Pluralistic: 11 Jun 2020

Today's links

Torcon schedule is live (permalink)

The full program for Torcon, the online sf convention from Tor Books and Den of Geek, is now online! Events kick off tomorrow with Christopher Paolini and Brandon Sanderson, and end Sunday night with Nnedi Okarafor and me in conversation.

In between are panels, presentations and readings with VE Schwab, Neil Gaiman, Mary Robinette Kowal, Tochi Onyebuchi, and many other writers – both new talents and some of your established favorites.

It's free to attend, but you should really book a place in advance – and the videos will be archived online for posterity, too.

Interoperability and privacy (permalink)

Today, as part of its Tech Policy Greenhouse, Techdirt has published my essay "Interoperability And Privacy: Squaring The Circle": how forcing services to allow users to move freely and exchange messages between rivals can be good for privacy.

Big Tech companies say that if they're required to let users of rival services to send messages to their own users, this makes it harder for them to police their users' conduct – if they can't spy on user activity, it will be harder to automatically spot harassment (say).

But this only matters to the extent that we believe that companies like Facebook have both the will and the technical capacity to monitor 2.5 billion users' activities and stop the bad stuff from happening. Facebook has repeatedly demonstrated that we shouldn't believe that.

Nor is it enough to let companies adopt standards and claim they are now "interoperable." As anyone who's worked in standardization knows, it's easy for big companies who dominate their industry to ensure that standards confer lasting advantages to them at others' expense.

Instead, we should look to Adversarial Interoperability, when a new a product or service is connected to an existing one, without permission, in order to benefit the existing service's users.

When paired with standards, Adversarial Interop serves as an escape hatch that stops dominant companies from using standards to crush their rivals: whenever the standard falls short, rivals can just plug their stuff into the company's products without permission.

Ultimately, interoperability is only bad for privacy if you trust the tech platforms to get privacy right, and they have not earned that trust.

Interoperability means when a platform doesn't deserve your trust, you can use a rival's tool to seize your privacy, rather than groveling for it.

"Helping Facebook's own users, or the users of any big service, to configure their experience to make their lives better should be legal and encouraged even if it provides a path for users to either diversify their social media. Either way, we'd be on our way to a more pluralistic, decentralized, diverse Internet."

You can read more about Adversarial Inteoperability here:

The true US police body-count (permalink)

The Human Rights Data Analysis Group does incredible human rights work by using rigorous statistical methods to piece together fragmentary evidence of genocides to extrapolate the full scope of the crimes, for use in international tribuals.

America resembles these nations gripped by genocide in that we have a source of mass killings (deaths at the hands of police) and no reliable source that counts them all.

In 2015, Kristian Lum and Patrick Ball used techniques they'd used in Guatemala, Syria and Kosovo – to count Americans killed by cops.

The open-access paper explains their methods and conclusions and is a beautiful piece of scientific communications.

At the time, they also published a layperson-friendly Granta article explaining these methods for non-statisticians, and in so doing, explained why all the official attempts to count the dead had underestimated the body count.

Ball's 2015 conclusion is cops kill about 1500 of us every year. "1500 police homicides/year would mean that 8-10% of all US homicide victims are killed by police. Of all US homicide victims killed by people they don’t know, approximately 1/3 of them are victims of police."

HRDAG's work has been incredibly important for my understanding of this crisis. Their early analysis of the first covid-19 studies was indepensible:

And I think about their primer on Bayesian reasoning and covid test-reliability comes up literally every day.

Tesla modder selling discounted upgrades (permalink)

Guillaume André, owner of the EV repair/resale store Simon André in Trois-Rivieres, Quebec, has developed the "Boost 50," a product that unlocks a bunch of premium modes in Tesla Model 3 cars.

For $1100, the Boost 50 unlocks the 50hp boost that Tesla charges $2k for, only Boost 50's performance beats Tesla's in-built one, and it comes with "Drift mode" and other features not offered at all by Tesla.

Boost 50 is a software-only upgrade you can perform yourself. Ingenext – the company André founded to market these aftermarket upgrades have plans to offer more ambitious products that would require professional installation.

Under Section 1201 of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, "trafficking" in a tool that bypasses an "access control" for a copyrighted work (like the Tesla's firmware) is a felony punishable by a 5-year prison sentence and a $500k fine.

These apply irrespective of whether any copyright is violated – just selling a tool that bypasses an access control is a crime.

Canada's Bill C-11 (2011) is spookily similar, and its main boosters, Tony Clement and James Moore, both explicitly said that they wanted a bill that criminalized people who modified their own property, even if they didn't violate anyone's copyright.

It remains to be seen whether an (inevitable) attempt by Tesla to shut down M. André's store would have legal force under C-11, though.

Amazon won't sell facial recognition to cops (for a year) (permalink)

Amazon has announced a one-year moratorium on the sale of #Rekognition, its facial recognition tool, to US law-enforcement.

The company has renewed its call for Congress to pass laws regulating FR technology. A charitable interpretation of this call is that the company is genuinely concerned with the abuse of its tools.

However, if that's true, it could voluntarily withdraw its products from customers like ICE and law enforcement.

A more realistic take is that the company wants to have an external authority it can appeal to when it is accused of unethical conduct.

That is, "We're just doing what Congress told us to do."

And of course, federal laws mean that any forbearance from Amazon in its sales to cops will not disadvantage it relative to less ethical rivals.

Some opponents of sales of FR to law enforcement stress that FR systems have well-understood biases (stemming from poor training data) that make it less reliable when asked to recognize Black and brown faces.

However, as I wrote when IBM pulled out of the facial recognition business a couple days ago, this is a dangerously incomplete critique.

Because if the main problem with FR is that it fails to recognize racialized peoples' faces, then the answer is to feed FR systems with new training pictures of PoCs until it is highly accurate at recognizing them.

Which is to say, until the police have a perfect tool for tracking and identifying people of color.

That's what happened in China, where tech giants fixed their Black FR problem by requisitioning the entire Zimbabwean drivers' license database.

Today, Chinese state security can use FR to reliably identify and track African faces within China (and they can sell this capability to African states that are entering into debtor relationships with China to acquire tech capacity).

This is hardly a bright spot for racial equality.

The problem with FR for law enforcement is that it sets up a high-tech totalitarian surveillance state: not that it fails to recognize Black faces well enough.

This day in history (permalink)

#5yrsago Collection of occult images was a last ditch blow against the Enlightenment

#5yrsago Rupert Murdoch stepping down as Fox CEO

#5yrsago UK Stingray surveillance: you can't know why we're spying on you

#1yrago The Church of the Subgenius's Salvation Pack is the best $35 I ever spent

#1yrago "The Grand Dark": Kadrey's latest is a noir, dieselpunk masterpiece that's timely as hell

#1yrago Countries with longer copyright terms have access to fewer books (pay attention, Canada!)

#1yrago Hackers stole a US Customs and Border Patrol facial recognition database

#1yrago Chrome-derived browsers threaten to fork from Google, refuse to eliminate ad-blocker features

#1yrago How fanfic archives lead the world in data organization

#1yrago Detroit charter school salutatorians use their graduation speeches to condemn their school for putting profits before kids

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Forteller (, Cindy Cohn.

Currently writing: My next novel, "The Lost Cause," a post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation. Yesterday's progress: 545 words (25890 total).

Currently reading: Adventures of a Dwergish Girl, Daniel Pinkwater

Latest podcast: How Big Tech Monopolies Distort Our Public Discourse

Upcoming appearances:

Upcoming books: "Poesy the Monster Slayer" (Jul 2020), a picture book about monsters, bedtime, gender, and kicking ass. Pre-order here: Get a personalized, signed copy here:

"Attack Surface": The third Little Brother book, Oct 20, 2020.

"Little Brother/Homeland": A reissue omnibus edition with a new introduction by Edward Snowden:; personalized/signed copies here:

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