Amazon in Your Face in a Special Place

Be careful, Mouseketeers, Mickey may be watching. Yesterday, I posted some news about Facebook in your face and space. Today it’s a warning about surveillance in Orlando, Florida, home of Disney World.

It might be a small and probably temporary win for privacy advocates, but it’s a significant win nonetheless. The City of Orlando, Florida has announced that they will be ending the use of Amazon’s facial recognition software in response to protests staged by the ACLU and dozens of advocacy groups. While the government is still keeping the door open to using the technology again in the future, Orlando residents can rest assured that the frighteningly accurate Amazon Rekognition won’t scanning their faces again any time soon.

It had the makings of a police-state dystopia you’d only see in fiction and China. The ACLU’s investigations into business transactions between Amazon Web Services and the Orlando Police Department as well as Oregon’s Washington County Sheriff’s Office revealed how Amazon’s face recognition technology is being used more than just outside of retail but in law enforcement as well. Given Amazon’s depth of data on US customers, the accuracy of its face recognition, and the inclination of government to cast a very wide net, privacy advocates immediately sounded the alarm.

As with any face recognition technology used for surveillance, the fear is that it will be used for more than just tracking actual criminals. Simply having a suspicious face, or joining protests, could land you in the system in a snap. Given the novelty of the technology as a law enforcement tool, there are also few laws to protect people’s privacy and freedom against mass surveillance.

And it worked, somewhat. While Orlando has indeed dropped its pilot program, according to The New York Times, it might still do so at a later date. Washington County, on the other hand, is sticking to its guns but defends that the technology, used for more than a year now, is not being used for mass surveillance of any kind.

Ray Myers

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Inside Washington Tech Policy Stories – a Reporter’s View

I (Cecilia Kang) feel like everyone is hunched over their phones in Washington even more than other places. This is a news-obsessed town that is texting and e-mailing at all hours. There seems to be a bit of a generational divide on the use of communications apps. Younger staffers on Capitol Hill often use encrypted apps and direct messages on Twitter. But even some of my older sources (my peers, really) can sometimes text me at all hours. It feels totally appropriate to call, text or Signal late at night or on weekends. Many an interview is done with children heard in the background at a park.

The whole attitude toward the tech industry has changed in Washington, with every growing calls for privacy regulation and antitrust enforcement of giants like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. The biggest stories coming up will be the lawsuits to restore net neutrality, which should begin late this summer. The Trump administration and the F.C.C. have focused on the race for the 5G networks and have acted to thwart competition from China, citing national security concerns. And privacy is the big wild card. Even if stricter privacy rules aren’t introduced in the United States, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation set to take effect next month will most likely spill over in some way into American policy.

Faster is better?

Ray Myers

Not Me! I’m Not Afraid of A.I.

Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) that is. A recent Gallup survey revealed that the vast majority of Americans expect A.I. to lead to joblessness in the coming decade, but few see it as coming to their own position. “Whether they know it or not, A.I. has moved into a big percent of Americans’ lives in one way or another already (Newport, Northeastern University, 2018).”

“Personal assistants” like Google Home or Amazon’s Alexa, as well as navigational apps, such as Google Maps, Waze and Apple Maps are used most widely among younger and more educated Americans. More than 90 percent of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree or between the ages of 18 and 35 used navigation apps, for example. Gallup’s report reflects only some of the findings of a large survey of nearly 3,300 Americans conducted in September an October of last year. The other findings, released in January, show that more than three in four Americans believe that A.I. will fundamentally change how the public lives and works in the coming decade.

About the same share expect A.I. to destroy more jobs than it creates, though only about one in four were worried about losing their own job?

Ray Myers

Googling and Spending in Washington, D.C.

Maybe a better title for this post would be: “Technology Companies are Now Biggest Spenders in Lobbying Congress.” It just all seems to make sense when you consider how wealthy all these companies have become, i.e., Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, etc. “These are companies that are touching so many parts of the economy . . . So it’s inevitable that they are going to engage in a host of political and policy issues (Washington Post, 1/24/18).”

Amazon, for example, spent nearly $13 million in lobbying last year, a 16 percent increase from 2016. The tech industry’s ballooning lobbying budgets may also be an indication that the companies will fight hard to protect the data they collect on Americans. Some experts now worry that the government will struggle to pass new and meaningful consumer protection laws. Others say that the increase in lobbying simply coincides with the tech sector’s rapid growth and larger role in society. Any way you look at it, the tech industry is now the biggest lobbying machine in Washington.

I just worry about whose lobbying for the technology consumers?

Ray Myers

P.S.

I will be taking a “winter break” next week. Back on Monday, February 5th

Chris Christie and Amazon – You’ve Got a Friend in New Jersey!

Poor Chris Christie, soon-to-be former Governor of New Jersey. He didn’t get to be Vice-President after Trump picked Pence, but you never know? There do still seem be a large number of vacancies in the Trump administration in Washington, and he will be looking for a new job after January 16th. But he still seems to be trying to build a political legacy for himself in the Garden State. How about if he gets Amazon to build its second headquarters in New Jersey. What’s not to like?

Here’s the latest on the Amazon legislation package under consideration by the NJ legislature. It would expand the tax credits available from the state Economic Development Authority to entice large companies to bring their corporate headquarters to New Jersey. To be eligible, a business would need to make a minimum $3 billion capital investment in its headquarters and create a minimum of 30,000 jobs that would create a net benefit for the state over 50 years. His administration has endorsed Newark as a headquarters location, but other New Jersey cities, including Camden, have submitted bids.

Newark is a “ferry boat” ride from Manhattan. There’s a building there called the Trump tower. How convenient this all would be. And the so-called President does like to play golf in northern New Jersey. Hmmmmm!

Ray Myers

Big Brother is Listening, So is Alexa, Echo, Siri, and Google Home!

This post is not meant to make you worry about all your digital assistants, but I guess the best advice is just to remind yourself that “somebody” or “something” else may be listening. But who really cares about all my mundane conversations in the privacy of my own home or someone else’s? Personally, I don’t have any state secrets to share, but it all does seem a little spooky to me. The again, why would you share you secrets with a talking machine?

Danny Hakim, in NY Times Sunday edition, put it this way: “At least I can take comfort that I’m not the only one who wonders about these things. In the past three years, the Better Business Bureau told me that it had received 9,876 complaints about Amazon.com. Seventy-nine were related to the Echo speaker, which features Alexa, and just a single one of these complaints mentioned privacy concerns.”

So why should I worry? Let’s face it, we may all be living in an era when our lives are an “open book,” or at least those parts we share with our digital assistants!

Ray Myers

P.S. Please have a look at mypeacecorpsstory.com, podcast #018, where I discuss my “technology-free” Peace Corps years in India

Facebook and Google and Amazon, Oh My!

Don’t worry, Dorothy, these tech giants aren’t as dangerous as those “Lions and Tigers and Bears” that you worried about in the land of Oz, or are they?  I guess I just get worried when I hear words like “lobbying Congress” on behalf of more transparency in government regulation – not that there is anything wrong with that.  But it seems that the people who are making the most financial benefit at this point are the lobbyists on K Street, D.C.  Now I know that those lobbyists are real “truth-seekers,” and maybe they do know all about “disinformation” campaigns, but how do you legislate for transparency on the Internet?  Do we currently make all advertisers on public and commercial media do that now?

“The lawmakers behind proposed ad transparency legislation said the bill is designed to prevent another Russian-backed disinformation campaign that ran on Web platforms during the 2016 elestion.  Facebook said that it will take its own steps to increase the transparency of political ads and that it generally supports legislative efforts to do the same.”  I think that this is all very interesting since Facebook seemed to be the favorite vehicle for Russian-backed disinformation in the 2016 campaign.  But why should I worry.   All these Congressional leasders are servants of the American people first!

This is what was recently reported by Hamza Shaban the Washington Post: “Lawmakers behind the proposed ad transparency legislation said the bill is designed to prevent another disinformation campaign.”  Good luck with that!

Ray Myers

Where in the World is Amazon’s HQ2 Going to Be?

Everyone seems very interested in this question.  As in most questions about real estate it all seems to come down to “location, location, location,” even when your business is basically online.  But in this case it is not the buyer (Amazon) who has to come up with the cold, hard cash.  It seems like other locations across the country are all in a bidding war to come up with the most attractive offer that will entice Amazon to choose their locale.  Even suburban Washington, D.C. wants Amazon to call northern Virginia their second home

The State of Virginia is weighing in to support their northern counties. The Washington Business Journal reported that the State was considering offering up to $30 million in property value to Amazon at no cost.  This property is currently occupied by the Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) near Washington’s Dulles Airport.  The CIT property is currently tax-exempt and assessed at a combined $29.45 million.  It includes the 173,000 square-foot CIT building, 13.5 acres of undeveloped land and is right on the edge of Amazon’s requirement of “30 miles from a population center.”  All of these transactions have apparently been done confidentially and not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.

So hurry up everybody if you have an interest in being Amazon’s HQ2.  I only read about northern Virginia’s interest this past weekend.  You have just ONE MORE DAY to submit your proposal for Amazon’s HQ2!

Ray Myers

Abuser of Twitter and of Women Too

So I may be digressing from my usual commentary here about how technology’s advances and empowerment have made the internet a powerful tool for free expression, but Trump has also managed to make it a tool of oppression.  For example, “Over the weekend, the president of the United States retweeted to his 38 million Twitter followers a video clip doctored to show him driving a golf ball off the tee and between the shoulder blades of Hillary Clinton – ‘Crooked Hillary’ in the tweet – knocking the former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee to the ground.  Eighty-four thousand people ‘liked’ this violent takedown of Trump’s former opponent.

A woman has been Speaker of the House (and proved substantially more effective than the two men who succeeded her), another came within a whisker of the presidency, and others (Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine) wield the decisive votes on health-care and other legislation.  But recent events make it feel as if we’re in an earlier time, when a woman’s job in politics was simple: sit down and shut up.  This no doubt is the work of a president who, by word and deed, make sexism safe again, giving license to shed ‘political correctness and blame troubles on minorities, immigrants and women (Milbank, Washington Post, 9/20/17).”

Unfortunately, it looks like there will not be a second chance for Hillary, but her recent book sale numbers may portend what the future may bring.  “What Happened” is now the No. 1 best-selling book in America.

Ray Myers


Summer Rerun: Tech and Trump Collide! (Originally posted on January 30, 2017)

Figuratively speaking that is. But this is all about how technology has expanded as an industry that has a global reach. Not only in terms of the powers of the Internet, but its effect on humanity around the world. Many different races and people from all corners of the globe can now benefit and contribute to its continuing growth and reach. Silicon Valley has brought some of the most talented tech “workers” from around the world into the U.S. We are talking about companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Amazon, Netflix and Microsoft. Trump’s proposed immigration ban could impair the ability of top U.S. companies to recruit and retain such talent in order to better compete globally.

In a company-wide email, Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, stated his opposition very clearly, particularly in terms of its impact on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries. “I’ve heard from many of you who are deeply concerned about the executive order issued yesterday restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. I share your concerns. It is not a policy we support.” In open letters and other public statements during the Presidential campaign, tech executives and workers also objected to Trump’s anti-Muslim statements, and some signed onto a commitment not to help design his proposed Muslim registry.

Well, it’s the start of another work week at the White House. Although it’s only the second one, it already seems like a long time from the inauguration. I’m still waiting for the part where we become “great again!”

Ray Myers

P.S.  TechtoExpress will be on “vacation” next week.  We will return on Monday, July 31.

Amazing Massive Amazon

What’s not to like about one-stop online shopping?  The only thing you might have to worry about is that in the future you will not have any shopping centers, strip malls or corner stores where “everybody knows your name.”  Gone will be the “social network” of shopping that involves interacting with real people in real time and space (bricks and mortar).  From some economists and business experts, there is a growing concern that Amazon’s tremendous growth and market dominance could increasingly stifle competition and erode jobs.  This is the real threat that Amazon poses as viewed by business researchers and analysts.

“To consumers whose seeming every wish can be fulfilled by the more than 400 million products available for sale on the site, its scope can seem enormous.  Amazon sells 52% of all books (print, electronic and audio) in the United States.  Forty-three percent of all online commerce goes through Amazon.  It’s got 45% of the cloud computing market, meaning it’s the single largest provider of infrastructure that runs thousands of popular websites.  It’s not in banking and insurance, though analysts say that wouldn’t be a stretch.”  Consumers enjoy low prices, while suppliers get squeezed.

And you always thought that people with their heads in the clouds were out of touch.  Seems like that might be a good place to be these days if you are in business.

Ray Myers

When Alexa Met Ikea, the Lights Turned On!

What would we do without Alexa?  She is so handy to have around the house, and doesn’t demand too much.  Just a little electricity to keep her “turned on.”  Now she can do even more.  She may not be the only little device that can do all these tricks using voice commands to control light switches, thermostats and other smart home appliances, but she seems to be the most popular.  And no new app is required in the case of turning the lights on and off, if you already have Alexa in your home.

Alexa and Ikea are now a couple and to work together all they really need are some voice-enabled light bulbs (you buy them).  It’s almost like having a live-in pair who can answer questions for you, play music, and now, turn the lights on and off.  The “marriage” of  Alexa and Ikea is also a marketing boon for the smart home business.  Amazon has said there have been “tens of millions of Alexa devices” sold, including various devices in Amazon’s Echo family of products and those from independent device makers as well.  Smart home usage of various devices is growing rapidly.

Smart homes for smart people?  It still might be fun to do these things ourselves.  Maybe we will start having device-free days just to reminisce about the way life used to be.

Ray Myers

Let Your Fingers Do the Walking – Shop/Search Online

Remember the Yellow Pages?  I know I am walking down memory lane a lot lately, but things are changing so quickly.  I often like to think about life before tech because it has certainly changed the way we do just about everything.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that!  What would we do now without Amazon or Google?  As long as you are near a computer screen in whatever form you prefer, you can probably survive living alone on an island provided there is connectivity and free home delivery.

Here is what one NY Times reporter noted recently: “When the kids were born, it (Amazon) become my household Costco – supplier of diapers and other baby gear.  Then it began a services designed to remove any decision-making from shopping:  My toilet paper, paper towels and other consumables now come to my house on schedule, no thinking required.  Then Amazon moves into media, and I was more hooked:  It had me for packaged goods, so why not movies and TV shows too?”  And now there is even more.  Amazon gave us Echo, the company’s talking computer which speaks through a persona known as Alexa, and which has now infected American families like a happy virus.

But if it’s not Amazon for you, it’ll be one of other tech giants:  Alphabet (Google), Apple, Facebook, or Microsoft.  It’s too late to escape.

Ray Myers


Corralling the Social Media Market

Do you ever think of social media as a business that has to be regulated in order to ensure fair competition in this marketing space.  In the period of ten years we have gone from a time when the American marketplace was dominated by  companies such as Exxon Mobil, General Electric, Microsoft, Citigroup and Bank of America to a new era of technology companies replacing them in the size of their market caps.  Microsoft remains in the middle of this group at #3, but is now joined by its largest tech competitors: Apple (1), Alphabet (2, Google parent company), Amazon (4), and Facebook (5).    We may eventually have to regulate these tech giants if they are determined to truly be monopolies that limit competition by smaller tech businesses in this space.

“We are going to have to decide fairly soon whether Google, Facebook and Amazon are the kinds of natural monopolies that need to be regulated, or whether we allow the status quo to continue, pretending that unfettered monoliths don’t inflict damage on our privacy and democracy.  It is impossible to deny that Facebook, Google and Amazon have stymied innovation on a broad scale. To begin with, the platforms of Google and Facebook are the point of access to all media for the majority of Americans.  While profits at Google, Facebook and Amazon have soared, revenues in media businesses like newspaper publishing or the music business have, since 2001, fallen by 70 percent.”   So most Americans can now “proudly” say that they only know what they see on their computer screens (of varying sizes).  Maybe this is really how all those fake news stories began?

Fewer newspaper readers, but more “screen” readers.  Let’s face it, our social media markets are like the Wild West of the Digital Age.  Maybe we do need a few Marshall Dillons to protect all of us law-abiding citizens (anyone remember Gunsmoke?).

Ray Myers


What’s App?  Nothing, in China and Russia!

Unfortunately, the censorship of apps on the Internet is a much easier tool for repressive governments to apply.   In countries such as China and Russia, it is like a return to the “good old days” when books were banned by totalitarian governments or local authorities and other self-appointed censors.  It seems like censoring apps can be done in a very effective and efficient way if any government so chooses.  Banning an app from an App Store is like shutting down the printing press before the book is ever published.  If the app isn’t in a country’s App Store, it effectively doesn’t exist.  The censorship is nearly total and inescapable.

In the last few weeks, the Chinese government compelled Apple to remove the New York Times apps from the Chinese version of the App Store.  Then the Russian government had Apple and Google pull the app for LinkedIn, the professional social network, after the networks declined to relocate its data on Russian citizens to servers in that country.  Finally, two weeks ago, a Chinese regulator asked App Stores operating in the country to register with the government, an apparent precursor to wider restrictions on app marketplaces.

Decentralized communications was once a central promise of the Internet.  Not any more.  Big brother may be watching, and blocking.

Ray Myers




Tech and Trump Collide!

Figuratively speaking that is.  But this all about how technology has expanded as an industry that has a global reach.  Not only in terms of the powers of the Internet, but its effect on humanity around the world.  Many different races and people from all corners of the globe can now benefit and contribute to its continuing growth and reach.  Silicon Valley has brought some of the most talented tech “workers” from around the world into the U.S.  We are talking about companies like Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Amazon, Netflix and Microsoft.  Trump’s proposed immigration ban could impair the ability of top U.S. companies to recruit and retain such talent in order to better compete globally.

In a company-wide email, Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, stated his opposition very clearly, particularly in terms of its impact on immigration from predominantly Muslim countries.  “I’ve heard from many of you who are deeply concerned about the executive order issued yesterday restricting immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries.  I share your concerns.  It is not a policy we support.”  In open letters and other public statements during the Presidential campaign, tech executives and workers also objected to Trump’s anti-Muslim statements, and some signed onto a commitment not to help design his proposed Muslim registry.

Well, it’s the start of another work week at the White House.  Although it’s only the second one, it already seems like a long time from the inauguration.  I’m still waiting for the part where we become “great again!”

Ray Myers


Droning On In the U.K.

If you like the sight of “delivery drones” hovering over your head wherever you may be, then maybe the United Kingdom is the place for you.  Not all Brits, however, are enthusiastic about this prospect.  As one unhappy British citizen expressed: “They are testing the drones over here because they can’t do it in America.  Whatever the Americans don’t want, I don’t want it either.”  Talk about your trans-Atlantic alliances.  Aversion to remotely controlled airborne technology may actually be strengthening international partnerships around the world.  Amazon is in the forefront in the U.K. and retailers in other countries are already testing how these drones may play a more strategic role in their delivery of products that they sell online.  

In Britain, Amazon is working with local authorities to test several aspects of drone technology like piloting the machines beyond the line of sight of operators, a practice still outlawed in the United States.   It seems that much of the drone opposition is rooted in concerns for the historical preservation of the countryside that played a large part in Britain’s past.  For example, the Friends of the Roman Road, a local organization that maintains centuries-old public footpaths near the Amazon drone testing site in Cambridgeshire, fear that the drones represent a threat to local wildlife and the wider countryside.  Drones flying overhead would certainly detract from appreciating the historical significance of the Roman Road and the role it played in ancient times. 

I guess we all know that times do change, but surely some things are worth preserving.  Droneless skies over sites of historical preservation are well worth our consideration.  Think of them as new types of “no-fly” zones.

Ray Myers



Click Away Thanks to W3C and Tim Berners-Lee

Well maybe Tim Berners-Lee really did invent the Internet after all.  Sorry Al Gore, but it looks like Mr. Beeners-Lee may become the most famous and richest early Internet pioneer.  At least you still have that Nobel Peace Prize for “An Inconvenient Truth.”  But enough about ancient history, let’s talk about 1-Click online shopping.  Berners-Lee and hundreds of millions online shoppers have successfully lobbied the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to streamline online payments.  A concept, I am sure, that we will all come to love.  Particularly if you enjoy staying home, and/or spend all or most of your day online wherever you are.

More than half of online purchases now happen on mobile phones, and many more would probably happen if the online checkout process was simplified.  Only forty percent of the customers who start filling a shopping cart online finish their transactions.  The W3C has managed to bring in about forty of the biggest players in online commerce.  PayPal and Amazon are two of the most notable holdouts.  Both have gained business and fees with more streamlined checkout processes.  Same old story: no one wants to wait in the checkout line whether online or in the store.

In this brave new world, your fingers will truly do the “walking,” as they used to say in the old Yellow Pages ads.  Only you will not have to “walk” very far.  Just 1-Click away.

Ray Myers

What’s in a Name?  Sweet Smell of Tech Success

“That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”  The sweet smell in this case refers to the emergence of tech companies as stock market leaders in the U.S.  At the close of trading on August 1, the four most valuable companies on the Standard and Poor’s 500-stock index (S.&P.) were tech companies: APPLE, GOOGLE, Microsoft and Amazon.  That meant that tech companies, by one common definition, occupied the four top spots in the market capitalization rankings, a rare and brief occurrence.

We can easily identified these companies as “tech companies” in the traditional sense, but the fact of the matter is that the most successful businesses or companies on the S.&P. today are using technology to fuel their continued growth and expansion.  These days every company is a tech company, but some have better niches, faster growth, more attractive offerings or more favorable share prices than others.  Tech has already taken over in nearly every business sector.

So what’s in a name?  Do we identify these stock market leaders as “information technology companies,” or do you prefer “consumer discretionary companies”?  Your choice.

Ray Myers

P.S.

And now for something completely different.  This past week a new book was published on Amazon as well as other online book publishing formats.  I authored one of the essays in this book: “Changed During the Sixties.”  The book’s title is “Turning Points: Discovering Meaning and Passion in Turbulent Times.”  I hope you will enjoy reading these essays about personal and professional transitions made during this time.

P.P.S.

During the remainder of August, I will only be posting commentary on Mondays.  I will be “resting” on Labor Day, but will resume my posts on a regular M-W-F basis on September 12.


China Syndrome – No Google, etc. for You!

Google is really just one of over a hundred websites blocked in mainland China.  How do I know this, besides reading about it in the New York Times?  As I mentioned in previous posts, I landed in Guangzhou, China, in flying to and from Hanoi over the past two months.  I politely told one of the hostesses in the airport travelers’ lounge that I was unable to connect to Google, and received a very terse reply, “No Google.”  Once over the border into Vietnam, I again became part of the Internet world, or at least to that part of the connected world where I spend a lot of my time.  

I only revisited this topic in reading the Times’ article this week about China’s Internet Czar, Lu Wei, “stepping down” from his post.  He had visited the U.S. this year and met with some of Silicon Valley’s giants such as Tim Cook, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg (I think he even wore a tie for the occasion).  The Times article describes this leadership change as “a surprise move, but unlikely to signal a change in restrictive digital policies.”  As for Mr. Wei, please don’t worry too much.  China experts predict that he will likely end up getting a promotion in another area of the bureaucracy.  It’s not uncommon for these important positions to be moved around frequently.  Not exactly like the “up or out” policies in many other workplaces around the world.

What will happen next in terms of China’s digital policies is really anyone’s guess.  Now if you had access to Google, you could probably just type in “social media in China.”  I just did and got “very local and fragmented.”  I guess that’s it, for now?

Ray Myers