A weekly summary of what I’ve found interesting at the intersection of economics, finance and technology.
This is the last issue of Surveilled this year, the next issue will be on the 5th of January. Thanks to everyone for your support in the first six months, and I wish you a relaxing and restorative end of year period.
We surrendered our privacy to a network of “Tiny Brothers” — A whistleblower provided the New York Times with a set of location data routinely sold by the apps on your phone to data brokers in the ad tech industry. Even though the data is anonymised, it was trivial for the journalists to figure out the identities and potentially compromising actions of the people tracked in the dataset. Technically, there are no major revelations in this article. Everyone who is moderately informed knows at some level that this kind of location data is sold and used, and that despite assurances that it is anonymised, can’t be tracked back etc., we know that it is still scarily easy to identify anyone. The difference with this story is that it really puts this egregious situation in sharp relief, and that it starts to weave this together with our current economic doctrine. Reading this in the framework posited by Soshana Zuboff in “Surveillance Capitalism,” it’s obvious that this ruthless exploitation of personal data is the logical continuation of neo-liberal economic principles and “Economic Man,” aptly described in this timely TLS review:
[S]ince Economic Man is incapable of being morally load-bearing, he cannot be trusted. He will only work if incentivized by material benefit, so his behaviour must be watched like a hawk, and his rewards linked to the observed performance of contract-specified actions
As an immediate reaction, it’s worth double-checking again which apps have access to your phone’s location data. In the longer term, it’s past time to start working on outright regulation of these kinds of practices. Read
UAE builds a messaging app to spy on users — ToTok, an Emirati messaging app that that is gaining in popularity, was apparently built by UAE intelligence services to spy on whoever installed it on their phone. It really does pay to be paranoid out there. Read
Facebook uncovers sophisticated disinformation network — The network was made up of hundreds of accounts and pages, and used AI-generated profile photos for its users. The network seems to be linked to a relatively small organisation, so we can only imagine what determined state actors might be able to do. Read
Is the tech bubble slowly deflating? — San Francisco real estate developers had planned a slew of luxury developments to coincide with the long-awaited IPO’s of unicorns such as Uber. But as these IPO’s fizzled, the unicorns’ workers are not basking in money and are investing what proceeds they received in more mundane things like college funds for their children. Not only that, but many of them are now reconsidering the trade-offs (100 hour weeks) in light of the meagre returns, and are even considering unionising as a result. The pendulum clearly started swinging the other way. Read
Facebook is working on it’s own operating system — Entirely logical from their perspective, whether it will gain any traction is another question entirely. Read
Wikipedia co-founder launched crowdfunded social network — I admire the idealism and drive behind this, but I’m afraid its chances of success are very slim… Read
The FT named Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella person of the year. Puzzling choice, although Nadella’s impact at Microsoft cannot be underestimated indeed. The article is a good overview of the company’s change in culture and positioning. Read
Google is becoming more and more like a normal company, which bodes ill for the responsible use of the huge amount of data it has on all of us. Read
Nobody quite knows what factory (if any) Foxconn is planning to build in Wisconsin, but it could well be that the state is on the hook for the massive subsidies it promised regardless. This kind of high-profile foreign direct investment incentive never seems to work out well. Read
The physics of bullets in videogames is one of those things you don’t think about, but that turn to be enlightening when you delve into it. Read
That’s it for this week’s edition. As always, thanks for reading and please forward this to anyone who you think might be interested, it would be much appreciated.