Caught with your pants down on Zoom, technochauvinism, Covid's privacy creep, ghost stories, and swing states

What's Bob reading -- stories you might have missed last week

Never forget

“Happy” first week of school for many. My big feature this week was a conversation about facial recognition software, such as Clearview AI. It’s a powerful new tool for law enforcement. But has law enforcement really earned the trust required for a powerful new tool? It’s a dialog with Kashmir Holl of The New York Times, and several of my academic colleagues from Duke University.

Back to school, sort of

Here's a reminder that computers shouldn't give grades. In fact, they are pretty bad at lots of types of 'grading' -- don't be fooled! I often say that replacing people with software is often just a foolish attempt at cost-cutting disguised as an upgrade. From Meredith Broussard at NYT Opinion:

"Computers are excellent at doing math, but education is not math — it’s a social system. And algorithmic systems repeatedly fail at making social decisions. Algorithms can’t monitor or detect hate speech, they can’t replace social workers in public assistance programs, they can’t predict crime, they can’t determine which job applicants are more suited than others, they can’t do effective facial recognition, and they can’t grade essays or replace teachers."

Bureaucrats who decided to use a computer to assign grades are guilty of a bias I call technochauvinism: the idea that technological solutions are superior. It’s usually accompanied by equally bogus notions like, “Computers make neutral decisions” or, “Computers are objective because their decisions are based on math.      

Crude generalizations work for Netflix predictions because the stakes are low. If the Netflix algorithm suggests a show and I don’t like it, I ignore it and move on with my day. In education, the stakes are much higher. A transcript follows you for years; when I was 25 and well out of college, I applied for a job that asked for my SAT scores.

Also at school, this would be funny, if it weren’t so sad. Teachers are seeing all kinds of crazy things during online classes. From the Washington Post

So far, I’ve overheard three confidential work conversations, been privy to some low-level married-couple bickering and witnessed two pants-less parents adjusting the camera while assuming they were out of the frame. Spoiler alert: They were not out of the frame.

“Based on the process the district explained they took, my takeaway is that it was a dad getting dressed,” said Walsh, a communications professional in Southern California. Although the incident was probably just an awkward privacy gaffe, she said, “it does add yet another thing to worry about.”


Alright, kids. It's time to treat the Internet like your crazy uncle who tells ghost stories that no one believes. Because that's what it is. Never share anything without first taking a moment to learn "the rest of the story." Do this all day, every day, for the rest of your lives. Even if it involves heart-string-tugging stories about child victims. Otherwise, we’ll never get out of this mess. From Huffington Post:

In other words, the “sex trafficking sting” described in headlines and social media posts was neither a sex trafficking operation nor a sting. Kirby noted that the agency did not conduct any raids (she capitalized and underlined the word “not” in her email) during the effort to locate the 78 children. This was a knock-on-doors and question-suspects situation, not a bust-in-with-a-battering-ram kind of deal.

Also, I recorded a podcast this week with Nick Monaco about “Chinese cyberarmies” that are attacking democracies all around the world. We can, and should, learn a lot from Taiwan’s most recent election.

Rejected ballots

If there’s going to be a problem with mail-in voting, it’s not going to be fraud. It’s going to be rejected ballots. Read my guide to the real-life benefits and issues with mail voting.  Then see this news from the Associated Press about swing states.

If voter turnout is the same as 2016 and the ballot rejection rate equals the 1.4% from this year’s primary, nearly 43,000 voters in Pennsylvania could be disenfranchised this fall, according to AP’s analysis.

Only 21 states have defined procedures for notifying voters if absentee ballots are rejected so they have a chance to fix it.

Based on the percentage of those ballots cast in each state’s primary this year, between 185,000 and 292,000 voters in the seven states examined could be disenfranchised if November’s turnout matches that of four

 It doesn’t help that election officials in some states, including Michigan and Pennsylvania, are not allowed to begin looking at absentee ballots until Election Day. That leaves a narrow window for identifying problems and allowing voters to fix them.

Yes, the raw ballot rejection numbers could exceed the 2016 margin of victory in many states, but one caveat. That mixes apples and oranges a bit --- 1,000 rejected votes is not the same as a 1,000-vote swing. It could represent only a 20 or 30 vote swing.  Where those rejected ballots come from matters a lot.

Covid and privacy

This is a really powerful story at Mashable. One thing I think about a lot: In the Michigan example used here, outrage at forcing students to wear tracking devices was quelled by the school saying, “Oh, it's optional.”  I feel like that's the Trojan horse.  When framed as an option, people seem to think all is well.  But EZPass is optional too.  As long as you don't mind wasting hours of your life at a toll booth.  So are grocery store loyalty cards, as long as you're willing to overpay for milk and eggs.  This is the consent model, wrapped up in sheep's clothing.

You want to go grocery shopping, but the location-tracking app you were forced to download will report your movements. And because you don't have permission to leave campus, you'll be automatically locked out of your dorm.

You think about your part-time job, and wonder what data is being collected by the camera-tracking technology installed to monitor social distancing on the warehouse floor. If you get too close to your coworker, the system will automatically flag you. Another flag, and you might lose your job.

You consider going for a run, but worry that it will raise your body temperature, which in turn could trigger a health-monitoring device you were pressured into wearing. You might then be prevented from participating in campus activities.

Your mind turns to your kid, who every day at school is tracked by cameras monitoring her every move. If the system decides that she isn't socially distancing enough, will she be sent home?

You can't take time off to watch her. Lose your job and you won't have health insurance. And you really, desperately, need to keep your health insurance. There's a pandemic, after all.

This is not some distant future. This is real life, today, in America. And, if we're not careful, it could get worse. Because despite what we all hope, the coronavirus is probably here to stay.

Have a great weekend!

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