Democracy depends on Washington improving its tech
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I read a sad and humbling book this week: Compromised: The Counterintelligence and Threat of Donald J. Trump, by the former FBI agent Peter Strzok. I also interviewed the author for the Commonwealth Club of Northern California. You can watch the interview here.
The book is sad because it is the recounting of the downfall of a dedicated public servant. In clear, methodical language backed up by factual anecdotes and rational thinking, Strzok explains the investigations he led into Hillary Clinton’s misuse of private email servers—an investigation that ultimately helped Trump’s candidacy—and Russian interference in the 2016 election, which also aided Trump.
I defy you to read the book—or, worse, review the Twitter commentary about it—and come away feeling good about the prospects for American comity.
The humbling part of it is how woefully deficient Strzok describes the FBI’s level of digital proficiency when the Russians took their dirty tricks online. He describes an agency stuck in the mainframe era that needed to come up to speed quickly to fight the threat.
It is cliché in Silicon Valley to say the government’s technology lags far behind the private sector’s. What Strzok makes clear is that democracy depends on Washington getting with the program.
Speaking of government, am I the only one dumbfounded by the just-the-facts tone of the public discourse around the TikTok/ByteDance/Microsoft/Oracle debacle?
A president of the United States announces he’ll ban a private company if it doesn’t sell to a non-Chinese buyer. A credible party, Microsoft, emerges, but instead, a non-consumer company, Oracle, whose top executives are tight with the president, becomes a prospective “technology partner,” but not a buyer, of TikTok.
The dance-video company—this is how you know it’s important—already has a technology partner. It is Google, another American company, but one whose leaders are less cozy with Trump. Never mind. The deal intends to shift TikTok’s cloud business to Oracle, which nevertheless doesn’t yet seem to have convinced the caudillo that a non-ownership deal is a good idea.
Strzok believes Trump has been compromised, per the title of his book, by Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Remember that Putin executed a series of moves to deprive certain oligarchs of their business interests in favor of oligarchs more favored by him. Trump may or may not be compromised by Putin. But he clearly has learned from him.
And the paragons of America’s business community—”we believe the free-market system is the best means of generating good jobs, a strong and sustainable economy, innovation, a healthy environment and economic opportunity for all,” the Business Roundtable opined a year ago—stand by and watch, as if this were all normal.
This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman.
Shredding the gnar. As you may have expected if you read Tuesday's essay about cloud database startup Snowflake, or if you called your broker to try and get some shares, the company's stock price in its public debut went up like a rocket. Priced at $120, already valuing Snowflake at over $30 billion, the stock went as high as $319 before settling down at the close at $253 and change, a 112% gain. Afterwards, CEO Frank Slootman told me the action was due to "the frothy, opportunistic retail side" of the market. Easy for him to say—his take is now worth $3.5 billion on paper. And the VC funds that were the early investors also made out well on day one. In a less exciting but still successful debut, software developer tools maker JFrog also went public, raising over $500 million and trading up 47% in its debut.
Après ski. Speaking of expected news, video-game players got the bad but not unexpected word about just how much they'll be shelling out to get the new Sony PS 5. It's $500 for the full model or $400 without a disk drive. That's comparable at the high end to Microsoft's upcoming $500 Xbox Series X, but above the 'softies' $300 stripped-down Xbox Series S. In other new product news, Facebook released its next virtual-reality system, the Oculus Quest 2, for $300, but the reviews are tepid. Facebook also disclosed it's working on making augmented-reality glasses in an effort called Project Aria. And the new GoPro Hero 9 Black camera records your adventures in up to 5K and costs $450, or $350 if you sign up for a year of GoPro Plus.
Wipeout. A senior IT manager at Citigroup is on paid leave pending an investigation into a little side business he had running one of the most prominent websites dedicated to the frightening QAnon movement. Jason Gelinas earned over $3,000 a month from his site, which may have violated the bank's policy on outside business activities by employees.
Cocking the ankles. The Air Force spent decades working on the F-35 fighter, a super-expensive and heavily criticized plane. So it's maybe not surprising that they've tweaked their approach to developing new aircraft. The service says it has flown a brand-new prototype plane created in less than a year. Stay tuned for more details, such as what it's even called.
'Tis the journey not the arrival matters. Are you dying to know how Robert's smartwatch poll came out? Let's just say the most expensive option came out on top. Fortune's ace retail reporter Phil Wahba wants Robert to go off the menu with his advice, however: "Get a Shinola. Less tech in your life and you’re supporting a Detroit company."
Hazy shade of winter. Readers on the West Coast have been dealing with the smoke and haze from wildfires for weeks now, but the fallout is spreading across the globe. It's been obvious in the skies over the East Coast this week and reached Europe on Wednesday.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Here's a mind-bender that Elon Musk might be tweeting about soon: Could the Internet reach a state of artificial consciousness and behave like a living creature? Wired columnist Meghan O'Gieblyn takes a shot at answering, citing the Integrated Information Theory of Christof Koch and Giulio Tononi.
When asked how we will know when the internet is becoming conscious, Koch replied that the surest sign will be when “it displays independent behavior.” It’s hard to imagine what exactly this might look like. But considering that this process will also involve the waning of human consciousness, you might look inward, at the state of your own psyche.
The early stages of this process will likely be subtle. You might feel a bit scattered, your attention pulled in multiple directions, such that you begin to suspect that the philosophers are right, that the unified self is an illusion. You may occasionally succumb to the delusion that everyone you know sounds the same, as though their individual minds, filtered through the familiar syntax of tweets and memes, have fused into a single voice. You might find yourself engaging in behaviors that are not in your self-interest, mechanically following the dictate to share and spread personal information, even though you know the real beneficiary is not you or your friends, but the system itself.
IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
Slack hires former Live Nation exec as new chief people officer By Michal Lev-Ram
‘Square is a beast’ By Jeff John Roberts and David Z. Morris
Verizon plans to offer indoor 5G networks by year-end By Aaron Pressman
Why Accenture thinks the ‘Henry Ford moment of the digital era’ is coming By Alan Murray and David Meyer
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BEFORE YOU GO
As you read this, Apple's embargo on reviews for the new Apple Watch Series 6 has expired. We reviewers got a grand total of 22-ish hours with the new device, maybe less in some time zones. My tl;dr of the situation is that unlike last year's major upgrade, the Series 6 is a modest but steady improvement with a few cool new sensors (SpO2 and an altimeter!), one major bummer (no more 3D touch), and attractive new colors (that's the aluminum blue model on my wrist pictured below). No need to update a Series 5 yet, but for other buyers, it's an even more useful and sharp-looking purchase.