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Resisting knee-jerk reactions in a world full of them

Vicki’s note: This post is a little light this week because I had an in-depth machine learning post I’ve been wanting to get out the door since *checks notes* March.

If you’re interested in me complaining about how hard machine learning in production, please check out my technical blog.

Art: The Black Marble Clock, Paul Cezanne, 1870

Often, there is really no unifying theme for Normcore, other than whatever interests me at the intersection of people and technology.

But if I had to pick one, it would be that digging into the secondary layers of whatever’s going on is important and necessary in the age of hot takes.

Hot takes are almost inevitable. I’ve written before,

I try to be skeptical but honest, critical, but even-keeled. In today’s knee-jerk-reaction world particularly online, it’s really, really, really hard to not turn out something that comes across as sarcastic and like you’re dunking on someone, just for likes. It’s also hard not to offer hot takes, and to really think about the issue from different angles.

And when you look at the pressures real journalists face, it’s hard to blame them. Our information ecosystem is set up in such a way that broad and quick is better than slow and in-depth.

It’s almost impossible to take extra time to really dig into a story,

In the middle of this economic chaos created by the digital economy, there is no time to stop, pause, reflect, and really research an issue, to think.  Every minute, every extra day gathering information is a luxury.

But ultimately what this means is that the most important things don’t get the proper level of examination at most levels. I was convinced of this again, earlier this week, when I was reading Super Pumped, in preparation for last week’s post on Uber.

Mike Isaac does a nice job of stitching together his years of Uber coverage for the New York Times into a comprehensive account of what happened at the company, including all of Travis Kalanick’s hijinx and the company’s financials.

But what I was struck by was not the recounts of yachts, high-flying VCs, and the resignation drama. The most interesting part to me was buried smack dab in the middle of the book:

A report in the tech press unearthed the existence of Uber’s program, “Hell,” the one that illicitly repurposed iPhone technology to target Lyft drivers and lure them to Uber. But that was just the beginning.

Hell had been created by a group called the “competitive intelligence” team - COIN for short- established to keep tabs on competitors. Uber engineers set up special computer servers which were unconnected to the company’s primary infrastucture….

The team kept tabs on overseas competitors like Ola in India and DiDi in China. Another entity, the Strategic Services Group, the SSG for short, employed the most clandestine tactics of the bunch. It was made up fo ex-CIA, Secret Service, and FBI operatives, and hired sub-contractors on special anonymous contracts with Uber so that their names couldn’t be traced back to the company. This outfit of black-hat spies engaged in a wide range of activities, some of which eventually spun out of Uber’s control.


SSG operatives would carry out espionage and counterintelligence missions using virtual private networks, cheap laptops, and wireless hotspots paid for in cash. Undercover operations would include impersonating Uber drivers to gain access to closed WhatsApp group chat, hoping to gather intelligence on whether drivers were organizing or planning to strike against Uber.

The book goes on to say that they also targeted politicians, and impersonated Lyft personnel in order to find out rates and routes.

Holy crap!

But then the book moves quickly away from this to talk about other details.

I get that there is enough on Uber to write five million books, and I get that not everything can be a focus.

But I think there should have been way, way more time devoted to this, because it covers an angle I haven’t seen much of in the tech news: corporate espionage of ordinary citizens.

Digging into this story online, it looks like this was revealed as part of the Jacobs letter, which came out in, you guessed it, deposition, related to the Waymo scandal.

The “Jacobs letter” was written by the attorney for Richard Jacobs, who previously worked as Uber’s manager of global intelligence before being fired in April. The highly detailed account brings about accusations of systematic illegal activity inside Uber’s Strategic Services Group (SSG) which allegedly sought to surface other companies’ trade secrets through eavesdropping and data collection. The letter alleges that some of the information gathered was relayed to then-CEO Travis Kalanick.

The heavily-redacted letter lays out the alleged processes with clear and unrelenting detail.

Uber worked to unlawfully obtain trade secrets from [redacted]. MA I) remotely accessed confidential [redacted] corporate communications and data, 2) impersonated riders and drivers on [redacted] platform to derive key functions of [redacted] rider and driver apps, 3) stole supply data by identifying possible drivers to boost Uber’s market position, and 4) acquired codebase which allowed MA to identify code used by [redacted] to understand in greater detail how [redacted] app functioned.

This is big-time news, and I think probably the biggest and most important part of the book. Why? Because if Uber is doing it, then all the other comapnies are likely doing it too.

And what this means is that, not only are our private communications not safe from the CIA, NSA, and advertisers, they’re also not safe from companies coming in to impersonate people we trust, if those people are tied to sketchy companies.

Ok, granted, all of this this is a little tinfoil-hat-y, even for me. But if Uber did it, where else is it happening, against the growing chaos of the backgrop that is misinformation, fake news, and corporate surveillance that is now our digital lives?

Well, for one thing, in political organizations, with respect to journalists.

One of the first witnesses called to the stand: Sgt. Timothy Reynolds, who is white. To get intel on activists and organizers, including those in the Black Lives Matter movement, he’d posed on Facebook as a “man of color,” befriending people and trying to infiltrate closed circles.

Projected onto a giant screen in the courtroom was a screenshot of people Reynolds followed on Facebook.
My head was bent as I wrote in my reporter’s notebook. “What does this entry indicate?” ACLU attorney Amanda Strickland Floyd asked.

“I was following Wendi Thomas,” Reynolds replied. “Wendi C. Thomas.”

I sat up.

“And who is Wendi Thomas?” Floyd asked.

She, he replied, used to write for The Commercial Appeal. In 2014, I left the paper after being a columnist for 11 years.

In another, our companies, of course.

Documents obtained by The Verge show those productivity firings are far more common than outsiders realize. In a signed letter last year, an attorney representing Amazon said the company fired “hundreds” of employees at a single facility between August of 2017 and September 2018 for failing to meet productivity quotas. A spokesperson for the company said that, over that time, roughly 300 full-time associates were terminated for inefficiency.

But these are both cases where, as sad as it sounds, you can kind of expect to be spied on.

What about when, as in the book, you’re part of a private Whatsapp group, with, say, other Uber drivers and maybe some non-drivers, and Uber starts siphoning your messages? How would you know, and what’s the legal recourse here? What’s the implication if someone you thought you knew but turns out to be someone else follows you on Facebook?

There are pretty serious implications for someone impersonating an identity digitally, on behalf of a corporation, that I don’t think we’ve delved into entirely here. This to me, is one of the for-real stories coming out of the Uber scandal, and it will take a lot more depositions to reveal how prevalent this is in modern-day corporate America.

Granted, I understand that the angle of the book was not corporate espionage, and it’s criticism that’s a little unfair given how much other first-hand reporting the author did, but I think it’s important to point out that often in journalism the focus is on telling one story when, in the middle of it, another, bigger one comes out.

However, Uber is old hat at this point. But what are the stories that are probably over-covered, from the same angle today? Anything Zoom, anything remote work, anything Rekognition (that doesn’t delve into how shareholders actually have been lobbying Amazon to stop Rekognition for a long time, based partially as a reaction to this research, so the decision to stop selling Rekognition to police departments is not as much of an honest reaction to Black Lives Matter protests as probably a very calculated move.) Anything food delivery.

These are all important stories that capture the spirit and attitudes of Spring 2020, but they’re not the entire story. There are a number of other, second-order effects brewing as a result of all of this that we’re just now beginning to see the fall-out of, and that are being severely under-reported.

What are those stories? I’m not a journalist, but I very loosely play one in a newsletter and if I find any wacky ones coming out of the insane moshpit of history that is this spring, I’ll write about them here.

What I’m reading lately:

  1. I felt unsafe, and as a Turkish immigrant, I felt like I am reliving my past horrors in my adopted home. It felt like a punch in 2016, and almost four years later, I feel worse about it than I did before.”

  2. AWS self-sabotage

  3. How can we trust experts?

  4. This was a gut-punch.

  5. Seriously, stop using Chrome

  6. What is it called when several bugs cancel each other out?”

  7. This is really something

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The Author:
I’m a data scientist. Most of my free time is spent wrangling a preschooler and a baby, reading, and writing bad tweets. Find out more here or follow me on Twitter.