March 3: Uber, Palantir and Facebook

Yet another Uber scandal

The NYT published an article explaining how the company was denying service to accounts suspected to be linked with law enforcement. Using a software called Greyball initially designed to deny service to users violating Uber’s terms of service, the company has apparently been serving a “fake version of its app” to city officials trying to build a case against it, where “some of the digital cars they saw in their Uber apps were never there at all.” The company confirmed in a statement that this program was designed to deny service to “opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers.” The article reported that these accoutns were identified by “drawing a digital perimeter… around the government offices” and “looking at a user’s credit card information and determining whether the card was tied directly to an institution like a police credit union.”

Yet another Palantir scandal

The Intercept published an article tying Palantir, a company co-founded by Peter Thiel now Trump advisor, to the Investigative Case Management system within Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The system enables ICE agents to “access… platforms maintained by the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Federal bureau of Investigation” and “other federal and private law enforcement entities” including “information on a subject’s schooling, family relationships, employment information, phone records, immigration history, foreign exchange program status, personal connections, biometric traits, criminal records and home and work addresses.” In addition to conflicts of interests involving Peter Thiel, this raises a number of questions – especially at a time when border agents have been asking travellers for social media data. The interconnection of such databases is problematic because most of this data was collected for other purposes than being used at the border, and because there will be the incentive to connect more databases in the future. More problematically, will decisions to allow someone in the US increasingly be done by a computer – and how will that software be audited for mistakes?

Yet another Facebook scandal

After months of claiming that fake news didn’t matter, and that it shouldn’t be in charge of censoring content on its own platform, Facebook is now blatantly advertising that politicians can pay the platform to try and sway elections – read Facebook‘s own business page. The company boasts that Senator Toomey “used a made-for-Facebook, audience-specific content strategy to significantly shift voter intent and increase favorability for a US Senate candidate from Pennsylvania, contributing to his reelection.” It gets creepier: “TO ensure its ads reached voters most likely to re-elect Senator Toomey, the team matched 8 first-party data files to Facebook using Custom Audiences” (I’d be curious to hear what Facebook did with that data after it mined it). It still gets creepier: they have numbers! The campaign was able to achieve a “10.5-point lift in voter intent among people aged 55–64… 19.4-point lift in voter intent among women 45-54… 13.1-point lift in voter intent among men aged 55–64.” So Facebook can’t sway an election – unless you’re paying.

Have a Cold-War-revival week-end,


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