TikTok, Clearview, Private Investigators, Racial Bias, and Amazon Drivers

Your round up of surveillance news for the week of March 22, 2021

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Hey everybody. Thanks to everyone who took the survey. It looks like we in unanimous agreement that weekly releases are better. Seriously, all of you said you’d prefer weekly releases. Glad we’re all on the same page.

I’m inspired by a newsletter called The Browser and just going to be choosing the best 5 or 6 articles every week to summarize and explain their importance. The header to each link will be the article’s actual headline unless otherwise stated. So, every Monday, yes that’s the day, that’s what you can expect to read. Let me know what you think of this format by replying to the email or leaving a comment!

Remember, if you’d like, you can navigate to each link by browsing to “” followed by the link’s corresponding number. For example, surveil-link #102 can be found at I originally did this to stop Substack from tracking your clicks in your own inbox. But my new hosting provider, Ghost, doesn’t do that, so go ahead and click away knowing that Ghost, or I, aren’t trackng any of the links you click in this post. I leave the link shortening in place mostly for the podcast listeners.

So, without further ado, here are this week’s surveil-links: making sense of surveillance news so you don’t have to.

#114: TikTok wants to keep tracking iPhone users with state-backed workaround

March 16, 2021 | Ars Technica and the Financial Times by Patrick McGee and Yuan Yang | ~ 703 words

In surveil-links #10, #20, and #53, I wrote about the privacy wars between Apple and Facebook sparked by the Apple’s new prompts asking a user if they’d like to allow apps to track them. It is expected to be rolled out in the comming week and deal potentially a multi-billion dollar hole in the online advertising industry. While Facebook has responded with ads, it appears that TikTok and other apps developed in China have responded with a work around.

The government-backed China Advertising Association has developed a new system to track users on the iPhone and have been testing it as of late. According to the Financial Times, two insiders claim that Apple is aware of the new tool but is choosing to ignore it. Apparently when so much of your supply chain depends on China, the human right to privacy is a small sacrifice to maintain your market dominance.

To be fair, it may be too early to tell. Perhaps Apple will surprise us, but I doubt it. This summer the CEOs of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google in a congressional antitrust hearing were asked by U.S. Representative Greg Steube of Florida if they believe “that the Chinese government steals technology from U.S. companies?” Almost all of them, including Apple’s Tim Cook, either dodged the question or said they don’t believe so. Mark Zuckerburg of Facebook was the only one to correctly recognize that it is “well documented that the Chinese government steals technology from American companies.” It is of note that Facebook is the only one of those companies who does not have significant business dealings in China, with Google making strides in severing ties after several failed attempts to be successful there.

#115: Your Face Is Not Your Own

March 18, 2021 | The New York Times Magazine by Kashmir Hill | ~ 7,761 words

In this cover story, reporter Kashmir Hill details her experiences reporting on the New York-based facial recognition start-up Clearview AI over the past year. She opens with a story of how the app helped catch a child molester who is now serving a 35 year sentence. But she promptly acknowledges the controversial way in which the algorithms are trained that has led to a plethora of lawsuit against and public investigations into the company, one of which has put free speech advocates against each other. The piece recognizes an uneasy truth, that we’ve never really had to think about the implications of having our face, “as unique as a fingerprint or a Social Security number” as easily searchable as Clearview has made it.

After Hill published her first story on Clearview AI seemingly a lifetime ago in January 2020, the no-name stealth start-up quickly became a household name for privacy advocates, tech journalists, and law enforcement alike. She had revealed that they had scraped the entire internet for every public image and saved every one containing a face, over three billion in total, to train their facial recognition algorightm. Since then, we’ve learned so much about the company, its ties to the alt-right, its founder Hoan Ton-That, and more. It has been sued 11 times in the state of Illinois alone, called illegal by Canada’s privacy commissioner, and faced mounds of public backlash, all while growing its customer base from just 600 law enforcement agencies to over 3,000 and securing $17 million in funding. Clearview is now valued at $109 million. This piece provides an extremely valuable point of view of everything we know about the company from the reporter who originally brought it into the public purview. Not to mention, the fact the piece ends by pointing out the irony that Clearview effectively got its start at the 2016 Republican National Convention and was later used to identify pro-Trump insurrectionists from the January 6 Capitol-raid, is simply fantastic journalism.

#116: Tabloid Hired Gun Tells of Shady Hunt for Meghan Markle Scoops

March 18, 2021 | The New York Times by Sarah Lyall and Mark Landler | ~ 1,728 words

The New York Times interviewed California ex-private investigator Daniel Portley-Hanks who claims he supplied the British tabloid, The Sun, with private information about Meghan Markle, the American actress most recently known for her marriage to Britian’s Prince Harry. The data included addresses, phone numbers, and even social security numbers of Markle, her parents, and her siblings. According to the Times, while private investigators in the U.S. can provide such information for use in criminal or civil cases, it is illegal to provide such information to the media. The Sun used the information to write a slew of insensitive stories about Markle and her family that started the press nightmare the family is still dealing with. Portley-Hanks has lost his license and served jail time, though not for this offense. He also provided such sensitive information on others to an illegal gambling organization.

At first glance, you may be asking what this story has to do with surveillance. The answer is everything. This story highlights the ease with which rogue private investigators or law enforcement can use the information at their disposal to essentially stalk or ruin lives. Many people such as activists, politicians, and celebrities – such as Meghan Markle – go through great lengths to hide this information from the public, yet all those efforts can be all for not solely on a whim of a financially or emotionally motivated person. This is extremely similar to the case highlighted last week against Thomson Reuters and their CLEAR database. Despite the fact that Portley-Hanks has lost his license, this and the Thomson Reuters suit highlight the need for additional regulation in this area.

#117: York NAACP mulling public forum, polling about city surveillance proposal

March 18, 2021 | York Dispatch by Logan Hullinger | ~ 704 words

The NAACP in York, Pennsylvania is yet to take an official stance on the police-proposed, city-wide surveillance network, but that may soon change. The organization’s executives have been discussing the matter privately and would like to poll their members in a public forum before coming out for or against the idea. Alex Domingos from the ACLU Pennsylvania says he’s worried it would disproportionately affect the city’s community of color.

The proposal, highlighted in surveil-link #95, is to deploy cameras throughout the city and have an independent group of citizens monitor them, not the police, as neighboring Lancaster City has done. According to Michael Muldrow, York’s Police Commissioner and perhaps the program’s largest advocate, 93% of the city’s shooting happen in public places.

This story is a perfect example of what is going on in so many cities, not only in the U.S. but across the world. Police and politicians usually get very excited over the idea of better surveillance tools but most citizens, especially those of color, are left unsure. The ACLU Pennsylvania is right to worry about the affects it will have on non-white individuals. It has been proved time and time again that police surveillance and policing as an institution has deep-seeded racial biases. I would like to know how many of the 93% of the shootings cited by the police happen at night, which makes the surveillance video much less useful. Perhaps the public places in which they happen are well lit. I’ve never been to York personally.

#118: For this Amazon van driver, AI surveillance was the final straw

March 19, 2021 | Thomson Reuters Foundation News by Avi Asher-Schapiro | ~ 1,084 words

Denver-based Amazon delivery driver Vic has quit his job due to privacy concerns with the cameras required in all Amazon delivery vehicles starting this week. I highlighted these cameras and their capabilities in surveil-link #15. Vic reports that Amazon’s surveillance of their drivers has been increasing almost constantly since he started as a driver in 2019. At first he had to install “Mentor,” an app that provides each driver with a performance score at the end of the day based on phone movements and location. Then he had to take selfies at the beginning of each shift and post them to another app monitored by his employer. The first time he drove a van with one of the new cameras and saw the footage it was capturing of him, that was the last straw, especially when he saw the release forms give Amazon the right to share data collected by the cameras to third-parties. Vic called the situation “insulting” and “a breach of trust.”

Remember, these are on top of the stories I already covered when I was putting out daily content last week. If you missed those, go and check them out too:

More from egd

This is kind of an “FYI” section where I’ll keep you updated on writing I may have outside of Surveillance Today. For example, I’ve been working with a coalition of other activists to get some surveillance legislation passed in San Jose, California and wrote this op-ed, surveil-link #119. It’s called “True police reform requires regulating surveillance tech, San Jose” and was published in San Jose Spotlight.

Cheers! egd

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