WhatsApp leader: You don’t want us eavesdropping on you, right?
Will Cathcart, head of Facebook-owned WhatsApp, recently gave a rare interview to Chris Anderson of TED, my old employer. In it, he defends the world-conquering chat app’s embrace of privacy technologies, like end-to-end encryption.
End-to-end encryption is a data-transferring setup that restricts access to the content of messages solely to their senders and recipients. It helps prevent spies, hackers, and even tech companies themselves from eavesdropping on people’s digital conversations.
Law enforcement officials tend to object to strong encryption because, they say, it hinders investigations. Technologists and civil liberties advocates, on the other hand, counter that the tech underpins digital security, and any attempt to create a workaround, or otherwise undermine it, can and will be exploited by bad actors.
Here’s how Cathcart frames the debate over end-to-end encryption, now raging in Congress. He cleverly finds common ground with Facebook’s biggest critics by tapping into the anti-surveillance zeitgeist that possesses so many of them: You don’t want Facebook to collect your most intimate data, do you?
“We believe that fundamentally the security trade-off, the cost to your safety for us to start collecting every one of those messages, would be disastrous,” Cathcart says. “And you don’t want us to,” he adds, quite accurately. (Cambridge Analytica, anyone?)
Cathcart paints a scene ripped straight from the dystopian bible, 1984. “We, at this point, could build a camera and a microphone and install it in every living room in the United States hooked up to a central server for the government to access it,” he says. “But I think, naturally, we would recoil in horror at the consequences of doing something like that, even if there would be some cases where it would help solve crimes.”
Cathcart’s scenario may seem hyperbolic, but the point hits home—literally. As the coronavirus pandemic has swept the globe, more people are connecting virtually, turning to the Internet in lieu of infection-risking physical contact. People are commiserating, gossiping, interacting, and living online.
As some Senators threaten to outlaw strong encryption in the U.S., it is worth reiterating a point made recently by more than 75 pro-encryption cybersecurity experts, civil liberties groups, companies, and trade associations: Privacy is the foundation of security. You cannot have the latter without the former.
Or, as Cathcart puts it: “If we’re going to be forced to have conversations digitally, because we can’t be sitting face to face, we shouldn’t have to give up the security and privacy we’ve had for hundreds of years in that transition.”
COVID-19 adds even more urgency to the equation.
Between TikTok and a hard place. Tech companies—including TikTok, owned by Beijing-based ByteDance—have been suspending operations in Hong Kong after China imposed a controversial new security law there. Despite its many attempts to distance itself from China (including naming an American CEO), TikTok has entered the White House's crosshairs. President Trump said Tuesday that his administration is considering banning TikTok in the U.S. His threat follows a similar ban in India, widely seen as retaliation for a lethal border clash with China last month.
Up against the wall. Retail behemoth Walmart's answer to Amazon Prime will launch this month, Vox's Recode reports. Called Walmart+, the subscription service is said to cost $98 and include same-day grocery delivery, among other perks. While Walmart figures out a belated strategy to counter its arch-nemesis, Amazon is doing the same in video streaming. Copying a feature long supported by rivals like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video has just added user profiles. The feature lets people keep their video preferences and watch histories separate from each other.
Red delicious. Apple is reportedly updating its next generation AirPods to use a "system-in-package" chip system, a design that could help it squeeze more components inside. In layman's terms, this means Apple's AirPods 3, expected next year, could come equipped with more advanced features once reserved for AirPods Pro, like noise cancelling, some Apple bloggers speculate. Meanwhile, a new beta version of Apple's forthcoming iPhone software, iOS 14, appears to contain code allowing for QR code payments, 9-to-5Mac reports.
Manna from heaven. After years of hype, Google parent Alphabet's balloon-beamed Internet "moonshot" project, Loon, is actually launching. The company received permission from the Kenyan government to disperse a "floating network of cell towers" above the country. The 35-balloon fleet will hover over eastern Africa "in the coming weeks," Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said in a blog post.
Hot takes from hot fakes.
Facebook is a rogue state whose aptest analogue on the global stage is North Korea, writes Carole Cadwalladr, the journalist responsible for exposing the company's Cambridge Analytica scandal in 2018. She makes a powerful case for the extreme comparison; in a scathing op-ed for the Guardian Cadwalladr eviscerates the media giant for exacerbating societal divisions, broadcasting violence, promoting conspiracy theories, and inciting genocide. Parrying former UK deputy minister-turned-Facebook flak Nick Clegg's assertion that "platforms like Facebook hold a mirror up to society," she ripostes: "Facebook is not a mirror. It's a gun."
There is no power on this earth that is capable of holding Facebook to account. No legislature, no law enforcement agency, no regulator. Congress has failed. The EU has failed. When the Federal Trade Commission fined it a record $5bn for its role in the Cambridge Analytica scandal, its stock price actually went up.
Which is what makes this moment so interesting and, possibly, epochal. If the boycott of Facebook by some of the world’s biggest brands – Unilever, Coca-Cola, Starbucks – succeeds, it will be because it has targeted the only thing that Facebook understands: its bottom line. And if it fails, that will be another sort of landmark.
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ONE MORE THING
Deepfakes are a controversial technology that let people to create videos in which digital clones of real-life humans do or say whatever a techno-puppeteer wants. The tech can be abused for media manipulation, political disinformation, and sexual harassment—but the technology isn't all bad, apparently. Now the A.I.-generated avatars are being used...for corporate training videos.
Don't you just miss the good old days of Nick Cage deepfakery lolz?