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First POST: Harvesting

BY Micah L. Sifry | Tuesday, October 15 2013


  • Washington Post contributor Barton Gellman and privacy analyst Ashkan Soltani break new ground in the NSA files story, reporting that the agency "is harvesting hundreds of millions of contact lists from personal e-mail and instant messaging accounts around the world, many of them belonging to Americans." The data, which is collected daily, "enables the agency to search for hidden connections and to map relationships." The data is collected overseas but sweeps up the accounts of millions of Americans.

  • Primed with federal anti-terrorism dollars, police forces across America are expanding their routine data collection on their residents, reports The New York Times. "The New York Police Department, aided by federal financing, has a big data system that links 3,000 surveillance cameras with license plate readers, radiation sensors, criminal databases and terror suspect lists." Resistance to these kinds of programs is also rising: "Iowa City, for example, recently imposed a moratorium on some surveillance devices, including license plate readers. The Seattle City Council forced its police department to return a federally financed drone to the manufacturer."

  • Free/libre software advocate Richard Stallman has written a trenchant essay for asking "How much surveillance can democracy withstand?" He argues that, "If we don’t want a total surveillance society, we must consider surveillance a kind of social pollution, and limit the surveillance impact of each new digital system just as we limit the environmental impact of physical construction." And, he adds, "We must redesign digital systems so that they do not accumulate data about their users. If they need digital data about our transactions, they should not be allowed to keep them more than a short time beyond what is inherently necessary for their dealings with us."

  • Alex Howard explains to BuzzFeed readers why the tech whizzes who built Barack Obama's two successful presidential campaigns have had nothing to do with the fiasco.

  • Ezra Klein offers some behind-the-scenes details on what appears to be going on as insurance companies try to process the sign-ups that are occurring on, and "yikes" (his word) is the right response. Klein writes, "We're now negative 14 days until the Affordable Care Act and most people still can't purchase insurance. The magnitude of this failure is stunning."

  • has launched a petition campaign to push back on Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's subpoena of Airbnb, demanding the details on New Yorkers who have rented out their homes or room using the service. Airbnb has already signaled that it is willing to tell its hosts about the state's occupancy tax, but is asking for help navigating the state's confusing hotel laws, Nancy Scola reports.

  • Upworthy founders Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley are profiled in The New York Times, and staff mad-genius Adam Mordecai shares some of the viral-sharing-site's secrets. Here's one: “Don’t take a strong stance in a headline that will make people uncomfortable when they pass it — you don’t want people afraid to tell their conservative uncle." Upworthy had more than 38 million unique visitors in September.

  • We feel really bad for Hunter College High School, which was named the "saddest spot"in Manhattan after a research study led by Professor Yaneer Bar-Yam, of the New England Complex Systems Institute, found the highest percentage of "negative sentiment" Twitter posts in its geo-data. And we feel worse for Prof. Bar-Yam, now that he's had to apologize for that finding, which was apparently due to a large number of posts from a single Twitter account just south of the school. Oh, we feel bad. Especially, we feel bad for anyone who writes a news story taking seriously research claims about "sentiment analysis." These stories make us feel so sad.

  • If Nick Bilton's cover story in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine on the founding of Twitter gave Jack Dorsey, one of the company's creators, a bit of a black eye for how described his role in the internal infighting that marked the company's early day, then this week's feature on Dorsey in The New Yorker, by D.T. Max, can be read as the antidote that rehumanizes Jack. My favorite line in the piece: "Dorsey's mother loved Twitter, too: 'He's not the kind of guy who calls every day. With Twitter, we could see what he was doing."