A short film on giving up privacy, for better or worse

We know what you did during lockdown is a short fiction film by Financial Times that demonstrates the challenges of using data for good at the sacrifice of privacy and the complexity of individual lives. Worth the watch.

I immediately wanted to unplug every single internet-connected device in the house. But of course I did not.

See also the short film Sight from 2012, which imagines a world where everyone’s reality is augmented with data through digitized contact lenses.

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U.S. military buys location data from apps

Joseph Cox, reporting for Motherboard:

Some app developers Motherboard spoke to were not aware who their users’ location data ends up with, and even if a user examines an app’s privacy policy, they may not ultimately realize how many different industries, companies, or government agencies are buying some of their most sensitive data. U.S. law enforcement purchase of such information has raised questions about authorities buying their way to location data that may ordinarily require a warrant to access. But the USSOCOM contract and additional reporting is the first evidence that U.S. location data purchases have extended from law enforcement to military agencies.


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Student surveillance and online proctoring

To combat cheating during online exams, many schools have utilized services that try to detect unusual behavior through webcam video. As with most automated surveillance systems, there are some issues. For The Washington Post, Drew Harwell looks into the social implications of student surveillance:

Fear of setting off the systems’ alarms has led students to contort themselves in unsettling ways. Students with dark skin have shined bright lights at their face, worrying the systems wouldn’t recognize them. Other students have resorted to throwing up in trash cans.

Some law students who took New York’s first online bar exam last month, a 90-minute test proctored by the company ExamSoft, said they had urinated in their chairs because they weren’t allowed to leave their computers, according to a survey by two New York state lawmakers pushing to change the rules for licensing new attorneys during the pandemic.


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COVID-19 exposure notifications expand among public health community

The United States data connections

The emergence of COVID-19 required swift action to develop systems and processes that support public health agencies and their pandemic response efforts. This year APHL has worked to create new connections, develop new message formats, standardize language and host a variety of solutions to aid in the COVID-19 response. This blog post is the third in a series that outlines and explains these efforts.

APHL recently announced a new effort to bring COVID-19 exposure notifications to the public health community. Through this collaboration with Apple, Google and Microsoft, APHL has enabled state and territorial public health agencies to provide COVID-19 exposure notifications to residents who choose to receive information regarding COVID-19 exposures in their area.

Today we are excited to announce another step toward expanding exposure notifications in the United States. To reduce the effort needed by public health agencies to bring exposure notification to their jurisdiction, APHL has made available a multi-tenant verification server running on Google Cloud.

Reducing boundaries between jurisdictions

Since July, several states have launched apps using Apple and Google’s Exposure Notifications System (ENS) to augment contact tracing efforts for the disease. Two states have launched an app using ENS with a national key server, hosted by APHL. The national key server allows exposure notifications to work between users who have applications published by different states, which enables the system to work across the US. It assures users can determine when they may have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 from other states.

As a part of ENS, a verification server is necessary to ensure a user has received a positive test result before uploading their temporary exposure keys to the national key server. Before, each public health agency needed to stand up their own verification server and decide on a verification approach. Having one verification server reduces the additional time and complexity to deploy ENS.

The new multi-tenant verification server provides each state and territory secure access to generate single-use verification codes. These verification codes could be provided to the user by a contact tracer or case investigator—over the phone or via SMS (text message)—after they have verified a positive test result. This server does not store personally identifiable information, but can send verification codes via SMS to make it easier for users to enter the verification code in their app.

The multi-tenant verification server reduces the burden on busy public health agencies and enables more rapid adoption of exposure notification. APHL, as a trusted public health partner, is a key conduit in delivering this solution to the public health community to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

The post COVID-19 exposure notifications expand among public health community appeared first on APHL Lab Blog.

DIY satellite ground station to receive images from NOAA

You can basically hook up an antennae to your laptop and start receiving images from space. This DIY guide from Public Lab amazes me.

The NOAA satellites have inbuilt radio antennas that transmit the data collected by the AVHRR instrument on a frequency in the 137 MHz range. To minimise interference between satellites, each NOAA satellite transmits on a different frequency within the 137 MHz range.


Your antenna is a sensor. It catches electromagnetic waves and transforms them into an electrical current i.e. an electrical signal. All antennas are tuned to specific frequency ranges meaning that they receive or transmit these frequencies best. Most antennas are directional.

I need to try this.

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Hidden trackers on your phone

Sara Morrison for Recode:

Then there’s Cuebiq, which collected location data through its SDK and shared that information with the New York Times for multiple articles about how social distancing changed as stay-at-home orders were lifted and states reopened. This was just a few months after the newspaper gave Cuebiq’s location collection practices a much more critical eye in an expansive feature, and shows a possible shift in public opinion now that this invasive data might be used to save lives or hasten the return to normality.

People worry about Big Brother, but privacy concerns through our phones and computers is just kind of meh. I keep wondering if that will change. Seems unlikely.

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Cataloging all the house number styles

Dan Kois walked all of the blocks in his ZIP Code and collected data on whether houses used serif or sans serif fonts for their house numbers:

Between March 10 and May 25, I walked every street in Arlington, Virginia’s 22207, a total distance of about 200 miles, according to my Fitbit. The ZIP code covers a lot of territory, 6.37 fairly densely populated square miles, from the Potomac River and the Washington border at the east to East Falls Church and the McLean border at the west. It includes some of Virginia’s richest and whitest neighborhoods, but also a number of apartment buildings and townhouses along Lee Highway and the historically Black middle-class neighborhood of Hall’s Hill.

Here’s the final result in a Google map. There doesn’t seem to be much of a pattern in Kois’ ZIP code, but it’s a good walking exercise. I wonder what other types of data one might collect while walking a large area.

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Failed CDC data pipeline

The New York Times reports on how the CDC struggled and failed on many levels. On the data front, where it was so important in the beginnings to gauge what was about to happen, the CDC failed to get accurate data to the people who needed to make decisions quickly:

The C.D.C. could not produce accurate counts of how many people were being tested, compile complete demographic information on confirmed cases or even keep timely tallies of deaths. Backups on at least some of these systems are made on recordable DVDs, a technology that was state-of-the-art in the late 1990s.

The result is an agency that had blind spots at just the wrong moment, limited in its ability to gather and process information about the pathogen or share it with those who needed it most: front-line medical workers, government health officials and policymakers.


Also, a little too familiar.

In 2014, I wrote a guide on how to make government data sites better. I used the CDC data offerings as my running example.

I criticized how hard it was to get data in a usable format, how the extraction tools were a chore to use, the lack of context to go with the data, and the challenge of just finding the data on a sprawling website.

The kicker at the end:

There’s plenty more stuff to update, especially once you start to work with the details, but this should be a good place to start. It’s a lot easier to point out what you can do to improve government data sharing than it is to actually do it of course. There are so many people, policies, and oh yes, politics, that it can be hard to change.

Maybe give it a try anyway.

Seek out the people who care.

Maybe start with an area you are already strong, improve on it, and branch from there. In the case of CDC, a start with WONDER or Data.CDC might be where it’s at. Or maybe start by unifying the topic pages and all those spreadsheets.

As an outsider looking in, I can’t say for sure the best place to start. I don’t know all the administrative baggage that comes with updating these sites. I would just hate to come back to this five years from now and see that nothing changed or worsened because of age.

Nothing changed. And it worsened with age.

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Florida data manager fired over transparency of Covid-19 data

Rebekah Jones, GIS manager for the Florida Department of Health, was fired a couple of weeks ago, apparently for making the state’s Covid-19 data more accessible and transparent. Florida Today reports on an email that Jones sent to researchers:

She warned that she does not know what the new team’s intentions are for data access, including “what data they are now restricting.”

“I understand, appreciate, and even share your concern about all the dramatic changes that have occurred and those that are yet to come,” she wrote.

“As a word of caution, I would not expect the new team to continue the same level of accessibility and transparency that I made central to the process during the first two months. After all, my commitment to both is largely (arguably entirely) the reason I am no longer managing it.”


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Blockchain mapping

Shannon Mattern for The Atlantic on how blockchain might be useful in mapping and as a replacement for GPS:

Crypto-cartographers hope to use it for spatial verification—confirming that things are where they say they are, when they claim to be there. How might this be useful? Well, you could know precisely when an Amazon delivery drone drops a package on your doorstep, at which point the charge would post to your account. No more unscrupulous delivery drivers, and no more contested charges for packages lost in transit. Or when opening a new bank account, you could virtually confirm your permanent address by physically being there during a particular verification period, rather than providing copies of your utility bills. You could also submit a photo of your flooded basement or smashed windshield to your insurance company, supplementing your claim with time- and location-verified documentation. Or, as you pass by your local family-owned coffee shop, the owner could “airdrop” some Bitcoin coupons to your phone, and you could stop by to cash in before the offer expires a half hour later.

Oh good.

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