machines Learn by Experimenting on Us

Julia Angwin, Terry Parris Jr., Surya Mattu, Seongtaek Lim

D&S affiliate Surya Mattu, with Julia Angwin, Terry Parris Jr., and Seongtaek Lim, continue the Black Box series.

Depending on what data they are trained on, machines can “learn” to be biased. That’s what happened in the fall of 2012, when Google’s machines “learned” in the run-up to the presidential election that people who searched for President Obama wanted more Obama news in subsequent searches, but people who searched for Republican nominee Mitt Romney did not. Google said the bias in its search results was an inadvertent result of machine learning.

Sometimes machines build their predictions by conducting experiments on us, through what is known as A/B testing. This is when a website will randomly show different headlines or different photos to different people. The website can then track which option is more popular, by counting how many users click on the different choices.


D&S fellow Zara Rahman reports that the Bangladeshi government developed “smart” national ID cards.

But with this much personal information being collected on every single citizen, especially personal data that cannot be changed if it is ever leaked or compromised (ie. the fingerprints of an individual), there are major concerns regarding the security of this data. A breach or leak could put individuals privacy rights seriously at risk.


D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington details the infrastructure of the internet and who owns the physical pieces of this infrastructure.

The miles of fiber-optic cable that connect the country to the world are mostly visible in fragments—signs for buried cable along the side of a road, telephone poles running between houses forming serpentine labyrinths beneath city manhole covers. These glimpses of networks tend to feature the names of at least a few different companies—sometimes well-known ones, like AT&T, but just as often companies that don’t tend to become household brands or that haven’t existed for years. US-West, MCI/Worldcom, Embarq. It’s hard to really get a grasp of who, exactly, owns all of this stuff and how they came to own it.


ProPublica | 09.28.16

Breaking the Black Box: What Facebook Knows About You

Julia Angwin, Terry Parris Jr., Surya Mattu

Julia Angwin, Terry Parris Jr., and D&S affiliate Surya Mattu explore what Facebook knows about its users.

We built a tool that works with the Chrome Web browser that lets you see what Facebook says it knows about you — you can rate the data for accuracy and you can send it to us, if you like. We will, of course, protect your privacy. We won’t collect any identifying details about you. And we won’t share your personal data with anyone.


D&S affiliate Surya Mattu with Julia Angwin examine how Amazon’s shopping algorithm directs customers to buy Amazon or Amazon-affiliated sellers’ merchandise, even if products from other sellers on the platform cost much less.

Through its rankings and algorithm, Amazon is quietly reshaping online commerce almost as dramatically as it reshaped offline commerce when it burst onto the scene more than 20 years ago. Just as the company’s cheap prices and fast shipping caused a seismic shift in retailing that shuttered stores selling books, electronics and music, now Amazon’s pay-to-play culture is forcing online sellers to choose between paying hefty fees or leaving the platform altogether.


D&S affiliate Natasha Singer reports that Apple has developed a free coding app for middle-school students, yet it may not be as accessible as advertised.

The Apple coding app is free, but it requires an iPad, the company’s tablet computer, which has declining sales and which many schools and families may not be able to afford.

“How much of the motivation is for selling of product, and what does that do for schools that cannot afford this technology?” asked Jane Margolis, a senior researcher at the Graduate School of Education & Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has studied disparities in computer science education for more than two decades. “The threat is that it is going to replicate current inequities.”


D&S artist-in-residence Heather Dewey-Hagborg co-wrote a piece discussing the creation of #KissMyArs

A painstaking review of the statistics confirmed that more than 90% of winners self-identified as male. Although fewer women had applied, there was no shortage of great female artists among the applicants: the archive included internationally recognized women such as Rebecca Gomperts, Lillian Schwartz, Mariam Ghani, Pinar Yoldas, Daisy Ginsberg, Holly Herndon, Kaho Abe, and Ai Hasegawa. In response, Heather and the other artists developed a social media campaign: #KissMyArs.”


D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington wrote a detailed analysis on ‘Who Controls the Internet” and weighs concerns from different stakeholders.

To be clear: ICANN has about as much control over the internet as Ted Cruz has a grasp on how DNS actually works–which is to say, very little. But the perpetuation of the fiction that ICANN controls the internet is representative of the completely understandable human impulse to try and assign control of the internet to someone or something, particularly in a time where the systems that shape most users’ experience of the internet are increasingly opaque and unaccountable to users.


D&S fellow Natasha Singer co-wrote a piece discussing Facebook’s new partnership with Summit Public Schools to ‘introduce a free student-directed learning system’.

The Facebook-Summit partnership, by contrast, is more of a ground-up effort to create a national demand for student-driven learning in schools. Facebook announced its support for the system last September; the company declined to comment on how much it is spending on it. Early this month, Summit and Facebook opened the platform up to individual teachers who have not participated in Summit’s extensive on-site training program.


D&S artist-in-residence Ingrid Burrington speculates whether or not possible threats to internet infrastructure are in fact threats.

To take out some of the major chokepoints of the internet wouldn’t be impossible, and it would have pretty devastating consequences, but any kind of attack on such a space at scale would require a degree of coordination and resources more likely in the hands of a sovereign country than a terrorist cell. And in an age where every war is a propaganda war, taking out the internet at scale is an act of mutually assured destruction: ISIS needs a global internet to coordinate and recruit, and western governments need a global internet to surveil that coordination and recruitment. Most sovereigns are far more content to exercise limited control and outages within their own boundaries using far less labor-intensive methods than physical infrastructure attacks.


D&S Researcher Robyn Caplan considers whether Facebook is saving journalism or ruining it:

The question of whether Facebook is saving or ruining journalism is not relevant here because, like it or not, Facebook is a media company. That became more apparent recently as human editors became a visible part of Facebook’s news curation process. In truth, this team is only a tiny fraction of a network of actors whose decisions affect the inner workings of Facebook’s platform and the content we see.


D&S Fellow Natasha Singer looks into exploitative interactive website design techniques known as “dark patterns”.

Persuasive design is a longstanding practice, not just in marketing but in health care and philanthropy. Countries that nudge their citizens to become organ donors — by requiring them to opt out if they don’t want to donate their body parts — have a higher rate of participation than the United States, where people can choose to sign up for organ donation when they obtain driver’s licenses or ID cards.

But the same techniques that encourage citizens to do good may also be used to exploit consumers’ cognitive biases. User-experience designers and marketers are well aware that many people are so eager to start using a new service or complete a task, or are so loath to lose a perceived deal, that they will often click one “Next” button after another as if on autopilot — without necessarily understanding the terms they have agreed to along the way.

“That’s when things start to drift into manipulation,” said Katie Swindler, director of user experience at FCB Chicago, an ad agency. She and Mr. Brignull are part of an informal effort among industry experts trying to make a business case for increased transparency.


D&S Fellow Natasha Singer reports on Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, and Dr. Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician who is his wife, and their recent hire of James H. Shelton III, a former deputy secretary of the United States Department of Education, to oversee their efforts in education. She considers this in a string of recent examples of former federal officials who are taking up jobs in Silicon Valley.


D&S Advisor Joel Reidenberg considers the scope of the court order compelling Apple to provide “reasonable technical assistance” to help the government hack into one of the San Bernadino attacker’s locked iPhone.

In short, for government to legitimately circumvent device encryption through a court order, legal authorization to access the contents of the device (typically through a judicial warrant) is necessary. Then, if the equipment manufacturer has control over the encryption, the decryption should be performed by the manufacturer with the results provided to the government.

If, instead, the equipment manufacturer only has control over information necessary to decrypt the device, the information should be provided to the government under strict court seal and supervision for a one-time limited use.

If neither circumstance applies, then unless Congress says otherwise, the equipment manufacturer should not be compelled to assist.

The bottom line is that the government should have an ability to compel companies to unlock encrypted devices for access to evidence of crimes, but should not be able to force companies to build electronic skeleton keys, new access tools and security vulnerabilities.


D&S fellow Natasha Singer explores the differences in how the United States and Europe treat data protection and privacy.

In the United States, a variety of laws apply to specific sectors, like health and credit. In the European Union, data protection is considered a fundamental right, which can have far-reaching consequences in all 28 member states.

All the talk about data privacy can get caught up in political wrangling. But the different approaches have practical consequences for people, too.


D&S fellow Natasha Singer on the impact of Kinvolved, an app which automatically texts parents if a child is absent or tardy.

Kinvolved’s goal is to spur greater parental involvement by increasing the details parents receive from their child’s school while making the communication process more efficient.


D&S fellow Natasha Singer investigates the benefits and concerns around testing improvements in efficiency and care for patients based on data and new technology.

Across the country, leading medical centers are trying new approaches to technology and information management with the aim of increasing efficiency, reducing costs and assuring health care quality. Because competition to attract patients is fierce, some of the same medical centers are also engaged in a marketing arms race to out-tech one another, promoting their new tools and systems with terms like “most advanced,” “pioneering” and “cutting edge.”

But this race to innovation, bioethicists say, has created a gray area.


Can’t stop watching that new show on Netflix? Or perhaps the advent and marketing of T-Mobile’s “BingeOn” option has made you reflect on your Friday night rituals. D&S fellow Natasha Singer reports on the phenomenon known as the ‘network effect’ and a website of the same name that was created by a software engineer that formerly worked for Instagram. The site “Network Effect” presents users with an audio and visual ‘smorgasbord of human behavior’ yet unlike other apps or streaming services the design is ‘deliberately disjointed and discomfiting.’

As the site underscores, digital life keeps us hooked with an infinite entertainment stream as its default setting. Tech companies often set it up that way.


D&S fellow Natasha Singer writes about new online apps designed to give college students additional options for reporting sexual assaults. Colleges and Universities are embracing these apps as they continue to look for more concrete data about sexual violence on their campuses and seek to provide students with more ways to report an assault.

Students at participating colleges can use its site, called Callisto, to record details of an assault anonymously. The site saves and time-stamps those records. That allows students to decide later whether they want to formally file reports with their schools — identifying themselves by their school-issued email addresses — or download their information and take it directly to the police. The site also offers a matching system in which a user can elect to file a report with the school electronically only if someone else names the same assailant.

Callisto’s hypothesis is that some college students — who already socialize, study and shop online — will be more likely initially to document a sexual assault on a third-party site than to report it to school officials on the phone or in person.

 

 


D&S fellow Natasha Singer reports the implications of the shift towards digital learning tools across the United States and the effects this may have on low income students based on a newly released study which “provides an unusually comprehensive and detailed overview of digital technology use in an increasingly smartphone-reliant society.”


newspaper article | 10.28.15

Uber’s Surge Pricing May Not Lead to a Surge in Drivers

Lauren Kirchner, Surya Mattu

Lauren Kirchner and D&S fellow Surya Mattu report for ProPublica on the findings of an analysis that contradicts Uber’s argument for the surge prices that it charges users.


D&S fellow Natasha Singer on the use of virtual-reality in education, and Google’s virtual field trip system for schools, Expeditions.

The idea of virtual field trips is not new. Some teachers have for years used Microsoft’s Skype videoconferencing service to take students on tours of important places or to invite outside experts to virtually visit their classrooms.

Google’s virtual field trip system, though, is more immersive. And it adds to the array of Google tools that make far-flung places more discoverable — albeit filtered through Google’s lens.

Expeditions uses 360-degree views that stitch together photographs from Google Street View, a product that displays images of roads. The company is also using a 16-camera system, built by GoPro, to create three-dimensional images for the virtual excursions.


D&S fellow Natasha Singer details Clever, a software service — free for schools — that enables schools to send student information to web and mobile apps at the click of a button.

Clever is clearly benefiting from the increasing adoption of education software for prekindergarten through 12th grade in the United States, a market estimated at nearly $8.4 billion last year by the Software and Information Industry Association. It has positioned itself as a partial answer to questions from politicians and parents about how much data those kinds of tools may collect on students and how that information is secured and used.


D&S fellow Natasha Singer explores how the sharing economy, and sites like TeachersPayTeachers.com, are benefitting teachers willing to share the lessons they have created.

At a time when many politicians, technology executives and philanthropists are pushing novel digital tools for education, many teachers are also seeking old-school offline techniques that other teachers have perfected over the years in their classrooms. That has positioned TeachersPayTeachers as a kind of Etsy for education.


Incoming D&S fellow Natasha Singer reports for the New York Times on the glut of recently proposed legislation aimed at restricting the collection and use of student data.


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