Will Cryptocurrency Ever Enter the Mainstream for Businesses?

At this time in 2018, the very idea of bitcoin becoming an accepted currency among major corporations would have been unlikely. Now, the idea still attracts some raised eyebrows — but it isn’t as immediately dismissed.

Cryptocurrency had its first spotlight moment in 2018. It was the modern era’s equivalent of the gold rush; all around the country, adventurous bitcoin dabblers found themselves raking in thousands — sometimes tens of thousands — of dollars after investing comparatively paltry sums.

“Bitcoin and, subsequently, a proliferation of other cryptocurrencies had become an object of global fascination, amid prophecies of societal upheaval and reform, but mainly on the promise of instant wealth,” journalist Nick Paumgarten wrote of the time for The New Yorker. “A peer-to-peer money system that cut out banks and governments had made it possible, and fashionable, to get rich by sticking it to the Man.”

But that promise of high returns soon began to buckle. In January of 2018, the total market capitalization of cryptocurrencies had peaked at $800 billion, skyrocketing up from the mere $18 billion reported the year before. It didn’t take long for the market to plunge; by the end of the year, the market had lost three-quarters of its value and stood at a mere $200 billion.

The cryptocurrency bubble had popped. But unlike other markets, it seemed as though the sheer intensity of the crash would bring the boom-and-bust cycle to a grinding (and permanent) halt. Headlines shared stories of would-be investors who invested their life savings, insurance payouts, and loans in the new market only to see the lion’s share of their hard-earned and borrowed money trickle away.

“What the average Joe hears is how friends lost fortunes,” Alex Kruger, a former banker and current cryptocurrency trader, told reporters for the New York Times. “Irrational exuberance leads to financial overhang and slows progress.”

The response from corporate interests was, at the time, similarly cold. One writer for the Financial Times noted that even well-regarded cryptocurrency enthusiasts were “met with a cold shoulder by US regulators” when they attempted to open exchange-traded funds for Bitcoin and encourage wider adoption.

But in recent months, hints of another crypto boom have begun to circulate. Recent reporting from Forbes’ Ron Shevlin indicates that trading of Bitcoin, Ethereum and other major cryptocurrencies increased sharply at the open of 2020, peaked in February, and remained at high levels through the first half of 2020. Roughly 15 percent of American adults now own cryptocurrency — and notably, half of them invested in the sector for the first time this year.

Corporate America, for its part, hasn’t paid the recovering cryptocurrency market much attention. But, as of October, two major financial firms have diverged from their peers to invest in the opportunity they believe the sector offers. Their names: PayPal and Square.

Early in the month, Square announced that it had purchased a total of 4,709 bitcoins at the cost of roughly $50 million, or one percent of the company’s total assets.

“We believe that bitcoin has the potential to be a more ubiquitous currency in the future,” Square’s Chief Financial Officer, Amrita Ahuja, shared in a press release. “As it grows in adoption, we intend to learn and participate in a disciplined way. For a company that is building products based on a more inclusive future, this investment is a step on that journey.”

PayPal took another route in upholding cryptocurrency. Rather than purchase bitcoin, it launched a cryptocurrency service that will allow customers to buy, hold, and sell digital currency on its site and associated applications. PayPal’s President and CEO, Dan Schulman, explained the company’s decision to create its crypto platform was based on the idea that the “efficiency, speed and resilience of cryptocurrencies” could “give people financial inclusion and access advantages.” Moreover, he said, the eventual shift to such digital currencies was “inevitable.”

But what would this “inevitable” future mean for businesses? If you were to ask Gavin Brown, the co-founder and director at the venture capital firm Blockchain Capital Limited, the answer would be a fundamental change in trade currency.

“In an era where companies such as McDonald’s have a higher credit rating than countries such as Ireland, the notion that multinational firms may issue their own currencies and request that their customers purchase with them is not that outlandish,” CNBC journalist Eustance Heung paraphrased of Brown’s perspective in a 2019 article. “What we’re probably likely to see is … almost like [corporate] groups or alliances coming round around mainstream currencies.”

There are certainly a few benefits to using cryptocurrency in business. Bitcoin and other similar currencies facilitate secure, speedy transactions that offer chargeback protection — because cryptocurrency doesn’t support debt or loans, companies can be sure that payments conveyed via bitcoin aren’t fraudulent or reversible. Bitcoin’s decentralized nature also allows businesses to reach international buyers who may not have previously been able to access their goods or services.

Cryptocurrency offers increased accessibility; however, it isn’t without its detractions.

At present, cryptocurrencies are not stable, insured, or regulated. This lack of clear support from federal bodies makes for tremendous market volatility and puts investors at a high risk of losing their — or their clients’ — fortunes. Most businesses will not want to roll the dice on a currency they can’t rely on.

So, will bitcoin see another, more long-lived, heyday in corporate America? The answer is unclear.

While there might be another cryptocurrency boom on the horizon, it will be a while before bitcoin and its competing currencies come into regular corporate trade. The degree of usage will most likely depend on what we see in the cryptocurrency market over the next few months to a year. Will we see another dramatic boom-bust cycle? Will investors flock to or flee cryptocurrency? Will matters stabilize or devolve once more into wild speculation?

If the market stabilizes and provides more consistent (if less lucrative) returns, we can expect businesses to enter into a period of cautious experimentation. PayPal and Square’s investments have lent bitcoin some credibility. Still, it remains to be seen whether — now that they have been giving tacit industry “permission” — other corporate interests will begin making investments in bitcoin and/or using it in trade.

If cryptocurrency does take off in the corporate sector, it seems likely that federal authorities will begin regulating the market. If we were to reach this point, we would be in a world where cryptocurrency has established an (albeit preliminary) place for itself as a credible form of business currency.

However, even this scenario requires a lot of if’s. It would appear best for companies and institutional investors to approach cryptocurrency conservatively and see how the above hypothetical plays out. Bitcoin may eventually lose its novelty status in big business — but there’s no sense in major corporate players charging forward while its stability remains unclear.

This article was originally published on Medium

By |2021-03-31T23:28:50+00:00January 29th, 2021|Business, Current Events, Technology|

Autonomous Cars: A Smart Cities Answer to COVID-Proof Transit?

Of all the circumstances that we might have imagined kickstarting America’s smart city aspirations, a pandemic surely wasn’t on our list. And yet, our anxieties over disease transmission might just be the fuel that propels us towards a future in which autonomous cars become the urban norm.

A huge setback for public transit

For the last several months, the COVID-19 pandemic has compelled us to change our perspectives to suit a newly disease-aware world. We’ve adapted our day-to-day routine to suit social distancing recommendations and become leery of crowded, high-traffic areas. Our faith in public transit, in particular, has been shaken so profoundly that it very nearly demands an innovative fix. Time magazine recently described COVID-19’s impact on public transit as “apocalyptic.”

“[Buses] that once carried anywhere from about 50 to 100 passengers have been limited to between 12 and 18 to prevent overcrowding in response to coronavirus […] Seattle transit riders have described budgeting as much as an extra hour per trip to account for the reduced capacity, eating into their time at work, school or with family,” Time’s Alejandro de la Garza wrote in July.

Sometimes, riders’ anxieties compel them to leave the bus before their stop; one woman who de la Garza interviewed described exiting several stops early with her seven-year-old son after the driver allowed a crowd of people to board at once.

“It’s very trying,” the source, Brittany Williams, shared. “I’ll put it in those terms.”

How can we keep public transit viable?

The obvious answer to the overcrowding and slow-transit problems would be to add more buses — but such a move doesn’t seem economically feasible with the current decline in public transit use. In July, the Transit App reported a 58 percent year-over-year reduction in travelers within Williams’ home city of Seattle.

Numbers are a little worse in Washington D.C., with a 66 percent decline in Metrobus use and a 90 percent drop in Metrorail traffic. The losses experienced in New York City are among the worst, with the Transit App noting a 95 percent loss in the spring and a still-alarming reduction rate of 84 percent in late summer.

Pandemic fears have limited traveling, which in turn has limited fares to a trickle and all but eliminated cities’ abilities to add to their public transit fleets. According to a recent McKinsey report, 52 percent of American respondents travel less than they did before COVID-19. Many who do travel opt for a private vehicle over bus or train trips. A full third of surveyed consumers say that they “value constant access to a private vehicle more than before COVID-19.”

To risk stating the obvious: not everyone can buy or store a public car, nor should they even if they could. The environmental impact of replacing public transit with individual vehicles would be environmentally disastrous and dramatically exacerbate existing traffic and parking problems. Moreover, reports indicate that purchasing intent has dropped with the economic downturn; people don’t want to buy new cars when their incomes are uncertain.

An opening for autonomous cars

But I would argue that city-dwellers don’t necessarily need private cars — they just need a mode of transport that offers the isolated, sterilized feel of personal vehicles with the cost-efficiency and dependability that characterizes good public transit. Ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft have set the groundwork for this, but aren’t a perfect fit. They’re expensive, focused on one person at a time, and naturally pose a virus-spread risk to passengers and drivers alike. But what if there were no drivers, only a limited number of masked and isolated passengers traveling pre-defined, regular routes?

Years ago, architect Peter Calthorpe painted a vision of California cities with autonomous cars that was very nearly this, writing: “Down the center of El Camino, on dedicated, tree-lined lanes, [would be] autonomous shuttle vans. They’d arrive every few minutes, pass each other at will, and rarely stop, because an app would group passengers by destination.”

There’s a window of opportunity to reshape consumer perception of autonomous cars within a public-transit perception. Instead of anxiously fleeing buses inundated with close-seated crowds, mothers like Brittany Williams could order an autonomous ride and sit, as per a COVID-optimized version of Calthorpe’s vision, either alone or with one or two distanced others. Between routes, these cars could be sanitized and sent off to support new passengers. Such an approach would establish self-driving vehicles not as a one-person luxury, but a new and COVID-thoughtful form of public transportation.

The sustainability and convenience benefits of adding a self-driving shuttle service to public transit are countless. These include lessening the need for private cars, mitigating traffic deadlock, and improving passenger convenience. Autonomous shuttles could shoulder at least some of the burden carried by other public transit services and lessen the need for additional (if half-filled) buses and trains.

While it is true that Uber and Lyft have been talking about developing autonomous cars and next-gen taxi services for years to no avail, we are now closer than ever before to achieving viable autonomous driving technology. Earlier this year, the GM-backed driverless car startup Cruise received a permit from the California DMV that would allow the company to test driverless cars without safety drivers, albeit only on specific roads.

This represents a significant step forward in the deployment of autonomous cars and, if successful, could lead to the first fully-autonomous vehicles. It is worth noting that despite delays, Cruise hopes to launch a self-driving taxi service soon; its fourth-generation autonomous cars features automatic doors, rear-seat airbags, and, notably, no steering wheel.

If Cruise can manage to accomplish this, it stands to reason that autonomous shuttles are not all that far away. If anything, cities might have more opportunities to partner with self-driving startups and incorporate autonomous shuttles into municipal transit. Given that pandemic-prompted anxieties will likely persist until (if not well beyond) the emergence of a mass-produced vaccine, it seems likely that the window of opportunity for piquing consumer interest in socially-distanced autonomous transit could extend out over years.

Of course, there are few clear speed bumps in the way.

For one, there is still a pervasive stigma around the perceived safety of autonomous cars. Uber memorably halted its experiments in 2018, when one of its experimental vehicles struck and killed pedestrian Elaine Herzberg in Tempe, Arizona.

At the time, there were rumors that the company planned to divest itself of its self-driving interests entirely; however, the company has begun to restart its efforts on a significantly smaller scale in recent months. Cruise — and any other autonomous car startup that takes on the challenge — will need to assure the public of its products’ safety before it can achieve widespread acceptance.

Another major issue will be cost.

With public transit in such dire straits, obtaining the funds for a partnership between self-driving car startups and municipal transit may prove difficult in the short term unless the local government is convinced of the public’s need for autonomous shuttles and the revenue that such an approach could attract as a result of said need. Proponents will need to launch a media campaign to raise public awareness and bolster backing for adding autonomous shuttles to municipal transit.

If we can get beyond some of these initial hurdles, we can kickstart a smart, sustainable and COVID-aware urban transit system. As with the early days of online shopping, consumer perceptions of autonomous driving will quickly shift from it being a laughable luxury to a must-have public service, especially under pandemic conditions.

Originally published on TriplePundit.com

By |2020-11-13T21:30:40+00:00November 13th, 2020|Current Events, Technology, Urban Planning|

Amazon Proves That a Competitive Culture Beats an Anti-Competitive Policy, Every Time

Once more, titans of industry have fallen under censure for perceived monopolization and the abuse of their considerable power. But this time, their names aren’t Carnegie, Rockefeller, or Vanderbilt, but Bezos, Zuckerberg, Pichai, and Cook.

In recent weeks, all four have faced hard questions about perceived corporate misbehavior. The concerns directed towards each corporate icon may differ according to the specifics of their company’s actions, but all ask the same essential question: Can massive tech companies keep themselves from intimidating or using the small businesses that increasingly rely on their platforms to survive?

In late July, the House Judiciary Committee convened a hearing to address the matter. The event marked the culmination of an extensive antitrust investigation that encompassed over a million corporate documents and hundreds of hours of personnel interviews. One reporter for the Verge characterized the hearing as “one of the biggest tech oversight moments in recent years.” Representative David Cicilline, the Commercial and Administrative Law Subcommittee Chair, made the subcommittee’s belief in the importance of the hearing clear at its outset.

“Because these companies are so central to our modern life, their business practices and decisions have an outsized effect on our economy and our democracy,” Cicilline said. “Any single action by any one of these companies can affect hundreds of millions of us in profound and lasting ways.”

Cicilline further argued that each of the four tech companies under investigation — Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple — comprised a crucial channel for distribution, such as an app store or ad venue, and uses monopolizing methods to purchase or otherwise block potential competitors. He also noted that the companies all either show preference to their branded products or create pricing schemes that undermine third-party brands’ abilities to compete.

As you might have already guessed, each case has a wealth of associated information and considerations. Recapping them, let alone providing commentary, would be challenging at best. So, instead, I want to consider the question of whether or not a business can be both a market ecosystem and fair competitor through the context of one business: Amazon.

Amazon fell under fire earlier this year, when the Wall Street Journal released a stunning report that the e-retailer had used data from its third-party sellers — data that was believed to be proprietary — to inform the development and sale of competing, private-label products.

This revelation sent shockwaves through the business community, despite the fact that it wasn’t entirely unanticipated; according to reporting from the Verge, the European Union’s main antitrust body claimed that it was “investigating whether Amazon is abusing its dual role as a seller of its own products and a marketplace operator and whether the company is gaining a competitive advantage from data it gathers on third-party sellers” in 2019.

Amazon has pushed back on these concerns, claiming that it has policies that forbid private-label personnel from obtaining specific seller data. However, the Wall Street Journal’s interviews of former and current employees found that the rule was inconsistently enforced and overlooked so often that the use of third-party, proprietary data was openly discussed in product development meetings.

“We knew we shouldn’t,” one former employee said while recounting a pattern of using seller data to launch and bolster Amazon products. “But at the same time, we are making Amazon branded products, and we want them to sell.”

And therein lies the core of the problem. Amazon is a company that maintains a laser focus on success — even to the point that its employees are willing to circumvent policy for its sake. But we can’t blame the employees, not entirely. The tech industry has long been known for its move-fast-and-break-things attitude, and Amazon more than most; the e-retailer’s obsession with achievement is near-legendary.

In 2015, New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld published an exposé that painted Amazon’s culture as one specifically designed for intense, high-output, and unforgiving efficiency.

“Every aspect of the Amazon system amplifies the others to motivate and discipline the company’s marketers, engineers and finance specialists: the leadership principles; rigorous, continuing feedback on performance; and the competition among peers who fear missing a potential problem or improvement and race to answer an email before anyone else,” Kantor and Streitfeld described.

“The culture stoked their willingness to erode work-life boundaries, castigate themselves for shortcomings (being ‘vocally self-critical’ is included in the description of the leadership principles) and try to impress a company that can often feel like an insatiable taskmaster.”

The article even noted that Amazon holds yearly firing sessions (dubbed “cullings” in the exposé) to shed those who don’t perform up to its notoriously high standards. Illness, parenthood, and even family loss — none were considered excuses for lapses in performance.

Given the stressful environment and achievement-at-all-costs mentality, is it any surprise that employees would sneak around a barely-enforced policy to obtain data that will help their projects succeed? I would say no.

In a culture that positions cutthroat competitiveness as a professional survival mechanism, an anticompetitive policy is little more than flimsy caution tape: readily seen, easily circumvented, and meant more to provide plausible deniability than to prevent anyone from breaking the rules.

And, of course, we have to acknowledge the point that a company that periodically culls its staff for the sake of efficiency wouldn’t mind pushing blame onto a worker who happens to get caught. Bezos already did so in his hearing. He testified, “What I can tell you is we have a policy against using seller-specific data to aid our private label business but I can’t guarantee that policy has never been violated.”

Another hearing exchange between Cicilline and Bezos is particularly telling.

Cicilline asks, “Isn’t it an inherent conflict of interest for Amazon to produce and sell products that compete directly with third party sellers, particularly when you, Amazon, set the rules of the game?”

Bezos responds: “The consumer is the one making the decisions.”

But how is that an appropriate response, when the data Amazon collects allows the e-retailer an unfair advantage to design and market products designed to outstrip the competition? It remains to be seen whether legislators will ultimately choose to spin off Amazon marketplace from its Basics line, but Amazon has proven beyond a doubt that it is naive to believe that a company that was built with a crush-the-competition mentality should be trusted with safeguarding smaller, vulnerable competitors’ proprietary data.

Company culture beats policy, every time.

Originally published on Medium

By |2020-10-20T05:31:01+00:00October 19th, 2020|Business, Culture, Current Events|

For Investors, Property Tech Goes Far Beyond a Smart Home

At first listen, the term “property tech” seems to fit comfortably within the context of ultra-luxurious modernism. We picture something at home within sleek glass-and-metal walls and minimalist design. We imagine an -powered abode where the temperature, light, and -connected outlets can be adjusted with a few smartphone taps or an offhand remark, and a security app allows you to video chat doorstep visitors from halfway around the world.

These products align with the average consumer’s idea of residential technology. But for those in the commercial real estate sector, “property tech” has an entirely different definition — one far removed from the realm of modernist homeowners and IoT-enthusiasts. In fact, far from being an unnecessary luxury, property tech stands a good chance of revolutionizing commercial real estate at every point, from development to sales to property management.

Prop Tech: A Promising New Frontier for Commercial Real Estate

As defined by Tech Target,  refers to the “use of information technology (IT) to help individuals and companies research, buy, sell, and manage real estate.” Innovative PropTech solutions are usually designed to facilitate greater efficiency and connectivity in the real estate market, allowing consumers and vendors at all levels to achieve their goals quickly and at high quality. While PropTech capabilities vary widely across products, they tend to fall into three broad categories: smart home, real estate sharing, and .

The first category encompasses the majority of the IoT-powered home devices mentioned at the top of this piece — the smart thermostats, remotely-controlled home systems, and digital security solutions. Real estate sharing refers to online platforms like Airbnb, Redfin, and Zillow, which facilitate the advertisement and sale of real-world properties. The last term is all but self-explanatory; “fintech” references any tool that assists in real estate financial management or transactions.

The potential that PropTech holds to reform the commercial real estate sector is off the charts — and investors know it. According to a recent , global investment in real estate technology netted an incredible $12.6 billion across 347 deals in 2017 alone, $6.5 billion of which funneled directly to U.S.-based companies. Re:Tech researchers further noted that investment trends indicated a great deal of early interest in untested PropTech solutions, with early-stage companies receiving “the lion’s share” of funding dollars.

Early Successes Illustrate High Potential

This flurry of investor interest isn’t without basis. The PropTech sector has seen runaway growth and concrete success in recent years; aside from the evident popularity of digital-forward platforms like Airbnb and Zillow in the rental and buying markets, adoption of smart home technology has reached a fever pitch. Deloitte reports that sensor deployment in real estate is projected to grow at a  and will likely top 1.3 billion in 2020.

Some companies have even incorporated cutting-edge PropTech innovations into their business model to remarkable success. Take the Texas-based real estate investment firm Amherst Holdings as an example. Last year, Forbes profiled  and data modeling during the asset identification process, noting how Amherst used AI not only to discover investment properties, but also to make dozens of offers per day on potentially lucrative homes. The strategy has paid off; today, the investment firm is thriving, and its portfolio encompasses an incredible 16,000 homes across the American Sunbelt region.

New York: A New Sandbox for PropTech Creativity?

Now, however, companies may not need to foray into PropTech testing without support. Last November, New York announced that it would launch a pilot program that would allow PropTech startups to trial their products via NYC’s portfolio of public properties.  in a press release, “The New York City Economic Development Corporation will launch a pilot program that allows companies to implement proof-of-concept property technology products in the city’s 326.1 million square feet of owned and managed real estate.”

“We want to make our buildings available to incentivize the kinds of innovations that you are all out there working on day in and day out,” Vicki Been, the deputy mayor for housing and development, commented. “We want our buildings and our tenants to be helpful to you, and provide a way to test some of the ideas that you are developing so that we can get those ideas out to the market and into buildings even faster.”

In this way, the city is offering itself up as an innovation sandbox, a place where real estate innovators can test and troubleshoot their digital tools to the betterment of all — and especially New Yorkers.

With this philosophy of openness and curiosity comes an opportunity for New York-based real estate players to not only test innovative approaches but put them together into a unified strategy. We’ve all seen companies find significant success by leveraging one variety of PropTech solution. Airbnb thrives in facilitating short-term real estate transactions, Google and Amazon have cornered the smart home market, and Amherst Holdings has established a winning, AI-powered strategy for finding and acquiring assets. Individually, all of these tactics show impressive results — but what could we achieve if we managed to link them together?

The Tools of Today Could Create the RE Strategy of Tomorrow

In theory, the disparate PropTech solutions we see now could be stitched into a seamless strategy. The strategy might progress as follows — real estate operators could use  and  to identify lucrative neighborhoods and home in on investment properties, then apply -powered  to purchase those buildings. Next, they might retrofit their assets to have utility sensors that can ensure optimal utility use and management. These IoT-equipped devices could also better automate the care of a building by notifying owners when a system requires maintenance and providing real-time insights on how tenants .

When linked, these PropTech solutions can , allowing property firms an opportunity to gain better insights into how they can best use, maintain, and improve their asset properties.

The implications for commercial real estate improvement are huge — and, to be clear, this is all available technology. Real estate operators could incorporate PropTech into their strategic workflow today if they wanted. Will that change require some upfront investment and effort? Absolutely — but, as New York’s decision to offer itself as a testing sandbox demonstrates, there is no better time for real estate operators to get ahead of the curve and start crafting unified strategies than right now.

Originally published on 

By |2020-11-20T21:34:55+00:00July 20th, 2020|Business, Current Events, Technology|

Could COVID-19 Kickstart Surveillance Culture?

Several months ago, saying that the “cure” that facial recognition offers is worse than the ills it solves would have seemed hyperbolic. But now, the metaphor has become all too literal — and the medicine it promises isn’t quite so easy to reject when sickness is sweeping the globe.

Even as it depresses economies across the world, the coronavirus pandemic has sparked a new period of growth and development for facial recognition technology. Creators pitch their tools as a means to identify sick individuals without risking close-contact investigation.

In China, the biometrics company Telpo has launched non-contact body temperature measurement terminals that — they claim — can identify users even if they wear a face mask. Telpo is near-evangelical about how useful its technology could be during the coronavirus crisis, writing that “this technology can not only reduce the risk of cross infection but also improve traffic efficiency by more than 10 times […] It is suitable for government, customs, airports, railway stations, enterprises, schools, communities, and other crowded public places.”

COVID-19: A Push Towards Dystopia?

At a surface glance, Telpo’s offerings seem…good. Of course we want to limit the spread of infection across public spaces; of course we want to protect our health workers by using contactless diagnostic tools. Wouldn’t we be remiss if we didn’t at least consider the opportunity?

And this is the heart of the problem. The marketing pitch is tempting in these anxious, fearful times. But in practice, using facial recognition to track the coronavirus can be downright terrifying. Take Russia as an example — according to reports from BBC, city officials in Moscow have begun leveraging the city’s massive network of cameras to keep track of residents during the pandemic lockdown.

In desperate times like these, the knee-jerk suspicion that we typically hold towards invasive technology wavers. We think that maybe, just this once, it might be okay to accept facial recognition surveillance — provided, of course, that we can slam the door on it when the world returns to normal. But can we? Once we open Pandora’s box, can we force it shut again?

In March, the New York Times reported that the White House had opened talks with major tech companies, including Facebook and Google, to assess whether using aggregated location data sourced from our mobile phones would facilitate better containment of the virus. Several lawmakers immediately pushed back on the idea; however, the discussion does force us to wonder — would we turn to more desperate measures, like facial surveillance? How much privacy would we sacrifice in exchange for better perceived control over the pandemic?

Understanding America’s Surveillance Culture Risk

I’ve been thinking about this idea ever since January, when an expose published by the New York Times revealed that a startup called Clearview AI had quietly developed a facial recognition app capable of matching unknown subjects to their online images and profiles — and promptly peddled it to over 600 law enforcement agencies without any public scrutiny or oversight. Clearview stands as a precursor; a budding example of what surveillance culture in America could look like, if left unregulated. One quote in particular sticks in my head.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that because information constantly increases, there’s never going to be privacy,” David Scalzo, the founder of a private equity firm currently investing in Clearview commented for the Times. “Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology. Sure, that might lead to a dystopian future or something, but you can’t ban it.”

Scalzo’s offhand, almost dismissive tone strikes an odd, chilling contrast to the gravity of his statement. If facial recognition technology will lead to a surveillance-state dystopia, shouldn’t we at least try to slow its forward momentum? Shouldn’t we at least consider the dangers that a dystopia might pose — especially during times like these, when privacy-eroding technology feels like a viable weapon against global pandemic?

I’m not the only one to ask these questions. Since January’s expose, Clearview AI has come under fire from no fewer than four lawsuits. The first castigated the company’s app for being an “insidious encroachment” on civil liberties; the second took aim both at Clearview’s tool and the IT products provider CDW for its licensing of the app for law enforcement use, alleging that “The [Chicago Police Department] […] gave approximately 30 [Crime Prevention and Information Center] officials full access to Clearview’s technology, effectively unleashing this vast, Orwellian surveillance tool on the citizens of Illinois.” The company was also recently sued in Virginia and Vermont.

All that said, it is worth noting that dozens of police departments across the country already use products with facial recognition capabilities. One report on the United States’ facial recognition market found that the industry is expected to grow from $3.2 billion in 2019 to $7.0 billion by 2024. The Washington Post further reports that the FBI alone has conducted over 390,000 facial-recognition searches across federal and local databases since 2011.

Unlike DNA evidence, facial recognition technology is usually relatively cheap and quick to use, lending itself easily to everyday use. It stands to reason that if better technology is made available, usage by public agencies will become even more commonplace. We need to keep this slippery slope in mind. During a pandemic, we might welcome tools that allow us to track and slow the spread of disease and overlook the dangerous precedent they set in the long-term.

Given all of this, it seems that we should, at the very least, avoid panic-prompted decisions to allow facial recognition — and instead, consider what we can do to avoid the slippery slope that facial recognition technology poses.

Are Bans Protection? Considering San Francisco

In the spring of 2019, San Francisco passed legislation that outright forbade government agencies from using tools capable of facial surveillance — although the ruling was amended to allow for equipped devices if there was no viable alternative. The lawmakers behind the new ordinance stated their reasoning clearly, writing that “the propensity for facial recognition technology to endanger civil rights and civil liberties substantially outweighs its purported benefits.”

They have a point. Facial recognition software is notorious for its inaccuracy. One new federal study also found that people of color, women, older subjects, and children faced higher misidentification rates than white men.

“One false match can lead to missed flights, lengthy interrogations, tense police encounters, false arrests, or worse,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told the Washington Post. “But the technology’s flaws are only one concern. Face recognition technology — accurate or not — can enable undetectable, persistent, and suspicionless surveillance on an unprecedented scale.”

While it’s still too early to have a clear gauge on the ban’s efficacy, it is worth noting that the new legislation sparked a few significant and immediate changes to the city’s police department. In December, Wired reported that “When the surveillance law and facial recognition ban were proposed in late January, San Francisco police officials told Ars Technica that the department stopped testing facial recognition in 2017. The department didn’t publicly mention that it had contracted with DataWorks that same year to maintain a mug shot database and facial recognition software as well as a facial recognition server through summer 2020.”

The department scrambled to dismantle the software after the ban, but the department’s secretive approach remains problematic. The very fact that the San Francisco police department was able to acquire and apply facial recognition technology without public oversight is troubling.The city’s current restrictions offer a stumbling block by limiting acceptance of surveillance culture as a normal part of everyday life — and prevent us from automatically reaching for it as a solution during times of panic.

A stumbling block, however, is not an outright barricade. Currently, San Francisco is under a shelter-in-place mandate; as of April 6, it had a reported 583 confirmed cases and nine deaths. If the situation worsens, could organizers suggest that the city make an exception and use facial recognition tracking to flatten the curve, just this once? It’s a long-shot hypothetical, but it does lead us to wonder what could happen if we allow circumstances to convince us into surveillance culture, one small step at a time.

Bans can only do so much. While the San Francisco ruling proves that Scalzo’s claim that “Laws have to determine what’s legal, but you can’t ban technology” isn’t strictly speaking correct, the sentiment behind it remains. Circumstances can compel us into considering privacy-eroding tech even as those explorations lead us down a path to dystopia.

So, in a way, Scalzo is right; the proliferation of facial recognition technology is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up on bans and protective measures. Instead, we should pursue them further and slow the momentum as much as we can — if only to give ourselves time to establish regulations, rules, and protections. We can’t give in to short-term thinking; we can’t start down the slippery slope towards surveillance culture without considering the potential consequences. Otherwise, we may well find that the “cure” that facial recognition promises is, in the long term, far worse than any short-term panic.

Originally published on Hackernoon.com

By |2020-06-12T21:03:05+00:00June 12th, 2020|Business, Current Events, Technology|

NYC Welcomes Tech, But Only If It Helps New Yorkers

New York City is a leading hub for technology and innovation — but you wouldn’t guess it by its most-hyped headlines. Ironically, some of the most eye-catching recent news in the tech sector centers around how the city prevented one of the most influential tech titans from setting the foundation for a Big Tech colony in Long Island City. 

For the short span of a few months, it seemed as though New York was teetering on the verge of supplanting Silicon Valley as a home base for major tech companies. The city had a plan — and a provisional agreement — to host Amazon’s much-courted HQ2 within its borders that many in the tech industry heralded as the start of a new era of innovation and prosperity. During a press conference shortly after the announcement of the agreement, Governor Andrew Cuomo celebrated, saying: “This is the largest economic development initiative that has ever been done by the city or the state or the city and the state, together.”

The agreement certainly had some startling numbers to back it; analysts projects that the deal would generate no less than $27.5 billion in state and city revenue over 25 years with a 9:1 ratio of revenue to subsidies. HQ2 was expected to create roughly 25,000 jobs in its first decade, in addition to the 1,300 construction jobs and 107,000 direct and indirect jobs the building initiative would require. Amazon further promised to launch a tech startup incubator and a new school on its campus, as well as allocate as much as $5 million to workforce development efforts. 

On the surface, the partnership between New York and Amazon was a tech proponent’s dream come true; however, the proposed HQ2 deal faced vehement opposition almost immediately after its announcement. Several protests against the initiative were held in Long Island City in the fall of 2018. By February of 2019, the deal was off. 

Now, New York’s highly-publicized divorce from Amazon’s HQ2 plans could be interpreted as a sign that the city wasn’t interested in supplanting Silicon Valley as a home for Big Tech. However, I would argue that the issue the city had with Amazon isn’t based in bias against Big Tech or tech as a whole, but in concern that Amazon’s presence would come at too high a cost to the people of New York. The city courted the tech giant, perhaps to the point of overreach; all told, the public funds and kickbacks given to Amazon would have totaled close to $3 billion, with the city and state paying the e-retailer as much as $48,000 per job. With that cost, opponents argued, were the “benefits” Amazon offered even worth their price?  

Rejecting Amazon doesn’t mean that New York City is hostile to the tech sector — quite the opposite. The city wants a tech sector, but it wants it on terms that suit the people who call it home, rather than those who run Big Tech’s boardrooms. It seems to be relatively successful in its pursuit of that goal, too: Startup Genome reports that NYC ranks first globally in funding availability and quality in NYC, and the metro region alone received $13 billion in funding in 2018. In 2018, New York’s tech sector represented 333,000 jobs in 2018 and encompassed a full 10% of the nation’s developers

Moreover, it seems probable that the city will continue to serve as fertile ground for tech-center development, given that it currently supports over 120 universities and is ranked first globally for the number of STEM-field graduates produced annually. Those students are likely to stay and contribute, too; tech firms in New York City have the fastest average hiring time for engineers across all U.S. tech ecosystems and offer wages that are, on average, 49% higher than private-sector rates elsewhere. 

Amazon’s failed HQ2 deal notwithstanding, even Big Tech is expanding its presence in the city. This past spring, Netflix put down $100 million for a production hub in Williamsburg and promised to create over 100 new jobs in Manhattan. In late 2018 — around the same time that Amazon was fielding controversy over HQ2 — Google committed $1 billion to create a new Lower Manhattan campus and double its local workforce. Facebook wants to open up shop in Hudson Yard; Apple is reportedly looking for more office space in the city. 

The signs are clear that, despite what the failed HQ2 deal might indicate, New York City wants tech, big and small alike. The city will continue to keep pace, if not ultimately overtake, the Silicon Valley tech scene. Provided, of course, that the tech investment it facilitates supports — and is in turn supported by — its people. 

By |2019-09-23T16:55:59+00:00September 23rd, 2019|Current Events, Technology|

Getting Real About HQ2

The much-hyped HQ2 sweepstakes has finally come to a close, but many in the winning cities aren’t feeling so triumphant. Two major metros, New York and DC, will play host to the currently-Seattle-based tech behemoth’s newest nerve centers. Here at the upper end of the Northeast Corridor, Amazon’s announced Queens-based plans have come with a great deal of controversy, with local politicos and opinion makers alike voicing real concerns about effects-economic, social, and more-of this new development.  

As a New Yorker who follows the tech scene closely, I’ve heard a lot about HQ2 that doesn’t quite sit right with me. In the interest of lending a street-level perspective to the proceedings, here are 3 facts about the deal that are getting lost in the clamor.

 

Over 12,000 non-tech jobs will be created

Fears of a new Amazon-bolstered NYC tech elite were fed by the reported 25,000 new jobs that the company expects to create with HQ2. In truth, only half of those jobs (still an admittedly large number) will be in tech-influenced positions where salaries can hit the higher six figures. The other half will be in the same support positions you’d find at any large organization: administrative, custodial, and other jobs that can better draw on the diverse talent pool of Queens and the rest of the city. Don’t forget, too, that the city’s minimum wage will be hitting $15/hour by the end of 2018. It seems likely that working New Yorkers of all ages and levels of experience will have a chance to find new professional fulfillment in HQ2.

 

In a city of 8 million, 25,000 is a drop in the bucket

25,000 open jobs is a big number to see on paper, but in a city as big as New York, 25,000 is a pittance. It’s likely that the vast majority of us who don’t normally pass through LIC will see no changes whatsoever. Even if every single job is taken by someone who currently doesn’t live here, that’s hardly an invasion. The announced number is about the equivalent of the enrollment of the city’s six biggest high schools (there are over 120 in Queens alone). Do we stress every year about new graduates flooding the city? This is New York, not Cedar Rapids. We’ve benefitted from a constant influx of talented and smart people since the 1600s, and HQ2’s changes will amount to just one more round of newcomers.

 

Long Island City will change, but that’s nothing new

Make no mistake, if the majority of Amazon-inspired arrivals choose to take up residence close to their new place of employment, Long Island City will see the brunt of the cultural changes. But for a neighborhood that was little more than a courthouse and a few commercial strips (and one lonely skyscraper) only a couple decades ago, Amazon’s move is the cherry on top of a long process of evolution. Few neighborhoods have exploded in popularity like LIC in the past decade-plus, and this was underway well before Bezos and company set their sights on the locale. A tech campus is perhaps befitting the scores of new bars, restaurants and other hotspots in this part of town.

Any worries about Amazon affecting culture ought to be assuaged by the fact that this city always has and always will be changing, tech companies or no tech companies. It’s the people, not the corporations, that make New York City what it is, and I know I’m not alone in saying that no company is big enough to change the Big Apple itself.

By |2019-05-30T19:12:15+00:00December 12th, 2018|Current Events, Technology|

The Major Problem with New York’s Cyberbullying Bill

The Major Problem With New York’s Cyberbullying Bill

What would you do if you found out your child might face time in juvenile detention for a few mean comments posted online? The question itself seems shocking; parents and non-parents alike would agree that the punishment seems a little extreme. And yet, in early June, the New York State Senate officially put just that into law. Here excerpted, it reads:

“Any person who knowingly engages in a repeated course of cyberbullying of a minor shall be guilty of an unclassified misdemeanor punishable by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars, or by a period of imprisonment not to exceed one year, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”

Despite outlining startling consequences for cyberbullies, the legislation doesn’t specify what offenders would need to do to become criminally liable. Most people get the gist: cyberbullying occurs when one or more people harass or abuse another person using electronic means. But what does that mean from a prosecutor’s standpoint? Is a “repeated course of cyberbullying” two mean texts, four malicious Facebook posts, or an all-out campaign across multiple social platforms? Where do we draw the line — and how do we determine when someone crosses it?

Moreover, the sole point the legislation makes clear — the protection of minors — only raises more questions. It’s simple enough to make a swift and severe judgment call when an adult bullies a minor online, but the situation is less cut-and-dried when both parties are young. Does an accused minor’s age make a difference? Would we prosecute a twelve-year-old with the same severity we would a seventeen-year-old? The answers to these questions remain unanswered.

My aim here isn’t to undermine the legislature’s noble intentions, but simply to point out that this bill’s pervasive vagueness renders it ineffective as a legal deterrent.

In 2014, a similarly unclear anti-cyberbullying law in Albany County fell under scrutiny from the New York State Supreme Court. The published rationale behind limiting the 2014 language argued that the wording was undefined to the point of making it difficult to enforce; a child’s prank call to an adult could constitute — and legally face severe punishment for — cyberbullying. As a result of this case, the current definition for the term includes “only three types of electronic communications sent with the intent to inflict emotional harm on a child: (1) sexually explicit photographs; (2) private or personal sexual information; and (3) false sexual information with no legitimate public, personal or private purpose.” Given that the 2018 bill does not define cyberbullying beyond the referenced text here, it’s unlikely to hold up any more sustainably or effectively than its predecessor.

Now, this definition works well enough in cases where sexually explicit content is a factor — but what if it isn’t? How do we protect the children who have to handle endless texted cruelty, social media hate, and online harassment?

These questions are what make the vagueness of Senate Bill S2318A so frustrating. Bullying, both online and in-person, is an epidemic in our schools. A 2016 study conducted by the Cyberbullying Research Center found that a full 34% of students in a nationally-representative sample reported experiencing repeated and intentional harassment and mistreatment via cell phones or other electronic devices. That’s a horrifying number, especially once you consider that kids who experience cyberbullying often struggle with depression, anxiety, and loneliness as a result — typically for long after they leave school. Kids who bully don’t get away scot-free either; many carry the abusive behaviors they develop during school into their adult relationships and fall into substance abuse patterns.

Cyberbullying is a destructive force in today’s schools, and our kids deserve more than a vague half-measure that, despite providing severe consequences, falls short of defining what “cyberbullying” is in the eyes of the law. The intention behind this recent legislation was good-hearted and well-meant, but we can do better.

By |2019-05-30T19:14:38+00:00July 9th, 2018|Current Events|

The Ethics of Bitcoin: Is the Cryptocurrency Better for Banking?

If you’re anything like me, you’re equal parts fascinated and befuddled by the evolving world of cryptocurrency, and Bitcoin in particular.

For those of us used to paper and plastic, the idea of a decentralized, digital payment can seem pretty pie in the sky. But many are quick to call it the currency of the future, and if the buzz is any indication, it could be. According to Realtime Bitcoin there are more than 16.5 million Bitcoins in circulation. The current exchange rate is one Bitcoin to US $3,917.83. That puts the total amount in circulation at almost US $65 trillion.

Created sometime between 2008 and 2009, Bitcoin only took off in 2013 when it hit an all-time high––at the time––of US$1,100. Over the next few years, the price fluctuated. Recently, however, the virtual coin has garnered resurgent interest, skyrocketing to an all-time high of US $4,522.13 in August.

But what caused the newfound appreciation for the cryptocurrency? And what concerns should we have regarding the ethics of Bitcoin? Technology that seems amazing often poses ethical quandaries we need to engage with, as I’ve talked about in regards to AI.

Here’s a look at the current state of Bitcoin and what it means for banking, both today and in the future.

Bitcoin’s Surge

There are a few clear reasons for the recent surge in Bitcoin stock. First, its blockchain technology has been of special interest to some major players in finance. Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan believe that this technology may improve the trading of loans, securities, and derivatives.

Second, Japan and China have begun to embrace the cryptocurrency. In April, regulators in Japan introduced certain rules to integrate Bitcoin into the regular banking system (rather than peg it as an outlaw currency). This change has caused many investors to swap their Yen for Bitcoin.

In addition, Chinese authorities who have been critical of Bitcoin in the past have recently gained more tolerance for the currency. This has made Bitcoin-related investments in the region far less risky and far more attractive.

Thanks to these developments, Bitcoin has taken a step forward in legitimacy. People will be less likely to hold it for speculative purposes and start buying actual things with it.

But this begs an important question: Will Bitcoin, blockchain, and other cryptocurrencies bring us to a more ethical level of banking? Or will the challenges of these new systems create an equally murky financial system?

A Case for Bitcoin

Trust plays a key role in finance today. But what if we eliminated the need for trust in conducting business transactions? A successful transaction would be guaranteed, no matter who you were dealing with.

Garrick Hileman, an economic historian at the London School of Economics and University of Cambridge, points out, “A big part of the problem with Lehman Brothers in 2008 came from counterparty risk and the fact that settlement could not be counted on.”

With the advent of blockchain technology and smart contracts (computer programs set to execute a transaction once certain criteria are met), it could be possible to take trust out of the equation entirely. Transactions are conducted on the basis of guarantee because collateral is posted instead of withheld. Potentially, this could avoid a Lehman situation in the future.

Bitcoin also offers the advantage of cutting costs. Right now, banks put a lot of money into the transaction process. Part of the reason is that much of banking is still done manually and saturated with paperwork. This occupies both time and resources. With an automated system, verified by blockchain technology and smart contracts, we would save billions in capital, conduct transactions more quickly, and achieve it at zero marginal cost.

While the engineering behind this technology is still not yet ready to be rolled out for use in banks and other financial institutions, the promises of automated settlements, a higher level of transparency, and an overall reduction of overheads promise a more stable financial sector.

The Challenges

Cryptocurrency doesn’t come without its challenges. Though it has its proponents, some go as far as to call it “evil”. And this isn’t without reason. Those who argue against cryptocurrency have posed concerns on the anonymity of how transactions are conducted. Case in point: Bitcoin has long been associated with shady business transactions and entities such as Silk Road (which was shut down late 2014).

This anonymity, they say, allows the currency to be used for criminal activity in ways that other currencies cannot. It could be argued that this actually encourages unethical transactions.

However, it’s important to note that the anonymity isn’t absolute. Transactions conducted using Bitcoin are made public on the blockchain. That means that parties involved can be found linked to their Bitcoin addresses, although they are often difficult to find. A good example of this is the Silk Road founder, Ross Ulbricht. We were ultimately able to break the anonymity and discover his identity, but it took both time and resources.

In short, we don’t want to create a lawless market. That means there need to be additional measures put in place to ensure that the government, the technology, and the banks are in close contact. We must protect the ethics of cryptocurrency.

What it all means

Finance often falls into ethically questionable territory. That’s why banking needs an ethical solution that’s available to all parties, that is affordable and verifiable, so that there is accountability across the board.

On the other hand, the structure of cryptocurrencies and the blockchain technology allows for scalable ethical banking. This would be achieved by first combining the digital efficiency of the currency and the scalability of computers and networks. Existing rules and regulations would ensure that the consumer is adequately protected.

We’ll just have to wait and see on which side the Bitcoin lands.

By |2020-02-11T16:45:11+00:00March 12th, 2018|Culture, Current Events, Technology|

Tech’s Growing Role in the Wake of Natural Disasters

Technology has brought us countless conveniences. Order an Uber with a few clicks. Tell Alexa you want a pizza. Let Google Assistant direct you to the nearest coffee shop.

All that’s nice, isn’t it? But tech can (and is) doing much more important things.

One crucial achievement technological tools have given us is the ability to respond to natural disasters more quickly and effectively. Indeed, tech has the potential to save countless lives and greatly reduce the damage when nature strikes.

Social media and mobile improve preparedness and response

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina claimed 1,833 victims and caused $108 billion in damages. Many experts argue social media and mobile technology could have saved lives, only if Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms were available like they are today.

Jason Samenow, a meteorologist and weather journalist, attests that, with social media, “messages about how severe the storm was and the importance of preparedness would have permeated society.” Decision-makers, politicians, celebrities and others would’ve been motivated to spread information across their networks and call others to do the same.

Additionally, responders could have accurately identified where help was needed. Timo Luege, a humanitarian communications and innovation consultant, wrote in a personal blog post about how FEMA director Michael Brown hadn’t known evacuees were stranded at the New Orleans Convention Center without food and water until news reporters got there. Surely this information could’ve reached FEMA much more quickly with social media — and folks could’ve been saved.

Now, compare this to 2012, when Hurricane Sandy hit. More than 3.2 million Tweets using the hashtag #Sandy were published on the first day. During the height of the storm, people posted 10 pictures of what was happening on Instagram every second. This enabled anyone with a mobile device or internet access to see the latest information, and helped responders work more effectively. Mobile and social media undoubtedly saved lives.

Big data and IoT create predictions and accurate real-time info

Big — and open — data and the internet of things (IoT) showed its power to be used for good during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Thanks to gauges that had been installed inside Harris County’s intricate bayou system, which is used to collect and drain water, residents and rescuers could see in real time where flooding was most severe. FEMA and other responders were then able to quickly mobilize resources to help areas in danger.

Even before a natural disaster hits, technology can save lives by pinpointing what areas will be hit hardest and identifying the best evacuation routes. This data gives rescuers actionable insights about how to best allocate and deploy resources as well.

For instance, NASA and NOAA, along with municipalities, are now utilizing sensor data, satellite imagery, and other surveillance to give first responders and volunteers valuable information into potential problems — before they happen. As more data is collected and mined, machine learning algorithms will continually improve. And that will improve the effectiveness of all rescue operations during natural disasters.

This is truly a noteworthy development. Everyone must be aware of how technology can aid us during natural disasters. As Chris Wilder, an IoT expert, says, “Although the severity of the disasters might increase, the loss of life has been greatly reduced by improvements in communications and the distribution of information.”

Autonomous technology delivers supplies, finds survivors, and assesses damage

Victims in the midst of natural disasters require food, water, clothes, medical equipment, life jackets, and other supplies to survive. In both rural and urban areas, it can be difficult to reach everyone. New technologies not only help us locate where people in need are, but also actually deliver life-saving supplies.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (that is, drones) can serve an especially important role during natural disasters, specifically when survivors are cut off from evacuation routes. For example, in China, the National Earthquake Response Support Service is using drones to find survivors, deliver food and supplies, and coordinate rescue attempts.

In the aftermath of disasters, drones provide assistance as well. Once Hurricane Irma in 2017 had passed, drones flew over areas in Florida, assessing the damage to buildings, roads, tunnels, bridges, and more. This has made relief efforts more effective, rebuilding more efficient, and insurance claims less time-consuming.

Beyond autonomous vehicles, boats, and aircraft, even autonomous balloons are proving to be very helpful when natural disasters strike. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico so hard in late 2017, Google’s Project Loon sent balloons to the island, and beamed internet connectivity to more than 100,000 people.

Technology: The Key to Drastically Improving Disaster Response

I’ve been amazed by how we’ve come together during natural disasters. Major advancements in technology, especially social media, mobile, and AI, have equipped us with tools to do an even better job. We must be sure to use these tools to the fullest extent when a hurricane, tornado, earthquake, or other disaster hits. It’s the key to saving lives.

By |2021-06-21T19:03:43+00:00January 2nd, 2018|Culture, Current Events, Technology, Urban Planning|