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First POST: Open Letters

BY Micah L. Sifry | Monday, December 9 2013

Open Letters

  • Eight tech giants, led by Google and Microsoft, have issued a call to limit online spying.

  • On, the companies lay out five key principles, including limits on governmental authority, opposition to bulk data collection, an adversarial court process to insure stronger oversight, and greater transparency about government demands for private data.

  • At the Guardian, commentator Jeff Jarvis applauds the new initiative, but points out:

    Please note who is missing from the list – the signators are Google, Facebook, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft, Aol, Apple, LinkedIn. I see no telecom company there — Verizon, AT&T, Level 3, the companies allegedly in a position to hand over our communications data and enable governments to tap straight into internet traffic. Where is Amazon, another leader in the cloud whose founder, Jeff Bezos, now owns the Washington Post? Where are Cisco and other companies whose equipment is used to connect the net and by some governments to disconnect it? Where are the finance companies — eBay, Visa, American Express — that also know much about what we do?

  • Meanwhile, Senator Edward Markey (D-MA) revealed that his investigation into law enforcement's use of cellphone data found more than 9,000 requests for "tower dumps"--which can included hundreds of thousands of calls bounced off a cell phone tower--last year. Phone companies often provide police with phone location data, web site addresses and search terms entered into people's cell phones. “Tower dumps violate the privacy of hundreds or thousands of innocent people at a time, most of whom will never learn their location information was obtained by the government in order to find the proverbial needle in the haystack,” said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union.

  • Ryan LIzza has a long and excellent feature in The New Yorker centered on Senator Ron Wyden's decade-long effort to rein in the NSA.

  • The NSA and GCHQ have spied on users of XBox Live, reports The Guardian's James Ball. "Real-life agents have been deployed into virtual realms, from those Orc hordes in World of Warcraft to the human avatars of Second Life," he writes.

  • The FBI has the ability to insert malware onto suspect's computers that not only tracks the target's web usage, it "can covertly download files, photographs and stored e-mails, or even gather real-time images by activating cameras connected to computers," without the person's awareness, The Washington Post's Craig Timberg and Ellen Nakashima reported Friday. Commented Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union: “We have transitioned into a world where law enforcement is hacking into people’s computers, and we have never had public debate. Judges are having to make up these powers as they go along.”

  • The Freedom of Press Foundation has launched a crowdfunding campaign to support encryption tools for journalists.

  • The ACLU has posted a hair-raising series of visualizations that illustrate what how all the location data being collected by the NSA could be used to uncover the private lives of Americans.

  • Edward Snowden is scheduled to appear by pre-recorded video before the European Parliament's civil liberties committee, around December 18.

In other news around the web:

  • announced that they've hit the 50 million user mark, touting more than 6,000 campaign victories across dozens of issues and countries. Forty percent of petitions win with less than 200 signatures, the company notes, proof that the long-tail of e-petition-powered politics is real.

  • Are Upworthy-style headlines suddenly everywhere because of how the Twitter-Facebook war for attention led to Facebook's recent tweaks to its News Feed algorithm? That's the argument Robinson Meyer makes in The Atlantic, and it's well worth a read.

  • The error rate on signups with insurers--those pesky 843 forms-- has dropped from 25% in October to 10% now, reports Jonathan Cohn in The New Republic.

  • Sarah Kaufman of NYU Wagner suggests that in the same way "positive train control" robotic systems can improve commuter train safety, we should consider similar safety measures for cars. "Cars should be operated more like trains, and both should reduce their reliance on unreliable humans," she writes.

  • Meanwhile, Senators Chuck Schumer (D-Media) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) are calling for video cameras on trains to monitor conditions and operators.

  • A comparison of public surveys, social network self-identification, and state-by-state search data suggests that roughly five percent of American men are gay, but in states that don't support gay marriage, far fewer of them are "out" on Facebook while search data from Google and "casual encounter" data from Craigslist suggests there are a lot of unhappy closeted men living in those states. That's the takeaway from this fascinating article from Sunday's New York Times by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz.

  • Crisis Text Line, the SMS-based counseling service offshoot of, is sharing some findings from quarter-million messages it has received from teens since launching earlier this year, Rebecca Greenfield of Fast Company reports.

  • This article on Britain's "Ministry of Nudges" really should have called it Britain's Ministry of Silly Nudges, but read it anyway to learn how insights from behavioral economics are being embraced across the pond.

  • On Quartz, Miles Kimball makes the argument that the Hunger Games is our world.