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I recently visited the San Francisco visitor sign-in company Envoy with an axe to grind: I refused to sign in electronically. It was my one-man protest to the privacy invasion Envoy is inflicting on the visitors of its clients, who are asked to fork over their name, email address, usually their image, and, quite often, a non-disclosure agreement.
CEO Larry Gadea was understanding of my reservations. He also didn’t seem offended when I told him I sometimes look away from the camera and often sign “M. Mouse” on the signature pad. My contention is that I shouldn’t have to share my identity just to have a meeting, and Gadea called my concerns “totally reasonable.”
He then went on to tell me why Envoy, which he started in 2013 after a stint as a low-number Twitter employee, has caught on with customers (and backers including Menlo Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz). Big companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook already had sophisticated electronic sign-in systems, but small companies didn’t. Envoy lets companies track visitors and also comply with citizenship and other regulatory requirements. He says 13,000 companies use Envoy daily. More than 6,000 of them pay the per-office, per-month fees that range from $100 to $1,000. And he says 130,000 people sign in daily across Envoy’s client base.
His dreams for Envoy are big. Already Envoy has a mailroom product to track deliveries. And it is testing a meeting-room-management tool. Customers also can issue temporary Wi-Fi codes to visitors. Early customers included Pandora, FitBit, and Yelp. And though Gadea can’t confirm Uber is a customer, I know the data-happy company was an early customer because I’ve signed in there scores of times. Says Gadea, an ambitious software engineer at heart: “We’re building the OS for the office.”
As for the ick factor, Gadea is philosophical. Cameras are everywhere, he notes. At least with Envoy, only the company knows of your visit, compared with the old sign-in register. (I always make a practice of reading the log as I scribble my name; I still recall signing in at Hewlett-Packard and seeing that a team of Goldman bankers preceded me.) The system provides obvious security benefits. Schools track visitors, including parents who may or may not be authorized to check out children.
So Envoy is growing and effective. But it is an undeniable part of the surveillance economy. A spokesman told me after my visit that Envoy has “dozens” of Chinese customers but that the government hasn’t ever requested information from Envoy.
Not yet, anyway.
On Twitter: @adamlashinsky
Won't get fooled again. As the streaming wars heat up, Disney said most of its various networks (from ABC to National Geographic) will refuse to run ads for Netflix. But Disney's ESPN will continue to carry Netflix ads (I guess because Netflix doesn't compete in sports programming?).
Quick cut. With short video service TikTok growing in popularity, Google is considering acquiring similar app Firework. The talks are not final yet and Chinese Internet company Weibo is also interested in potentially acquiring Firework. Meanwhile, in deals that actually happened, real estate data giant CoStar Group bought hotel data collector STR for $450 million.
What's good for the goose. With several companies wavering, PayPal moved first to exit the Libra digital currency consortium formed by Facebook. In a non-explanation explanation, PayPal said it wanted "to continue to focus on advancing our existing mission and business priorities as we strive to democratize access to financial services for underserved populations.”
Is good for the gander. President Trump's campaign was targeted by Iranian hackers, though unsuccessfully. The hackers also tried to crack the email accounts of current and former government officials, journalists covering global affairs, and prominent Iranians living in the United States, according to Microsoft, which first revealed the effort.
See you in court. California adopted a new law to ban the distribution of deceptively edited videos, an attempt to prevent the spread of so-called "deep fakes." A second measure gives anyone placed into in a sexually explicit deep fake without permission the right to sue the video's creator.
Super congrats. Super blogger and software developer Dave Winer's blog marks its 25th anniversary today. Keep on keepin' on, Dave!
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Are you a fan or foe of Google's "Smart Compose" feature that suggests what to write next in emails? New Yorker writer John Seabrook was skeptical at first but warmed to it after a while. In a clever–though very long–article, Seabrook includes whole passages "written" by an even more sophisticated app, the OpenAI project's GPT-2 program. It's pretty good at imitating high-level magazine-ese (the quote in the paragraph is made up):
The results of the first year of this work are promising, but the big issues are about to be addressed. I asked Amodei if we should be worried about A.I. surpassing humans in an array of specialized fields. “No, I think we can understand that it’s not going to be a society where people are robots,” he said. The safety of any new technology often hinges on how it’s regulated. If machines can learn to think for themselves, that might be a concern. But if we really want to replicate human intelligence—as most of us want to—there are several directions that researchers might explore.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
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Allbirds Founders: Why We Need to Eliminate Plastics for Good By Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger
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BEFORE YOU GO
Last week, we noted the 40th anniversary of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. Continuing on with the Gen X Brit nostalgia theme, we also just reached the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The Guardian has a sweet stroll down memory lane, with lots of material from the BBC archives. By the way, the Flying Circus is available on Netflix. But have you got anything without spam?
This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.