Pluralistic: 13 Aug 2021

Today's links

A chart by Rebecca Williams labeled 'How A Smart City Watches You: Identfying Data Spectrum,' ranging from 'Direct Identifiers' (address, biometric, name) down to 'Data Not About Anyone' (weather reports). These are depicted as a pyramid, with less-identifying collection at the bottom layer and more identifying collection at the peak.

Smart cities are neither, 2021 edition (permalink)

The lockdown was a chaotic time for "smart cities." On the one hand, the most prominent smart city project in the world – Google's Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto – collapsed thanks to the company's lies about privacy and land use coming to light.

On the other hand, the standalone vendors that promise smart city services that you can graft onto your "dumb" city saw their fortunes surge, as the world's great metropolises sleepwalked into a surveillance nightmare.

From license plate cameras to facial recognition to fake cellphone towers to location data harvested from vehicles and mobile devices, city governments shoveled billions into the coffers of private-sector snoops in the name of crimefighting and technocratic management.

The smart city has long been criticized as a means of quietly transforming public spaces of democratic action into private spaces of technological surveillance and control. Recent books like Jathan Sadowski's "Too Smart" (2020) make the case in depth.

Books can set out a long argument and cite examples in support of it, but those examples need to be updated regularly and the critique likewise because the field is moving so quickly – as is the critical response.

This month, Harvard's Belfer Center published "Whose Streets? Our Streets! (Tech Edition)," a long report by Rebecca Williams that revisits the smart city nightmare in light of the mass protests, lockdowns and other high-intensity events of 2020/1.

As Williams writes, the smart city always starts with the rejections of participatory dialogue ("What would we like in our neighborhood?") in favor of technocratic analysis ("They will design data collection that will inform them to what they will do with our neighborhood").

Technocrats don't want dialogue about surveillance because the dialogue always leads to a rejection. The Sidewalk Labs consultations in Toronto were overwhelmingly dominated by people who didn't want a giant American monopolist spying on their literal footsteps 24/7.

Detroiters roundly rejected a $2.5m project to put cameras at their city's intersections. When Apple asked Iphone owners whether they wanted to be tracked by apps (switching from opt out to opt in) 96% of users said no.

The commercial surveillance industry runs consent theater – whether that's grey-on-white 8-point warnings that "Use of this site indicates consent to our terms of service" or discreet signs under street cameras: "This area under surveillance."

Plans for urban technological surveillance don't survive real public consultation. The people just don't know what's good for 'em, so the vendors and the officials cutting checks to them have to instrument the city for spying on the down-low.

This secrecy festers, and the harms it brings are not limited to spying on people and chilling democratic protest. Secrecy also allows vendors to get away with overcharging and underdelivering.

CBP procured facial recognition spycams that analyzed 23m people in public spaces and never caught a single bad guy, while Chicago PD murdered a Black child called Adam Toledo after Shotspotter falsely reported a gunshot at his location.

Secret procurements for defective technology wastes money and puts communities of color at risk – but they also create systemic, technological risk, because they embed janky garbage software from shitty surveillance vendors right in the urban fabric.

Vendors who lie about how well their facial recognition or gunshot triangulation works also lie about their information security, and these tools get hacked on the reg, leaking sensitive personal information about millions of city-dwellers to identity thieves.

This defective, sloppy spyware is also a dark, moist environment perfectly suited to harboring ransomware infections, which can see vital services from streetlights to public transit frozen because some "smart city" grifter added a badly secured surveillance layer to it.

Because smart cities are inherently paternalistic (because they always bypass democratic dialog in favor of technocratic fiat), they replicate and magnify society's biases and discrimination, with a coating of empirical facewash: "It's not racism, it's just math."

Williams cites many 2020/1 examples of this, from Baltimore's 25:1 ratio of CCTVs in Black neighborhoods to white neighborhoods, to Tampa and Detroit's use of surveillance tech for "safety" in public housing.

Meanwhile, in Lucknow, India, the technocratic solution to an epidemic of sexist street harassment was to surveil women ("to protect them") rather than the men who perpetrated the harassment.

All of this is driven by private companies who mobilize investor capital and profits to sell more and more surveillance tech to cities. The antidemocratic, secret procurement process leads to more antidemocratic forms of privatization.

Democracy is replaced with corporate decision-making; constitutional protections are replaced by corporate policy; and surveillance monopolies expand their footprint, fill their coffers and sell more surveillance tech.

And far from making police accountable, surveillance gear on its own simply gives corrupt cops a broader set of tools to work with – as in Mexico City, where the C5 CCTV project let corrupt cops blackmail people and extort false confessions.

Williams ends with a highly actionable call to arms, setting out a ten-point program for analyzing smart city proposals and listing organizations and networks (like the Electronic Frontier Alliance) that have been effective at pushing back.

A party hat surrounded by falling confetti, set against a bright-colored background of concentric circles.

End of the line for Reaganomics (permalink)

Reagan turned the country upside-down, in a very bad way. The "Reagan revolution" was indeed revolutionary (or, rather, counter-revolutionary), reversing a half-century of progress on social safety nets, workers' rights, and environmental protections.

When we take stock of the Reagan years, we tend to focus on the actions that had immediate effect, like dismantling labor protections or the racist, homophobic refusal to confront the AIDS pandemic.

But for my money, the most profound act of the Reagan revolution was a slow-burner that has quietly chugged along for four decades, profoundly reshaping American society and the world. It's a wonky, technical change, largely overlooked in our political discourse.

That change? The "consumer welfare" theory of antitrust enforcement.

Prior to Reagan, US antitrust enforcers relied upon a theory of "harmful dominance," cracking down on monopolies when their scale allowed them to hurt workers, or the environment, or suppliers.

Harmful dominance is the theory that unaccountable power is dangerous – that giving corporate leaders control over the market lets them pervert the political process and inflict harms on the rest of us in ways that are hard to detect and even harder to prevent.

That principle created a policy that was designed to keep companies weaker than the democratically accountable state, rather than allowing them to grow so large that the could capture their regulators and start to write their own regulations.

Reagan nuked "harmful dominance," replacing it with radical theories from one of Nixon's top crooks, Robert Bork, whose book THE ANTITRUST PARADOX advances a conspiracy theory about US antitrust – that the framers of these laws never meant to protect us from monopoly at all.

Bork said that a the true purpose of antitrust law was – and always had been – "consumer welfare." He said that so long as a monopoly didn't use its market power to raise prices, that was fine -even if its scale let it screw workers, or suppliers, or whole communities.

This was a profound shift, because under "consumer welfare," companies were allowed to grow big through sleazy, previously prohibited maneuvers like buying up or merging with all the competition, or creating vertical systems that boxed in their customers from all sides.

"Consumer welfare" had deep-pocketed corporate backers, who spread Bork's conspiracy theory far and wide. For example, the Manne Seminars – summer "continuing education" junkets in Florida for judges – re-reeducated 40% of the US federal bench on Bork's theories.

These seminars, along with decades of dark-money endowed economics chairs and think-tank activism changed the theory of competition regulation around the world – even in the EU, where the law explicitly rejects consumer welfareism, but lawmakers behave as if it embraced it.

Consumer welfare was bipartisan, embraced by every administration, R or D, since Reagan (in general Dems became more Reaganite over this period, culminating at the 2016 DNC where candidates vied to declare themselves Reagan's true heir).

The result: a world where between 1-5 companies dominate nearly every industry, from pharma to eyeglasses, finance to accounting, shipping to hotels, health to mobile OSes – movies, music, books, telecoms, hospitals, pro wrestling, and on and on.

These companies don't need to compete for workers or customers, and therefore extract vast sums for their shareholders. Some of that money is retained to buy off their regulators, allowing them to grow more powerful still.

Not only that, but these concentrated companies are able to arrive at a common bargaining position and wield it against the world's democratic legislatures – when everyone who runs an industry can fit around a single table and hammer out an agreement, they often do.

Most of this happened so slowly that we didn't realize it was happening at all, but not with tech. Tech is an industry that grew up with Reagan (literally, the Apple ][+ was born the same year as the Reagan presidential bid), and it was monopoly's coalmine canary.

In a single generation, tech's exuberant dynamism – where yesterday's giants could be toppled by today's spunky garage startups – turned into a calcified monoculture, "five giant websites filled with screenshots of text from the other four."

After 40 years of dominance, consumer welfare is dying. Biden's July 9 "Executive Order on Promoting Competition in the American Economy" is a terrifyingly technical, 72-point program for dismantling consumer welfare and reviving harmful dominance.

The Biden admin clearly consulted with public interest groups for these technical directives, people who are right at the coalface of the way that monopolies are destroying lives, who know exactly which levers to pull to shut it down.

This is especially true in tech, as I write in my latest piece for EFF's Deeplinks blog: "Party Like It’s 1979: The OG Antitrust Is Back, Baby!"

And because personnel are policy, I also discuss the revolution in anttitrust leadship that accompanied the executive order: Lina Khan running the FTC, Tim Wu in charge of White House tech competition, and Jonathan Kanter running antitrust for the DoJ.

"We are living through a profound shift in what kinds of companies are allowed to exist and what they’re allowed to do. It’s a shift for the better. We know nothing is assured. The future won’t fix itself. But this is an opportunity, and we’re delighted to seize it."

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago "State-of-the-industry" letter from the year 2021

#20yrsago Our faulty intuition about open systems

#15yrsago NBC: Hair-gel terrorists posed no risk last week

#15yrsago Defending against the last plot won’t save us from the next one

#15yrsago RIAA to grieving family: We depose your children in 60 days

#10yrsago AT&T merger leak: it’s all about raising prices and reducing competition

#10yrsago Doctor tried to "cure" homosexuality by tasping gay man while he had sex with female sex worker

#10yrsago My panel with Tim Berners-Lee, Vint Cerf and Al Gore at Mexico City’s Campus Party

#10yrsago 1968: when Britain’s Daily Mirror tried to overthrow Parliament

#10yrsago Stasi spywear: the inept art of commie disguise,1518,777716,00.html

#5yrsago How removing headphone jacks opens the door to DRM (and how to close the door)

#5yrsago Cash grants to people with unexpected bills successfully prevents homelessness

#5yrsago Forget Skynet: AI is already making things terrible for people who aren’t rich white dudes

#1yrago Trump's Solicitor General says bribery is legal

#1yrago Payday lenders are CFPB's pandemic aid

#1yrago Sorting machines snatched from post offices

#1yrago Failed State

#1yrago Mexico's terrible copyright is in trouble

#1yrsago Florida sheriff bans masks

#1yrago My origin story

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources: Bruce Schneier (

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